Star Wars (Episode IV: A New Hope) (1977) Director: George Lucas
“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”
Inspired by pulp fiction tales of comic book heroes like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, a rising and motivated young director named George Lucas set about to make the quintessential space opera of our time. Previously, Lucas directed a bleak dystopian science fiction film called THX 1138, and now he wanted to make a more uplifting fairy tale in the vein of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces. Lucas sought out classical works of archetypal Arthurian legend when crafting his futurist fantasy tale in space –an expansive atmospheric epic film. He initially signed a two picture deal with United Artists, however Star Wars was rejected and Universal ultimately picked up George Lucas. First, he made a semi-autobiographical film American Graffiti (1973), and the second, his far-fetched B-movie space movie idea which was to become Star Wars, was ultimately rejected. The idea bounced around various studios before it landed with Alan Ladd Jr. at 20th Century Fox. He wasn’t particularly crazy about the project but he simply believed in George Lucas and his passion. Thus, an agreement was signed. As part of the deal, Lucas secured the creative rights to any future sequels and merchandising rights (this would later become one of the most lucrative deals in history). At the time, Lucas was considered a fool for accepting a lower salary in exchange for full merchandising rights.
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 inspiration from highly-regarded samurai films, chivalrous romances, pulp fiction and science fiction serials, Joseph Campbell, and even from the contemporaneous Nixonian political climate of the time. The early story for Star Wars was called “Journal of the Whills” and it was about the training of an apprentice called CJ Thorpe (a “Jedi-Bendu”) by a legendary hero named Mace Windy. Lucas was fascinated by the idea that the Whills were supernatural, spiritual beings. When this story became far too complex, George Lucas started work on “The Star Wars” which drew great inspiration from Kurosawa’s 1958 film called The Hidden Fortress —he based the idea for the Jedi on jidaigeki, a term referring to Japanese motion pictures. Lucas wrote and rewrote several drafts of the script 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 staff, some as a result of their work on Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. He created his own production company called Industrial Light and Magic, which eventually became a division of LucasFilm. Despite having a strange idea for a film, the project managed to scoop up some amazing talent, like Harrison Ford (who would go on to be an iconic Hollywood actor with the Indiana Jones series) and legendary actor Alex Guinness, as well as some new actors like Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher. The instantly recognizable voice of James Earl Jones appears as the voice of Darth Vader (originally Orson Welles was considered for the part but Lucas thought his voice was too recognizable).
Star Wars tells a classic story of 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. We see the scale of the conflict as a small rebel diplomatic ship called Tantive IV is chased by a massive Imperial star destroyer (an allusion to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey). The ship is captured as Princess Leia from Alderaan (Carrie Fisher) hides secretly transmitted plans inside a droid called R2-D2 (Lucas got the name from the set of American Graffiti as the acronym for “Reel 2, Dialog Track 2,” the droid was played by Kenny Baker). Shortly thereafter the princess is captured and R2-D2 narrowly manages to escape in a pod with his quixotic companion C-3PO (played by Anthony Daniels and inspired by the robots in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis). They jettison down to a remote desert planet called Tatooine. Amusingly, R2-D2 was originally intended to be a foul-mouthed droid, this was later revised but many of C-3PO’S responses were left in the film. The Empire memorably allows the escape pod to get away because there are no life-forms aboard, they assume it must have simply short-circuited (this little moment has been debated by fans for years –is it an all-too-convenient plot-hole?). R2-D2 and C-3PO land in the dusty sands of Tatooine (shot in remote parts of Tunisia, with many set pieces still sitting out in the sand dunes today), but they are both quickly taken by a shifty race of desert scavengers known as Jawas before they wind up in the hands of a young boy named Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), a restless orphan-child who spends his days dreaming of adventures while performing chores for his Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru at their “moisture farm.” One night, R2-D2 escapes the farm claiming he needs to deliver a message for an important mission. Luke chases after the droid, leading him to a wise old sage named “Ben Kenobi” whose real name is Obi-Wan Kenobi (Sir Alec Guinness). He is a former Jedi knight – a hero of the old republic prior to its downfall to the galactic empire. Luke learns that his father was once a powerful Jedi before being “killed” by a vicious Sith lord named Darth Vader (played by David Prowse, and voiced by James Earl Jones). Luke’s father was a pupil of Obi-Wan Kenobi. Meanwhile back aboard Tantive IV, Darth Vader comes aboard. Vader quickly learns that the secret transmissions have been smuggled into a droid which fled down to Tatooine. Vader takes the princess hostage and sends squadrons of Nazi-esque stormtroopers in search of the droids on the planet’s surface below.
