I recently rewatched Star Wars (the original movie, later — wrongly — called Episode IV: A New Hope). I’ve seen SW many, many times, but I hadn’t watched it again since the 2004 DVD release of the special edition. I really wanted to rewatch the original theatrical release, but I don’t have Harmy’s Despecialized Edition or the 2006 GOUT DVD. So, I had to suffer through the special edition hijinks while trying to recapture the original feeling of watching the movie new in 1977.
Here are some thoughts following the viewing. Most of this is all bleedingly obvious and some of it has been remarked upon by others, but I’ll put it here for what little help it might give to someone new to all this.
— The Special Edition cartoonizes the movie. It was certainly a far-out film way back then, with the cantina scene and beep-booping droids, but it had a reality, a solidity to it that is robbed by the SE additions.
See, part of the unique tone of SW in its original release was that here was a science-fiction movie shot with a documentarian’s sensibilities. The movie has a nuts-and-bolts materiality to it that we hadn’t seen in space fantasy movies before (sure, in hard sci-fi like 2001 and Silent Running, but not space opera). Lucas began his career with documentary shorts, and American Graffiti took that sensibility into a fictional recreation of his hot-rodding youth. His use of this style in SW is still, IMHO, underappreciated for its unique affect. It wasn’t just the detailed starship miniatures and grimy droids; it was also his camera’s eye: a documentarian’s eye.
The original release is real. The Special Edition is hyper-real. This ruins the effect.
— The movie was so damn exotic the first time around, with that sense of wonder that is special to fables of visits to far lands. It really puts us on Tatooine and shows us things we’ve never seen before. It seems so mundane now, but the first shot of the Jawa Sandcrawler is such a perfect, thrilling glimpse at a strange, rolling castle on a distance planet, reminding us viscerally that we’re someplace else. This effect is achieved because it is treated so mundanely. Again, it’s like a documentary.
— SW is very much the product of America’s first generation of film students. I don’t think it could have been conceived, much less made, by anyone who hadn’t grown up studying film the way Lucas and Spielberg did, with help from USC’s new film school.
The movie is a melange of tropes and film techniques from different genres thrown together under the umbrella of a space-fantasy setting. The A and B plots illustrate this:
The A plot — Luke Skywalker’s saga — is The Sword in the Stone. It’s a King Arthur tale of a noble boy raised by peasants who discovers his knightly, mystical destiny, mentored by a wizard. It’s his journey to inherit his father’s title, that of Jedi Knight.
The B plot — Han and Leia’s meeting — is Casablanca by way of screwball comedy. It’s the tale of a scoundrel with a heart of gold (like Bogart) who must realize that there really is something — someone — worth fighting for. But all this is disguised by the screwball comedy dialogue. Underneath the facade of Grant/Hepburn, Solo and Leia are much more Bogey/Bacall (as is made much clearer in Empire). Even if we never got Empire to elaborate on all this for us, it’s quite clear in the movie itself. All the fan speculation about a love triangle between Luke-Leia-Han missed that there were two stories here, and Luke’s could never really be part of the romance story. While there is an element of Robin Hood rescuing Maid Marion from the Sith of Nottingham, it’s there as part of Luke’s journey to knighthood. Knights in shining armor rescue princesses and maidens, but that’s just a McGuffin for action; actual romance would get in the way and make it all a different story.
There’s a C plot of sorts, too, which is C3PO and R2D2’s comedic road trip, a nod to Laurel and Hardy and Abbot and Costello by way of Kurosawa’s peasants in The Hidden Fortress.
All these plots are all presented without meta or ironic sensibility — they’re earnest homages. It’s all played straight. There’s not even a wink to the audience to let them know that the filmmaker knows that it’s pastiche. This is part of the movie’s charm.
— The Force is a hodgepodge of 1970s California spirituality. Part Castaneda, part Esalen (with its Joseph Campbell connection), part EST, and part Alan-Watts zen. (It all feels rather zen and Japanese in Star Wars, but becomes more Taoist with Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back.) And, of course, California surfer philosophy: go with the flow, trust your feelings. Although the Jedi have a samurai aesthetic (Obi-Wan’s name, his robes, Kendo-style lightsaber duels), they are more Camelot than Kyoto.
— I also want to throw in some thoughts on The Empire Strikes Back, and how it deepens the first film’s plots by changing their register.
Luke’s A plot becomes a kung-fu movie initiation that then deepens into a Gothic/Oedipal drama, with the weight of a dark family heritage now bearing down upon Luke. It still continues the Arthurian tale begun in the first film, but reverses a key element of the saga. In the original tales, the king’s son — Mordred — is the bad seed who destroys Camelot. Now, in Empire, the father — Vader — is the dark one who already destroyed Camelot (the Old Republic) and it’s his son who must restore the Waste Land galaxy. By Return of the Jedi, Luke becomes a Perceval/Galahad, whose grail quest must heal the wounded dark king/father.
Leia and Han’s B plot moves from screwball comedy back to Casablanca. This time, however, Rick/Han is caught by the Nazis/Empire, because his friend Louis/Lando changed sides too late.