In the latest in our ground breakers series, Tom Jolliffe looks back at where an entire franchise began in 1977’s Star Wars…
It may seem odd to think, but at one time, Star Wars was something of a financial gamble. There was as much mirth at the prospect of a space saga, B picture as there was faith that it would prove successful. These kind of B movies had fallen out of favour by the time the 70’s had rolled around. They’d always perennially been the simple slice of escapism to come after a more respected epic or drama. Hence the term ‘B movie.’ Historically, shot on low budgets and never among the running once award season came around. Even Alec Guinness wasn’t exactly enamoured with the material he was working with. The studio was also horrified at the first cut of the film, concerned that they had a disaster on their hands. It was no small amount spent on the film either.
At the tail end of the 70’s, American cinema still had a predominant drive from a grittier and more pessimistic cinema. Jaws came out, and whilst it was exceptionally well put together with a great cast, it was still a surprise that a creature feature could take the box office by storm. It was escapism. It was a tense, thrilling event film that became a phenomenon, paving the way for something else to follow. A couple of years later, George Lucas delivered Star Wars upon the world, the landscape of cinema was forever changed.
George Lucas emerged among a number of young contemporaries taking cinema by storm, such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma and Steven Spielberg. His Sci-Fi epic (his third feature) was a love letter to pulpy B movies, TV shows, Japanese cinema and comics. Somehow or other, with an array of influences, Star Wars perfectly blended action, ground-breaking special FX (from a group of boundary pushing experimenters), adventure, humour and drama. The story played on age old themes of fate and destiny, as a young farm boy (who never knew his parents) finds himself whisked away on an adventure, to follow in his fathers footsteps (and into the first follow up film, increasingly being warned of not following too closely of course).
Lucas just seemed to have a gift for ideas that were magnetic, and felt new. In what has many hallmarks of being a space Western/samurai film, you replace guns with lasers, swords with laser swords (with the inimitable lightsaber). The relatable young hero struggling in his search for identity. A charismatic and roguish anti-hero. A feisty princess. A Wookie and the droids and a villain so distinctly imperious and intimidating. It all added up to something audiences were bewitched by. As far as adventure stories go, the first two Star Wars adventures are nigh on impossible to match for awe and spectacle.
The series created the kind of visual scope and spectacle that had barely been seen (perhaps only 2001 prior still holds up as far as space set VFX). Visually Star Wars is completely ground-breaking. The ability to shift between the impressive space battles, large ships, the Death Star, back to the dynamic and engaging interplay between the leading characters in more intimate settings is where the films strength really lies. A rarity for these kind of B pictures too, was the grounded sincerity in how Lucas played the drama. There’s humour, there are some darker moments and very accomplished performances. It wasn’t overtly campy or theatrical. He didn’t try to make characters sound like they were in a Science Fiction film. This space adventure had a certain grounding, and there was an enjoyably distinct imperfection to many of the sets. It all looked a bit beaten down and warn. Luke Skywalker is introduced on a desert planet. It’s all dust and dirt. Theses were worlds that had the feeling of a physical reality, whereas previous decades in space sci-fi looked like cardboard sets and claustrophobic studio sets.
Star Wars was a mega hit. It soon inspired a series of imitators who felt there was a re-invigorated market for Sci-Fi/Fantasy and adventure. Thanks to Star Wars we had Indiana Jones, and a host of other adventures films through the 80’s, with everything from Conan The Barbarian to E.T and more. These films could not only find a niche market, but could dominate the box office. The first sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, celebrated its 40th Anniversary this year too. Whilst Lucas had some thoughts in mind of following Star Wars, the film was initially released just as Star Wars. The ‘Episode IV: A New Hope‘ part was added later. Like almost nothing before it (with only Star Trek perhaps coming close), Star Wars was an entity that pushed beyond just cinema. Lucas tapped into a marketing sensation that spawned toys, games, food, clothes and just about anything you can think of. Now, all these consumer goods tying in with movies is pretty normal, but Star Wars was the originator and a true money spinning behemoth.
Step forward over 40 years and we’ve had two more trilogies, a couple of spinoffs, countless TV shows (animated and live action) and other spin offs, video games and more. The Star Wars property, now under the Disney flag, is still big, even if the last two films have somewhat soured the enjoyment and the relationship between fans and the franchise (though I suspect that’s as much down to a new internet generation and tastes than the films themselves). Still, George Lucas’ astonishing home run and cinematic game changer, ultimately kicked open the doors to an era where major studios are almost entirely driven by market driven movies, which historically would have been deemed as B movies.
Is Star Wars the most game-changing blockbuster ever? Let us know your thoughts on our social channels @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due in 2020/21, including The Witches Of Amityville (starring Emmy winner, Kira Reed Lorsch), War of The Worlds: The Attack and the star studded action films, Renegades (Lee Majors, Billy Murray) and Crackdown. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/