Favorite Films: Star Wars

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….

Star Wars is a film that virtually everybody in western civilization recognizes, and just about everybody has seen. From the vantage point of 2012, the film’s 35th anniversary, it almost beggars belief to think that there was a time when this film was expected to be a failure. And yet, when it was in production and nearing release, almost nobody thought that it would amount to anything. Only one man had any faith in the project; only one man thought that it would not only be a success, but a massive one.

That man was famed Hollywood director Steven Spielberg, who had nothing to do with the film. George Lucas himself thought he had a disaster on his hands.

“We’ll be destroyed for sure. This is madness.”

Lucas didn’t start off expecting failure, of course. Star Wars had been a pet project of his since he was working on THX-1138. Inspired by the serial science-fiction stories of the 1940s, he attempted to get the rights to Flash Gordon but was ultimately unsuccessful. Instead, he opted to start writing his own space fantasy, a script he called The Star Wars. He created the film American Graffiti, and continued working on his sci-fi script, making multiple alterations over the years. At one point, when told the story was too confusing, he started over, and drew elements from Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress to form a more straightforward narrative. Even then, Lucas’s intent was to show one adventure out of an entire universe of stories; though he did not know if the film would ever get made, let alone receive sequels, he still envisioned it as being akin to the sci-fi serials of his youth, where another adventure was always around the corner. While only limited events could make it into his final script, he threw in references to other events and worlds that could not be shown in a single film.

“You fought in the Clone Wars?”
“Yes. I was once a Jedi knight, the same as your father.”

The script would continue to undergo changes as Lucas shopped it around to different studios. Universal Studios and United Artists both passed on the film, fearing the high risk involved, as they anticipated it requiring a large budget. Eventually the film landed at 20th Century Fox, still largely unwritten; Alan Ladd, Jr. signed Lucas to a deal to write and direct the film. Lucas would later say that Ladd was investing in him, not in the movie, as it was more of a token of faith in Lucas’s talent. Lucas completed a draft of the script, and then re-wrote it yet again. He brought in conceptual artist Ralph McQuarrie to design certain elements of the script, and included those paintings when selling Fox on the new screenplay. A few more drafts later, and the final form of the script was approved as The Adventures of Luke Starkiller: As Taken from the Journal of the Whills: Saga I: The Star Wars. It would, of course, be shortened by the time it made it to film.

“Luke’s just not a farmer, Owen. He has too much of his father in him.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of.”

It is possible that no character went through as many changes during the script rewrites as Luke Starkiller himself. In the original version of the story, Starkiller was a 60-year-old general, an experienced Jedi knight. Later, Lucas decided to shift the general to a supporting role, and made the lead an adolescent. He toyed with the idea of making Luke and his family dwarfs, but discarded the idea. He also toyed with the idea of removing the “rescue the Princess” angle from the story, and making the heroic lead female instead. But in the end he went with a young human man, just setting out on his first adventure, from his farming home on a desert planet. The name Tatooine is never mentioned in the first film, but it is named after a town in Tunisia near where filming took place for those scenes. It was during filming there that Lucas made one final change to the character, rechristening him Luke Skywalker.

“If there’s a bright center to the universe, you’re on the planet that it’s farthest from.”

Cast in the lead role was then-unknown actor Mark Hamill. Lucas expressed a preference during casting to work with actors who had not previously been in any of his films. However, he had his friend Harrison Ford reading the lines of Han Solo when actors were screen testing for other characters, and eventually realized that Ford was perfect for the role of the smart-aleck smuggler. The number of previous candidates for the role reads like a veritable who’s who of Hollywood stars, running the gamut from Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell, to Chevy Chase and Bill Murray, to Robert De Niro and Burt Reynolds, to Billy Dee Williams, who would eventually land a role as Lando in the sequels. Han’s skin color changed a few times during prospective casting; originally, it had been green. While he was eventually made to a be human in the final script, the original version had him be a green-skinned alien with gills. This design would end up being used for Greedo, who Han preemptively shoots in the cantina scene that establishes his character as straddling the line between hero and scoundrel.

