This one is for my Dad, Mr. Powhatan Collins, because if it were not for him, this experience would never have happened.
Written and Directed by George Lucas
May 25, 1977 is a date that will forever remain firmly etched into my memory because that was one day, in particular, where my life was completely and irrevocably altered.
Dear readers, May 25th will mark the 36th anniversary of the theatrical release of George Lucas' "Star Wars," and I still marvel at the fact that on Day One, I was there! Throughout my life I have often wondered what it would have been like to hear certain landmark pieces of music at the very point in time when those works were released to the world. I have felt the same over treasured books and of course, feature films. In the case of "Star Wars," I feel so fortunate and blessed that here was a film where I could experience it for the very first time with the rest of the world. If any kids today wanted to ask me about what that experience was like, here was indeed something where I would have a story to tell. And for now, on Savage Cinema, I am so, so happy to share that story with all of you.
For the purposes of this installment of Savage Cinema's Favorite Movies, I am actually not going to explore "Star Wars" through the eyes of an adult and one who has been seasoned on movies ever since that night in 1977 (at least I will try). I really do not think that more can be said on an analytical, overly intellectual, film criticism styled level about the story of which we all know so very well. The tale, set a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away about a farmboy's adventures with a wizard, a mercenary, two robots and a giant, furry creature akin to a large dog or big bear to rescue a princess from the clutches of ultimate evil and to advance himself towards fulfilling his life's destiny has enraptured generations of viewers and dreamers like myself on a level that is nothing less than primal and a full expression of child like wonderment. And it is on that level with which I will attempt to celebrate this film. The exact level at which George Lucas has pitched his entire saga. I need to tap back into my eight year old self and recall that night as vividly as I am able to remember and represent to you. I will not go into the subsequent five films or pose viewpoints on the upcoming "Episode VII" in 2015. For now, this entry is all about how on this date, at that time in my life, I saw the movie that made me immediately fall so hopelessly and passionately in love with the art and artistry of the movies. "Star Wars" is unquestionably the movie that drew the line in the sand in my life. Before "Star Wars," I was decidedly unaware and unemotionally indifferent to the movies. After "Star Wars," I wanted to see them ALL!
As a child, I carried a deep love for comic books, superheroes, the genre of science fiction as well as a constant curiosity about what possibly existed beyond Earth. I was fascinated with constellations, rockets, the seemingly inconceivable concept of anti-gravity, the idea of the existence or non-existence of aliens and the like, a love that was fulfilled tremendously by my consistent viewings of "Star Trek" re-runs on television. I had seen commercials advertising the release of "Star Wars" on television but those sightings were so rare, that they never left a lasting impression (other than wondering if the feathered haired blonde fellow in the ads was Shaun Cassidy). But, for some reason, of which I will never know, those advertisements made an impression upon my Dad and on opening night, he took me and my other to the movies to take in a screening of this new science fiction fantasy film.
I must remind you, especially those of you who may be too young to have known a world like the one I am about to describe, the release of "Star Wars" occurred during a time period where multiplexes essentially did not exist. I saw "Star Wars" for the very first time in Calumet City, IL at the River Oaks Theater, an establishment that housed only two screens, one slightly smaller theater and then, the main theater which presented movies in glorious 70 millimeter film and in Dolby Sound. When my family arrived at the theater, I immediately took notice of the long, long, long line of people who stood outside of the ticket booth, wrapped itself entirely around the theater and stretched into the parking lot. My Dad parked the car, announced that he was going to try and get tickets and that my mom and I should just wait in the car until he returned.
And man, did we wait...
What I do not remember for certain is exactly how long my Mom and I waited for my Dad in the car but what I do vividly remember is that the time was so very long that I began to worry about my Dad's safety and therefore potential return as he had been gone for such an exhaustive period of time. I remember uttering out loud if Dad was OK to which my Mom reassured me and to just remain patient. When my Dad, at long last, did return, he informed us that the showing that he had planned for us to see had been sold out but he was fortunate enough to have purchased tickets for the following showing. My Mom and I exited the car and off we went to go inside the theater.
What I next remember, other than being dazzled by the sight of the sheer massive amount of people waiting outside of the River Oaks theater, was the cacophony of sight and sound that was inside the theater lobby. I believe that we waited for the better part of another hour or so before we were even permitted to enter the actual movie theater. So, I spent my time inside the theater lobby people watching, taking in the delectable scent of popcorn and investigating the one sheet movie posters and the film still photo shots from "Star Wars" that decorated the lobby. All the while more and more people entered the lobby and while I had been to a few movies before this night, I had never seen anything remotely like what I was viewing, which did give my naturally cautious nature a sense of pause as to what exactly was I going to be in for once we actually got to watch the film.
