Overlooked & Underseen: Star Wars (1977)
With writing/editorial assistance from Sarah Jane's Husband.
“I have a bad feeling about this…”
This week, I decided to enlist the help of my husband, Eric. He and I were trying to think of something really special for this week’s column. What’s that one film we both think deserves another look? We went away to have a think and both came back with the same answer. We want to talk about a movie that, it seems, was a few years ahead of its time. It is a film, whose failure to connect with the public effectively ended the director’s career, despite its incredible amount of early promise.
In the mid-1970s, George Lucas was one of Hollywood’s most promising directors. Fresh off the amazing (and unexpected) success of 1973’s American Graffiti, a film that was budgeted at $700,000 and ended up grossing over $200,000,000 for Universal Pictures (making it one of the most profitable films of all time), Lucas could have, literally, written his own ticket. He was one of the new “Golden Boys”, along with his fellow friends and associates Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola. He was offered Apocalypse Now (eventually taken up, of course, by Coppola and now considered one of the greatest films ever made) on a silver platter, but he turned it down. He had his mind set one thing, and one thing only. It was a film that he had dubbed “The Star Wars”, a “Flash Gordon”-like homage to the low budget science fiction serials of the 1940s with a little Akira Kurosawa and Joseph Campbell thrown in.
Studios were skeptical. But Lucas persisted. After all, American Graffiti had, single handedly, launched the 1970s “nostalgia” phase for the 50s, and surely his audience would appreciate another homage to an earlier, more innocent time. Finally, 20th Century Fox reluctantly agreed to finance his “space western” for the relatively low budget of $8.5 million.
Instead of taking advantage of the excellent ensemble that he had brought together for American Graffiti, Lucas chose to go with young, untried actors and a couple of has-been British stalwarts: Alec Guinness, whose last film role was as the blind butler in Neil Simon’s mystery parody Murder by Death, and Peter Cushing, who had finally given up the ghost of Hammer horror three years previously with the Shaw Brothers’ co-production of the Kung-Fu/vampire mash-up The Seven Brothers and Their One Sister Meet Dracula.
The production was plagued from the start. Both crew members and actors are reported to have treated it as a joke (“a children’s film”) and Lucas was distant and uncommunicative with his actors. As filming continued, Lucas sank deeper and deeper into depression and was diagnosed with hypertension and exhaustion. The special effects team had blown half of the FX budget on four shots that the director rejected as “unacceptable”. In the editing bay, the first cut of the film was deemed as a “complete disaster”. Lucas hired three additional editors and they worked feverishly (and over budget) to re-edit between 60-70% of the film. When the film was screened (with hardly any FX present) for friends and studio executives, Brian De Palma, longtime friend of Lucas proclaimed it as “gibberish”, but Fox agreed to release it in their “B” tier.
In May of 1977, the now titled Star Wars premiered in fewer than 32 theatres. Lucas’ career as a director was, essentially, over. He resigned from the Director’s Guild and decided to focus primarily on production and special effects work for the next twenty years. You know his name now more for the man behind the Industrial Light & Magic special effects house, than as the man who wrote and directed the 1973, best picture Oscar nominated, American Graffiti.
Why wasn’t Star Wars a success? Perhaps it was just ill-conceived. Science fiction films at the time were serious, pondering affairs that asked “big” questions or depicted future dystopias. Perhaps the world wasn’t ready for the frivolous fantasy of Star Wars. If it all seems to resemble a Buster Crabbe “Flash Gordon”, that’s because it’s supposed to.
Lucas’ failure attempted to extend his luck by hearkening back to an earlier age, a ploy that had worked for him with American Graffiti. It’s just that his fellow Baby Boomers only wanted to hear about what they liked, and not their parents.
Only a few years later, Dino De Laurentis would be able to fire the public’s imagination with his adaptation of the actual Flash Gordon, staring off the 80’s craze for cheesy science fiction action films, while Star Wars still languishes as the death marker of Lucas’ directing career.
But, we say, the film has a certain grandness about it. It overreaches, but, at least it’s amusing. There’s a space pirate and a character based on Lucas’ dog. People fight with lazerswords and Cushing chews an awful lot of scenery. For all of its nonsense, it moves pretty quickly from one ridiculous set-up to the next. Actors in rubber or furry alien costumes fight with other actors in plastic armor. There is a moon-sized space station that blows up a planet!
Yeah, it’s goofy. But you can find it, it’s definitely worth a look at what might have been.
Except for a 20th Century Fox sub-par, unremastered DVD release of a highly-degraded internegative print of the film in 2006, Star Wars has never been available in any format other than Betamax, VHS and Laserdisc.
George Lucas has recently stated that it never will.