Simon Dillon’s weekly classic film spot.
This week: Star Wars trilogy (1977, 1980, 1983)
UK Certificate: U
US Certificate: PG
Intended audience: All ages
NOTE: This article contains spoilers.
To tie-in with the release of the new Star Wars film, The Last Jedi, here’s my take on George Lucas’s classic original trilogy. Comprising A New Hope (referred to by my generation as simply Star Wars), The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, these “space fantasy” films weren’t merely box office smashes. They weren’t just great films, to be added to a list of classics. They became a milestone in cinema, dividing the history of motion pictures into two distinct epochs BC/AD style – before and after Star Wars. Their influence has cast a huge shadow for better (and worse) across the cinematic landscape ever since, in Hollywood and across the world.
Consider for a moment the number of influences on Star Wars – Flash Gordon serials, Metropolis, The Wizard of Oz, countless westerns such as The Searchers, Samurai movies such as The Hidden Fortress, World War II movies including The Dambusters, the Arthur legends, Joseph Campbell’s writings, The Lord of the Rings, Bible stories and so much more. Writer/director George Lucas took these influences and turned them into something genuinely original, dynamic and incredibly fresh; with phenomenal, groundbreaking sound and visual effects that would not find their equal for many, many years. On a technical level the films are beyond outstanding, with astounding editing, production design, costume design, art direction and cinematography. And that’s before I’ve even mentioned John Williams’s outstanding score. Is there anything more thrilling, heroic and triumphant than that main theme in the opening titles, before the camera pans down to that famous shot of a spacecraft being pursued by a much, much larger vessel rumbling endlessly overhead? There is only one word for such a staggering blend of music and image: Awe.
Star Wars is no longer simply a film. It is a rite of passage for children, and the original trilogy comprise the greatest part of an ongoing, multi-generational cultural phenomenon. Featuring arguably the most iconic characters in cinema history, Star Wars is to film what Winnie the Pooh, The Wind in the Willows and Harry Potter are to literature: an unashamed celebration of the heroic dreams of childhood, passed on from parent to child.
Often mistakenly referred to as science fiction, Star Wars is in fact a fairy tale. A fantasy that happens to be set in space, but a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. In the first film, we are introduced to farm boy Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who dreams of running away from his dreary life to join the Rebel forces fighting against the evil Galactic Empire. When droids R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) cross Luke’s path with an urgent message from imperiled Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), intended for former Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness), the scene is set for a magnificent space adventure across multiple planets. Strange aliens, robots and monsters form the background to this thrilling tapestry, as Luke hires mercenary Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his co-pilot Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) to help in their quest. Together the fight against the Empire’s leaders in the form of Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing), governor of an armored space station called the Death Star which can destroy entire planets. They also battle the mysterious and frightening Darth Vader (David Prowse, voiced by James Earl Jones); also a former Jedi Knight and once Obi-Wan’s apprentice, before he embraced the Dark Side of the Force and wiped out the Jedi Order. The Force, of course, is explained as the mystical energy field which gives the Jedi their power, with a good and bad side, created by all living things, which “binds the galaxy together. Hence the catchphrase “May the Force be with you”.
Why am I explaining? You know this, right? Recapping the plot is hardly necessary, unless you have been hiding under a rock for the past forty years. In which case, stop reading this article now and immediately check out not only Star Wars (preferably on the biggest screen possible with the best sound system), but also The Empire Strikes Back, a rare sequel that is even better than the original, and Return of the Jedi, which concludes the original story perfectly.
The Empire Strikes Back in particular is an astonishing film, and is generally regarded as the best of the original three. For a start, it has the best direction, with Irvin Kershner taking over from Lucas (who retains a story and executive producer credit). It also has the best screenplay, from Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett. Said screenplay features the best romantic moments and the influence of Big Sleep scribe Brackett is particularly felt in Han and Leia’s screwball comedy style banter (“Would it help if I got out and pushed?”). The film also features the best of John Williams’s landmark Star Wars scores. Here Williams introduces the iconic Imperial March which brilliantly demonstrates his genius in the way he takes a single theme and crafts endless, ingenious variations of it.