At long last, for the second time, the theater doors opened and viewers flooded outwards into the lobby and outdoors into the open air, releasing a sound that was enormous. My parents took my hand and soon, we were permitted to enter the actual movie theater. At this point my memory is hazy as to how much longer we waited and how much longer I people watched and gazed around the movie theater decor. But once the house lights went down, and the 20th Century Fox fanfare blared through the sound system, I settled myself in for what was to come next...
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...
I cannot express to you enough how the experience of seeing "Star Wars" for the very first time was one of intense spiritual connection where every moment was supremely instantaneous. Seeing those italicized words connected with me as easily as "Once upon a time," the tone of which eased my cautious nature. And once the iconic title card (pictured above) blasted onto the movie screen, to the accompaniment of John Williams' equally iconic theme, all of my senses sparked to attention. Then, there was the scroll, the written prologue which set the stage for everything we were about to see for the next two hours and my connection to the film was immediately so familiar that I think I had already forgotten that I was in a movie theater, and therefore, I had forgotten about movie theater etiquette.
As I have already stated, I was a devotee to the science fiction genre and I had seen several "Flash Gordon" and "Buck Rogers" black and white serial features as they had been broadcast on the WGN television channel. My Dad had fascinated me with tales of how he had seen those features as a child and we both chuckled at the completely archaic special effects. But my first major connection in viewing those words that scrolled upwards on the screen and faded into the furthest reaches of space, was that the exact same technique was used in those ancient serial films. From the very start, "Star Wars" was something that did not need to be explained to me. It communicated with me in a language I completely understood. And so, being eight years old, I wanted to communicate back to the movie, by reading the scroll aloud! My Dad politely tapped me and shushed me, bringing me back to reality for a minute and I ensured myself that my mouth was to remain silent.
When the massive Imperial Star Destroyer completely filled the movie theater screen, my mouth completely dropped open and I really think it remained agape to varying degrees for the remainder of the movie. All of the images, from the shoot outs, the spacecrafts, to Darth Vader's (played by David Prowse and voiced by the peerless James Earl Jones) nearly Satanic entrance through a cloud of smoke, to the effete and distinguished comic banter between the droids C3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2D2 (Kenny Baker), and the beauteous vision that was the brave, bold and soon to be captured and imprisoned Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), every image arrived with amazing velocity and all of them made complete sense, even when I had never seen (or heard--as the case may be with those unequaled sound effects) anything like this before.
The arrival of our hero Luke Skywalker (so endearingly and perfectly portrayed by Mark Hamill) made my entry inside this fantastical world complete. While he obviously was older than myself, Luke Skywalker was indeed the eternal child, the dreamer, the lonely and essentially friendless boy filled with a wide eyed wonderment and a level of melancholy that it also inherently understood by children. When he gazes longingly at Tattooine's twin setting suns, aching to one day be able to leave his desert planet to explore the vast universe, he spoke for every child and child at heart watching, without ever saying one word. In a film filled with astounding images from one end to the other, this moment and introduction was easily the most poetic.
As I continue, I have to express that I simply cannot stress the quality of instantaneous comprehension I had with the film that night. With "Star Wars," I (almost) never had to find my bearings. George Lucas presented everything with a matter of fact quality that did not have any traces of cynicism and fueled solely through a complete innocence making "Star Wars" a film which I was able to digest at entirely at face value. The film was as easily understood as every fairy tale that I had been told. And even when the sights did confuse or even frighten me, from time to time, the audience reaction of the adults assisted my navigation greatly.
I remember how I trusted and loved Obi-Wan "Ben" Kenobi (the great Alec Guinness) at first sight, and how his description of The Force mystified me.
I remember feeling the...ahem...force of sound in the pit of my stomach when Luke first ignited his father's lightsaber, still the greatest sword I have ever seen in the movies.
I remember feeling as if I had fallen through the looking glass or through a wormhole when presented with the iconic Cantina sequence, as the menagerie of saloon dwellers, plus that bizarre Benny Goodman styled lounge electronica was the most surreal sight I had experienced at that point. I remember being attracted to and simultaneously wary of the coolness contained in the interstellar space cowboy Han Solo (Harrison Ford, who just owned every scene that he was in). I remember being initially scared of Solo's trusty sidekick Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), due to his size and sounds and it wasn't until considerably later in the film where I felt at ease with him (just as I felt with large dogs in real life). The bar fights, the shooting of the bounty hunter Greedo, the ominous mention of gangster Jabba The Hutt, and the surprisingly detached nature of the bar patrons, which elicited much laughter from the audience, made the entire sequence reveal itself to me as being an otherworldy version of a western. And to cap it all off, the film reached its first crescendo during our heroes' escape from Tattooine inside of the great starship, the Millenium Falcon, a section that which culminated with the eye popping jump to light speed, an image so propulsive that I felt as if I was being propelled along with them.
