What can I say about Star Wars that hasn’t already been said? I can only give you my version of the Star Wars experience. It is just a drop in the ocean, but this film was so important to my childhood, allow me this one indulgence.
Unfortunately, I was a bit too young to remember the cinematic release of the original 1977 Star Wars, the one we now call A New Hope. I blame my parents and their medieval courtship rituals, and George Lucas for being way ahead of his time. What I do remember is the 1982 UK TV premiere of Star Wars, and it blew my mind! There was absolutely nothing like Star Wars in my schoolboy universe at that time.
While the original theatrical release looks dated by modern standards, and it was given the CGI makeover in the remastered 90’s version. At the time the special effects were incredible, years ahead of anything else, and technically spot on in every department. In fact, Star Wars purists will argue the digitally remastered version added no value. Keep it real!
The Movie Hollywood Rejected
Star Wars as a commercial success is a no-brainer to us entrepreneurial nerf-herders. According to USA Today the whole franchise has grossed over $7.5 billion in the first 40-years to 2017. Who would possibly turn down such a successful blockbuster? well, as it turns out pretty much everyone. United Artists, Universal Pictures, and Walt Disney Productions all rejected the George Lucas screenplay as being too risky and too weird.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. If we look at it from the perspective of a 1970’s studio executive, Star Wars must have sounded extremely peculiar on paper. A science fiction film about a group of rebels, two quirky robots, and a man in a giant dog-suit fighting, an evil empire fronted by a tall man in a black shiny helmet. Oh, and did I mention they are surrounded by a magical energy field that gives them special powers. There were a few WTF moments I am sure.
As for the blockbuster factor, the term Hollywood blockbuster had only materialized a few years earlier with Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Star Wars broke box office records even further. It would have been hard to make any connection between the two films or predict the era of box-office blockbusters that lie ahead. Indeed this project was a huge risk financially for any studio to take on-board on the evidence provided.
It was not like it was considered a poor idea, just too different to anything that came before. There was no benchmark for success. The technical aspects of the project also suggested a big budget production and more added risk. The positive feedback Lucas did receive motivated him to continue the search for studio backing.
A New Hope
The head of 20th Century Fox in 1973 was Alan Ladd Jr., after listening to George Lucas pitch his idea, he saw something special in the young man trying to make it big in Hollywood. Ladd approached Fox president and chief operating officer, George Stulberg, to finance Star Wars as an investment in George Lucas rather than the film itself. It is suggested, that luckily Ladd did not really grasp the technical complexity of the project at first or its potential cost. He received the go ahead and signed George Lucas in June 1973 to write and direct the film.
As the production progressed, the film was a quagmire of location difficulties, story problems, and budgetary issues. The studio board regretted the decision to fund Lucas, on occasion considered canceling the project, and were expecting a box-office embarrassment. This was at a time when Fox was under pressure to repay bank loans that would potentially close the studio.
It was the persistence and belief by Ladd and Stulberg in the project, that kept the film in production. The pair were often placating the increasingly troubled Fox board, to obtain extra funding and to prevent the plug being pulled. It may have been the brainchild of George Lucas, but Ladd and Stulberg also played their part in ensuring Star Wars came to fruition.
Another seemingly outrageous view by the studio at that time was Star Wars would play second fiddle to its other 1977 release, The Other Side of Midnight. The World War II drama based on the Sidney Sheldon novel of the same name was expected to be the studio’s big summer success. In fact, Fox insisted that cinemas would only be allowed to screen The Other Side of Midnight if they also agreed to screen Star Wars. To say they were expecting a flop is an understatement. To say things turned out very different is an even bigger understatement. The movie premiered in 40 cinemas, which seems absurd looking back. The movie blew box office records out the water, and 20th Century Fox immediately accelerated the scope of its release, and the rest is history.
Why Was Star Wars Such a Huge Success?
That is the $7.5 billion dollar question. If we could bottle the formula we would be gazillionaires. At its core, it is an optimistic, fun, adventurous, and swashbuckling piece of storytelling. You can have the greatest special effects of all time, but without a great story, they are meaningless. Star Wars had epic universe-shattering special effects. As a fan of the old school, I love the authenticity of the design. The sets, the costumes, the space vehicles, and characters were created by hand. Yoda is a puppet in the early films, Chewbacca is an actual man in a big furry costume, the mud houses on Tatooine are real structures. Not only are they real, but more importantly they look and feel real to the viewer.
