A screening of the rough cut for friends and colleagues of its director George Lucas, including Brian de Palma and Steven Spielberg, was a disaster. De Palma tore into every aspect of the film, from the concept of the Force to Carrie Fisher's hairstyle, and Spielberg was alone in showing any enthusiasm. The film's distributor, Twentieth Century Fox, had so little faith in it that they told exhibitors that if they wanted to show their next intended blockbuster, The Other Side of Midnight, an adaptation of a Sidney Sheldon best seller, then they had to screen this Star Wars thing too. This block booking was illegal and Fox found itself facing a lawsuit and having to pay $25,000 in damages. By the time the legal case was settled, Star Wars had become the most commercially successful film of all time and a box office and cultural phenomenon, while The Other Side of Midnight would be forgotten in a couple of years.
Star Wars was made, against the odds and despite a marked scepticism within the industry, largely because Lucas had the support of the then head of Twentieth Century Fox, Alan Ladd Jnr, who was an enthusiastic fan of Lucas's previous film, American Graffiti. The film would be made by Lucas's own company, Lucasfilm, with mostly unknown actors and filmed at Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire in England, a slightly run down facility, but one with enormous space to build the giant sets the film required. Location filming for the desert planet of Tatooine took place in Tunisia, where the filming locations are now tourist attractions, with some additional filming in Death Valley in California, and the exteriors for the rebel base on Yavin were filmed in the Tikal National Park in Guatemala.
What made Star Wars such a phenomenon and why has the appeal of this world endured for so long? I think there are several reasons for that, but first and foremost is the fact that Star Wars is a terrific piece of popular cinema, a film that is tremendously, almost joyously, entertaining. It scoops its audience up, entrances it with action, adventure, spectacle, humour and excitement in an old fashioned good vs evil story, and shows it people, objects, creatures and places it has never seen before. And the film certainly doesn't skimp on the action, with space battles, dogfights, light sabre duels and laser gun battles with hordes of storm troopers who, luckily for our heroes, are all terrible shots.
If you've seen Star Wars (and I'm fairly sure that you have) you'll have probably noticed that there was a lot of information in the plot summary I gave, but it was still far from complete. It only really covers the first half or so of the film, and even then there's a lot of important stuff that I didn't mention. I didn't talk about Jawas, or Darth Vader or Greedo, or even explain what the Empire is or what this whole war that's going on is all about. Because Star Wars throws a ton of information at the audience that we're all expected to assimilate and understand. We're told it's a time of civil war, but who is fighting who and why? We don't even know to begin with why the Empire are the bad guys, other than that they seem to have quite an aggressive security policy, and the fact that the first Imperial leader we see is dressed head to toe in a sinister black costume.
While the script is credited solely to Lucas, his writers on American Graffiti, Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, were brought in to polish the dialogue and iron out some of Lucas's techno-babble. Their work is particularly evident in the banter between Han Solo and Princess Leia on the Death Star, with the dialogue here noticeably sparkier and funnier than anywhere else in the film. While Lucas still occasionally tries to cram too much into one line, generally the script does an excellent job of giving the audience just enough information. The screenplay works in a lot of detail that fills in the background to this strange world that the audience is experiencing for the first time. We learn that Sand People always ride single file to hide their numbers. That the Millennium Falcon made the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs, and that it can out-run Imperial cruisers. The big corellian ships, not the local bulk cruisers. The script is full of this kind of detail, which is easily passed over or forgotten, but it emphasises that someone has actually thought about this world and the details of it. A lot of time was spent on the character names too, as well as on those of ships, places and planets; the Death Star, Tatooine, Jawas, the Millennium Falcon, Han Solo. The Skywalker name was originally Starkiller, until Lucas realised it had some unfortunate connotations about celebrity murderers.
Characterisation is probably not the film's strongest point, none of the main characters being especially well developed. But the characters do serve as archetypes and that is what's required for a timeless fantasy story like this. Mark Hamill doesn't display great range, but his nervy heroism and wide eyed enthusiasm carry him through. The same is true of Carrie Fisher, who can't quite decide if she's going to play her role with an English or an American accent and ends up using both alternately. But for the most part she is remarkably self assured and both she and Hamill are more than adequate, creating sympathetic and likeable characters. The most developed part in the film is Han Solo, an ambiguous character who is mostly interested in evading his creditors and making enough money to pay his debts. Harrison Ford was a struggling actor who had barely worked in films since American Graffiti and Star Wars was his break out role. He captures the charm and cockiness of Solo perfectly. Just as importantly, the three leads have strong chemistry together, something especially clear in their scenes in the Death Star.
One of the film's great achievements is its superb world-building. This is one of the main reasons why Star Wars was so addictive and why people went back to see it again and again, and it's probably the main reason why the fascination with it endures. The “used future” world of Star Wars is oddly gritty and occasionally grimy. The ships look functional and the settings look plausible rather than fanciful, unlike most traditional space operas. And the costumes look like they could be real clothes, not fussy “space costumes”. There's no campery, no tinfoil uniforms, everything looks like it could be real, just from a different time and galaxy.
And the way that world is explored is important. Despite the excellence of the art direction and sets, the camera never stops simply to show us a great set or location. Instead, the action is filmed as if it's happening in a real place. What is the geography of the Death Star exactly? It's hard to tell because this, in common with the other locations, is treated as just another setting and the audience only explores it and gets to know it as much as the characters in the film.
