May 14, 2021 2:52:07 pm
Star Wars may be one of the biggest film franchises of all times, but the original film of the same name, which released in 1977, was an enormous risk. Later retitled Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, the film sprang up from the mind of 33-year-old writer-filmmaker George Lucas, who celebrates his 77th birthday today.
Star Wars was set in a fictional far away galaxy and was mounted on an epic scale.
It featured an overarching conflict between an empire and a group of rebels, between two orders, one good and another evil — the Sith and Jedi — and a power called the Force, which permeated everything and everyone but could be harnessed as a weapon only by certain, Force-specific individuals, for both noble and nefarious purposes.
The central character was Luke Skywalker, a young fellow raised by his uncle and aunt on a desolate planet called Tatooine. He wishes to learn the ways of the Jedi, the almost mythic trained warriors that utilise the light side of the force. Eventually, he gets involved in the war between the ruthless Galactic Empire and Rebel Alliance.
In a nutshell, this was an immersive, dazzlingly-detailed world populated with noble heroes, malevolent villains and sarcastic scoundrels. The film instantly became a blockbuster. The number of screenings had to be increased exponentially to cope with the number of moviegoers.
It also established Star Wars as a phenomenon so big that even arguably poorly made prequel trilogy (that came later) did not put a dent into the franchise’s reputation.
George Lucas had an idea to make a space-opera fantasy film as far back as 1971. That was also the year he released his debut directorial THX 1138, a science fiction dystopian feature. The film was unsuccessful because, according to Lucas, it was too bleak. Thus, he wanted his ambitious space-opera movie to be optimistic and fun.
He first wished to adapt Flash Gordon’s comics and serials. In a 1979 interview, “I especially loved the Flash Gordon serials. Of course I realise now how crude and badly done they were… loving them that much when they were so awful, I began to wonder what would happen if they were done really well.”
However, George Lucas could never acquire the rights. In BBC Omnibus’ documentary A Long Time Ago: The Story of Star Wars released in 1999, Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola, who accompanied Lucas in his trips to buy the Flash Gordon rights, said, “George was very depressed because he had just come back and they wouldn’t sell him Flash Gordon. And he says, ‘Well, I’ll just invent my own.”
He shelved his plans in favour of American Graffiti, his second directorial and a coming-of-age comedy film that released in 1973. Early that year, Lucas had begun writing what would become the Star Wars script. For the central conflict in his story, he took inspiration from the political climate of that time. The withdrawal of US troops had started then from America’s disastrous Vietnam war.
Lucas told Chicago Tribune in 2005, “It was really about the Vietnam War, and that was the period where Nixon was trying to run for a [second] term, which got me to thinking historically about how do democracies get turned into dictatorships? Because the democracies aren’t overthrown; they’re given away.”
George Lucas began inventing characters, races, concepts and basically built a whole new universe with its own natural laws. It appears unbelievable now that all that came from one man’s mind.
However, the script was one thing, and actually convincing the studios to finance and produce the film and turn it into reality was another. Science fiction films were not exactly rare back then, but it was not a particularly popular genre. Disney, which incidentally owns the entire franchise now, rejected Lucas’ script. Finally, Alan Ladd Jr, the then head of 20th Century Fox (also a Disney subsidiary now), approved the project. American Graffiti’s success meant Lucas could renegotiate the deal and also secures sequel rights.
For visual effects, George Lucas had formed his own company Industrial Light & Magic, which now is one of the most well-known in its field and has contributed to films like Avengers: Endgame. The company used its self-developed digital motion control photography on Star Wars.
The breadth of the success of Star Wars can be simply explained by the fact that it grossed 775.4 million dollars (in 1977) on a budget of 11 million dollars and made stars out of Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford. However, it has also had an enormous influence on cinema and pop culture. Along with Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, it is credited for the invention of the big-budget blockbusters. It has inspired top filmmakers like James Cameron, Peter Jackson and Christopher Nolan among others.
While Lucas has also been involved with the Indiana Jones franchise, co-creating with Steven Spielberg, Star Wars will always be his crowning achievement.
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