Princess Leia Organa, a member of the Rebel Alliance, steals the plans for the Death Star, an Imperial space station. She is captured by Darth Vader, the Galactic Empire’s deadliest enforcer, but not before programming the plans into the ’droid R2-D2. R2 and C3PO escape to the planet Tatooine to deliver Leia’s plans to former Jedi knight Obi-Wan Kenobi. A young romantic named Luke Skywalker falls in love with Leia when he sees R2’s recording of her message. When he finds that Imperial forces killed his uncle and aunt while pursuing the ’droids, Luke helps Obi-Wan hire Han Solo and his partner Chewbacca to fly them to the rebel base on Alderaan, only to find the planet was destroyed by the Death Star. After the Death Star captures Solo’s ship, Luke and Solo rescue Leia while Ben arranges for their escape. Vader, once Obi-Wan’s pupil in the ways of a mystical religion called the Force, challenges his former mentor to a lightsabre duel. Vader apparently kills Obi-Wan, but his friends escape to deliver the plans to the rebels, who discover the Death Star’s weak point: an exhaust shaft leading to the core reactor. As the voice of Ben/Obi-Wan urges him to trust the Force, Luke closes his eyes and fires a torpedo from his star fighter that ends the Death Star’s deadly career.
When you’ve been in the business of studying films for a few years, you take your duties for granted as you would in any other job – until new acquaintances ask you about it. When people ask exactly what it is that I do, their next question inevitably takes one of two forms: What made you decide to do that? Or, What’s your favourite film? These are reasonable questions, but they startle me because no particular film or viewing experience sent me marching to the graduate school catalogues to seek my fortune. I chose this profession because it seemed a natural extension of my interests in literary interpretation and in the histories of such mass cultural media as comic books, movies, television, and video games, not because the profession chose me.
Yeah, right. That’s what I’ve been telling myself for a long time, but at last I see that I’ve been repressing the true answer. After mumbling responses about post-war French cinema and Hollywood film noir and Gloria Grahame and Luis Buñuel for years, I’ve finally come to terms with my professional primal scene: My epiphany happened in 1977 when I was nine years old, watching a summer blockbuster that my small-town single-screen theatre screened one season late because it had held over Smokey and the Bandit for 20 weeks. That blockbuster was Star Wars, and it is my favourite film of all time.
Why did it take me so long to admit this to myself? The best reason I can come up with is that the original Star Wars is a world-class guilty pleasure for a serious film scholar. For one thing, it’s not as original as we imagined it was three decades ago. There isn’t much new about the story or the presentation of Luke Skywalker’s development from whiny farm boy into galactic freedom fighter. The plot cobbles together – some would say plagiarises – snippets from sources as diverse as Tolkien’s swords-and-sorcery epic The Lord of the Rings; Frank Herbert’s science fiction classic Dune with its desert-bound moisture farmers (Tatooine, anyone?) and spice-trade intrigue; and even Joseph Campbell’s nonfiction book The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949), a work of comparative mythology inflected by Carl Jung’s theory that all cultures cast human maturation as a mythical journey from antisocial naïveté to public heroism. For influences on the visual style of Star Wars, one needs look no further than Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) with its massive but plausible-looking space stations, courtesy of Douglas Trumbull’s detailed plastic miniatures and groundbreaking process photography.
But writer and director George Lucas cast his genre-poacher’s net wider than fantasy, myth, and science fiction. He showed his effects team aerial combat sequences from Hollywood war movies to demonstrate the shot setups and pacing he wanted for the Millennium Falcon’s battle with imperial TIE fighters. Thematically, Lucas drew upon the obsession with honour, duty, and the spoils of loyalty and betrayal found in post-war Japanese chanbara (swordplay) films, especially the epics directed by Akira Kurosawa. Lucas’s eclecticism was hardly unique. His generation of ‘movie-brat’ directors, which included his friends Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, and future Raiders of the Lost Ark collaborator Steven Spielberg, learned their trade not by the traditional means of Hollywood apprenticeship, but by becoming movie omnivores. They grew up watching classic films on late-night television and in big-city art-house theatres, and wound up attending film schools like Lucas’s own University of Southern California that offered courses on global film history as well as on production. The references Star Wars sweeps together probably seemed as natural to Lucas and his cohort as they seemed incoherent and unprofitable, at first, to the executives at 20th Century Fox. If not for Fox executive Alan Ladd Jr’s faith in Lucas’s ‘kiddie film’, the studio would have abandoned this expensive, uncategorisable project without looking back.
