18 Observations On Star Wars As It Turns 36, Just As I Did Last July

Those were the days.
Those were the days.

1. This was one of the first VHS tapes we owned; we had a guy across the street who somehow got us a dub of it, even before it was out on tape, I think. It must have been around 1982? 1983? Is that even possible?

2. I would watch it over and over till Darth Vader showed up, and then I distinctly remember being too scared to continue.

3. Even at that age—like 7, or 8—I wanted to count how many times I watched it. I got up to eleven before I stopped keeping track. It’s all been downhill from there.

4. Lucas swiped liberally from everywhere. This is pop goulash of the highest order.

5. The structure he swiped from Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, but it’s still a fascinating flow for a Hollywood film—characters meeting each other, building the plot person by person until the plot reaches its own critical mass.

6. He swiped the opening crawl and the tone from Saturday matinee movie serials, like Flash Gordon. Lucas actually tried to acquire the rights to Flash in the early days of developing what became Star Wars.

7. Can you imagine if Lucas had made a Flash Gordon flick in 1976 instead of Star Wars? Would we even remember it today? Or would Mark Hamill be hounded every time he leaves the house by packs of fans crying out, “Flash! I want an autograph!”

8. Lucas finished his first script and realized he had way too much material for a single movie. He chopped the script in half and decided to start with the second portion, right in the thick of what would become Episode IV.

9. So it’s a classic start in media res, literally in the middle of the action, with a Star Destroyer bearing down hard on the Tantive IV in the hopes of retrieving the stolen Death Star plans.

10. It’s fast. There’s no time for sitting around pondering the nature of the Force or exploring the vaguely incestuous feelings Luke has for Leia. Nope, everybody starts running, and they don’t stop until the Death Star’s been blowed up real good.

11. It’s got Peter Cushing. I know, I know–Darth Vader is the greatest screen villain of all time, his menace and foreboding fill the film with dread, blah blah blah. It’s still more fun to watch Cushing chew on the scenery as General Tarkin.

12. It’s got Alec Guinness. Watch closely as Obi-Wan tells Luke about the fate of his father–you can see him lying, and I’m betting Guinness didn’t know why he was lying, or even if he was lying in the first place. Just great vague weird acting.

13. Why do we remember Star Wars today, anyway? Because it was a major blockbuster worldwide smash that spawned thirty-odd years of sequels, prequels, toys, animated television series, and probably sexual aids, I have no idea.

14. But why did all those things happen? In retrospect it may be easy to see what makes Star Wars an iconic cultural touchstone. At the time it had to be less clear.

15. I like to try to imagine watching the film on May 25, 1977, without the intervening thirty-plus years of amazing special effects and blockbuster filmmaking we’ve come to take for granted. It must have seemed like a different language.

16. When the film was being shopped around to studios, the appeal had to seem impossible to understand; it was ignored by plenty of executives who could not fathom the audience for a kids sci-fi movie. Except it wasn’t a kids movie, and it wasn’t even really sci-fi. It was straight-up Saturday morning serial adventure, totally straight-faced, devoid of irony or self-awareness.

17. I can only guess, having been about a year old when Star Wars was released, that Lucas’ goulash had just the right mix of nostalgia and cutting-edge special effects to appeal to everyone. Older folks had grown up with these serials; younger folks had grown up watching them on TV. Kids didn’t need any connection other than the one they would develop with Luke, Han, Chewie, Leia, and the rest. That connection would sell thousands of tons’ worth of molded plastic.

18. It’s the most entertaining Star Wars movie. Empire has more depth; it’s the serious middle child. Jedi does whatever it wants; it’s the spoiled younger child. Star Wars is the bronzed, confident oldest child, always sure of what it’s doing and always happy to take you along for the ride.