No film in history have had a greater impact on other films than Star Wars. It completely changed the way movies are made, marketed, and viewed. George Lucas completely redefined what it meant to make movies. Star Wars became a pop-cultural behemoth. The characters of Luke, Han, and R2-D2 become burned into the public consciousness. Let’s take a peek at who and why this movie took off like it did.
Star Wars came in at the end of the New Hollywood era. I’ve briefly talked about it in the last post but basically New Hollywood was when all the directors got a lot more freedom to make films their own way. Major figures in this movement included, but weren’t limited to Martin Scorsese, Sydney Pollack, Roman Polanski, Francis Ford Coppola, and Peter Bogdanovich. Two other figures were made during this period, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.
Spielberg and Lucas are often credited on creating the blockbuster, killing the New Hollywood movement but in reality it was more of a mutation of the New Hollywood. The New Hollywood films began to be bigger and bigger hits. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist were huge. Larger successes led to larger egos on part of the directors. They stopped listening to notes and the budgets went out of control. It was this scene that Jaws entered. Sorry for all this non science fiction talk but I feel it’s important to help set the stage.
Spielberg cut his teeth directing for television. His first big offer was from Universal, directing a movie about a killer shark. Jaws was a huge success with lines going around the block for people to see it. The movie was released in the summer in order to capitalize the movie taking place during the summer. This created an association with blockbusters and summer that still existence to this day.
While all of this was going on hotshot young director George Lucas was pitching an idea for a science fantasy adventure film. Lucas was a film student. He huge out in the New Hollywood circles. He was a close friend with Francis Ford Coppola. Lucas first hit was American Graffiti. A tale of teenage life in the early sixties. The movie was a sleeper hit and a critical success and earning an Oscar nod. After its success, Lucas wanted to do a classic space adventure, in the same vein of the Flash Gordon serials that he grew up with. He began pitching the film around town. The only problem that no one wanted it. He did eventually got Fox to finance it. The script went through several drafts with characters being cut or combined. At one point the film was titled The Adventures of Luke Starkiller as taken from the Journal of the Whills, Saga I: The Star Wars. Just rolls of the tongue.
Star Wars was really a mesh up of all the stuff Lucas grew up with. In a 1977 interview with Time magazine he said, “It’s the flotsam and jetsam from the period when I was twelve years old. All the books and films and comics that I liked when I was a child. The plot is simple—good against evil—and the film is designed to be all the fun things and fantasy things I remember. The word for this movie is fun.” From the iris wipes to the opening crawl to the plot of the underdogs subverting an evil empire screams Flash Gordon. Lucas also took a lot from acclaimed Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa. Particularly his 1958 classic The Hidden Fortress. Parts of the story being told from the point of view of the droids C-3PO and R2-D2 much like how parts of The Hidden Fortress were told from the point of the peasants Tahei and Matashichi. I also wouldn’t be the first to notice a similarity between C-3PO and the android from Metropolis. Lucas also took inspiration from bits of his own life. The idea of Chewbacca came from Lucas’ pet husky.
To design his fantastical space world Lucas and his crew had to think outside the box. Ralph McQuarrie did designs not only for most of the iconic characters but he also drew concepts for the iconic locations and sets as well. In an interview with San Diego Union-Tribune he said, “I just did my best to depict what I thought the film should look like, I really liked the idea. I didn’t think the film would ever get made. My impression was it was too expensive. There wouldn’t be enough of an audience. It’s just too complicated. But George knew a lot of things that I didn’t know.” Lucas wanted the world to feel old and used in as opposed to the chrome and plastic that most people associated with science-fiction.
In order to create this Lucas made his own visual effects company, Industrial Lights and Magic. ILM was based out of Van Nuys, California. ILM work on Star Wars would revolutionized the way models and sound design would be used in films.
The shooting was incredibly stressful, especially for Lucas who was diagnosed with hypertension. His than wife, Marcia, edited the movie. Lucas got John Williams to do the score. Williams’ orchestral score really helped set the film apart from its contemporaries which had a lot of disco and synth.
Lucas was convinced the film would be a flop. He kept the merchandising rights in hopes that he might have been able to cover the losses with toys and t-shirts sell. Star Wars opened in 32 theaters. The film was a surprised hit, breaking records with mobs of people lining up to watch. By August Star Wars was in 1,096 theaters. The film made George Lucas incredible rich. The film defined what it meant to be a cultural phenomenon in the modern sense. For better or for worse, blockbusters became the go to movies for Hollywood to make. More importantly it showed that science fiction could be profitable again.
Clarke, Gerald (May 30, 1977). “Star Wars:The Years’s Best Movie”. Time. New York City, NY:Time Inc. 109(22):57. http://time.com/4153583/star-wars-the-years-best-movie/
Empire of Dreams: The Story of the Star Wars Trilogy. Star Wars Trilogy Box Set DVD documentary. (2005).
Kendricks, Neil (1999-09-23). “Behind The Force ‘Star Wars: The Magic of Myth’ showcases the work of artists who collaborated with the head Jedi, a.k.a. George Lucas”. San Diego Union-Tribune. p. NIGHT & DAY-32.