Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Heath Holland On...Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope

by Heath Holland
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

Of the six Star Wars films made between 1977 and 2005, this is hardest one to write about. How do you begin to approach the cultural phenomenon that 1977’s Star Wars (the subtitle “Episode IV: A New Hope” wasn’t added until 1981)? It changed the landscape of movies forever, and has been both lauded and blamed for solidifying blockbuster filmmaking. Those of us who grew up in the 1980s owe Star Wars a debt of gratitude, because it opened the door for so many wonderful films that followed in the years after it debuted that could never have been made without the trail that George Lucas and his team blazed with their space opera. The difficulty that Lucas had trying to get the movie green-lit with a major studio is now movie-making myth and Star Wars is the world’s most successful independent film. I’m saying, it’s a lot to try to wrap your arms around. Maybe the best thing I can do is point out why I love it.

I really want to try to avoid getting bogged down in the production details because Star Wars and the two sequels are probably the most documented films of all time in terms of behind-the-scenes coverage. In fact, it was Star Wars that first got people wondering “how’d they do that?” But you can’t talk about Star Wars without talking about the people that made it happen. The galaxy we see in the film and all the sequels, including the ones that Disney is now spearheading in order to make sure Star Wars as a franchise goes lives on, was the brainchild of George Lucas. I could spend 5,000 words talking about The Journal of the Whills (Google it), but I won’t. I don’t want this to take more time to read than it takes to watch the movie. I’ll just say that Star Wars starts with George Lucas, and his contributions, influence, and leadership can’t be overestimated. It’s his baby, in the good and the bad.
However, George Lucas had some pretty powerful friends who helped him out along the way and advised him that his concepts needed to be cut down and simplified for his audience. Lucas has always been ambitious, and his director pals like Francis Ford Coppola and Brian De Palma, both of whom had major hits when Lucas was still struggling, steered him toward the less-experimental, more accessible path. Lucas has revealed that the text crawl at the beginning of the movie was originally intended to be six paragraphs long, with four sentences each. Brian De Palma took the crawl and cut it down to the most basic state, and that’s what we now have in the movie. Thank you, Brian De Palma, for being awesome.

1977’s Star Wars also couldn’t exist without all the influences that led to its creation. There’s truly very little that’s new under the sun, and that was the case even before Star Wars. What George Lucas did was combine common mythological and religious themes from all over the world and marry them to the things that he was nostalgic about. A dose of Flash Gordon here (the idea of an opening crawl comes directly from Flash Gordon serials), a little John Ford western atmosphere there, transplant World War II airplane dogfights into the setting of deep space, throw in a few character archetypes like the farm boy destined for greatness, the princess, and the scoundrel, and you’ve got a recipe for success. None of those things were new; Star Wars borrows and outright nicks almost all of its themes and ideas. It takes names and places from pulp stories and even from Frank Herbert’s Dune books. No, what made Star Wars special was the way Lucas combined all those elements into something that had never been packaged and presented quite that way before. His friends wanted to know why he insisted on making a movie for 10-year-olds, but he knew that those 10-year-olds born in the shadow of the Vietnam War desperately needed heroes of their own. Lucas has stated that his generation had westerns and pirates, but children during the ’70s had The Six Million Dollar Man and Kojak. Spielberg’s Jaws was a huge hit in 1975 and Rocky was the winner of 1976. The tide was turning and people wanted to believe that good could win.
Without a rich foundation in comic books, serials, and Saturday matinees, the film might never have made it to screens, and without a crew of EXTREMELY talented artists and designers, what ended up on those screens might have been so visually dull that no one would have cared. That’s why we have to pay our respects to the concept art of Ralph McQuarrie, whose drawings and paintings gave life and form to all the ships and creatures and characters that we’ve come to know so well. His concepts were so influential that they’re still mining them for new stuff even now. We also have to remember the importance of the set design and decoration of John Barry and Roger Christian, who actually crafted those clunky, worn-out ships and sand-blasted desert hovels. Roger Christian created Han Solo’s blaster from a real gun and added his own western touches. He made the first lightsaber out of a flashbulb handle from the 1940s. He also constructed The Millennium Falcon, fastest ship in the galaxy, out of old scrap airplane metal. Lastly, the sound design of Ben Burtt is CRUCIAL to the success of Star Wars. Every droid’s beep and whistle, every “Ptang!” of blaster fire, and the iconic electric buzz of laser swords owe their iconic status to his sound creation. Star Wars is the first movie I can think of where the sounds we hear are as important, if not more important, than the images we are seeing on the screen. These men took the ideas in George Lucas’ head and brought them to life in a way that felt real and ordinary. There’s not a single environment in Star Wars that doesn’t feel like it’s been lived in for decades. Each and every vehicle looks like it’s been broken, fixed, and then fixed again. I believe that THIS is the real success of Star Wars, and that without the lived-in element and the men with the skill to make that happen, the movie wouldn’t have been the success it became.

