It appears to be ingrained in human beings a need for mythology, stories that are passed down from one generation to another that entertain by creating a strange and often wonderful world. In America these myths have taken many forms from Johnny Appleseed to Superman and in 1977 Star Wars. This film was important for many reasons. It was a defining moment in how films would be made for decades afterwards, the use of special effects to create the environment for the story rather than just a wow or two embedded in the film. Star Wars in 1977 also was a much needed relief for a turbulent and difficult time. Here in New York City it gave us a break from a serial killer, a blackout and a long, hot summer. It satisfied that need for myths by creating a cast of characters and situations that now are beyond classic, they are part of our culture. In fact there is little need to recant the synopsis here; we all know it by heart.
While writer/director George Lucas freely admits the basic plot comes from Japanese cinema there are many truly American themes that abound in this film. First there is the classic battle between pure good and evil. Like the old westerns there is no guess work required to tell the good guys from the bad. We replace the black and white cowboy hats with Darth Vaderís jet black amour and Luke Skywalkerís simple white clothes and we know who to cheer for. This battle is fought on two levels, on a grand scale it is the fight between the evil Empire and the devoted Rebels. This harkens back to so many old World War Two films as the Empireís storm troops create a Nazi like presence. There are even more western references such as when Luke returns to his home to find his house burned and his whole family dead. We have seen this many times in westerns as the young hero witnesses the destruction of his former life to an Indian raid. When Han and Luke are attacked by fighter ships the ball turret they use to defend their ship is right our of a World War Two bomber. Sure the physics are all wrong but we donít care, itís a familiar touch that provides instant identification. The main reason these themes are constantly reused in fiction is they work. More than just plot devices they appeal to our emotional core in a very human and satisfying fashion. Here, instead of taking us back to the old west or the turbulence of war we are propelled into a strangely familiar future. I have to admit that Lucas displayed real genius here creating a futuristic world that somehow seems at home to us.
The casting of this film is absolutely perfect. Rarely has such on screen chemistry been achieved in cinema of any genre. Mark Hamill as fairly unknown when he created the role of Luke Skywalker, previously seen in soap operas and television shows he broke on to the big screen in a massive way. He portrays Luke as a sensitive young man, rebelling against the parental authority of his uncle, yearning for adventure off their humble farm. Here he begins a three film arc of discovery as he uncovers his true past and comes to realize the responsibilities of his future. Harrison Ford plays the mischievous rake better than almost any other actor. As Han Solo he is fantastic, balancing the self centered smuggler with a man committed to doing the right thing. He gives us the everyday man that most of us can identify with while exploring adventure at every turn. Carrie Fisher plays her role of Princess Leia as a strong young woman committed to creating a better world for others. She was one of the first really effective role models for young girls of this generation, a woman that can fight like a man yet remain caring and nurturing. The incredible voice of James Earl Jones is used for the villainous Darth Vader. In this film he is the incarnation of evil, one that uses the mystical force to further his own nefarious purpose.
Considering this was only the third theatrical film for writer/director George Lucas the results are almost impossible to imagine. While he is now under constant fire for his many revisions, changes and additions to the film the original stands as one of those movies that define a place in our lives. We all seem to remember the circumstances surrounding our first viewing of this film. Lucas takes freely from other genres not to just rip off previous works but rather as a means to help the audience feel familiar with the characters. While most other science fiction tales strive to create something strange Lucas gives us a foundation for his new mythology, one we feel at home with. He worked creatively within his budget here. Using hundreds of battle ship models to create the climatic death star scene for example, Lucas found ways to do what was never thought of in films, these techniques where so filled with imagination that they spawned Industrial Lights and Magic, a group of special effects wizards that where used to create some of the best effects in films for the following thirty years. In a way that has always reminded me of films like Citizen Kane, Lucas looked at the impossible shot and found ways to achieve them. He surrounded himself with young, often unknown talented people like John Dykstra, the special effects genius that went on to such films as the two Spider-Man flicks.
Sure, now the original film is to be found only on video tape and laser disc but even now the core elements are still there. The feeling of wonder and imagination can be found if we can overlook the numerous alterations. The fact that so many people are upset with the changes demonstrates the deep emotional effect this film has had on the public. Like so many others I look forward to the day seamless branching can be used to include the untouched version along side the newer version but even now this film stands the test of time and no once can take away the powerful influence it has had on more than a generation of film making.