Star Wars (Episode IV: A New Hope) (1977)

Star Wars, later re-issued with the longer title Star Wars - Episode IV: A New Hope, is the first film in the phenomenally successful Star Wars series. It would launch at least three film trilogies, numerous spin-off films, novels, graphic novels and TV series and a blockbuster range of toys. 

Ironically, though, when it was first released in May of 1977, the omens for the film were not particularly good. Its leading actors were unknowns, the sci-fi genre was still considered to be a very niche one, and its director's last effort in this field - a dystopian sci-fi film called THX 1138 - had been a box office disaster. 

Rumours from the set of Star Wars were bad, the film constantly strained at its budgetary limits and studio heads considered pulling the plug on the film altogether at one point. The crew, meanwhile, were openly derisive of this strange space story, wondering what on earth they were working on.

A screening of the rough cut of Star Wars 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 at all.

So little was expected of it that the film's financier and distributor, Twentieth Century Fox, effectively had to force cinemas to show it. The company told exhibitors that if they wanted to screen their next intended blockbuster, the Sidney Sheldon adaptation The Other Side of Midnight, then they had to show audiences this Star Wars thing too. This block-booking was illegal and Fox found itself facing a lawsuit, eventually having to pay $25,000 in damages. 

Ironically, 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 disappear almost without trace.

Harrison Ford as Han Solo in Star Wars
Harrison Ford as Han Solo in Star Wars

When he sat down to write Star Wars, George Lucas was an up-and-coming film maker with one commercial flop, THX 1138 (1971), and one considerable critical and box office success, American Graffiti (1973), to his name. 

Amid the gloom of the 1970s - Watergate, Vietnam and the oil crisis -  Lucas wanted to put adventure and excitement back into cinemas and to create a new fantasy mythology for a generation increasingly starved of fun and escapism. He planned to give audiences something to cheer, something that would hark back to the serials of the 1930s that he loved. When he couldn't get the rights to make a film of Flash Gordon, he resolved instead to create his own sci-fi fantasy, a mixture of space opera, 1930s swashbucklers, WWII films and Japanese samurai epics. 

Lucas carried out extensive research into science fiction and fantasy stories and read books on myth and comparative religion, including Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces and James George Frazer's The Golden Bough. Getting the film made would mean creating a whole new special effects house, Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), and a new way of filming special effects, using motion controlled cameras and the Dykstraflex system, named after the effects maestro John Dykstra.

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

Star Wars 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, augmented by some filming in Death Valley in California. The exteriors for the rebel base on Yavin were filmed in the Tikal National Park in Guatemala.

Luke Skywalker on his home planet of Tatooine
Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on his home planet of Tatooine

It's Star Wars, so we probably don't need to bother with a synopsis, but a brief prĂ©cis might be helpful anyway. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) lives with his aunt and uncle on an isolated farm on the remote desert planet of Tatooine. He dreams of adventure and excitement and of leaving some day to become a space pilot. 

When Imperial troops attack a diplomatic ship carrying Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), she sends a distress signal via a hologram message inside a small robot, R2-D2 (Kenny Baker), who, accompanied by a golden humanoid robot C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), flees via an escape pod and arrives on Tatooine.

They are captured and sold to Luke's family and Luke, while cleaning R2-D2, discovers the hologram message from Leia, asking for the help of Obi-Wan Kenobi. Could she mean old Ben Kenobi, the strange hermit who lives far out in the dune sea? Kenobi (Alec Guinness) will teach Luke about the Force, a mysterious energy field that binds and permeates all things in the galaxy, and instruct him in the ways of the Jedi Knights. 

Searching for a ship to take them to Leia's home planet of Alderaan, they meet Han Solo (Harrison Ford), a cocky space pilot and smuggler with money troubles, and his co-pilot Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew). En route to Alderaan, the group instead come across the awesomely powerful Imperial space station, the Death Star, where they face capture or death at the hands of the Empire - or possibly triumph and glory by rescuing the Princess and escaping.

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.

The opening sequence, now one of the most famous in film history, serves as a remarkable demonstration of the new effects technology pioneered by ILM. A triumphant opening fanfare and title crawl followed by a segue to a dark, star speckled sky. And then the rumbling of spaceships overhead and the sound of laser blasts, set to the sound of John Williams's majestic music. 

Star Wars wastes barely a second of film, throwing the audience into this strange, unfamiliar world and straight into the action, with a battle already in progress. The action, the spectacle and the unfamiliarity of it all, make for an opening that is immediately attention-grabbing. 

Star Wars, in fact, is a film packed with memorable moments. The opening battle, the carnival of monsters in the cantina, the shoot outs with storm troopers and Luke's final, triumphant reliance on the Force in the final assault on the Death Star. And sometimes it's a small, atmospheric moment that builds into a great one, as when a Tie Fighter shoots past the Millennium Falcon, apparently heading for a small moon. “That's no moon...” Obi-Wan tells us.

Princess Leia giving R2-D2 the stolen Death Star plans
Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) gives R2-D2 the stolen Death Star plans

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.

Since the appearance of the Star Wars prequels, it's become de rigueur to disparage Lucas's script for Star Wars, and the dialogue did have some high profile critics. Harrison Ford famously said “You can type this shit, but you can't say it.” 

