Star Wars (Episode IV: A New Hope) (1977) Director: George Lucas
Star Wars is the great space opera, or the great modern epic of our time. And it, ironically, comes to us from a uniquely young and motivated director from the California Central Valley (in the ’70s and ’80s). George Lucas had just completed his early successes with films like THX 1138 in 1971, and especially American Graffiti in 1973 – a film loosely based on his personal experiences growing up in the valley. Lucas was motivated to create space epic, in the vein of Flash Gordon, and he was also fascinated when reading Joseph Campbell’s theories about the universal ideas of heroes (based on ideas found in Carl Jung and the writings of Nietzsche). When George Lucas couldn’t acquire the rights to Flash Gordon (per his friend, Francis Ford Coppola) he became depressed and simply decided to create his own hero story. He drew some inspiration for the story from the current Nixonian political climate of the time, as well.
The early story was called “Journal of the Whills” about the training of an apprentice called CJ Thorpe as a “Jedi-Bendu” by a legendary hero named Mace Windy. After this story became far too complex he started work on “The Star Wars” which drew great inspiration from Kurosawa’s 1958 film called The Hidden Fortress. He found challenges trying to sell the idea for the film to either Universal or Disney. He wrote and rewrote several drafts before the film was accepted with a modest budget, largely based on the credibility of Lucas for his success with American Graffiti. Lucas began recruiting production people, some from their work on Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Lucas created his own production company called Industrial Light and Magic, which eventually became a division of LucasFilm.
The film scooped up some amazing talents, like Harrison Ford (who would go on to be a top Hollywood actor with the Indiana Jones series, as well) and Alex Guinness, and picked up some new actors like Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher. James Earl Jones did a terrific job as the voice of Darth Vader (originally Orson Welles was considered).
The film tells a classic the story of a classic conflict between good and evil, “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” The plot begins in the midst of a civil war. An alliance of rebels have covertly retrieved plans for a master super-weapon possessed by the evil galactic empire, the “Death Star” – a planetary destroyer. Princess Leia’s space ship has been taken by the empire, so she hides the plans in a droid robot and jettisons the droid down to a remote desert planet called Tatooine. The droid winds up in the hands of a young boy named Luke Skywalker, a restless orphan-child who spends his days doing chores for his aunt and uncle and building things or trading with the local Jawa junk traders/scavengers. He chases after the droid when it runs away one night and this leads him to an old man “Ben Kenobi” whose real name is Obi-Wan Kenobi, a former Jedi knight – a hero of the old republic before it was taken over by the galactic empire. Luke learns that his father was once a Jedi, as well, until he was “killed” by Darth Vader. He was a pupil of Obi-Wan. Meanwhile, the droid plays a holographic message for Obi-Wan which asks him to bring the plans to her royal family on the planet, Alderaan. Obi-Wan invites Luke to join him but he soon finds that the empire tracked the droid to Tatooine and killed his aunt and uncle. With nowhere left to go, a despondent Luke joins Obi-Wan, wishing to learn more about the ways of the “force” – a mystical elementary substance of the cosmos that binds all things together and can be harnessed by the true Jedi master. At any rate, they travel to the Mos Eisley port town on Tatooine in search of a ship. It is a town filled with bounty hunters and shady junk dealers. There, they encounter Han Solo, an independent smuggler. They offer to pay Han with compensation from the Princess if he and his Wookie co-pilot, Chewbacca, take them to Alderaan, aboard their ship called the Millenium Falcon. However, when they arrive, the Death Star of the empire has already destroyed the planet. The Falcon gets taken up into the empire’s Death Star. Obi-Wan ventures onto the ship to covertly turn off the tractor beam, while Luke discovers the Princess has been imprisoned on the Death Star, so he, Han, and Chewbacca go to rescue her. Meanwhile, Obi-Wan has a confrontation with his former pupil, Darth Vader, but he sacrifices himself just as the crew returns to the Falcon with the princess, so that they can get away. They fly to a hidden rebel base on the planet called Yavin IV. The plans in the droid reveal a secret spot wherein the Death Star can be destroyed. So the rebel alliance band together to attack the Death Star, while Han collects his payment and leaves, much to Luke’s disappointment. In the ensuing fight, Luke leads the attack but Darth Vader is hot on his trail until Han arrives and shoots Vader’s TIE fighter allowing Luke the room to shoot and destroy the Death Star. They all return to Yavin IV and receive medals for their bravery in a moment of celebration for the rebel alliance.
The scenes of Tatooine were filmed in Tunisia, and also certain segments in the California Central Valley. The scenes of the rebel base on Yavin IV were shot in Guatemala. Other filming took place in London and California. The pressures and budget and the appearance of the collapsing scenery of the film were incredibly stressful for Lucas, leading many of the staff and actors to come up with a game of trying to make Lucas laugh or smile. Some of the actors thought the film would be a bomb, due to its weird and confusing script with odd space characters like Wookies, Jedis, Siths, and so on. Toward the end of the filming, Mark Hamill got into a car accident that left his face scarred, preventing the crew from re-shooting any scenes. For the score, at the recommendation of his friend Steven Spielberg, Lucas hired John Williams, who had completed the now famous score for Jaws for Spielberg. The character of C-3PO was inspired by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
When adjusted for inflation, Star Wars (later categorized as the fourth episode in the series) is the second highest grossing film of all time, second to Gone With The Wind. It was an unprecedented blockbuster hit. It debuted in around 32 theaters, but became a runaway blockbuster with demand growing to see the film far and wide. At the time, Lucas visited the set for Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Lucas believed Spielberg’s film would be the bigger hit, and they took a bet, with each receiving 2.5% of the profits from each other’s films. Spielberg still receives a percentage of Star Wars to this day.
Perhaps it need not be said, but Star Wars (the original series) is incredible – both entertaining as well as challenging and compelling in its philosophic perspective. It was filmed like a classic epic film in space, and it contains a mix of classic cinematic tropes like samurai sword fights (light sabers), and cowboys (like Han Solo), and the “King Arthur-esque” hopeful hero in Luke Skywalker who is trained by the great master, appropriately played by Alec Guinness. It was a tremendous risk or George Lucas to make Star Wars, and this risk has reaped massive rewards as Star Wars is the essential classic epic film perhaps of all time.