From the archive: How Star Wars tightened its cultural grip on the world

On the eve of the release of The Phantom Menace in May 1999, author Mark Lawson looked back at the Star Wars phenomenon and its growing influence on popular cultural. True believers are warned that they may find some of what follows offensive . . .


In 1977, a promising young American film director holds a private screening of his latest project. Appalled giggles are stifled throughout. At the end, one guest feels compelled, in all honesty, to warn his host that he has just made the worst film in the history of cinema. In 1996, one of the most distinguished actors produced by the English stage is recovering in a London clinic from eye surgery. The patient, in his early 80s, finds his rest disturbed by two Scottish orderlies who wish him to scribble on a scrap of paper six words that they believe have mystical significance.

In April 1999, an old Etonian, marrying in Ventimiglia, Italy, makes one change to the local order of service. In deference to his spiritual inheritance, he and his bride leave the church to the theme tune of a Hollywood science-fiction movie.

In the same month, Americans begin queueing outside a Los Angeles cinema for the opening of a new film that will not be premiered for another six weeks.

Because of fears about the illicit fortunes to be made from the resale of tickets, the studio has refused to allow advance booking. A video camera relays the experiences of the movie-goer first in line to an Internet website 24 hours a day.

The movie that links these four stories is Star Wars, the intergalactic fantasy directed by George Lucas. It was Brian De Palma - who remains a jobbing director, while his friend has a fortune measured in billions of dollars - who warned Lucas at that California preview that he was about to become the laughing stock of Hollywood.

The veteran eye patient, experiencing what he must have hoped to be an optical illusion, was Sir Alec Guinness, who was surprised to discover that a career that included both an admired Hamlet and Kind Hearts And Coronets has been overshadowed by a short sentence he spoke - "May the Force be with you" - in Lucas's film.

Guinness’s experiences offer an eloquent example of the scale and nature of what has happened. This actor has always chosen his roles with some care, but we can easily imagine that he was allowing himself a harmless little holiday - a Hollywood pension plan - when he accepted the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi, a Jedi knight, an intergalactic soldier in brown monk’s cowl, who would guide the hero, Luke Skywalker, through battles with the dark forces that had colonised the universe.

And it is in the actor’s report in his memoirs of a meeting with an American child on a San Francisco street that we reach the heart of the strangeness of the Star Wars story. The 12-year-old boy tells Obi-Wan Kenobi (as he believes him to be) that he has seen the original movie 100 times. Harnessing the vast moral authority which the part has given him, Guinness asks the boy if he will promise to do something for him. Unable to refuse a personal request from a Jedi knight, the child agrees. But, on hearing his mission - “Do you think you could promise never to see Star Wars again?” - the apostle of Obi-Wan bursts into tears.

The actor’s explanation for his action will be worth remembering in the wake of The Phantom Menace hype: “Looking into the boy’s eyes, I thought I detected little star-shells of madness beginning to form and I guessed that one day they would explode ... I just hope the lad, now in his 30s, is not living in a fantasy world of secondhand, childish banalities.”

Precise theology
Theories about the reasons for the success of Star Wars are now so much a part of cinema that they have even formed the basis of a film: Clerks, Kevin Smith's 1993 comedy, in which shop assistants chat about cultural matters, including the precise theology of Lucas's movie religion.

It should be made clear that Brian De Palma, now anecdotalised as cinema's equivalent of the talent scout who turned down The Beatles, was not alone in his doubts about the project. When Lucas first touted round the studios in around 1972 a 13-page treatment for a film called The Star Wars - "The story of Mace Windu", bemused producers read, "a revered Jedi-bendu of the Opuchi . . ." - he was rejected by both Universal and United Artists before being offered a small deal by 20th Century Fox.

This makes Fox look prescient, but that impression is removed by a subsequent decision. When Lucas, his bankability increased by the success of his 1973 teenage comedy American Graffiti, pleaded for a rise in his directing fee, the studio refused, offering instead a deal that it clearly regarded as a no-cost compromise. Lucas was offered the sequel and prequel rights to the film. As the consensus at Fox was that nobody would buy tickets even for the original, this gift was intended as equivalent to a water-bottling licence for the Sahara. Just as we sadly imagine Alec Guinness assuming that he was appearing in a role that would not even be mentioned in his memoirs, so we cheerfully picture the Fox accountants thinking: sucker!

