On this day in Film History (part 1): Star Wars, the one that started it all! (1977)

I have to start this post with a significant piece of irony: everyone knows that the Star Wars franchise is now owned by Disney, but did you know that it was almost that way from the beginning? Believe it or not, when George Lucas created Star Wars, he initially thought of it as a Disney film and took the story to Disney (back in 1976)…and Disney turned him down!! Over thirty years later, they bought the entire franchise from Lucas for a sweet $4 BILLION dollars (of course no one could’ve foreseen that before the movie premiered in May of 1977).

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Star Wars (1977) was a cinematic revolution on multiple levels. Along with the release of Jaws (1975), Star Wars introduced Hollywood to the concept of a “blockbuster”: a single film on a relatively small budget that brings in HUGE profits (Hollywood still exists on this model today). The film also proved revolutionary in the realm of special effects; raising the bar so high that hitherto successful stop-motion films fell flat in the wake of this phenomenon (an example being Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977)). Using what was then state of the art technology, George Lucas created lightsabers, huge starships that filled the screen, lasers that blew up planets and fantastic droids of all shapes and sizes. (of course many of these practical effects were ruined by the later updates, but that’s a discussion for another time).

The original Star Wars is responsible for introducing audiences worldwide to a “galaxy far, far away” and the adventures of Luke Skywalker, who finds himself thrust into a life of adventure after two droids crash land on his home planet. Not only that, but old Obi-wan “Ben” Kenobi reveals that he was once a Jedi Knight, the same as Luke’s father. According to Ben, Luke’s father was betrayed by a fellow Jedi named Darth Vader and murdered! As if these revelations weren’t enough, Luke must also rescue Princess Leia and safely deliver the plans for the dread Death Star battle station into Rebel hands before the Imperial fleet discovers the location of the hidden base (wow, there’s a lot going on!) Then there’s the climactic battle to destroy the Death Star, the nefarious Darth Vader on the prowl in his specially designed fighter, and the question of whether the base can be destroyed in time!

Star Wars Original Trailer (1977)

The cast was a mixture of old stars and complete strangers. Among the notable actors appearing were Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi and Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin. The three principal leads went to complete strangers: Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker, Harrison Ford as Han Solo and Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia.

Of course, for me, the film music scholar, Star Wars also gave composer John Williams the chance to create some legendary music.Keep in mind that prior to Star Wars, science fiction music was largely considered to sound “futuristic” and “alien”, as in the complete opposite of a traditional orchestra (check out the soundtrack for Forbidden Planet on YouTube and you’ll see what I mean). From the minute the overture sounds at the beginning, you just KNOW that this film is something different. And truthfully, it’s somewhat wrong to call Star Wars “science fiction”, “space opera” is really the preferred way to describe this genre, both musically and visually.

Absolutely no one expected Star Wars to do very well at the box office, 20th Century Fox was essentially going out on a limb by agreeing to distribute the film at all. In fact, Lucas convinced himself that the film was going to bust and even told Steven Spielberg (who was working on Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)) that his film would surely blow Star Wars out of the water. And then the movie came out…and the movie world has never been the same since. It blew away all expectations and made a killing at the box office (my dad remembered the original film played at the local cinema for well over a YEAR after release). I remember, being rather young, asking my dad just how successful the first Star Wars was (since he saw it in theaters the first time). He put it to me like this: the original film (he said) was so profitable, that George Lucas, and Hamill, Ford and Fisher could have retired then and there and been set for life. It’s a pretty accurate statement, but I for one am glad that Lucas kept going because otherwise we wouldn’t have gotten The Empire Strikes Back.

I wish I could remember the first time I saw this movie, I can’t even tell you how old I was, but I can imagine that I sat there, bug-eyed, as this huge drama played out in front of me. I was fortunate in that my parents had recorded a copy of the original, unaltered Star Wars on a VHS tape, and so that was the version I knew first.

Trivia time!!!

There’s a very good reason why James Earl Jones dubbed over David Prowse as Darth Vader: Prowse has an exceptionally noticeable Welsh accent that, unfortunately, makes him sound the complete opposite of menacing. Allegedly, Prowse had no idea he’d been dubbed over until he watched the premiere of the film.

Darth Vader as voiced by David Prowse

Peter Cushing/Tarkin’s boots pinched his feet horribly so he wore them only when a full body shot was absolutely required. Any other time that he is on camera and his feet are not visible…he’s wearing slippers.

Right up until the first day of filming, Luke was still known as “Luke Starkiller”

Obi-Wan was NOT supposed to die in the original script. He was supposed to make it off the Death Star with everyone else and help begin Luke’s proper training with Yoda in the next installment. What happened is, Lucas looked at the outline of the story and realized that for the rest of the film and a big chunk of the (intended) sequel, Obi-Wan had absolutely nothing to do so, in an 11th-hour decision, Lucas decided to kill the character off (a decision that Guinness was not pleased with).

As strange as it might look, that is a real sword fighting style that Obi-Wan is using against Darth Vader.

This is the only Star Wars film (prior to The Force Awakens) where the Emperor does not appear in some way or another (Tarkin makes a few passing comments about the Emperor dissolving the Imperial Senate, but that is all).

That’s it for part 1, part 2 will look at Return of the Jedi (and will hopefully be up today, and if not, first thing tomorrow!) -Bex

*all images belong to either 20th century Fox/Walt Disney Studios

For more “On this day” posts, see here

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