“…There’s nothing here for me now. I want to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi like my father.” ~ Luke Skywalker
With two films under his belt, a young and relatively inexperienced director made a journey that would take him from the deep Saharan Desert, to the rain forests of Guatemala and the comfortable studios just outside London.
This young director would not only go on to revolutionize the way films were produced, but he would also develop sound techniques and visual effects systems that would allow him to tell his story, creating several cottage industries along the way.
Oh, and he would revolutionize the term ‘summer blockbuster.’
As with anyone finding their way in the world, roadblocks would ensue and a patient studio executive with an impatient board would push our young hero to his limits, and back again.
I am, of course referring to George Lucas and his small-ish Sci-fi-opera, Star Wars which opened in a limited release forty years ago, today.
By the time shooting started in March, 1976, the story wasn’t completed with Lucas making adjustments along the way. He also had a young, inexperienced trio of actors in the lead roles with two legendary actors who might have all questioned Mr. Lucas’ sanity more than once.
In the lead role of young Luke Skywalker was Mark Hamill who got his start in television on “General Hospital” in 1963. He was recommended by Robert Englund for his first theatrical role. Joining Hamill was the daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, Carrie Fisher. Fisher was 19 when she filmed Star Wars, young enough and rebellious enough to portray Princess Leia Organa. She was stunning in her performance and held her own against the roguish, charming Harrison Ford who would play Han Solo, a fighter pilot with a few tricks up his sleeves.
Rounding out the cast were Peter Cushing as the cunning, evil Grand Moff Tarkin and Sir Alec Guinness as Obi-wan “Ben” Kenobi, a wizard of sorts with a mysticism about him that Luke very much wants to learn about, and Han tries to completely avoid. British actors Sir Antony Daniels and Kenny Baker would play our lovable ‘droids, See-Threepio (C-3P0) and Artoo Deetoo (R2-D2), respectively. David Prowse plays the role of Darth Vader, while an initially uncredited James Earl Jones would voice Darth Vader, a menacing hulk of blackness, threatening to anyone who would get in his way. Peter Mayhew would play a 7’ furry, yet friendly creature named Chewbacca, the first mate on the Millennium Falcon, Han Solo’s ship.
Lucas had clout from his success with Universal’s American Graffiti but, he did not have the money to produce the film. So he convinced Alan Ladd, Jr. at 20th Century Fox to bankroll the $8.4 million budget on the condition that Lucas would retain the rights to future sequels and the merchandising rights.
Technical and labor problems in both Tunisia and England put Lucas behind schedule several times throughout the production causing the release to be delayed from Christmas, 1976 to summer, 1977.
The first cut of the film was a disaster forcing Lucas to bring on two editors, Paul Hirsch and Richard Chew, who would tighten up the film’s pacing. Lucas found that he didn’t have enough footage and convinced Ladd to release additional funds to cover the budget shortfall so that they could get the necessary Second Unit shots completed.
On the recommendation of Steven Spielberg, John Williams was brought on to compose a score that would be as whimsical as the images it was set to. Scoring over 12 days in March, 1977, Williams would deliver a stunning, memorable score evoking thoughts of the Flash Gordon serials that Lucas based his Star Wars on. Yes, he had influences from other sources, but the allusion towards Gordon is one of the most apparent.
“This will be a day long remembered….”
Fox did not initially believe in the success of the film, instead hedging its bet on Charles Jarrott’s The Other Side of Midnight. They booked Mann’s Chinese Theater and 32 other theaters across the nation on Star Wars’ initial release, May 25, 1977. Mann’s held the film for two weeks before William Friedkin’s Sorcerer took its place.
In an unprecedented move, Fox convinced Mann’s to bring Star Wars back on August 3, 1977, this time with all the trimmings of a gala premiere. At that time, 1,096 theaters had the film and approximately 50 theaters ran the film non-stop for an entire year.
Star Wars would go on to set or break numerous box office records during its initial theatrical run that it was re-released in 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981, and 1982.
The box office take was not enough, receiving six Oscar statuettes at the 50th Academy Awards, including Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Sound, and Best Visual Effects. Alec Guinness was nominated for Best Supporting Actor and Lucas would get nods for Best Original Screenplay, Best Director and Best Picture, losing out to Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. Not too bad for a film that no one believed in.
Lucas would revisit the film after Spielberg was able to successfully use computer generated special effects in 1993’s Jurassic Park and in 1997, Star Wars and its sequels, 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back and 1983’s Return of the Jedi received a digital overhaul with enhanced effects, sound and new sequences. They were all three released theatrically during the late winter and early spring of 1997.
I was 13 months old when Star Wars was first released. My older brother got me in to mania with the toys and the action figures. Many days were spent with my imagination flowing. I remember watching a badly copied VHS copy of The Empire Strikes Back and finally seeing Return of the Jedi on it’s theatrical release in 1983. I was in college when the Special Editions were released and made it a point to see them all as many times as I could.
Fundamentally, Star Wars works because it is a story of hope and yet it’s greatest strength is in its characters and the actors Lucas found to play them.
Now, forty years later, Disney is continuing Mr. Lucas’s efforts with a sequel trilogy. Our favorite characters have returned to us and we will continue to see the ‘Adventures of Luke Skywalker’ this Christmas with The Last Jedi.
As we celebrate forty years of the Force, of Wookies, of Rebellions and dreams, we remember those who have passed before us. The Force is strong with them.
There isn’t a day that goes by where I say “thank you” to Mr. Lucas for inspiring me. He gave me hope. He still gives me hope.
“A New Hope” that is.
Ben, this is a wonderful tribute and captures my own feelings about the 40th anniversary of Star Wars. It was a huge moment for me as a six year-old, and I still remember the stormtroopers blasting their way into the Tantive IV in the opening scene like I was in that corridor. I watched it many more times on video while growing up, caught up in the mysticism and adventure, but also the sheer inventiveness and skill of George Lucas, every time. The release of “Empire” three years later was a defining moment, and I knew from that moment, “If I can’t be Luke Skywalker, I can be like George Lucas!”. It’s the message of hope that makes it forever new.