STAR WARS (1977)
George Lucas began writing a screenplay in 1972 based on one of his passions - old sci-fi movie serials. He originally wanted to make an updated version of Flash Gordon, but when he couldn't get the rights he instead decided to create his own fantasy world.
Although Saturday Matinee Serials were the primary inspiration, the finished film would also draw from influences as diverse as Akiria Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress (Lucas was a huge fan of the Japanese filmmaker and would later help finance one of his films); John Ford's The Searchers; the sci-fi novels of Frank Herbert and Isaac Asimov; and the author Joseph Campbell's writings on mythology, particularly "The Hero With a Thousand Faces".
Another key influence was fairytales, which Lucas felt were important to help teach young people morals and had been virtually abandoned during the cynical late sixties and early seventies. Both onscreen (Dirty Harry, Death Wish) and off (Watergate, Vietnam) there were few traditional heroes left. By placing a fairytale in extra-terrestrial settings, Lucas would essentially be taking old myths and telling them in a fresh way for a new generation.
Lucas's first synopsis for what was then called The Star Wars described the film as " the story of Mace Windu, a revered Jedi-bendu of Ophuchi who was related to Usby C.J. Thape, a padawaan leader to the famed Jedi . . ." The story, then set in the 23rd Century, was taken from a fictional larger work called "The Journal of the Whills" which included this cryptic phrase: "And in the time of greatest despair there shall come a saviour, and he shall be known as THE SON OF SUNS".
It would be many story revisions and shuffling of characters later before Lucas was ready to bring his vision to the screen. Early ideas that were discarded were the Dark Side of the Force being referred to as "Bogan" and a "Kiber crystal" being used to amplify the Force. Lightsabers were originally a generic weapon used by stormtroopers, but of course they eventually became the Jedi weapon of choice.
The legend goes that the original story was so big Lucas had to split it in half. The discarded first half was backstory that would later become the prequels (although some have disputed this, claiming that Lucas never mapped out the story for the prequels at the time, beyond a few key ideas that were important to the later story). Regardless, the half of the story Lucas was left with was still too long, so it was split into three parts. The first of this trilogy would be the film that Lucas would make.
Despite the success of American Graffiti, the studio that made it - Universal - turned down the chance to finance Lucas' strange, almost incomprehensible (at least in script form) space fantasy. Instead, he took it to 20th Century Fox.
The studio was in something of a slump and an executive named Alan Ladd, Jr. decided to greenlight Lucas's vision even though he himself didn't really understand it. He was buying into Lucas, not the movie.
Helping to sell the film was concept artwork by Boeing and NASA artist Ralph McQuarrie. One of his first paintings depicted the droids R2-D2 and C-3PO, the latter looking similar to the female android in Fritz Lang's Metropolis, standing in an inhospitable desert landscape.
While Lucas continued to refine the script he began to gather the people who would help him make his vision a reality. Acting again as producer after collaborating with Lucas on Graffiti was Gary Kurtz, who some would later credit with playing a major role in shaping Lucas's vision. Lucas also realised he needed to set up his own special effects house, since the film would involve effects that had never been done before.
He initially approached Douglas Trumbull, the genius behind the effects in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Trumbull turned down the offer, but recommended his assistant John Dkystra. Dkystra would recruit students and other technicians to work in a warehouse in Van Nuys, California. Thus, Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) was born as a mix of old school artists and fresh talent.
While the characters in the finished film would seem effortlessly simple, Lucas agonised over them for years, and they could have easily have turned out very different from what audiences would come to love. For example, Luke Skywalker (originally called Starkiller) could have been an old general, Princess Leia a young girl and Han Solo could have been a green-skinned monster with gills! Equally important as the characters were the actors who would play them. They had to have the right chemistry and understanding of the pulpy yet straight-faced material.
Lucas held auditions the same time as his colleague Brian DePalma did for his film, Carrie (1976). The two filmmakers had the pick of nearly every young actor and actress in Hollywood. Lucas auditioned actors in threes, before finally settling on Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford. Ford had spent most of the time since he appeared in American Graffiti working as a carpenter and it took some persuading to get Lucas to audition him, since he originally didn't want to cast anyone who had been in Graffiti. Ford started out feeding lines to other actors, before Lucas let him audition for real.