“As a matter of fact, I was just going to see your boss; tell Jabba that I’ve got his money.”

The other characters went through comparatively fewer changes. The general that was originally going to be Luke shifted into a supporting character, Obi-Wan Kenobi. In keeping with the Kurosawa roots of the film, Lucas thought of casting Seven Samurai actor ToshirΓ΄ Mifune as Kenobi. In the end, the role went to Alec Guinness. Guinness, already an established actor with some major roles and award nominations, did not have a high opinion of the dialogue in the script, a sentiment shared by many of his co-stars. Ford even asked to be allowed to change some of his dialogue, which started a trend of him ad-libbing lines in later collaborations with Lucas. Ford also purposefully didn’t memorize his lines for the scene in which Han impersonates a Stormtrooper over the intercom, in order to make Han’s uncertainty sound more spontaneous.

“Boring conversation anyway.”

Despite his disdain for the dialogue, Guinness took the role because he found that when reading the script, he found the story compelling enough to read it all the way through. He had also admired Lucas’s work on American Graffiti. The same enthusiasm for the narrative was shared by Carrie Fisher, who auditioned for the role of Princess Leia due to it being the only character she was eligible for; she has said that what she really wanted was to play Han Solo.

“Wonderful girl. Either I’m going to kill her or I’m beginning to like her.”

Other characters continued to take form during casting as well. C-3PO was originally envisioned to have a personality and voice similar to a used car salesman; Anthony Daniels’ performance, however, convinced Lucas to make him a bit more like a nervous servant. R2-D2 originally spoke English, and was rather foul-mouthed; this was replaced with making him beep instead (with Ben Burtt providing sound effects), but C-3PO’s reactions in the film are from the version of the script with R2-D2’s swearing.

Peter Mayhew, at 7′ 2″, was offered a role as soon as he stood up during auditions. He and David Prowse, at 6′ 6″, were given the choice of which tall characters they were to play. Mayhew wanted to play a hero, and Prowse wanted to play a villain, so Mayhew dressed up in the fur suit as Chewbacca. Lucas had originally intended there to be many aliens in the film, and kept Chewbacca as a significant character in the script as a compromise when he simplified the story. Lucas also had to fend off some executive meddling as some higher-ups objected to Chewbacca not wearing clothes, and wanted him to wear shorts over his fur.

“I suggest a new strategy, R2: let the Wookiee win.”

Prowse, meanwhile, would play Darth Vader… but only physically. Vader’s dialogue was dubbed over by James Earl Jones, who declined credit on the initial film. Jones said at the time that he didn’t feel he deserved it, but later admitted to being worried about type-casting. The design of Darth Vader was by Ralph McQuarrie, who came up with the iconic helmet and suit design when wondering how Vader would breathe while transferring from his own ship to board Princess Leia’s in the beginning. The helmet was not part of the screenplay, and was only intended for the one scene, but became a constant part of the character.

“The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.”

The other villain of the piece, Grand Moff Tarkin, would be played by Peter Cushing, who had been considered for the role of Obi-Wan. And with all the actors in place, Lucas began filming… and began running into problems and conflicts. The actors mostly hated the dialogue; Guinness in particular was vocal afterward in expressing his disdain for the script and voicing displeasure over unpleasant working conditions. He would later claim that Obi-Wan’s early death was his idea, to limit his involvement; Lucas told it differently, saying that the death was his idea and was earlier than Guinness had expected. Yet despite his displeasure with the process, Guinness was a tempering factor on his co-stars; Hamill and Ford, by their own admission, largely goofed around on set when the more veteran actor wasn’t around. Ford thought the script was weird, and most of the crew thought it was a children’s film and didn’t take it seriously.

“What an incredible smell you’ve discovered!”

