'Rogue One': How an Ex-Navy Pilot Wound Up Next to Jyn Erso at the Rebel Alliance Base
Just behind Erso stand two figures looking suitably roused: Riz Ahmed’s nervous defector Bodhi Rook and an unnamed rebel X-wing pilot in full iconic orange garb.
Thanks to a book published to coincide with the film’s release — Dorling Kindersley’s Star Wars: Rogue One: The Ultimate Visual Guide — this pilot would be given a name, Harb Binli, and a call sign, Red Seven of Red Squadron. Red Squadron would, of course, famously be joined by Luke Skywalker in A New Hope and successfully destroy the Death Star, a mission Red Seven wouldn’t return home from.
For the man beneath the flight suit, appearing in Star Wars and becoming part of its folklore completes something of an almost-too-perfect circle.
In the early 1980s, Brit Ben Hartley was among the millions of children obsessed with George Lucas’ galactic fantasy world. But it was the X-wings and their pilots that interested him the most. And it was this interest, coupled with a youth spent living abroad in far-flung places such as Morocco, Turkey and Mexico thanks to ex-pat parents, that he credits with steering him towards a career as a helicopter pilot for the British Royal Navy.
Hartley spent 18 years serving in the military, mostly flying on anti-submarine warfare and anti-people smuggling missions. Towards the end of his time on duty he moved towards pilot recruitment, and it was here where he met Andrew Buckley, a former Royal Marine who was leaving the forces to work as a film location manager. One day, Buckley gave him a call.
“He said, ‘mate, can you help me get an aircraft carrier for a shoot?’,” Hartley tells The Hollywood Reporter.
The shoot was World War Z, and Hartley and Buckley managed to not just find a suitable boat (the RFA Argus, which was renamed the USS Argus for the film), but bring Hartley's expertise on board as the film’s helicopter supervisor.
“I saw all these guys running around with guns playing U.S. Marines and I thought it would look much better with actual armed forces personnel who had done that sort of thing in real life. So we said to them: we can get you guys who are actually Marines to be Marines.”
After World War Z, word got around,
Soon, Hartley and Buckley had a growing database of names — some still serving and others having left the military — and the two, sensing a gap in the market, co-founded Military Film Services.
“Films need authenticity and realism, especially when it comes to people holding weapons and moving in a certain way that you can tell is military or not,” says Hartley. “But there’s also a period where ex-service personnel are transitioning to civilian life, and it’s a really difficult phase of their lives. So having something like this acts as a really good go-between. You’ve also got a bunch of people who are reliable, turn up on time and don’t mind being barked orders at on set!”
After about three years of steady work, a call came in from an assistant director MFS had worked with several times previously. Knowing that Hartley had himself been a pilot, the request this time was for others who knew the insides of a cockpit, who he needed to work on a major secret project.
That film was Rogue One.
“When we found out it was Star Wars, it was amazing to know that we’d be putting people who had flown military aircraft into X-wings fighting for the Rebel Alliance,” he says. “You can imagine how amazed and chuffed everyone was.”
Having previously kept himself at a managerial or advisory level, this time Hartley decided to put himself forward as one of the faces and, once selected, went down with the 50 or so MFS pilots, ground crew and engineers on the first day for their costume fitting.
One ex-navy man, believing he’d been set up as part of a — very — elaborate joke, actually started crying when he put on the orange flight suit and realized that he was, actually, going to be in Star Wars.
Aside from his extra work, Hartley also became the on-set aviation advisor, sitting in the ships with Felicity Jones, Riz Ahmed, Diego Luna and Alan Tudyk’s K-2SO, giving them tips on which buttons to press and how to look comfortable and authentic in the cockpit.
“When they reshot it the second time, I was right behind Felicity and when they did the final reshoot — where much of the footage is from — the AD kept pushing me further forward,” he says. “When they framed up the camera, they realized they needed to fill a gap so I was drawn right to the front of the table. From that point I absolutely knew that I was going to be quite key in this scene.”
And now, thanks to the Dorling Kindersley book, Hartley isn’t just a nodding extra, but a legitimate part of the Star Wars family, with a backstory on Wookieepedia that looks only set to expand (it currently says he’s from the planet Eriadu and “particularly excelled at strafing runs against point defense cannons.”)
Hartley says he found out about his sudden new place in history by complete accident, having bought his daughter a copy of the book simply so she could see behind-the-scenes pictures.
“When I opened up the X-wing page and saw myself, with a name, I had to look it at a few times to check it was definitely me,” he laughs.
“At the time of filming I was just there trying my best to look concerned, but now you realize he actually jumps in an X-wing and fights the battle of Scarif in Rogue One and later becomes mates with Luke Skywalker and fights in A New Hope!"
Red Seven may have met his maker at the hands of the Empire in the 1977 original, but Hartley isn’t sad that he’s unlikely to be donning the orange jumpsuit again in any of the future Star Wars films (production on the Han Solo spinoff kicks off in the U.K. in early 2017).
“It’s kind of good [that he dies], because it means that you’re part of the ultimate iconic battle. You were there.”
Ironically, the formatting here means he's cut off on the right hand side of the picture.