William Katt could have been Luke and Kurt Russell could have been Han. Jodie Foster was among the many who auditioned for Leia. Carrie Fisher reportedly got the role of Leia after she refused a part in Carrie due to the nudity required. Of all the possible casting choices, the most fun to imagine is Christopher Walken as Han (Kevin Spacey would do an impression of his audition in a famous Saturday Night Live sketch years later).
To balance out the younger cast, Lucas cast two British acting legends in supporting roles. Lucas originally wanted Kurosawa's favourite actor Toshiro Mifune to play the wise Jedi Obi-Wan Kenobi, but eventually went with Alec Guinness. Playing the sinister Grand Moff Tarkin was Hammer Horror star Peter Cushing. David Prowse, another Hammer Horror actor (though with a less recognisable face) was chosen for the imposing villain Darth Vader.
The production of the film went far from smoothly. Tunisia stood in for the desert planet of Tatooine, and nearly all the cast and crew got sick while filming there. Just one day into filming there was a major rainstorm that destroyed parts of the set, including the Jawa sandcrawler. The heat was particularly hard on Anthony Daniels, who was sweating and bleeding inside the uncomfortable metal suit of C-3PO.
When production moved to Elstree Studios in England things improved somewhat, but Lucas still found the directing experience unpleasant. Union rules frequently halted filmmaking, and many of the cast and crew, especially on the British side, thought Lucas was out of his depth and the finished film would be pure nonsense. One of the few who supported Lucas and thought the film would be something special was Guinness (though he would criticise the negative effect of the trilogy in his later years).
The film went around three million over its original $8 million budget and near the end of production three units had to shoot simultaneously to recover lost time or risk being shut down before the film was complete.
Though Lucas finished shooting on time, he never achieved the film he saw in his mind, claiming it was only around 25% of what he wanted. He had almost suffered a nervous breakdown by the end and wound up in the hospital with chest pains at one point.
Things were not helped by the slow progress at ILM. The casual approach to work (the crew would cool off in a tub on hot days) meant that after months of work and around a million dollars in expenditure there was only one decent completed effects shot. Following a shakeup of the work ethic there by Lucas, things improved and the special effects team began to meet their deadlines.
Lucas famously screened a rough cut of the film for his filmmaking friends, who included DePalma and Steven Spielberg. The film was missing most of its effects (with WWII dogfight footage cut in for most of the space battles) and Spielberg was the only one present who thought the film would be a hit. The much longer opening crawl was derided by most of the people present, and DePalma helped Lucas cut it down and make it more coherent.
The film was also screened to the key executives at Fox, who loved it. It made a big change from the executive reaction to Lucas's previous two films. However, when the board of directors later saw it they disliked the film and some even fell asleep. The wife of one director suggested that C-3PO's mouth be animated because otherwise it didn't look like the droid was talking!
Aside from the groundbreaking visual effects and sound, two other key ingredients to the film's success were added in postproduction. First was the deep and powerful voice of James Earl Jones as the main villain, Darth Vader. Prowse had hoped Lucas would use his voice, but Lucas unsurprisingly realised that a villain with the voice of an English west country farmer was not going to strike fear into anyone's hearts.
Even more important was the choice of John Williams as composer. His thematically rich score would give a heart to the action and usher in a new era of romantic old-style music in films.
The film, now called just Star Wars, was completed and finally ready for release. There had been early buzz building, thanks in part to the release of the novel some months before the film (credited to Lucas but ghost-authored by Alan Dean Foster).
The trailer, despite the lack of Williams's music and finished effects, along with misleading narration (it said the film was "a billion years in the making"), had piqued people's interest. So had the iconic poster by Tom Jung (which featured a muscle-bound Luke and vampish Leia quite unlike their movie versions). Publicity supervisor Charles Lippincott had helped build interest in the film among sci-fi and comic book fans, and test screening audiences had cheered the film.