The actors also reportedly found Lucas’s directing to be basic, with him simply saying “faster” or “more intense” to them during scenes. When he came down with a case of laryngitis, the crew gave him cue cards with those instructions on them. Smaller issues crept up for the actors as well. Anthony Daniels broke his costume leg when he first put it on, and had it painfully jabbing into him for several takes. Kenny Baker, who operated R2-D2, would often be abandoned in the suit while his co-stars went to lunch. Peter Cushing found his boots uncomfortable — due to being too small — and refused to wear them unless they were in the shot. For most of the film, if Tarkin’s feet aren’t on the screen, they’re in fuzzy slippers.

“Governor Tarkin, I should have expected to find you holding Vader’s leash. I recognized your foul stench when I was brought on board.”

The conflicts with the actors, however, may have been the least of George Lucas’s concerns. His cinematographer, Gilbert Taylor, fought with him regularly, objecting to Lucas’s hands-on approach. Lucas had come from independent film-making and was used to making decisions for himself; Taylor was a veteran cinematographer and according to Gary Kurtz was “set in his ways”. Lucas would also later have clashes with the editors of the film.

Delays also plagued the production. The initial scenes on Tatooine were filmed in Tunisia. It was chosen specifically for its desert climate. The first week the crew was in place to film, the area experienced its first major rainstorm in fifty years, pushing the project behind schedule from the very beginning. As changes and arguments with crew and executives kept delaying the film and increasing the budget, Lucas at one point had to be checked into the hospital for hypertension. Filming was complicated further by injuries to Mark Hamill. Hamill had burst a blood vessel in his face when holding his breath in the trash compactor scene, and could only be shot from certain angles from then on out. Worse still, he was in a car accident after principle filming, and left with visible scarring; it would not be possible to re-shoot his scenes without re-doing the whole film, so any scene with him in it had to be usable from the established takes.

“We seem to be made to suffer. It’s our lot in life.”

Post-production was as turbulent as production. George Lucas had discovered that Fox’s visual effects department had been disbanded, and founded Industrial Light & Magic in 1975. The new company began work on Star Wars immediately, using scale models for most of the ships. But the need to design many new effects for the film — such as the precise form of Rotoscoping for the lightsabers — meant that they ran behind schedule and over budget. Worse still, over half the budget was spent on shots that Lucas decided were unsatisfactory. The budget was originally planned at $8 million; at the end it was around $11 million. The film had been expected to have a Christmas 1976 release, but instead was pushed back to May of 1977. The loss of the holiday movie season meant that Fox was no longer expecting big things out of the increasingly-troubled project, and they initially planned to use the film as a tax write-off.

“I find your lack of faith… disturbing.”

Lucas himself was feeling dejected over the film as well. He initially had high hopes for the film. He had even negotiated with 20th Century Fox so that instead of getting a typical director’s fee, he would receive a reduced rate of $175,000, plus 40% of the merchandising rights. The studio readily agreed, as merchandising had previously not been a significant profit for their films. Lucas’s gamble began to look ill-advised as the delay moved the film backward. A deal had been secured with Kenner, but with the delay, it looked less likely that there would be any interest by the time the figures came out; they were expected for Christmas, and had Star Wars been on time, it could have been re-released to theatres to renew interest. But it was less likely that it would get a re-release the same year, especially if the drop-off from the holiday movie season led to it being unsuccessful. Furthering Lucas’s financial concerns, he had brought in a couple of screen-writers to rework his script, and Fox had insisted they be paid out of Lucas’s own salary.

“Look, I ain’t in this for your revolution, and I’m not in it for you, Princess. I expect to be well paid. I’m in it for the money.”

Lucas screened the film for several of his director and screenwriter friends, and they all agreed that it was likely to fail. All save for Steven Spielberg. Spielberg thought that it would earn millions. Reportedly, Lucas made a bet with Spielberg, so that his failed film would earn him a little money. Spielberg was also working on a science-fiction film at the time — Close Encounters of the Third Kind — and Lucas was certain it would be a success. The bet was that whoever had the more profitable film would give the other a small cut of the profits.

