What were the movies like before the big bang? The big bang in this case being the blasts that come from the Imperial Star Destroyer at the start of George Lucas’ Star Wars?
The movies had always existed pre-Star Wars of course, and had done since the late 19th Century, but movies as we know them today, the film industry as it exists right now, was never the same after Star Wars, later known as Episode IV: A New Hope.
There had always been big movies at the box office prior to the first Star Wars; Gone with the Wind (still the biggest if you adjust for inflation), the James Bond movies, The Godfather, and only two years before anyone knew what a Jedi was, there had been Jaws. Spielberg’s shark thriller started something, but it was Star Wars that put the icing on the cake, turning the concept of the Hollywood blockbuster into the merchandise-driven trend setter that we think of nowadays. There was an element of it with James Bond in the 60’s, what with its plethora of toys and merchandise, but Star Wars was in another galaxy for sure.
In 1975, Jaws had busted the blocks, so to speak, but it still felt very much like a product of the 1970s; it had craggy faced, hard-edged character actors like Robert Shaw and Roy Scheider, with an extra level of quirk provided by Richard Dreyfuss, and it had its two feet in the slasher movie genre and the man against nature genre, in many ways coming across as mainstream version of a slasher movie colliding with something like Deliverance, substituting the woods for the ocean, and a masked killer for a shark, but it also proved you could merchandise a movie and make a killing at the box office, bringing in a massive audience in the summer months and making a massive amount of money at the same time. All Hollywood needed to do was add some space ships, a fast pace and a young cast and they were off to the races. It needed Star Wars.
Nothing would ever be the same again.
It’s year zero in many ways for the blockbuster; the money it made, the pioneering use of special effects, the wizardry, both on-screen and behind the scenes, the making of several young, unknown actors, with Harrison Ford emerging as the biggest name, while the movie itself, by the standards of the 70’s but probably less so now, moved like a rocket ship.
The stories of the making of it are as famous as the film itself; from the audition process, which it shared with Brian De Palma’s Carrie, to the troublesome production, to Harrison Ford making fun of the dialogue (“you can type this s**t George, but you sure can’t say it”), Carrie Fisher having to keep her breasts taped down, to everyone at 20th Century Fox, and even Lucas’ close friends, believing it would be a disaster and a flop…everyone that is but Steven Spielberg.
Then there’s Lucas getting hold of the merchandising rights from a skeptic 20th Century Fox, the studio believing that the movie would be a flop and happilly signing them away to Lucas, a decision right up there with The Beatles being turned down by Decca Records, as Lucas went on to become arguably one of the most powerful names in the film business to an extent that he was able to set a $4 billion asking price when Disney came to buy his company in later years.
The story of Star Wars is as much the story of Hollywood post-1977 and the ricochet effect of those opening blasts into space, preceded by arguably one of the greatest marches in movie music history, are still felt today. It opened the floodgates for a succession of other filmmakers, as well as future generations, to get their own fantastic visions of the ground; Ridley Scott with Alien and Blade Runner; James Cameron with The Terminator; Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale with Back to the Future; The Wachowskis with The Matrix; the success of each ricocheted into another movie, all stemming from the first big bang, and before we knew it, one of the biggest names inspired by Star Wars, JJ Abrams, would be given the keys to the castle when the films came back under the eye of Kathleen Kennedy.
Many may complain it infantalized cinema, and it’s easy to see the point, coming as it did on the heels of a body of work from auteurs such as Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather I and II, The Conversation), Peter Bogdanovich (Paper Moon, The Last Picture Show) and William Friedkin (The Exorcist, The French Connection) who took the movies into darker and more adult territory with their dark narratives of the American Dream gone wrong, but all it did was shine a light on the dark, allowing the movies to be fun again, and it actually allowed genre filmmakers like Ridley Scott and James Cameron to take genre B-movie tropes, give them an A-list sheen, much like Lucas did here, and then take head into darker territory themselves, with the likes of the first two installments of the Alien franchise, not to mention Blade Runner and The Terminator.
Its tale of a Princess, a young farm boy, his elder mentor and the rogue smuggler, his cool spaceship (the greatest in all of movies) and his Wookiee best friend was simple, effective and brilliant, filled with charm, humour and wonderful bursts of action. Its most iconic villain was more of a henchman this time, but he stood out enough to warrant being more centre stage in the sequel, before becoming an emotional anchor to pin the story on by the third, before a prequel trilogy would make his downfall the story itself (to controversial effect).
It shows little signs of the well documented problems that Lucas had in completing the movie; from the British crew that thought it was stupid and somewhat rebelled during the production, to the recently formed effects company ILM that struggled to keep up. It arrived on screens almost perfectly formed, grabbing everyone’s attention and effectively becoming the biggest movie in history up to that point.
That it arrived from a director who tried to do dark and gritty in THX-1138, to a lack of commercial success, but rebounded with the wonderful American Graffiti, is one of the most subtle ironies in Hollywood. Lucas proved them all wrong and made a film that would be revered by fans of science fiction and Hollywood blockbusters for generations to come, passed down from the original generation to their own kids and relatives, who would subsequently pass it on to their own loved ones.
There is always a sense of rediscovery when watching the original movies with someone who has never watched them before, a chance to see the magic in their eyes and see what it must have been like for yourself when watching them for the first time. That Lucas took a break from directing for twenty-two years is not a surprise given how stressful making the film was, but he would never become a Terrence Malick-like figure of mystery, instead becoming a pioneering figure in Hollywood, from producing other movies through Lucasfilm, developing key aspects of filmmaking technology (THX sound design, the logo of which adorned many VHS editions of successful films throughout the 80’s and 90’s), creating Indiana Jones, and supervising the post-production process on Jurassic Park, whilst Spielberg went to Poland to film Schindler’s List.
Say what you want about the prequels, but they can never take away the importance and brilliance of the original. To think that it led to all manner of books, comics, video games, action figures and whatever you could put the logo on to may have been unthinkable in 1977, but nowadays it’s part of the norm, whether it be Marvel, DC or Harry Potter. The idea of merchandising a movie started here, but it also was an incredibly enjoyable piece of work, giving us characters and a narrative that would go into incredible, downright brilliant places once the sequel arrived, and coming on the back of not only a plethora of dark decade for movies, but some very dark historical events, audiences were ready to be taken… to a galaxy that happened to be far, far away.
The Force was with it.
What do you think of A New Hope? The best Star Wars? Let us know!