This month marks the 40th anniversary of George Lucas’ STAR WARS. Reel Speak will celebrate this landmark film, often regarded as one of the greatest of all time, with a three-part blog. The first part explored The First Steps (HERE). This second part looks at the immediate impact in 1977 as an Empire Awakens.
It was May of 1977. Headlines during this time were dominated by news events such as an escalating Cold War between Cambodia and Vietnam, a Boeing cargo-plane crash which killed six, and the opening of the very first Chuck E. Cheese Pizza Time Theatre in San Jose, California. But by the time the last week of the month rolled around, these news stories would be shifted from the minds of the world, and it all began in darkened theatres with a very simple introduction:
“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”
From its stunning, attention-getting opening sequence, to its breathtaking opening frame, George Lucas’ new space-fantasy, STAR WARS, literally dropped unsuspecting audiences into the thick of a galactic battle in which freedom fighters rebelled against tyranny. Imaginations were captured, hearts were touched, and the lives of theatre goers and filmmakers would forever be altered.
The film’s commitment to classic storytelling and archetypes lent something familiar to the fantasy world populated by laser guns, starships, droids, mystical knights, and space pirates, and there was nothing in this fantasy-land which would be a hard sell. For the film-world, STAR WARS offered an unabashed sense of fun and adventure, which was warmly welcomed after nearly a decade of dour, nihilistic films such as THE GODFATHER, TAXI DRIVER, and THE FRENCH CONNECTION. George Lucas let his good guys win with a bell-ringing, arm-raising victory…complete with a medal ceremony and triumphant horns. Audiences left the theatre feeling like they could touch the stars.
The world responded. STAR WARS would be the top-grosser of the year on its way to be the top box office earner of all time, surpassing Steven Spielberg’s JAWS (1975), and would remain at the top until 1982 when Spielberg returned with E.T. the EXTRA-TERRESTIAL. It was the best-reviewed film of the year, and at the 50th Academy Awards, STAR WARS would sweep the technical categories by winning 6 of its 10 nominations and a Special Achievement for Sound Effects Editing.
Virtually overnight, STAR WARS had become a household name. Odd-sounding names and phrases were now on the lips of everyone, and the film’s heavy themes of good vs. evil gave political cartoonists a gold mine of metaphors. Everyone wanted a piece of STAR WARS, and in an age in which the internet and home video did not yet exist, this opened up the door to merchandising. Lucas took a personal interest in this, and personally approved a growing empire of toys, dolls, drinking-mugs, bedsheets, pajamas, storybook records, and toy laser-guns and lightsabers…as a starting point.
With a movie that was heavy on characters and spaceships, the modern action figure industry was immediately born. Although the original line of figures did not appear on shelves until early 1978, the demand was so great that Kenner Products decided to sell “Early Bird Certificate Packages”, which were literally empty boxes with a mail-in certificate/promise to deliver action figures within a few months. The radical idea worked and thousands of empty boxes were sold.
And with that, for the first time ever, a piece of the movie was available to take home. Kids were enthralled with the prospect of playing STAR WARS, and the phrase “let’s play STAR WARS” became a battle-cry for a generation. The film inspired imagination, and every backyard became a planet, every empty refrigerator box a spaceship, and every trash-can a droid. In the theatre, STAR WARS spoke to the youth in all of us, a youth that was suddenly awakened and let loose. In those early months of 1977, STAR WARS and the way it reached into people’s homes defined a generation, and today, as that very generation passes on what they had experienced to the next, renews an empire of imagination.
Next week: Part 2 – Beyond the Dune Sea