Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope
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On May 25, 1977, one of the most profoundly influential works in the history of cinema was released to fewer than 40 screens around the United States. It had a premier engagement at the famous, formerly named Mann's Chinese Theatre for all of two weeks. Its critical and box office expectations were so low that its very creator, writer and director George Lucas, made a conscious effort to be busy at work on the release date so he wouldn't have to face the possibility of failure. The movie was Star Wars and it would be beyond the capacity of the English language to fully describe how wrong everyone was about the movie that, well over four decades later, is responsible for what is still the most popular, expansive and groundbreaking cinematic universe ever created. Even that is probably a bit of an understatement.
It is difficult to grapple with the legacy of Star Wars (re-titled Star Wars: Episode VI - A New Hope after the release of The Empire Strikes Back, 1980) in a way that feels meaningful by any metric of general film history. It is not that Star Wars is greater than anything before it or anything after, or that its story is any more original or creative than any other sci-fi fantasy. It is that its impact, even after some 40 plus years, is still being measured, felt, discussed and debated to such a degree that we may not even know its legacy for another 40 years, if ever.
The story concerns a farm boy and a rebellion that happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. It's a Hero's Journey that takes that farm boy, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), across that far away galaxy, to meet up with his destiny, if not fulfill it.
As the movie begins with a simple, yet effective "Once Upon a Time" caption, "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away," the screen then goes black and the words STAR WARS, in all caps, blast past the screen and into the distance, accompanied by one of the most effective and iconic scores ever recorded, composed by John Williams. Then comes an opening crawl that brilliantly lays out all of the exposition the viewer needs to know: There's a civil war, a rebellion, stolen plans to the evil Galactic Empire's ultimate weapon, the Death Star, and a princess trying to get the stolen plans to safety. And as the last words of the opening crawl fade into the distance, a small starship races past the viewer, pursued by an enormous star destroyer intent on capturing it. Those two moments, the opening crawl and the starship/destroyer chase dominating the screen, may arguably be the single most impactful setup in movie history.
That story, told in an exciting style both simple and operatic, made stars out of its young leads--Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford--while making celebrities out of Kenny Baker, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew and David Prowse, the bodies inside R2-D2, C-3PO, Chewbacca and Darth Vader, respectively. The voice for Darth Vader was provided by the great James Earl Jones. A couple members of the cast, Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing, needed no introduction and Guinness was, in fact, the only acting Academy Award nomination the movie received (Best Supporting Actor). The movie itself received 10 nominations in all, winning six plus a Special Achievement Award for Ben Burtt, the genius behind the sound design.
Lucas has stated that his idea for the space opera now known the world over came to him in 1971, probably around the time he was finishing up work on his first major theatrical film THX 1138. But he wouldn't begin writing Star Wars until 1973, after he had completed work on his breakout success American Graffiti. The story underwent numerous changes before production and most fans would now find the early characters and story line unrecognizable to what wound up on the screen. But what did wind up on the screen changed everything.
It should probably be stated clearly that it is far beyond the scope of this article to fully detail the story of the production, writing and filming of Star Wars. There are many books and sites available that do that very thing, from discussing the special effects of the still new Industrial Light & Magic, the sound design of Ben Burtt, the conceptual genius of its set design, to the characters, actors playing them and story elements hearkening to the myth making and Hero's Journey as detailed in the writings of Joseph Campbell. There is so much to discuss with Star Wars that even attempting to do it in less than 30,000 words would probably be a futile effort. Instead, let us marvel at what is quite possibly the most important influence of Star Wars, beyond the effects, beyond the marketing and beyond the box office: The universe building that was almost unknown in the entertainment world before Star Wars. After Star Wars, it has become ubiquitous.
Before Star Wars, there was pulp adventure. Much of that pulp, from Flash Gordon to John Carter of Mars, directly inspired and influenced Lucas during his own journey of creating Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi. And those pulp adventures kept the story going. The pulp adventures chose the serial route, keeping a single story line going over the course of multiple chapters but also, once that adventure was complete, creating new adventures in which the same characters could engage. But even then, true universe building was something unknown, though the seeds were there.