Though test screenings would eventually convince the studio that the movie would not need to be a tax write-off after all, Lucas remained convinced it would be a minor success at best. He did not attend the premiere of the film, instead opting to spend time on vacation in Hawaii with Spielberg. There the two would develop the concept for Raiders of the Lost Ark; it is possible that if Lucas had more faith in Star Wars, Indiana Jones would not have come about.

“Who’s the more foolish, the fool or the fool who follows him?”

As it turns out, Lucas needn’t have made his bet. Close Encounters of the Third Kind was indeed a major success, but Star Wars was nothing short of a phenomenon. Released on May 25, 1977, it immediately broke box-office records, earning $1.5 million its opening weekend. It stayed in theatres well into the Christmas season — ensuring that kids would indeed want the toys, though ironically Kenner was unable to produce them on time and sold vouchers for the initial wave of figures. It surpassed Jaws as the highest-earning film in North America after only six months in the theatres, and eventually went on to go over $200 million in its initial theatrical run. It was reissued to further success for each of the next five years, save 1980, when its first sequel was released.

“Great, kid! Don’t get cocky!”

It met with critical acclaim as well. The screenplay the actors derided so much was nominated for the Best Screenplay Award at the Oscars, and Alec Guinness, who would later become bitter over his role overshadowing his “more serious” roles, earned himself another nomination for Best Supporting Actor. George Lucas himself was nominated for Best Director. And Star Wars itself was nominated for Best Picture. While none of those awards were won by the picture, it did win several technical awards, from costuming to film editing, and a special achievement award was given to Ben Burtt for his sound effects. And John Williams took home an Oscar for a soundtrack that is still recognizable to this day.

“You’re all clear, kid, now let’s blow this thing and go home!”

But its impact would go on far beyond just its initial year of release. The film spawned two sequels in the 1980s, each a massive success in its own right; Star Wars received a subtitle on its re-release, making it Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope. This new title established it as part of a serial adventure, hinting at both further adventures to come and the eventual revelation of what came before. The film also inspired a holiday special, which is rather less fondly remembered. The toyline that Kenner struggled to get out on time wound up redefining action figures forever; the 3ΒΎ” inch design they used wound up becoming the standard, and the toys kept Kenner afloat for years after the films until they were eventually purchased by Hasbro. The line is still going. Since 1977, nearly every boy in America — and a significant portion of the girls — has enjoyed playing with Star Wars. The film also was a top seller on home video, whether it was VHS, LaserDisc, or — eventually — DVD.

In 1997, George Lucas re-released the film to theatres once again, having made alterations and visual updates. The “Special Edition” of the film trilogy was met with controversy from the fans, the more so due to the unaltered versions not being made available on DVD in a remastered edition. The long-awaited prequels came out a few years later, with fans lining up around the block to get tickets. They, too, were met with some controversy. But all the Star Wars releases continued to be massive commercial successes. And more are on the way. In October 2012, George Lucas sold Lucasfilm and all its properties, including the Star Wars franchise, to Disney, for $4.1 billion, most of which was given to charity. Episodes VII-IX are currently being written, with a target release of 2015 for the first film of the sequel trilogy.

“If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine.”

Star Wars tells a story that captured the imagination of the public and never really let go. Though Lucas has acquired quite a bit of criticism from his fans over the years for his changes and the prequels, it has to be said that most directors would give up their eyeteeth to have such dedicated fans, even if they might not agree with the sentiments expressed. And while the quality of the franchise is sometimes in flux, they are always successful; even sub-standard Star Wars is still Star Wars.

And the original film still stands a high water mark in science-fiction film making. It has inspired directors from Peter Jackson to James Cameron, who left for Hollywood to become a director after seeing it. It charts on multiple AFI lists, including both of their top 100 films lists, and takes #2 on their sci-fi list (after 2001: A Space Odyssey.) Han Solo and Obi-Wan Kenobi both make it onto their list of heroes, while Darth Vader is the #3 villain. The score is #1 on their list. All in all, the film is on eight of the AFI’s lists, and is often near the top of other film polls. In 1989, it was inducted by the National Film Registry as being culturally, historically, or aesthetically important. It was one of the very first wave of inductees, included with the likes of Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and The Wizard of Oz.

