Cine-East Film Club Presents #60: 1977, Star Wars (George Lucas)

by George_East on December 3, 2014

‘A long time ago in a galaxy far far away….’

Well, the big viral film news over the last few days has been the release of the first teaser trailer for Star Wars VII, the series re-boot with JJ Abrams in the director’s seat.   Posted on Youtube on Friday, it is currently standing at over 38,000,000 views. And let’s be fair, it looks pretty damn good for the minute and a half we have – the Sith Lord (?) with the crucifix-like light sabre, the desert world (Tatooine?), the droid rolling along, the x-wing fighters, the Millennium Falcon.   With George Lucas’s hands no longer strangling the franchise and Abrams’ solid track record with the relaunch of the Star Trek franchise are we, perhaps, heading for a Star Wars film to  come close to or even match the original trilogy? At least I have a new hope (see what I did there) that this will be so, and a year to get excited until what I hope won’t be a re-run of the crushing disappointment of The Phantom Menace (and let’s be equally fair the title, The Force Awakens is shit).

In celebration of the return of the Star Wars franchise and in anticipation of next December’s release date, the Cine-East Film Club this week presents the original film.

The first thing is the small matter of the title.   I got into a row in a pub quiz about this once. The film on its release was called Star Wars not A New Hope and not Star Wars: A New Hope.   Yes, the trademark screen crawler into space at the beginning of the film (the return of which after 16 years when I saw The Phantom Menace with Jackie on its release day in 1999, got a resounding cheer in the cinema we were in) starts with the heading ‘IV: A New Hope’ but take a look at the posters or any of the publicity from the time and there is no mention of anything other than Star Wars as the title.   So I am sticking with that, because not only is it a better title than A New Hope but it is what I remember it being when I first saw it with my granddad at the age of 7 in the now long gone local single screen art deco cinema in my home town (complete with balcony seats, kia-ora cartons and a second feature).

Second the case against. There is a good deal of truth in the cineastes’ version of film history which posits Jaws and Star Wars as the beginning of the end of complex and mature film making that had for a brief period in the very late 1960s and 1970s been characteristic of Hollywood cinema and thereby as the films that effectively ruined Hollywood’s flirtation with art (of course, this misses the contribution to their own downfall of the auteurs themselves whose indulgence reached megalomaniac proportions with Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, which at least still made money and Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate which not only did not but lost so much money that it brought down United Artists in the process).

The cinema of sensation or cinema of spectacle that Star Wars and Jaws ushered in was marked by far more simplistic and adolescent themes.   These were films rooted in the comic books and Saturday morning serials of their directors’ youths rather than in lived adult experience. They were manipulative and schematic. Jaws is in fact, at least in its final act, arguably more akin to the auteur works of the early 1970s than to the effects driven cheap thrills cinema that would follow and which had dominated summer rosters ever since – but that is for another day.

The same cannot be said for Star Wars. It is a simple tale with a clear division between good and evil. The Force is after all divided into a light and dark side. Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia wear white. Darth Vader wears black.   Even the most complex character in Star Wars, Han Solo is, in essence, a Bogart-like figure – a cynical mercenary exterior masking the good man underneath.

The story is straight out of the boys own adventure cliché box.   Young farmer turned idealist pilot saves the universe by channeling a magic power, which he never even knew he had until an old wizard teaches him.   The more interesting oedipal aspects of the story will not be revealed until the end of The Empire Strikes Back and the famous ‘Luke, I am your father’ scene.

Much of the dialogue is risible, leading Harrison Ford famously to say to George Lucas: ‘George, you can type this shit but you sure as hell can’t say it’ and which led Alec Guinness to remain embarrassed about his involvement in the trilogy until he died, even while making a fortune from his cut of the box office.

Yet despite this workaday material Lucas fashions one of the great Hollywood blockbusters.   One that is as rewatchable today (when I know every line and every scene) as it was utterly thrilling to the 7 year old me back when it first came out.   Indeed in some ways Star Wars is the benchmark Hollywood blockbuster in the sense that we now understand it (there is a clear line from Star Wars through to The Lord of the Rings trilogy or the Marvel Comic films such as The Avengers Assemble or Guardians of The Galaxy).

Trying to understand why this is so (and why so many other films which use simple schematics as it does fail so abysmally) is a bit like trying to find the Holy Grail. Even Lucas himself plainly had no idea quite how he did it, given what happened when he directed The Phantom Menace a decade and a half later.

The explanation may well be that although the individual elements are easy to critique, when you put them together they add up to so much more than the sum of their parts.   When you throw into that mix one of the best baddies in the history of cinema in Darth Vader, the grandiosity of the John Williams’ score, the gravitas of Alec Guinness, two identification characters (one for the prepubescent kids in Luke and one for the teens and adults in Han), the comic turn of C3PO and R2D2 (has any other director managed to make beeps sarcastic), one of the coolest weapons ever to have been seen in cinema in the light sabre and spectacular action sequences, then why it works begins to make a lot more sense and the clunky dialogue and the paint by numbers plot fade from the picture.

Another thing that is so great about Star Wars is that it taps into a deep knowledge of cinema.   I’ve had more pub arguments than I can count about what genre the film properly fits in. Is it a western band of misfits film or a samurai film etc?   The one thing it seems not to be in any real sense is a science fiction film – there is no ‘science’ as such in it at all, nor is it using the future as a critique of the present as most Sci Films do in some way or the other.   It is, after all, set in the past.

Of course, it doesn’t really matter what genre of film Star Wars most closely represents but it is notable that Lucas’ biggest influence in making it was Akira Kurosawa and his great samurai movies, including the use of horizontal wipes (rather than dissolves) as edits between scenes, to give a sense of pace.

The story of two lowly misfits (C3PO and R2D2) accompanying a disguised princess on her mission, as she escapes from a dangerous enemy, is lifted wholesale from Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, though the rest of the plot departs from that classic.   The light sabres are an obvious stand in for the Samurai sword and the creed of the Jedi Knight has clear parallels with the bushido of the Samurais.   Kurosawa, the least culturally Japanese of the great Japanese directors, was himself heavily influenced by the art and cinema of Europe and the US (he made film adaptations of works by Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky for example). He was also a great fan of the western and used many of its tropes in his samurai films – which would, of course, be themselves used as the basis for Hollywood westerns such as The Magnificent Seven and European westerns such as A Fistful of Dollars. Thus Star Wars can be seen (like that between the Beatles and the Beach Boys) as a continuation of the dialogue between the cinemas of west and east.

Sadly by the time of The Return of the Jedi that dialogue was no longer with Japanese cinema or indeed any art, but rather crass merchandising opportunities (in the annoying shape of the Ewoks).   By the time the prequel trilogy had concluded with 2005’s Revenge of the Sith most of us I suspect had given up on the franchise altogether, content with the memory of the first two films of the original trilogy and the Luke/Vader/Emperor bits of the third.

Lets hope then that in a year or so’s time as we come out of the cinema having seen The Force Awakens we have a little bit of the 7 year old in our steps again and that the anticipation as the words at the top of this post appear on the screen and the familiar theme music starts is matched by what follows.

I can’t wait.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Ray North December 3, 2014 at 10:48 am

It’s a fairy tale !

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George_East December 3, 2014 at 1:57 pm

Yes – I think that’s kind of what I meant by a boy’s own adventure. A fairy tale pitched at boys. It has magic, a young hero with a hidden talent and an even more hidden past, a wizard and a princess.

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