‘Long ago, in a far, far galaxy …’ So began a 1977 film that spawned a hundred imitators, billions of dollars in profits, two sequels and, now, the first of three planned prequels. What is it about George Lucas’s Star Wars films that has so captured the imagination? By Mark Lawson
In 1977, a promising young American film director holds a private screening of his latest project. Appalled giggles are stifled throughout. At the end, one guest feels compelled to warn his host that he has just made the worst film in the history of cinema.
In 1996, one of the most distinguished actors produced by the English stage is recovering in a London clinic from eye surgery. The patient, in his early 80s, finds his rest disturbed by two Scottish orderlies who wish him to scribble on a scrap of paper six words that they believe have mystical significance.
In April 1999, Americans begin queueing outside a Los Angeles cinema for the opening of a new film that will not be premiered for another six weeks. Because of fears about the illicit fortunes to be made from the resale of tickets, the studio has refused to allow advance booking. A video camera relays the experiences of the movie- goer first in line to an Internet website 24 hours a day.
What links these three stories is Star Wars, the inter-galactic fantasy directed by George Lucas. It was Brian de Palma – who remains a jobbing director, while his friend has a fortune measured in billions – who warned Lucas at that screening that he was about to become the laughing stock of Hollywood.
The veteran eye patient was Sir Alec Guinness, who was surprised to discover that a career that included both an admired Hamlet and Kind Hearts and Coronets has been overshadowed by a short sentence he spoke – ”May the Force be with you” – in Lucas’s film.
The early arrivals outside the LA movie theatre hope to tell the people making the 50th anniversary Star Wars documentaries in 2027 that they were present at the first ever screening of The Phantom Menace, the fourth film in the Star Wars sequence, although chronologically the first part of the narrative.
Even to those film critics and rival industry bosses who hoped the whole thing was a temporary aberration of taste, it is undeniable that, with the opening of Star Wars Episode I:The Phantom Menace, the series has gone beyond cinema and entered another realm: either that of American culture in general or, the more alarmist would say, of psychosis.
Guinness’s experiences offer an eloquent example of the scale and nature of what has happened. This actor has always chosen his roles with some care, but we can easily imagine that he was allowing himself a harmless little holiday – a Hollywood pension plan – when, in the century’s middle- Seventies and his own early 60s, he accepted the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi, a Jedi knight, an inter-galactic soldier in brown monk’s cowl, who would guide the hero, Luke Skywalker, through battles with the dark forces that had colonised the universe.
The filming was mainly in Elstree in England, and all Guinness was required to do was to bring Shakespearean authority to some wall- poster dia-logue. It must have seemed an amusing interlude in a career of great dignity.
Apart from the Lucas disciples at the eye clinic, on other occasions, a Chinese waiter advises him that, ”Sir Guin, now that Star Wars is being shown again, you will be famous once more,” and, during mass, the devoutly Catholic Guinness is offered by a fellow worshipper the non-Vatican-approved benediction, ”May the Force be with you”, to which he ad-libs the response, ”And also with you”. Then, after some months free of harassment, he opens his post to find an invitation to buy an ”Obi-Wan Kenobi cookie jar” for $275.
But it is in the actor’s report in his memoirs of a meeting with an American child on a San Francisco street that we reach the heart of the strangeness of the Star Wars story. The 12-year-old boy tells Obi-Wan Kenobi (as he believes him to be) that he has seen the original movie 100 times. Harnessing the vast moral authority which the part has given him, Guinness asks the boy if he will promise to do something for him. Unable to refuse a personal request from a Jedi knight, the child agrees. But, on hearing his mission – ”Do you think you could promise never to see Star Wars again?” – the apostle of Obi- Wan bursts into tears.
The actor’s explanation for his action will be worth remembering in the wake of the Phantom Menace hype: ”Looking into the boy’s eyes, I thought I detected little star-shells of madness beginning to form and I guessed that one day they would explode … I just hope the lad, now in his 30s, is not living in a fantasy world of secondhand, childish banalities.”
