When Siskel and Ebert Defended 'Star Wars' After It Was Called Not Cinema

Star wars and inset of Siskel and Ebert - Photofest - Getty -H 2019
Photofest; Getty Images
Much like Marvel films are being attacked now, the George Lucas films were once hammered by some for not being art.

When Star Wars: Return of the Jedi hit theaters in 1983, it was a hit beloved by fans and even critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert — but it was also attacked for lacking cinematic integrity, much the same way Marvel films have been targeted as of late. 

Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola sparked a debate ensnaring comic book fans and cinephiles the past few weeks when the Oscar-winning directors individually took shots at superhero films, critiquing their place as art within the industry. Superhero fans, along with those who have worked on Marvel films, pushed back on the remarks, making arguments as to why they believe the projects are, in fact, cinema.

It turns out, the late duo Siskel and Ebert found themselves in the same boat 36 years ago when a fellow critic blasted not only Return of the Jedi, but all the Star Wars films and those who bought a ticket to see them. 

In a video unearthed by Heat Vision, critic John Simon was featured on ABC News Nightline in a segment in which he lambasted the George Lucas films. 

"I feel they are so bad because [Star Wars movies] are completely dehumanizing," said Simon, who at the time was the film critic for National Review and drama critic for New York Magazine. "Special effects are the tail of the dog, which should not wag the whole animal. When you have a film that is 90 percent special effects ... you might as well be watching an animated cartoon, because finally, all those special effects begin to look unreal."

Calling stars Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford "three lousy actors," Simon argued the films were solely made for children and those should be the only people who got joy from them. But even then, Simon said Star Wars was not good for kids. 

"They are brutalizing children," he told Nightline host Ted Koppel. "They are stultifying children. They are making children dumber than they need to be."

Siskel and Ebert took offense. 

"I totally disagree with Mr. Simon," began Ebert, long-time critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. "I don't know what he did as a child, but I spent a lot of my Saturday matinees watching science fiction movies and serials and having a great time and being stimulated and having my imagination stimulated and having all sorts of visions take place in my mind that would help me to become an adult and to still stay young at heart."

He added the jab, "I wouldn't say that I am childlike, but that [Simon] is old at heart." 

Siskel, long-time critic for the Chicago Tribune, talked about his experience watching Jedi in a theater packed with children, all of whom were immersed in the film and having a great time. 

"I feel bad, honestly, I feel bad this critic, John Simon, didn't have a good time at these pictures," Siskel said, adding "I don't think [Jedi] is campy fun. I think this is well-made fun. This is very good of its kind." 

While Simon never said the words "not cinema," he drove that specific point by saying the films lacked "flesh and blood." 

"So, what you're left with is something Walt Disney could have done with a drawing board and pencils and colors," he said.

That is the moment Ebert predicted the future, decades down the road, when the Walt Disney Co. would purchase Lucasfilm. 

"These are the sorts of movies the Disney people should be making and the kind of movies that Disney made 20, 30 years ago," Ebert said. "I think all movies are special effects. Movies are not real. They are two-dimensional. It's a dream. It's an imagination. So, as to whether this film is good or not, it excited me. It made me laugh. It made me thrilled. And that's what a movie like this is for." 

Ebert continued, "I also enjoy films by Ingmar Bergman and people like that. I share that taste with Mr. Simon, but I try, I think in my own moviegoing taste, to be broad enough to try and understand why a bunch of people would want to get together and see a Star Wars movie and enjoy it." 

Disney's Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is due in theaters Dec. 20. 

Watch the full segment below.