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In the early 1970s, 20th Century Fox was a leaking ship.
Following the disastrous Cleopatra — the 1963 epic that had hemorrhaged money, forcing the studio to sell off half its land — the company had brought back its co-founder Darryl F. Zanuck, who returned from self-imposed exile in Paris and was charged with righting the vessel. At first, he did so with some success, hiring his son, Richard, as head of production and greenlighting such giant hits as The Sound of Music (1965), Fantastic Voyage (1966) and Planet of the Apes (1968). The future looked bright, until it didn’t.
By 1970, the “didn’t” part had become evident to one and all. Following a series of bombs (most notably 1967’s bloated Doctor Dolittle and the 1968 Julie Andrews musical Star!), Darryl fired Richard in a misguided attempt to save himself. By then it was too late, and soon he too was gone, bobbing up and down on the periphery of Hollywood, a beacon with a flickering amber light warning other studio chiefs of the rocky shoals that lay ahead.
Not long after Zanuck’s departure, Alan Ladd Jr. stepped in to head the movie division. A former agent, and the son of a movie star, he knew everything about film and everyone in it. Under Laddie (as he was known) and his key lieutenants, Gareth Wigan and Jay Kanter, Fox bounded back. One hit came tumbling after another — from the 1974 disaster flick The Towering Inferno to the 1977 drama The Turning Point to the 1977 romantic period piece Julia.
Each of these had some artistic or commercial merit. But none had the impact of the film that made Ladd’s name, Star Wars.
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Star Wars was the kind of picture Zanuck would have understood, a throwback to the boy’s own adventures and serialized product he remembered from his early days as a writer-director. What would have surprised him (and perhaps Ladd, too) was that it fundamentally changed the nature of the business.
It took an executive steeped in Hollywood tradition to understand the movie that would set tradition on its ear. And it took a director who adored Hollywood’s past to crack that mold and send it spinning into the future.
George Lucas had started as Francis Coppola’s assistant, then turned his USC student short into a 1971 feature, THX 1138, after which United Artists gave him just enough development money to move forward with two other projects. The first was American Graffiti, an autobiographical coming-of-age story set in the director’s hometown, Modesto, Calif. (It was originally called Another Quiet Night in Modesto.) The second was The Star Wars, as it was then titled.
It’s unclear whether Lucas would have gone ahead with Star Wars if he had managed to obtain the rights to his dream project, Flash Gordon; but he didn’t. Years later, Coppola recalled that Lucas “was very depressed because he had just come back and they wouldn’t sell him Flash Gordon.” Unable to proceed with that space fantasy, he declared, “I’ll just invent my own.’”
He did so by drawing on a number of known and less-known sources. The most familiar, of course, was Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. One can see its influence in the long, haunting shots of heavyweight spaceships passing right over us, images that have become a staple of almost every space-age movie ever since.
Another source was Fritz Lang’s 1927 futuristic drama Metropolis, whose dystopian vision is absent from Lucas’ work, but whose Maschinenmensch (or “machine-human”) is alive and well in the form of C-3PO.
Then there was The Hidden Fortress, Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 Samurai adventure, whose story gave Star Wars its framework. That picture’s two medieval Japanese warriors were reimagined as Jedi knights, just as their bumbling peasant counterparts were reconceived as comically touching robots. Kurosawa brilliantly counterpointed the courage of his heroes with the cowardliness of their acolytes, deftly mapping out the spectrum of human emotion; Lucas used both, but with a counterpoint far less clear.
I have no objection to his adoption of any of these sources. In stealing from the masters, Lucas followed a long tradition in Western art, and proved his talent by the way he reconceived their works. With Fortress, he plucked these medieval characters and plopped them down in a faraway galaxy; it was a brilliant conceit, to which he paid homage by suffusing his movie with such Japanese iconography as the Samurai helmets that bedeck the Stormtroopers.
As it happened, all this meant little to the studio executives who heard Lucas’ pitch. Like most executives, they paid lip service to history and were more focused on Star Wars’ cost and viability. United Artists said no, as did Universal and Disney. Not even Lucas’ wildly successful Graffiti, which grossed 200 times its three-quarters-of-a-million-dollar budget, could help him get his space epic off the ground — until Ladd stepped forward.
By the end of 1977, Star Wars had become the biggest box-office hit of the year (with Smokey and the Bandit and Close Encounters of the Third Kind trailing in second and third place). It had shown the corporate owners who were fast muscling in on the studios what vast profits lay ahead with the right kind of film. And it had opened a Pandora’s box of licensing possibilities that would make box office secondary to merchandising.
* * *
Since then, the movie has not only spawned sequels, spinoffs and TV series, as well as books, cartoons, toys, video games, clothing, light sabers and a host of knickknacks and doodads; it’s also led other filmmakers and studios to aspire to the same thing. Ask any executive today whether he’d rather greenlight an Oscar winner or a franchise, and you can guess what he’ll reply.
And yet there’s a strange thing I’ve noticed: No one ever seems to defend Star Wars (or any other franchise) as a great work of art.
Even die-hard fans acknowledge that — beside the original trilogy, the later films are mere entertainments, sometimes better, sometimes worse, but never life-altering. Even the original trio of pictures seem uninspired artistically compared to some of the great works of the 1970s; as to the “prequel” trilogy — starring Natalie Portman, Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor — its imaginative drought was encapsulated in Jar Jar Binks, a character better designed to move product than emotions.
Nor were people massively enthusiastic about last year’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a work entrusted to the care of J.J. Abrams, who had proved his franchise-readiness with 2006’s Mission: Impossible III and 2009’s Star Trek — both masterworks of efficiency, but not originality.
Perhaps Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, opening Dec. 16, will be different, but I doubt it.
Whatever the merits of the original Star Wars (I must admit, I’ve always found it clunky filmmaking, with thin characters and a simplistic good vs. evil plot), the empire it spawned is not about art; it’s not even about myth; it’s about money. Perhaps Lucas understood that when he recently sold Lucasfilm to Disney, knowing that any hope of doing something original was long gone.
Franchise product isn’t meant to be original. It’s designed to be reassuring: the same thing we liked before, just with different wrapping.
Without Star Wars, we might never have had that. We might never have seen budgets soar upward of $250 million a pop. We might never have seen brands become more important than the artistry behind them. We might never have seen pictures that were a thin justification for the theme park rides that would follow.
Star Wars may not have been a great movie from an artistic point of view; but it was a perfect petri for the clones to come.
Which is something Ladd, for one, could never have intended. He went on to make a series of terrific pictures, first as an executive (Blade Runner, Chariots of Fire) and later as a producer (Braveheart, which won him an Oscar). He stood out in many ways as an avatar of the world Star Wars had left behind, a believer in individual stories and individual films, in quality rather than quantity. Oddly, Lucas may have shared those values.
It’s ironic that the movie for which they will best be remembered ushered in a revolution they may wish they could forget.
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