20th Century Fox
Written and Directed by George Lucas
Produced by Gary Kurtz
Music by John Williams
Cinematography by Gilbert Taylor
Edited by Paul Hirsch/Marcia Lucas/Richard Chew
I know people who have described religious epiphanies they have had to me in the best way they knew how. And usually what comes across is that they have no adequate words to describe how they felt at that exact moment. I myself have never had a religious epiphany but I believe that I understand the concept because the closest I’ve come to a religious epiphany is when I first saw STAR WARS on the big screen in 1977.
For those of you who weren’t around then and only know STAR WARS (later retitled STAR WARS IV: A NEW HOPE once it became a money-making franchise) from watching it on TV cable/satellite or DVD/Blu-Ray at home you might be wondering why it was such a big deal. That’s because you’ve grown up watching mega budget CGI blockbusters. They’re as common now as dust mites. But in 1977, for science fiction fans, STAR WARS was the equivalent in importance as The Burning Bush was to Moses.
Let me attempt to put it in context. It’s 1977. There’s no Internet. There’s no cable or satellite TV. If you wanted information on upcoming science fiction movies your main source of information may well just have been through “Starlog” and “Cinefantastique” magazines that reported on science fiction movies. And “Starlog” actually started out as a magazine devoted to Star Trek fandom. It wasn’t until after STAR WARS became such a world-wide sensation that it widened its scope. And you have to know that back in 1977, Science Fiction as a movie genre was not at all popular. It was regarded as kiddie stuff and indeed, for a while there, The Suits at 20th Century Fox seriously considered chopping up STAR WARS into half-hour chunks and showing it on Saturday morning TV as they were totally and utterly bewildered by what they had already seen of the movie and were convinced they had a flop on their hands.
And if you were a black kid growing up in a Brooklyn housing project in 1977 and a Science Fiction fan, you pretty much kept that to yourself. If you let it be known you liked Science Fiction at best you were accused of trying to be white and at worst you were accused of being gay.
It’s 1977, folks. Let’s keep it in context, okay?
And back in 1977 studios had this quaint notion that no, they had no obligation to tell the public every single last detail about the making of the movie from start to finish. Imagine that they actually kept all details about the making of a movie in studio until it was time to release the movie in theaters and let the public evaluate the finished product.
So nobody had any idea at all what STAR WARS was actually about until we went to the movie theater and saw it. And when we did see it…. Hoo boy. The world was never again the same.
By now the story is legend. And “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” has become as iconic as “Once upon a time…” Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) is in possession of schematics detailing a major weakness in the construction of The Death Star, a gigantic battle station capable of obliterating planets. She’s hunted down by The Dark Lord of The Sith, Darth Vader (David Prowse/James Earl Jones) and captured. But not before she downloads the schematics into a humble astromech droid, R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) and charges him with finding the long missing legendary Jedi Knight Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi (Sir Alec Guinness). Along with his long-suffering counterpart protocol droid C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) R2-D2 escapes to the desert world of Tatooine.
Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is a young man working on a Tatooine moisture farm but dreaming of adventure and joining The Rebellion to fight against The Empire in the civil war raging throughout the galaxy. He comes into possession of the droids and through them meets Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi and learns about The Jedi Knights and The Force, an energy field that once mastered grants the user powers both supernatural and superhuman. Obi-Wan also informs Luke that his father, Anakin Skywalker was once one of the greatest of Jedi Knights until he was betrayed and murdered by his best friend Darth Vader.
In order to get R2-D2 and The Death Star plans to the planet Alderaan, Luke and Ben engage the services of the smuggler Han Solo (Harrison Ford) his Wookiee first mate Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and their space ship, The Millennium Falcon (“You’ve never heard of The Millennium Falcon? It’s the ship that made The Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs!”) Han’s got his own problems as he owes a lot of money to the gangster/local crime lord Jabba The Hutt but he agrees to take Ben, Luke and the droids for the promise of a fee big enough to settle his problems with Jabba.
On the way to Alderaan, our motley band of heroes find the planet destroyed by The Death Star on the orders of The Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) attempting to find out the location of the rebel base from Princess Leia. The Millennium Falcon is pulled inside The Death Star by tractor beam and from then on, it’s one dizzying action scene after another as Han, Luke, Ben, Chewie and the droids attempt to rescue Princess Leia and get off The Death Star alive.
Why do I love STAR WARS so much? I think it’s because the absolute fearlessness of the storytelling. George Lucas just drops up into this galaxy and doesn’t bother to explain why blasters work, or how lightsabers work or how lightspeed works or what exactly what The Force is (all that comes later) which actually puts STAR WARS more into the genre of Space Opera than Science Fiction. Previous to STAR WARS, Science Fiction movies felt compelled to stop the story dead in the water to explain how all the neat gadgets worked. By setting STAR WARS in a universe where everybody was familiar with the technology and took it for granted and didn’t feel the need to explain it, Lucas gave us a lived-in universe where machines were dirty, grimy and looked as if they’d been used for a lot of years. The clothing people wore weren’t bright, shiny jumpsuits. The clothing was functional and wrinkled. It’s a universe that has been around for a long time. And it’s a universe that has nothing to do with us here on Earth because Earth is never mentioned here or in any of the other movies. You get the distinct impression that these people have never so much as heard of our planet or are aware it even exists.
STAR WARS is one of those movies that made careers. Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford became international superstars overnight thanks to the movie and George Lucas hailed as a visionary filmmaker. It’s the movie that inspired an entire generation of writers, directors and filmmakers. When he made his prequel trilogy, George Lucas got a lot of poo thrown at him by his “fans.” And I was in a lot of discussions regarding those prequels which the “fans” claimed ruined their childhoods (and if a movie can ruin your childhood then you obviously didn’t have much of a childhood to begin with.)
My feeling is this: George Lucas created a modern mythology that has lasted, grown, thrived for forty years and sparked the imaginations of millions all across the world and made him billions of dollars. When you do the same then you get the right to criticize the man. STAR WARS is an authentic classic of the genre and a masterpiece. It deserves all the accolades it has garnered during those forty years. And it did it the old-fashioned way: it’s a good story well-told and sincerely acted. The only other movie I can compare it to as being a perfectly pure swashbuckling adventure movie is “The Adventures of Robin Hood.” (and it fact, the two of them back-to-back makes for a damn good Saturday afternoon double-feature). Take it for what it is and you’ll enjoy it as much as generations of STAR WARS fans who grew up watching it have.