Theories about the reasons for the success of Star Wars are now so much a part of cinema that they have even formed the basis of a film, Clerks, a 1993 comedy in which shop assistants chat about cultural matters, including the precise theology of Lucas’s movie religion.
It should be made clear that De Palma, now anecdotalised as cinema’s equivalent of the talent scout who turned down The Beatles, was not alone in his doubts about the project. When Lucas first touted round the studios in the early Seventies a 13-page treatment for a film called The Star Wars – ”The story of Mace Windu”, bemused producers read, ”a revered Jedi- bendu of the Opuchi …” – he was rejected by both Universal and United Artists before being offered a small deal by Twentieth Century Fox.
This makes Fox look prescient, but that impression is removed by a subsequent decision. When Lucas, his bankability increased by the success of his 1973 teenage comedy, American Graffiti, pleaded for a rise in his directing fee, the studio refused, offering instead a deal that it clearly regarded as a no-cost compromise. Lucas was offered the sequel and prequel rights to Star Wars. As the consensus at Fox was that nobody would buy tickets even for the original, this gift was intended as equivalent to a water- bottling licence for the Sahara.
But, through sole ownership of The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983) – plus the new prequel trilogy – Lucas is now worth several billion dollars, and is the only man in the industry able to think of Steven Spielberg, his friend, contemporary and collaborator on the Indiana Jones movies, as a poor relation.
But, on set in Tunisia and Elstree in 1976, even the actors would have believed that Lucas had been offered 100% of nothing. Members of the technical crew reportedly mocked the plot and costumes. Harrison Ford, at that time a Hollywood nobody hired to play the space-pilot Han Solo, is supposed to have complained to the director: ”George, you can type this shit, but you sure as hell can’t say it.”
Watching Star Wars 22 years on, the early doubts are easy enough to understand. The hindsight giggle at De Palma’s preview remarks is aimed at his financial miscalculation, rather than at his artistic philistinism. The special effects are very impressive: it is appropriate that a large part of Lucas’s fortune should accrue from Industrial Light & Magic, the wow-shot company he developed to market the revolutionary techniques used in the original movie.
But, in its elements of conventional dialogue and plot, the first film has a meandering beginning in which oddly camp androids, C-3PO and R2-D2, glide about between Mark Hamill, whose first try at Luke Skywalker stands as the wettest performance in a leading role until the final scenes of Titanic, and Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia with the ludicrous ear-muff hairdo, presumably an evolutionary response to the cold winters on her home planet of Tatooine.
Mel Brooks subsequently made the spoof Space Balls (1987), but there are many moments in Star Wars itself that feel like a rare example of an original creation already descending to self-parody. Only with the arrival of Harrison Ford as Solo – a nice send-up of the cynical old flyer in so many war films – and the first scenes of Darth Vader, the faceless leader of the enemy forces, does the kind of momentum develop that could seriously be expected to keep viewers on their seats.
Because we all now know the ending (not of Star Wars, but of its reception in America and elsewhere, the millions of tickets, toys, tears and theories that have followed) a viewing of the first movie in 1999 feels like arriving in the desert to find hundreds of thousands of people kneeling in prayer, weeping and wailing in the direction of a tent. Entering the tent, you find a large throne on which sits the inspiration for this total devotion: it is a small, squeaking mouse.
Here, then, are six explanations of why a science-fiction film that was originally almost giggled out of Hollywood has moved beyond entertainment and taken on the shape of a faith. True believers are warned that they may find some of what follows offensive …
The first two theories – which can be summarised as Infantilism and Extra- Terrestrialism – are strictly cinematic. By Infantilism, I mean that one explanation of the cleverness of Star Wars is that it never over-estimates the emotional age of the core movie audience.
Part of the legend of the film is that the only early viewer to appreciate it, supposedly predicting that ”this will take $100-million”, was Spielberg. But he would get it, wouldn’t he? Because modern cinema’s two great money-spinners – Lucas and Spielberg – are both regressives, producing what in effect are big-budget children’s movies with enough visual panache and sub- spiritual mumbo-jumbo to appeal to adults as well.
