Saturday, December 12, 2015

Stubs - Star Wars (1977)


Star Wars (1977) Starring: Mark Hamil, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Peter Cushing, Alec Guinness, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker,  Peter Mayhew, David Prowse, Jack Purvis,  Eddie Byrne and James Earl Jones. Directed by George Lucas. Screenplay by George Lucas. Producer: Gary Kurtz. Color. US/UK. Science Fiction, Action, Adventure, Fantasy

It may be hard to imagine but if the rights to Flash Gordon had been available in 1971, then we may never have heard of Darth Vader or Luke Skywalker.

Fresh off the release of THX-1138 (1971), Lucas’ student film made into a feature, he was looking for his next project. A longtime fan of the Flash Gordon serials, he sought out to buy their rights, but was turned down. Depressed at the disappointment, Lucas vowed to make his own.

With a two-picture deal at United Artists, Lucas developed not a Flash Gordon redux, but rather American Graffiti (1973), a film about the last day of vacation in the summer of 1962. UA passed on the script, but Universal picked it up. The film was quite the financial success, making $140 million in box-office from a budget of about $777,000. This detail would also prove large in the Star Wars legend.

In 1973, Lucas began, in earnest, to develop his space fantasy film, working 40 hours a week on the screenplay. He ended up with a two-page treatment for a film called Journal of the Whills, about the training of a young apprentice CJ Thorpe as a “Jedi-Bendu” space commando under the tutelage of the legendary Mace Windu. (Ideas that were discarded now would appear in later scripts.)

Frustrated that his story was difficult to follow, Lucas turned to writing a 13-page treatment for The Star Wars, which supposedly has thematic parallels to Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958). (Hey if you’re going to borrow, steal from the best.)

Both UA and Universal turned down the project. Universal even called the idea “a little strange” and suggest Lucas follow up American Graffiti with “more consequential themes.” (The advice sounds a little like Decca Records turning down The Beatles because guitar groups were on the way out.) Apparently, Lew Wasserman, the head of Universal at the time, wasn’t keen on science fiction.

By May 1974, Lucas had expanded the idea into a rough draft adding in familiar themes and names, like the Sith and the Death Star and even Anakin, though he had the last name Starkiller. Anakin was an adolescent boy in a family of dwarfs and Han Solo was a large, green-skinned monster with gills, so things weren’t exactly finalized.

A second draft introduced Luke Starkiller, one of several sons of Jedi Knight, Anakin. The Force was also introduced as well as the idea of a Jedi Knight turning to the Dark Side. The screenplay even included a crawl about the next adventure, no doubt an influence from the movie serials Lucas was eager to mimic.

The third draft, completed in August 1975, titled The Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Starkiller was getting closer to the final film. Obviously, the last name would change, as would some of the settings. The fourth and final draft was dated as of January 1, 1976 and carried the marquee filling name: The Adventures of Luke Starkiller as taken from the Journal of the Whills, Saga I: The Star Wars.

20th Century Fox, finally bit and budgeted the film at $8.25 million. Using the positive reception of American Graffiti to his advantage, Lucas negotiated with Fox head Alan Ladd, Jr. to secure not only rights to unwritten segments, but also sequel and most of the profits from merchandising.

The shooting script was finally ready in March 1976, when production got underway. Changes would still occur, such as Tatooine, originally envisioned as a jungle planet became a desert one, when Lucas decided he couldn’t handle shooting in the Philippines for that long. And finally Starkiller became Skywalker.

Production got underway in Tunisia, now that desert scenery was needed, and filming continued in London at Elstree Studios. It is reported that both cast and crew did not take the film very seriously. Most of the crew considered Star Wars to be a children’s film and often found it unintentionally funny. Kenny Baker, cast as R2-D2, thought the film would be a failure and even Peter Cushing supposedly joked: "I've often wondered what a 'Grand Moff' was. It sounds like something that flew out of a cupboard.”

Lucas was supposedly a difficult director to work for, rarely speaking to the actors. According to the film’s producer, Gary Kurtz stated "it happened a lot where he would just say, 'Let's try it again a little bit faster.'” Lucas wasn’t very talkative to anybody and sort of kept to himself. He didn’t like working with a large crew or a lot of actors.