The film's other technicalities are excellent too, including the editing by Paul Hirsch, Richard Chew and Marcia Lucas (then wife of George). The editing is briskly paced, with barely a second of wasted film. The final assault on the Death Star (mostly edited by Marcia Lucas) makes for a perfect piece of action editing, seamlessly cutting between the different pilots, the Death Star, the space ship footage, and the Rebel commanders back at base, and building tension and drama as it does so.
All of this makes the world of Star Wars not only seem real, as far as a space fantasy can seem real, but tremendously immersive. Added to that of course, is the music of John Williams. Both Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back are beautifully scored films, with terrific atmosphere and heroic fanfares when the action demands. Williams famously used leitmotif, a technique where each character has their own theme, from a gentle, lilting version of the main theme for Princess Leia to an ominous march for the Empire. The score shines in the action scenes too, with the Tie Fighter attack sequence a perfect synergy of action and music, and perhaps the best of Williams's many great action cues. It's not surprising that the Star Wars soundtrack became a best-selling album and that even a disco version of the title theme was a hit.
Watching Star Wars again, it's remarkable to see just how timeless the film is. It's a film that's very hard to date, with only a couple of supporting actors with slightly bushy sideburns giving away that it was made in the 1970s. A futuristic setting is not necessarily a guard against looking dated. Star Trek, for example, looks like a TV series from the 1960s, not just because of its technical and budgetary limitations, but because of its aesthetic choices. And it's the aesthetics of Star Wars – its music, settings and costumes - that have helped to give it that timeless quality.
It's also more obvious now than it would have been in 1977 that the death of one of the main characters doesn't really make any sense, especially as his duel with Vader was distracting the storm troopers and enabling the others to escape. This is probably because this was a late change to the script to provide some more drama, and all four main characters were originally intended to escape from the Death Star. A minor point that always bothered me is how Han Solo and Greedo conduct their conversation in the cantina in two different languages, which seems like a strange way of communicating. Luke's transformation into a fighter pilot is also a little odd, especially as it goes without comment and apparently without any kind of training. How many hours does Luke have on X-Wings again? And while we're on the subject, why do storm troopers wear such cumbersome armour when it obviously doesn't work?
It may seem strange now, but Star Wars didn't arrive on a wave of hype, it had a relatively limited opening (on 42 screens compared to more than 400 for Jaws) and built into a phenomenon through rave reviews and extraordinary word of mouth. It was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and won 6 (for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Original Score, Editing, Sound, Costume Design and Visual Effects) as well as a special award for Ben Burtt's sound effects. John Williams also picked up 3 Grammy awards, a BAFTA and a Golden Globe for his score.
Over the next six years Lucasfilm would produce two sequels, The Empire Strikes Back (1980), directed by Irvin Kershner, and Return of the Jedi (1983), directed by Richard Marquand. Lucas had originally wanted to give Star Wars a random episode number, as in an old movie serial, to suggest this was part of an ongoing serial story, but Twentieth Century Fox had objected. The sequels to Star Wars were made independently of Fox, and with the decision to make a series, episode numbers were now introduced, beginning with Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back in 1980. To tie in with this new chronology, Star Wars was re-titled Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope on its re-release into cinemas in 1981. Lucas would eventually return to the director's chair to make Episodes I-III, a generally poorly regarded prequel trilogy, consisting of The Phantom Menace (1999), Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005).
In 1997 all three films in the original trilogy were re-released in “Special Edition” versions with story changes, additional scenes, often jarring new effects and extra CGI baubles that added nothing to the narrative and frequently detracted from it. Needless to say, anyone interested in Star Wars should seek out the original pre-1997 version if possible, but this is easier said than done. Lucas withdrew the original from circulation and attempted to have it supplanted by the Special Edition, or at least the latest version of the Special Edition. Star Wars is probably the most important American film of the 1970s and it deserves far better than the treatment meted out to it by Lucas over the last 20 years. Hopefully the original version will eventually be restored and made available in the best quality possible in an official release. But at the moment, it's up to fans and amateurs to preserve a piece of film history that George Lucas would rather see buried.
Star WarsYear: 1977
Genre: Sci-fi, Fantasy, Adventure
Director: George Lucas
Cast Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), Harrison Ford (Han Solo), Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia Organa), Alec Guinness (Ben, Obi-Wan Kenobi), Peter Cushing (Grand Moff Tarkin), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Kenny Baker (R2-D2), Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca), David Prowse (Darth Vader), Phil Brown (Uncle Owen), Shelagh Fraser (Aunt Beru), Jack Purvis (Chief Jawa), Alex McCrindle (General Dodonna), Don Henderson (General Taggi), Richard LeParmentier (General Motti), Eddie Byrne (General Willard), Drewe Henley (Red Leader), Dennis Lawson (Red Two, Wedge), Garrick Hagon (Red Three, Biggs), Jack Klaff (Red Four), William Hootkins (Red Six, Porkins), Angus MacInnes (Gold Leader), Jeremy Sinden (Gold Two), Graham Ashley (Gold Five), James Earl Jones (voice of Darth Vader)
Screenplay George Lucas Producer Gary Kurtz Cinematography Gilbert Taylor Production design John Barry Editors Paul Hirsch, Marcia Lucas, Richard Chew Music John Williams Costumes John Mollo Miniatures/optical effects Industrial Light and Magic
Running time 121 mins (125 mins Special Edition)
Colour Technicolor Widescreen Panavision
Production company Lucasfilm Distributor Twentieth Century Fox
(Re-release title: Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope)