The original Star Wars films remain some of the most popular movies ever made, having achieved a level of recognition in American and worldwide culture rivaled only by such classics as The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Gone With the Wind (1939). Indeed, the similarities between these two particular films and the Star Wars trilogy go beyond simple popularity. The Wizard of Oz was the special-effects masterpiece of its era, showing new ways to bring fantastic vistas to the screen. Gone With the Wind was the original blockbuster production, famously over-the-top in its design, scale, and sheer visual sweep. It was, in fact, the box office record holder until the original Star Wars dethroned it. In a way, the Star Wars films were throwbacks to this earlier era of resplendent production values, epic scope, and the pursuit of sheer entertainment.
After the late 1960s and early 1970s, a period during which the studio system that had made Hollywood into the entertainment capital of the world was in steep decline, George Lucas, along with his friends Francis Ford Coppola and Stephen Spielberg, gave the old studios a new reason for being. No independent production, no matter how dedicated, could produce the kind of effects-laden, flashy, bright, exciting, and simply spectacular creation that Lucas, and Spielberg especially, wanted to create. After Star Wars came Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and the Lucas-Spielberg co-production Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), starring Harrison Ford, both effects-heavy spectaculars that became international megahits. The race was on: every summer brought the studios’ latest attempts to manufacture some of the blockbuster magic—that quality that makes people pay to see a movie again and again—conjured up by Star Wars back in 1977.
Another remarkable aspect of the Star Wars phenomenon that continues to influence the movie business today is the aggressiveness and pervasiveness with which the films were marketed. Today it is commonplace for every summer film to have its merchandising tie-ins, such as cups emblazoned with a film’s characters, for sale in store and fast-food chains. Such marketing schemes had been around before Star Wars, such as with the Beatles craze and the 1960s Batman television show, but Star Wars turned such tie-ins into a major aspect of a blockbuster film’s profitability. The Star Wars line of toys, especially, remained popular even in the three years that separated each of the episodes of the trilogy, a highly unusual circumstance. Even today, original Star Wars toys sell at a premium among collectors. Anyone who was a child in America in the years between 1977 and 1983 can tell you, for example, that the snow monster that attacks Luke on Hoth is called a “wampa” and that the giant lizards the Imperial troopers ride on Tatooine are “dewbacks,” even though these terms are never used in the films and don’t even appear in the credits—all thanks to the toys and the omnipresent marketing of these films.
Many other examples of the penetration of the Star Wars world into our culture spring to mind. When President Ronald Reagan proposed a space-based missile defense program in the 1980s, it was officially called the Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI—but the program was universally known, to friend and foe alike, as the “Star Wars” program. Reagan also made a famous speech at the height of the cold war in which he identified the Soviet Union as “an Evil Empire,” and even if he wasn’t thinking of Darth Vader and stormtroopers at the time, everybody else was. “Darth Vader” became an instant synonym for an evil boss or high school principal. Many of Yoda’s catchphrases (“Do or do not; there is no try”) remain easy laugh-lines after all these years.
With cultural phenomena come cultural myths. The famous line “Luke, I am your father” does not actually exist—the actual line is “No, I am your father,” and is perhaps the most misheard movie line since the nonexistent “Play it again, Sam” from Casablanca (1942).