No Concessions: “Star Wars” Memories

Thirty-five years ago, on May 25, 1977, Star Wars opened. On May 26, 1977, I saw it with my family. My life changed…

Hold it, back up a minute. Time plays tricks on us. I looked it up and while Star Wars did indeed open on May 25, it only opened in a handful of theaters, on a Wednesday…and there was no way my family was going to see it on a school night. By Friday, May 27, it was playing on 43 screens–none of them the twin theaters at the Morris County Mall in New Jersey.

By June 24, it had expanded to 360 screens. I’m pretty comfortable, sort of, that we saw it that weekend.

(If you didn’t see Star Wars until Aug. 19, when it reached its peak expansion of 1,096 screens, you were a loser. By then the cool kids like me, who were soon to be awesome seventh graders, had seen it two or three times. But think about it: The Avengers is currently playing on 1,096 screens in Manhattan alone–and we already now it will be on DVD and Blu-ray on Sept. 25. Whereas a pre-“ancillary” juggernaut like Star Wars played and played until demand ceased to exist, right through at least Dec. 14, when Saturday Night Fever opened–and, no, that photo I used is not in New Jersey. )

So: Thirty-five years ago, on May 25, 1977, Star Wars opened. On June 25, 1977, I saw it with my family, I think. I recall it raining, and that we had to wait for an hour to get in, as you had to back when event pictures played on 360 screens.

My life changed forever.

Except that it didn’t.

Don’t get me wrong–we loved it. What’s not to love? A partial checklist of things I loved about Star Wars: C-3PO. R2-D2. Han Solo. Chewbacca. Obi-Wan. Darth Vader. The garbage monster. That crazy chess game. Han shooting first (right?). Hammer horror veteran Peter Cushing in a movie I actually saw in a theater and not on TV. Jawas, which creeped out my sister, who was four years younger (and anything that creeped her out was OK by me). And I was happy to participate in a cinematic happening with my family–we missed out on Jaws (1975), as my parents thought it might disturb my love of the pre-Snooki Jersey Shore. (A year later we all saw Jaws 2, which creeped out my sister.)

We saw Star Wars twice. I bought the Alan Dean Foster novelization (and I still have it on my shelves in my parents’ house). It gave us kids something to talk about. But that was it. I didn’t obsess over it, and I don’t consider it a personal touchstone. The Spy Who Loved Me, released on July 13, 1977, made more of an impression. Barbara Bach. I digress.

It’s safe to say, however, that Star Wars changed all our lives, including my uncomprehending 11-year-old one. Though we didn’t know it at the time we were in the midst of the first summer movie season, the legacy of Jaws‘ success, which was cemented by Star Wars‘ dazzling performance–one that its distributor, 20th Century Fox, failed to predict, as it threw its marketing muscle behind the sordid Sidney Sheldon adaptation The Other Side of Midnight (a great movie for families, sheesh) and the pitiful Damnation Alley.

That clinker was “old school” in the worst way, and proved so dismal it was moved out of its planned summer berth and left to languish in late October. Outside of the Bond films, some of the disaster movies, and one-0ffs like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), effects technology was in sad shape by the mid-70s, and needed turbocharging. (Recall, with a shudder, that in 1976 two movies that any ten-year-old knew were lackluster, Logan’s Run and King Kong, were awarded Special Achievement Oscars, the achievement apparently being deepest scrape of the barrel.) Star Wars at last brought Hollywood up to date. (And it won its special effects Oscar in a fair fight, against the equally progressive Close Encounters of the Third Kind.)

Star Wars also changed how movies were marketed. Tie-ins were nothing new, but when George Lucas picked up the merchandising rights from an indifferent Fox and printed money thereafter the studios woke up and started milking its would-be cash cows, however thin the herd. Does anyone out there have any Krull toys?) It’s cute when E.T. wears a Yoda mask–and an acknowledgment that the Star Wars stuff you see in movies from that era was all over the place by 1982, a galactic brand.

Thirtty-five years later, we see the dark side. Effects-thick studio movies manufactured to sell product dominate the summer marketplace, and the spring, fall, and winter ones, too. George Lucas has taken the rap for this–unfairly, I’d say. While cobbled together from the things he loved in his youth there’s an astonishing purity to Star Wars, which the 11-year-old in most of us picked up on. It was fresh and vigorous. Lucas had conjured dreams into reality. I had a reasonably good time at The Avengers, and kids today have their Harry Potter and Twilight and Hunger Games movies, but the stale air of franchise hangs over them. Only Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films have the same spirit of the Star Wars trilogy.

