Today is my birthday. I was born on the 26th of May, 1977. The premiere for Star Wars is listed as the 25th of May, 1977, meaning it statistically came out the day before I did. However, I was born in a country far, far away called Australia (which is around 17 hours in front of Hollywood at this time of year), meaning there’s at least a small chance that my own less notable premiere occurred around the same time Luke Skywalker realised he wasn’t going to get to Tosche Station to pick up some power converters. This incredibly accurate correlation seemed too important to ignore. As I’m sure you now realise, I was left with no option but to launch RetroSmack with a Star Wars post today.
Hordes of people rushed out into the street for hours either side of my birth. They all knew that something important was happening.
Image Credit: Mann’s Chinese Theatre in 1977 (photographer unknown)
These days its hard to imagine that Star Wars very nearly never got off the ground. As a teenager, George Lucas was much more interested in cars than cameras or spaceships. So much so that his career ambition was to be a race car driver. However, on June the 12th, 1962, Lucas had a very serious accident and was nearly killed when his car flipped over. This event caused the terrified youth to give up on his plan to race, but it wouldn’t keep him away from cars as a whole. Instead of racing them, Lucas started filming them. Thus began his second great love, and it wasn’t long before he plunged into film studies and eventually transferred to the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts. There he formed many strong friendships, most notably with a young student named Steven Spielberg. Lucas experimented with numerous abstract film techniques while studying, and considered himself a “filmmaker” as opposed to a “director”. In 1967, he created a short film called Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB. It won first prize at that year’s National Student film festival, convincing Lucas that a career in the film industry awaited, and that he would turn this first short success into a debut feature film.
The event that ended one dream and kickstarted another.
Image Credit: The Day in Tech
It would be another four years before the full length THX 1138 would hit cinemas, produced by Lucas’ then business partner Francis Ford Coppola, and starring Robert Duvall and Donald Pleasence. The film, which is set in the 25th century and focuses on a couple’s rebellion against dystopian control, received mixed reviews and bombed on release. Not to be perturbed, Lucas created his own company (Lucasfilm), and turned his attention to a subject much closer to his heart. Cars. American Graffiti was released in 1973 and was an immediate hit. A much more mainstream film than Lucas’ debut, the follow-up was a comedic coming of age story based in the sixties, with all the drag racing, drive-ins and rock ‘n’ roll that suggests. Praised by critics and audiences alike, American Graffiti made over $50 million in profit and was nominated for five academy awards including Best Picture and Best Director (both awards went to The Sting). George Lucas was now a very wealthy man, and there was a lot of interest in what he would come up with next. The young filmmaker knew exactly what he wanted to do though. He wanted to make Flash Gordon!
THX 1138: An underrated debut that showcases Lucas’ more experimental side.
American Graffiti: A labor of love for Lucas.
A big fan of the Flash Gordon serials and comic strips he’d obsessed over as a kid, Lucas was very excited by the idea of making an appropriately budgeted movie for the space adventuring hero. Despite his best attempts, he was unable to attain the rights to do it, so decided the only thing to do was to invent his own space opera. It would be called The Star Wars, and Lucas started writing the script as soon as American Graffiti was in the bag. The Star Wars went through numerous rewrites, with the well known parallels to Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 film The Hidden Fortress being incorporated as early as April, 1973. United Pictures, United Artists and Walt Disney Productions all rejected the idea, feeling it was an unusual choice for a follow-up to an Academy Award nominated comedy, and a strange idea overall. Even Alan Ladd, Jr., the Twentieth Century Fox producer who eventually gave Lucas $150,000 to write and direct The Star Wars in June 1973, couldn’t grasp exactly what Lucas was trying to achieve. He did however believe in the talent of the director, and trusted that the risk was worth taking. He wasn’t wrong.
Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon Comic Strip: I purchased a volume of these strips a few years back. They’re wonderful, and I’m not at all surprised that they inspired Lucas.
