Friday, January 25, 2019

The Force is Still With Us





I was 11 years old when the original Star Wars came out in 1977, and I found myself going back week after week to see it again and again…I think a total of 14 times that summer and fall. (Remember, this was before the advent of home video…when a movie left the theaters, it was possibly gone forever, unless it appeared on television many years later, interrupted by commercials and viewed on the very small screens of the ’70s.)

Star Wars was more than just a movie, or a trilogy, or a film series. It became part of the fabric of our collective consciousness, where it remains to this day. For kids of the 1970s and the ’80s, the first three films (Episodes IV, V and VI) of the series are especially dear.

It was the brainchild of an ambitious young filmmaker. George Lucas (American Graffiti) was close friends with Spielberg, Brian de Palma, Francis Ford Coppola—some of the masters of 1970s cinema—and there was a definite rivalry and competition among them about who would “make it” and get ahead first. (Coppola hit it big first with The Godfather.) 

Archetypal: The Hero's Journey and epic struggle between Good & Evil

Star Wars would solidify Lucas as a Force to be reckoned with. For his magnum opus, Lucas was working on a modern version of the old 1930s-40s B-movie sci-fi serials like the popular Flash Gordon programmers that starred handsome Buster Crabbe in a sequin-studded space suit.

So much more than an entertaining space opera, Star Wars created a worldwide, generation-spanning phenomenon. Lucas’s vision spawned not only beloved unforgettable characters but an entire imaginary universe, an entire human-extraterrestrial history and cosmology, and a philosophy that is literally practiced as a religion by a small percentage of earth’s population. 

With Star Wars, George Lucas continued the establishment of a sci-fi multiverse envisioned by 20th century sci-fi writers and futurists including writer Arthur C. Clarke (2001: A Space Odyssey) and producer Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek).

The Star Wars saga touches upon and recalls so many elements of philosopher and teacher Joseph Campbell’s work on the The Power of Myth, exemplifying his Hero’s Journey narrative and archetypes—the storytelling elements that create “universal appeal”

Indeed, when first released, Star Wars was likened to a futuristic Wizard of Oz—on some of the 1977 movie posters you can even find find homages to a a space-age Dorothy, Cowardly Lion and Tin Man. 

Multidimensional aspects of the storytelling point to a time-bending multiverse by associating sci-fi themes with the traditional “once upon a time” fairy tale preamble: “A long, long, time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”

Artoo and Threepio: As emotional and flawed as their human counterparts

Technology and robotics figure prominently in the George Lucas galactic weltenschaung.  What makes the treatment different here are that the robots—called ’droids in Lucas’s world— are even more emotional than the humans….C3P0 in particular frets and worries and bemoans the fate of their unending servitude and the vicissitudes of life in general. “We seem to be made to suffer; it’s our lot in life,” he wails, even as he and R2 faithfully and loyally serve their human masters.  The fiercely loyal, cagey and versatile R2D2 (who plugs into any system) has a one-track mind to fulfill whatever mission he is programmed with, but he does have a total devotion to his masters, particularly Luke Skywalker. 

The ‘droids also serve an important role in the unfolding of the saga, serving as a Greek chorus by commentating on the action as well as giving background exposition when necessary. 

Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker

Despite their endless scientific and empirical knowledge and AI, Lucas’s ’droids prove statistics are not the keys to peace and serenity. Indeed, these robot characters display fears, issues and imperfect personality traits as pronounced as those of the humanoid heroes. 

Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia Organa
Of course, in addition to the pyrotechnics, pioneering special effects that heralded the birth of CGI (Lucas also fathered Industrial Light & Magic), were iconic performances by an ensemble of actors whose characterizations brought those old archetypes to life in a new and unique way. (And of course, we may forget, even the robots and space creatures are enacted by talented humans as well.)

Mark Hamill (Corvette Summer, The Last Jedi) is Luke Skywalker, the young protagonist with whom we embark on this epic hero’s journey. Lovers of the original trilogy will notice that Hamill’s physical appearance changes markedly after the first film. A serious car accident between filming of the first and second films required extensive reconstructive surgery. So, for Empire Strikes Back, Lucas wrote in an attack from a wampa (that looked much like the abominable snowman in the Rankin-Bass claymation Christmas classics) in which Luke was uncharacteristically bloodied. 

