There are certain movies that are so connected with the history of cinema that to think of a time that they never existed almost seems unthinkable; Casablanca, Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Jaws and, of course, Star Wars.
Sometimes it is hard to imagine the thoughts that must have went through the heads of anyone sitting in a movie theatre in 1977 when that music appeared for the first time, that logo and that opening shot with what looked to be the single biggest space ship in movie history. Like many of the movies that I mentioned, Star Wars represents a type of “Year Zero” for film and even if you hate it, the film to this day represents an important piece of work and has a vital standing in the history of its medium.
The stories of how Star Wars got made are almost as famous as the film itself. It’s a long torturous journey to the big screen, a story that takes in; the rights to Flash Gordon, the town of Modesto in California, Francis Ford Coppola and American Zoetrope, an audition process that also involved Brian De Palma and the making of Carrie, the creation of ILM and, through merchandising rights, the single greatest money-making deal in Hollywood history.
The story of Star Wars is the story of George Lucas, its three leading stars, its development as a script previously starring a character by the name of Luke Starkiller, and a massive risk by 20th Century Fox and its then chairman Alan Ladd, Jr, the only studio executive in Hollywood who was willing to take a risk on the movie.
These are stories that have passed into movie making lore and have taken up so many tomes and books, many looking at the franchise’s philosophical themes, its religious overtones, as well as inspiring countless fans to proclaim themselves as actual Jedi as their religion in census forms. Like James Bond before it, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe after, it is a franchise that has inspired, become beloved, invoked hatred and worked its way back again, and all of it started on the 25th of May 1977.
The only other movies Lucas had directed had been American Graffiti and THX-1138, the latter being a Kubrickian science fiction thriller that owed more to George Orwell than it did the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs or the serials of Flash Gordon. That film was a flop, although age and advancing years have lent it more respect and in many ways it fits into the aesthetic of artistically driven genre movies that were very much in full force in Hollywood in the 70’s.
On the other hand, American Graffiti was a massive hit, a coming of age comedy-drama that starred Richard Dreyfuss, Charles Martin Smith, Ron Howard and an unknown by the name of Harrison Ford. The film had been written by Willard Hyuck and Gloria Katz, and is to some extent an anomaly in the George Lucas-canon. It is a film with very little in the way of science fiction, is very small-scale, and is a film that is dominated by character driven comedy and drama, although the use of motor cars throughout lends it a love of technology that would also finds its way into nearly all the Star Wars movies.
In the end Star Wars would have more in common with American Graffiti than THX-1138 in terms of tone and charm, as well as having a youthful bounce to it that was hard not to get taken along with, especially if one was watching it for the first time when they were in single digits. The tone is nowhere near as cold and methodical as his first film, it has a bounce and charm more in keeping with the Modesto-set teen comedy-drama, and whilst the future and the science fiction elements in THX-1138 were something to be feared, in Star Wars they were something to be overjoyed and awed by.
The film, and subsequent franchise, came about because George Lucas failed to get the rights to Flash Gordon, which prompted him to create his own space saga, whilst Flash himself would end up being the star of his own big-budget blockbuster in 1980, ironically in one of many attempts to cash in on the success of Lucas’ own saga. Many wannabe space sagas would come and go in an attempt to cash in on the success of Star Wars, from Battle Beyond the Stars, to the original Battlestar Galactica, with James Bond himself heading into space via 1979’s Moonraker, while 20th Century Fox would bankroll and distribute another outer-space set movie two years later with Ridley Scott’s Alien, the R-rated equivalent that at the very least had a style and attitude of its own.
The amazing thing to note with Star Wars is its troubled and intense production history, to an extent that sometimes its amazing to see how well it flows on the screen. It shows little of the problems, with little or no rough edges, and appears to have arrived perfectly formed, ready to capture our imaginations and hearts with its characters and world.
Harrison Ford famously told Lucas that “you can type this s*** but you can’t say it”, whilst nobody believed the film would be a hit, most of all 20th Century Fox who laughably thought nothing of selling the merchandising and sequel rights to Lucas, who of course would laugh all the way to the bank for the rest of his life; a sandstorm hit the production when filming was taking place in Tunisia; the British crew at Elstree Studios laughed about the film constantly thinking it was nothing but a silly children’s film, and when a vote was taken on the subject of working overtime, the crew voted against, whilst the work being done by the newly formed ILM was long and punishingly slow, the pace of the work itself becoming the source of friction.
To top it all off Lucas showed a rough cut to some of his friends, which included Steven Spielberg, Brian De Palma, Willard Hyuck and Gloria Katz. The music had not been composed and the special effects not completed so in its place was footage of black and white aerial dog fights. The screening was a disaster. Hyuck and Katz tried to play nice, but De Palma was especially critical, although he apologised shortly after and legend has it was the one responsible for writing the opening crawl at the start of the movie. Only Spielberg believed it would be a big hit.
