Star Wars (1977)
Directed by: George Lucas
Starring: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, Peter Cushing, Alec Guinness, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Peter Mayhew
I often joke that when it comes to awards season, if you’re nominated for the Oscar, you’d be better off not winning than claiming victory. We remember Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), we don’t often talk about Rob Marshall’s Chicago (2002). Raging Bull (1980) is still held as one of Scorsese’s best movies, not many bring up Ordinary People (1980). Brokeback Mountain (2005) is a film that many felt broke barriers. We don’t say the same for Crash (2005). For me, awards season seems to be more about the also-rans than the winners. When I decided to write a review about Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) and it’s losing out to Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977), I took a glimpse at the other nominations for best picture of that year. I’ve never heard anybody ever mention any of them.
We still talk about the 1977 Best Picture winner; even despite the problematic cloud that shrouds its creator. For hardcore Allen fans, Annie Hall may not be their favourite film, but it’s certainly a landmark feature. A moment of maturity, which saw Allen move away from his earlier comedic works and a clear shift into melancholy. It’s also a film which creates such a shift with a vast array of cinematic language.
It’s something we take for granted. Despite all the years of adulation, for every glossy magazine cover, every fawning article, and despite winning six of the technical Academy Awards, the most coveted prize escaped its grasp. Amusingly, I find Kathryn Bigelow’s 2009 Oscar triumph with The Hurt Locker over James Cameron’s Avatar is strangely reminiscent of Star Wars’ predicament. Although the cultural footprint left by the 3D behemoth certainly pales in comparison to Lucas’ opus.
Both these visual spectacles losing out on the big prize to what could be considered more “traditional” prestige pieces remind me why I always lay a curious side eye to the Oscars and award ceremonies in general. The term “best” is already difficult to quantify as it is when we look to our subjective tastes. However, when it comes to such media industry awards, it often feels that the “weighty” are given paramount over the so-called money spinners. This is of course despite these crowd pleasers often being the reason we can even see some of these more self-important films.
Heading back to the film that this article is about, it is still important to understand that Star Wars does things that Annie Hall does not. It transcends generations. Children watched this in the 1970’s, grew up and showed their children. We don’t get that with Allen’s film. Not in the same scope. It’s not that kind of film. A New Hope is broad and universal where Hall is not. Filled with symbolism which is both shallow as well as deep, and able to build a universe that extends past the frame. Both Annie Hall and Star Wars are unique creatures brought together by filmmakers with a singular vision, but the sheer reach of Star Wars is what makes it stand a few inches taller.
It’s difficult to watch certain movies now with the knowledge of A New Hope in your head. Most know that the film itself was heavily influenced by the likes of The Hidden Fortress (1958) and Flash Gordon (1936), but the way Lucas remixed these elements with a blend of dogged vision and helpful accident to create what could be considered as definitive imagery is quite astounding. Lucas didn’t create screen wipe transitions. He wasn’t the first person to consider placing an opening scroll to introduce and inform an audience. I’m sure many looked to Joseph Campbell’s heroes journey before Lucas’ creation, but what makes A New Hope is the balance. A mixture of the old and then new. The alchemy of tried and tested genre storytelling and ILM’s effects mastery created something very special, particularly in terms of scale and scope. The swashbuckling jousts which filled The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) become upgraded to an epic lightsaber battle. It’s easy to giggle at how “crummy” that battle between wise old Obi-Wan Kenobi and malevolent Darth Vader looks now, yet how many final film battles seem built upon what was set up here? Of course, Star Wars became better with such set pieces, but it’s clear that this seems to be where the principles were set. It’s not just that Lucas stood on the shoulder of giants and became one himself with how he upgraded things. It’s that some of the things that were done were so unprecedented he damn near obliterated people’s knowledge of what came before it. The likes of Star Wars must pay at least a little service to popular novelist Edgar Rice Burroughs, but now, thanks to the likes of Star Wars, the likes of Andrew Stanton’s John Carter of Mars (2012), which is based on Burroughs works, looks somewhat derivative from A New Hope.
Of course, the modern mainstream cash gobblers which came after Star Wars suffer greatly from A New Hope’s execution. It’s a longer film than remembered and while it’s plot is simplistic, it is still a film which feels driven by organic character motivations than screenplay mechanics. While it’s true that George Lucas should probably not be let near a screenplay in terms of dialogue, the film’s narrative structure remains solid to this day. Notice that I didn’t bother you with a recapping of the plot? It’s because we all know it so well. We also see it in so many blockbusters of its ilk. We know it so well, that we know when other films take shortcuts that A New Hope did not.
But within this narrative are simple yet engaging concepts. Ideas that people have wholly embraced with amazing vigour. The quasi-religious element of the force. The combative political aspects of the rebellion versus the monolithic empire. We see the Star Wars effect in films such as Serenity (2005) or Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). Books such as Lord of the Rings have been around since the 1930’s, yet we feel obliged to compared and contrast with the Star Wars saga. If you don’t believe me, watch Clerks 2 (2006). Where sci-fi was viewed with a serious social conscious, (see Godzilla or 2001: A Space Odyssey for example) A New Hope altered the scope. With a viewpoint skewed towards kids and swashbuckling adventure, it’s not that these things are new or fresh, it’s that Lucas was able to place these within a framework which connected so appealingly to a mass audience. Something that has now been seized upon by modern film-making in such a way, that it’s difficult to shake off.
