It might sound as unfathomable as finding out your long-lost father is actually an evil, black-helmet-wearing cyborg (with quite severe respiratory issues), but, believe it or not, one of the world’s most famous spaceships was actually made in Wales.
The Millennium Falcon, the iconic starship piloted by Han Solo in the Star Wars universe, was built in a dockyard in Pembrokeshire in West Wales. Well, at least the life-size film prop was.
Now a new permanent exhibition in the town tells the story of the ambitious build, dubbed ‘the worst-kept secret in Pembroke Dock’, featuring photographs, video footage and first-hand accounts delving into the history of the tight-lipped project that has written Wales into the Star Wars legacy.
A long time ago, in a town not so far away...
Following the great success of the first Star Wars film, which gave audiences their first glimpse of the Millennium Falcon, director George Lucas required a full-size model of the distinctive ship that could be moved around the set. Previously the spacecraft had been represented only by partial models, and even paintings, in the first film.
After a search for a company to build his starship, Lucas settled on Pembrokeshire-based engineering firm, Marcon Fabrications. Despite primarily developing machinery for the oil industry rather than props for the silver screen, the company boasted a large, skilled workforce and a location that was relatively close to the Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire, where filming on the second Star Wars movie was taking place. Importantly, the company also had access to the town of Pembroke Dock’s huge, and relatively private, Western Hangar, previously used to build real life airships – the Short Sunderland aeroplanes used during the Second World War.
The construction project, which began in the spring of 1979, was supposed to be shrouded in secrecy, even boasting its own code name: Magic Roundabout. However, in the small, close-knit community of Pembroke Dock, it didn’t take long for word to get out, and soon the whole town was abuzz with rumours that a ‘UFO’ was being built in the old RAF hangar.
Utilising a crew of 30 to 40 craftsmen and engineers, the intergalactic cruiser took three months to complete. The finished design measured over 80ft (24 metres) in length and 65ft (19 metres) in width, and weighed in at a whopping 23 tonnes! Following its completion, the ship was carefully disassembled and laboriously transported in parts up the M4 motorway to Hertfordshire, ready for its starring role in the second instalment of the Star Wars series, The Empire Strikes Back.
The last ship to leave the dockyard
Now, over 40 years after the Falcon was completed, a new walk-through exhibition has opened in the Pembroke Dock Heritage Centre, focused on the final ‘ship’ to leave the dockyard – before working on the Millennium Falcon, the dockyard, which the Western Hangar is part of, had not built and launched any sort of ship (for traversing sea or space) since 1922.
Open from Monday to Friday, the exhibition traces the full journey of the iconic spaceship, from its early designs to the building process to the logistics of transporting the completed vessel across the country, utilising photographs, models and testimonies from those who helped in the process. There’s also props from the series and behind-the-scenes footage provided by LucasFilm of the Falcon on set.
One thing that is sadly absent from the exhibition is the craft itself, which – almost unthinkably – was sold for scrap metal after filming concluded. There is, however, a reconstructed segment of the ship (representing 1/16th of the total craft) to give visitors a sense of the scale of the real-life Falcon.
Find places to stay, attractions and activities in Pembroke Dock.
Wales’ other Star Wars connections
Building the Millennium Falcon isn’t Wales’ only connection to the Star Wars franchise.
Richard Marquand, the director of the series’ third instalment, Return of the Jedi, was Welsh, originally heralding from Cardiff. The film saw actor Warwick Davies receive his first acting credit, as Wicket the Ewok, a role that would lead to him starring in another George Lucas fantasy project, Willow, which was filmed at Dinorwic slate quarry in Gwynedd, North Wales – now home to the National Slate Museum.
Every Star Wars fan will be familiar with the teachings of the Jedi Order (the ‘heroes’ of the series), but some may not know that the fictional philosophy Jedis abide by has inspired a real-world – somewhat tongue-in-cheek – religion. Even fewer are likely aware that the spiritual home of said religion (at least its UK faction) is in Wales. At the age of 20, Daniel Morgan Jones founded The Church of Jediism on Anglesey in 2007. Today, the organisation claims to have 500,000 members, produces a dedicated book on the teachings of Jediism, and sells ‘Jediist and proud’ branded t-shirts.
Fancy yourself as a bit of a film buff? Check out these other TV and film locations around Wales.