Chewbacca is a perfect example of this authenticity. Played by 7’3″ (2.2 m) tall actor Peter Mayhew, a suit was constructed using real yak hair and hair from Angora goat (mohair). The only part of Mayhew we see is his real eyes, set deeply into the hair. The Wookie sound created from a mixture of animal noises adds an extra layer of authenticity. As a viewer, we really believe in the character. The fact he is based on a giant long-haired dog, walking upright on two legs like a human doesn’t really register. He is our beloved Chewie. Co-pilot of the Millennium Falcon
Chewbacca – Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope
The captain of the Millenium Falcon is, of course, Han Solo played by Harrison Ford. A reckless smuggler, sarcastic scoundrel, and eternal cynic. The swashbuckling gunslinger with a western style flair. Ford was more experienced than his co-stars Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill and had previously appeared in American Graffiti which was directed and co-written by George Lucas. Han Solo would be his first starring role, and Lucas selected him over Kurt Russell, Christopher Walken, Burt Reynolds, Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Sylvester Stallone, Bill Murray, Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, Nick Nolte, Billy Dee Williams (the actor who layer played Lando Calrissian), and Perry King.
Harrison Ford was a big part of Star Wars success. Did Star Wars kick-of the career of Harrison Ford, or did Harrison Ford kick-off the success of Star Wars? Probably a bit of both. Lucas was lucky to have one of the greatest action heroes of the 1980’s in his prime. The man who went on to play Indiana Jones, Jack Ryan, and Rick Deckard. It was just a matter of great timing.
“Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.”
Han Solo – Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope
Although Lucas really wanted new faces, and unfamiliar actors for his film, Ford won him over eventually. But he stuck with this principle when casting Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Princess Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher). Both actors only had one movie a piece under their belts in 1977. But as with many great films, we marvel at the perfect casting. They were born for these roles. In Mark Hamill’s case, this may indeed be true. His career never accelerated to the heights of Harrison Ford. He had a solid career, with a lot of voice work, but Luke Skywalker was his crowning glory. The fresh faced-naive Skywalker was made for Hamill.
“It’s not impossible. I used to shoot womprats with my T16 back home. They were no bigger than two meters.”
– Luke Skywalker – Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope
Carrie Fisher was a similar case. A solid body of work followed in film and TV, but the Star Wars franchise was her biggest success. Can we imagine anyone else playing Leia? The feisty-warrior-diplomat-spy? The answer is a resounding no.
Will someone get this big walking carpet out of my way?
– Princess Leia Organa – Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope
Obi-Wan Kenobi was played by Sir Alec Guinness. Lucas made the decision that a strong and experienced actor would fill the important role of Obi-Wan. Guinness was known for his roles in the Ealing Comedies and the films of filmmaker David Lean. He had the experience and the character to match. He was also one of the few people who believed in the success of the film and managed to negotiate 2% of George Lucas’ royalties. A bonus which really paid off for him in later life.
“Who’s the more foolish? The fool or the fool who follows him?”
– Obi-Wan Kenobi – Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope
The Droids, C-3PO, and R2-D2 were extremely popular characters. The melodramatic gold colored protocol droid known as C-3PO was played by Anthony Daniels. The camp “Threepio” divided opinion, he was a polite liability who spent more time fussing around than achieving anything useful. He did manage the occasional classic insult. You either loved him or hated him. I admit I had a soft sport for C-3PO. His relationship and interactions with R2-D2 were wonderful.
“You’ll be malfunctioning within a day, you nearsighted scrap pile.”
C-3PO – Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope
R2-D2 was played by 3′ 8″ (1.12 m) tall Kenny Baker. In the 1970’s the limited technology required an actual actor to inhabit the diminutive droid and operate the controls. “Artoo” was more universally loved by the Star Wars fanbase than his golden sidekick. Despite speaking only in various beeps, the astromech droid showed incredible character. The polar opposite of C-3PO, he was courageous, adventurous, resourceful and determined. Pivotal to the story-line in A New Hope, R2-D2-
“Beep bloop blop bleep blop”
R2-D2 – Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope
Every battle between good and evil needs a supervillain. The iconic Darth Vader is a cultural symbol of evil in pop culture. Played by English bodybuilder, David Prowse, and voiced by the unmistakable sound of James Earl Jones. The embodiment of the dark side of the force. His Samurai style black helmet can be recognized the world over by just its silhouette. Vader is power and menace, and as a kid that made him one very interesting character to me. Even now I watch a New Hope with my young son, and I see the same excitement in his eyes when Vader comes on screen as I had over 30 years ago.
“I’ve been waiting for you Obi-wan. We meet again at last. The circle is now complete. When I left you, I was but the learner, now I am the master.”
Darth Vader – Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope
The first ten minutes of A New Hope have more hooks than a fishing tackle shop.
From the opening crawl to the sound of John Williams iconic score, we are already swamped with questions. Civil war? Rebel Spaceships? Hidden base? Evil Galactic Empire? Spies? Secret Plans? an Ultimate Weapon? Sinister agents? a princess? Freedom to the galaxy? WTF?
