The reviewers thought it had no chance of becoming a hit. Even writer-director George Lucas wasn’t sure about it. Sure, he’d had a hit with “American Graffiti”—a film deeply rooted in nostalgia and American popular culture. But this was different. Maybe a little too wacky for the general public, he thought.
But moviegoers thought differently. They turned out in record numbers to see “Star Wars” over the summer of 1977. Lines stretched for miles outside movie theaters. Tickets sold out as soon as their box offices opened. This first “Star Wars” movie (later subtitled “Episode IV - A New Hope”) went on to not only win six Oscars but to become one of the most popular and highest-grossing films of all time.
Many people have debated the reasons for the success of that first “Star Wars” film. After all, George Lucas was a relative unknown at the time. The film claimed no major stars, except perhaps Alec Guinness. It was not adapted from a novel or Broadway play, nor was it based on familiar characters or events from history.
What exactly was this strange new film and how did it become such a phenomenon?
Familiar Yet Brand New
Critics often called “Star Wars” a science fiction film. But it wasn’t, really. It was both more fun and less cerebral than such sci-fi films as “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Maybe it was a fantasy film. Or a family drama. George Lucas called it a “swashbuckling space adventure movie.”
In fact, it drew from a wide range of storytelling traditions and film genres—fantasy, science fiction, medieval legend, ancient myth, Westerns, swashbuckling adventure, historical romance—and even World War II aerial combat movies and Japanese samurai films.
It also drew deeply from George Lucas’s own passionate interests beginning at a young age—his love for Flash Gordon movie serials, comic books, and mythical adventure and fantasy stories. Most of these genres had not been seen in movie theaters for a very long time.
Not only were the genres found in “Star Wars” familiar but the story itself had a timeless quality. A formulaic story of good vs. evil. Mythic character types like the reluctant hero (Luke Skywalker), the reckless adventurer (Han Solo), and the corrupted leader (Darth Vader). Moviegoers could easily understand and universally relate to these. These are what made Lucas’s unfamiliar fantasy world seem familiar, even real.
But, woven into the familiar genres and character types were some brand new elements. First, the use of little-known actors allowed Lucas to spend more money for special effects. Inspired by those in the film “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the special effects in “Star Wars” stretched the capabilities of video, audio, robotics, miniature modeling, and new green screen technology to extremes previously unimagined.
Second, the film involved high-quality Dolby surround-sound. Finally, the dramatic musical score by John Williams set an entirely different tone from the usual classical or electronic musical scores of typical science fiction films. Today, we take all three of these components for granted in any classic blockbuster film. But, back then, they were groundbreaking.
A Sense of Wonder
The “Star Wars” phenomenon can be further understood by looking back at the era within which it was first released. The 1970s was the decade that witnessed the final disastrous years of the war in Vietnam, the Watergate scandal, the nuclear disaster at Three Mile Island, the OPEC oil embargo. The national mood was pessimistic, disillusioned, and cynical.
Hollywood films reflected this mood. Movies were supposed to be “gritty” and “relevant”—like “Serpico,” “All the President’s Men,” and “The Godfather.” Even George Lucas’s own “American Graffiti” ended on a bit of a downer note. Like real life, the hero usually didn’t win, because what was the use of fighting when there was nothing worth fighting for? Furthermore, as we wondered with films like “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” who was the hero anyway?
Then, “Star Wars” burst onto the scene and turned the super-serious, adult-oriented film template of the 1970s on its head. It was fun and it made fun of itself. Princess Leia, the female lead, was feisty. There were clearly good guys to root for and bad guys to root against. And, lo and behold, the film ended with Luke Skywalker—the ill-equipped, good-hearted underdog from nowhere—beating the bad guys!
Some critics blamed “Star Wars” for actually destroying the Hollywood movie industry, but most people found the film irresistible. A writer in the Los Angeles Herald Examiner remarked, “It gives us back our dreams…[and] makes us feel as if we’re watching our very first movie.” In essence, it re-injected a long-forgotten sense of wonder into the movie-going experience. While young boys particularly embraced the film (and all the toys, action figures, and play sets that came along with it), it also revived the childlike innocence in all of us.
A New Template
Back in 1977, who could have predicted the impact of that first “Star Wars” movie on the Hollywood film industry, the product licensing industry, and our popular culture in general? It established the template for the special-effects blockbuster film, rejuvenated the science-fiction/fantasy film genre that is still going strong today, and set the model for film trilogies. Although it led to the inevitable creation of countless bad imitations, it also inspired many of the top box-office hits to come—including “Indiana Jones,” “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,” “Superman,” “Back to the Future,” “Spiderman,” “Jurassic Park,” “Lord of the Rings,” and the “Harry Potter” franchise.
For better or worse, “Star Wars” was also responsible for the now-taken-for-granted licensing of major movies—with products ranging from novels, comic books, and trading cards to toys, clothing, and accessories. What began for Lucas as a way to help finance his films (in the days before DVD’s helped counteract low box-office sales) would thereafter become big business. Although other filmmakers at the time questioned his motives, today it is an accepted fact that merchandising rights on a film can generate a great deal more money than the film itself.
Today, the “Star Wars” phenomenon is everywhere—at retail stores and on the web, as special events at baseball games and attractions at theme parks, in the costume choices of young trick-or-treaters on Halloween night, and even in our daily language (with such phrases as “the evil Empire” and “May the force be with you”). The movie that was inspired by myth has itself become mythic. With a new trilogy up ahead, the force that we call “Star Wars” shows no sign of abating!
Donna R. Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.