Gradually over a period of two years, Lucas’ script about Annikin Starkiller, a green-skinned smuggler with gills named Han Solo and a dog-like creature named Chewbacca (based on his own dog Indiana), who fought baddies and travelled around the galaxy, transformed into the story that we all know now. It wasn’t until 1975 that The Force was introduced and Annikin became the father of Luke (although the surname was still Starkiller at this point). It was during this time that Ralph McQuarrie, a key player in the development of Star Wars became involved. Lucas had been impressed by the previous work of McQuarrie, so hired him to produce some conceptual art to accompany the screenplay. Looking through it now, it’s absolutely incredible just how much of the Star Wars universe comes from the mind of McQuarrie rather than Lucas himself. The design of the key characters, outfits, locations and vehicles may have been described in Lucas’ script, and in some cases conceptualised by designers Colin Cantwell (of 2001: A Space Odyssey fame) and Alex Tavoularis, but fans have McQuarrie to thank for the overall look and feel of Star Wars. Check out the below images, all created in 1975, to see what I mean.
It was McQuarrie who, convinced that Darth Vader would wear a breathing apparatus to survive in space, produced this concept painting in February 1975.
McQuarrie adjusted the ships in some of his earliest paintings as artist Colin Cantwell redesigned them over time.
It’s astonishing how well the filmmakers recreated the visuals and atmosphere of McQuarrie’s paintings.
Image Credits: Ralph McQuarrie via Star Wars
With the screenplay finished and a budget of $8.25 million attributed, the search for a cast and locations began. Lucas favoured young, unknown actors, and Mark Hamill fit the bill perfectly to play the main protagonist, now named Luke Skywalker. It wasn’t as straight forward for Harrison Ford, who was initially rejected before winning the role of Han Solo over actors like Kurt Russell, Nick Nolte, Sylvester Stallone and Christopher Walken. For the next critical role, that of Princess Leia, it at one point looked like Jodie Foster would be the one to get it, but when she was forced to turn it down due to contractual obligations to Disney, Carrie Fisher got the gig. The most experienced actors brought into the production were unquestionably Alec Guiness, whose performance in playing Obi-Wan Kenobi earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, and Peter Cushing, who was given the role of Grand Moff Tarkin after missing out on Kenobi. The final four major hires were chosen for their distinct characteristics; David Prowse (the formidable Darth Vader), Anthony Daniels (the robotic C-3PO), Kenny Baker (the miniature R2-D2) and Peter Mayhew (the 7 foot 2 Chewbacca) were all selected for their unique physiques and / or vocal talents.
It takes all sizes to make an epic fantasy film. Harrison Ford, David Prowse, Peter Mayhew, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill and Kenny Baker. Perhaps Anthony Daniels took the photo?
Image Credit: Harry Myers via Hollyzood
Filming for The Star Wars (which by now was simply called Star Wars) took place in Tunisia (Tatooine), Guatemala (Yavin Rebel Base) and Death Valley National Park in the USA (a few further Tatooine scenes), with much of the studio work occurring in the United Kingdom. Lucas formed yet another company to handle visual effects, with this one being called Industrial Light & Magic (ILM). The team, based out of California, used digital motion control photography with small scale models and slow moving cameras to produce the space sequences. The ILM crew definitely faced some challenges, but there were more significant problems to contend with in Tunisia, with malfunctioning props, electronic issues and a massive rainstorm causing lengthy delays. There are a heap of other stories about dodgy sets, uncomfortable actors and ridiculous time constraints, but the biggest theme from this period of development seems to be the complete skepticism from crew and a fair portion of the cast. It seemed like a silly, children’s story to many of them, and they appeared unable to foresee the larger vision that the director was working towards. The budget blew out to around $11 million, and reshoots were made difficult when Mark Hamill scarred his face in a car accident. The odds were against Lucas from the start, and they were getting worse as time went on.
Industrial Light & Magic, led by John Dykstra, did an amazing job bringing the space battles to life.
Image Credit: CG Pitara
All the naysayers were of course in for a Jabba the Hutt size surprise, when Star Wars rapidly broke box office records on release, despite only showing in 32 theatres for the opening weekend. Not even Lucas had felt confident about the film’s chances of success, and he was so certain that his friend Steven Spielberg’s film Close Encounters of the Third Kind would earn a greater profit than his that he proposed the two directors trade 2.5% of the profit of each other’s films. They’ve upheld this agreement to this day, which very obviously works in Spielberg’s favour. Huge crowds lined up down streets to watch Star Wars multiple times, and everyone involved became very much in demand. By August it was showing in 1,096 theatres across the United States, with many of them playing it for over a year straight. It became the highest earning film of all time, passing Spielberg’s Jaws record of $220 million, before going on to make $530 million worldwide (Spielberg would beat that record in 1983 with E.T.). Unsurprisingly, Star Wars received numerous Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Alec Guiness) and Best Screenplay. The majority of those awards went to Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, but Star Wars did collect trophies for Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Sound and Best Visual Effects.
1977 poster with beautiful artwork by Tom Jung
Image Credit: Official movie poster via dafont
I adored Star Wars as a kid. While I was obviously too young to watch the first two films at the cinema, I clearly recall seeing Return of the Jedi with my whole family at the age of 6. The trilogy had a huge impact on me, and while I surprisingly didn’t build up a big collection of Star Wars action figures (Masters of the Universe took precedence there) or trading cards (sports cards were my weapon of choice), I was immensely jealous of family friends that owned heaps of them. Star Wars had a big role in the formation of my fetish for the fantastic, and this blog’s existence can very easily be traced back to it. Knowing all this, it’s difficult to say why I had such reservations revisiting the first film after not having seen it for well over a decade. I guess I assumed that it couldn’t possibly live up to the lofty position it holds in my man-child brain. When I did finally sit down to obliterate my childhood recollections, I instead formed an uncontrollable grin on my face from the very first moment that lasted until the end credits rolled. Star Wars is pure, cinematic gold, and no amount of time, shitty prequels, or hipster retro T-shirts can possibly taint it.
The opening scene is still breathtaking today, with fantastic visuals and sound.
I’d forgotten just how quickly Darth Vader is introduced, as well as how long it takes for us to meet Luke Skywalker.
Has there ever been a more exciting opening scene in the history of film? John Williams’ music is rightfully considered one of the very best movie soundtracks of all time, and its presence is strongly felt from the opening introductory crawl. But it’s the moment a convincing spacecraft flies into view, pursued by an enormous Empire destroyer firing at its target, that audiences would have realised the glory of what they were about to take part in. Things move at such a hectic pace from the get go, with the plight of the droids and Princess Leia, and the introduction of Darth Vader, his league of Stormtroopers, and the scavenging Jawas, all taking place well before Luke Skywalker even gets screentime. Many have pointed out that the hero’s story in Star Wars follows a very classic structure, but the imagination and creativity that went into everything around him is where the magic resides. The locations are teaming with activity and unforgettable characters, persuading the viewer that what they’re witnessing is only the tip of a very large iceberg of science fiction fantasy goodness.
The little details in the background are what suggest a far greater universe. One that has been explored in movies, books, comics and video games, among various other mediums, ever since.
Luke wields a lightsaber for the first time. Audiences would have to wait for the sequel for him to gain appropriate training to really use it though.
More than anything else, Star Wars is just spectacularly entertaining. So much so that it’s easy to forgive the fact that the enemy troops appear completely incapable of hitting anything they aim at. It gets away with it because it never takes itself too seriously, despite the serious events taking place. It’s just pure fun, with endless inventiveness, thrilling action sequences and enjoyable one-liners from almost all the main characters (apart from Luke of course, who plays it straight in his whiny way). The film made stars of all its major actors, but it was not at all surprising to see Harrison Ford gain the most success of all. He’s brilliantly cast as Han Solo, balancing the arrogance and self-preoccupation required for the smuggler role, with the bravado and sex-appeal that made every woman want him and every man want to be him. Revisiting Star Wars has been an absolute delight, and I can’t wait to watch The Empire Strikes Back when it’s time to RetroSmack it. To think that so much of the Star Wars universe was yet to be revealed at this point (including Yoda and the single greatest reveal in movie history), and yet the first entry stands on its own as one the most important films ever made. Now, excuse me while I go out and buy one of those overused retro T-shirts.
Without a spec of CGI, these old sets were magnificent to look at. A true testament to both vision and damn hard work.
Tie Fighter vs X Wing: Video games exist to let players take part in battles like this one. Lucasfilm eventually gave them that wish.
A job well done by all involved.
The Star Wars (1977) RetroCard has now been added to the RetroCard Shop. It’s a common card, so therefore costs 10 smacks and has a limited release of 120.
Featured Image Credit: Official movie poster by Tom Jung