It’s a tremendously fun film, with charismatic characters and a great sense of adventure. It’s a pop culture phenomenon that is unparalleled in film. It’s a great science fiction film, and simply a great film for people of all ages, and it’s one of my favorite films.

“The Force will be with you, always.”

About Morgan R. Lewis

Fan of movies and other media
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26 Responses to Favorite Films: Star Wars

  1. S says:

    Great post. That’s amazing about the weather when they first wanted to start shooting. Wow, the first rainstorm in Tunisian area in fifty years; the mark of a new era. Really glad Spielberg collaborated with Lucas prior for Raiders of the Lost Ark when Lucas felt Star Wars wouldn’t do that well; oh how wrong he was (thankfully for all us film fans).

    When I saw this movie, I was a kid in Italy and my comic book was in Italian Stella Guerros with stickers of the movie stills. Lucas turned out to be a genius with the film and marketing. The first three films were a great part of my childhood and great films today. Definitely pics to celebrate and most decidedly a favorite. Super pic; super post. πŸ˜‰

    • Thanks, S. Yeah, the rainstorm was news to me as well; I knew there had been some issues, especially since I already knew about Lucas’s bet with Spielberg, but I had no idea it had gone to such “Murphy’s Law” levels.

      Very true about the marketing of the film. Seems like it was just absolutely everywhere once it hit. I think I might have had the English language version of that book at some point, or one like it.

  2. Great write-up with good facts and stories. I had fun reading it.

    Thanks for the post.

  3. Scophi says:

    Wow…it took me less time to watch the movie than to read your post! πŸ™‚

    I have written about Star Wars on my own blog…about my gradual acceptance of this story. For many years I didn’t like it. I felt it was an empty fluff piece that people were over-hyping and romanticizing. I got into heated discussions with friends about why Trek is so much better than Wars. (Han Solo is a bitch!)

    But then I took a closer look at the entire story (all 6 films), not just Episode 4, and I realized that not only have I been focusing on the wrong character, but I was getting caught up on cheesy effects and bad acting. Star Wars is more than just a Sci-Fi, it’s a Tragedy.

    I know I’m in the minority when it comes to including the 3 prequels as part of the story, but (1) I don’t think you can just choose which films you like to be part of the story and discard the rest, and (2) I believe that looking at all 6 gives us a more complete understanding as to what’s really going on. Wars is only indirectly about Luke (at least through the first 6 films).

    At heart, it’s a story about Anakin, his life and his transformations…from a young boy who loves his mother, to a young man who loves his wife, to a grown man who eventually remembers his love for his son. Luke is simply a side story. Anakin, even in the background, has always been the center of the tale.

    All Anakin wanted was someone to love him. And either through fate, or consequenses of his own making, his love is ripped away. A sad story, these films are.

    The story adds in other levels for consideration as well, such as the idea of the prophecy child, (whom I believe to be Anakin, not Luke — fodder for another post), and his immaculate conception. It has the veneer of sci-fi, but the heart of a fantasy.

    Like I said, it took time for me to accept all this and see Wars as a truly great film. It is in a cateogry by itself and I for one can’t wait for Episodes 7, 8, and 9.

    • I think part of the reason people are so ready to discard the prequels — besides just the flaws with the films themselves — is that for a long time it really was only possible to look at just films IV-VI; for about 20 years, after all, the full history of Darth Vader just wasn’t known. But you are absolutely right in that with the full story available, it’s definitely Anakin‘s story that’s being told, not Luke’s. Or, more precisely, the original trilogy becomes Luke’s story within Anakin’s; Luke does have his own pretty significant growth arc in the original trilogy, and even Han Solo and Leia get a side story. There are issues with the storytelling, to be sure, but the basic story is a pretty good one. I’ve seen some people recommend what’s referred to as “the machete cut” for viewing order — IV, V, then after the revelation of Vader being Luke’s father, going back to the prequels to flesh out his backstory before finishing with VI.

