If Stars Wars is remembered today as one of the original Hollywood blockbusters, it’s fair to say that The Force Awakens, its latest iteration, is one of the first films to attain that status before a single regular viewer—or even reviewer—had seen it. Weeks before its December 18 nationwide debut, the new film—directed for the first time in franchise history by a new director, J. J. Abrams, had already sold enough tickets to make it one of the year’s most watched films.
It would be hard to imagine a sharper contrast with the launch of the original movie—the one now pompously known as A New Hope—which I saw as a teenager back in the summer of 1977. It was called, simply enough, Star Wars. While the first trailers (amusingly clunky by today’s standards) certainly made it look entertaining, no one at the time—least of all George Lucas himself—had any inkling that his new creation would colonize our minds the way it has.
I can still remember how the initial moments of Star Wars bowled us over: the slow, vanishing-point text crawl that gave way to the descent, from the top of the frame, of the impossibly enormous imperial star cruiser. The opening amounted to a sort of visual manifesto. It signaled that we were about to see something resoundingly different, a combination of old-fashioned storytelling (that floating text like a 1920s silent-film title) and smashing new special effects (the dazzling model-work of that first huge ship).
Perhaps most radically of all, there was good and there was evil, and you knew who was who. I’d certainly never seen anything like it: an outer-space frolic with knights and monsters and damsels in distress. And light sabers? A conceit so nonsensical that you just had to love it. There was a coming-of-age story for the plucky young hero, a villain entirely encased in black, and a pirate captain with a yeti for a pal.
And Alec Guinness! My father was a lifelong fan of Guinness, the magnificent British character actor who, in his autobiography, recalls how silly and incomprehensible he found Lucas’s project—until the director rather haphazardly offered him a percentage of the box office for what amounted to a few days’ work. (The gift made him fantastically rich for the rest of his life.) My father had worshiped Guinness in Kind Hearts and Coronets, Lawrence of Arabia, and The Bridge on the River Kwai. And now here he was, playing a swashbuckling religious mystic with a bunch of robots and crazy aliens and guys in white plastic armor.
I have an indelible memory of my father chortling when a deadpan Guinness delivered his most immortal lines: “Mos Eisley Spaceport. You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.” My dad got it immediately. “This is space opera,” he whispered. “Like what we watched when we were kids.” Afterwards he explained it to me, Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon and the rest. And this, as we know now, was exactly what Lucas was going for.
But the success of Star Wars also had a lot to do with the simple fact that it was unlike anything else in Seventies cinema. What a lot of the current rumination about the history of the franchise tends to miss is just how radically the original movie stood out from the rest of the filmmaking of its time.
This impression was especially strong for me because going to the movies was such a big part of my life. I was growing up in Midland, Texas, where there wasn’t much else to do. My parents had divorced in 1970, and for most of the decade my relationship to my father had been structured around his weekly visits. They followed a reassuringly regular routine: dinner and a movie each Thursday night.
Usually we’d eat first at Luigi’s, our favorite Italian place. (I’m not sure that any actual Italians were ever involved in its operations. The owner was the ebullient Lou Hochman, one of the vanishingly tiny Jewish community in our town.) It was over the red-and-white checkered tablecloths of the restaurant that my father undertook my second education. He was a civil engineer by profession and a zealous amateur historian by choice, and as we ate our pizzas and spaghetti he would tell me about the Mongol composite bow, or the inverse square law, or the evolution of the Indo-European language family. (He had a penchant for explaining these things even to people who could not have cared less; luckily I was only too happy to listen.)
And then it was off to the movies—usually the Howard Hodge Theater, just down the street from home (and across from Conner’s Barbecue). One movie a week for at least seven years straight: if loyalty programs had existed then, we would have been in for a lot of free stuff.
Film scholars will tell you a lot about the cinema of the 1970s, but the movies they dwell on aren’t necessarily the ones I remember. I didn’t see A Clockwork Orange (1971) or Taxi Driver (1976), two of the decade’s big highlights, until much later in life; when they first appeared my parents regarded them as too much for a kid in his early teens. I did manage to wheedle my way into Dirty Harry (1971) and The Godfather (1972), both rated R (perhaps because there was less sex and more good old all-American violence). And we definitely saw Jaws (1975) and All the President’s Men (1976), both quite a big deal. We got a particular kick out of George C. Scott’s rich portrayal of Patton (1970), the general my father had served under in World War II. Needless to say, we also saw a lot of highly forgettable movies.
But there was one genre that we were always particularly keen on: science fiction. My dad was a nerd avant la lettre. He owned a collection of issues of Astounding Science Fiction (later renamed Analog) that went back, without a break, to the 1930s. He introduced me to the great sci-fi writers, and I ended up learning far more, it seemed, from Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke than I ever did from the Texas public school system. As my father proudly noted, science fiction fans in the 1930s were already well-informed about atomic energy at a time when most Americans had no clue. (In 1944, Astounding’s legendary editor, John W. Campbell, had received a visit from the FBI after publishing a story about an “atomic bomb.” Investigators let Campbell off the hook once it became clear that he didn’t know a thing about the still-top-secret Manhattan Project.)