Harrison Ford as Han Solo

Harrison Ford is the laconic mercenary Han Solo, desperately trying to hide his sensitivity and heart of gold under a layer of machismo. Throughout the 1980s, Harrison Ford played a number of heroic characters, most notably the title role in Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones series. Later in the decade, director Mike Nichols would bring out Ford’s vulnerable and romantic and human sides as the actor gave unforgettable performances in films like Working Girl and Regarding Henry. But Ford’s bread-and-butter roles would always be as action hero. 

Darth Vader, portrayed by David Prowse and voiced by James Earl Jones

Carrie Fisher (Shampoo, Hannah and Her Sisters) is the fearless and canny Princess Leia, one of the architects of the rebel alliance against the evil Empire.  Not content to rest on her laurels as an iconic sex symbol and action figure, Fisher, daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, was a true artistic renaissance woman—a brilliant novelist and Hollywood screenwriter and script doctor, who parlayed her unusual upbringing (a Hollywood soap opera in itself) into acerbic comic gold in the book and film of her autobiographical roman a clef Postcards from the Edge. Fisher’s untimely death at age 60 cut short her later missions as General Leia in the continuation of the saga, though of course she did appear in both The Force Awakens and Last Jedi.

Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian

Sir Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan "Ben" Kenobi
Sir Alec Guinness (Bridge on the River Kwai, Murder By Death) lends acting gravitasse as the wise old Jedi Master Obi Wan “Ben” Kenobi. Peter Mayhew, without a single line of dialogue but an expressive and emotive animal-instinct style of communication, is the brave, skilled and loving wookie Chewbacca. 

Peter Cushing (Dracula AD 1972, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed), American International horror star of the 1960s beside cohort Christopher Lee (who would join the Star Wars franchise in the 1990s-2000s with parts I, II and III), is the deliciously diabolical Grand Moff Tarkin with his clipped posh British delivery (so powerful that newcomer Fisher found herself falling into a faux British accent herself in her scenes with Cushing, which she ruefully and humorously admits on the video commentary.)  

James Earl Jones (Sounder, The Great White Hope) provides the sonorous voice that gave life to one of the cinema’s most elegant villains (as well as the tagline of global cable news network CNN!), the dark Jedi Knight Darth Vader— a wounded human bolstered by AI and robotics, the labored breath of the human still heard within his bionic, computer-aided mobility…the mind of a Jedi Master in sinister service to the Dark Side.

Peter Mayhew as Chewy

Frank Oz gives life to Yoda
A golden, electronic version of  the Tin Man of Oz, Anthony Daniels frets and worries as the neurotic Cyborg Relations ’droid—with adventures ranging from having his golden casings blown to bits by storm troopers and put back together by Chewbacca, to being worshipped by the Ewoks on the forest moon of Endor, by virtue of his shiny gold visage, bright flashing eyes and ability to communicate in their language.

Frank Oz, the brilliant puppeteer behind Muppet superstars Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy, brings to life the character of the wise, deep and wizened Jedi teacher Yoda, who speaks in with Socratic solemnity in a cute purring baby-voice. 


The costume that ignited many an adolescent hormone

Empire introduced the debonair Billy Dee Williams (Brian’s Song, Lady Sings the Blues) in the character of Lando Calrissian (played by Donald Glover in the recent prequel Solo), who joins the existing ensemble, continuing through Return of the Jedi.

In 1977 the original Star Wars film broke all attendance records and became the highest grossing film of all time. Today, it is #2 on filmsite.org’s list of Top 100 All-Time Films (domestic gross, adjusted for inflation, as of January 2019) between Gone with the Wind and The Sound of Music. (Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi also made the Top 20, along with 1999’s Phantom Menace and 2015’s Force Awakens.)

The rousing score by John Williams (The Poseidon Adventure, Schindler’s List), with a theme even more recognizable than the ones for The Godfather or Lawrence of Arabia, adds immeasurably to the Star Wars iconography. 

Luke, Ben, R2D2 and C3P0
In the 1990s, as the home video market boomed and Lucas planned the next three chapters of the story to unfold on the big screen, (actually the prequel to parts IV, V and VI), he revamped and remastered and reworked entire sequences to the original trilogy of films, adding CGI effects as well as actors and characters and creatures from the upcoming parts I, II and III, in order to tie the series together and create continuity. Most millennial viewers are unaware of the renovation of these first three films, and indeed, copies of those original cuts are exceedingly rare. 