Then there are the actors. The Prequel Trilogy is criticized for its dialog, but don’t forget that Star Wars Eisode IV: A New Hope is the film that started it all and made fans out of millions, yet has some seriously clunky dialog. Harrison Ford is on record as saying “George, you can type this sh*t, but you can’t say it.” For all the wonderful, witty lines in the movie (“Will someone get this big walking carpet out of my way?” and “What an incredible smell you’ve discovered!”) we have Luke whining about going into Tosche Station to pick up some power converters. Episode IV has a lot of the same problems with the actual spoken lines that the three Prequels do. We just forgive them more because they’re being delivered because so many other things are working.
How great is Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker? It’s weird, because the entire trilogy hinges on Luke, but he almost feels like the least important character through this chapter. He’s our entrée into this great adventure, and it’s through him that we are introduced to the larger world of Jedi and The Force, but we don’t actually meet Luke until around 20 minutes into the story. The time before that is spent establishing the world and the stakes, the Empire and the Rebellion. Princess Leia seems to be given more import than Luke Skywalker. Even the droids take precedence to Luke. Mark Hamill embraces this role of “everyman” and owns it. It’s a testament to his performance that we actually care about Luke at all, and grow with him over the movies. There’s a contingent of people who say that Hamill wasn’t very good in the movie; that he’s whiney and irritating. I think he’s supposed to be. After all, if there’s a bright center to the universe, he’s on the planet that it’s farthest from. He’s young, unproven, inexperienced. Just like Hayden Christensen, he’s doing what he’s asked to do.

Is Carrie Fisher not the archetype for the strong, independent woman who doesn’t need a couple of dudes to come rescue her? She’s the best, and even though her English accent comes and goes, she more than holds her own with classic thespians like Peter Cushing. Her performance is witty, sarcastic, and practical. Princess Leia is the kind of character that you can be happy your daughter aspires to be like. She’s intelligent, brave, regal, and defiant in the face of adversity. You want depth? Leia’s got it.

Meanwhile, Harrison Ford excels at being Harrison Ford. I’m not so sure that Han Solo is much of a character and isn’t just a facet of who Ford actually is in real life, but either way it works. Han Solo is the guy that men want to be and that women want to be with. Cocky and self-assured, he’s also both a little foolish and a little sensitive. A sometime pirate and smuggler (hey, times are hard), Han doesn’t sweat the details and he’s probably not going to be around when the sun comes up, but he’s also honorable and willing to stick around for a cause that he believes in. His relationship with Chewbacca implies that he lives by a certain code and that loyalty means a great deal to him, but that it takes a lot to earn it. What a guy!
Alec Guinness is great as Obi-Wan Kenobi (or simply “Ben”), and he brings that feeling of loss and sorrow to the proceedings. It’s one more component to the film that gives it a deeper resonance and weight. We don’t know exactly what Kenobi has seen, but his tales of war, murder, and betrayal hint at a backstory that viewers in 1977 could only imagine (and fans today are still trying to imagine because the three movies set before this didn’t show us much). He’s the wizard, the mentor of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, and the casting of Alec Guinness gives the role a sense of importance and dignity. You have to remember, everything we knew about the Jedi between 1977 and 1980 was based on what we learn from Ben Kenobi and his brief interaction with Darth Vader. He carries all that exposition on his shoulders.

