In many ways, Hollywood and the movie business as we now know it were created in the summer of 1977 with the extraordinary success of an unheralded movie by a director named George Lucas, titled simply Star Wars. It was a Flash Gordonesque space opera, with ray guns and robots, the kind of “B-movie” item studios used to churn out for children at very little expense—but it was done with “A-movie” production values and an astounding level of technical innovation. The cast was stocked with unknowns (no-names such as Harrison Ford), with the exception of horror-film veteran Peter Cushing and the even bigger exception of Alec Guinness, one of the greatest film actors of all time. Audiences, especially young audiences, were amazed as spectacular scene after spectacular scene flew by at a blazing clip. These audiences would sit through a showing, walk out, and line up outside to watch it again. That summer, many new fans paid to see Star Wars on the big screen ten, fifteen, even twenty times.
Soon, the characters in the film, such as Luke Skywalker, R2-D2, and especially Darth Vader, began to pop up in everyday conversation and in jokes on late-night talk shows. The appearance of a sequel in 1980, The Empire Strikes Back, helped to keep the craze alive with its revelation of Luke’s parentage and its even better effects. By the time the final film of the trilogy, Return of the Jedi, was ready in 1983, it was one of the most eagerly anticipated films of all time. The Star Wars trilogy shattered box office records, beginning the trend of box office grosses being reported in the paper like baseball scores. Many of the features of the Star Wars phenomenon that seemed so novel, such as the eye-popping, special-effects-driven visuals; the epic scale of the sci-fi plot; the abundance of nonhuman characters; and even the massive merchandizing tie-ins (toys, clothes, fast food, etc.), now seem simply a standard part of how movies are made. At the time, though, the “summer blockbuster” was new, not the essential part of the Hollywood economy it was to become.
In the early part of the 1970s, the most acclaimed American film directors included Robert Altman, Peter Bogdanovich, Woody Allen, and the young Martin Scorsese, each of whom worked largely outside the big studio system and, for the most part, outside of California altogether. Many observers felt that big studios such as Paramount, MGM, and 20th Century Fox had become dinosaurs, headed for extinction. Then, beginning in the mid-1970s, a young trio of directors appeared on the scene: Francis Ford Coppola, Stephen Spielberg, and George Lucas. They were all friends, all native Californians, and all perfectly comfortable working within the traditional studio system (and within the generic boundaries preferred by the studios). The three friends bounced ideas off of one another and helped to edit one another’s films, and each was spectacularly successful at an early age. Coppola scored with The Godfather (1972); Spielberg with Jaws (1975), the first of the summer blockbusters; and Lucas with American Graffiti (1973), a nearly plot-free evocation of southern Californian hotrod culture in the 1950s.
For his follow-up to American Graffiti, Lucas decided to go in a completely different direction: science fiction (though his love of souped-up vehicles is evident in all the Star Wars films). Lucas decided to make the kind of science fiction adventure he had always wanted to see as a kid, with the fast pace and slam-bang rhythm of the old, cheesy B-movies, but done with style, class, and a lot more money. Much of Lucas’s energy on the first film went into the production design, creature design, and special effects. Lucas has always claimed to have had the overall plot of the Star Wars films mapped out far in advance, but there is reason to believe he mostly had a general direction in mind and improvised the specifics of the world he was creating as needed. The actors themselves enjoyed making the films, but they complained about the often stilted dialogue they had to deliver. Harrison Ford famously quipped, as he was looking over his lines, “You can type this shit, George, but you can’t say it!” Alec Guinness professed to be mystified by most of what was going on in the movie. In the end, however, many of the lines the actors complained about (such as “May the Force be with you!”) became lodged in our collective cinematic memory, and the films have a permanent place in pop culture mythology.
The films as we know them today are different from how they were originally screened. As special effects continued to improve during the 1980s and 1990s, the older Star Wars films, once the gold standard for visual and sound effects, began to show their age. Beginning in the late 1990s, Lucas went back and redid many of the original effects, bringing them up to date with the innovations in CGI and digital technology. He and his team reedited many of the space scenes, repainted backgrounds, and edited in more background animations and creatures. In a few cases, Lucas added in a scene that had previously been cut, such as the reunion between Biggs and Luke in A New Hope, and the encounter between Jabba and Han earlier in the same film. One of the more interesting changes Lucas made involves the scene in A New Hope in which Han is cornered by Greedo in the Mos Eisley cantina. In the original scene, Han blasts Greedo from under the table with no warning. In the scene as it exists now, Greedo fires first, missing Han’s head at point-blank range. Presumably, Lucas did this to soften Solo’s early edginess.
Another inescapable fact about this trilogy is that the Star Wars universe has expanded far beyond the original movies. Lucas has licensed any number of novels, comics, and novel series, which have fleshed out the background of most of the characters, even minor ones such as Wedge the X-Wing pilot. Curious about how Han and Chewie met? Or about Lando’s early career? Or about Han and Leia’s children? The answers are to be found in the so-called expanded universe of novels and comics. And, of course, Lucas has made a new Star Wars trilogy, dealing with Obi-Wan and Anakin and the birth of Darth Vader. The release of this new trilogy led Lucas to retitle the original films—as Episodes IV–VI—to make the sequence of the plotline clearer for first-time viewers.