“It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet. Pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy….”
Opening Crawl – Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope
The camera pans down to focus on three background planets, as a small rebel spacecraft comes into shot. It is pursued by a wedge-shaped Imperial Star Destroyer. The ship takes an age to pass by the shot showing the huge disparity between the Empire and the Rebels. One of the greatest opening visuals of all time. It set the tone for the entire film.
Within two and a half minutes we see the two droids for the first time, wandering through the overwhelmed rebel ship. The tractor beam pulling it into the Star Destroyers open hatch. The doors are breached and those white plastoid imperial stormtroopers pile through, shooting indiscriminately as they go. On the Four and a half minute mark, the heavy breathing Lord Vader strides onto the cleared ship, and the crowd goes “whaaaat is he?” in collective awe.
R2-D2 has lost his companion, and C-3PO comes across Princess Leia uploading the Death Star plans to his stubby friend. Darth manhandles a rebel, Leia is involved in a shootout, is stunned, the droids jettison in an escape pod destination unknown, and Vader meets Leia. All in the first ten minutes.
Some people say if A New Hope has any faults, and it is seriously nitpicking, then its the fact its a slow starter. They generally mean, after the first ten minutes, the film’s pace slows somewhat. Han Solo doesn’t make an appearance until 45-minutes in, and the story builds at a steady pace. But I think it’s irrelevant, we are already hooked. There is action to come, and we cant to get back into it. Is there a greater opening to a movie in history?
What makes this story of good vs evil, different to the hundreds of others that came before and after? When George Lucas created the Star Wars universe, he created such an epic fantasy world, rich in history and interesting characters, that it became too complicated for its own purpose. That purpose was to secure a film deal with a studio and to produce the Star Wars movie. We have already discussed the issues Lucas had getting his concept accepted, but another reason was the project was just far too complicated.
Lucas eventually narrowed down his first Star Wars film to a midpoint in the story. A New Hope was produced as a standalone film, but with a great deal of backstory and direction in the bank. If George Lucas had been a sci-fi novelist he would have made things easier for himself. He could have written multiple epic Star Wars novels based on his universe and it would have been easier to get them accepted.
George is not a novelist, he is a filmmaker. The stories were not written in novel form or even screenplays. They were treatments, multiple story-lines, threads, and characters that formed the basis of a very complex space opera. All the leftover treatments provided sufficient material for George to create a total of six films, and the success of the first film allowed George to flesh out his universe in the sequels and prequels.
A New Hope centers around the coming of age of an orphan called Luke Skywalker. Luke is a farm hand on his uncles sharecropping enterprise in the outer reaches of the galaxy. The story sees him progress on an adventure that will see him take on the might of the galactic empire, in the face of overwhelming odds and darkness, and to come out victorious. Along the way, he struggles to find answers about his own identity and his background, which become more significant in the sequels. All taking place during an intergalactic civil war involving various creatures, spaceships, and weapons (i.e laser swords!). No 40-year-old spoilers required. If you haven’t seen it, why are you even still reading?
In Conclusion of Greatness
So that sums-up many of the reasons I believe Star Wars to be such an incredible piece of cinema. An incredible story with one of the greatest openings in cinema history, exceptional special effects, lovable characters, the blood, sweat, and tears of the filmmakers, sprinkled with a little luck and good timing.
I will never forget the day Star Wars came into my life on that Sunday evening in 1982. It would go on to become a fixture of the late 1980’s Christmas schedule. My parents were late to VCR game, so I was reliant on TV viewings to get my fix. When we finally purchased a VHS VCR in 1990, I recorded the movies at the first available opportunity and wore those tapes to an early death.
The Star Wars universe is a completely immersive experience. The early merchandise, especially the Star Wars action figures, meant I could act out existing or imagined Star Wars story-lines.
“Mum – I am going to need more than one storm-trooper”
The price of an official 1979 Boba Fett action figure in its original packaging can reach upwards of $2,000 on today’s collectors market. I never kept my figures carded, but I did keep them in excellent condition. My younger brother took over the collection, and the figures were eventually decapitated and soiled in the most heinous fashion. Oh the inhumanity! My son has assumed care of the Star Wars amputees some 40-years later. Regardless of the value of mint condition figures, you cant argue with the value for money those figures have provided.
It’s hard to put into words the significant impact Star Wars has had on my life, and I have really only scratched the surface in this article. Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope was where it all started, and it has continued to be a lofty benchmark throughout my life. Its not everyone’s proverbial cup of tea, but for those of us who consider ourselves part of the loyal Star Wars fan base, its a way of life.
“Traveling through hyperspace ain’t like dusting crops, farm boy.”
Han Solo – Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope
Tell us about your experiences with the original Star Wars movie in the comments section below. We always love to hear from fellow fans.