TIME Magazine default image

STAR WARS The Year's Best Movie

May 30, 1977

You are getting a free preview of a TIME Magazine article from our archive. Many of our articles are reserved for subscribers only. Want access to more subscriber-only content, click here to subscribe.

The time is long ago and far, far away. The beautiful Princess Leia, a leader of the rebellion against the evil Galactic Empire, has just been captured by an imperial starship. She is now aboard the Empire's mobile command station, the impregnable Death Star, able to destroy whole planets with a single energy burst, and at this very moment she is being interrogated by Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith, and the Grand Moff Tarkin—probably the nastiest pair of villains in the thousand worlds. What, they want to know, has she done with the stolen secret plans of the Death Star? If those computerized blueprints reach her rebel friends, the corrupt Empire might fall—and freedom be restored to the galaxy.

But wait! Princess Leia does not have the plans. She has entrusted them to a little robot, Artoo Detoo, in the hope that they will reach a former general of the rebellion on the planet Tatooine. Artoo Detoo and his delicate robot friend Threepio have landed on Tatooine. As luck would have it, they have been picked up by Luke Skywalker, a handsome young farmer. Though Luke does not know it, his father also fought the Empire before he was foully murdered by Darth Vader. Luke, Artoo Detoo and the ungainly Threepio have been attacked by Tatooine's native nasties, the sand people, and they have only just been saved by an old hermit.

My gosh! No hermit he, but that former rebel general, Obi-wan Kenobi, for whom they had been looking. Together, the four of them are even now setting out to deliver the secret plans to rebel headquarters, light-years and parsecs away. But will they be in time to save the lovely Leia? And, anyway, what can a punk kid, a has-been general and a comedy team of robots do against the dark, illimitable powers of the Galactic Empire?

A universe of plenty—as audiences can discover beginning this week in Star Wars, a grand and glorious film that may well be the smash hit of 1977, and certainly is the best movie of the year so far. Star Wars is a combination of Flash Gordon, The Wizard of Oz, the Errol Flynn swashbucklers of the '30s and '40s and almost every western ever screened—not to mention the Hardy Boys, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Faerie Queene. The result is a remarkable confection: a subliminal history of the movies, wrapped in a riveting tale of suspense and adventure, ornamented with some of the most ingenious special effects ever contrived for film. It has no message, no sex and only the merest dollop of blood shed here and there. It's aimed at kids—the kid in everybody.

"It's the flotsam and jetsam from the period when I was twelve years old," says Director George Lucas, 33. "All the books and films and comics that I liked when I was a child. The plot is simple —good against evil—and the film is designed to be all the fun things and fantasy things I remember. The word for this movie is fun." For once, a director is right about his own work. Star Wars has brought fun back to the movies and glowingly demonstrated they still can make 'em like they used to.

The film opens in 50 theaters across the country, but advance screenings and word-of-mouth have already given it an outsized reputation among film buffs and science fiction addicts—two groups united usually only by their enthusiasm. The first week in April, indeed, 6,000 color transparencies from the film were stolen from the production offices; they are now selling for more than $5 each to sci-fi freaks. Some of the spaceship models used for special effects were later stolen from a workshop, and they too are being advertised on the open market. "Star Wars is the costume epic of the future," says Ben Bova, editor of Analog, one of the leading science fiction magazines. "It's a galactic Gone With the Wind. It's perfect summer escapist fare."

At a special preview in San Francisco early this month, kids screamed in delight at the film's fantastic effects. At the end, while the lengthy credits rolled, the entire audience applauded for two or three minutes. "It was a supermarket audience, ordinary people," says Lucas, who was there and who still wonders at the reaction. "After something like that, you sit there and say, 'Gee, that's what it's all about.' "

Weird Idea. The applause was sweeter still because so many people had expressed doubts for so long. Slight and bashful, Lucas hardly fits the image of the Hollywood director, and he had made only two pictures before: THX 1138 and American Graffiti. Though the latter became the eleventh highest grosser of all time, Universal, the studio that financed it, believed that Lucas had gone, well, too far out when he handed in a twelve-page outline for Star Wars in 1973. "I've always been an outsider to the Hollywood types," he explains. "They think I do weirdo films." Even close friends and film-school colleagues thought the idea for Star Wars a little strange—albeit for different reasons. They felt that Lucas should follow American Graffiti with a deep picture, one that had meaning, significance and recondite symbolism.