But, through sole ownership of The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and The Return Of The Jedi (1983) - plus this summer's The Phantom Menace and the two other prequels promised in the next six years - Lucas is now worth several billion dollars, and is the only man in the industry able to think of Steven Spielberg, his friend, contemporary and collaborator on the Indiana Jones movies, as a poor relation. But, on set in Tunisia and Elstree in 1976, even the actors would have believed that Lucas had been offered 100 per cent of nothing. Members of the technical crew reportedly mocked the plot and costumes; and Harrison Ford, at that time a Hollywood nobody hired to play the space-pilot Han Solo, is supposed to have complained to the director: "George, you can type this shit, but you sure as hell can't say it".

Industrial Light & Magic
Watching Star Wars 22 years on, the early doubts are easy enough to understand. The hindsight giggle at Brian De Palma's preview remarks is aimed at his financial miscalculation, rather than his artistic philistinism. The special effects are very impressive: it is appropriate that a large part of Lucas's fortune should accrue from Industrial Light & Magic, the wow-shot company he developed to market the revolutionary techniques used in the original movie. But, in its elements of conventional dialogue and plot, the first film has a meandering beginning in which oddly camp androids, C-3PO and R2-D2, glide about between Mark Hamill, whose first try at Luke Skywalker stands as the wettest performance in a leading role until the final scenes of Titanic, and Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia with the ludicrous ear-muff hairdo, presumably an evolutionary response to the cold winters on her home planet of Tatooine.

Mel Brooks subsequently made the Lucas spoof Spaceballs (1987), but there are many moments in Star Wars itself that feel like a rare example of an original creation already descending to self-parody. Only with the arrival of Harrison Ford as Solo - a nice send-up of the cynical old flyer in so many war films - and the first scenes of Darth Vader, the faceless leader of the enemy forces, does the kind of momentum develop that could seriously be expected to keep viewers on their seats.

Weeping and wailing
Because we all now know the ending - not of Star Wars, but of its reception in America and elsewhere; the millions of tickets, toys, tears and theories that have followed - a viewing of the first movie in 1999 feels like arriving in the desert to find hundreds of thousands of people kneeling in prayer, weeping and wailing in the direction of a tent. Entering the tent, you find a large throne on which sits the inspiration for this total devotion: it is a small, squeaking mouse.

Here, then, are six explanations of why a science-fiction film that was originally almost giggled out of Hollywood has moved beyond entertainment and taken on the shape of a faith. True believers are warned that they may find some of what follows offensive . . .

The first two theories - which can be summarised as Infantilism and ExtraTerrestrialism - are strictly cinematic. By Infantilism, I mean that one explanation of the cleverness of Star Wars is that it never over-estimates the emotional age of the core movie audience. Part of the legend of the film is that the only early viewer to appreciate it, supposedly predicting that "this will take $100 million", was Steven Spielberg. But - according to this thesis - he would get it, wouldn't he?

Because modern cinema's two great money-spinners - Lucas and Spielberg - are both regressives, producing what in effect are big-budget children's movies with enough visual panache and sub-spiritual mumbo jumbo to appeal to adults as well. The plot of Star Wars draws heavily from fairy tale (the attempt to rescue an imprisoned princess, who is discovered asleep) and nods to Tolkien in the large quantities of furry creatures featured.

This raises, by inference, the matter of Spielberg's ET, and introduces the second hypothesis about this phenomenon: Extra-Terrestrialism. Although it is a truism of once-famous producers drinking too much in Beverly Hills that public taste cannot be predicted, examination of box-office history reveals that a high percentage of the most famous movies of all time do share one element or, strictly, the lack of it: their central characters are either wholly or partially removed from the soil on which the cinemas stand.