This raises, by inference, the matter of Spielberg’s ET, and introduces the second hypothesis about this phenomenon: Extra- Terrestrialism. Although it is a truism of once-famous producers drinking too much in Beverly Hills that public taste cannot be predicted, examination of box-office history reveals that a high percentage of the most famous movies of all time do share one element or, strictly, the lack of it: their central characters are either wholly or partially removed from the soil on which the cinemas stand.
Apart from Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, this factor applies to ET, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 2001: A Space Odyssey and, most recently, Titanic, in which the extra-terrestrialism is different but still central. If Hollywood is indeed a dream factory, then the most popular reverie it sells seems to be the one about in some way leaving Earth.
Lucas and Spielberg have become the movie tribunes of a generation that heard the doomed Kennedy promise to extend the American empire into space. Lucas sketched out his trilogy soon after man walked on the moon.
Kennedy enters the third explanation for the trilogy’s success: Political. It can be argued that Lucas has constructed a myth that conflates JFK’s dream – man in command of space – with President Ronald Reagan’s nightmare: invasion by the Soviets. And, with perfect historical neatness, Reagan’s most famous policy innovation – the attempt to create an atmospheric shield off which Soviet missiles would bounce – took its name from Lucas’s film. The second and third movies were released during Reagan’s rise and apotheosis, and it is possible that his presidency was his last and greatest contribution to the Hollywood that had invented him.
Many have pointed out that the basic story of Star Wars concerns the struggle of a good and decent people – symbolised by the Aryan Luke Skywalker – against a hostile empire, whose thugs wear tunics like eastern European army costumes and who declare that ”fear will keep the local systems in line”. Consciously or not, the three films are clearly an exoneration of US foreign policy during the Cold War.
Where Spielberg has used his accumulating money and status to make increasingly liberal films, Lucas’s politics feel deeply conservative. In Clerks, the film buffs express outrage that, at the end of Return of the Jedi, a huge new enemy space-station is blown up, killing all the construction workers. This has been seen by some as the ultimate in union-bashing.
And, apart from the Cold War symbolism, the planet of the good suffers from an enemy within: a gang of thugs headed by the huge, bloated slug, Jabba the Hutt. Depending on how charitable you are, Jabba – standing for a domestic malevolence that distracts from the fight against the true enemy abroad – represents either immigrants (his speech is sub-titled), Richard Nixon, the mafia or, in his great, slothful fatness, capitalist greed.
A fourth possibility is that the appeal to Americans of the underlying myths is not that they are political, but that they meet the national craving for religion.
Francis Ford Coppola advised Lucas when the success of the series became known that, rather than extend the sequence cinematically, he should found a religion with the scripts as the scriptures. This was a shrewd joke, as the films contain a simple but clear theology of good and evil.
Although widely assumed by the non-obsessed to take place in the future, the action of the trilogy happens, the opening caption establishes, ”Long ago in a far, far galaxy …” So the films are a creation myth. Darth Vader, who left the paradise of Tatooine to seek to destroy it from without, is a sci-fi rewrite of John Milton’s Satan. The concept of the Force, as outlined by Guinness’s Obi- Wan Kenobi, is reverent but vague enough to appeal to adherents of both the established faiths and New Age creeds; an energy that can be used for either good or ill.
The fifth explanation for the phenomenon, however, lies in a development of which most churches disapprove: Dysfunctional Families. It seems much more obvious in the Nineties than it perhaps did in the Seventies that at the heart of the Star Wars films is the story of a boy whose father has left him.
Luke Skywalker has an absentee dad who is eventually shown to have betrayed the family in a terrible way by defecting to the enemy and becoming the evil Darth Vader. Luke’s journey is to redeem his relationship with his father, and he is helped in this by a series of father- figures, including Han and Obi-Wan, representing glamour and wisdom respectively. Two years before Hollywood released its big divorce story -Kramer vs Kramer (1979) – it seems that Lucas may already have entered that room in disguise.
