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Marching orders: Meet the Stormtroopers of the 501st Legion


The Stormtroopers are among the most iconic and fascinating characters in the “Star Wars” mythos. With blasters in hand, they patrol the hallways of the Galactic Empire’s ships and bases, looking like fearsome, capeless negative images of Darth Vader himself.

“The Stormtrooper uniform is very minimalist, it has very clean lines, it’s black and white, and it almost has a skeletal feature to it -- it’s scary,” shared Albin Johnson, the founder of a massive international group of “Star Wars” costumers known as the 501st Legion. 

Speaking to an exclusive interview with GMA News Online last Thursday May 3, Johnson recalled how, as a child, the Imperial troopers looked both ethereal and technological to him at the same time. “It’s that menacing helmet. You can’t see the eyes, so you’re not dealing with a person - you’re dealing with, sort of, a robot-looking character. So it’s fascinating, how people respond to that.”

 

Menacing. Photo: Lou Albano
Menacing. Photo: Lou Albano

Back then, he had no idea that he would someday wear that menacing helmet himself alongside a friend — and inspire literal legions of fans to follow in their stead.

When a tragic accident in 1994 led to the amputation of his leg, Johnson was left physically and emotionally broken for some time. It was “Star Wars” that would eventually get him back on his feet, so to speak.

A stroke of luck would lead to him obtaining a Stormtrooper costume, which he first wore to a screening of the special edition of “The Empire Strikes Back.” One thing led to another, and in 2002, the first 150 Stormtroopers of the 501st Legion assembled in Indianapolis, helping out Lucasfilm with crowd control at Celebration II, a “Star Wars” convention.

Plastic spacemen, real people

Today, the 501st has around 12,000 active members across 60 countries. Each country has its own unit (a “Garrison”), and the Philippines is no exception.

According to Manny Mendoza, founding member and former Commanding Officer of the Philippine Garrison, the country’s chapter began as a small outpost in October 2004. It has since grown into a larger team with nearly 90 members in its active roster.

“The Legion is also best known as a not-for-profit organization that supports charity through costumed appearances,” explained Mendoza.

 

Albin with the Philippine Outpost in 2008.
Albin with the Philippine Outpost in 2008.

Together with its sister organization, the Rebel Legion — a league of “Star Wars” enthusiasts who dress up as the franchise’s heroic characters — they can be seen marching around in costume at “Star Wars” screenings and charity events. Both groups will be participating in the promotional activities leading up to the upcoming “Star Wars” film “Solo,” which focuses on the early adventures of the swashbuckling pilot of the Millennium Falcon.

Johnson says that he has enjoyed a pleasant working relationship with the Philippine Garrison, “[The Philippine Garrison was] one of the first Garrisons, way back in the day,” recalled Johnson, adding that he has “very near, dear ties” to the group. “They were one of the first ones to really, really take off in Southeast Asia.”

The Force is strong with this one

While he is tremendously grateful for the 501st’s success, Johnson admitted that he never really expected the 501st’s ranks to swell like this.

“You want your big idea to succeed, but I think everyone secretly destroys their own ideas with doubt, and we don’t believe in our own ideas,” admitted Johnson. “Or we don’t put the work in, we give up on it. So I put two years of my life on the line to really humiliate myself, to lose a lot of money, and embarrass myself. Because I believed in it! I believed that if we could get at least a hundred Stormtroopers, we could do some good. I never expected it to be this big.”

 

Ospital ng Maynila visit
Ospital ng Maynila visit

According to Mendoza, what made him and other Pinoy fans decide to join the 501st was “the depth and uniqueness of [the “Star Wars” franchise’s] ever-expanding stories and characters that we grew up with.”

Back then, “Star Wars” enthusiasts could only see characters like the Stormtroopers on the silver screen or as toys; now, far beyond just seeing them, fans could suit up and actually be them. “The experience of costuming,” shared Mendoza, “transports us to that galaxy far, far away, and enables us to be like the real characters we want to portray.”

“May the 4th be with you”

Although the first film in the franchise (“A New Hope”) premiered in theaters on May 25, 1977, “Star Wars” fans all over the world have claimed May 4 as “Star Wars Day” — a clever play on one of the franchise’s most popular lines, “May the Force be with you.”

“I think Star Wars means so much to so many people,” said Johnson, who believes that the annual celebration is an invitation for every “Star Wars” fan to show their love for the ever-popular fictional universe.

 

At 2018 Sinulog Festival in Cebu.
At 2018 Sinulog Festival in Cebu.

“If this were any other franchise, one that didn’t have that connection, that depth to it, we probably wouldn’t have a holiday,” said Johnson. “When May the 4th rolls around, we’re reminded that there’s a big family [of “Star Wars” fans] out there. You get to give ‘em a big ol’ hug. You get to get your geek on.”

When bad guys go good

But what about the Stormtroopers’ less-than-stellar reputation, given their role in the films? “It’s been hard because of the Rebel propaganda,” laughed Johnson.

Kidding aside, Johnson believes that the 501st now stands for more than just their love for “Star Wars.” “I think we have an amazing opportunity to help kids look past scariness,” he said. “For me, it’s amazing to watch these kids go from scared to empowered.

“I like the fact that we’re the bad guys, because we can show them that even the bad guys [can be] good guys.” — LA, GMA News

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