As loathe as Lucas would be to admit it, the infamous 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special started the universe building by telling a story outside the normal arc of the Skywalker narrative and with characters, Chewbacca's family in this case, not originally part of the tale. But the whole reason that notorious special could exist (and if you haven't seen it, yes, it is as bad as you've heard) was because Lucas and his team did such an exemplary job of creating unique and fascinating worlds around the main story that captured the imagination more than just space battles and lightsaber duels. In short, many moviegoers walked out of the movie as intrigued and beguiled by the Mos Eisley space port as by the Death Star encroaching on the hidden rebel base. And they wanted to see more of it.
With Star Wars, George Lucas and his designers had created something that felt like a real place, not a sci-fi set. The vast majority of science fiction before--whether they were fun adventures of the Flash Gordon and John Carter variety, deep space travel to distant worlds of the Forbidden Planet (1956) variety or technological wonder worlds of the Logan's Run (1976), Silent Running (1972) or 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) variety--had one thing in common: Earth. Whether they hailed from it, were coming to invade it or transforming it in the future, Earth was always the starting point. A familiar location everyone could understand. Sure, John Carter was on Mars, but he was from Earth. Ming the Merciless was from another world but it was Earth he had in his sights.
Not with Star Wars. No Earth, no Milky Way, no Martians. It didn't even take place in the future. It may have had more advanced technology, but it was still a long time ago. And that difference, that "No Earth" difference, something that even most fantasy stories didn't do (after all, even The Lord of the Rings trilogy took place in Middle Earth, giving it a feel of an ancient, forgotten time right here on this planet) made all the difference. It wasn't a future that Lucas had created. It wasn't a different world, a different universe with a different set of rules. And that alone changed the rules for movies forever.
After Star Wars, distribution changed in ways that had only been tested before with blockbusters like Jaws (1975). Opening wide to hundreds of theaters, now thousands, became the model but the lasting change, the one that wouldn't come to fruition until years later with the release of the prequels, was building worlds that could be regularly recreated for new stories, with new characters and new adventures. Even though the prequels and sequels were all building off of the same narrative, they were introducing new characters and worlds each time and, eventually, with the release of stand-alone Star Wars movies such as Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), they didn't even have to use recognizable characters as the leads. By the time the Marvel Cinematic Universe was truly hitting its stride and working up to the conclusion of its first phase, Star Wars had long since already shown everyone how to do it.
Years later, after the sequels and authorized novels and television shows, Star Wars stopped being a movie or even a franchise. Plenty of serials still existed (there was still television, after all) and there were plenty of franchises (the James Bond franchise immediately comes to mind), but Star Wars was something else entirely. It was an intangible that felt tangible, a projection that felt solid. A universe that felt real.
Star Wars broke all box-office records during its initial run and would be remembered even if no other Star Wars movies had ever been made. Or, put more clearly, if only other Star Wars movies had been made. But Star Wars wasn't followed up by only movies. It was followed up by the creation of an entirely new universe one that is real to a great many people. The characters of Luke and Leia, of Han and Chewie, of C-3PO and R2-D2, of Obi-Wan and Darth Vader, are real and their projections on the screen are our way of seeing them all these years later, in the future, our future, in our galaxy, looking at their galaxy far, far away. And that galaxy remains one that millions upon millions of fans still call home.
Director: George Lucas
Screenplay: George Lucas
Producers: Gary Kurtz, George Lucas, Rick McCallum
Music: John Williams
Cinematography: Gilbert Taylor
Film Editing: Richard Chew, Paul Hirsch, Marcia Lucas
Casting: Dianne Crittenden, Irene Lamb, Vic Ramos
Production Design: John Barry
Art Direction: Leslie Dilley, Norman Reynolds
Set Decoration: Roger Christian
Costume Design: John Mollo
Makeup Department: Rick Baker, Doug Beswick, Stuart Freeborn
Cast: Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), Harrison Ford (Han Solo), Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia Organa), Peter Cushing (Grand Moff Tarkin), Alec Guinness (Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Kenny Baker (R2-D2), Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca), David Prowse (Darth Vader), Phil Brown (Uncle Owen), Shelagh Fraser (Aunt Beru), Jack Purvis (Chief Jawa), Alex McCrindle (General Dodonna), Eddie Byrne (General Willard), Drewe Henley (Red Leader), Denis Lawson (Red Two/Wedge), Garrick Hagon (Red Three), Jack Klaff (Red Four), William Hootkins (Red Six), Angus MacInnes (Gold Leader), Jeremy Sinden (Gold Two), Graham Ashley (Gold Five), Don Henderson (General Taggi), Richard LeParmentier (General Motti), Leslie Schofield (Commander #1)
By Greg Ferrara