Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope

Star Wars (Episode IV: A New Hope) (1977) Director: George Lucas

“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”

Film poster showing Luke Skywalker triumphantly holding a lightsaber in the air, Princess Leia kneeling beside him, and R2-D2 and C-3PO behind them. A figure of the head of Darth Vader and the Death Star with several starfighters heading towards it are shown in the background. Atop the image is the text "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..." On the bottom right is the film's logo, and the credits and the production details below that.


Star Wars is the quintessential modern space epic of our time. And, ironically, it was the brainchild of a novice, motivated director hailing from California’s Central Valley (in the ’70s and ’80s) –a key ingredient of the emerging New Hollywood. George Lucas had just finished his early successes with films like THX 1138 in 1971, and American Graffiti in 1973 – a film loosely based on his personal experiences growing up in Modesto. In the vein of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, Lucas was motivated to create an expansive, atmospheric space adventure, based on archetypes found in Joseph Campbell’s theories about the universal idea of heroes (and 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 inspiration from highly-regarded samurai films, the legends of King Arthur, pulp fiction and science fiction serials, and even from the current Nixonian political climate of the time. At the time, George Lucas was considered a fool for his decision to accept a lower salary on the movie in exchange for full merchandising rights. With the benefit of hindsight this was perhaps one of the smartest cinematic financial deals ever made.

The early story for Star Wars 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. Lucas was fascinated with an 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. 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 as a result of 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. During filming he was widely known by the cast and crew for delivering only two directional cues “faster” and “more intense.”

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).

The film 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 diplomatic ship called Tantive IV is chased by a massive star destroyer (an allusion to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey). The Princess of a planet called Alderaan named Leia is aboard the ship (played by Carrie Fisher) but the space ship is forcibly confiscated by the empire, so she hides the secretly transmitted plans in a droid called R2-D2 (Lucas got the name from work on 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 with his quixotic companion C-3PO (played by Anthony Daniels and inspired by the robots in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis) as they jettison down to a remote desert planet called Tatooine. Amusingly, R2-D2 was originally intended to be a foul-mouthed droid, this was alter 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 for years by fans –is it an all-too-convenient plot-line?). R2-D2 and C-3PO land on a dusty, desert planet called Tatooine (shot in remote parts of Tunisia, with many set peices still sitting out in the sand dunes), 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 doing 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 and this leads him to an old man named “Ben Kenobi” whose real name is Obi-Wan Kenobi (Sir Alec Guinness), 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 powerful Jedi, until he was “killed” by Darth Vader. Luke’s father was a pupil of Obi-Wan. Meanwhile back aboard Tantive IV, a vicios Sith Lord named Darth Vader comes aboard (played by David Prowse, and voiced by James Earl Jones). Vader quickly learns that the secret transmissions have been smuggled into a droid and escaped down to the planet Tatooine. He takes the princess hostage and sends squadrons of Nazi-esque stormtroopers in search of the droid.

Back in the remote desert, R2-D2 plays a holographic message for Obi-Wan which asks him to bring the secret plans of an Imperial super-weapon to her royal family on the planet Alderaan. Obi-Wan invites Luke to join him on the quest but he soon finds that the Empire tracked the droid to Tatooine and killed Luke’s Aunt and Uncle. With nowhere left to go, 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 escapes droids. 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 at Alderaan, the Death Star has already destroyed the entire planet (while the princess watched in agony). The Falcon quickly gets trapped in the Death Star’s tractor beam. They hide aboard the ship 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, so with the promise of glory and riches, Luke, Han, and Chewbacca venture to the prison cell blocks 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 they can get away (the lightsaber sound effect 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). They fly to a hidden rebel base on a lush, green moon called Yavin IV. The plans in the droid reveal 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, while Han collects his payment and leaves, 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 and 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 ends (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 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 area 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 Millenium Falcon were constructed with trash from a dump.

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 (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 the great master (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 premiere, he went on vacation to Hawaii with his good friend Steven Spielberg, where they came up with the idea for Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).

Return to my survey of the Star Wars series

One response to “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope”

  1. […] Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) Director: George Lucas. Star Wars is the great science-fiction epic of our time, a wonderful Arthurian space opera that weaves together a variety of genres, including elements of American Westerns, as well as Samurai movies. Star Wars tells the story of a listless young man named Luke Skywalker who is suddenly caught up in a struggle between an alliance of rebels fighting the totalizing power of the galactic empire. Each one of the original three (out of a total of nine) films is excellent, and sadly the same cannot be said for other more recent Star Wars films. […]


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