How 'Star Wars' Blazed a Path for Filmmakers Across the Galaxy

Michael Phillips
Chicago Tribune (TNS)

Star Wars, George Lucas said back in 1975, two summers before its release, "is built on top of many things that came before".

It doesn’t seem capitalistically feasible to imagine a world without “Star Wars” in it, selling us stuff like the now-faded “Star Wars” pillowcase in one of the upstairs bedrooms, or the long-broken lightsabers littering the nether regions of the basement closet.

But there was a time before a long time ago. This was prior to 1977 B.C. (Before Chewbacca). George Lucas, hot off his semi-autobiographical 1973 nostalgia reverie “American Graffiti,” was struggling with a script called “Adventures of the Starkiller” featuring a swashbuckling accessory known in early drafts as “a lazer sword,” with a Z, like Liza. The new/old word combo “lightsaber” sounded better, I think we can agree. That script adjustment was one stroke of luck among thousands that made “Star Wars” blow up like a Death Star.

The summer before “Star Wars” opened, if you were 15 (disclosure: I was) and you wanted to see something with ray guns (disclosure: I did), you saw “Logan’s Run.” The 1976 release was shot, in part, inside a newfangled suburban Dallas mall, the spaciest-looking retail emporium around. It took place in the 23rd century and starred Michael York as the law enforcement “sandman,” a member of a hermetically sealed society built on hedonistic pleasure but also on the ritual of killing off all citizens at the age of 30.

Unlike “Star Wars” this was pretty racy for a PG-rated picture, which I didn’t mind. I saw “Logan’s Run” twice. Back then, if I thought a movie was just OK, I went twice. If I liked a movie, I saw it three or four times. I saw “Star Wars” four times. This meant I was something of an outlier regarding the movie that changed everything. But back to “Logan’s Run” for a minute, because “Logan’s Run” helps explain the success of “Star Wars.”

A medium hit in its day, “Logan’s Run” was the latest in a long, increasingly wearying line of late 1960s-’70s dystopian diversions, among them: the Charlton Heston savior allegories “Planet of the Apes, “The Omega Man” and “Soylent Green.” In that decade, if a futuristic fantasy ended with one man (a man, always; the women were incidental and primarily decorative) fighting back against a hopeless totalitarian mess in a world suffering from air quality that comes from U.S. presidents who weaken the Environmental Protection Agency for fun and profit, then I was a satisfied customer. Happy-enough endings were to be expected in a commercial moviegoing era marked by astonishing freedom as well as free-floating lyrical disillusionment.

Then “Star Wars” came along: plenty of calculation but no cynicism, no dread, no dystopia.

Writer-director Lucas wanted to do an update on the Flash Gordon serials he saw on TV, in Modesto, Calif., as a kid. The sole TV channel in Lucas’ pre-teen life, KRON-TV, showed Flash Gordon every night. The rights, as controlled by King Features, were too pricey, according to Lucas’ partner, Gary Kurtz. “They wanted too much money, too much control, so starting over and creating from scratch was the answer,” Kurtz told Los Angeles Times writer Geoff Boucher.

The result came entirely from other movies. Akira Kurosawa’s “The Hidden Fortress” provided the narrative inspiration; Errol Flynn swashbucklers such as “The Sea Hawk” sparked Lucas’ notion to use lazer swords, later and forever known instead as “lightsabers,” thank God and the Force. As ambivalent as I am about the merchandising impulse behind Lucas’ empire, now in the hands of Disney, as queasy as I sometimes feel about the toy-story influence of “Star Wars” in our popular culture, the lightsabers are cool as hell. Our basement may be littered with toy lightsabers of varying sizes, no longer functional, but there’s a metaphor about childhood buzzing around in there somewhere.

Age never had anything to do with “Star Wars.” Forty years ago, and today, the movie worked as Flash Gordon/Buck Rogers nostalgia for parents and grandparents. Their kids and grandkids experienced the same movie not as a savvy amalgam of spare movie parts, but as a brand new, hopped-up proto-video game in two-hour, one-minute movie form.