Before you start berating those industry stuffed-shirts for their lack of vision, please bear in mind that the ‘old’ Hollywood generation had been burned by big ideas too many times not to play it safe. As witnesses to expensive flops in the recent past (such as Dr. Doolittle, Darling Lili, and Cleopatra, the epic that nearly sank Fox in the early 1960s), studio chiefs took note of the surprise success of the no-frills countercultural film Easy Rider in 1967 and placed smaller piles of their investors’ chips on personal films about anti-heroes dealing with everyday obstacles. Once Coppola’s Godfather films (1972 and 1974) and Spielberg’s horror-thriller Jaws (1975) became mega-hits, Hollywood seemed to be turning another corner, back toward the straightforward, goal-oriented plots and more formulaic filmmaking procedures of its past, but no studio felt compelled to rush to the blockbuster model just because a couple of extraordinary films had done extraordinary business. Rather, Star Wars earned its position in Hollywood history by demonstrating the earning potential of a new kind of formula film, the ‘high-concept’ blockbuster. Its success helped convince studio executives that they had to reorganise their business model if they hoped to reap the unparalleled profits generated by the blockbuster phenomenon.
Though it differed in obvious ways from its immediate predecessors in blockbusterdom, Star Wars also incorporated key elements from The Godfather and Jaws: the epic sweep of history-making conflict and the changes it wreaks, the American family as a locus of this conflict, and suspense and surprise techniques borrowed from crime movies, Hitchcock’s suspense thrillers, and horror films. Lucas was as familiar with the theme of intergenerational discord as he was with science fiction. His USC thesis film, a sci-fi short titled THX-1138 (reshot as a feature-length film in 1971), chronicles a man’s attempt to escape a post-apocalyptic society that dehumanises its citizens. In Lucas’s breakthrough film, American Graffiti (1973), two guys from the high school class of 1962 spend a final night drag racing through their hometown and wrestling with doubts about their departure for college the next day. Frustrated by the cuts that MCA/Universal forced him to make to American Graffiti, Lucas demanded final cut rights on Star Wars and has gotten, or taken, those rights ever since. His legendary commitment to overseeing his projects at every stage already showed through in his establishment of Lucasfilm LTD to produce Star Wars (the Fox studio merely fronted production money and distributed the film), and Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), the in-house special effects unit which founding head John Dykstra quickly made the most sought-after effects company in Hollywood.
What no one predicted was that Lucas’s reboot of the science fiction genre, a film so disrespectful of the genre’s conventions that its first title screen sets the scene not in the future but ‘[a] long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away’, would garner such critical admiration and viewer fanaticism that it would gross more than one hundred million American dollars (1977 dollars, mind you) by the end of the summer – before the Burt-Reynolds-drunk Majestic Theater in Centerville, Iowa, had even bothered to bring the movie to my attention. However unoriginal its plot and premise, however unintentionally awkward its dialogue, the film succeeded then (and still grips viewers now) because it simultaneously surprised us with its unexpected juxtapositions of diverse elements and bathed us in the aura of straightforward, plot-driven filmmaking – something most viewers had not experienced in a new-release movie house, to paraphrase Ben Kenobi, for a long, long time. That mixture of the familiar and the unfamiliar certainly caught the attention of my father, whose interest was piqued largely by John Williams’s orchestral score. A life-long opera buff who spent a winter’s worth of Saturday afternoons taping radio broadcasts of Wagner’s Ring Cycle with his reel-to-reel, my dad was smitten with Williams’s use of musical leitmotifs to emphasise the entrances of characters like Luke and Leia and to reflect plot turns and mood shifts by modulating these themes as necessary. The classical score, inspired by Kubrick’s use of classical masterworks in 2001, instantly turned Williams into an industry star himself. It’s difficult now to watch starships on a movie screen without hearing the sweep of strings or the hammer-blasts of trombones, even if only in our imaginations.