Of course, everybody was right: it was a weird idea to make a movie whose only purpose was to give pleasure. Says Lucas: "It's not a film about the future. Star Wars is a fantasy, much closer to the Brothers Grimm than it is to 2001. My main reason for making it was to give young people an honest, wholesome fantasy life, the kind my generation had. We had westerns, pirate movies, all kinds of great things. Now they have The Six Million Dollar Man and Kojak. Where are the romance, the adventure, and the fun that used to be in practically every movie made?"

Eventually, 20th Century-Fox, which had made piles of money with another peculiar but good picture, Planet of the Apes, bought the idea, and Lucas set to work at the typewriter. Four versions and two years later, he was satisfied with his story.

Now the real—or at least, the visible —work began. At first, Lucas thought of making Tatooine, where much of the action takes place, a jungle planet, and Producer Gary Kurtz went to the Philippines to scout locations. But the bare thought of spending months shooting in the jungle made Lucas itchy, and presto, with the touch of an eraser, Tatooine became desert. Kurtz was off searching again, this time to Tunisia, which became Tatooine.

Most of the equipment, and half the actors, came from Britain. For Artoo Detoo, the squat little hero robot. Production Designer John Barry found "the smallest man in England," 3-ft. 8-in. Kenny Baker. A machine that looks like a tank-type vacuum was built around him, with lights that he could switch on and off and legs into which he could fit his own. Other Artoo models were built —some scenes have three or four moving all at once—for radio control.

Artoo Detoo's faithful robot friend, Threepio, is supposed to look vaguely human, somewhat like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz. A plaster cast was made of British Actor Anthony Daniels, who was to be the man inside. From that cast Barry constructed a golden figure of plastic, rubber, fiber glass, steel and aluminum. Threepio fairly glistened and shone when he was unveiled on the Tunisian set—but that was part of the trouble. It was so hot inside the robot body that Daniels nearly expired, and the machine's plastic and rubber joints were in danger of melting.

The first day of shooting, all the robots performed perfectly. It never happened again. Strange radio signals seemed to emanate from the Tunisian sand, and the remote-controlled Artoos ran wild, as if their oil had come from Vat 69. Says Barry: "I was incredibly grateful each time an Artoo actually worked right." Even Artoo Detoo, with Baker inside, seemed out of control. Baker could scarcely see where he was going through Artoo's headlights, and he bumped into the unwieldy Threepio, sending him tumbling. Daniels could not see much better through Threepio's eyes, covered with real gold to prevent corrosion, but thereafter he kept a wide distance between himself and the Artoos—whatever was inside them.

Despite their problems, the two manned robots give standout performances as the Laurel and Hardy of the cybernetic world. With his English accent and his fussy manner, Threepio, the straight man of the pair, is a perfect picture of a butler who would never make it upstairs or downstairs. "We're doomed! We're doomed!" he bleats in typical panic. "This time we'll be melted down for sure!"

Artoo Detoo, on the other hand, is a manly little machine. He responds to Threepio's complaints with a variety of impatient beeps and whistles and when busy, chirps and burbles like a mobile Mr. Coffee machine. When he gets zapped by Darth Vader, it is almost as traumatic for kids as that awful moment in Bambi when the little fawn's mother is slain by hunters. Fortunately for Artoo Detoo, however, not to mention the youngsters, there are replacement parts back in the shop.

Along with his robots, Lucas has assembled a menagerie of monsters and grotesques usually seen only in the DTs. For one scene, set in a brawling spaceport bar, the casting director went to a London firm called Uglies, Ltd. There he found actors to portray thugs assembled from all parts of the galaxy. Then Makeup Man Stuart Freeborn went to work, making the uglies uglier or turning them into nightmares of genetic engineering who resemble giant flies, cobras or things that have floated up from 20,000 leagues under the sea.

