An absolute milestone in cinema history gets reached today as one of the biggest moneymakers and most popular films of all time, Star Wars, celebrates its 35th anniversary!
This “long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” science-fiction epic, which was released on May 25, 1977, was an absolute game changer for Tinsel Town in so many ways. It was the Gone With the Wind of its time, an updated version of Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 film The Hidden Fortress, which also told of a story of rescue, with protagonists who were the lowest beings on the food chain, who turned out to be heroes in the end, much like the now etched in folklore characters and narrative of Star Wars.
What can be said about this film that hasn’t been written, dissected, analyzed, and now blogged by probably 70 percent of the planet here in this technological age we live in? Well for starters, it came during a time in the 1970s when films that were before it were downer, realistic visual treatises that were cynical, with endings where the main characters didn’t always ride off into the sunset or have the easy answers. With the release of Star Wars, the post-Vietnam, Nixon era of the troubled early 1970s got a film in which to root for the hero again, with a slam bang, slapdash ending, with escapist plots, fun characters, and eye popping special effects – a true popcorn classic. There were films which were hinting at that, like the previous years’ Rocky, although not a sci-fi film, but also had a character who was an underdog to root for, just like the main character of Star Wars, Luke Skywalker (played by Mark Hamill), who was going up against a villain to jeer for, in the sinister and unapologetic figure in Darth Vader. It was David and Goliath redux.
The film, the brainchild of director wunderkind George Lucas, was a pet project of his since he was signed to a two-picture contract with Universal Pictures in 1971. He made the first film for Universal, American Graffiti, which was released in 1973 and was a smash, and the roots of Star Wars took shape for the second film to suffice the contract, entitled The Journal of the Whills. Lucas, unhappy with the convoluted tone this treatment took, retitled it The Star Wars. After various drafts and Universal eventually passing on the project, it got into the hands of 20th Century Fox, who took a chance on it via the support and faith of its then studio head, Alan Ladd Jr. Ladd greenlit the project, even though sci-fi films were virtually non-existent in the mid 1970s as a viable, profitable product in cinema, and even Lucas later famously stated, after Star Wars was released and became a hit, “Ladd invested in me, he didn’t invest in the movie.”
Produced on a budget of $11 million and plagued by plenty of troubles during the production, including a rainstorm which delayed the first week of production, (it was in the Tunisian desert which was to act as the setting for the planet Tatooine), malfunctioning props, electronic breakdowns, and a crew which had really no faith in this strange project they were a part of, dismissing it as a children’s film. Even some of the main principles, Harrison Ford in particular, who played Han Solo, scoffed at the entire affair, finding it weird to be acting with a Princess (Leia, played by Carrie Fisher) with buns for her hairstyle and exchanging lines with what he called a “giant in a monkey suit” named Chewbacca. He also memorably exclaimed to Lucas, chagrined at the cookie cutter style Saturday Morning serial lines his character had to speak, “George, you can type this shit, but you can’t say it!”
It didn’t end there. Lucas clashed with his cinematographer, Gilbert Taylor, pegged by the producer of Star Wars, Gary Kurtz, as an old school crotchety figure of sorts, and as the days wore on, Lucas saw his original vision crumbling more and more by the second. It all finally culminated with a doctor’s diagnosis of hypertension and stress.
Originally slated for a Christmas 1976 release, it was pushed back to mid 1977. The film began to find its focus in the editing room. Lucas’ wife Marcia Lucas was on the editing team and she and Paul Hirsch and Richard Chew started to create the pacing and style of the multitudes of reels of 35mm they had to sift through to make Star Wars the coherent and memorable piece of cinema that it is known as today.
Right up until its release, nobody knew for sure how the viewing public would treat the film. They needn’t have worried. It became an absolute smash, especially after Hollywood’s famous Grauman’s Chinese Theater exhibited the film a few months after its original release and immortalized the robot characters of C-3PO and R2-D2 (which had a kind of cyber Laurel and Hardy feel to them in the film and provided much comic relief) in cement, their footprints in the cinema’s main front yard, side by side with some of Hollywood’s greatest actors. With that, and tremendous word of mouth and eventually explosive pop culture coverage from magazines to news articles to talk show appearances, Star Wars became a national phenomenon. Some theaters showed the film for a year, unprecedented even by today’s standards of how films are exhibited. Marketing also took off like a comet; scores of products were licensed with the Star Wars logo and characters, as games, toys, bed sheets, clothing, and just about every other form of product one can think of was released. It was really the bridge from the old Hollywood (which ironically up to that point was called “The New Hollywood”) and the blockbuster, open with a fortune in five minutes Hollywood that exists for films today. The film eventually wound up making a half a billion dollars and still continues to make money today. It spawned five films eventually, two which continued the story from the first movie, the next three took place before the first film. Much success followed from those films and carried the Star Wars brand and torch so to speak, but none of them, (although arguably the first sequel, 1980s, The Empire Strikes Back, is a better film) had the overall intrinsic charm, feel, and fresh appeal as the first movie did.
So let’s join the Rebel Alliance, or even the Dark Side, and give a 35th Anniversary shout out to Star Wars. It doesn’t matter what your preference is, cause in this world, there’s not a lot that we collectively agree on or have in the past, but it’s safe to say that most of us, if not all of us who grew up with it, or who are second, third, fourth, or even fifth generation fans of the film; the casual fan to the zealous out of control high exalted mystic geek of a fan, who knows more than George Lucas does about it and lives, eats, breathes, and tweets it, Star Wars became something that most of us, if not almost all of us, collectively put our heads and tastes together and marveled at what we saw up there on the silver screen, originally a long time ago, in a Hollywood far, far away. Happy Anniversary Star Wars, here’s to the next 35 years.