I couldn’t have put any of that into words in 1977, of course. I had no idea that Hollywood had ever experienced a business-model crisis, or that Lucas’s dialogue made his actors want to throttle him, or that practically the only things that distinguished Star Wars from Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958) were, first, that the central comic duo consisted of androids R2-D2 and C-3PO instead of Japanese peasants, and second, that Lucas was not able to convince Fortress star Toshiro Mifune to play Obi-Wan. What captivated me about the film back then was its level of definition. No movie I had seen outside a Disney feature presented such clear and vivid heroes – young, attractive, squabbling idealists accompanied by the grandfatherly Kenobi (an unselfconsciously noble Alec Guinness) – and grotesque villains with names like Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin (played by British B-movie vampire killer Peter Cushing) who spouted bwa-haha bad guy lines like ‘There’ll be no escaping us this time’ as slimily as did Ming the Merciless in the old Flash Gordon serials (from which Star Wars also borrows). It kept up an unrelenting level of tension as Luke, Princess Leia, and Han improvised their way out of the Death Star space station and then returned to destroy it. It developed a world, a galaxy rather, in which smart-mouthed ’droids and humongous starships looked so grungy and were treated with such nonchalance that they seemed as plausible as my dad’s Impala station wagon. Speaking for the kid I was, who dreamed of being either a cartoonist or a superhero in a town where neither aspiration meant much to anybody else, a story about a frustrated kid who dreamed as fervently of escape from being misunderstood as he did of escaping to the stars seemed the height of verisimilitude.
Star Wars’s low-tech high-tech aesthetic may in fact be its key innovation. Scuttling the science of science fiction and permitting the fantasy elements to dominate allows the film’s special effects to thrill and convince us more completely than they could have if Lucas had stuck to the gospel of ‘hard’ science fiction preached by fiction writer Larry Niven in the 1970s. Dykstra constructed his starships out of spare parts from hundreds of model cars and planes, aged them artificially with grease, grime, and dents, and filmed them using an electronically timed motion-control system that he and ILM essentially invented for the movie. By synchronising the models’ movements exactly to the background shots into which they would later be matted, Dykstra imbued ‘ships’ no larger than a foot or two in length with a solidity and kineticism more convincing than any computer-generated starship I have seen since. This aesthetic makes Star Wars an important bridge between the warts-and-all realism of seventies Hollywood and the future-grunge look of the action-blockbuster era, especially visible in such films as Alien and Aliens, Blade Runner, the Terminator films, Total Recall, and The Matrix. Lucas’s technologised galaxy seemed to reflect American culture’s alternating smugness and anxiety about its scientific achievements. Machines could draw moisture from the sands of Tatooine and cool a movie theatre on a summer afternoon, but they could also destroy a planet at a whim, a worry as close to Americans’ minds as the Cold War and its hottest hotspot, the recently abandoned Vietnam conflict.
Indeed, Lucas’s mass-culture obsessions led him to make a personal film that coincidentally appealed to the growing conservatism of postVietnam political culture in the US. Star Wars changed the industry by making book on spectacle and simplicity while echoing the political means by which conservative politicians tried to ‘heal’ the wounds of an ambiguous and humbling war: a hard turn to the political right, to an ideology that divided the planet into the light and dark sides of the Force as definitively as Lucas divided up the galaxy. When US president Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an ‘evil empire’ and dubbed his administration’s never-realised nuclear deterrent blueprint ‘Star Wars’, no one who paid close attention to the film’s simplistic image of political conflict should have been surprised.