Hollywood had a big thing for sci-fi in the 1970s. By the time I became a regular moviegoer, the turmoil and fervor of the Sixties had percolated through pop culture, leaving behind a generalized sense of disquiet and dread. To an extent that’s hard to appreciate today, this was the first big era of the anti-hero. Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan responded to social breakdown by becoming almost as much of a punk as the criminals he hunted. Charles Bronson’s character in the Death Wish series took vigilantism to a creepy new level. Robert de Niro’s Travis Bickle was a nut case trying to do the right thing in a world so twisted that you couldn’t really figure out if goodness was possible anymore.
I was especially fond of Robert Redford in Jeremiah Johnson (1972), the story of a solitary mountain man who wins the West through a chain of vicious man-to-man fights with Indians. The seemingly autistic Johnson—the movie goes for long stretches without a single word—offers a startling counterpoint to the bombastic cowboys of an earlier era. It was a movie that brilliantly blurred the line between heroism and psychopathy.
But sci-fi movies were even better at capturing the sense of malaise. Logan’s Run (1976) offered a dystopian parody of Sixties youth worship by positing a future society in which everyone over the age of thirty is automatically killed to save resources. Soylent Green (1973), starring the craggy Charlton Heston, posited a Malthusian near-future (2022, to be exact) in which overpopulation has filled every nook and cranny of the planet with people; humankind can survive only by reprocessing the dead into food. (It was apparently the—bizarre—inspiration for the Soylent meal replacement beverage now popular with Silicon Valley types.) Heston also starred in The Omega Man (1971), later remade as I Am Legend with Will Smith, in which he played one of the few intact survivors of a bioweapon that has zombified most of the human race. This was the Cold War, after all, and anxiety about weapons of mass destruction was everywhere. Heston had gotten his start as a sci-fi hero in Planet of the Apes (1968), set in a world where human civilization has nuked itself out of existence.
People could fall prey to extraterrestrial microbes (The Andromeda Strain, 1969) or to pleasure robots run amok (Westworld, 1973). One of my favorites around this time was a made-for-TV movie, starring a young and wonderfully unhinged Bruce Dern, called Silent Running (1972). Dern plays an environmentalist who is tending earth’s last forests, which have been placed in safekeeping in outer space until the sullied planet can be cleaned up enough for their return. When the crews of these giant orbital hothouses receive the order to destroy the ships and return home, Dern goes off the rails, killing all of his colleagues in order to save what’s left of terrestrial nature (and probably inspiring a future generation of eco-terrorists).
Given the similar mindset of all of these films, my father and I couldn’t help feeling intrigued when we first began to hear about Star Wars. George Lucas’s earlier foray into sci-fi, THX 1138 (1971), had been a bit of a chore, a standard-model cautionary tale about a benumbing future of shiny white surfaces and mandatory sedative consumption. American Graffiti (1973), a nostalgic coming-of-age tale set in 1960s California, was pleasant and unremarkable. So what was Lucas up to now?
In its exuberant escapism, the original Star Wars seemed, on some level, to be aggressively rejecting any form of social commentary—but even so there was an unmistakable whiff of conservatism about the whole thing. What Lucas wanted to recapture from the old-time space epics (aside from their outlandish fun) was their fundamental sense of optimism. As he recently explained in an interview with The Washington Post, he wanted to conjure up a world with clear values and sharp dividing lines between bad and good: “The last time we had done it was with the Western. And once the Western was gone, there was no vehicle to say, ‘You don’t shoot people in the back’ and such.”
The trick, though, was that you couldn’t really do that while staying in the demoralized 1970s. So why not just create an alternate reality, “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”? Lucas, aiming to give his stories a grand, mythological scope, simply conjured up his own version of Olympus or Valhalla, a place big enough for his demigods and gods to romp—and big enough to accommodate many sequels. It all attests to the original creator’s genius at combining a simple core of narrative principles (the Republic’s good Jedi versus the Empire’s evil Sith) with an infinitely flexible frame (the Galaxy and all its worlds).
Today Star Wars has become such an integral part of our pop culture status quo that it’s hard to recreate just how revolutionary—or counterrevolutionary—it felt at the time. (Nowadays fans speak, quite appropriately, of the “Expanded Star Wars Universe,” a cosmos fleshed out by countless novels, comic books, fan fiction, and animated TV series, which has the advantage of allowing for all sorts of satisfying doctrinal disputes. Many hardcore fans dismiss the three subpar prequels Lucas released between 1999 and 2005 as heretical offshoots of the “canon.”)
When we first saw it, of course, we had no way of knowing that it would pave the way for the special effects-driven “summer blockbuster,” or the slow triumph of Nerd Culture, or a parade of senseless memorabilia on a scale to buoy up the economic fortunes of several Chinese provinces. All we knew was that we’d just seen something amazingly fresh, and we left the theater feeling mysteriously liberated. It’s a sensation that I can vividly remember today. One wonders if Abrams will really be able to recapture it.
Part of a continuing NYR Daily series on life-changing films.