Back and The Return Of The Jedi, this factor applies to ET, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, 2001: A Space Odyssey and, most recently, Titanic, in which the extraterrestrialism is different but still central. If Hollywood is indeed a dream factory, then the most popular reverie it sells seems to be the one about leaving Earth in some way. Lucas and Spielberg - now responsible between them for six vastly lucrative space movies - have become the movie tribunes of a generation that heard the doomed Kennedy promise to extend the American empire into space. Lucas sketched out his trilogy soon after man walked on the Moon.

The Reagan years
Kennedy also figures in the third explanation for the trilogy's success: Political. It can be argued that Lucas has constructed a myth that conflates JFK's dream - man in command of space - with President Ronald Reagan's nightmare: invasion by the Soviets. And, with perfect historical neatness, Reagan's most famous policy innovation - the attempt to create an atmospheric shield off which Soviet missiles would bounce - took its name from Lucas's film.

The second and third movies were released during the rise and apotheosis of President Reagan, and it is possible that his presidency was his last and greatest contribution to the Hollywood that had invented him.

Many have pointed out that the basic story of Star Wars concerns the struggle of a good and decent people - symbolised by the Aryan Luke Skywalker - against a hostile empire, whose thugs wear tunics like eastern European army costumes and who declare that "fear will keep the local systems in line". Consciously or not, the three films are clearly an exoneration of US foreign policy during the Cold War. Where Spielberg has used his accumulating money and status to make increasingly liberal films, Lucas's politics feel deeply conservative. In Clerks, the film buffs express outrage that, at the end of The Return Of The Jedi, a huge new enemy space-station is blown up, killing all the construction workers. This has been seen by some as the ultimate in union-bashing.

And, apart from the Cold War symbolism, the planet of the good suffers from an enemy within: a gang of thugs headed by the huge, bloated slug, Jabba The Hutt. Depending on how charitable you are, Jabba - standing for a domestic malevolence that distracts from the fight against the true enemy abroad - represents either immigrants (his speech is sub-titled), Richard Nixon, the Mafia or, in his great, slothful fatness, capitalist greed.

Craving for religion
A fourth possibility is that the appeal to Americans of the underlying myths is not that they are political but that they meet the national craving for religion. Francis Ford Coppola advised Lucas when the success of the series became known that, rather than extend the sequence cinematically, he should found a religion with the scripts as the scriptures. This was a shrewd joke, as the films contain a simple but clear theology of good and evil.

Although widely assumed by the non-obsessed to take place in the future, the action of the trilogy happens, an opening caption establishes, "A long time long ago in a galaxy far, far away . . ." So the films are a creation myth. Darth Vader, who left the paradise of Tatooine to seek to destroy it from without, is a sci-fi rewrite of Milton's Satan. The concept of the "Force", as outlined by Guinness's Obi-Wan Kenobi, is reverent but vague enough to appeal to adherents of both the established faiths and New Age creeds; an energy that can be used for either good or ill. When Guinness declares that: "I felt a great disturbance in the force," the words recall Christ's when he sensed that energy had drained from him when a sick woman touched his hem. This is merely one of many examples in the scripts of displacement religion.

Han Solo begins as an atheist - "There are no mystical forces controlling my destiny!" - before questioning his own scepticism in the face of the example of Luke and Obi-Wan.

Family dysfunction
The fifth explanation for the phenomenon, however, lies in a development of which most churches disapprove: dysfunctional families. It seems much more obvious in the 1990s than it perhaps did in the 1970s that at the heart of the Star Wars films is the story of a boy whose father has left him.

Luke Skywalker has an absentee dad who is eventually shown to have betrayed the family in a terrible way by defecting to the enemy and becoming the evil Darth Vader. Luke's journey is to redeem his relationship with his father, and he is helped in this by a series of father-figures, including Han and Obi-Wan, representing glamour and wisdom, respectively. Two years before Hollywood released its big divorce story - Kramer vs Kramer (1979) - it seems that Lucas may already have entered that room in disguise.

