Cinema – and in particular vintage cinema – is capable of forging memories. It’s not only a matter of watching certain films – whether they were groundbreaking landmarks, cult gems, populist blockbusters, or rightfully savaged flops – but the impression that each film leaves upon you the first time you see it that makes all the difference in the world. You’ll probably remember whether you saw that special film on the big screen during its initial release; on a pan-and-scan VHS tape; on DVD or Blu-Ray; or (as usually happens to be the case now) streaming on your laptop or iPhone.
So it makes sense that I’d turn my focus to a childhood film and franchise largely responsible for getting me hooked on films in the first place, and which after all this time has never left my Top Five Films of All Time. Really, the only film that could push it out of the #1 slot on my list is David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962). It’s no small feat that a film that captivated me in childhood still has an impact on me as an adult. It takes Herculean effort to really approach the film not only for what it was and still is, but also how it can continue to influence present and future generations of moviegoers and filmmakers alike. For the first time, I finally write an article about Star Wars (1977).
I’m not going to discuss the plots of the films in the franchise because, unless you’re a minor or Luddite, chances are you already know the saga by heart. At the very least you’ll have gotten the gist of it from accidental exposure to Star Wars and it sequels, prequels and spin-offs (plus countless homages, parodies and shameless rip-offs), not to mention the merchandise, nostalgia and legions of Comic-Con geeks in cosplay. No, I’m going to dedicate my entire article to experiencing, understanding and always treasuring the original film from childhood to adulthood. And as the first Star Wars has turned 40 this year, I think it’s about even money at this point that my readers know my side of the story.
As I mentioned before in my article on The Giant Claw (1957), back in the days when I was a tot in Tennessee, my dad had an interesting way of starting a movie collection during the time when the video market was in full boom. Since original VHS movie tapes were pricey at the time, he would rent a movie on a pan-and-scan VHS from a chain like Blockbuster, have the original rented tape play on one VCR, and have it recorded onto a blank in another VCR, after which he would have the blank tape labeled.
The original Star Wars was among the many taped titles I watched over and over again on the closed circuit TV in the living room or lounge, and the first time I saw it I was, needless to say, lost in wonder. Even with the image cropped to maximize focus on central visual and storytelling elements all while fitting the dimensions of the 4:3 boob tube, I was stunned, moved, enchanted, hooked and transformed by my first introduction to Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Darth Vader, C-3PO and R2-D2. The sprawling universe of worlds and space battles, of alien lifeforms and feats of magic, the symphony of imagery and music, the vivid and miraculous re-imagining of classic cinema for a post-Vietnam generation. I would never be the same, and as far as I can recall, only my first viewings of treasures like John Huston’s Moby Dick (1956), the killer-ants classic Them! (1954), the US version of Rodan (1956) and Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) seem to come close to rivaling my viewing of George Lucas’ original vision… but not quite.
The same goes for The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983). Although Empire is generally regarded as the best in the original trilogy and Jedi more kid-friendly (with those damned Ewoks, which I used to cheer on until I got older and wiser), somehow for me they didn’t strike the same chord that the first Star Wars did, and still don’t. This is probably because the original worked so well for me, as both an introduction and a stand-alone, that the others seemed to be mere continuations of the same story. Yes, there were great moments in the sequels and my reactions to them, like when I screamed watching Luke get his arm chopped off, or covered my eyes when a freaky-looking alien like a Mynock popped up in Empire. But these films never affected me to the same extent as the original.
And you can imagine how thrilled I was when in 1997, while I was 11 and living in South Carolina, I saw the TV advertisements for the first Star Wars returning to the big screen for its 20th Anniversary along with its sequels – not only as a re-release, but as a Special Edition with new scenes, sounds and effects. I remember how we saw it at a theatre across the way from the North Charleston Mall (the same place where we saw Independence Day the year before). Now, being older, I realize that I was had at that point, being naïve enough to accept this version of Star Wars as the original. Back then with limited re-releases of classic films and a CGI revolution, the presumption was that a new version of the film you fell in love with would be better. But all this was merely a prelude to what was to follow, and not in a good way. I will count my blessings that the first Star Wars in its Special Edition version – with downright cheesy CG Jabba the Hutt and creatures – was the only film in the Special Edition trilogy that I saw on the big screen. (To heap insult upon injury, the release of the Special Edition versions resulted in the absolutely horrible, well-intended but amateurishly created 30th Anniversary Edition VHS of Night of the Living Dead, by the original’s creators and without George A. Romero, the following year!)
