Second Union

Second Union

FRANCHISE REWIND: Star Wars (1977)

“Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?”

Star Wars, 1977 (Mark Hamill/Carrie Fisher/Harrison Ford) 20th Century Fox/Lucasfilm

One of my favorite things on YouTube is when somebody finds an audio recording of audience reaction (as it happened) during the screening of a movie at the time it was released. One such example is the scene in An American Werewolf in London when Griffin Dunne’s Jack is attacked by the werewolf. You can hear high-pitched screaming all throughout the scene. It’s an earned jump-scare and the screaming is real. This was back in the days when you couldn’t lug a video camera into the theater and pirate your own recording, so you did the next best thing. You took a tape recorder inside and recorded the audio, and then you would get these fantastic audience responses.

There’s a good one floating around with the ending of Star Wars, specifically Luke’s skimming the Death Star trench and blowing up the space station. You got the sense George Lucas preferred to hedge his bets as far as the presumed power and influence of the Force was concerned. It’s true that Luke did indeed fire his proton torpedoes and caused the destruction of the Death Star. It’s also true that had Han Solo not destroyed two of three remaining Tie fighters on Luke’s back, there’d be no sequel.

In the audiotape of the audience’s reaction to the ending of Star Wars, there are some gasps and some shrieks, particularly when Vader is about to fire on Luke’s X-Wing fighter, but upon the reveal of Han Solo, the theater erupts in cheers and applause. I wish I could go back to that time when people cheered while watching movies. These days, the cheers get duller and duller and end titles are infrequently met with polite applause. Star Wars was monumental.

It was the movie that built off of Jaws’ success in the summer of 1975 two years earlier. Movies began to be released in hundreds, and then thousands, of theaters, and because tickets were much more economically priced, multiple viewings were not uncommon. I had recently watched J.J. Abrams Super 8 when I came to the conclusion that Abrams was simply distilling all that he had seen and experienced watching movies as a kid into the movies he now makes. He can capture the mood and the feeling of a movie made by Lucas or Steven Spielberg, but he doesn’t quite replicate the substance.

Lucas did the same thing with Star Wars, an homage to Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, Karel Čapek’s R.U.R., Forbidden Planet, Asimov, Clarke, and Kurosawa. Farmboy Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is taught the ways of the Jedi by expatriate old warrior Ben Kenobi (Alec Guinness). Smuggler Han Solo (Harrison Ford) attempts to ferry them to Alderaan but discovers the planet has been destroyed and Solo’s ship is captured by the Galactic Empire’s space station known as the Death Star. They rescue Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) as the Rebellion she leads plans a massive counter-offensive against the Empire.

The reason Star Wars works is because Lucas takes everything seriously, even with the movie’s hip humor—Star Wars is surprisingly snarky for a ’70s movie—and reckless abandon. To hear Lucas tell the story, it almost seemed like a happy accident; that everybody (including Lucas) expected the movie to flop, or at the very least, make back its money and be forgotten. Boy, were they wrong.

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