George Lucas directing Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher on the set of Star Wars.

At the same time, the film was going over budget and falling behind schedule. Ladd had to defend the project to Fox’s board, raising the budget, allowing the crew to finish by the studios’ deadline. But things would slow down again in post.

Originally slated to open on Christmas 1976, the release date had to be pushed back to Summer 1977. To begin with, the first edit by John Jympson was a disaster. Lucas replaced him with Paul Hirsch and Richard Chew and even used his then-wife Marcia, who was also editing Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York (1977) at the time.

Special effects were being handled by Industrial Light and Magic, a company Lucas formed after Fox had shut down its special effects unit. ILM, then operating out of a warehouse in Van Nuys, had spent half its budget on four shots which Lucas disapproved of. Finally, with their backs to the wall, ILM had to complete a year’s worth of work in six months.

The first screening of the film, in January 1977, included hand drawn arrows for the lightsabers and lacked many of the special effects, even substituting World War II dogfights for the space conflicts between ships. Even though the studio executives generally liked the film and Ladd released additional funds to complete the shoot, the film was already $2 million over budget, so not everything Lucas wanted to do could be completed. Perhaps the most famous being a confrontation scene between Han Solo and Jabba the Hutt in Mos Eisley Spaceport. (Audiences would have to wait until the computer enhanced 1997 Special Edition to see this.)

The film opens with the title card: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away....” setting up the fairy tale/fantasy quality of the film to follow. The influence of Flash Gordon and other serials can be found in the crawl that follows, both in style and text: “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…. ” The crawl seems to pass by you and extended out into infinity.

The starship carrying Leia (Carrie Fisher) is overtaken by a larger ship which literally pulls her vessel into its bay. The ship is then boarded by Stormtroopers led by Darth Vader (David Prowse, voiced by the uncredited James Earl Jones), who searches the ship for her. Just before she’s captured, she plants the blueprint in the memory of the droid R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) (making him the world’s largest thumb drive) and instructs him to deliver them to Obi-Wan Kenobi before R2-D2 escapes the ship with his companion droid, C-3PO (Anthony Daniels). When Vader realizes that an escape pod had launched, he sends troops after them.

Darth Vader arrives.

The pod lands on the desert planet Tatooine and R2-D2 sets out on his important message. But C-3PO isn’t interested in accompanying him on what he thinks is a fool’s errand, so the two part. They are brought back together as each are captured by the Jawas, a nomadic group of scavengers, who pick up the robots.


On Tatooine, a young boy, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamil), lives with his Aunt Beru (Shelagh Fraser) and Uncle Owen (Phil Brown). He blames his Uncle for keeping him from his dream of becoming a pilot and following in the footsteps of his deceased father.

Uncle Owen (Phil Brown and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamil).

Luke and his Uncle buy C-3PO and another robot from the Jawas, but the second robot breaks down right away and R2-D2 is swapped out for it. While he’s cleaning the robots, Luke unwittingly activates Princess Leia’s message, “Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope.” There are not many girls on Tatooine and the Princess is pretty, so Luke is interested in trying to help her. He tells his Aunt and Uncle about the message and wonders aloud if Obi-Wan might be Ben Kenobi. But his Uncle isn’t interested and tells Luke to erase the droid’s memory.


Luke finds Leia's message in R2-D2's memory.

But R2-D2 escapes and Luke, knowing he’ll be blamed for it, chases after it. The next morning, Luke and C-3PO catch up to the droid, but are attacked by the nomadic Sand People. Ben Kenobi, who happens to be nearby, saves them. When he and Luke talk, he admits that Obi-Wan is his real name. The two take shelter at Obi-Wan’s house and Luke learns his father was a Jedi knight during the Clone Wars and served with Obi-Wan. He also learns that his father was also known as the galaxy’s best Starfighter. Obi-Wan also makes good on a promise that he made to Luke’s father (which was not made in Revenge of the Sith) and gives him his father’s lightsaber and explains that Jedis are guided by the mystical energy in all living things, called “the Force.” Obi-Wan explains to Luke that his father was killed by another Jedi who had gone to the dark side, Darth Vader.

