The Man Who Made Star Wars

The idea was to make a high adventure film for children. The result was the box-office hit of all time. The man responsible was George Lucas

Compared with 2001 (Lucas calls Kubrick's film "the ultimate science fiction movie"), the special effects in Star Wars were cheap. Where Kubrick could allow his space stations to circle elegantly for a minute, Lucas had to cut swiftly between individual effects. But that became part of the film's design. Where Kubrick's camera was static, Lucas and Kurtz encouraged their special-effects team to develop ways to present a dogfight in space with the same realism as any documentary about World War II. As usual in animation, they prepared storyboards, precise drawings of how each frame was to look; but, unlike most animation, their drawings were based on meticulous study of real war footage. They looked for the elements that made an audience believe what they were seeing. For Lucas, it was a return to his original interests at USC-the basics of film, recreated with models, superimposition, paintings, and animation. "We used a lot of documentary footage," Kurtz says, "and some feature film footage. We looked at every war movie ever made that had air-to-air combat-from The Blue Max to The Battle of Britain. We even looked at film from Vietnam. We were looking for the reason each shot worked, the slight roll of the wings that made it look real."

John Dykstra, assistant to Douglas Trumbill on 2001, retreated to a warehouse in Van Nuys, California. There he developed a camera which could move through any axis, to match real-life movement of wing tips or fuselage; and linked it with a computer that could remember the movements and duplicate them exactly when a different model was before the camera. That way, two separate models, photographed separately, could seem to do precise battle. The surrounding planets were on a painted background; the laserfire was added by animation. Superimposition brought all the elements together. Developing the technique took most of the year and of the budget allocated to special effects. "The fact is that we didn't have the money," Lucas said later, "and the key to special effects is time and money. I had to cut corners like crazy. I cut scenes left and right. And I cut out over 100 special effects shots. The film is about 25 percent of what I wanted it to be."

Arguably, the technique worked better dramatically than did the spectacle of 2001. Lucas was invading the territory of Edgar Rice Burroughs, not a laboratory. He was making a series of Tolkein episodes, with dragons, hobbits, wizards like Gandalf and dark forces with storm troopers like Naz-Gul for support. There is no respect for science, no residue of a one-time staple of films-the menace of the atomic age. In this patch of deep space, giant craft can thunder like jet airplanes, and the London Symphony Orchestra can blast its romantic horns and violins. Mere physics says that space is silent. And Lucas contrives his battles well enough to spare us any desire to concentrate on the precise specifications of the craft involved.

But he does not tell a story. This is the basic failing of the film. It lacks true narrative drive and force. It is a void, into which any mystic idea can be projected; entertainment, brilliantly confected, which is quite hollow. Its only idea is individualism-that a man must take responsibility for others, even at great personal cost and peril. Its idea is, in classic form, "A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do."

The iconography is bizarre. Darth Vader, the dastardly villain, is black. That is commón in science fiction. In the supposedly liberal Planet of the Apes series, the wicked and stupid gorillas are the military, and they are black. The honey-colored chimpanzees are the wise, good scientists. The closer to the color of a California WASP, the better the character: it is a fair rule of thumb. But Darth Vader's forces are storm troopers armored in white. The wicked Grand Moff Tarkin lives in a gray-green world, with gray-green uniforms; he is clearly a wicked Nazi. Yet when our heroes take their just reward at the very end, there are images which parallel the finest documentary of Nazism, Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will. "I can see," Kurtz says, "why people think that. I suppose it is like the moment when Hitler crosses the podium to lay the wreath." Critical confusion is not surprising when there are allusions to Nazism as both good and bad. French leftist critics thought the film was fascist; Italian rightists thought it was clearly communistic.

Nor is the vague, pantheistic deism of the film coherent. Star Wars talks much of The Force, a field of energy that permeates the universe and can be used for both good and evil. It is passed on with a sword, just as the sword Excalibur is passed on in the Arthurian romance; the influence of chivalric stories is strong. But when The Force is used by Luke Skywalker to help him destroy the monstrous Death Star, he is urged only to relax, to obey his instincts, to close his eyes and fight by feeling. The Force amounts to building a theology out of staying cool.

Star Wars has been taken with ominous seriousness. It should not be. The single strongest impression it leaves is of another great American tradition which involves lights, bells, obstacles, menace, action, technology, and thrills. It is pinball-on a cosmic scale.

On May 25, 1977, Star Wars went out on test release to twenty-five theaters.  In nine days, it had grossed $3.5 million.  Within two months it had recouped its $9 million costs, and it was in profit before its general release.

In real money terms, Star Wars was made for money that would not have bought a moderate drama in the early 1960s, if it involved overseas filming. Its marketing was directed, cleverly, at an audience which was known to exist-the young in summer. It was released carefully, at ordinary ticket prices. Its prospects had been properly researched. The cynics observed the signs and bought stock in Twentieth Century-Fox as fast as they could. As the share price soared, student audiences justified the rise.

On the profits, Twentieth Century-Fox waxed fat. It kept 60 percent of the film's earnings. Neither Kurtz nor Lucas would talk of how the rest was divided. Alec Guinness was said to be the richest actor in the world because the producers had given him an extra half point in the profits. British tax rates made that claim seem unlikely. But the real point of interest was the attitude of Kurtz and Lucas toward giving away profit to thank their associates. "Some of the profit was obligated by contract to certain people. Some of it wasn't," Kurtz says. "We used the uncommitted points to say 'thank you' to people for doing a good job. People tell me that's unheard of in the movie business, but I really don't think so. It's a private contract. People just don't talk about it."

George Lucas kept a sizable interest in any sequels to Star Wars. That was written into his original contract with Twentieth Century-Fox, at his insistence. The money will be the seed of his other projects. He still dreams of making personal films, concentrating on the poetry of cinema. Ned Tannen says, "The fact that Star Wars is the biggest hit ever made and that he doesn't think it is very good—that's what fascinates me about George. It's what I really admire about him—and I certainly think he is wrong."

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