What more can be said about the original Star Wars? It’s a film so influential and beloved that the film industry and film fandom are still feeling the shockwave from its May 25, 1977 release. The first paragraph of its opening crawl has been adapted into a 2-hour-plus movie. Halfway glimpsed background characters have been turned into sought-after action figures. George Lucas’ tale of underdog rebels battling the evil Empire has spawned an empire of its own, but let’s return to the beginning.
“You Can Type this Shit, George, but You Can’t Say it”
I say beginning, but this is a movie that starts in the middle of a pitched space chase. No one-and-a-half-hour buildup to action; we are dropped in medias res into a star war. The situation is sketched quickly and efficiently. The Empire is an overwhelming dominant force; the Rebellion is skittering away on a little blockade runner.
Lucas has often dismissed the importance of dialogue in favor of visuals, and the film plays into that thesis at many points. When Darth Vader barks orders at his subordinates (“I want them alive!”), John Williams’ score violently crescendos, in the style of a silent movie. During the prison block escape, the dialogue is buried in the sound mix. Two of the most iconic scenes in the movie, the binary sunset and the throne room medal ceremony, lead with visuals and don’t bother with words. When the Imperial Star Destroyers chase the Millennium Falcon near Tatooine, the danger has already been set up by the opening shot.
Lucas’ framing is mostly classical, but filled with visual interest. On the flashier cinematic side of things, my favorite shot in the film is when the camera follows Princess Leia’s cell door closing down to the floor, tracks with an officer’s foot, and adjusts back to eye level.
While there is certainly some excellent dialogue in Lucas’ screenplay, sometimes his words do let the movie down. The most egregious example is his decision to add the Jabba the Hutt scene into the Special Edition, which tediously re-covers the ground from the previous Han/Greedo scene, occasionally using the same phrasing to make the same points (not to mention the awful visual gag of Han stepping on Jabba’s tail).
John Williams’ landmark score constantly complements the words and visuals, telling the story with a punchy, magical soundscape that oddly also sounds excitingly DIY. The magisterial main theme opens the curtains; the ambling Jawa theme fits their silly design perfectly; the Force theme is instantly iconic; the perhaps underused Leia theme provides contrast to all the bombast; the “TIE Fighter Attack” cue remains thrilling; the “Battle of Yavin” music is some of the best action film music ever; and “The Throne Room” is a perfect triumphant dénouement. And: “Binary Sunset”, end of.
“You Think a Princess and a Guy Like Me…?”
The cast of characters is painted in broad strokes, as archetypes. There is very little psychological complexity to them yet. But this works for the movie because of the spirit of universal adventure it embodies. Luke is the earnest underdog hero; Leia is the brash and savvy politician of action; Han is the insouciant scoundrel; Obi-Wan is the wise mentor; Vader is the black cloud of evil. Maybe the most complex characters are the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern-esque droids C-3PO and R2-D2, who show a whole range of cowardice, bravery, affection, and irritancy.
Vader and Tarkin are an excellent villainous double-act (which one is the film’s main villain…?), with an interesting dynamic between them. Peter Cushing brings a lot of smarm and charm to the role, with his delivery of “you’re far too trusting” being a particular classic. At the time, Lucas even felt that Vader was a weak villain without a Tarkin-type figure to play off of.
Another iconic double-act is Han and Chewbacca. Chewbacca takes the idea of the loyal dog to a fantastical extreme, where he becomes an equal partner. But how much is this true in-universe? After hiding in the smuggling compartments, Han playfully fuzzes up Chewbacca’s head; in a deleted cantina scene, Han strokes Chewbacca under the chin exactly in the manner of a dog. Later films would never literalize the Chewbacca-as-dog dynamic like this again, an indication of this film very much in the process of figuring things out.
Not to mention the crazy-in-retrospect, right there on screen love triangle element between Luke, Leia, and Han, which course-corrects later. Lucas not only categorically saw Luke and Leia as love interest characters at this point, he’s also on record saying that he wanted Leia to “run off with” Chewbacca and that he “wouldn’t mind” killing Leia off. That course correction couldn’t come too soon.
Approaching Tosche Station
A key element of Star Wars, and especially this first movie, is silliness. That’s both intentional screwball humor, and unintentional kitsch. Why do these Imperial officers keep baiting and egging on Vader when he can choke them with his mind? What did Luke hope to accomplish by firing on the sheer face of the Death Star? And most pressing of all, is the VT-16 really quite a thing to see?
Given the controlled chaos of the production (at one point, the Sandcrawler was mistaken for a new type of tank and the movie almost started an international incident), the number of continuity errors is understandable. Greedo is seen walking around after he’s already been killed. A lot of the ADR on the Imperial officers is painfully obvious. At one point Vader’s dialogue and gestures are out of sync. There’s the amazing moment of the stormtrooper bumping his head. You can see David Prowse’s eye a couple times when Vader’s in his TIE Advanced.
But really striking in retrospect are the anachronisms. Luke says there’s nothing C-3PO can do for him “unless you can alter time, speed up the harvest, or teleport me off this rock.” Right there you have references to time travel and teleportation, two ideas that have never made it into the Star Wars mythology (Rebels’ World Between Worlds notwithstanding). If Luke has a concept of them, does the galaxy have its own version of science fiction?
Naturally, there are even more anachronisms at a script and draft level, but it’s amusing to look back on them. Vader threatens Leia with, “You will come to know such suffering as only the Master of the Bogan Force can provide…” And check out this little speech from Obi-Wan about Leia:
She’s part of the royal family. They won’t get any information from her… She knows the art of mind control… She’s a swan sensana.
That died a death on the way to the screen, but this description of her mental power does remind me of the bene gesserit from Frank Herbert’s Dune. All the references to spice must also be allusions to Dune, and the concept of a messiah from that novel also finds its way to Lucas’ epigraph on the script: “… and in the time of greatest despair, there shall come a savior, and he shall be known as The Son of the Suns. – Journal of the Whills, 3:127”. Suffice to say, we could have had a very different Star Wars saga.
The First Step into a Larger World
George Lucas did revise well, and came out with a screenplay packed with amazing (and funny) lines. “I find your lack of faith disturbing.” “I’ll be careful.” “You’ll be dead!” For all that the power of the binary sunset scene is wordless, the last time I watched the movie, Owen and Beru’s buildup to it (“he has too much of his father in him”) made me cry while the sunset itself did not. The film, like many first installments, is a marvel of scope if not scale. The Empire Strikes Back probably beats it on a scene-to-scene basis, but the original Star Wars wins out through structural purity. Watching the film now, in light of everything that’s happened with the franchise in the forty-one years since, there’s the sense that Star Wars has outgrown this. The simplicity of the film is pure, but also singular, and not sustainable for an evolving series. But no matter what, the franchise will never stop honoring it. The original Star Wars truly was the first step into a larger world.