When Obi-Wan activates the message inside R2-D2 from Leia, she explains that she was on a mission to bring him back to her home planet of Alderaan and informs him that there is vital information in R2-D2’s memory. The droid must be taken to Alderaan immediately and Obi-Wan invites Luke to go with him, promising him that he will teach him how to use the Force, but Luke insists he needs to return home.

Back on the Death Star, the Empire’s ultimate weapon, Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) announces that the Empire is one step closer to ultimate power now that the galaxy’s government council has been dissolved.


The Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) seems to be Darth Vader's commander aboard the Death Star.

Meanwhile, on Tatooine, Luke discovers his Aunt and Uncle have been murdered by Stormtroopers and vows to become a Jedi. He joins Obi-Wan and, with the droids in tow, they go in search of a pilot at the spaceport town of Mos Eisley. Inside a local tavern, they make the acquaintance of, and hire, an outlaw smuggler, Han Solo (Harrison Ford), and his first mate, a tall, hairy Wookie named Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew). In the tavern, Solo had been approached by a bounty hunter, Greedo, who is working for Jabba The Hut. Han owes them money, but rather than leave with Greedo, Han shoots him under the table. After hiring Han’s space ship, the Millennium Falcon, they all narrowly escape the Stormtroopers, who are quickly closing in.


Han Solo (Harrison Ford) about to shoot Greedo.

Back on the Death Star, Vader forces Leia to reveal the location of the Rebels by threatening to annihilate her home planet of Alderaan. Even though she tells them there is a Rebel base on the planet Dantoonine, Tarkin order the destruction of Alderaan, which Leia is forced to watch.

The beginning of the end for Alderaan.

On the Millennium Falcon, Obi-Wan senses a disruption in the Force while training Luke on the lightsaber. When the ship reaches Alderaan, the planet is only space rubble. Before they can react, the ship is caught in the Death Star’s tractor beam and pulled aboard. Vader orders the ship searched, but the crew is hiding in one of the bins used for smuggling and avoids detection. Vader orders a more thorough search. After overwhelming a couple of Stormtroopers, Han and Luke put on their uniforms and the group makes their way to a control room nearby.

R2-D2 plugs into the battleship's computer network and discovers the controls for the ship’s tractor beam as well as the location of Princess Leia and that her execution is pending. While Obi-Wan goes off to turn off the tractor beam, Luke and Han pretend to take Chewbacca to the lockup where Leia is being kept. Han only goes because Luke makes vague promises of a reward.


Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) in lock up aboard the Death Star.

They have to fight their way into the lock up, but after they free Leia, they are under attack again. Seeking refuge in a garbage chute, they find they are not alone. A tentacled creature pulls Luke underwater, but then disappears as the walls of the garbage masher start to close in. Panicked, Luke radios C-3PO and R2-D2 stops the walls. They return to the Millennium Falcon and once again fight off Stormtroopers.

Meanwhile, Obi-Wan disables the tractor beams, but is confronted by Vader, who senses his former Jedi master’s presence. Obi-Wan and Vader fight it out old school with their lightsabers. Vader is intent on killing him, but Obi-Wan warns that his defeat will only make him stronger. When Obi-Wan is convinced the Millennium Falcon can escape, he lowers his defenses and lets Vader kill him.


Teacher and student fight it out as Obi-Wan (Alec Guinness) keeps Darth Vader busy so the others can escape.

The Millennium Falcon escapes, but the Death Star follows them to the Rebel base on the planet Yavin. The data from R2-D2 is analyzed and the Death Star’s weak spot is revealed. Soldiers are briefed that there is a two-meter-wide thermal exhaust port that can only be accessed by a one-man fighter jet down a narrow trench and that it will take a direct hit to cause a chain reaction explosion.

As Luke mans his ship, with R2-D2 as his navigator, Han Solo packs up his reward money, telling Luke the battle is a suicide mission.

Meanwhile, the Death Star moves closer to firing range of Yavin and the Imperial leaders aboard anticipate their decisive victory.