Still, no one really expected that much from it when it opened in just 32 theaters across the U.S. There were other films being released that summer that seemed to have a lot more going for them, such as Sorcerer and The Other Side of Midnight (Fox even encouraged theater owners to take the film by saying they wouldn't get Midnight if they didn't show Star Wars), or so the experts thought.
Wednesday May 25, 1977 was the day that Star Wars was unveiled to the world. It would be a day long remembered. Movies would never be the same again.
||So begins Lucas's space saga. Adding that line was a brilliant touch by Lucas. It let the audience know that, despite the futuristic thrills expected, what we are about to watch is essentially a timeless fairytale.
The title Star Wars exploding on the screen at the same time as Williams's fantastic main theme is a great way to get people's attention. The opening crawl rolling into infinity was the most blatant homage to the serials of Lucas's youth, helpfully explaining the story so far. Of course, since the original release didn't have the "Episode IV: A New Hope" tagline, few people would have guessed at the time they were joining the story four episodes in.
Then comes the opening shot of the film, as the camera pan down to a view of the planet Tatooine from space. A small ship flies overhead, which probably impressed a few people. Then the massive star destroyer appears firing at the smaller ship. And keeps going, and going, and going . . . It literally blew people away.
The tension builds as the small blockade runner is pulled into the belly of the Imperial beast. The stormtroopers soon burst through the doorway and attacked the outnumbered and outmatched Rebel soldiers. It's amusing that this is pretty much the last time we see stormtroopers acting effectively and actually hitting their targets. Like most henchmen, they are only competent when not facing the main heroes.
We're soon introduced to the main bad guy, Darth Vader. The Dark Lord of the Sith's entrance, as he strides through the smoke-filled corridor, is one of the most iconic villain introductions ever.
As filmmaker Dean Devlin (writer and producer of Independence Day) has commented on several occasions, when he saw the film at the first screening he, and most of the audience, booed Darth Vader before he had even done anything villainous, so clear was the menace in his black, robotic Samurai costume and sheer physical presence.
The plot slows down considerably after the exciting opening sequence as we watch R2-D2 and C-3PO explore their new environment. Indeed, modern audiences might find the early scenes on Tatooine a little too slow, as we are essentially just watching two robots walk around sand dunes for almost ten minutes.
The droids's bickering grows increasingly amusing until they split up and are captured by Jawas. Lucas clearly has an obsession with funny little people judging by the similar small beings in THX and throughout the rest of the Star Wars saga. The sandcrawler takes the droids to the Lars homestead and finally, almost twenty minutes into the film, we meet the hero Luke Skywalker.
It's love at first sight for Luke when he sees Leia's hologram projected from R2 (we won't get into the messy business of the two character's eventual relationship here). Leia's "Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you're my only hope" has become an iconic line, and it will lead Luke to another important character.
The dinner scene with Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru is important as it outlines Luke's frustration at being stuck at home while his friends go off on adventures. Beru's line, "He has too much of his father in him" and Owen's reply, "That's what I'm afraid of" could even be read as an (unintentional?) example of foreshadowing.
This is followed by one of the more memorable visuals in the film, where Luke goes outside to stare at the binary sunset. The combination of Luke staring wistfully and another great theme from Williams make this a scene that sticks in the mind.
The search for the missing R2 leads to the introduction of another alien species - the sand people or Tusken Raiders. The reveal of Kenobi is nicely done as he slowly lowers his hood and greets R2 with the friendly, "Hello there." All the characters are now starting to converge.
Back at Obi-Wan's pad we learn some important information. In fact, the scene is chock full of exposition, from the explanation of the Jedi and the Force, to some background on Luke's deceased father (who Obi-Wan claims was killed by Vader), and a reference to the mysterious Clone Wars that would keep fans guessing for many years. We also get our first look at the light saber Luke's father "wanted him to have" (it looks like Luke almost cuts Obi-Wan's head off when he turns it on).
