Synopsis: A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, a Rebellion has formed against an evil Galactic Empire. The Rebellion has won its first victory against the oppressors, but the Empire has constructed a superweapon, the planetkilling Death Star. These events break in on the life of young Luke Skywalker, a farm boy on the desert world of Tatooine. As he is drawn into the swirl of events, he decides to join the Rebellion and become a Jedi knight, like his mysterious, absent father. But before his training is complete, Luke and his Rebel friends must confront the power of the Death Star.
For those of you who may have trouble sorting out the episode business, this movie Episode IV is the original Star Wars movie that came out back in 1977. When it first appeared, it was just called Star Wars.
George Lucas, who conceived, wrote, and directed Star Wars, always envisioned it as part of a larger whole, and as soon as it became apparent that the series was successful enough for the sequels Lucas intended, a new batch of prints was ordered, and audiences began to see Episode IV A New Hope added to the opening crawl (the words that float up the screen at the beginning of the movie).
I remember the first time that I saw the new lines in the opening crawl, and I heard people around me in the theater saying, Huh? What? Episode IV? as soon as they saw it. They had already seen the movie from its original set of prints, and (not being as in touch with the fan magazines as I was at the time) they weren’t expecting the new line.
Why Episode IV? Why not Episode I? Why start a story in the middle?
It’s clear that this film has a lot of backstory things its story presupposes that the audience hasn’t seen. Chief among the backstory elements is the issue of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill)’s mysterious father, who according to his mentor, Ben Kenobi (Alec Guiness), was betrayed and murdered by the equally mysterious Darth Vader (body by David Prowse; voice by James Earl Jones).
The film also occurs after a long series of political events, the fall of a Republic, the rise of an Empire, and the beginning of a Rebellion, with the killing of the galaxy’s Jedi Knights and something called the Clone Wars thrown somewhere in the mix. With that much backstory, it might make sense to give a film an episode number greater than one.
It was an odd move to actually do so, but a cool one and fortuitous, given the backstory Lucas finally decided upon. If he had tried to film the Star Wars story starting with Episode I, he would have never succeeded. Episode III (2005) is going to be so dark that it would have killed the franchise.
Fortunately, he started with the film that came to be known as Episode IV and audiences couldn’t get enough of it. Viewers sensed that this was something new: Though in the same tradition as the
Lucas has noted in interviews that Star Wars was influenced by a boyhood favorite of his: the
Yet Star Wars goes beyond Flash Gordon or its peers. Partly, of course, this is simply due to advances in technology and cinematography many of which were pioneered in this very film. Star Wars leaps off the screen and pulls the viewer into the action in a way that Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers didn’t and couldn’t.
But Star Wars also tells a story that seems more momentous, more significant. Like earlier pulp films, Star Wars draws on mythic and fairy-tale archetypes: a young orphan-hero; a mysterious wizard-mentor; a fearsome dark lord; a magical sword; a princess held prisoner; a gallant rescue mission. Yet on a deeper level, Star Wars is more convincing as a myth or fairy tale in its own right.
This is due in part to Lucas’s assimilation of the work of mythology scholar Joseph Campbell, who, in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, distilled a common pattern underlying the stories told in every culture about the hero archetype. This pattern, which Campbell referred to as the hero’s journey, was consciously applied by Lucas to his hero, Luke Skywalker a fact that initially lead some less-mythologically-hip commentators to disparage what they thought were excessive similarities between Star Wars and other films with mythic or fairy-tale influences, such as The Wizard of Oz and the journey of its heroine, Dorothy.
Lucas also has pointed to the influence of films set in medieval Japan especially the Akira Kurosawa classic The Hidden Fortress, to which the first Star Wars movie bears many similarities. The influence of such films is significant enough that the name Jedi itself is taken from the Japanese designation for a national medieval epic, known in Japanese as Jidai Geki: period drama.
Lucas’s Jedi knights are essentially mystic martial-arts heroes with an outer-space rather than medieval setting: laser swords instead of steel swords. The tradition of larger-than-life warriors in Eastern martial-arts fiction was recently spotlighted in America by Ang Lee’s 2000 blockbuster Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which featured high-flying heroes drawn from traditional Chinese Wuxia fiction who seemed to many U.S. viewers reminiscent of Jedi knights.
Some commentators, especially in later years, noticed resonances between the world of Star Wars and the real-word era in which it was released that may have given it added impact for contemporary audiences. It was the Cold War, and there would be natural resonances for Star Wars’s themes of a totalitarian government (the Empire in place of the Soviet Union), of complete planetary destruction (the Death Star in place of nuclear war), and brave, underdog freedom fighters (the Rebellion in place of the American will to achieve freedom, no matter the cost).