But Rebel forces are racing toward the battleship and a space dogfight results. Even Darth Vader, piloting a deadly imperial fighter, gets in on the action. While many of Luke's senior commanders are defeated, Obi-Wan's voice urges him to trust in the Force. Then the question becomes will he get to the exhaust port in time to stop the Death Star from destroying Yavin?  With his rear guard gone, Luke is pursued by Darth Vader, who directs his guns at him, but just as he’s prepared to fire, the Millennium Falcon returns and interferes, sending Vader spiraling out into space.


The Millennium Falcon escapes as the Death Star explodes.

Luke’s missiles make a direct hit and the Death Star is destroyed just before it fires on Yavin. Luke, Han and Leia are reunited back on Yavin, where she bestows medals on Luke and Han for their bravery.

Princess Leia gives Han her best seductive look during the awards ceremony.

Star Wars opened on May 25, 1977, a Wednesday, in 32 theaters and added 8 more on Thursday. Producer Kurtz is quoted as saying “That would be laughable today.” So few theaters wanted the movie, Fox required them to take it if they also wanted a highly anticipated, but barely remembered, film, The Other Side of Midnight, that was also coming out that year. Still, the film found a devoted audience and was selling out. Fox, thinking they had a hit on their hands, released the film to more theaters. The film would eventually earn $220 million in its initial domestic release and take in another $190 million in foreign releases. The film would also be re-released in 1978, 1979, 1981, and 1982 adding another $100+ million to its take.

It was the 1997 Special Edition which altered the film, adding in special effects that hadn’t made it into the original film, even going so far as to change part of the plot points. The original film, that everyone had loved, disappeared from public distribution. Even the Library of Congress, when they added Star Wars to its National Film Registry, was sent by Lucas the Special Edition, rather than the original version. They rejected the materials since that wasn’t the film they were honoring.

For this review and for the subsequent sequels in the middle trilogy, we are relying on a VHS (yes, we still have a player) release before the film was altered. The last time it was available for home consumption, other than a laser disc full frame that was included as a special feature on a subsequent release. Sadly, the film is “formatted” for our television, which, in the day, was not widescreen.

People sometimes refer to Star Wars as an accidental masterpiece, since not even Lucas thought it would be a success. But the word masterpiece connotes a finished work and the original Star Wars wasn’t, at least in Lucas’ mind, a finished work. Not only did he “enhance” it for a 1997 release, but he also tweaked it again further for a 2004 DVD release. I can’t make up my mind if Lucas’ tweaking has as much to do with his dissatisfaction with the original or his desire to make more money without creating something really new.

If there were only one Star Wars, I would say that this was a really good film that succeeded despite its relatively small budget. As I stated back in A Month of Star Wars, I saw the original film three times in a theater. While some people have seen it hundreds of times, for me, that meant that not only was it good enough to see over again, but that I wanted to share the experience with family and friends.

But since Lucas made this part of a six film series, and Disney will be making it an annual event until they grind us all down, Star Wars has to be viewed in the story arc in which it’s placed. Seeing Star Wars again, after having seen the Anakin to Darth Vader trilogy, reveals some pretty big plot holes. To begin with, who is this Grand Moff character? When last we saw Darth Vader, he seemed to be Darth Sidious’ right hand man. But in Star Wars, Moff sort of has him on a leash, a long leash, but despite his powers and presence, Vader takes orders from Moff. Did he get demoted?

At the end of Revenge of the Sith, Obi-Wan was sent to Tatooine to watch over Luke, but Luke doesn’t really to seem to have much to do with him until Star Wars takes place. Obi-Wan, Ben, is sort of the old village hermit and the two don’t seem to know each other. If Obi-Wan was supposed to be watching over Luke, you think they would have had some moment together in nearly twenty years.

And what happened to R2-D2? In the previous trilogy, he could fly and spurt oil. In Star Wars, he seems to have trouble staying upright. Is he missing parts or is this an example of retconning gone awry?

The list could go on and on and I will leave that for those more knowledgeable on the subject to weigh in (comments are always welcomed).

While Lucas seems to have developed an overall vision for the Star Wars universe, or at least oversaw its development, it is the nuts and bolts that seem to be lacking. Now, he hadn’t intended on making Star Wars his life’s work when he made this film, but he’d had long enough to figure out how to make the pieces fit together better. What once was a stand-alone film is now part of a larger story arc and it doesn’t work as well as it should.

