This could be the most difficult review I will ever write. It’s not for lack of what to say, but for lack of what’s already been said, throughout the years and across the world. Star Wars is the most scrutinized film on the planet. It spawned one of the most lucrative franchises ever created. It’s been dissected, deconstructed, analyzed, turned inside out, and otherwise picked apart from virtually every angle, by amateur and professional alike, from every walk of life imaginable. I’ve talked about my own experiences with the film when it was new and the hold it had on my imagination. After much deliberation, I decided all I could do is let the Force guide my fingers on the keyboard. I’m bound to leave out a great many things. I trust I can be forgiven for what I do offer. I’ll also trust that everyone knows by now the comments will remain open for a couple of weeks, and I can always be contacted directly should anyone wish to geek out with me.
In the mid-1970s, the world — and especially the United States — was a cynical mess. Prolonged conflict in Vietnam left individuals directionless, homes broken, and the public divided on the kind of righteous assumptions the previous generation had held during and immediately after World War II. Instead of making the world “safe for democracy,” Americans had instead endured the realization that it had to first clean up its own backyard, to take care of its own people and its own inequalities before the country could serve as the beacon of hope that our own national mythology tells us we should be. It didn’t stop the country from trying to play world police anyway, so we had conflict on two fronts. Any military historian can tell you that’s a losing battle. At home, news from half a world away, combined with race riots, out of control inflation, and many other forms of civil discontent, rocked the country to its core. A peanut farmer was elected president in one of the biggest political upsets, beating by a wafer-thin margin the only man in history to be both vice president and president without having been elected. Our veterans came home in pieces, wondering what they’d fought for, often taking the blame for following orders and doing what they were told was the right thing. In 1969, man walked on the moon, proving anything was possible if we’d put our mind to it. Two missions later, Apollo 13 barely made it home, and the Apollo missions became something of a background thought after that despite real science being performed. “Been there, done that” seemed to be the collective voice of the people, which couldn’t have been further from the truth. Faith in the country further eroded across recent years, first with the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert, then with Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. The villainous mastermind of the day, President Richard Nixon, resigned his office in shame. The 70s seemed completely rudderless. Television of the era spoke to the inequalities and other issues that needed to be addressed, and movies became grittier, but nothing offered real solutions to anything. Everywhere one turned, people were looking to either point fingers or to simply escape. It was as though people had stopped believing in anything anymore, resulting in a miasma of blah. The one thing that seemed missing was the one vital ingredient needed for any people to live and thrive: hope.
If simply looking at these words sends chills of anticipation up your spine, you are one of my people. That’s the effect this has on me. When seeing a new Star Wars movie in the theater (my only reason to actually buy a ticket these days), these words will even bring a little tear to my eye because I know how fortunate I am to live in a time where there is a further guarantee of new Star Wars. I remember when there was no such promise. I thought what we had was all we’d ever get. I thought that twice, along with the rest of the world. In 1977, nobody had any real idea of what to expect. There was simply the question of what this was, and then enthusiasm as word of mouth spread and Star Wars became a pop culture phenomenon that crossed all boundaries. I sometimes like to think it’s one of the closest things we’ve ever had to world peace… ironic, given the subject matter. Back then, the film wasn’t subtitled Episode IV: A New Hope. That came with the 1981 theatrical re-release. In ’77, we simply saw this simple phrase, followed by the now-familiar yellow-outlined Star Wars logo accompanied by the now-iconic John Williams fanfare theme, and the untitled crawl of text. The crawl told us of a mighty Galactic Empire, their planet-killing weapon of terror, and of a small Rebellion that had only just won their first victory. The key to the freedom was in the clutches of a young princess on a desperate mission to unlock its secrets. Three paragraphs of text against a bombastic fanfare is all it takes to push an audience headlong into an adventure and out of the problems of the everyday, mundane world.
In the mind-blowing opening shot of the film, as that text scrolls into the distance, that desperate mission it spoke of is stopped cold by a mammoth spacecraft, a battalion of faceless armored soldiers, and a looming monster in a stylized skull mask who doesn’t even need to speak to scare audiences half to death. In short order, we see him stride through a pile of bodies, choke the life out of somebody with one hand, and toss that corpse off the bulkhead across from him as though it were a ragdoll just to make a point. And then if that weren’t enough, for those old enough and savvy enough to grasp the subtle nuances of plot, he commands his troops to provide false intelligence of what really happened here to the people back home, wherever home may be. It was a mafia-inspired military raid combined with a classic government cover-up, tactics so familiar to people of the 70s, long since made cliché thanks to decades of Hollywood features, but disturbingly real in the news headlines of that time.
In a single moment, Darth Vader embodied everything wrong in the world. His menace echoed the political and social injustice at every level from the halls of power to the back streets and alleys, as well as becoming the newest incarnation of little kids’ nightmares. People only really connected the dots after the fact because the film was so much fun. It was the kind of parallels that you think about later. That moment marked the greatest entrance in Hollywood since Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra entered Rome. It left a far greater footprint on the psyche and pop culture of America and the world at large than virtually anything else you could name. It could compete in the mind of the average American with Vietnam, Watergate, and civil unrest. The Empire was bigger and scarier than any of that, as evidenced in the form of Darth Vader. And in spite of it all, a scrappy princess half his size with a big heart and a sharp tongue stood up to him and everything he represented. Leia would pay the price for her beliefs and actions, calling down the wrath of the bureaucratic fiend directing Vader’s actions, being forced to helplessly witness the destruction of her homeworld and everyone she ever loved, and still she carried on for the right reasons with a brave face. As irony would have it, the man behind the Death Star, Grand Moff Tarkin, would be played by horror legend Peter Cushing, a face familiar to 1970s audiences as Dr. Frankenstein. In one of those great twists of fate, Darth Vader would soon represent the newest incarnation of the Creature, even if nobody knew it at the time, including George Lucas himself. The “monster kid” in me geeks out about this even today because this is where my love of classic monsters begins.