Ah, Darth Vader. Has there ever been a more iconic villain? If there has, I sure can’t think of it. The story makes it unclear exactly what role the towering Sith--a term from the film’s novelization, but not used in the actual movie—plays in this Empire. He seems incredibly powerful, yet he also seems to be an underling of Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin. Leia says it best herself when she’s brought before Tarkin: “Governor Tarkin, I should have expected to find you holding Vader’s leash.” To whom does Vader’s loyalty lie? What are his motivations? There is nothing as great as a mysterious character that has not yet been fleshed out and explained into boredom.

The last reason that I think Star Wars was such a success—after the concept, the creation, and the cast—is the fact that it was FUN. Though we’d eventually get bogged down into the politics of the galaxy and the totalitarianism of the Empire, Star Wars is, at its heart, a great space adventure film. It takes science fiction, fantasy, and western motifs and combines them into one incredible ride of a movie that takes us from the hot sands of Tatooine to the metallic corridors of the Death Star to the verdant moon of Yavin IV. We know there are stakes, but those stakes take a backseat to watching cool characters do cool things, and filmmakers should NEVER underestimate the appeal of cool characters doing cool things.
Star Wars was always destined to be a massive hit or a massive failure; there’s no way that it could have been in the middle. We know that Lucas went to Hawaii in late May of 1977, but the reason why has varied depending on the account. In some, he’s in Hawaii because he’s dreading seeing his movie fail completely. In others, he’s in Hawaii because he had to escape the overwhelming success of the film and the subsequent media deluge. What we know for sure is that Spielberg was with him, taking a break from his own Close Encounters of the Third Kind. As the two friends built sand castles, they discussed the idea of a James Bond without the gadgets, and there amidst the burgeoning success of Star Wars, the character of Indiana Jones took shape. That kind of talent to come up with winning concepts is RIDICULOUS. It’s just success to success to success with these guys, especially during this time period.

I think Star Wars is a complete success. It’s exciting, it’s populated by characters we can relate to, it blazed new territory with it’s special effects that hold up to this day, and it made it safe to have fun at the movies. It came along during a time when heroes were hard to find and kids were just waiting for someone to strike a match and blow up the whole scene. It could have been another movie that resonated with such a wide audience, but it wasn’t another movie: it was Star Wars. Clearly there was something about it that resonates to this day. We have heroes everywhere now, but there’s something about this trio of Luke, Han, and Leia that made them special. Even though it’s not my favorite of the films, this is the movie that changed the game. Now that Disney owns the rights and is going to be making more films, we’re going to have new adventures in a galaxy far, far away for a very long time. But you know what? No matter how many more movies they make, there’s only one Star Wars.

See you in a few weeks when the Empire strikes back at the Rebellion and scores a direct hit. Until then, may The Force be with you.


  1. Fun column, Heath! I've loved Star Wars ever since I first saw it in 1977 as an impressionable 13-year-old. I remember being struck by exactly the "real and ordinary" sensibility you describe -- everything had a lived-in look that made that galaxy far, far away seem so possible, so relatable. A lot of my friends thought Luke was cute with his feathery Leif Garrett hair but I felt like I already knew plenty of whiny boys just like him... Han was WAY cooler in my book. I might even credit Star Wars as being the movie that made me a real movie fan; I'd always loved "going to the movies," but Star Wars made me love *movies*, if that makes any sense. It created its own world and invited me in -- that collective creativity you write about was evident on the screen every minute, and made the idea of what a movie could be more compelling, complex, and exciting to me.

  2. While Empire is still my favorite I will admit that A New Hope is definitely the most fun of the bunch. I would actually disagree with the critique that Mark Hamill gives a bad performance here and is whiny. In fact the only line he delivers that i think is maybe a bit off is when he has to go to toshi station to get some power converters.

    As to the kids movie argument I dont think this movie is a kids movie per se- its really more of a family movie- in all honesty if I had kids I'm not sure how well my 5 year old would be able to handle darth vader's throat choking. I know the little kid in that car commercial loves doing it but while the overall feeling of fun is throughout this flick I think this movie is one I might keep away from the little little ones.

  3. I think you need the whiny, immature Luke in New Hope so that you can get to the Jedi Luke that shows up in the beginning of Return of the Jedi