The original trilogy, that is. We’re not going there, however. For me there would be two more trips to Morris County Mall, and two more long waits, plus half a viewing of 1978’s infamous Star Wars Holiday Special before I turned it off. Everyone loved The Empire Strikes Back (1980), even Pauline Kael, who had no use for Star Wars. I liked it well enough, but (heresy) I’ve never embraced it the same way that others have. By Return of the Jedi (1983) I was college-bound and skeptical; Jabba the Hutt was a peerless creation (Lucas’ last peerless creation to date), sadly shuffled off in favor of marketable Ewoks and an underwhelming reprise of the Death Star. I’d grown up, but there were signs that Lucas was digging in.

And, one long footnote of prequels later, here we are. Take that. Isn’t it always the way that something that begins so well ends in bitterness and recrimination? It’s best that the show is over.

On this anniversary day, however, I’ll think a kind thought about Star Wars, the movie that changed the cinematic universe. May the Force be…nah. The Force is always with us.

  • BobCashill

    Summer 77: STAR WARS, SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT, THE DEEP, THE RESCUERS, and SPY were the big hits. I saw STAR WARS, SPY, and ORCA, a lower-tier flop to go along with the higher-profile disappointments like A BRIDGE TOO FAR, SORCERER, EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC, and NEW YORK, NEW YORK.

  • Paul Lane

    I saw it in the 2nd prescreening (11PM) in the Very First Showing of the film publicly. Coronet Theater, San Francisco May 19, 1977. It was the first time since Mary Poppins (4 yo) that I had to stand in line (1 hr) before being let in. A rather nerdy George Lucas gave a very brief introduction.

  • Paul Lane

    Er… make that 1977. Yikes!

  • BobCashill

    That’s great–witness to history! I doubt Lucas has ever made it to Morris County, though I did visit the Ranch in Marin County once and met him. (Not a memorable encounter; had more fun with the EFX guys and Ben Burtt, who I once interviewed.)

  • BobCashill

    That’s great–witness to history! I doubt Lucas has ever made it to Morris County, though I did visit the Ranch in Marin County once and met him. (Not a memorable encounter; had more fun with the EFX guys and Ben Burtt, who I once interviewed.)

  • Guy Smiley

    Sorry, but Harry Potter does not have a “stale air of franchise” hanging over it… And comparing it with that Twilight garbage is just wrong.

    Sure, they’re movies made from books. I get that. But they’re also wonderful, imaginative books and the movies, amazingly, actually do the books justice for the most part (a few quibbles, but few). To maintain the level of quality, and fun, and (yes) magic, that they did across EIGHT films is nothing short of astounding. Mindblowing, even. George Lucas couldn’t do that for more than three films… In EITHER of his two monster franchises.

    I grew up with Star Wars. I saw the original, pre-“New Hope” bullshit, in the theatres five or six times in its initial run. But I’m still young enough, at least at heart, to know that the Harry Potter films are something special, very special, too.

    Besides, as much as I adore the Original Trilogy, let’s not kid ourselves. Parts of the trilogy have horribly over the last 35 years. The dialogue, especially in the first movie, is often atrocious, and I never understood how the Stormtroopers couldn’t hit the broadside of Bantha if they tried. Or why they wore those clunky armors if they didn’t stop blaster fire. And those troopers shooting at Luke and Leia before they swing across that retracted bridge? Where did they disappear to?

    Don’t even get me started about the “Special” Editions.

    Also, The Avengers was awesome and Marvel Studios deserves props for what they’ve done in building their shared movie universe too.

  • Old_Davy

    R2D2 falling over at 1:38 in the above teaser is the best thing in all six movies. I rarely see movies more than once in the theaters, but went to see Star Wars three times.

