Sunday, 27 May 2007

Star Wars (1977)

30 Years On

Picture the scene if you will: a wide-eyed innocent 7-year old, with no knowledge at all of films, and only a vague awareness at the time of 1970s popular culture, hears along the grapevine of an exciting new "thing" that is encapsulating the imagination of children everywhere (in much the same way as the Harry Potter books did 20 years later). Intrigued to the point of wonderment, this boy visits the local newsagents in Prebendal Farm, Aylesbury, and sees on the shelf a "STAR WARS Weekly" comic, emblazoned with the typically bold Marvel Comics image of an idealistic hero fighting two opponents, watched over by two odd looking semi-human robot figures.

Picking the item up off the magazine rack, I persuaded my parents to buy the comic for me, and I read on, gripped by the "story so far" of Princess Leia Organa, Han Solo and Chewbacca the wookiee, captured by space pirate Crimson Jack whilst on their way to the Drexel system to find Luke Skywalker, who has crash landed there whilst in search of a new Rebel base, and finds himself at the mercy of the Dragon Lords and Governor Quarg.

So began my first interest in the phenomenon that was (and still is) Star Wars. The comic I read was printed in July 1978, over a year after the film first exploded onto American screens in May of 1977. Reading through that first comic - issue No. 23 - I check back and discover that the whole story did not begin with Dragon Lords and space pirates, but with an unfortunate rebel cruiser attacked mercilessly by the Galactic Empire, and the precious princess on board captured by the menacing figure of Lord Darth Vader, but not before her two robots have escaped onto a desert planet, where our young hero retrieves them.

Investigating further, I talk with my father and discover that this whole legend is not actually a comic book, but a film. Naturally aware of my curiosity, Daddy - as I called him them - looks into the matter and discovers that Star Wars the Movie is being shown at the Dominion Tottenham Court Road in London. Excited at the prospect of visiting the city and seeing my first film, I accept his suggestion for us to go there.

The Dominion Theatre is a magnificently retained example of splendid cinema architecture. It is only used for theatre shows nowadays but still retains its magnificence, and back in 1978 it had been installed with a new, exciting sounding system named "Dolby Stereo".

And so it begins. The lights in the huge theatre darken, and then the screen bursts open to the sound of Alfred Newman's magnificent Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by a moment's silence, and a strange but oddly haunting message on the screen:

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...

Seconds later the screen explodes again, the title retreating into infinity amidst a background of thousands of stars in space. George Lucas used the somewhat unconventional method of ditching opening credits in favour of "story so far" sloping credits (borrowed from the Flash Gordon serials), perfectly setting the scene for a new modern myth. Seconds later that same rebel cruiser that I had read about in the comics, races through space, and is completely engulfed by an Imperial spaceship that is almost larger than the cinema screen itself.

The memories go on, many of them hazy now nearly 30 years later, but once first introduced to movies - especially this one - it is never forgotten. The only definite memory I have of the film itself that day is how much I enjoyed the sequence where Luke swings to safety with Princess Leia. One tangible - or rather intangible - memory of the day is of leaving my coat behind whilst coming out of the cinema. 30 years later, I still whimsically wonder if the Dominion Theatre has my little dark blue jacket in their Lost Property Department.

Childhood memories of a film tend to be rose-tinted and overly nostalgic, particularly of the actors participating in it, but I still think that my first opinions ring true even today. Mark Hamill was a fine Luke Skywalker whom I strongly identified with, Harrison Ford was popular and fun as Han Solo, and Carrie Fisher I thought was a major star actress with a pretty, pert and brilliant talent. There was also an actor playing Ben Kenobi, little known to me in those days of course, but I soon discovered he was a distinguished actor of many years experience, and British at that: Sir Alec Guinness.

Looking back now, I suspect it was Guinness's down-to-earth Britishness that brought home to me the appeal of this saga. In those days there wasn't quite so much of the distinction between the all-American hero and the "English" villain (NB: most of the cast of Star Wars were British actors who were dubbed into American), and so the loss of Obi-Wan two-thirds into the film - killed by his former apprentice Darth Vader - was a loss indeed.

