Dutch Treat: Angus MacInnes is Gold Leader
“And of course they killed me, which means no sequel, kid…”
Angus MacInnes, Elstree 1976
Star Wars fans generally agree on one thing, and one thing only – Star Wars, itself….
Each new comic book, novel, Rebels episode, movie trailer, and film fills the web with podcasts and posts, opinion and arguments; some valid, some not, many entertaining. However, in the midst of CGI pomposity and princesses (and poor Ponda Baba) there was one Rogue One cameo that was universally lauded by admirers of a galaxy far, far away.
This past December, when Force-sensitive sentients on Earth heard a familiar voice say, “We’re starting our attack run now…” and saw the grid-decorated helmet and a lumbering Y-wing, a collective crackle consumed cinema crowds as Gold Leader lead his squadron against the Scarif shield gate.
Angus MacInnes played Jon Vander – credited as Gold Leader – in the original Star Wars in 1977 and through the magic of modern film making (and found footage) was back in the orange flight suit in Rogue One, the first Star Wars standalone film, in 2016.
Starting Our Attack Run
“When Lucasfilm contacted me I had no idea what they were interested,” said MacInnes shortly after appearing at February’s Pensacon in Pensacola, Florida. “I was thrilled by the suggestion.
“We did the new dialogue in a local sound studio with a sound and video link to the producers and technicians in San Francisco.
“It was very arm’s length, so I had no interaction with the main cast,” he said, explaining later that the separation from the main characters was nothing new.
“I had very little interaction with the main cast as their characters had little interaction with the Rebel Alliance pilots,” explained MacInnes, who hails from Windsor, Ontario, Canada. “Only Mark Hamill had that connection and that mainly with Garrick Hagon’s character Biggs.”
Jon Vander, nicknamed “Dutch,” is a former Imperial pilot who defected when he was ordered to bomb rebel-friendly areas of his home planet. After joining the rebellion, Vander flew a Y-wing as Gold Leader during the Battle of Yavin. He questioned the rebel strategy of attacking the Death Star with fighters, but led the first attack on the battle station’s vulnerable thermal exhaust port. Unfortunately for Vander, Darth Vader and his wingmates pursued the Y-wings into the trench. Unable to maneuver, Vander was shot down, along with his fellow Y-wing pilots.
For a character with such a short bio, it’s somewhat surprising that Gold Leader continues to capture the hearts of moviegoers 40-years after the Rebel Pilot was shot down over the Death Star. However, surprises and Star Wars seem to go hand in hand, and MacInnes reiterated the amazement that everyone involved with the project had during its original reception in 1977.
“Like everyone in the cast and crew we were blown away by the scope of the film,” he said. “It’s often hard to a sense of the scope of a film you’re working on as the cast and crew are immersed in the process.
“When you see it put together it’s often a revelation, and so it was with Star Wars.”
Asked if he had any inkling that “Dutch” Vander might capture fans attention, MacInnes again demurred.
“As for ‘inklings’ I don’t think anybody had an inkling of what Star Wars was going to become and the energy it would spawn, crystal balls being in scarce supply at that time,” he said, while also admitting his own artistic process doesn’t necessarily let the audience in before the film hits the screen.
“I don’t think I work with an eye on an audience’s perception other than,” said the veteran actor, who has appeared in films as disparate as Hellboy, Witness and Captain Phillips. “I want them to believe the character is a real person, with real feelings.
“That is the connection with the audience.”
A Very Human Being
MacInnes discounts the value of his own performance in both Star Wars films. However, in many ways, “Dutch” Vander acts like many people might expect themselves to act if they were suddenly thrust into an intergalactic conflict.
Dutch Vander is a very, very human being.
“Pardon me for asking, sir, but what good are snub-fighters going to be against that?” asks Vander of General Dodonna in the briefing room of the Rebel base on Yavin IV. “Loosen up,” he tells a too-tight fellow pilot telling him to “stay on target” in the Death Star trench.
That displayed humanity is a testament to MacInnes’ acting skill in the cockpit, even though he explained in Elstree 1976 that he was very much crossed up by George Lucas’ direction to run his lines without cues in the mocked up Y-wing.
“It was just a nightmare,” he told the documentary crew. “I couldn’t remember anything without the cues.
“I started sweating, buckets.”
But that sweating, and MacInnes looking down to his lap to read the lines, gave the scene a certain authenticity.
In fact, without his head on a swivel, and with his eyes constantly dropping toward the “instruments”, Vander looks every bit the pilot.
“The dialogue was pretty self explanatory for anyone familiar with WWII dog fight footage and films such as The Battle of Britain,” said MacInnes to MakingStarWars.net. “That was clearly the ‘memory’ most of the pilots took with them.
“George structured the battle sequences well so there was a clear idea what he wanted the dialogue to convey.
“So no, we didn’t improvise, we followed the script. In my case, word for word…”
However, it did take a certain level of skill to perform under the circumstances. “Flying” a Y-wing wasn’t as exciting as some would imagine.
“It was a fairly primitive structure,” said MacInnes. “I’m sure George and Co. were confident that the actors they cast had the imaginations to fill in the details they needed in order to ‘fly’ their respective crafts.
“Again, this is the actor’s imagination kicking in, as we didn’t have the other pilots to play off and had to place ourselves in a space where we were ‘flying’ in a very confined space at tremendous speed. The dialogue feeds into that.
“The costume was fairly loose and reasonably comfortable,” added MacInnes, who turns 70 later this year. “If I remember we all spent a varying amount of time filming individual sequences depending on how quickly they were working or the crew was working.
“It was, er, a while ago and details are a tad fuzzy around the edges.”
Vander Goes Rogue
Fast forward to the present day, and fans’ memories of the trench run are hardly opaque, which – beyond his successful and continued work on shows like Vikings – keeps MacInnes busy on the con circuit.
“I still don’t consider myself in the public eye or a celebrity,” he said. “I am always surprised at the reception I receive at Star Wars events and comic conventions and am always flattered.”
Perhaps what keeps MacInnes so grounded, even though he’s piloted ships in Star Wars, is that he’s a fan, too.
“I remember walking onto the set the first time I arrived at the studio and I went onto the first sound stage and my heart stopped,” said MacInnes in Elstree 1976. “There must’ve been 100-150 people in stormtrooper outfits, lined up like military, and I was like, ‘Holy [Cow]!’
“I couldn’t believe it…I was a real science fiction guy and I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I thought, this is just the best. The ships were all busted up, nothing looked pristine; everything looked like it had been used.
“I thought, ‘Somebody knows what they’re doing here.’”
Today he’s remains part of the sci-fi aesthetic; the same genre that inspired him back in 1976.
“Of course I’m a fan,” he said to MakingStarWars.net. “Aside from the world Star Wars has generated, I’ve been interested in science fiction for years and remain so to this day.
“When sci-fi is translated as well as it is in Star Wars what’s not to like? And of course I’ll see Episode VIII with great anticipation, eager to experience the evolution of the story.
“People are always curious about many, many aspects of the Star Wars process,” added MacInnes. “I’m happy to answer any and all questions I am able to answer and be wholly honest with them as far as my memory allows.”
And these days that memory allows for a little bit more of a happy ending.
“As for living to fight (and die) another day,” added MacInnes, “the Battle of Yavin is after the events in Rogue One.”
Way to stay on target, Gold Leader.