I remember the intense fear I felt every time Darth Vader made an appearance with his horrific breathing, his ability to nearly kill a man via Force induced choking ("I find your lack of faith disturbing...") and accompanied by the sound of those TIE Fighter howls (they really sounded like wolves to me) in the distance.
The midsection of "Star Wars," with our heroes' journey into the proverbial belly of the beast, in this case, The Death Star, felt like a combination of the march into the Wicked Witch of the West's castle in "The Wizard Of Oz" (1939), the descent into the whale's mouth in "Pinnochio" (1940) and most certainly, Jack's repeated and increasingly perilous visitations into the giant's realm in Jack and the Beanstalk all rolled into one. It was an incredibly entertaining, thrilling and terrifying rescue mission and escape, that kept me continuously and literally on the edge of my seat. My favorite pieces during this part of the film by far, was the initial rescue of Princess Leia and the diamond shaped hallway shootout with the Stormtroopers which led to the trash compactor section where I remember feeling sweaty and breathing rapidly as I felt that our heroes were faced with certain doom. Irony was completely lost on me at that age, of course. So when Han Solo quipped "One thing's for sure! We're gonna be a whole lot thinner!" as the trash compactor walls slowly converged inwards, threatening to smash the good guys into oblivion, I was beside myself with terror and I could not understand how or why the grown ups in the audience laughed so hard at that moment. I mean--could they not see that our heroes were about to perish at any minute?!
Thankfully all was not lost for Luke, Leia, Han and Chewbacca as Lucas then pulled out all the stops with one exuberantly staged action sequence after another, including Luke and Leia's triumphant swing over the huge chasm and culminating with the intensely euphoric light saber duel between Darth Vader and Obi-Wan ("Obi-Wan, when I left you, I was but the learner. Now I am THE MASTER!"). The duel made me soar and then Lucas mercilessly pulled the rug out from under me with Obi-Wan's demise, an act that plummeted my spirit. And even then, George Lucas was not finished with me...
If you allow me to return to my forty four year old self for a moment, I just have to say that I firmly believe that the TIE Fighter dogfight sequence during which Luke and Han take to the Millenium Falcon's gun turrets for battle is truly one of the most exquisetly transcendent action sequences that I have ever seen in any film during my life time--perhaps with the truck chase from Lucas and Steven Spielberg's "Raiders Of The Lost Ark" (1981) as its equal. It is an absolute masterpiece of conception, staging, execution, movement, speed, intensity, humor, excitement, special effects, editing, film scoring and glorious elation. Every element is perfectly in place and without any one piece, no matter how seemingly insignificant, the entire sequence would not be what it is--a work of art in the tallest order, in my opinion. It is just so beautiful that I am nearly tearing up as I think about how it thrills me so to this very day and just how blessed I feel to have seen it for the first time when it first entered the world.
By the time of the Rebels made their X and Y Wing Fighter driven raid on The Death Star for the film's climax, I think that I had ceased trying to comprehend anything and "Star Wars" eventually became for me what the late and eternally great Roger Ebert once described as an "out of body experience." George Lucas just kept it all coming as even the film's closing ceremony and coronation made me catch my breath as the cast appeared to be breaking the fourth wall by looking straight into the audience for their curtain call.
Dear readers, I was not just watching this movie. I was no longer sitting in a movie theater seat. I was flying right alongside Luke Skywalker, feeling The Force, so breathlessly so. I was inside of this movie. Living it. Breathing it. What I was watching was no longer a movie. It was an experience! And to this day, when I see movies and evaluate them for myself and for your reading pleasure, especially when I make my Year End Savage Scorecards, I always return to this night and remember that "out of body feeling." If I can recapture that feeling when viewing a film, regardless of genre, then I always know which films are my favorites of the cinematic year and that feeling has never once failed me. For "Star Wars," George Lucas was the ultimate magician as he weaved and held me in his spell for two full hours and once the end credits appeared, he released me.
Walking out of the theater, my family and I said not one word to each other. Through the lobby, past another seemingly endless theater box office queue and out into the night we walked back to our car in complete silence. And then, my Dad stopped, touched my shoulder, leaned down and said to me, as he smiled:
"May the Force be with you."
It was then, I realized that I not only had the power of speech, I realized that I could actually utilize it again. I then answered my Dad with the only word I could say that perfectly expressed how I felt after witnessing this life altering event:
Which was then followed by, "Can we see it again??????????????" Incidentally, the best words one can say after seeing any movie!
Today was the day. The day that ignited a life long passion and gave me my introduction into an artistic language that embraced me as much as I embraced it. And for that, I only have my Dad to thank. There was something in the air he tapped into that I did not and because of his decision, I am sitting here at this very moment writing to all of you about it. And to that, I can only say, and with the deepest emotion that I can muster...
Dad, May The Force Be With You...always!