“Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi; you’re my only hope.” – Princess Leia
This week marks a major occasion for the science-fiction film world. Disney/Lucasfilm’s latest space opera epic, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, opens on Friday. To honor all the greatness that Star Wars has become, this week will be a very special trip through time. It’s back to the year 1977. This was the year that Apple became incorporated and the 77’ San Diego Comic Con, which included guests Jack Kirby, Carl Barks, C. C. Beck, and Walter Gibson. May 25th saw the release of the movie that helped shape and launch one of the most successful sci-fi franchises out there. And it started with one man and a dream.
George Lucas is a name that is spoken by fans and movie lovers alike with reverence and awe. Before Lucas gave the world Star Wars, there were other forms of science-fiction, all of it lower in quality or lacking a strong story. What started out in the early 70’s as an attempt to make a Flash Gordon movie, quickly turned into the start of something amazing. Taking his love of old movie serials like Flash Gordon, George set about writing a script in January 1973. By 1976, George had finished a fourth draft, polishing it into the gem that became the 1977 hit. From there came the casting of many beloved and recognizable faces and characters.
While there were veteran actors cast (such as Peter Cushing and Alec Guinness), fresh faces were called for to give life to the movie’s leads. Enter Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher. Both of them beat out many of the biggest names in Hollywood at the time for the roles of Luke and Leia. Mark was up against William Katt, while Carrie could have lost the role to Carrie Allen or Jodie Foster. Ultimately, both got the parts, history was made, and there’s been no going back since. Mark and Carrie took to these roles and created two of the most iconic and beloved figures in the entire Star Wars franchise. Now fans will get to to see them onscreen together one last time when The Last Jedi opens this week.
Harrison Ford, on the other hand, nearly wasn’t Han Solo at all. Having worked with George on American Graffiti, Harrison was originally chosen to read lines and assist with auditions. In the end, he won the director over and got the part. Bear in mind, he was up against stiff competition, the likes of Sylvester Stallone, Steve Martin, Jack Nicholson, Bill Murray, etc. Imagine a world where Harrison Ford wasn’t Han, and instead it was say, Sylvester or Jack? Everyone definitely came out of that casting decision for the better.
Other major casting decisions for C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), R2-D2 (Kenny Baker), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and Darth Vader (David Prowse) were all made on various merit choices. Daniels was nearly just the body and not the voice of 3PO, going up against 30 other voice actors before the final decision was made. Kenny Baker turned down the role of R2 three times all because he was hesitant of being in a role where his face wouldn’t be seen. Peter, on the other hand, was chosen right away and even offered the role of Darth Vader as well. And while he is much loved for playing Chewie, there’s an even more fascinating story behind Vader and his famous voice.
David Prowse, an English bodybuilder, won the role of Darth Vader after Peter Mayhew went with playing Chewbacca instead. He even voiced the character during initial filming, though Lucas deemed his voice not dark enough, casting then-unknown James Earl Jones to give the Sith Lord the commanding tones associated with him. The fact is, James nearly wasn’t the voice of Darth Vader at all. Celebrated actor/director Orson Welles was the initial pick. Deciding that Orson would be too recognizable, the die was cast and James Earl Jones has been striking terror into the hearts of nerds and fans everywhere since then as Darth Vader.
Star Wars and its various sequels and prequels are all known for their stunning visual effects and motion picture magic. Quite honestly, there is too much to go into alone for this first movie. That is why for everyone’s viewing enjoyment, this delightful documentary that aired on ABC in the fall of 1977 has been found. This is so that readers will get to see first hand the story behind the magic of Star Wars.
When Star Wars first came out in spring of 1977, it was an overnight success. Distributed by 20th Century Fox, the movie was surprisingly shown in a small number of theaters (40 in total) because of fears that it would lose out to another summer hit Smokey and the Bandit. Quickly becoming the first ever blockbuster film, Fox’s stock’s doubled during the first three weeks of its release and critics everywhere lauded it with praise. Roger Ebert gave a sterling review in the Chicago Sun-Times stating:
“Star Wars” is a fairy tale, a fantasy, a legend, finding its roots in some of our most popular fictions. The golden robot, lion-faced space pilot, and insecure little computer on wheels must have been suggested by the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and the Scarecrow in “The Wizard of Oz.” The journey from one end of the galaxy to another is out of countless thousands of space operas. The hardware is from “Flash Gordon” out of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the chivalry is from Robin Hood, the heroes are from Westerns and the villains are a cross between Nazis and sorcerers. “Star Wars” taps the pulp fantasies buried in our memories, and because it’s done so brilliantly, it reactivates old thrills, fears, and exhilarations we thought we’d abandoned when we read our last copy of Amazing Stories.
It’s quite hard to believe that this year marked the 40th anniversary of the first film’s release. 40 years of movies, books, action figures, radio plays, comics, computer/video games and also animated films/TV shows. 40 years of a vastly built up extended universe full of heroes, villains, characters equally as beloved and hailed as those of the first movie. Now this week more history will be made as Star Wars: The Last Jedi brings Mark Hamill back to the role that gave the galaxy one of its greatest heroes. There is also much sadness too, as with Carrie Fisher’s passing earlier on, this will be her last performace as the Princess/General ever. Yet it is fitting having these two reunite one last time in the two parts that jumped their careers and cemented them in the hearts and minds of people the world over.
When watching The Last Jedi this week, make a point to also go back and watch this, the first film, the film that started it all. Without this movie, there would be none of the things associated with Star Wars today. It may not have all the flash and glamour of the modern productions, but there is still that same thrilling wonderment that has reverberated across the decades. So as the world gets ready for another in the long line of space-opera epics, enjoy some time with loved ones and take in another showing of the original space-opera story. And as always, May the Force Be with You.