By coincidence, a novel due to be published this summer soon after the appearance of the latest Star Wars instalment - Man And Boy, by writer and broadcaster Tony Parsons - explores the possibility that the films are marital parables. In the novel, children of the current pre-teen generation obsessively watch the videos as they are shunted between the separate homes of their mummies and daddies, clutching plastic Jedi lightsabres and other tie-in merchandise. Crucially, not only do they identify with Luke, the child of a broken home, but a love of these celluloid fantasies gives them a bond with their parents, who share this language with them.

Time warp
That suggestion of inherited passion brings us to the sixth postulation of Lucas's profits: The Time Warp. It should, perhaps, be no surprise that the most successful cinematic franchise of all time should have originated in the 1970s. For there is increasing evidence in our current culture that the generation that grew up in that decade is becoming tyrannically nostalgic, engineering the return of its formative obsessions to stage, screen and record store, and imposing its infatuations on a new generation.

Numerous movies (Boogie Nights, The Ice Storm, Jackie Brown) revisit the 1970s. Rereleased episodes of Starsky & Hutch beckon from the windows of video shops. Abba are back at number one in the album charts. And now the great cinematic experience of that time - the opening over six years of three Star Wars films - is about to begin again.

This age group need never truly grow old, because, in culture at least, their childhood continues on a permanent loop. This phenomenon was wittily acknowledged in an episode of the cult thirtysomething sitcom, Friends, in which one character's ultimate sexual fantasy was for his girlfriend to dress up as Princess Leia.

The emergence of the child-adult
When cultural historians look back at our time, they will acknowledge a strange mutation in the parents of Europe and North America in the last decade of the 20th century: the emergence of the child-adult. This creature can dress in jeans and baseball cap until death if desired, while playing with video games designed for children and watching again, courtesy of cable channels and video publishers, all the programmes it first saw while growing up.

The Star Wars phenomenon is the apotheosis of the child-adult. Twenty years ago, George Lucas admitted that his ambition was to "create new myths for children". But the people lying on the LA sidewalks waiting for the advent of The Phantom Menace are not children.

Until the early 1990s, it seemed that Skywalker-formed parents who wished to take their offspring to see Star Wars would always have to persuade them to see re-runs. But a surprise development in the publishing industry - the unexpected rise of a Star Wars spin-off novel to the top of the New York Times fiction bestseller list - seems to have alerted Lucas to the demand for more stories from his imagined galaxy.

CGI makeover
Rumours of a new trilogy were confirmed with the release in 1997 of a revised version of the trilogy to mark the 20th anniversary of the film at which De Palma had laughed. Not only had special effects been enhanced through new computer techniques but, almost certainly for the first time in cinema history, famous films had been retitled. Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and The Return Of The Jedi were now called Parts IV, V and VI. The effect of the numerals is Shakespearean, which may be either accident or arrogance.

In 22 years, having moved from a Star Wars film that nobody much wanted to see to a Star Wars film with the largest potential audience of any movie ever, Lucas is being cagey about the contents of Part I: The Phantom Menace.

The trailer available in cinemas and on the Internet establishes the familiar sand of Tatooine/Tunisia and a small, blond boy. A bearded and pigtailed Liam Neeson wields a light-sabre, and Ewan McGregor wears a brown cowl marking him as a member of the same order as Obi-Wan.

Lucas has also released a little of the trademark pre-credits caption, which races away from the viewer at the beginning of each film like a fleeing spaceship: "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away . . . Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute. Hoping to resolve the matter with the blockade of deadly battleships, the greedy Trade Federation has stopped all shipping to the small planet of Naboo . . ."

The few available details have already prompted volumes of analysis in cyberspace, but certain conclusions can be drawn, in line with the theories about the success of Star Wars outlined above. Politically, the film's concern seems to move on from Cold War to economic conflict. But it is in its emotional subtext that this film - which millions of Western children are likely to see twice, taken separately by estranged parents - sounds most intriguing. It seems that the theme of this new trilogy is what made Anakin Skywalker such a bad father, and how this affected young Luke.

A note of caution should, though, be entered with regard to the relationship between cinematic anticipation and satisfaction. The first Star Wars (now the IV) was a film of which nobody expected anything, yet which delivered almost everything. The Phantom Menace is a film from which millions expect almost everything . . .

- Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace opens in Ireland on July 16th, 1999


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