It is with some fear to tread that I take on Star Wars. What is there to say that has not been said before? Various parts of the Saga have generated slavish devotion and others downright contempt, but no-one, I think, doubts that George Lucas is a genius who has changed movies forever, creating works so beloved that his occasional inattention has been taken almost as personal insults by fans. The word fan, after all, is short for fanatic. But the rubber monsters have not soured me on Doctor Who, and I can’t very well ignore Star Wars, so I begin.
The first question is: in what order do I see them? You could put three fans in a room and get four answers to that question. Chronological order of story spoils the big reveal in the Empire Strikes Back, but I can’t take that seriously. Who doesn’t know Luke’s father? But it would be a shame not to begin with the brilliant first trilogy. Some plans simply leave out The Phantom Menace entirely, but there is much of beauty in that flawed movie, including one of the great swordfights in movie history. Strict chronological order by release date results in something of a mess when you include the un-numbered stories. My solution is to use that order, but to place those two films as postscripts to the prequel trilogy. I am not afraid of flashbacks in stories or series. They are the ham in the sandwich, and it’s all right to add a little cheese too.
We begin with the crawl, which is a brilliant stolen idea, inspired by those in the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials. It tells us that we have been dropped into the middle of a long story. Then we see a gorgeous planetscape, a starship better than what we were used to, and a pursuing Imperial Star Destroyer that still makes me want to cheer, except that I am listening to John Williams’ brilliant music, which is a character in this movie. There is chaos aboard the pursued ship, and suddenly we witness one of the great entrances in film. Is it a man? Is it a robot? Whatever, we know it is awesome and awful, even without the orchestral sting. Look in the dictionary under Villain and there is a picture of the Sith Lord Darth Vader (body by David Prowse, voice by James Earl Jones). The naming of characters and places in fantasy is an art-form in itself, though it took a while for Lucas to change Luke Starkiller to Luke Skywalker; all these names are tongue-in-cheek, but part of the fun.
Speaking of perfect names, R2-D2 and 3-CPO—the Laurel and Hardy of Droids—are sent off in a pod, ignored because there are no lifeforms aboard, and crash-land in the deserts of Tatooine. The rebel Princess Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) has hidden the stolen plans of the Empire’s prototype Death Star in the memory of the simple astromech droid R2 and commanded him to deliver them to Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness). He is accompanied by the protocol-droid 3PO, expert in millions of languages, who never shuts up in nine movies.
The droids are captured by Jawa scrap-traders who sell them to moisture-farmers Owen and Beru Lars (Phil Brown and Shelagh Fraser) and their nephew Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). While cleaning R2, he accidentally triggers a holographic recording of the Princess begging help from Obi-Wan Kenobi. With stars in his eyes in more ways than one, Luke asks his uncle if this is Old Ben Kenobi, the hermit in the desert. His uncle wants him to have nothing to do with him or any other Jedi. The next day, R2 is missing and Luke goes in search of the wayward droid, is attacked by Sand People and saved by Obi-Wan, who tells him of his days as a Jedi Knight, a peacekeeper of the Galactic Republic. Luke’s father fought alongside Obi-Wan until he was murdered by Vader. Obi-Wan gives Luke his father’s lightsabre. (This iconic and brilliant weapon, reminiscent of those in books by Fritz Lieber, Isaac Asimov, and Gordon R. Dickson, was created by prop-men John Stears and Robert Christian for George Lucas. Perhaps nothing else more perfectly represents the blend of fantasy and science-fiction in these films.)
R2-D2 plays Leia’s message for Obi-Wan. She asks him to take the Deathstar plans to her home planet of Alderaan and give them to her father. Obi-Wan invites Luke to come and learn the ways of the Force, but Luke’s aunt and uncle need him. Returning home, he finds that Imperial stormtroopers have killed them and destroyed the farm. He leaves with Obi-Wan. Now that we have met the evil Sorcerer, the feisty Princess in peril, the arguing Sidekicks, the innocent but brave farm boy Hero, and the wise old Wizard, we need to meet the seventh fantasy character, the venal and roguish, yet secretly noble, Captain. At a cantina in Mos Eisley, a wretched hive of scum and villainy, Droids are not served, and the house-band plays Benny Goodman. Our heroes meet Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and hire him to fly them to Alderaan. Han is confronted by Greedo, a bounty-hunter working for mobster Jabba the Hutt, and Han kills Greedo. Dodging gunfire, they take off from Tatooine with Han and his Wookiee First Mate Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) on their ship the Millennium Falcon.
Death Star commander Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing), demanding the location of the rebel base from Princess Leia, orders the destruction of Aldoraan using the Death Star’s superlaser. The crew of the Falcon, coming out of hyperdrive, find the remains of the planet, and they are captured by the Death Star’s tractor beam. The crew escape from the ship, Obi-Wan sets off to disable the tractor beam, but Luke finds that Leia is imprisoned and scheduled for execution, so he and Han and Chewie rescue her in chaotic, swashbuckling fashion. Obi-Wan, seeing them trying to reach the Falcon, sacrifices himself in a dramatic lightsabre duel with Vader. The Falcon escapes and lands at the rebel base on Yavin 4, but the Empire is tracking them.
The plans reveal that the Death Star can be destroyed by torpedoes fired into a small thermal exhaust port that leads to the reactor. Han collects his reward for Leia’s rescue and leaves to repay Jabba. Luke joins the rebel squadron to attack the Death Star. The rebels suffer heavy losses and Vader brings a squadron of TIE fighters to attack Luke’s X-wing, but the Falcon returns and attacks the Imperial fighters, sending Vader off into space, his ship damaged and out of control. The spirit of Obi-Wan speaks to Luke, who switches off his targeting computer and uses the Force to guide the torpedoes to their target. The Death Star is destroyed and all aboard her. On the rebel base, Leia awards medals to Luke and Han.