      Also, I agree that Anakin is the one who fulfilled the prophecy — it took him a generation to do it, but he did restore balance to the Force by eliminating the Sith. Just not quite by the direct path the Jedi were expecting, but that’s prophecy for you.

      • Scophi says:

        I have heard of the various viewing orders, but I believe that they should be viewed according to Episode number, not release date order. The ‘machete cut’ subsumes Anakin’s story into Luke’s, when I believe the opposite is actually true.

        To be fair, though, I think my slant toward Anakin over Luke is heavily influenced by the fact that I don’t like Luke. I don’t like his character, I don’t like his story, and I’m not even a fan of Mark Hamill. I know this is not popular to say, but I thought Hayden Christensen did a much better job as Anakin than Mark Hamill did as Luke. I guess it’s my maverick side coming out.

        This is why I like the prequels better than the originals. If you downplay Luke’s story, then there’s not much to the films. Yes, Han and Leia made for a good story, but I though Obi-wan and Anakin’s story was vastly superior.

        Not having read any of the novels, I suppose that Lucas’s idea is to have each three movies focus on a different character. First three, Anakin, Second three, Luke. Perhaps the third three will focus on Leia.

        • You’re definitely a maverick all right. πŸ˜€ Can’t agree with you that Christensen did a better job than Hamill… while I admit a lot of the problem is the dialogue he’s given, I do consider Christensen one of the bigger problems with episodes II and III. He ping-pongs between wooden delivery and acting like he’s got a stomach ache.

          I am curious, though, since it’s always a good question of how much our perceptions are colored by how we come to things. Did you watch the original trilogy first, or were you introduced to the series through the prequels?

        • Scophi says:

          Stomach ache…LOL!

          Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think Christensen gave an Oscar performance by any means. But compared to Hamill’s whiny, single-expression deliveries, Christensen looks like a well-seasoned thespian.

          As to your question, I watched the originals in the theater back in ’77, ’80, and ’83. I grew up with them for 16 years like everyone else, but not really impressed. When I saw Eps 1-3 in the theater, I thought…this is what SW should have been all along.

          I have heard of the age-line among viewers. I seem to fall in with the younger crowd even though I am over 40. I guess I’ll be the oldest fan at the “Prequels Rule Support Group”!

        • Well, carry on then. πŸ˜€ I will say this: I don’t think the prequels are, any of them, as bad as their “internet reputation” makes them out to be. Not even The Phantom Menace, though it comes closest.

  4. ruth says:

    The staying power of this franchise is amazing. I wouldn’t call myself a SW fan but I enjoyed the films, even the newer ones. I guess I’m not as bothered with ’em as the fans as I didn’t have such a fondness for the original films. I’m curious what Disney would do with this now that they’ve bought it.

    • It’s definitely going to be interesting seeing what Disney does. There’s room for new stories, even new characters, but it’s a franchise where it’s also pretty easy to do something awful with.

  5. Loving the love πŸ˜€

  6. Bubbawheat says:

    Interestingly enough, I just watched episodes IV & V this past weekend. I knew some of the trivia you brought up but not all of it. Very fun post. I even considered at one point to write an almost super review of the movie but decided not to touch it at the moment. You handled it quite well.

  7. Great write up this Morgan. I thought I knew a fair bit about Star Wars but I learned a lot here, great work πŸ™‚

  8. Well done man. Read this yesterday when you posted, but got taken away before I had time to leave a worthy comment. Wanted to circle back now and just say this was a really well written and researched post. I knew most of it already… but thats not to say that I didnt enjoy reading it again.

    And there were a couple things here or there that are new to me. Bill Murray read for Han Solo? Never heard that before…

  9. I sometimes find it harder to review a classic like this, but you did a good job with it!

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