The film that would be released would show none of these signs of problems and from its opening shot, would literally blow audiences away, taking us to that fabled galaxy that was far, far away.
The world is fully realised and feels truly lived in that it’s not hard to imagine the wealth of stories that existed before, something that would become a divisive reality in 1999, 2002 and 2005, but all of that was ahead of us (or behind us, if you look at it from a certain point of view). In 1977, we were given what initially looked like one film, but who was to know it would lead to an expansive universe of sequels, prequels, novels, comic books and video games, and that years after the prequels it would be relaunched, very successfully with a sequel yet again, one that would rule box offices all over the world, only this time without Lucas steering the ship (an unthinkable notion at one time) and this time under the watchful eye of Kathleen Kennedy and Disney Studios.
The film was a pioneer in the fields of special effects and sound design. Although somewhat mistakenly regarded as the “first blockbuster”, which was in fact, commercially speaking, Jaws, Star Wars feels more like the “first blockbuster” because of its aesthetic and style. Jaws may have been a blockbuster, but it felt gritty and grounded, and always feels as if it had one foot in the early 70’s, at least in the manner of works like The Exorcist and The French Connection. Star Wars felt…well…young.
Even the older characters were portrayed by either classically trained British thespians such as Sir Alec Guinness, or genre legends such as Peter Cushing, while the rest of the main cast were portrayed by young faces such as Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford, all three coming across like bickering kids having way too much fun with blasters. There is still some gritty leanings in there; the death of Luke’s guardians, Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru, feels like such a dark turn and there is implied, though never graphically depicted, violence involved.
For the most part, however, death is dealt with pretty easily and straightforwardly, unlike Jaws where it was something to be mourned and disturbed by. Luke moves from Owen and Beru’s death pretty easily, and Leia never seems too bothered by the destruction of her home planet of Alderaan. Of course, Star Wars was a fairy tale more than anything. Dark things happened, but you picked up the pace and moved on, another action sequence waiting around the corner.
Like most fairy tales, it had one of the greatest villains you could imagine. Has there ever been as brilliant an entrance like the one that greets Darth Vader, walking into that corridor, John Williams’ music practically screaming “he’s a bad guy” whilst he surveys the carnage around him whilst wearing quite possibly the greatest costume in movie history? For the most part he is the henchman to Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin, and we’d have to wait for the sequels to get the layers and the motivation (the latter of which would seem unthinkable at this stage), but damn, he was instantly a villain for the ages.
It’s the charm and fun of the movie that always makes it such a joy to watch, you can never help but watch it with a big smile on your face, with either the interaction of the characters, or John Williams’ music, or the brilliance of the action sequences always bringing such joy. The darkness could wait for other movies, or at the very least The Empire Strikes Back.
The last laugh came from the film itself which played to packed audiences, had lines queuing around the block to watch it, sometimes going back in to watch it again, gaining great reviews and becoming the biggest film success in history. It would reverberate throughout the industry changing everything. Marketing, special effects, merchandising, you name it. Star Wars was probably the biggest game changer of them all, and it was basically the Flash Gordon formula being given an A-list shine.
Make no mistakes, though, The Empire Strikes Back is the better film, but A New Hope laid the groundwork for what made the sequel so great, and as a stand alone film, the first Star Wars is still a bright, brilliantly entertaining and brilliant piece of work. Yes, there has been a backlash to it over the years from some quarters due to how it changed cinema for the worst, taking the focus away on darker, more personal visions to something more popcorn flavoured, but if Lucas has never had done it, someone else would have. You can only stay in the dark for so long.
The dark, intense visions of The Exorcist, The Godfather, The Conversation, The French Connection, Mean Streets and Serpico are truly wonderful and still rank as some of the greatest works of film ever conceived, but there was something in the air as the 70’s moved ever more forward to the 80’s. There was yearning for the light. Sure, Jaws was dark too, but it almost feels as if everyone gravitated to it for the thrills and scares as opposed to its comment on Nixon-style politics on a small beach, allowing the little person to be eaten to gain profits from the 4th of July and when Star Wars burst on to our screens, the light opened up and the fun began.
As I’ve said, it’s not the best of its franchise, but then again, The Empire Strikes Back would never have worked without it, and without A New Hope, we would never have gotten Indiana Jones, or ET, or Back to the Future, or have studios yearning to make money that they would take the chances on directors such as James Cameron, Ridley Scott or Tim Burton, who would get to impose their own visions of things like Alien, or The Terminator, or Batman.
We may forever argue over what the best Star Wars movie is, and whilst everyone, including myself, will gravitate towards the more darker, complex and downright brilliant sequel, A New Hope is still one of the all time greats, a concoction of magic and wonder, of space and adventure, and the film that has allowed some of the best popcorn blockbusters a chance to exist. Cinema would be a dull, dark place without it.