“I want to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi like my father.”
That’s just one example of what is some of the most iconic dialogue ever written, for one of the most iconic films ever made, that inspired arguably the greatest film series of all time and – by no means least of all – also boasts one of (if not the) greatest soundtracks of all time.
There are so many angles from which one can approach the original Star Wars that it seems at first almost overwhelming to try and do so. In terms of overall impact on both the business side of the movie industry and filmmaking from a technical standpoint, this imaginative ‘space opera’ – which few predicted was going to be a hit at the time – is right there at the top of anyone’s list.
Perhaps the best place to start then is, indeed, at the start. Star Wars came from humble beginnings to be sure, from a filmmaker in George Lucas who was best known for making the ‘coming of age’ comedy-drama American Graffiti (1973); his second feature after the unsuccessful THX 1138 (1971) – though the latter has since become something of a cult success.
With his reputation boosted by the critical and commercial success of American Graffiti, Lucas began working on the project he really wanted to make: a story set in space. Despite this he still had some difficulty convincing, well, anyone that this quirky space drama, which included key phrases like evil Empire, the dark side and ‘rescue princess from a space station called the Death Star’ in its script, was going to be any kind of success. So little was 20th Century Fox’s faith in Lucas’ new film that they willingly granted him complete ownership of all licensing and merchandising rights, as well as contractual arrangements for possible sequels.
Even most members of his own cast were unconvinced; Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford, then still relatively unknown, would reportedly joke around on set unless they were in a scene with Alec Guinness, the film’s most experienced and respected actor (that’s arguable if you wanted to bring up Peter Cushing, but Hamill and Ford had no scenes with him).
One can’t really hold it against them; on paper Star Wars actually sounded like a rather fantastical concept. It was about a ragtag group of individuals – an eighteen year old boy, a wise old sage, two robots, an arrogant smuggler and his partner, who was a Big Foot lookalike and only spoke in grunts – going up against an Empire led by a black-suited man who needed breathing apparatus, to save the Princess they were holding captive in their planet-destroying space station. And they were going to win. Surely no one would think this kind of thing was actually going to be good?
In a way, though, this unconventional group of characters thrown together in an equally unconventional setting was one of the main secrets behind the film’s success. The whole experience, perhaps more so than any of the other films in the series, feels entirely organic.
You buy into these characters precisely because you didn’t see them coming; nor could you imagine such a group working together in any other situation. They kept you interested because you weren’t sure where the script would lead them; it was unpredictable, original and fresh. Their interactions were, above all, entertaining – from Han Solo’s quick-witted, laid back attitude to Obi-Wan’s cool grandfather-like wisdom, to Luke’s character arc from naive boy to young man with leadership qualities by the film’s end.
These traits may now sound almost stereotypical, but right here is where those stereotypes were birthed. It’s no coincidence that this screenplay is one of the most frequently cited in screenwriting classes around the world today. It proved a success in its organic eccentricity – the kind of success that Hollywood is always looking to replicate (and that I make a point of using the word ‘organic’ should reflect how I rate their chances of doing so).
Not that I’m saying Star Wars was an entirely original idea – the plot was based largely on Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958), and Lucas borrowed some storytelling techniques from the Japanese director. While I wouldn’t want to detract from Star Wars as an outstanding achievement in its own right, this is something I like to bring up to acknowledge the indirect (and often overlooked) impact that Kurosawa had on Western cinema – in rather circular fashion, the Japanese director had himself been impacted by Western movies during his early career.
It’s not entirely surprising then, knowing Lucas’ Japanese influence, that the Jedi seem to share similarities with the ancient tradition of the Samurai. In Star Wars the Jedi are only mentioned in passing, acknowledged as an extinct breed of warrior, with Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader the last remnant of their kind. It seems many, like Han Solo, no longer believe in their traditions, cynically regarding it as an old system based on faith in some mysterious unseen ‘force’, and he lightly mocks Luke’s aspiration to become one of them. Lucas would relish delving even further into their historic roots some twenty years later, but we’ll get to that another time.
Now, it would be almost criminal for me to continue without pausing to reference John Williams’ score. Honestly, Star Wars simply wouldn’t be Star Wars without it, and I would argue almost 50% of this movie’s impact on audiences was due to its use of music. Not just its composition, nor its iconic usage alongside the famous title sequence and credits, but the subtle yet immaculate timing when it picked up in certain scenes. How it was used to capture the mysterious, unspoken authority of Obi-Wan’s character when he first appears on-screen for example; telling you everything you needed to know before Alec Guinness had even uttered a word. Anyone who claims this is Williams’ best ever work wouldn’t be overstating it.
And of course there’s Darth Vader; only one of the greatest villains of all time. In this movie we see Vader arguably at his most pure and most intimidating – he is a ruthless, merciless tyrant who we are told singlehandedly hunted down and killed all the Jedi. Again Lucas couldn’t help but delve into these roots later and somewhat spoil the illusion, but it is worth pointing out that when I speak of Vader here I am speaking of the version of him exclusive to Star Wars.
Bear in mind this was before anyone knew there would be a sequel. It was before that twist in The Empire Strikes Back had even been written. Vader was not originally supposed to be anyone’s father; he really was the one who ruthlessly slaughtered Luke’s father and everyone else’s for effect. So in that sense, we see Darth Vader here at his most ‘free’ to be the darkest villain imaginable. Which in turn would only heighten the impact of the twist to come, of course.
From the jaw-dropping opening shot (highlighting the sheer overwhelming size of an Imperial Star Destroyer, i.e. the Empire, next to a tiny rebel cruiser, i.e. the Resistance), Star Wars really does start as it means to go on. It is one of the greatest showcases of pure dramatic, cinematic theatre that there has ever been. It would be this even if there had been no sequels to follow it. But sequels there were… and the story of this universe, in actuality, was only just beginning.
10 / 10