America in the 1970s was not exactly abundant with optimism. The tragic death of Meredith Hunter at the Altamont Free Concert on Dec. 6, 1969, cast a dark shadow over the free love and hippy counterculture of the ’60s. Then came the fallout from the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal in ’72, and Nixon’s resignation in ’74.
The movies of the ’70s, known as the New American Cinema, reflect that disaffection and disillusionment. Cinemas were populated with The Godfather, All the President’s Men, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, and more. To borrow a phrase from Robert Kolker, it was “a cinema of loneliness.”
But on May 25, 1977, all that changed. The house lights went down, and for the first time, cinemagoers were treated to John William’s blaring fanfare and the now-iconic opening title crawl lifted from Buck Rogers serials. Star Wars had arrived.
Thirty-seven years, six installments, and billions of dollars later, the Star Wars franchise is no longer just movies; Star Wars is Hollywood’s way of life.
While the product itself is endlessly fascinating, so too is writer/director George Lucas’s achievement. Star Wars remains separate from the usual New American Cinema fare because it is divorced from time and place. (The 1977 film was originally titled just Star Wars, as it was intended to be a stand-alone movie. It was renamed Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope in 1981.) While others were engaging in personal and political street-level dramas, Lucas turned his attention to a starry-eyed farm boy dreaming of adventure; a cultural zeitgeist that not even Lucas knew existed.
Using Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces as his guide, Lucas modeled his space opera after the familiar ’40s serials of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon with the sci-fi tech of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and cribbed the framework from Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress—even Lucas’s Jedis are derivative of Japanese samurai movies called “jidaigeki.” Toss in a wise old man, a princess, a scruffy-looking Nerf Herder, an overgrown hairball, and a villain clad in all black, and Star Wars became the stuff of legend.
But Lucas’s achievement was not in his post-modern pastiche but his ability to enchant audiences with simplicity. Much like Golden Age Disney movies, Lucas did not bog down his audience with medical explanations of what the Force is and how Jedis use it; where the Empire gets its money to build a planetary destruction device; or how intergalactic travel had been accomplished. Lucas simply showed these things, and the audience went along for the ride. Seeing is believing.
And see, they did. Star Wars shattered box office records and held on to those records for 20 years. Audiences from all walks of life flocked to the theaters. They idolized Luke, Leia, and Han. They donned Darth Vader and stormtrooper outfits. They made swishing noises while transforming mop handles into their own personal lightsabers.
Luke Skywalker could never have imagined that he would find himself in the middle of an intergalactic battle against the Empire any more than Lucas could have imagined himself the propagator of another sort of empire. Writer/director John Milius summed it all up beautifully when he said, “[Star Wars] brought kids out of the residue of the counterculture and interested them in American technology again.”
Lucas also interested them in another kind of American technology: movie merchandising. But that is another story entirely.