Lucas’s fortune-making decision to retain the rights to all Star Wars marketing, including everything from action figures to pyjamas, strikes me now as a crass betrayal of the idealist ethos he represented for me as soon as I knew his name. And I get angry along with scholar Will Brooker when he chastises Lucas for banishing the original release versions of Star Wars and its first two sequels, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983), by refusing to re-release them to theatres or the home market since he foisted digitally ‘enhanced’ Special Edition versions of the films on the public in the late 1990s. Sure, Lucas invented these characters and concepts and stories, but what gives him the right to change or efface the labour of the actors and crew who helped craft the film into the hit it became, or to ride herd over the historical importance of how these films initially looked and sounded? (To be fair, I must note that Lucas eventually capitulated to fan pressure and appended the original versions to the most recent Special Edition DVD sets.) In the late seventies, however, whatever monies Lucas collected from the mounds of toys that Kenner produced for Lucasfilm seemed to me more than his just desserts. I wasn’t even envious of his own intergalactic empire, built on billions of bits of painted plastic doomed to be dropped from car windows or lost in furniture cushions forever; the original Star Wars action figures weren’t things I wanted so much as necessities akin to Nacho Cheese Doritos or my bicycle. Without plastic effigies of Luke, Leia, Vader, and the ’droids near me as totems, my frustrated dream of proving myself a deep, sensitive hero would have become unbearable. Like most proper nerds, I suspect, but unlike the majority of Star Wars fans, I completely identified with Luke, shunned bad-boy Han Solo for his similarities to the anti-intellectual bullies I encountered in middle school, and wanted Princess Leia for my very own with all the proto-erotic, preadolescent angst that a nine-year-old hetero boy could muster, no matter how closely her hairdo resembled twin cheese Danishes.
That’s my confession, dear reader. But tell on me at a cocktail party and I’ll deny everything, shriek something about the glories of Citizen Kane or Antonioni, and accuse you of remaining a closet Wachowski Brothers fan even after Speed Racer crashed and burned. Please, then, let this be our secret, OK? I’ll keep mum if you will.
1. Katherine Fusco provided invaluable research assistance for this essay.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: USA. Production Company: Lucasfilm/ 20th Century Fox. Director: George Lucas. Screenwriter: George Lucas. Cinematographer: Gilbert Taylor. Sound Designer: Ben Burtt. Music: John Williams. Editors: Richard Chew, Paul Hirsch, Marcia Lucas, T. M. Christopher (special edition). Production Sound Mixer: Derek Ball. Dolby Stereo Sound Consultant: Stephen Katz. Cast: Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), Harrison Ford (Han Solo), Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia Organa), Peter Cushing (Grand Moff Tarkin), Alec Guinness (Obi-Wan ‘Ben’ Kenobi), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Kenny Baker (R2-D2), Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca), David Prowse (Darth Vader), James Earl Jones (Darth Vader, voice), Phil Brown (Uncle Owen), Shelagh Fraser (Aunt Beru).]
‘“Star Wars”: The Year’s Best Movie’, Time, 30 May 1977, pp. 54–6ff.
Gary Arnold, ‘“Star Wars”: A Spectacular Intergalactic Joyride’, Washington Post, 25 May 1977, p. B1.
Peter Biskind, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the SexDrugs-and-Rock-’N’-Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1998.
Will Brooker, Using the Force: Creativity, Community, and ‘Star Wars’ Fans, London, Continuum, 2002.
Owen Gleiberman, ‘Empire of Fun [review of “special edition” re-release of Star Wars]’, Entertainment Weekly, 31 January 1997, pp. 32–3.
Matt Hills, ‘Star Wars in Fandom, Film Theory, and the Museum: The Cultural Status of the Cult Blockbuster’, in Julian Stringer (ed.), Movie Blockbusters, London, Routledge, 2003, pp. 178–89.
Derek Johnson, ‘Star Wars Fans, DVD, and Cultural Ownership: An Interview with Will Brooker’, Velvet Light Trap, Vol. 56, Fall 2005, pp. 36–44.
David A. Kaplan, with Adam Rogers and Yahlin Chang, ‘The Force is Still With Us [report on “special edition” re-release of Star Wars]’, Newsweek, 20 January 1997, p. 52.
Jack Kroll, ‘Fun in Space’, Newsweek, 30 May 1977, p. 60.
‘Murf’, ‘Star Wars’, Variety, 25 May 1977, n. p.
Justin Wyatt, High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1994.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.