Ultimately the then eye-popping effects and vivid otherworldly imagery that flow throughout A New Hope would be nothing without the characters which inhabit the universe. For this writer, part of why Star Wars still works is the charm of its performers. Mark Hamill is more than a tad green as Luke Skywalker but conveys the type of wide-eye innocence that has been nearly lost amid the realms of winking Caribbean Pirates and world-saving superheroes. Ford’s arrogant charisma as Han Solo, is matched with his deep sense of vulnerability. Again, there’s nothing new with the character, but Ford’s performance marks Solo out as a template of roguish scoundrels. The same could be said of the late Carrie Fisher whose performance as Princess Leia stands out, not because she is helpless (although she is in danger), but for her brevity of standing up for what she believes in. It’s important to realise that people weren’t just paying lip service to Fisher when she passed away last year. There’s much in her performance of Leia that has been stripped down to try and fit into other movies. Leia works because of how well rounded Fisher made the character. It almost seems quaint now.
Understand this. Despite my enthusiastic writing of A New Hope, I am not the biggest Star Wars fan and never will be. But other issues come from the stiltedness of Hamill. The flatness of the dialogue and some of the more sluggish pacing of certain sequences. Particularly earlier on. One of my main issues with A New Hope stems from the fact that I did not watch Star Wars when I could be easily indoctrinated. One could say there’s a certain cynicism within this viewer. A New Hope is still very enjoyable if you are not 8 years old. This latest re-watch of the film has certainly proven that. However, if Star Wars is your favourite film, and you start a defense of it with the words “when I was young” There’s a good chance, I may find your argument void. The mighty talons of the franchise stick in deepest when you’re young. They stick in so deep, that any criticism of the film falls on deaf, nostalgic ears and believe me, I do believe there’s criticism to have with such a film.
However, it must be said that I do find Star Wars not winning Best Picture in 1977 is an egregious error on the behalf of the Academy. It is a so-called snub which belies the lack of forward-thinking that the Academy suffers with. It thinks of the past and present, but never the future. And while many looks at Lucas’ creation with a snide side eye and sense of snobbishness, it’s important to realise that it is Star Wars that is still getting mass audiences in the cinema, not Woody Allen. Jaws (1975) effectively created the effects drive blockbuster as we know it, but it was A New Hope which pinpointed where cinema was going in 1977. Famously in an early screening of A New Hope, the then contemporary filmmakers sneered at Lucas’ almost finished piece except for one man; Steven Spielberg. It’s easy to see now in hindsight, but the idea that Spielberg saw something the others could not, is not only telling of the time but a highlighting of what such crowd pleasers are subjected to when it comes to being awarded by their peers. There’s an undermining from an industry perspective. Something I feel is important is we’re looking to label films as “Best” Picture.
We still see elements of cultural ignorance now. Out and out comedies and horror films hardly get a look in when it comes to Awards season. Films such as The Dark Knight (2008) often leave a stronger mark with audiences than the weighty prestige pictures they may have to go up against, and yet there’s a feeling of superiority that is lorded over the popular movie. The heavily socially conscious drama should supposedly be why the ticket buyers go to the movie. I’d love that to be true, but I know for sure that I’m in a minority.
Star Wars has helped brought many ills to the surface of cinema going. Particularly now. From hardcore fandom to the “McDonald-ing” of populist cinema. We are now seemingly more populated with film fans who only deal with absolutes. The same can be said for the save-the-cat film-making which derived from one of A New Hope’s main influences: Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey. The way A New Hope helped usher in the era of franchise capabilities and box office gross over everything is not something I’m particularly happy about.
That said, despite the complaints about bean counting and the arrested development of mass audiences since it’s conception, it’s easy to forget that Star Wars at the start of its conception was the little motion picture that could. What we see now masks the fact that not many could see its potential at the time. By the time The Oscars came around, the consensus had swayed somewhat, with many believing Star Wars would have won the big award. However, it seemed that the award went to the more accomplished artist over what Lucas’ film had achieved.
While arguments of subjectivity must be debated, it must be said that the way A New Hope got people into the cinema should account for something. Maybe my views on Star Wars winning the Oscar is based far too much on outside elements and not so much the films themselves. However, when it comes to The Oscars, I am of the belief that such awards are never truly about the films themselves anyway. Not in the way we would like to consider them to be. Star Wars: A New Hope missing out on Best Picture can be considered a snub in some ways (by the way it’s subjective voting, so it’s not really a snub), but the way the film is remembered and embraced now, in the same way as Raging Bull, Brokeback Mountain and the like are remembered more fondly than the eventual winners is perhaps far more important than a glitzy gold statue. With all this said and done you’ve just finished reading a piece about a reviewer who would have voted Eraserhead that year anyway if he had the chance. Such is life.