40 years ago today, the single greatest science fiction franchise in American history debuted in theaters. Directed by George Lucas, and starring Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and James Earl Jones among others, the plot focuses on the Rebel Alliance as they struggle desperately to defeat the Galactic Empire by destroying their newly-minted Death Star, a space station and obscene weapon of mass destruction capable of destroying entire planets.
The story opens as Rebel Alliance leader Princess Leia Organa, played by the late Carrie Fischer, is attempting to send a message to an obscure hermit from a bygone era of Jedi Knights that could turn the tide of the war. Her message finds its way to a young man named Luke Skywalker by way of a precocious droid named R2D2 and his snobby protocol droid companion C3PO. Young Luke is a farmhand on a moisture farm owned by his aunt and uncle but longs for something more, like most young people in humble circumstances.
After discovering a holographic message addressed to Obiwan Kenobi, he takes it upon himself to bring the droids to Obi-Wan, who he refers to as Ben. It is then that Luke learns of the Jedi Knights and their fate, but also of his father, Anakin. Ben tells Luke of his father’s heroic exploits when he fought alongside him but that he was killed by Darth Vader. It is the first time that he wields his father’s weapon, a lightsaber.
Initially, Luke declines Obiwan’s offer to join him in traveling to the planet Alderaan to deliver the schematics to Leia’s father Prestor Organa, who is revealed to be her adopted father in later installments of the franchise, but changes his mind when he discovers that Imperial stormtroopers have killed his aunt and uncle in a clumsy, desperate search to find the droids. The group travels to a transportation hub where they locate interplanetary transport. It is there where they find the swashbuckling hustler, smuggler and pirate Han Solo, played by Harrison Ford, and his furry first mate Chewbacca.
Not soon after their introduction, we’re introduced to the Millennium Falcon, one of the most iconic spaceships in all of sci-fi for 40 years and counting.There were many elements that inspired this expansive, diverse and complicated universe in the mind of Lucas. Westerns, samurai sagas, Flash Gordon comics and old footage of World War II dogfighting sequences were but a smidge of the many elements that went into crafting this universe.
I saw this film as a 4-year-old at a theater in Queens, New York along with my godfather. The movie made such an impression on me beyond what I was able to comprehend at such a tender age. Beyond the then cutting edge special effects, the beautifully cosmic scenery, the epic dogfights and dramatic confrontations between good and evil, Star Wars, since renamed to Star Wars: A New Hope, sparked the imagination of little girls and boys alike. Because of the epic space battles between Tie Fighters and X-Wing fighters, I wanted to be a fighter pilot until I was about nine years old when I realized real fighter pilots die and stay dead.
For boys, it was a catalyst for adventure, an awakening of confidence and finding one’s true self. Also, it must be stated that the character of Princess Leia showed a different kind of princess than had been available in mainstream media at the time. One that was tough, intelligent, resilient and generally didn’t take any crap from anyone.
Star Wars would go on to win six Academy Awards at the 50th Academy Awards: Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Sound and Best Visual Effects. The music and score are among the most timeless of any American cinematic offering, earning John Williams’ soundtrack album the Grammy Award for Best Album of Original Score for a Motion Picture or Television Program.
The original Stars Wars trilogy which included The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, was intended to be one film. However, Lucas expanded it to the trilogy that has since been expanded to eight films, the latter of which no longer fall under his creative umbrella.
But the legacy of the original Star Wars continues as parents pass on lessons learned in movie theaters and on Betamax cassettes to their children and grandchildren. Besides the current Disney connection and the obvious saturation of Star Wars cartoons and toys, Star Wars endures because its scope was so enormous, the characters started out rather cardboard but eventually grew, changed and learned about themselves.
We should all be so lucky.