It's true that there are a few awkward lines in the script and the dialogue is more often functional than inspired, but the shortcomings of the screenplay are often greatly exaggerated. It's well paced with a classic three act structure – Tatooine, the Death Star, and the attack on the Death Star. The plot works as a sort of relay, with Leia giving the message to R2-D2, who is then captured by Jawas, who sell him to Luke, who takes him to Ben Kenobi, who introduces them to Han Solo, and so on, with each character leading us to the next, via the MacGuffin of the stolen Death Star plans.

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 does occasionally try to cram too much into one line of dialogue, 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 the fact that someone has given some thought to 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 that it had some unfortunate connotations about celebrity murderers

C-3PO, Luke and Obi-Wan Kenobi watch the hologram of Princess Leia
C-3PO, Luke and Obi-Wan Kenobi watch the hologram of Princess Leia

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, given that she was only 20 years old at the time, 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 off his debts. Harrison Ford was a struggling actor who had barely worked in films since American Graffiti in 1973, 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.

Unsurprisingly, the best performance in the film is from Alec Guinness as Ben Kenobi. Kenobi is not an especially well developed character on the page, he's an archetypal mystical old mentor figure. But Guinness invests the role with great warmth and authority. 

A gaunt Peter Cushing is also notable as Imperial commander Grand Moff Tarkin. It's the kind of standard issue villain part that Cushing could play in his sleep, but it's a perfectly realised exercise in punctilious villainy and made a change from the eccentric old professor roles he was mostly playing at the time. 

The two droids, C-3PO and R2-D2 are surprisingly well developed as characters. C-3PO is played by Anthony Daniels as a kind of fussy English butler, drastically different from the New York car dealer characterisation Lucas originally had in mind. And R2-D2 is oddly endearing as a kind of wilful child who keeps getting the two of them into new scrapes.

Darth Vader strangling a rebel soldier on the blockade runner
Darth Vader, making new friends on the rebel ship

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 in 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.

It's also notable how often Lucas uses props and vehicles to suggest a bigger and fuller world than he has the resources or technology for, and how effective this is. An elephant is disguised to play the Sand People's Bantha creature. C-3PO trudges past a huge mysterious skeleton in the sand dunes, a nice and intriguing detail. R2-type robots pass in front of the camera in the town of Mos Eisley and repeatedly appear moving in the backgrounds in the Death Star. This judicious use of resources is more effective than the digital overkill of the Special Edition versions and prequels. 

The effect is aided by Ben Burtt's imaginative sound design. Nothing in Star Wars sounds like a familiar noise, everything sounds alien. And when we think of Star Wars, it's often Burtt's sounds that we think of – the scream of a Tie Fighter, the roar of a Wookie, and especially the crackle and hum of a light sabre.

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 brisk, 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.

Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi
Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi

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 John 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.

Star Wars is at once a mixture of the familiar and the unfamiliar. In 1977 the surface worlds would have appeared strikingly new and different. The settings, sounds, costumes and the ships would all have looked new and unfamiliar, with even the special effects being based on entirely new techniques.

But underneath it all are familiar elements, from Flash Gordon, Samurai stories, westerns, Arthurian myth and WWII films. Star Wars in fact is a very cine-literate film, with visual references to films as diverse as Triumph of the Will (1934), The Dam Busters (1955) and The Hidden Fortress (1958). 

The latter film, directed by Akira Kurosawa, was a particular favourite of Lucas's, and is almost name-checked in Star Wars when General Motti (Richard LeParmentier) starts referring to the rebels' “hidden fortress” before being cut off by Vader. 

The device of telling the story from the point of view of two supporting characters, bickering farmers unwillingly conscripted into battle, is borrowed from that film, with the two farmers becoming the droids, C-3PO and R2-D2, and Kurosawa's use of wipes between scenes has become a familiar visual device in Star Wars films. It's important not to get too carried away with the comparisons though. I've seen otherwise sensible people refer to Star Wars as a sort of “remake” of The Hidden Fortress, which it very definitely isn't.

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.

Chewbacca, Luke, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Han Solo in the Millennium Falcon
Chewbacca, Luke, Kenobi and Han Solo in the Millennium Falcon

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 Darth 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 (Greedo's speech is based on the Quechua language of South America). 

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?

The main criticism Star Wars usually receives is that it supposedly killed off the more adult-oriented dramas of the 1970s, but it probably only speeded up this phenomenon. The blockbuster age was already under way by 1977, and what Star Wars killed off was the tedious would-be blockbusters of the decade - the interminable disaster movies and plodding melodramas based on best sellers like, well like The Other Side of Midnight

And it's easy to forget that Star Wars was the personal vision of its director and one which, like many American films of this era, was entranced with nostalgia and a longing for the forms and genres of Hollywood's past. The phenomenal success of Star Wars also points to something else you don't hear much about now. There was a tiredness and lack of imagination about the 1970s blockbuster, and the great new gimmick of the time was Sensurround, a sound system that just made every film very noisy.

Obi-Wan Kenobi confronts Darth Vader on the Death Star
Obi-Wan Kenobi confronts Darth Vader on the Death Star

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 that 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).

Unfortunately, enthusiasm for Star Wars now has to be tainted with frustration and regret at the way it has been treated by George Lucas since the 1990s. 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 version 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. If you know where to look, the original version of Star Wars is available online in fan restored versions, but these are of dubious legality. 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 Wars
Year: 1977
Genre: Sci-fi fantasy
Country: USA
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 designer 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)

See also:

Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi (1983)


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