The film also involved a return to family values and feel-good filmmaking, a significant departure from the sturm und drong of culture in the 1960s and early 1970s, which produced an overabundance of films trying to be gritty, angst-ridden, heady, and relevant.
All these factors may have played a subconscious role in providing the film’s instant popularity, but they alone wouldn’t be enough to explain why the film took off as it did. So why was Star Wars such a hit at the time? And why is it a classic today?
Because there’s so much cool stuff in it!
Not only do we have a powerful, mythic story of a hero’s journey, we also have numerous other cool elements. Among the main characters alone we have a string of living paradoxes: a backwater-farmboy-turned-galactic-hero (Luke Skywalker), a mercenary-rogue-with-a-heart-of-gold (Han Solo), a rough-and-ready action princess (Leia Organa), a pair of bickering, comical robots
Numerous minor elements also contribute to the film’s coolness, especially for the period in which it was released. It has far more alien (i.e., far less human) aliens than the audience was used to seeing in Star Trek and other contemporary pieces. It has a more realistic presentation of these aliens (e.g., they don’t all speak English, as on Star Trek). It has laser swords what’s cooler than that?
It has poignant moments, as when Luke discovers what the Empire did to his home and his aunt and uncle. It had tense moments turned comic, as when Luke and his comrades are almost crushed in a giant trash compactor (a new household device back in the 1970s). It has space ships, laser blasts, action sequences, and a surplus of almost everything one could want in a
All this made it the most popular film of its day, and a suitable springboard for the rest of the Star Wars series.
Of course, the film is not without flaws. Because it’s part of a mythic saga, the characters are sometimes written in a way that is one-dimensional. The acting also is often paper-thin, though the Star Wars films have never been about acting. (If you’re focused on that, you aren’t getting it.) For many critics, too, the pop
Some elements of the film, especially to older teens and young adults going through a cynical stage, will seem juvenile. But that’s fine. It’s meant to be enjoyed by children; in fact Lucas has said that he makes the Star Wars films principally for children, though it also has appeal for adults who are mature enough to appreciate good children’s stories. The fact that the series is meant principally for children, however, makes certain elements in the film potentially problematic particularly some of the moral and spiritual issues it raises (see my essay Star Wars: Moral and Spiritual Issues for more on this point).
Star Wars is not a perfect film, but its strengths outweigh its weaknesses, and it remains a seminal work of American culture. It presents the age-old theme of good versus evil in an at-once futuristic and mythic context. It is a triumph of the imagination, and a rip-roaring adventure yarn. With the now-classic opening words A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away , Star Wars introduced us to a world not quite like anything we had ever seen before.
In 1997 a new edition of the film was released, incorporating changes made by George Lucas using the new digital technologies offered by the computer revolution since the film’s debut. This will be the form in which the film is most commonly encountered by the average viewer from now on.
This film contains numerous adjustments and improvements: New exterior shots have been provided (such as Ben’s house) that would have required more expensive set construction than the original version’s budget allowed. Many of the special effects that weren’t as successful as Lucas wanted have been replaced with modern, better-looking ones. And there are new shots of space ships moving in ways not easily achievable with the motion-control cameras Lucas developed to make the film in the ’70s.
Most noticeable to many viewers of the special edition will be the adding of new aliens and monsters to the film, such as the tiny hopping creatures that infest the (now much more impressive) Mos Eisley spaceport. Most significantly, there is an added scene in which we get to see Jabba the Hutt (he was discussed but not seen in the first edition) and the bounty hunter Boba Fett (originally introduced after this film, in the forgettable, made-for-TV Star Wars Holiday Special).
Not all changes will appeal to fans of the original film. For example, in the original edition, Han Solo’s status as a rogue was underscored when he suddenly shot one of Jabba’s thugs Greedo after only being verbally threatened with death. In the special edition, Greedo fires first, making Han’s action unambiguous self-defense (as well as establishing Greedo as the worst point-blank shot in the outer rim!).
Some fans also will wish that Lucas had made further changes. For example, a famous gaffe in the original film in which Ben Kenobi’s lightsaber seems to fizzle, revealing the prop rod underneath, has inexplicably been left unchanged.
In an earlier scene, Han boasts that his ship once made the Kessel run in less than twelve parsecs. This has been widely regarded as a goof since parsecs are a measure of distance, not time. However Lucas reportedly has said that the mistake was intentional, to show that Han didn’t always know what he was talking about (note Ben Kenobi’s scowl upon hearing the claim).
All in all, though, the special edition changes significantly enhance the film, and will make it more enjoyable than ever to fans.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.