by Heath Holland
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.