The second film, “The Empire Strikes Back,” was a little rougher, a little more inventive and expansive, made — tellingly — by director Irvin Kershner, not George Lucas. Lucas went on to sour millions on “Star Wars” with his antiseptic self-directed prequel trilogy, the movies that came after the initial three. Watching Lucas’ “American Graffiti” again the other day, it came as a beautiful surprise how fluid and right the direction of that picture was, and is. Lucas never made another movie like it, or another remotely as good. It meant a lot to me when I was 12; in its arrested-adolescent-male remembrance of anxieties past, it opened a window. “Star Wars” didn’t open a window; it was, for some of us, simply a good time.

The movie some of us went nuts for came a few months later. Lucas and Steven Spielberg were pals and colleagues, and are still. When Lucas was sweating through “Star Wars” post-production, wondering if he’d ever get the special effects to look special, Spielberg was going through the same ordeal on “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

As recounted in Joseph McBride’s definitive Spielberg biography, Lucas screened a “Star Wars” rough cut, minus the John Williams music and the effects, for a few friends and the 20th Century-Fox executives nervous about their investment. Lucas’ then-wife, Marcia, burst into tears when the lights came up, and privately called it “the ‘At Long Last Love’ of sci-fi,” referring to Peter Bogdanovich’s notorious 1975 musical flop.

Spielberg said he liked it, and predicted a big hit, though privately he stewed about “Star Wars” beating “Close Encounters” to theaters by a few crucial months. As it happened, both movies found their audience — the same audience, really, though the last 30 minutes of “Close Encounters” reached for the sublime and captured it, whereas “Star Wars” made do with that hyperspace jump, a nifty effect for the time.

“Close Encounters” was an enormous success and, as director Jean Renoir put it to his friend Francois Truffaut, who appeared in Spielberg’s film: “There is more than a grain of eccentricity in this adventure. The author is a poet.” No one in the industry ever called George Lucas a poet. A showman, yes; a shaman, even, in that his obsession with the next generation of movie technology, and his insidiously successful merchandising of the “Star Wars” universe, helped transform the movie business into a marketing business driven by movies.

By the time “Return of the Jedi” came along in 1983, the franchise’s priorities were clear. “I could see where things were headed,” Gary Kurtz told the LA Times. “The toy business began to drive the (Lucasfilm) empire. It’s natural to make decisions that protect the toy business, but that’s not the best thing for making quality films.” For all his ferocious commercial instincts, Spielberg at his best retains a touch of the poet. He’s honest with himself: Spielberg once told an interviewer that with “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” the seminal 1981 action movie for millions of boys and their nostalgic fathers (plus a minority audience of girls and women) the world over, he felt “I was losing touch with the reason I became a moviemaker.”

Nothing makes “Raiders” or “Star Wars” fanatics crazier than hearing someone (disclosure: me, for example) say those movies didn’t mean much to them personally. “Jaws” meant something to me; it’s commercial cinema incarnate, and it’s still terrific. All the grief Spielberg’s 1975 smash took for creating a new, omnivorous form of summer blockbuster better applies to “Star Wars” and “Raiders.”

For better or worse, we now live in a world of commercial film, devoted to DC and Marvel, unthinkable without the influence of “Star Wars” and “Raiders,” those peppy throwbacks to serial entertainments designed to do nothing more than prop up the main attraction. Today, they’re the main attraction. As always, we crave the simplicity of white helmets and black helmets. We relish the Arthurian mythology behind the Jedi knights, even if we don’t know squat about King Arthur. (The Guy Ritchie movie “King Arthur” won’t help you.)

“Star Wars,” Lucas said back in 1975, two summers before its release, “is built on top of many things that came before.” Would it have been the same phenomenon if Lucas had gotten the rights to remake “Flash Gordon”? If he had, today would the seven-year-old in our house be hanging on to his “Flash Gordon” pillowcase, the one its last threads?

Know, as Yoda would say, we never will.

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