After the hologram is finally played in full, Obi-Wan asks for Luke's help. Like many classic heroes he refuses this first offer of adventure. Luke is still loyal to his family and his boring way of life, as much as he hates it. It will take further events beyond his control to start him on the hero's journey.
Vader's response to the lack of faith in his powers by a colleague on the Death Star, in the form of a Force-choke, is a classic moment.
Back on Tatooine, Luke and Obi-Wan discover the stormtroopers who have been tracking the droids have destroyed the Jawa sandcrawler. Obi-Wan's comment that, "only Imperial stormtroopers are so precise" will seem especially humorous later on. The burnt bodies of his Aunt and Uncle Luke finds at home is a grisly image, especially for those who saw the film when they were young.
Luke has now been forced into the quest and the next classic sequence of the film takes place in the Mos Eisley Cantina. We meet a gallery of bizarre aliens while Williams's groovy jazz music plays in the background. The bartender's prejudice against droids adds a nice touch of social realism. Stuart Freeborn and Rick Baker's alien makeup in the cantina was the best the makeup effects wizards of that day could offer.
This scene was actually reshot since the original masks looked too store bought and not exotic enough for Lucas.
Luke's encounter with Walrus Man and his friend shows us just how rough this place is. Obi-Wan makes short work of them, though the quick shots makes it hard to tell exactly what he does to the two troublemakers with his lightsaber. Walrus Man's severed arm speaks for itself, though. Interestingly, it's the only time we see blood from a lightsaber wound, as they normally cauterise the flesh.
Our heroes make a deal with Han Solo to transport them to Alderaan. Greedo the bounty hunter is coldly blown away by Han, who shoots first (and would do so for the next 20 years, until the release of the Special Edition).
The Millennum Falcon, the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy, became an iconic ship from its first appearance. The film kicks into high gear with Solo's introduction and the escape from Mos Eisley is an exciting set piece. The Falcon hurtling into hyperspace was a great sensory thrill for audiences at the time.
On the Death Star, Leia reluctantly reveals the location of the Rebel base (or so it seems) to save her homeworld, but the dastardly Imperials blow up Alderaan anyway. The scene is technically impressive, though the death of millions of people carries surprisingly little emotional weight.
Back on the Falcon, we witness the fun chess match between the droids and Chewbacca, where we learn how Wookies have been known to pull people's arms out of their sockets when they loose. Little touches like these help the film's universe come alive.
The next chunk of the film deals with the rescue of Princess Leia and the escape from the Death Star. The action is equally balanced with humour, such as Luke having to appeal to Han's greed to rescue the Princess and the moment where Luke tries to put cuffs on Chewie and gets a growl.
Luke and Han's plan goes awry of course and there's a fun scene where they blast everything in sight. Han trying to talk to an Imperial on the intercom and reassure them nothing's wrong, before blasting it and saying, "Boring conversation anyway," feels funny enough to be an adlib, but it was actually one of the scripted additions by Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck, who also wrote American Graffiti. They rewrote about 30% of the dialogue, and created much of the classic banter between the characters.
In one of cinema's most celebrated goofs, when the stormtroopers burst into the room the droids are hiding in on the Death Star, one of them bangs his head on the door frame.
Luke finally meets Leia, who comments that he's "a little short" for a stormtrooper (and too much of a good shot). Down the garbage chute our heroes encounter a Dai Noga (a rather unconvincing tentacle and periscope eye), which drags Luke under. In a humorous moment 3PO hears the screams of joy and thinks the heroes have been crushed by the walls closing in.
Luke and Leia's memorable swing across a Death Star chasm was performed for real by the actors (though obviously with a less deadly drop below). Obi-Wan's act of sacrifice gives the film more emotional weight and reveals that the Jedi have powers beyond death, as he guides Luke in the final battle.
The time our heroes spend traveling back to Yavin 4 allows for some nice character development. We see the growing friendship between Han and Luke, as well as Luke's jealousy that Han has his eye on Leia, too. Leia, for her part, sees Han for what he is - a greedy scoundrel. There's also an exciting, if rather superfluous, battle between the Falcon and some TIE Fighters.