Leia’s quest would catch some unlikely heroes in her wake. Her quest would become the quest of Luke Skywalker, the simple farm boy who yearned for something bigger from his life. Accompanying him would be Obi-Wan “Ben” Kenobi, a fallen knight errant from a bygone age, from a time before the galaxy had gone wrong. Kenobi’s wisdom and power was derived from a mystical energy known simply as The Force, a concept that touched on — and was claimed by — every religious and spiritual belief across our own planet. Along for the ride was Han Solo, the cynical representative of 1970s anti-establishment culture who lived by his own rules, on the run, and by the seat of his pants. At his side, the mighty and somewhat cowardly Chewbacca, essentially the family dog… assuming your dog could copilot a ship and rip people’s arms out of their sockets. And serving as the same function as the Shakespearean chorus: two droids, C-3PO and R2-D2, instantly recognizable in any context as the timeless comedy duo in the mold of Abbott and Costello or Laurel and Hardy. Their roles would be to comment upon what they observe and to serve as the intermediaries between the film characters and the audience. In the case of R2, his additional function would be to push young Luke headlong into his destiny, kicking and screaming if need be. The galaxy needed a hero. More simply than that, our self-rescuing princess needed somebody to unlock her cell from the outside. She could more than handle the rest, thank you very much. Be careful what you wish for, young Skywalker…
No one had seen anything like Star Wars before. That bears repeating and cannot possibly be overstated. But the roots of it were there all along, practically everywhere you looked. It could be found in the mythologies of the world, analyzed by Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey.” It could be found in the plays of Shakespeare and other great works of literature. For George Lucas, it was first seen in the film serials and comic strips of the 1930s and 40s. Like the Force itself, the essence of what makes Star Wars tick is in everything and everyone, binding the universe together.
At that point in time, science fiction was largely scoffed at by general audiences. Most of it had taken form in one of two kinds of stories. The first kind is where aliens invaded earth, such as in The War of the Worlds or The Day the Earth Stood Still (if you want to call this latter one an “invasion”). The other type is where earthlings ventured out into the unknown a la the short-lived TV series Star Trek, which had recently become something of a cult phenomenon in this time, years after its cancellation, which led to the first space shuttle being unveiled in 1976 bearing the name Enterprise. There were breakout classics, certainly. 2001: A Space Odyssey or The Planet of the Apes come to mind, but even then, both of those are Earth-centric stories. By and large, few believed in science fiction as a serious genre at this time, either in print or on screen. Ultimately, studio after studio rejected it until it finally landed at 20th Century Fox. It wasn’t the story pitch that sold it. It was a single piece of preliminary artwork by concept artist extraordinaire Ralph McQuarrie that got the film greenlit.
Star Wars was something new… and somehow familiar at the same time. It’s creator, George Lucas, called it space fantasy. I’m sure he didn’t coin the term, but that’s where I first heard about it. If we break it down to its familiar archetypes — the swashbuckling hero, the beautiful princess, the dashing rogue, the wise old sage, the dark enforcer, the villainous mastermind in the tower — we’ll find it has more in common with The Lord of the Rings or with the stories of King Arthur than with its contemporary sci-fi counterparts. Indeed, Lucas himself has referred to the lightsaber passed to Skywalker as “Excalibur.” Those archetypes, universal as they are, played against everything 70s pop culture reveled in at that time. The idea of good guys versus bad guys had become obsolete according to the wisdom of the day. Shades of gray were in. Characters were expected to be complex, flawed to the point of corruption, and not wholly sympathetic. It was a response to everything in the world, reflected in the art of the time. Star Wars was a response to all of that. It restored the idea, even if only for a couple of hours, that a good heart — and perhaps a little showmanship — can make a galaxy of difference against even the most colossal and sinister of forces.
In short, it was the right story with the right characters, in the right medium, at the right time, and bearing the right message. The perfect storm, visually conceived by the likes of Ralph McQuarrie and Joe Johnston, laced in dazzling visual special effects from Industrial Light and Magic, featuring brilliant sound design from Ben Burtt, and pulled together by an Oscar-winning symphonic musical score from maestro John Williams, all of which set bold, new foundations for everything to come.
Lightning in a bottle, by any other name.
This film and the two that filled out the trilogy really opened my eyes to new horizons. The argument here is that I was three years old when this film came out, so how could it be otherwise? Well, I’m pretty certain this isn’t the only thing I knew about back then, but it’s the one that captured my attention and set me on the path. Or rather, a great many paths. Too many to count. That’s always been part of my problem: I could never pick just one and dedicate to it. In those times when I feel all of the malaise that people in the mid-70s might have felt right before Star Wars was first released, I think about that idea, about what might have led me to dedicate to something and carry it through to mastery. For that matter, what would that one thing be? I don’t know that there will ever be an answer to that or ever could be. All I know is that when the chips are down, this film and the saga that unfolded from it continue to inspire me in completely new directions. It evolves and grows as I do, continually renewing itself as I grow older. The more incarnations emerge, the stronger they make this first film. I find something new to appreciate or to learn about it with every single viewing. I find all manner of inspiration in the art, in the music, in the characters themselves. The Galaxy Far, Far Away isn’t somewhere I’d want to live. That was never the point. This galaxy is a mirror of what’s already around us. It continually reminds me of where I need to be and why at every point in my life. It informs me of who I am and helps me to reconcile the sum of my parts.
It gives me hope.
That’s what the best stories do for all of us, and have done for as long as people told stories to one another.
To my mind, that’s the very definition of a classic.