It is quite an amazing feat to give birth to a new version of reality...a story to which practically everyone on the planet can relate. For me, the original Star Wars trilogy is epic storytelling at its creative zenith. May the Force continue to be with us!


This is an entry in the Robots in Film Blogathon hosted by The Midnight Drive-In and Hamlette’s Soliloquy. I look forward to reading the other entries and exploring new blog worlds and galaxies! 



25 comments:

Hamlette said...

I love that you tied this to Joseph Campbell's work! So many people don't realize that.

I envy you the opportunity to see the originals on the big screen! I was born the year The Empire Strikes Back came out, so yeah, didn't happen for me. I did go see the CGIed-up rereleases in the '90s, though.

Thanks for joining our blogathon!

Caftan Woman said...

Your article reignited in me an appreciation for Star Wars and the excitement of that time in 1977 when I took my younger sisters to see the new movie.

Your comment about the multi-generational fans plays out in my family. Our daughter was six years old when the hubby thought she might enjoy A New Hope. Her takeaway at that age had to do with the music. She shouted at us, "Who made the music?" I think our greatest fun was seeing Anthony Daniels with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra recreate the story through C3P0s viewpoint. Droids rule!

Indeed, the creation of modern mythology is quite an accomplishment.

Bob Johns said...

Growing up during this time was pure magic for a young mind! I would have to say the Droids and Bounty Hunters are what made Star Wars so memorable as a child. Very Cool write up!

Gill Jacob said...

Love your affectionate take on these movies and your enthusiasm for this saga.

angelman66 said...

Hamlette, thanks so much for hosting this wonderful blogathon with Quiggy! And for your always kind comments!
- Chris

angelman66 said...

Hi Caftan Woman —wow, so cool that your daughter loved the music as much as I do. And what a treat to experience 3P0 himself at the symphony! I am jealous!!
- Chris

angelman66 said...

Bob Johns, thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your memories! May the force be with you, brother!- Chris

angelman66 said...

Gill, thanks as always for reading. it means so much to me!
- C

Quiggy said...

I was 15 when I went to see the first one, and I had to beg to go. My father didn't want his kids going to PG movies. And I only got to see it the one time until the advent of home video... Thanks for entering the blogathon.

angelman66 said...

Thanks, Quiggy, for hosting! I was allowed to see PG films but of course restricted from Rs--but I was a bad (no, very curious) kid and used to sneak into Saturday Night Fever that same year--got quite an education from that movie, but that's another story!!
Thanks for your support as always, my friend!
-Chris

John V said...

Thanks for this wonderful look back at the "original" Star Wars saga! I have fond memories of seeing these films on the big screen with friends and family. Thanks also for noting the Joseph Campbell connection and inspiration; when I read about that in articles published at the time, it inspired me to seek out and read Campbell's work.

William said...

As usual, Chris, you've written about this movie so well that I find myself curious about it again. I confess I've seen it a couple of times -- first in the theaters and then on video or on TV -- but I honestly never caught "Star Wars Fever" and as heretical as it sounds I thought the space battles at the end were kind of boring. I think I enjoyed the first two sequels a bit more. In the last few years I have managed to catch up with some of the later films in the series -- catch as catch can -- but I still can't say i caught the "bug." Still, they were entertaining movies with some fine FX work and I may just start re-watching the first three movies in the near future, thanks to your enthusiastic critique. Best, Bill

angelman66 said...

Hi John V - I love your blog! Same here, it was the Star Wars saga that got me interested in Campbell and I then saw the PBS series by Bill Moyers based on the Power of Myth book...that led me into studying archetypes....
Thanks for stopping by!
- Chris

angelman66 said...

Hi Bill, thank you as always for your support — your wonderful Great Old Movies blog inspires me every week!
My best friend never caught the fever either as a kid even though we are the same age, but I have started to show him this trilogy ( he saw only the Return of the Jedi as a teen) and he is intrigued and charmed...maybe you will be to when you see again.
Enjoy!
- C

MovieCritic said...