The Battle of Yavin, while clearly influenced by old WWII dogfights, also took action scenes to a new level for the time. It's exciting and fast-paced yet also narratively clear. It's easy to follow all the pilots and their eventual fates, something missing in the more chaotic battles of later sci-fi epics.
The final run down the trench with Vader in hot pursuit of Luke ratchets the tension up to almost unbearable levels. The eventual return of Han to save the day, while probably not a surprise to many, is one of the great crowd-pleasing pay-offs of all time.
With the Death Star destroyed the film doesn't waste much time wrapping up the plot. We see Vader fly off into space, to set up the hoped-for sequel. The final scene set the template for end celebrations in Star Wars movies.
||It also visually references the infamous Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will, which could be seen as a comment that the Rebels cannot win through military might alone.
While the heroes receiving their medals is somewhat cheesy, it's impossible not to smile during this scene, especially when we see R2-D2 and C-3PO fixed up and looking shinier than ever. The extras playing the Rebels reportedly had so little respect for the production they muttered expletive insults at Hamill and Ford as they walked down to get their medals. The final shot has our heroes facing the camera, almost bowing to the audience.
The characters are all archetypes, yet it's still possible to relate to them. The only character mentioned by name in the crawl is Princess Leia, which might have led some people to expect her to be the main character, though she is offscreen for much of the first half.
Carrie Fisher was not the typical choice for the role, but invested Leia with enough tomboyish charm to make her stand out from the whimpering Princesses common in fantasy. There were doubts originally about whether she could pull off the role (the first thing she was told after being cast was to lose 10 pounds) but, as a generation of boys who had Leia as their first crush will attest, she was perfect.
Although R2-D2 and C-3PO have been compared to various comic sidekicks, including Laurel and Hardy, Lucas's main inspiration was the peasant characters in The Hidden Fortress. Like them, the droids serve as both comic relief and observers guiding the audience into the world of the film. Everything about the droids, from their design (R2 seems like a cross between the cute little robots in Silent Running and a trashcan) to their voices and temperaments set them as opposites who have become unwilling partners.
Lucas was famously against using Daniel's uptight English voice in the finished film, seeing 3PO as more of an American used car salesman type (Richard Dreyfuss was even considered for the voice). However, after the recommendation of one of the other voice actors who auditioned, Lucas eventually realised Daniels' voice was perfect for the equally stuffy protocol droid.
There was no such problem with little Kenny Baker, whose character of R2-D2 would find his voice thanks to the work of sound editor Ben Burtt. Some may wonder why the radio-controlled R2 even needed a performer inside, but Baker gave R2 a more human quality by wobbling him around, and the radio-controlled version often malfunctioned and couldn't roll on sand.
The name of the character actually came from the film lingo "Reel 2, Dialogue 2". Like Bert and Ernie on Sesame Street, many people would half-jokingly refer to R2 and 3PO as one of the most progressive gay couples on the screen.
Luke Skywalker is a classic hero on the verge of manhood. He may be slightly too bland for some people, but like Frodo in "The Lord of the Rings", he holds the story together while the perhaps more interesting characters float around him.
Mark Hamill has often been mocked for his portrayal (and his whiney delivery of lines like "but I was going into Toshi station to pick up some power converters!" is pretty damn funny) but he also invests Luke with a wide-eyed innocence and basic likeability that the character needs.
Hamill reportedly even took some of the director's mannerisms after discovering Lucas had based much of the character on himself. The actor was in a serious car accident near the end of the production. This meant his face had to be reconstructed and some scenes had to be shot with a double.
Obi-Wan is one of the great screen mentors. Alec Guinness imbues the character with all the wisdom and kindness you could wish for in a mentor. Guinness was game for anything on the set, even rolling around in the dirt to give his Jedi robes an authentic used look.
Lucas realised that there was little for Obi-Wan to do in the last act but oversee the battle from afar so he wisely decided to change the script at the last minute and have Obi-Wan killed by Vader on the Death Star (though, in later years, Guinness would claim this was his idea because he couldn't stand the film).