Perhaps this is also why I enjoy "Episode 4" over Episodes 5 and 6, because Alec is such an intrinsic part of the film. I truly believe that the reason it has become such a landmark film above so many other "blockbusters" (a term coined in 1977 apparently) was because of the presence of Alec Guinness. He gave it that extra edge. It's perhaps also true to say that Star Wars, and Alec Guinness, gave me the impetus to act (or certainly to be creative) which I have today.

Most of the other lingering memories of the film on reflection come after the second viewing - such was I swept along by the experience first time round - at the local Odeon in Aylesbury. This was still in the days of the "roadshow" movie distribution, where a film had an extended run in the big cities prior to wider release, not at all like the global mass distribution of today.

Both my parents came along for this one, and at the end my mother was having trouble finding our house keys under the seats in Screen 2. In my impatience to get out of the cinema, by chance I watched some of the closing credits, and heard for the first time the lyrical closing themes of John Williams's iconic score. To this day, I watch films to their complete conclusion, often just for the pleasure of listening to the end title music.

Since then I've probably seen the film - in rough figures - about four or five times in the cinema, one of the most recent occasions being in 1997 at the Odeon Leicester Square, for the much hyped "Special Edition" - which tinkered about with bits of the film but made no difference at all from the exhilaration of the original. History nearly repeated itself as I left behind my (Star Wars) baseball cap under the seat, and just remembered at the last second to retrieve it.

I'm sure there are thousands - nay millions - of other stories from each individual who remembers the first time they saw this film. Such is the effect it had on that generation, and subsequent generations too.

Last but not least reflection however, goes to its creator, the brilliantly talented and surprisingly sanguine figure of George Lucas, a much maligned filmmaker in the years since, who unofficially "retired" from directing after Star Wars. His return to the director's chair with The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, inevitably paled in comparison with his 1977 original.

In spite of all the supposed problems he had making it, his collaboration with the actors, John Williams, his film-making friends, a bemused British crew, and a new veritable rebel alliance of Special Effects technicians (soon to be team-named "ILM"), created a piece of cinema magic that rivals The Adventures of Robin Hood and Casablanca for freshness and consistently entertaining its audience after repeated viewings.

Oh, and how do I know the exact day I saw it?

There was a newspaper stall outside the Dominion Theatre - selling a Star Wars Weekly dated 19th October 1978, and I saw the film the following Saturday, the 21st - Carrie Fisher's birthday.

Back at the Dominion Theatre in 2003


Mark said...

Hi Joe, that was a wonderful post. It brought back so many memories for me of when I first saw Return of the Jedi (I think I'd seen Star Wars a year or two before on the television). Like you the films seemed to come out of nowhere. I don't remember there being all the hype and marketing around that there is these days.

You mentioned Alec Guinness in your post but what about Peter Cushing?! Another wonderful British actor who really added extra weight and credibility to Star Wars.

Derek said...

Hey Joe,
...this was a really great read! Thanks for sharing your memories.

My sister's diary of 1978 reveals that my brother took me to see "Star Wars" on Sunday, 19th February, shortly after the film opened nationally at the end of January. It was playing at the glorious old Regent Cinema on Regent Road, Great Yarmouth (it became a bingo hall in September 1982 - the last film to play there was "Blade Runner"). I recall very little of that screening except the general experience of seeing these fantastic images while sitting in a cavernous old 1930s one-screen cinema. I do remember dropping my ice cream tub though! haha! :) My brother bought me a "Star Wars" baseball cap and badge in one of the tacky gift shops on Regent Road before hand - I still have both items, even though they are un-official merchandise!

I did some research using the Great Yarmouth Mercury (a local paper) a few years ago and got prints of the film reviews and adverts for screening times of "Star Wars". Did I ever get you copies? Let me know.

You are right about Alec Guinness; he was a fantastic actor and really added something to the saga.

100 Favourite Films

100 Favourite Films