  • BobCashill

    “Do the books justice…” Too much, if you ask me. Every comma seemed to be filmed. Where’s the adaptation, the transformative spark of book into movie that you get from the LORD OF THE RINGS films? And the whole “Deathly Hallows. Part 1″ nonsense was a pure (or impure) marketing move, already copied by the “Twilight” movies and likely to be repeated again. Given that “Part 1″ was 2.5 hours of characters poking through libraries there was no reason not to condense it into one movie. But maybe it’s a generational thing; our favorite books weren’t as indulged as much when they hit the screen.

  • JonCummings

    Dude, we LOVED Logan’s Run in my neighborhood. We played endless evenings of flashlight freeze tag – Logan’s Run edition, where we would chase each other around calling to each other in British accents, “oh, Looooooogan…” BTW, did you catch Jenny Agutter in The Avengers? I didn’t, til the closing credits at least – damn movie theaters for not having remotes with a rewind function!

  • BobCashill

    That’s funny. And sad. :) Try watching it again. (Did love the novel, though, with its unexpected sex scenes.)

    A review tipped me off to Agutter, who gets a smidgen more screen time than Powers Boothe as a council member, and adds to her cult cachet.

  • BobCashill

    Amplifying my own brilliant thought :)…while Lucas sensed a phenomenon in the making, he never really catered to a fan base when it took off, then he engaged a mass audience that might want to cuddle with its own Ewok teddy bears. I think he was shocked when fans rebelled at the prequels and especially the changes to Star Wars canon law. He sees them as his movies, not ours. The POTTERS, etc., are definitely made with fans foremost in mind, which limits any vision a filmmaker might want to bring to them.

  • DwDunphy

    We liked Logan’s Run too, but I have to admit it wasn’t for the special effects.

    What? Central New Jersey is a pretty boring place! We just tend to get pleasantly surprised when boobs pop up.

  • DwDunphy

    You hit on a point I was going to make. I think the Harry Potter movies succeed much more than they don’t, and that series got an entire generation intensely involved with reading books. This is always a good thing. But Warners really did only see a property they could get seven…no, eight movies out of. That’s just the ragged truth.

    Now, I will clarify that by saying a large part of Potter’s filmic success has to do with J.K. Rowling. The studio may have been overly faithful, but without her insistences they would have been far less so. Her presence in these productions helped keep the movies from becoming Harry P. The Rappin’ Green Screen Wizard Boy.

    Jackson’s adaptations of The Lord of the Rings is, for me, superior for all the reasons you said. He and his partners are careful editors who are faithful to the spirit of the piece. But the author of the story is deceased and his estate just wanted the story done well, in my opinion. Had Jackson not been involved and it had been a strict studio production (as that same estate fought against for decades), it probably would have become Frodo and Gandalf’s Excellent Rapping Wizard Party.

  • BobCashill

    True, true–you don’t get those anymore in PG movies.

    I will say that Box, the robot (played by Roscoe Lee Browne), held up. But it’s a movie filmed in a fancy shopping mall, for God’s sake. I guess those were futuristic in the 70s.

    I recently watched it and other MGM-produced dystopian fantasies from the 70s on TCM. It was better than the heavy-handed ROLLERBALL, but not in the same league as the witty, lower-tech WESTWORLD.

  • BobCashill

    Well said. I’m sure my kids wlll be wild about Harry (and go for STAR WARS, too.)

  • kshane

    I didn’t get the whole Star Wars thing, and in a way that makes me luckier than most people. I saw the first film when it opened at a midnight show. I fell asleep. I don’t have think I saw the next two in the theaters, and I never saw any of the prequels until they were on tv.

    The advantage of all of this was that I had no problem with all of Lucas’ tinkering, because I had no idea what the films were like in the first place. Fans got all worked up about these changes to the Holy Grail, but I couldn’t care less. Meanwhile, mostly through the Spike marathons, I started getting into the films. And as a latecomer, here’s another bit of heresy; I think Revenge of the Siths is the best of all six films. It is certainly the darkest, and for me that has a lot of appeal. Of course you have to look past the positively awful performance by Hayden Christiansen, but aside from that I love it. Empire Strikes back would be my next choice, followed by A New Hope.

    I’m sure that very few people would agree with me, but as I said, seeing the films with new eyes does have its advantages.

  • Jon Chaisson

    Damn you, UNKLE! Every time I watch that teaser, I expect to hear “Guns Blazing” blaring out of my speakers. :p
    And for the record, I think I saw it around the same time you did, if not on the same day. I remember it raining as well.