I first saw the Star Wars movies in 2015, and I have been a huge fan ever since! I love the music, characters, and of course the droids! C-3PO and R2D2 are so unforgettable. C-3PO has some of the best lines in the series. I enjoyed reading your review!

angelman66 said...

Hi Movie Critic - thanks so much for stopping by! I feel the same way, C-3P0 is a great character with some of the best lines! I appreciate you stopping by and taking the time to comment, and look forward to exploring your blog!
-Chris

angelman66 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DKoren said...

(Remember, this was before the advent of home video…when a movie left the theaters, it was possibly gone forever, unless it appeared on television many years later, interrupted by commercials and viewed on the very small screens of the ’70s.)

Oh my yes. This. This is the reason my family went back over and over to see movies in the theater, because at the time, that was it. You'd never see it that way again, so you had to imprint it on your brain so you when it finally came to tv in a pan and scan version, you'd remember what was off to the sides. We also went and saw Star Wars many, many, many times that summer.

Love reading about Star Wars here. Thanks!

angelman66 said...

Hi DKoren - Exactly, it was such a different world than now where we literally have it all at our fingertips and can watch on a tablet or tablet-size phone while getting our car serviced (when we are not watching on our own mammoth TVs)!
Thanks so much for stopping by and reading!
-Chris

Poseidon3 said...

Angelman, I was 10 when the first movie came out and, having never seen an old sci-fi serial, the whole thing blew me away. Like many (most!) kids my age I was obsessed with it all and had fun with the plethora of action figures and playsets (I had the multi-tiered Death Star playset and spent many an hour grinding up the heroes in that foam-square filled trash compacter, complete with monster!) I especially appreciate you pointing out something that hadn't necessarily occurred to me before; that C3PO had more palpable emotion than the human characters. I do recall being disarmed by the cool and collected Leia, who wisecracked during her rescue instead of being the stock simpering, helpless princess/victim. Fisher wound up being peerless at the time in that regard. "Star Wars" played for a solid year at a local movieplex and I recall marveling at that since, as you say, movies tended to play for a while and then vanish, possibly forever! I cannot stand for movies to be retroactively altered with editing or effects, so I never saw the redone ones. (In fact, I've never seen the three prequels, but I did break down and see the later ones with the original cast returning, and enjoyed them. But nothing can top the initial ones, especially "Empire.") Thanks for the trip down memory lane!

Ken Anderson said...

Hi Chris!
Weird to think back that I was in film school when this came out, and was practically dragged by a friend to see a preview screening that had these printed out invites with a starkly different ad graphic and logo (foolishly I sold this on eBay some time ago). It's odd to think back when I knew not what I was in for and then being totally blown away by what I saw. The audience was applauding for every explosion and there oohs and ahhs all around.
When it was finally released I remember seeing it two more times, and then zip. I've never seen another Star Wars film since.
Not for any particular reason, for I loved the film and especially got a kick out of seeing the film become a cultural phenomenon. Your essay makes me think I might check the original out again, lots of great memories coming back from reading your impressions of it when you were a kid. Thanks for another well-researched, enjoyable read!

angelman66 said...

Hi Poseidon--I too had the action figures--I loved the R2 and 3P0 ones best because they looked the most "real." I used to mix up y Star Wars figures with my Planet of the Apes dolls and my sister's Barbies and create epic stories that took over the whole living room!
As always, thanks so much for reading and commenting!
-Chris

angelman66 said...

Hey Ken--how cool that you got to see an advance screening--I am eagerly awaiting the book I know you could write about all your Hollywood exploits and the things you have seen!
The film is as fresh today as it was forty plus years ago...and so are Empire and Jedi. I highly recommend them. Great scripts and wonderful chemistry and camaraderie among all the beloved stars.
Thanks as always for your support and readership!
-Chris

J.D. said...

While THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK is the better film, I've watched A NEW HOPE way more and I think it affects me on a much more emotional level and this probably due to when I saw it - at a very young, impressionable age and it was such a game changer, esp. back then when it first came out. No one had seen anything like it. It became this massive cultural phenomenon.

angelman66 said...

Hi JD - I agree, I too have a strong emotional connection to Episode IV although I know the other two in the trilogy by heart. The characters and story, music and production design permeated the fabric of popular culture where they remain to this day.
Thanks so much for stopping by!
-Chris