Away from the music, Empire also features the best monsters (the Hoth Wampa is a personal favourite of mine), the best new characters (Frank Oz’s Yoda, Billy Dee Williams’s Lando Calrissian), the best locations (Hoth, Dagobah, Cloud City), the best performances, the best lightsabre fight (Luke and Vader’s climactic face-off), and arguably the best action set-pieces (the barnstorming AT-AT attack and the thrilling asteroid chase). Empire set a template for these kinds of sequels – ie make it darker, more complex, but don’t forget to leaven the darkness with a good sense of humour.
Yet Empire is braver. Empire dares to pull the rug from under its young audience with arguably the greatest (and most parodied) plot twist of all time, in a scene of shock revelation that cements the character of Darth Vader as arguably the greatest screen villain of all time.
The film also dares to leave many narrative threads (such as the fate of Han Solo) dangling as the end credits roll. Someone once described Star Wars as the equivalent of an excellent though naïve childhood, and The Empire Strikes Back as that difficult, painful time when after leaving home you realise life can be tough, complicated and messy. In terms of how each film feels, it’s a fairly good summary.
Return of the Jedi is arguably less narratively groundbreaking, but it is no less fun, and a hugely satisfying end to the trilogy. With even stranger creatures and monsters, even bigger battles and even more staggering visual effects, on a technical level the film is astonishing. More new characters are introduced (notably monstrous gangster Jabba the Hutt and Ian McDiarmid’s uber-villain Emperor Palpatine), and the final confrontation between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader makes for a dramatic and unexpected conclusion in this cataclysmic battle between good and evil.
Star Wars is littered with images, themes and ideas that resonate deeply with the Christian faith (even if technically “the Force” can be fitted to any religion and could be described as New Age, something religious bores often pointed out to me as a child who simply saw goodies and baddies). For example, the sacrificial death of Obi-Wan when only his cloak remains makes one think of the empty tomb, and obviously death, resurrection and redemption are key themes.
Then later, we have the David and Goliath style Death Star battle. No matter how many times I watch that sequence (and I’ve probably seen it over a hundred times), I always end up on the edge of my seat as the Rebel ships are picked off one by one until only Luke remains. Things look desperate. Then Luke hears the ghostly voice of his mentor, urging him to take a step of faith, turn off his computer, and trust in the Force. He does this, and is rewarded when Han Solo turns up at the last minute to lend a hand (cue tremendous applause and cheering if one watches it in a cinema with an enthusiastic audience). Speaking of Han Solo, he has a character arc every bit as compelling as Luke’s. Over three films he goes from selfish, rogue mercenary, to someone who makes friends, falls in love and finally decides to fight for a cause that is bigger than him.
Like The Lord of the Rings (which Star Wars frequently resembles thematically), the story isn’t just about the external battle between good and evil, but about the inward battle against the evil within oneself. As a child, these stories appealed to me because I identified with Luke’s struggle against temptation all too well. That lure towards the darkness, taking the quick and easy path… It’s a fundamental part of the human condition.
One particularly dark and riveting sequence in The Empire Strikes Back sees Luke enter a cave which he is warned by Jedi Master Yoda is “strong with the Dark Side of the Force”. He asks what is in the cave. Yoda replies “Only what you take with you.” He then tells Luke he will not need weapons, but Luke takes his anyway. Inside the cave, he sees a vision of Darth Vader. They duel, and Luke severs Vader’s head, but the helmet cracks, revealing Luke’s face beneath. The implication of the sequence is clear: by using the Dark Side, Luke risks destroying his enemy only to become him. Evil cannot be overcome by evil but must be overcome with good.
Of course, in Return of the Jedi, evil is overcome with good, to tremendously moving and redemptive effect. The funeral pyre finale always brings a tear to my eye, and the final celebration often makes me think of heaven, and what it must be like to be reunited in triumph with those who have travelled a long, hard road that has led to victory. It is an unashamedly punch-the-air feel-good note to wrap things up on (regardless of what happens in the newer films in the saga).
Finally, on a very, very personal note, and as a rebuttal to the afore-mentioned religious bores, my wife got saved watching The Empire Strikes Back – surely a sign that 1) I was to marry her, 2) God can use anything to bring people into his kingdom, and, 3) God has a great sense of humour.