In what now does seem strangely like a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away … I was thirteen-years-old, standing in line the last week of May in 1977 to see a science fiction film called Star Wars. Luckily, my father, always a fan of fantasy and a variety a crazy “B” films, had no problem sticking out the over two-hour-long wait in Hollywood to get us seats for the premiere of what looked to be a film possibly as good as the previous year’s offering, Logan’s Run. The line of people from Mann’s Chinese Theater (formerly Grauman’s Chinese Theater) led down the boulevard over several blocks of the Hollywood Walk of Fame, while folks chattered about whether or not this film could outdo Lucas’s great teen drama, American Graffiti.
We were a generation still high on the Planet of the Apes franchise, the great escapist films that distracted families from the horrors of a decade of assassinations and a weird war in Vietnam. Apes was big fun with great costumes, but also had a relevant subtext that stirred inside the subconscious. We had seen George Lucas take on the serious side of science fiction with his directorial debut in 1971 of THX 1138, but no one wanted that kind of a downer. We needed something more fantastic. We needed the next big thing. There would most likely never be a film as good as Planet of the Apes, but this Star Wars thing looked pretty good.
The 1977 Star Wars trailer said everything we wanted to hear. That’s what created the excitement. The less than two minute preview should have won an award all by itself, pure action and high adventure. That glimpse of greatness would actually represent George Lucas’s magnum opus. With a career that was about to explode, no one could have guessed he would never direct another film. Sure, you can argue that Lucas directed the Star Wars prequels, but even George says he considers Star Wars just one big film, and truthfully, those later efforts seem amateurish when compared to the original.
Most likely the problem is that Lucas lost his ability to direct by not needing to direct anymore. He lost his youthful hunger and the passion that goes with fighting for your art. When you don’t have to try anymore, often you simply don’t have the necessary moxy to make it happen. Keep in mind, when Lucas wrote Star Wars (as “The Star Wars”) in 1973, American Graffiti had not yet been released and George was still in debt. Yeah, he went on to produce some great stuff, but that’s all fat cat history. Let us return to the real thing, Star Wars 1977, not “A New Hope” or anything retro-fitted, just a story about a guy with a lightsaber and some interesting friends.
The first thing I remember about sitting in the theater and waiting for Star Wars to begin was that I had one of those huge buckets of popcorn and it had the coolest graphics of the movie wrapped around it; the stellar marketing happened from the get-go. Everything about Star Wars just looked and seemed so damn cool, but when that first Imperial starship filled the screen, seemingly floating in right over our heads – it was time to check reality at the door. The escape route had just been found.
There truly is no substitute for experiencing something firsthand when it originally happens. You might have watched Star Wars later on VHS or experienced the revisionist upgrades and later CGI enhancements on DVD or Blu-ray, but there will never be anything like that initial magic. Sadly, even though the sequel, The Empire Strikes Back is a good film, much of that rare essence had dissipated for me. Maybe there was too much anticipation for the next Star Wars film, and maybe getting older by three years diluted the spell, but it just wasn’t the same. Don’t get me wrong, I dig Yoda as much as the average space nut, but once the initial mystery revealed itself in the first film, that feeling of discovery waned. Let’s face it, George did not even direct Empire. The massive fame, and the power that comes with that kind of juice, no one could have predicted, and it must have had an incredible impact on George Lucas’s psyche. Think about it; one minute you’re a guy trying to make a movie – next you’re as big as Elvis, whom had just passed away a few months after Star Wars came out. Difference being, Elvis was a real star. He harnessed that energy, and despite whatever anyone may say on the matter, remained awesome until the final song was sung. George, on the other hand, had created a hit so big he would never be able outdo himself. So, I believe, he just stopped trying.
As long as we’re taking a critical look at this phenomena, it’s important to look at where Star Wars came from. The Flash Gordon/Buck Rogers space opera elements are obvious, but it’s also no secret that Lucas struggled with the script for “The Star Wars” and made many revisions after the initial treatment got rejected a few times. He would borrow from Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress for samurai fundamentals mirroring the Jedi way of life as well as military plot elements, but it has also been said that Lucas studied science fiction as a whole that year, including science fiction-themed comic books.
In 1971, cartoonist legend Jack Kirby, creator/co-creator of some of the greatest super heroes, wrote one of the most exciting comic series of all time: The New Gods. The only thing that ever stuck in my gut, bothering me about the first Star Wars film (besides Carrie Fisher’s scary hairdo), was the lack of acknowledgment for Jack Kirby’s influence. The parallels are too close to ignore, but most likely, George had to play it safe by never mentioning the similarities as DC Comics, publisher of the New Gods series (and its spin-off titles) is owned by Warner Brothers, and George was working with 20th Century Fox. Why the fat cats at Warner never made the connection or sought to do their own version is, well, stupid.
I’m sure, at this point, I’m far from the only one who has written about the New Gods connection, but just for clarity I’ll list some of the coincidences:
In New Gods, the heroes are influenced by the powerful energy known as “The Source.”
In Star Wars, the heroes are influenced by the powerful energy known as “The Force.”
In New Gods, the protagonist (Orion) is a young man on the side of good, born of a father who is the embodiment of evil: Darkseid.
In Star Wars, the protagonist (Luke Skywalker) is a young man on the side of good, born of a father who is the embodiment of evil: Darth Vader.
In New Gods, even though Orion is the son of evil, he is mentored and protected by a father-figure on the side of good (Highfather).
In Star Wars, even though Luke is the son of evil, he is mentored and protected by a father-figure on the side of good (Obi-Wan Kenobi).
In New Gods, we have an evil military of bad guys working for Darkseid called the Parademons.
In Star Wars, we have an evil military of bad guys working for Darth Vader called the Stormtroopers.
Beside those basic analogous details, the overall look and feel of Star Wars reminds comic readers of Jack Kirby’s work. Darth Vader’s helmeted look is very close to Darkseid’s helmet-head look and Greedo looks like he was pulled from one of Jack’s Ihhumans comics, but all of that’s okay. If you’re going to be influenced, be influenced by the great ones. I mean, if you’re going to sing, sing like Elvis, not Tiny Tim. Although, it would be nice for us Kirby fans to hear Lucas say he read the New Gods and lifted a few things. Add to the formula a few science fiction enhanced Kurosawa samurai swords – and you’ve got a hit!
Honestly, though, no matter what Star Wars was made from, the sum total of its ingredients equaled magic. I’m sure someone else will write something similar about seeing that first Harry Potter movie in the theater when they were a kid and how nothing could ever alter the enchantment of that particular experience. But just remember, no matter what the future holds, a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away … Han Solo pulled his blaster first.