Han Solo's cynical character is very important, to give the more skeptical members of the audience someone to relate to. Harrison Ford steals the movie from the second he appears.
Chewbacca shows how far the look and body language of a character can endear an audience to a character despite his dialogue consisting only of growls. He was based on Lucas's dog, Indiana (who, of course, would also provide the name for another classic Lucas character).
Peter Mayhew, who was working as a hospital porter before the film, was cast in the role based purely on his massive height of over seven feet. Chewbacca's head used many of the same features as the ape heads in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and still holds up well to this day.
Chewie is the only hero at the end ceremony who walks up and doesn't receive a medal. Twenty years later this would be rectified when he received a medal at the MTV Movie Awards. The studio was apparently concerned by Chewie's lack of pants, and there were some concept sketches that showed him wearing Bermuda-style shorts but this idea was thankfully abandoned.
Peter Cushing is in fine villainous mode as Tarkin. The actor would take his boots off when his feet were not on screen as they were so painful to wear.
Interestingly, many of the minor characters, most never identified by name, would go on to become cult figures to a generation mainly thank to their action figure incarnations.
Harrison Ford famously said to Lucas at one point during filming, "You can type this shit but you can't say it" and it's a line that would haunt Lucas for the rest of his writing career. Though, in fact, the dialogue in Star Wars is not bad, just somewhat earnest and full of words that many non-sci-fi fans consider gobbledygook. Although "May the Force be with you" is probably more famous, the line that is uttered more times, and which would also become one of the trademarks of the saga, is "I have a bad feeling about this."
Lucas knew exactly the right tone for his story, and his direction earned him his second Oscar nomination. Although the occasionally bad line deliveries were an early indicator that Lucas didn't place as much importance on the actors when directing a Star Wars film. As the cast would joke, his main direction amounted to simply saying, "Faster, more intense".
The production design was one of the film's great strengths. Tatooine, while not a new concept (it owes much to the desert planet Arrakis in Dune) is stunningly realised, using authentic Tunisian locations dressed with eye catching props, such as the skeleton of a dragon resting among the dunes. The film's biggest breakthrough was the concept of a "lived-in" galaxy where everything wasn't shiny and new. This look would be emulated in nearly every later sci-fi film.
The costumes designed by John Mollo tied in to the film's aesthetic of looking both familiar and strange. The simple white costume design for the stormtroopers is a brilliant one, giving them a faceless menace under their Nazi style helmets that also subverts the idea of bad guys always wearing black (though that cliché was of course still reinforced by Vader's stunning costume). Obi-Wan's Jedi robes give him the appearance of a monk while also being able to blend in as a hermit (of course we would later learn he is just wearing his standard Jedi uniform).
The costumes have a timeless quality that prevents the film from looking cheesy like most other 70's sci-fi flicks. The hairstyles are one area that is slightly dated, and of course everyone remembers Leia's infamous Danish buns hairdo. As if that wasn't enough for Fisher to endure, for some reason Lucas also decided there were no bras in space so her breasts had to be taped down for many scenes.
Though the action in the film might seem dated now, at the time it was light years ahead of anything anyone had seen. The lasergun shoot outs, lightsaber duels and space dogfights took the kind of scenes people had only imagined before (or seen executed rather shabbily in B-movies) and made them feel real.
The editing was one of the films many strengths, and justifiably won an Oscar. Apparently the first cut was a disaster, since the original editor didn't understand Lucas's desire to make a fast-paced film. Lucas then brought in other editors, including his wife, Marcia Lucas, to help the film closer match his vision. Marcia would return in the same capacity for the next two Star Wars films, before leaving Lucas, and filmmaking, altogether. Many later films would imitate the film's old-fashioned use of wipes between scenes.
Initially the first scenes of the film would have been intercut with Luke Skywalker hanging out with his friends, including a character called Biggs who would become more important later in the film. However, Lucas wisely decided these scenes would have broken up the flow of the story with the droids guiding us to the other characters, as well as feeling a little too much like "American Graffiti in space".