Of the three relative unknowns that star in the film, Hamill, Ford and Fisher, only Ford would have a role that would approach the one in this movie. Ford had worked for Lucas before, in American Graffiti, and would play the titular role in the Indiana Jones saga, produced by Lucas, but directed by Steven Spielberg. Ford would also star in Blade Runner (1982) and Witness (1985).

Hamill would also act in films such as Corvette Summer (1978), The Big Red One (1980) and Britannia Hospital (1982), but would become better known as a voice actor, playing the Joker in Batman: The Animated Series and some of the Batman: Arkham games.

Fisher, the daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, would move behind the scenes and become a sought after script doctor and author. Her best known book would be Postcards from the Edge, which would also be made into a feature film. She would appear in the occasional role, as well as in her own one-person play.

All three, along with the droids, would appear in the other two films in the original trilogy and are reportedly in the new Star Wars film.


The main cast was a combination of virtual unknowns like Hamill and Ford and already major stars like Alec Guinness.

Alongside the relative unknowns were three well-known actors, Peter Cushing, Sir Alec Guinness and James Earl Jones, the latter of which wasn’t credited. These actors lend their gravitas to the production. Cushing, known for his roles in Hammer studios' horror films, as noted above, joked about his role, but Guinness is an interesting study. Guinness was a major star of the British cinema, having starred in a series of Ealing Comedies in the 1940s and 50s, not to mention the star of The Bridge Over the River Kwai (1957) and prominent roles in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Dr. Zhivago (1965).

Guinness had some faith in the success of the film, negotiating a piece of the profits, which reportedly made him a very wealthy man in later life. At the same time, he refused to do publicity for the film.

Guinness also claimed to have had something to do with how the story unfolded, reportedly suggesting to Lucas that he should kill off Obi-Wan to make the story stronger. He was also nominated as Best Supporting Actor by the Academy for his role in the film. But he also tired of being recognized by fans for the role. In the final volume of the book A Positively Final Appearance (1997), Guinness recounts grudgingly giving an autograph to a young fan who claimed to have watched Star Wars over 100 times, on the condition that the boy promise to stop watching the film.

But it is James Earl Jones’ voice that may be one of the most memorable things to come out of Star Wars. Jones is an acclaimed actor of the Broadway stage, films and television, having won numerous awards. Let’s face it; David Prowse is large and intimidating, but Darth Vader would not be nearly as menacing if it weren’t for Jones' commanding bass tones. 

Music plays a big part in this film. It should come as no surprise that it’s John Williams, who had been Spielberg’s go-to when it comes to film scores, so why not Lucas’, too. The themes are as memorable as the film. Like Jones’ voice, it just wouldn’t be Star Wars without it.

The costumes in the film are sometimes iconic and sometimes downright silly, depending on the character and the viewers’ point of view. Darth Vader’s all-black half-robotic coupled with his dramatic entrance make him a visual stand out. Even the cape adds to his sense of importance as he strides among the terrified. And the Stormtroopers' all white uniforms are also unique and scream Star Wars to anyone who has seen the film. But the costume designer’s fondness for oversized-helmets, especially on some minor characters, can make them less functional or awe-inspiring and even comical when they aren’t meant to be.

The special effects are still pretty good; remember these are unenhanced, though some of them have aged better than others. That’s true of any film using special effects. That’s one area in which technology has significantly improved over the years, so even something a few years old can seem quaintly out of date in no time. At the same time, you don’t want your special effects to necessarily be too realistic, this is sci-fi fantasy after all and the film is not supposed to have anything to do with reality.

It is Star Wars' sense of other reality and escapism that helped make it such a juggernaut at the box office and at the big box store. While I may not like Star Wars now as much as I did when I was younger, it is still a fun movie to watch and I would definitely, all complaining aside, recommend it. Sadly, though, the film I’m recommending, the original Star Wars, seems now to be a “lost” film. You are left to watch one of its variants, but I can’t believe the experience would be the same. There is such a thing as a film that is too polished.

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