'A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...." That
advertising slogan launched a science-fiction epic called "Star
Wars" to the top of the box-office charts - surprising most
pundits, taking its own studio by surprise, and beginning a new
period in movie storytelling, aesthetics, and marketing that's
still going strong 20 years later.
Now the picture and its sequels are rocketing back to the
screen, reissued by Twentieth Century Fox with small amounts of
material not seen in the original versions. "Star Wars" arrives
Friday, followed by "The Empire Strikes Back" on Feb. 21 and
"Return of the Jedi" on March 20.
A clue to the success of "Star Wars" can be found in the
tag-line that promoted it. Just as the slogan says, the picture is
less about the future than about the past.
From start to finish, it's steeped in the same mythology of good
and evil, heroes and villains, overlords and underdogs that fueled
an uncountable number of swashbucklers and historical adventures
In short, "Star Wars" is an old-fashioned western beneath its
futuristic surface - even borrowing key ingredients from "The
Searchers," a mid-'50s frontier classic that influenced many '60s
and '70s entertainments.
The master stroke of filmmaker George Lucas was to recognize
that modern-day audiences are hooked on the same action-packed
formulas that pleased their parents and grandparents, but prefer
imagining the future to rehashing the past. He also found
inspiration in '30s matinee serials and '40s romantic dramas - Han
Solo is Humphrey Bogart redux - and in Japanese film, transforming
samurai swords to "light sabers" with the flick of a
Few anticipated the success of Lucas's innovations. Science
fiction was considered box-office poison in the mid-'70s, so the
picture's budget was kept to a moderate $9 million by Twentieth
Century Fox, which thought a now-forgotten melodrama called "The
Other Side of Midnight" would be its big money-spinner for the
year. Some reports claim the studio almost shelved "Star Wars"
after viewing its first cut, only changing its mind because Lucas
had proved his high-grossing potential with the teenpic "American
Graffiti" a few years earlier. The picture's popularity was
instantaneous, though, soon making it the highest-earning movie in
It would be simplistic to state that "Star Wars" brought about a
cultural revolution, or even an entertainment revolution, all by
itself. No single movie has that much power to sway the socially,
psychologically, and economically diverse individuals who make up
the worldwide audience for American films.
But if it didn't cause an enormous change in entertainment
habits, its popularity was a major indication that such a change
was taking place at the time of its release. One way to understand
this is to consider "Star Wars" alongside a very different movie,
Alfred Hitchcock's thriller "Psycho," released in 1960.
"Psycho" was a movie that broke new ground by breaking old
rules: killing the heroine halfway through the plot, fracturing a
key scene into a barrage of lightning-quick shots, blurring
appearances of guilt and innocence into such a fascinating muddle
that even the story's psychiatrist has trouble sorting it out.
Although folks could only sense it at the time, this was a perfect
movie to usher in the 1960s, when all sorts of time-honored
principles and received ideas would be scrutinized and questioned
by a newly skeptical generation of cultural consumers.
Film for the Reagan era
By the same reasoning, "Star Wars" was the perfect movie for the
mid-'70s, as Americans and others prepared for the Reagan years by
retreating to conservative attitudes. …