Not all the aliens are bad, however. One who is not is Chewbacca (he doesn't), the 8-ft.-tall wookie. A lithe and elegant simian, Chewie is co-pilot of the Millennium Falcon, the souped-up space freighter that takes the intrepid rebels to their battle with the dread Death Star. Like Artoo Detoo, Chewie is voluble without actually being able to talk. In a voice that is somewhere between a hoarse lion's roar and the braying of an outraged donkey, he bullies little Artoo or retreats, in moments of danger, to a position of forthright cowardice. Inside the fur is Peter Mayhew, a porter at London's Mayday Hospital. More than 7 ft. tall to begin with, Mayhew is made to look even taller by thick boots and a top-heavy mask.

The real wonder of Star Wars, however, is not the robots or the monsters, good as they are. It is rather the wizardry special effects, many of them never attempted or never possible before. Artoo Detoo, for instance, routinely delivers his message from Princess Leia by beaming a foot-high holographic projection of her, moving and talking in 3-D, right into the room. Later, in one of the movie's funniest scenes, Artoo and the wookie play a variant of chess with holographic figures. Instead of a bishop capturing a knight, a little dinosaur jumps a small, ectoplasmic BEM (as sci-fi fans call bug-eyed monsters) and proceeds to devour him. (Losing makes wookies so dyspeptic that Artoo is sagely counseled to let Chewjbacca win.)

All science fiction movies these days are measured against Stanley Kubrick's monumental 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). But even by that standard, Star Wars is tops. To work out the photographic special effects, Lucas hired John Dykstra, an expert in the field. For his space scenes, Kubrick had used what is called composite opticals: he would put one -part of a scene—a spaceship, say —on film and black out the background. Then he would cover over the spaceship, roll the film through the camera again and put in another part of the scene, such as the moon behind the spaceship. And so on. This process of multiple exposure was not only enormously expensive and time consuming, but also limited in what it could achieve.

Lucas and Dykstra had the advantage over 2001 of another decade of com puter technology. They were able to link the camera to a sophisticated calculator, which recorded and memorized every shot. By consulting it they could add new elements to their scenes in far less time than it took Kubrick. The result is a breathtaking series of space shots unlike anything seen before in a science fiction film. Says Dykstra: "We have spaceships crossing over planets all the time, and Kubrick never did. His ships are almost invariably linear and can be seen only from one angle. Ours are seen in all conditions and from all angles." Whereas Kubrick had only about 35 different effects, Lucas has 363. His accomplishment is even more impressive given his smaller budget. 2001 cost $10 million in less inflated '60s dollars; Star Wars cost only $9.5 million in the puny currency of the '70s.

Not all the effects were computer inspired or controlled. For shots using miniatures, Lucas' crew cannibalized more than 300 model kits and collected parts from old tanks and World War II planes. When recasting their finds in plastic, they roughed them up as well. The result is a refreshingly lived-in, even beat-up, space world.

For the climactic battle sequence, which includes dogfights in space and missile runs on the Death Star, Lucas gathered all the old war movies he could find and spliced together their aerial-combat footage. "We did all that to get an idea of how to set up this scene," he explains. "It was all very complicated, with the most complicated sound problems, mixing and special effects." The dashing ten-minute sequence took eight weeks to edit (normally 105 minutes of a Lucas film can be edited in that time).

With all the wonderful illusions and tricks, the actors—the live actors, that is —sometimes felt like robots themselves. "They don't exactly give you a course in acting in a science fiction movie," says Carrie Fisher, 20, who plays Princess Leia. "At one point I'm supposed to react to seeing my planet blow up. You know, there go my parents, my record collection, everything. What do I see? A hand waving to tell me where to look." Adds Mark Hamill, 25, who plays Luke Skywalker: "Acting in this movie, I felt like a raisin in a gigantic fruit salad. And I didn't even know who the coconuts or cantaloupes were."

