Bringing Star Wars to the Screen: Episode IV – A New Hope

In the first of a new series of articles examining the various screen incarnations of George Lucas’ Star Wars saga, we focus on the development of original 1977 classic Star Wars…

Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, 1977.

Directed by George Lucas.
Starring Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Peter Cushing and Alec Guinness.

Star Wars Poster 1977

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away… young farm boy Luke Skywalker becomes embroiled in a civil war between the heroic Rebellion and evil Galactic Empire. Setting off from his home-world, Luke must rescue a captured princess and learn the ways of the Force from Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi if he is to aid the Rebellion in destroying the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star.

During the production of his debut movie THX-1138 (1971), young director George Lucas had expressed considerable interested in adapting the adventures of Flash Gordon for the big screen but, after being unable to acquire the rights to the character, Lucas soon set about developing his own space adventure reminiscent of the science-fiction movie serials he had watched as a child. Drawing inspiration not only from Flash Gordon but also the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Akira Kurosawa, Lucas began crafting his world and in early 1973 he produced the Journal of the Whills, a 40-page outline that began with the phrase: “This is the story of Mace Windu, a revered Jedi Bendu of Ophuchi who was related to Usby CJ Thape, Padawan learner to the famed Jedi”. This outline would serve as the basis for the first draft of his screenplay, which Lucas produced under the working title of The Star Wars.

Following the production of his second feature American Graffiti in 1973 Lucas offered The Star Wars to Universal and United Artists (who both passed on the option) before meeting with Alan Ladd Jr., then Head of Creative Affairs at 20th Century Fox. Ladd was impressed by a private screening of American Graffiti and was immediately drawn to Lucas’ vision, offering a deal to the filmmaker to write and direct the picture for $150,000. However, following the release and subsequent box-office and critical success of American Graffiti Lucas was able to renegotiate his deal to gain control of the merchandising and sequel rights, which Fox happily conceded in the belief that these would be of little value in the long-term.

While Lucas’ early treatment and screenplays contained many familiar names and locations, it was not until he had signed the first deal with Fox that the eventual narrative began to take shape. Lucas had felt that his newly created universe was “a good concept in search of a story”, and after discovering the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell – including Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces (1949) and Myths to Live By (1972) – he decided to focus the narrative on the journey of the hero, Luke Starkiller. He later reflected on this influence in The Hero’s Journey – Joseph Campbell on his Life and Works (1990), stating that “it was The Hero With A Thousand Faces that just took what was about 500 pages and said, here is the story, here’s the end, here’s the focus, here’s the way it’s all laid out.”

By early 1976 Lucas was satisfied his screenplay and, after holding joint casting sessions with close friend Brian De Palma for both Star Wars and Carrie (1976), had cast his leads. Young TV actor Mark Hamill was brought in as Luke (now renamed Skywalker) alongside Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia, with the actress beating off stiff competition from the likes of Jodie Foster and Amy Irving to secure the part. For the role of Han Solo, American Graffiti actor Harrison Ford had been strongly favoured by casting director Fred Roos and, although Lucas had initially rejected the idea, he soon became convinced of Ford’s suitability. Realising that Fox would be concerned about the lack of ‘star-power’ Lucas then turned to respected British actor Alec Guinness for the pivotal role of Luke’s mentor Obi Wan Kenobi and cast him alongside fellow veteran Peter Cushing, with much of the remaining supporting cast – such as Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew and David Prowse – hired once the production had moved to London.

Photography on Star Wars commenced March 22nd, 1976 on location in Tunisia before moving to Elstree Studios in London, with Lucasfilm hiring the entire facility for the remainder of the four-month shoot. The production pushed Lucas, the cast and crew to the very limit from the off. A rainstorm in Tunisia – the first of its kind in over fifty years – destroyed sets and equipment just days into the shoot, while many suffered from sunburn and dysentery. After moving to London Lucas also clashed with the British crew and director of photography Gilbert Taylor, who insisted they work to strict employment regulations including mandatory breaks and maximum working times, leading to the production falling behind schedule.

Difficulties continued through into post-production as Lucas’ newly formed Industrial Light & Magic struggled to make progress with the groundbreaking visual effects and the director was eventually hospitalised with hypertension and exhaustion. Declaring that Star Wars would be his final directorial film, Lucas screened an unfinished version of the film in early 1977 to a select group of friends that included De Palma, Steven Spielberg and John Milius. While Spielberg later suggested that he was the only person at the screening to have enjoyed the film (De Palma in particular had been highly critical), Lucas was soon buoyed by the reaction of Fox executives and the preview audience who attended the first public screening of the now completed film on April 30th at the Northpoint Theater in Los Angeles.

Looking to avoid the criticism that he felt would accompany the film’s release, Lucas and his then-wife Marcia flew to Hawaii while Star Wars opened quietly on May 25th, 1977 to only 32 screens. Despite this rather low-key release, it went on to gross a then-record $2.8m in its first week and critics fell over themselves to laud the film as a masterpiece of entertainment. With positive word-of-mouth spreading like wildfire, Star Wars soon dominated at cinemas around the globe and the studio’s share value skyrocketed as the film’s unprecedented success saw it march to the top of the all-time box office. Star Wars was nominated for nine Academy Awards and was successful in six of the technical categories, although Lucas lost out to Woody Allen in the Best Director and Best Picture categories with Annie Hall (1977). The film’s merchandising was equally – if not more so – successful, and with Lucas owning the rights, his life was soon changed forever.

It is easy to see why Star Wars proved so popular with audiences and critics. A timeless story of good against evil, Lucas provides a textbook example of narrative structure and his meticulous revisions and attention to detail help shape a truly believable fantasy world filled with iconic heroes and villains. The simplicity of the plot – a young farm hand who yearns for adventure only to find himself rising up as the heroic saviour of the galaxy – is immediately accessible and the film excels in providing escapist entertainment to both children and adults alike. John Williams’ enduring musical score perfectly captures the emotion and drama of the film and the mind-blowing visual effects were unlike anything that had come before. Its influence is also far-reaching, encompassing not only filmmakers such as James Cameron, Ridley Scott, Peter Jackson, Roland Emmerich and Kevin Smith, but also Hollywood thinking in general, with the ‘high concept’ summer blockbuster born as a reaction to the success of both Star Wars and Spielberg’s Jaws (1975). While Lucas was never fully satisfied with the final film – going as far as to release a Special Edition with enhanced visual effects and additional scenes in 1997 – Star Wars proved to be a pop-culture phenomenon that launched a billion-dollar franchise, and one to which Lucas would devote much of his later career.

Bringing Star Wars to the Screen: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back
Bringing Star Wars to the Screen: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi
Bringing Star Wars to the Small Screen: Caravan of Courage – An Ewok Adventure
Bringing Star Wars to the Small Screen: The Star Wars Holiday Special
Bringing Star Wars to the Small Screen: Ewoks – Battle For Endor
Bringing Star Wars to the Small Screen: The Ewoks and Droids Adventure Hour

Gary Collinson

  • Anonymous

    &quot;Looking to avoid the criticism that he felt would accompany the film’s release, Lucas and his then-wife Marcia flew to Hawaii while Star Wars opened quietly on May 25th, 2007 to only 32 screens&quot;<br />I think you meant 1977 ? :)

  • flickeringmyth

    Hey I&#39;m only thirty years out! Thanks for pointing that out.