Back in the remote desert at Obi-Wan’s hut, R2-D2 plays a holographic message for Obi-Wan which asks him to bring the secret plans of a new Imperial super-weapon to her royal family on the planet Alderaan. Obi-Wan invites Luke to join him on this quest but he soon finds that the Empire has tracked the droid to Tatooine and already killed Luke’s Aunt and Uncle. With nowhere left to turn, a despondent Luke joins Obi-Wan from whom he hopes 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 a true Jedi master. At any rate, they travel to the Mos Eisley port town on Tatooine in search of a transport ship to Alderaan. It is a town filled with bounty hunters and shady junk dealers, as well as Imperial stormtroopers searching for the droids. There, they encounter the pirate archetype in Han Solo, a scoundrel and independent smuggler. They offer to pay Han from the Princess if he and his Wookie co-pilot, Chewbacca, will transport them to Alderaan aboard their ship called the Millennium Falcon. However, when they arrive at Alderaan, the Death Star has been destroyed (while the princess watched in agony). The Falcon quickly gets trapped inside the Death Star’s tractor beam (“that’s no moon”). They hide aboard the Falcon while it is searched before donning stormtrooper gear in disguise. Obi-Wan ventures alone onto the ship to covertly turn off the tractor beam, while Luke discovers that the Princess has been imprisoned on the Death Star. With the promise of glory and riches, Luke, Han, and Chewbacca venture to the prison cell blocks to rescue the princess. Meanwhile, Obi-Wan has a confrontation with his former pupil, Darth Vader, but Obi-Wan sacrifices himself as a distraction just as the crew returns to the Falcon, (the lightsaber sound effect here was made using a combination of the hum of an idling 35mm movie projector and the feedback generated by passing a stripped microphone cable by a television). The Falcon flies to a hidden rebel base on a lush, green moon called Yavin IV. The plans inside the droid reveal a map of the super-weapon, the Death Star, and a secret spot wherein the Death Star can be destroyed. So the rebel alliance bands together to attack the Death Star in a dramatic space battle sequence, while Han collects his payment and departs much to Luke’s disappointment. In the ensuing fight (based on World War II aerial combat movies), Luke leads the X-Wing attack but Darth Vader is hot on his trail until Han arrives in an unexpected scene and he shoots Vader’s TIE fighter out of chase allowing Luke room to shoot and destroy the Death Star. Victorious, the rebels all return to Yavin IV and receive medals for their bravery in a moment of celebration for the rebel alliance as the movie triumphantly honors its ending (many fans have questioned why Chewbacca does not receive a medal in this scene).
The scenes of Tatooine were filmed in Tunisia, and also certain segments in the California Central Valley. There are many amusing stories about the film’s shoot, such as a particular moment on set wherein George Lucas left a large Jawa sandcrawler near the border with Libya, a move which seemed to be a military provocation that only ended when the Libyan government respectfully asked Lucas to move the huge set piece. Also, on their first day of shooting the Tunisian desert saw its first major rainstorm in fifty years, and then many of the set pieces were destroyed in a sandstorm. The skeleton that C-3PO passes in the desert belongs to a Tatooine creature called a Greater Krayt Dragon, according to fan lore. This artificial skeleton was left in the Tunisian desert after filming and it still lies there to this day. During filming of Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002), the skeleton was again visited by the crew, and in The Mandalorian series, locals on Tatooine join with Sand People to fight and kill one of these massive serpents. The scenes of the rebel base on Yavin IV were shot in Guatemala. Other filming took place in London and California (when Lucas flew the cast and crew in coach class to London Carrie Fisher’s mother Debbie Reynolds phoned him up to complain). 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 behind-the-scenes. 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 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 at the time completed the now famous score for Jaws for Spielberg. It is an absolutely stunning, transportive score befitting of the film’s elevated themes.
There are a couple of interesting side characters in Star Wars: Captain Antilles of Tantive IV who is killed by Darth Vader, an unrelated fighter pilot named Wedge Antilles played by Denis Lawson whose name is spelled wrong in the credits and who is the uncle of Ewan McGregor who would play a young Obi-Wan Kenobi in the prequel series, Greedo who is a bounty hunter chasing Han Solo in the infamous “Han Shot First” fan controversy, Grand Moff Tarkin played by Peter Cushing, and Biggs Darklighter a friend of Luke Skywalker on Tatooine who later dies in the Rogue Squadron attack on the Death Star. George Lucas edited in a few scenes of Biggs into the Special Edition re-releases. Much to the befuddlement of fans Lucas has made considerable efforts to revise the original Star Wars movies with unnecessary CGI effects that mostly cheapen and degrade the movies. There also exists a panoply of colorful alien languages: the language of the Jawas is Zulu electronically sped up, and Greedo’s language is Quechua, an indigenous South American language. Many of the props in the movie, such as Luke’s lightsaber and the exterior of the Millennium Falcon were constructed with trash from a dump. During filming, Lucas was widely known by the cast and crew for delivering only two directional cues “faster” and “more intense.”
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 a the time, especially for a science-fiction film. It debuted in around 32 theaters, but became a runaway smash success with demand growing all over the world 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 complex. It was filmed like a classic epic, and it contains a mix of vintage cinematic tropes like samurai sword fights a la Akira Kurasawa (only with futuristic light sabers), and cowboy-westerns as well as pirates (like Han Solo, whose character is loosely based on Lucas’s friend Francis Ford Coppola), as well as an Arthurian hero (Luke Skywalker) who is trained by a wise old sage (Obi-Wan Kenobi) appropriately played by Sir Alec Guinness. Star Wars was a tremendous risk for George Lucas and it paid off in the most unexpected of ways. I sometimes wonder what it would have been like to see Star Wars for the first time in theaters in 1977. Amazingly, George Lucas was so sure this movie would flop that instead of attending the film’s premiere, he went on vacation to Hawaii instead with his good friend Steven Spielberg. While there, they came up with the idea for Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).