All nearly gagged trying to say some of Lucas' lines. " 'I thought I recognized your foul stench when I was brought aboard, Governor Tarkin,' is not everyday conversation," says Fisher. "There were times when I issued a threat to tie George up and make him repeat his own dialogue," adds Harrison Ford, 35, who plays Han Solo, the cynical mercenary captain of the Millennium Falcon. "I told him: 'You can't say that stuff. You can only type it.' But I was wrong. It worked." The only actor whom Lucas allowed to change anything was Alec Guinness, who plays Obi-wan Kenobi. Originally, old Obi-wan was supposed to start off crazy and then turn into the wise old wizard of Good. Guinness felt that that transition was not right for his method of acting or for the character, and Lucas relented. Now Obi-wan is wise from beginning to end.

Most of the time, Lucas would not direct the actors in the sense of telling them what to do, and at first this bothered some of them. "George directs like John Ford," says Francis Ford Coppola, who has been both mentor and best friend to Lucas. "He doesn't really work a lot with his actors or tell them a lot. But he constructs his scenes so specifically, or narrowly—like a railroad track —that everything comes out more or less the way he sees it." Coppola considers Lucas "a pure film maker. He really only wants to put on film the things he loves. He has few pretensions about making 'great films' or 'great art,' and consequently he comes closer than most. I think, though, that it's both sad and unnecessary that he suffers so much while he's making movies."

Suffering seems to be part of Lucas' nature. It was not fun for him to put the fun into Star Wars. He made his first two movies on small budgets and with small casts. Star Wars employed 900 people and forced him to become what he loathes: a big-time Hollywood director. "I found the experience excruciatingly painful," he says, "and I've discovered what I knew all along: I am not a film director. I'm a film maker. A film director is somebody who directs people—large operations. I like to sit down behind a camera and shoot pretty pictures and then cut them together and watch the magic come as I combine images and tell stories." The director, he goes on, is like a general sitting in the war room and sending other men to battle. He calls the film maker a lieutenant who actually leads his patrol across enemy lines.

For all of his basset-hound gloom, Lucas is a romantic—an innocent romantic. That innocence and that feeling for romance are what make Star Wars so fresh, so much fun and, finally, so fantastic. Lucas believed everything he put on film, and somewhere under the celluloid, he is Luke Sky-walker—out to slay the dragon, rescue the princess and find the Holy Grail. Black is black, white is white, and good will conquer evil, at least in his screening room.

It is a simple moralism that many real science fiction fans may not buy, and in sci-fi terms Star Wars is strictly softcore. Lucas, a fan himself, has evoked images from some of the best-known writers in the field. Tatooine, for example, is much like the arid planet Arrakis in Frank Herbert's famed Dune trilogy; that resemblance carries even to the skeleton of one of Herbert's giant sand snakes in the background of a Tatooine scene. The barroom sequence, with its remarkable array of extraterrestrial freaks, is reminiscent of scenes written by Robert Heinlein and Samuel Delaney. But as Lucas and Producer Kurtz quickly point out, Star Wars is not science fiction but space fantasy. "Space fantasy allows you more rein to say what you want to say," explains Kurtz. "So that's what we call it."

Star Wars will find itself competing with several other major movies for the attention of audiences this summer, almost all of them-with much bigger budgets. In the next couple of months, two blockbuster war movies, MacArthur and A Bridge Too Far (which cost almost three times as much as Lucas' film), will open with their own galaxies of stars—old-fashioned Hollywood stars. In addition, there will be underwater adventure in The Deep, straight suspense in The Sorcerer (William Friedkin's remake of that wonderful old French movie The Wages of Fear), and devilish terror in Exorcist II: The Heretic.

Despite the talent and the money arrayed against it, Star Wars has one clear advantage: it is simple, elemental, and therefore unique. It has a happy ending, a rarity these days. Princess Leia is saved, the Death Star is vaporized—oh, come on, you knew it all along—and Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Artoo Detoo and Threepio receive the gratitude of freedom lovers everywhere. For most audiences the only sadness in the climax is that the film ends and cannot go on and on and on. It is surely one of the swiftest two hours on celluloid.

But wait! Darth Vader has escaped, cloaked in evil and eager for revenge, and the Galactic Empire still holds, in chains 1,000 solar systems. What hope have our gallant adventurers against forces so vast and so dark? Another richly imagined universe of hope, obviously, and Lucas is already planning to bring them back in the sequel to Star Wars. This cannot be The End but is To Be Continued ..

TIME may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website. Offers may be subject to change without notice.