People who read the novel and Marvel Comics adaptation (which featured a humanoid Jabba) may have been disappointed by the omission of Jabba the Hutt, Han's old boss who was to have confronted him before he left Tatooine until Lucas decided to cut the scene.
The only other major scene cut was the reintroduction of Biggs at the end, before the Battle of Yavin. While some of these scenes were later put back in for the Special Edition, the ones dealing with Luke's friends on Tatooine can only be seen on the Behind the Magic CD-ROM.
Because the novel and Marvel Comics adaptation were published before the film was completed, they featured many scenes and characters not in the finished film. The Marvel Comics, while fondly remembered, also had the rather annoying habit of putting a scene on the cover that had nothing to do with the actual story, such as asking "Will Luke save the galaxy, or destroy it?" and having Luke and Vader duel on the surface of the Death Star.
One of the many misleading covers for the Marvel Comics adaptation
Some of the creative editing to improve the pace of the film included reversing the order of the scene in Ben Kenobi's hut, so that they discuss Luke's father before watching the urgent hologram and intercutting Leia and the Rebels on Yavin with the battle. This was last minute decision to add more tension by showing Leia and the others were in direct danger from the Death Star.
Star Wars broke ground with its special effects like no film had before. It had the awe of 2001, but the effects were achieved much more simply and cheaply than they had been on Kubrick's film.
One major breakthrough was the computer-controlled camera system designed by John Dykstra (dubbed the Dykstraflex), which allowed camera movements to be repeated exactly over and over. Essentially, the camera moved rather than the models. This was how all the different elements of live action, models and matte paintings were combined for the space scenes.
For the scenes of the Rebel ships flying over the Death Star, sections of its surface were built and laid on a table in parking lot as the camera drove by mounted to a vehicle. The film was a landmark achievement, and while some of the models and optical composites look a bit dated, it held up remarkably well even before Lucas decided it needed updating two decades later.
The models were wonderfully designed, many of them using cannibalised parts of store bought model kits. Interestingly, there was a 3D model of an X-Wing created on the computer as a test, but it was deemed too expensive and time consuming to replace physical models. The only computer effects used in the finished film were the models of the Death Star during the Rebel briefing.
Unlike previous sci-fi films, Lucas wanted Star Wars to use real-life rather than synthesized sounds. Ben Burtt created some amazing effects using very simple methods. For example, the laser blasts were actually the sound of guide wires being tapped. The lightsaber, on the other hand, got its distinctive hum from a broken audio wire and buzz from a television tube. Burtt spent a year collecting unique organic sounds rather than resort to using any sci-fi movie library sounds.
The exception was the Wilhelm scream, a distinctive scream that dates back to the 1950's and which would be used in all the later Star Wars films as well. Chewie's voice featured various animal sounds mixed together, while Burtt came up with the idea for R2's beeps and whistles by recording his own baby talk. The film also popularised the use of Dolby Stereo in cinemas.
It goes without saying that John Williams's lush score had almost as big an impact on the world of film music as the film did on Hollywood. Williams took a leitmotif approach, using different themes for different characters. Aside from the main theme (essentially Luke's theme), we also get ominous themes for Vader and the Death Star, the heroic Rebel fanfare, a haunting Force theme for Obi-Wan and the heartbreakingly beautiful Princess Leia's theme. It was the one area of the film that exceeded Lucas's expectations, and it's easy to understand why.
On the surface Star Wars is just a kid's film, but part of Lucas's genius (and the reason for the enduring appeal of the film) is that he had studied myths enough to know what elements to put in to give the film extra resonance on repeat viewings. As Mark Hamill later said in interviews, the Force is as deep or as shallow as you want it to be.
By mixing different religions and myths, Lucas was able to create something that millions of people around the world could relate to. The film owes as much to westerns as it does sci-fi. Indeed, one of the reasons Lucas wanted to make the film was because there were no popular American myths since the western fell out of favour.
Some people saw the film as a celebration of American Imperialism and military might (many boys who enjoyed the film would want to join the air force). While that wasn't Lucas's intent, it's no accident that the mostly American heroes face bad guys that talk almost exclusively in English accents, a trend continued in Hollywood films to this day.
