Stormtroopers with heart? Meet the 501st Legion

By Regina Layug Rosero

Posted at May 08 2015 04:21 PM | Updated as of May 09 2015 12:21 AM

501st Legion members are more than just Star Wars fans

Local members of the 501st Legion joined the recent live simulcast event for "The Force Awakens" at the SM Mall of Asia's IMAX theater. Photo by Dexter Enriquez

MANILA -- Star Wars fans are a really creative bunch. A lot of them create fan films, write books, or make cute crafts like bags and earrings. Some talented fans create fan art so gorgeous as to rival the movie posters. Others learn the ways of the Jedi, teaching themselves how to wield a lightsaber.

But other fans celebrate their love for the saga by wearing costumes. And when it comes to Star Wars costumes, you’ll want to talk to the 501st Legion.

The 501st Legion is an international organization of Star Wars fans who wear the costumes of the bad guys from all over the galaxy. Founded in 1997, the group was originally called Fightin’ 501st.

Founder Albin Johnson imagined the troopers as a detachment that was always ready to serve Darth Vader. They have over 7,000 members worldwide, and is represented locally by the Philippine Garrison.

The 501st takes pride in the fact that they wear screen-accurate costumes: what you see on a member looks just like what you see in the movie.

Members joined Star Wars Reads Day in October 2014. Photo by Mark Joseph Escay

They have officers whose duty it is to review every character and spell out every single detail of the costume, so that all you have to do is follow their instructions. When someone applies to be a member, the 501st checks if the applicant’s costume matches the details listed by those officers.

Most members build their own costumes. Stormtrooper armor is usually made of plastic, sculpted and molded by the fans themselves. Those who wear robes and hoods often work into the night, hard at work on their sewing machines. Even the props are fan-made, or store-bought toys that are heavily modified to look screen-accurate.

Fans of all shapes and sizes

They’re often called the 501st Legion of Stormtroopers, but the members include more than just the armored troops of the Empire.

Some dress up as various Sith Lords, like Darth Maul or Asajj Ventress. There are aliens of all colors: blue-skinned Grand Admiral Thrawn, the green Gamorrean guard from Jabba’s palace, or the furry white wampa from Hoth.

There are bounty hunters aside from fan favorite Boba Fett: Boussh, whose armor was used by Princess Leia; white-skinned Aurra Sing; and purple-clad Zam Wesell.

The group participated in the Fans of the Force event last weekend. Photo by Dexter Enriquez

Because of the quality and variety of their costumes, and the fact that they have members worldwide, the 501st caught the attention of Lucasfilm. In 2004, author Timothy Zahn asked the group for permission to use the name in an official Star Wars novel. In 2005, George Lucas decided to use the name for the detachment of clone troopers that served Darth Vader in "Episode III: Revenge of the Sith."

When Lucas traveled the world to promote the movie, he met the real-world 501st. He was so impressed that he invited over 200 troopers to march in the Tournament of Roses Parade. Troopers from around the world — including two from the Philippines — not only got to meet Lucas himself, but also marched in California on New Year’s Day 2007, with a marching band playing the iconic Star Wars music and two grand Star Wars floats.

'Bad guys who do good'

But it’s not just the costuming and dedication that endears the 501st to Lucasfilm and to other Star Wars fans. The troops of the 501st are called “bad guys who do good” because they wear their costumes in order to raise funds for charitable causes. Whenever they make an appearance, they request a donation to charity.

Sometimes they donate their time or resources to troop for a cause. When Typhoon Yolanda struck in 2013, the Philippine Garrison set up photo booths in malls, posing for pictures with passersby in exchange for donations for the survivors. They raised over P30,000 for just a few hours of photos with mall visitors.

One member flew to Cebu and helped distribute relief goods while wearing his clone trooper costume, giving out food and providing a moment’s distraction at the same time.

Mallgoers pose for pictures with the Philippine Garrison to raise funds for Yolanda victims in November 2013. Photo by Mark Joseph Escay

The Nordic Garrison — the 501st in Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark — took to the streets and collected donations as well, sending over P200,000. The Singapore Garrison trooped along Orchard Road, collecting donations for Yolanda aid. 501st members from Japan, Germany, Poland, and all over the US sent their own money in order to help out. And many of these people had never even been to the Philippines.

But the 501st doesn’t wait for disaster to strike before helping out. Year-round, worldwide, they collect donations for charitable institutions, for research on children’s diseases, for medical supplies. They make appearances at hospitals, orphanages and schools, just to bring smiles to children’s faces.

Locally, the Philippine Garrison joins a pirate costuming group called Black Pearl Philippines, along with other costumers and kind-hearted geeks, to visit the kids of Silahis ng Kalusugan, a school for the pediatric patients at Philippine General Hospital. In previous years, the troopers and pirates would visit the pediatric ward as well, giving out gifts, games and food to the patients and their caregivers.
Join the club

The 501st Legion is so popular that the organization has its own fans. While Star Wars geeks admire them for their costumes and props, many non-geeks are impressed by their charity work. Star Wars collectors also collect 501st patches, shirts and other merchandise.

It’s possible that that 501st is popular because they show that Star Wars is for everyone, no matter their age, race, gender, job or relationship status. Some members are scientists and engineers, while others are musicians and writers.

The group joined the promotions for "Star Wars: Rebels" animated TV show on the Disney Channel last December. Photos by Regina Layug Rosero

There are married couples, siblings and cousins who are members of the 501st. Even some of the actors from the Star Wars movies have joined the 501st Legion, like Jay Laga’aia, who played Captain Typho in the prequels, or Jeremy Bulloch, who played the iconic Boba Fett in the original trilogy.

And with a new movie opening in December 2015, there’s no doubt the 501st will continue to grow, all over the world and across the galaxy.