By coincidence, a novel due to be published in Britain next month -Man and Boy, by writer and broadcaster Tony Parsons – explores the possibility that the films are marital parables. In the novel, children obsessively watch the videos as they are shunted between the separate homes of their mummies and daddies, clutching plastic Jedi light-sabres and other tie-in merchandise. Not only do they identify with Luke, but a love of these celluloid fantasies gives them a bond with their parents.
That suggestion of inherited passion brings us to the sixth postulation of Lucas’s profits: The Time Warp. It should, perhaps, be no surprise that the most successful cinematic franchise of all time should have originated in the Seventies. For there is increasing evidence in our current culture that the generation that grew up in that decade is becoming tyrannically nostalgic, engineering the return of their formative obsessions to stage, screen and record store, and imposing their infatuations on a new generation.
Numerous movies (Boogie Nights, The Ice Storm, Jackie Brown) revisit the Seventies. Re-released episodes of Starsky & Hutch beckon from the windows of video shops. Abba, revived by a stage musical in London, are back at number one in the album charts. And now the great cinematic experience of their time – the opening over six years of three Star Wars films – is about to begin again.
This age group need never truly grow old, because, in culture at least, their childhood continues on a permanent loop. This phenomenon was wittily acknowledged in an episode of the cult twentysomething sitcom Friends, in which one character’s ultimate sexual fantasy was for his girlfriend to dress up as Princess Leia.
When cultural historians look back at our time, they will acknowledge a strange mutation in the parents of Britain and the US in the last decade of the 20th century: the emergence of the child-adult. This creature can dress in jeans and baseball cap until death if desired, while playing with video games designed for children and watching again, courtesy of cable channels and video publishers, all the programmes they first saw while growing up.
The Star Wars phenomenon is the apotheosis of the child-adult. Twenty years ago, Lucas admitted that his ambition was to ”create new myths for children”. But the people lying on the LA sidewalks waiting for the advent of The Phantom Menace are not children.
Until the early Nineties, it seemed that Skywalker-formed parents who wished to take their offspring to see Star Wars would always have to persuade them to see re-runs. But a surprise development in the publishing industry – the unexpected rise of a Star Wars spin-off novel to the top of The New York Times fiction bestseller list – seems to have alerted Lucas to the demand for more stories from his imagined galaxy.
Rumours of a new trilogy were confirmed with the release in 1997 of a revised video version of the trilogy to mark the 20th anniversary of the film at which De Palma had laughed. Not only had special effects been enhanced through new computer techniques but, almost certainly for the first time in cinema history, famous films had been retitled. Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi were now episodes IV, V and VI. The effect of the numerals is Shakespearean, which may be either accident or arrogance.
Before its release, Lucas was cagey about the contents of The Phantom Menace. We now know that the blond tot in the publicity pictures is Anakin Skywalker, Luke’s father, who will turn to evil and become Darth Vader. And the trademark pre-credits caption, which races away from the viewer at the beginning of each film like a fleeing spaceship, reads: ”A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away … Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute …”
In line with the theories about the success of Star Wars outlined above, politically, the film’s concern seems to have moved on from Cold War to economic conflict. But it is in its emotional subtext that this film – which millions of Western children are likely to see twice, taken separately by estranged parents – sounds most intriguing. It seems that the theme of this new trilogy is what made Anakin Skywalker such a bad father, and how this affected young Luke.
If the predictions of the film’s box-office potential are even slightly right, then the young star of Trainspotting should realise that there is a severe risk of readers in the next century being entertained by the memoirs of Sir Ewan McGregor, in which he grumpily complains about American brats asking him to sign his name as Obi-Wan Kenobi Jnr. Warned of the possibility of this, McGregor apparently replied that he had grown up with the Star Wars films – a fitting and revealing answer.
A note of caution should, though, be entered with regard to the relationship between cinematic anticipation and satisfaction. The first Star Wars (now IV) was a film of which nobody expected anything and yet which delivered almost everything. The Phantom Menace is a film from which millions expect almost everything …