Mark Hamill was chosen for Luke Skywalker because he read his largely incomprehensible lines sincerely, as if the space jargon was everyday language to him. Harrison Ford was not in the running for Han Solo, but was hired to help other actors during their auditions and won over Lucas with his charm. He beat out Kurt Russell, Sly Stallone, Bill Murray, Christopher Walken, Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Steve Martin, and Chevy Chase for the role. The character was based on Francis Ford Coppola. Carrie Fisher beat out Amy Irving, Cindy Williams, Karen Allen, and Jodie Foster. She had to lose ten pounds for the role, so perhaps Lucas already had a certain outfit in mind. She found it difficult to pretend to hate the charming Peter Cushing. The famous swing across the gap in the Death Star was not done by stunt doubles, but by Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill in one take.
Peter Cushing was a possibility for Obi-Wan but was given Grand Moff Tarkin instead. Francis Ford Coppola advised Lucas to get an established actor for Obi-Wan. Alec Guinness asked for a portion of the gross because he was about the only member of the cast who thought the movie would be a hit, and he retired on the proceeds. He was an inspiration for the whole cast; everyone upped their game in his presence. In all the movies, Leia and Obi-Wan met only once, as she was being born in Revenge of the Sith.
Thirty voice actors read for the voice of C-3PO, and finally Stan Freberg recommended that Anthony Daniels do the voice as well as the movements. 3PO’s look was based on the robot Maria in Metropolis. Kenny Baker (3 feet, 8 inches tall) was reluctant to play R2-D2 because his face would not be seen. The robot’s noises were made by sound designer Ben Burtt imitating baby gurgles into a synthesizer. The character was inspired, not surprisingly, by Huey, Dewey, and Louie in Silent Running. Universal sued 20th Century Fox over this, but Fox turned around and sued them over Battlestar Galactica, so the suit was dropped. Sometimes, Kenny Baker would be left inside R2-D2 when the crew broke for lunch. The same thing used to happen to the people inside the Daleks on Doctor Who.
Peter Mayhew was sitting waiting for a casting call for Chewbacca when Lucas walked in and, as a polite Englishman, Mayhew stood up to his full 7 feet 3 inches and was hired on the spot. He was also up for Darth Vader, but wanted to be a hero, so David Prowse took Vader. James Earl Jones—hard to believe now—was a relative unknown and beat out Orson Welles for Vader’s voice for that reason. James Earl Jones and David Prowse, who together created Darth Vader, never met. Vader was on the screen for only12 minutes. The character of Chewbacca was based on George Lucas’ Alaskan Malamute, Indiana, who used to ride shotgun in his truck.
The giant skeleton that C-3PO passes in the desert sands on Tatooine was supposed to be a Krayt Dragon, but the prop was a Diplodocus skeleton from another movie. Apparently, it’s still there. The Tunisian government asked Lucas to move the intimidating Jawa sand crawler away from the border with Libya because it was making the Libyans nervous. The Millennium Falcon was made from junk, as were the lightsabres. The targeting grid on the Falcon is based on a paperweight on Arthur C. Clarke’s desk. The TIE in TIE fighter stands for Twin Ion Engine, or because it looks like a bowtie, depending on who you ask. The word Stormtrooper is from the German, but it was often applied to the Canadian Forces at Vimy Ridge. This was the first movie to be translated into Navajo.
George Lucas was bummed out because he could not get the rights to Flash Gordon, so he decided to create his own fantasy. United Artists, Universal, and Disney all passed on the project, but Alan Ladd Jr. of 20th Century Fox finally invested in Lucas. Fox Studios’ visual effects department had been disbanded, so he created Industrial Light and Magic. Steven Spielberg recommended John Williams, who filled the movie with classical music. Among the influences on the story were Beowulf, King Arthur, Akira Kurosawa, Joseph Campbell, Flash Gordon, Lawrence of Arabia, Dune, The Dam Busters, 633 Squadron, the Bridges at Toko-Ri, and 2001. Lucas, like Shakespeare, steals only from the best.
Steven Spielberg thought it would be a hit, but Lucas thought Close Encounters of the First Kind would beat the pants off it, so they each bought 2.5 percent of the profits of each other’s movies. Instead of attending the premiere, Lucas went on vacation with Spielberg, where they came up with Raiders of the Lost Ark. 20th Century Fox was so sure Star Wars would fail that they focused their publicity on Damnation Alley. But then, some of the Suits there thought Star Wars was about the Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton marriage, and there were discussions about whether Chewbacca should wear pants. Lucas’ decision to accept a lower salary in exchange for full merchandising rights was considered a fool’s gamble. Darth Vader’s escape in his TIE-fighter at the end was thought foolish, as sequels were considered a money loser. The movie was going to be given a G-rating, making it a child’s movie as far as George Lucas was concerned, so he arranged a preview audience for the ratings board. A child was so terrified of Darth Vader that he screamed and burst into tears, so Lucas got his PG.
The movie immediately broke box-office records. Three weeks later the profits of 20th Century Fox had doubled. Most movies, when the production is plagued by problems, when script-changes come in every day and the actors don’t know what the hell’s happening, turn out to be terrible movies. Two exceptions are Casablanca and Star Wars.