What more can be said about the movie that changed Hollywood and inspired millions? Every part of the film is now so iconic it's almost impossible to review the film objectively. It had its detractors then (and now) but the simple charm of the movie was irresistible for most audiences.
Lucas didn't do anything particularly new, he just did it better than anyone else had before. Everything about movies, especially sci-fi movies would be different. The budgets would be bigger, the special effects wilder and the marketing more intense. And, much to the chagrin of some, the target audience would be much younger.
Star Wars didn't immediately break records in the same way blockbusters do now, but it did make a splash on the few screens it was released on, selling out many early shows. The famous story goes that Lucas was having dinner on Hollywood Boulevard when he noticed lines around the block and only realised later it was for his own film!
It made over $250,000 opening day on just a small number of screens. The film was a blockbuster in the truest sense, with people lining up around the block for tickets at many locations.
The critical reaction was mostly positive, though few at the time saw it as anything more than a very well made children's film. The notorious Pauline Kael wrote, "there's no breather in the picture, no lyricism", and that it had no "emotional grip".
Star Wars continued to add extra cinemas throughout the summer and played for over a year, becoming the most successful movie of all time. Since it didn't play widely until two months after its release, it was not uncommon for people from other parts of America (or even overseas) to take long trips just to see the film in one of the major cities it was playing in.
When it was eventually released overseas (many countries, including the U.K. had to wait over six months to see the film) it was also warmly received in most places. The Japanese in particular became obsessed with the film. At an early screening in Japan the audience was silent, but this was actually the greatest mark of respect they can give a film.
At the 1978 Oscars it was nominated for 10 Oscars and won 7, though it lost in the major categories such as Best Picture and Director to Woody Allen's Annie Hall. The film was re-released several times over the next few years, which boosted its total box office to over $320 million (a total that was unmatched until the release of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial in 1982). Thanks to the success, Fox's shares were at their highest in years (doubling just weeks after the release) and Lucas gave percentage points to many of the cast and crew
The merchandise for the film would also earn hundreds of millions of dollars, even though there were no toys available until over six months after the film's release (Kenner famously sold an empty box with certificates for the first line of action figures just so they could have something out for Christmas). When the toys were finally released, they were a hit with kids worldwide and made 3 and half-inch action figures the new standard.
Lucas had shrewdly obtained the merchandising and sequel rights in return for a lower wage and Fox had agreed, thinking there would be no money in t-shirts and toys based on the film. It was a mistake no studio would make again.
However, the film's greatest impact was not financially but culturally. Star Wars brought people back to the movies and appealed to the young and the old alike. Everyone wanted to cash in on the success - there was even a disco remix of the main theme! It would influence not only future sci-fi movies but real life as well (such as the name of Ronald Reagan's missile defence program).
Star Wars quotes appeared everywhere and the characters, even some of the minor ones, became icons around the world. Arguably no other movie would have such a long and varied impact on popular culture.
Around a year after the release of the film, R2-D2 and C-3PO would even become two of the few non-humans (the others include Donald Duck and Tom Cruise) to have their footprints preserved in cement outside Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood.
The success of the film was beyond Lucas's wildest dreams. However, he had decided to retire from directing at his moment of triumph. It wasn't quite forever, but it would be 22 years before Lucas directed another movie.
Lucas knew Star Wars would be a tough act to follow, but he was determined to try his best. In the meantime he produced another sequel, More American Graffiti. It was an interesting and experimental film, but nowhere near as successful as the original.
In 1978 the Star Wars Holiday Special was aired on TV. Featuring most of the original cast, the special was a bizarre mix of musical variety show and cartoon, most notable for the first appearance of bounty hunter Boba Fett. It also featured Chewie's rather freaky-looking family.
The ill-advised special was never shown again, reportedly at Lucas's request, so the only way to see it is to track down a bootleg copy.
CHAPTER: THE EARLY YEARS; THX-1138
CHAPTER: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK