For 1 Year, 100 Movies, contributor/filmmaker Trey Hock is watching all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year. His reactions to each film are recorded here twice a week until the year (and list) is up!
My difficulty with writing critically about “Star Wars” is that I can’t remember a time before “Star Wars.” It has colored my world in some way shape or form forever. It feels like critiquing gravity. It’s not something you critique; it’s something you deal with.
That’s the difficulty now. The fan films, the tie-ins; the toys; the conventions; the “Star Wars” references that every half-hour sitcom from the early eighties on has made; not to mention the sequels, prequels, and spinoffs; all of this just make it overwhelming to talk about the actual film.
Then there’s the fact that I grew up on “Star Wars.” When the film was first released in 1977, then again in 1978 with a new title crawl, my parents were both working. I had a ton of babysitters and those babysitters wanted to see “Star Wars.” With vague calculations and only scattered recollections, I conservatively estimate that I saw “Star Wars” some 15 times in the theater during its ’77 and ’78 releases.
My mother took me out of kindergarten, so that we could go and see “The Empire Strikes Back” on its opening day in 1980 at the Midland in Kansas City, a huge sprawling plush venue reminiscent of the theater in “Annie.”
I can tell you where I sat in the old Glenwood theater, one of only 27 theaters in the nation that screened “Star Wars” before its expanded release, for the opening of “Return of the Jedi” in 1983. The Glenwood is no longer there, but I could probably draw a pretty good overhead-seating chart.
My freshman year in high school was spent watching one of the films from the original trilogy, the only trilogy at the time, every weekday and all three films every Saturday and Sunday for an entire year. I wanted to know these films intimately and wanted to be able to say without a doubt that I had seen each over a hundred times.
Then the new trilogy came out, and wrecked my enjoyment of the original three films. I just couldn’t shake the aftertaste of those poorly conceived, poorly executed, shadows of the earlier films. I had to put “Star Wars” away for a little while.
Now AFI’s list has forced George Lucas back into my life, like an estranged uncle at a family reunion, and I’ve got to say I’m glad to see you again “Star Wars.” It has been too long.
Here are the ground rules. I watched the 1977 cut. This isn’t “A New Hope” this isn’t “Episode IV” this is just a crazy film that some Northern Californian Art Film kid had to get out of his head, whether it ruined his career or not. Lucas’ previous feature length film was “American Graffiti,” which was basically a tonal study of a small rural town in the early 1960s. So making a science fiction space epic was a pretty huge risk. “Star Wars,” his third feature, could just as easily have turned out to be his last.
There were some things going Lucas’ way though. There was a shift in film distribution and exhibition that was trending toward big special effects driven summer blockbusters. This was the infancy of the shift, but “Jaws,” which came just two years earlier in 1975, had been a massive summer hit and the ground swell had started. Lucas’ film promised some of the most advanced and dazzling special effects to date.
What makes “Star Wars” so powerful is, not the overhyped influence that Joseph Campbell’s work had on Lucas as he developed the story, but the apparent love of earlier motion pictures that shines through “Star Wars.” This film is an incredible entry point to many styles, eras and genres of film. There is a solid story, but visually it is built on well constructed and well thought out homage to earlier movies and television shows.
Want a way to get into Japanese cinema? Well how about the way Lucas uses the characters of the bumbling and comedic footservants, a classic trope used in many Japanese period films, to visually narrate “Star Wars.”
It is not accidental or serendipitous that the first main characters we meet are the two droids, C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker). They bookend and punctuate our story with occasional interjections, but for the most part they are here as observers, and they metaphorically (and sometimes literally) tell us the story.
If you want an epic adventure tale of a young farm boy, who stumbles across a hidden message that leads him to a place far from home, a tale that starts like any of the comic book and television serials of Superman, who was a child in Smallville, or like Dorthy Gale on her small Kansas farm, “Star Wars” has got it.
We are all Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to some extent. Mark Hamill’s performance is sometimes stiff and awkward, but I find his foibles endearing. As quick as we are to poke fun at his squeaky voice as he whines about his power convertors, we kind of love it too.
Luke’s a whiner and uncool, and because of this most of us can relate. All of the stronger, hipper, more adventurous kids have taken off to fight the Empire, and Luke is still stuck on the farm. We all grow up in our towns, big or small, and to some extent we want to know what is just beyond the horizon. When a message comes, it peaks our interest and we follow.
But destiny is a tricky thing.
Adventure’s difficult and often what we don’t know scares us. Luckily there is usually a wise and weird old man, in Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) and a bunch of Jawa shooting Stormtroopers to get us motivated.
Alec Guinness is great. The warmth and depth of character that he pours into Ben Kenobi helps bring credibility to the story. No longer are these simply archetypes that fascinate Lucas. With Guinness acting, we get a real person. His performance would earn him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. It would come twenty years after he won the award for Best Actor for “The Bridge on the River Kwai.”
Oh did I mention that if you want the story of hidden royalty, similar to King Arthur’s tale, “Star Wars” has it. It even has its own order of knights, and they’ve got laser swords.
Perhaps the dust and the lawlessness of the old West is your thing. You want the ambivalent gunslinger, who gets caught up in a fight that’s not his own. I think we might have just the scoundrel for you.
In Han Solo (Harrison Ford) we get a more charming version of Sergio Leone’s Man with No Name. Han is an opportunistic smuggler with a heart of gold, and when the Rebellion needs the services of a great pilot or a guy who’s good with a blaster, Han reluctantly steps up to the plate.
Han is the coolest, and I remember that schoolyard conversations would often come around to the question, would you rather be “Jedi” Luke or “Star Wars” Han. If you didn’t want to be teased endlessly, you’d say Han.
Ford’s normal relatively flat performance works for Han. He looks tough and every so often he’ll break into a grin or give you a rousing “Yeeha.” You can’t expect much more from a cowboy.
Let’s not forget about R2’s message. There is still a princess to save from an evil military ruler and a dark lord.
The casting in “Star Wars” is pretty savvy. Lucas has Guinness and Peter Cushing, as Grand Moff Tarkin, in supporting roles. Cushing, with his experience acting in the myriad of horror films that Hammer would crank out, adds a stony faced gravitas to Tarkin. Cushing is not approachable or grandfatherly. There is no negotiating with this Grand Moff.
The strong willed Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) is a compelling female character for science fiction of the late 1970s. Leia helps lead the Rebellion, and never once does she talk about romantic love within the context of the original “Star Wars.” Leia’s not looking for a baby or a man to save her. She faces down her adversaries and though Han and Luke rescue her, their scheme doesn’t go exactly as planned and Leia must improvise so their escape is successful. Lucas will later turn Leia into a brass-bra-wearing cliché, but for now she is strong and self-reliant.
Oh and you say you’d like exciting escapes from pursuing bad guys? If you want a swashbuckling film reminiscent of a Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn movie, “Star Wars” can do that.
Lucas mixes cultures and references with wild abandon. It’s as if he just wanted to get in all of the crazy visuals that would have appealed to him as a young boy. When he made “Star Wars” in 1977, he was still young enough to get it right. Instead of giving us a stereotyped Rastafarian hype man, he gives us a knight fighting a samurai.
Throughout the film, the obstacles that stood in the way of Luke becoming a hero slowly fall away. Uncle Owen (Phil Brown) and Aunt Beru (Shelagh Fraser) die, Luke’s limited view of the world expands, and now in order for Luke to look beyond his reliance on his teacher, Obi-Wan must fall. Luke and the rest of the gang flee the Empire’s battle station in the wake of Ben’s death.
After a meeting to discuss the schematics of the Death Star, the Rebellion mount an attack on the Empire, and “Star Wars” shifts again. Now Lucas gives us a World War dogfight film, where a rag tag bunch of flying aces are going to take on an impenetrable wall of evil.
Though the group of rebels face terrible odds, the spirit of Obi-Wan guides Luke and bolsters his confidence in the Force. That and Han returns for an eleventh hour rescue.
There’s an awards ceremony and everyone is happy at the end, but you all know the story.
“Star Wars” deserves a spot high on AFI’s list now and for some time to come, because it is a showcase of the best of motion pictures from adventure films, television serials, and war movies. This is a sampling of great moments from films that would never make this list otherwise. Lucas’ love and devotion to his artistic medium is awe-inspiring.
Lucas may have become an overstuffed walrus in plaid, but in 1977, he was a badass.
“Star Wars” is not a perfect film. George Lucas was a notoriously terse and blunt director, which translates to some wooden acting performances, but “Star Wars” isn’t a character driven piece. It’s about translating a story with recognizable archetypes that can speak to anyone across cultures, across generations, and across the galaxy.
Next up #12 “The Searchers” (1956)
For links to #20-29, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #20 It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
For links to #30-39, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #30 Apocalypse Now (1979)
For links to #40-49, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #40 The Sound of Music (1965)
For links to #50-59, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #50 The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
For links to #60 – 69, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #60 Duck Soup (1933)
For links to #70 – 79, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #70 A Clockwork Orange (1971)
For links to #80 – 89, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #80 The Apartment (1960)
For links to #90 – 100, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #90 Swing Time (1936)