Two years later, with the release of the first Star Wars prequel The Phantom Menace – when I was 13 going on 14 – the disappointment would be even more pronounced. Again, I felt psyched. Again, I was so eager to see Star Wars back on the big screen after all the hype. Boy were we let down! I’m not even going to go into full detail on the comparison between the prequel and the 1977 original – the proof is in the pudding. By the time we came out of that joyless blockbuster and were eating at a Taco Bell, we already felt like we had been cheaply ripped off. We made up for it by going to see The Mummy, which was playing at the same theatre just across the hall. Okay, so we missed the chance to see The Matrix during its first run, but you can’t expect to see everything as a kid. And besides, I was a big enough fan of the original 1932 Mummy to want to see the remake.
I really wish I could say the same for Menace, but for several years prior to Episode II: Attack of the Clones (slightly better and admittedly more faithful to the original trilogy, but still not much of an improvement), most of everything being discussed about Star Wars at that point was just how much the new prequel was removed from the look and spirit of the original. I even remember a serenade show performer who taught us jazz and tap-dancing at the Robert Ivey Ballet in Mount Pleasant saying that the effects were not only different, but also fake compared to the first. Yes, there were kids that liked it, but not many, and the good parts were few and far between. When we did get it on VHS, it looked better than on the big screen. And for that time, most of the real fun my brother and I got out of Star Wars was from watching the original trilogy, playing Rogue Squadron on our Nintendo 64, and collecting and building Lego versions of the original Star Wars ships like Luke’s X-Wing Starfighter.
But finally – a miracle! In 2003, at the age of 17, two years after I moved to Asheville and during a summer filmmaking course I was taking at the North Carolina-School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, I finally got a chance to see the original unaltered version of the original Star Wars in the big 296-seat ACE Theatre in the campus’s filmmaking conservatory! This is where original films are screened from 16mm, 35mm and 70mm negatives in their original aspect ratios on a gigantic screen with moving curtains bigger than any I had ever seen at that point (well, apart from the IMAX screens in Charleston and Myrtle Beach, that is). Among the other films I saw screened in this theatre, either for study or pleasure (or both), were Doctor Zhivago (my introduction to David Lean), Titanic (I had missed seeing it during its initial ’97 release, the only teenage boy in an audience of teenage girls), Amadeus (I remember really being blown away by this one), and Apocalypse Now being shown for the last time on screen in its 2000 Redux version (which was awkwardly my intro to the film, and I prefer the original theatrical release).
When they played Star Wars, I sat as close to the big screen as I could get. I was lucky to arrive early as it was a full house, with the disco rendition of the Star Wars theme playing as the curtains went up. The audience erupted into applause as soon as the title logo exploded followed by the scroll prologue. Oh, what a joy it was to see the original as it was actually filmed, with all the artifacts and cigarette burns and faded film look, without any CG touch-ups or additional scenes that served very little or no purpose in the narrative! It was a blessing, and it’s a moment that has not faded from my memory. Being so close to that screen as we watched the original version in its actual letterboxed format with original sound and practical effects, just as audiences first heard and saw it back in ’77! What more could I ask for? It was the ultimate Star Wars viewing experience, and one that has remained with me since I left the theatre.
I really wish I could say the same for the final (at the time) prequel, Revenge of the Sith, which came out before my sophomore semester as an undergrad at UNC-Asheville, but something did happen that for once was good. When things in the prequel started turning bad for the Jedi, and Anakin Skywalker started his path towards becoming Darth Vader, I actually cried! For the first time since the first film, I was really moved. Yes, it still suffered from major weaknesses on the part of Lucas and his abandonment of most of the original elements that made the first work so well, but it nicely wrapped up the prequel trilogy while tying in effectively to the first. I felt really touched inside for once, and left the theatre with my folks feeling that for once our time and money were not wasted. While part of the feeling may have been attributed to seeing the very first Star Wars in its original format back at the School of the Arts, I felt that there really was hope for the enduring legacy of the saga.
Another two years passed, and as I was starting my senior year at UNC-Asheville in the Fall of 2007, I took an Intro to Screenwriting course taught by a former teacher and writing consultant of Lucas, Hal Marienthal (1924-2011), who revealed an interesting anecdote about Lucas’s writing skills. Let me give a brief intro to the man before continuing the article. This German-born native, Northwestern University graduate and University of California – Los Angeles doctorate student, and Holocaust survivor, had a teaching career lasting 63 years. He taught theatre history at UCLA in the 1950s, often while working in the film industry, published works in FM (a magazine on radio) and Fine Art Magazine, and was a writer-host of a weekly half-hour show The Theatre Beat, which ran on KCET from 1968 to 1982. During and following Beat’s run, Marienthal worked as a member of the faculty of California State University-Dominguez Hills from 1966 to 1988, serving as founding chair of the theatre department. He directed plays for Dominguez Hills’ art venue, the Playbox Theatre, including The Threepenny Opera and The Diary of Anne Frank, and wrote books including Good Germans (an autobiographical account of his childhood years in the Holocaust) and Nicholas Icarus. Married with five children, he received several awards for his contributions to education, and was one of the most fascinating members of the UNC-Asheville Mass Communications faculty that I encountered while minoring in that field.
It was one of the more revealing experiences I had learning about the craft of screenwriting. The most interesting part of this course came from his reflections on Lucas during the filmmaker’s early years, including constructive criticisms on the screenplays for Lucas’ dystopian feature debut THX-1138 (1971) and Star Wars. According to Marienthal, Lucas was very argumentative about sticking to his version of the screenplay as he showed it to the teacher. And years later, before I took Marienthal’s course, when Lucas showed him the screenplay to Revenge of the Sith, Marienthal, after he finished reading it, remarked, “Lucas, after all these years, you still can’t write a f#%@in script!” (Boy did we laugh our asses off.)
Now, in case you’re wondering, I’m happy to see that the saga has returned to its former with support from J.J. Abrams and Kathleen Kennedy, even if the seventh installment proper, The Force Awakens, with the awesome Daisy Ridley as Rey, was a mere retread, and legends from the original have since entered the Force (it was heartbreaking to hear of the most recent losses of Carrie Fisher and Kenny Baker). I particularly loved Rogue One; in my mind, at least, it’s actually the only film in a long series that came close to capturing the essence of its predecessor from another time and generation. With The Last Jedi coming out this December (with perfect timing, it would seem, given the anniversary commemoration) and a standalone Han Solo movie, I am looking forward to seeing how far the saga will continue before it makes the jump to retirement.
But it will always be the original Star Wars that sticks with me, just as it did when I first saw that copied-and-labeled VHS in Tennessee. Yes, it’s true it’s starting to look a tad antiquated, but that’s part of its charm and mythic power. It’s still a monument in the history of cinema, a daring attempt to take the adventure, action and romance of classic good vs. evil stories and imbue those tales with new life and innovation. It kept in touch with a generation born from the counterculture that has grown up through the best and worst of times to see not only how they survived the times, but how the saga they cherished and turned to for hope has matured up to this point, and how it will continue to appeal to future generations, composed of fans and aspiring filmmakers like myself.
Four decades on, the Force is still with us… and always will be.
In Loving Memory:
Sir Alec Guinness (1914-2000)
Carrie Fisher (1956-2016)
Kenny Baker (1934-2016)
Gilbert Taylor, Cinematographer (1914-2013)
Stuart Freeborn, Makeup Artist (1914-2013)
John Stears, Special Effects Artist (1934-’99)
May the Force Be With You… As You Will Always Be In Our Hearts.