It’s a funny thing, writing something to celebrate the anniversary of such a beloved film. You sit down to collect your thoughts on it, but all that you can come up with are the same complementary things that have been said about it every day since it was released, those things only morphing and changing as the world morphs and changes around the film itself. This always makes writing for an anniversary of a beloved film a difficult task, because how do you contribute something new when it feels like everything has already been said? This is how I felt writing about ‘Jaws’ and ‘Rocky’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’, but writing about ‘Star Wars’... it’s a task that might be impossible. What else can possibly be said about arguably the most popular film of all time?
I could talk about its technical achievements, but Lucasfilm have released countless books on the subject, and endless podcasts and YouTube vloggers have been more articulate about that than I’ll ever be. I could talk about its cultural impact, its timing in coming out during the Vietnam War and after the Watergate Scandal, but pop-philosophers and historians have well and truly beat me to that. Or I could talk about how it fits into the traditional classic mythical hero structure and pretend that I’ve read Joseph Campbell, but that would be disingenuous. Type ‘Star Wars’ into Google and you’ll get 40 years of material on all these subjects and more. In the end though, it all seems far too clinical and analytical for a film that defies all these things. The original ‘Star Wars’ is personal, like ‘The Wizard of Oz’ or ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’. And perhaps the only way to write anything about it is to do that - be personal.
The first I heard of ‘Star Wars’ was from my mum. I would have been about eight or nine, and she told me stories of going to the drive-in in 1977, and seeing the film for the first time. She talked about it in a way I’d never heard anyone talk about a film before. Her eyes lit up, her voice tingled with excitement, and while she didn’t tell me what it was actually about, I knew that whatever this thing was, it had been a very special experience for her. My own journey with ‘Star Wars’ though was far less romantic - in fact, I screwed the whole thing up. I was a snob of a child, so when I went to the video store to hire the film for the first time, I actually got ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ instead, purely on the basis that its cover wasn't as beaten up. Needless to say, I was confused as hell by the whole thing, but something clicked. This wasn’t like anything I’d seen before, and while I didn’t understand who Luke or Leia or Darth Vader were yet, I knew I wanted to know more about them. My return to the video store fixed the mistake, and from a very worn VHS tape from the 80s, I saw for the first time what it was that had dazzled my mum all those years ago.
A lot of film writers and commentators will say this week that it’s so strange to think of ‘Star Wars’ as being 40 years old, that it still feels fresh and exciting, but as facetious as this sounds, they’re absolutely right. The reason it is a touchstone in the history of cinema isn’t because of its pop culture standing but because both objectively and subjectively, it’s just a damn great film. Everything about it is rough-and-tumble (no matter how much George Lucas tried to spruce it up), and it seems to do the opposite of everything it’s supposed to do - in fact, apart from its score and its editing, you could poke holes in practically every aspect of the film. But despite all this, despite its clunky dialogue and its hammy performances, something indescribable and indefinable happens when you watch that film. Luke Skywalker might be an occasionally irritating protagonist, but it’s basically impossible not to be behind him. You could go so far as to say that it’s the cheesiness and clunkiness of much of ‘Star Wars’ that makes it feel so immediate and exciting. We feel like we’re flying by the seat of our pants because the film itself is, finding every way to wring as much action, suspense and excitement out of everything it’s got.
My love for ‘Star Wars’ came swift and hard as a kid. I found a very old newspaper from the 80s at my grandparents' house that had an advertisement in it for a double bill of ‘Star Wars’ and ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, which I framed and still have to this day. I have a Star Wars lunchbox filled with random rubbish, from toys to chip packets. I even collected the Tazos when the Special Editions came out. My great love though was always the films, and while I think ‘Empire’ is the best, my favourite is always the original. I can’t actually imagine a time without it, and wouldn’t want to. Even as a grown man, I still love every frame of the thing, every tiny incongruous detail. It pops up in everyday life in tiny references barely anyone gets (making noises like the Jawa’s when they’re selling the droids to Uncle Ben, hiding lines and images in most of the theatre I make, imitating the bizarre way Aunt Beru calls out "Luke, Luuuuuke!"). It feels wrong to break down the brilliance of ‘Star Wars’ because you never think about it as a piece of technical filmmaking while you’re watching it. You’re thinking about how you lean forward in your seat when the Millennium Falcon is being chased by the TIE-Fighters, or cheer when Princess Leia grabs the gun and yells, "Somebody’s gotta save our skins!", or hold your breath as Luke shoots for that thermal exhaust port, no matter how many times you see it.
We feel like we’re flying by the seat of our pants because the film itself is, finding every way to wring as much action, suspense and excitement out of everything it’s got.
And then there’s the score, John Williams’ magnum opus, a composition as important to classical music in the last century as ‘The Rite of Spring’ or ‘Einstein on the Beach’. If any one part of ‘Star Wars’ has meant to most to me, it would be its music. Even divorced of the thrilling images it was meant to accompany, it still send shivers up my spine and brings tears to my eyes. Listening to Williams’ score is like listening to the universe itself in all its bombastic ecstasy, a wordless opera of Wagnerian proportion and imagination. That music is as engrained into our souls as the film it was written for. The day we lost Carrie Fisher, I pulled out my vinyl copy of the soundtrack and played ‘Princess Leia’s Theme’, and while I listened, I marvelled that someone should have inspired something so beautiful and be remembered with something so perfect as those few minutes of music. I believe the soul of ‘Star Wars’ is in its music, and that without it, we would not be talking about it forty years later.
In the lead-up to ‘The Force Awakens’, my friends and I decided to watch all six episodes in order to get ready for it. Halfway through ‘Revenge of the Sith’, the idea of being excited by this franchise was starting to become hard to muster. There was no life, no excitement, no textures to grab onto or characters to love. When we came to the original though, this group of men in their twenties sat utterly transfixed, each muttering lines under their breath, laughing and gasping at all the right places. As the credits rolled, one of us (look, probably me) said, "Damn. It’s just really friggin’ good, isn’t it?"
‘Star Wars’ fires up your imagination because it demands that the scope of the imagination be without limits. It says that heroes can be farm boys, that damsels don’t have to always be in distress, that pirates can be good guys and that great evil can come from order. It imagines worlds full of strange creatures and yet seems so much like our own, that relationships can be writ large like an opera, that good can conquer evil and that listening to your heart is the only way to do it. It is a masterpiece rediscovered by each new generation, not because the last one forces them to, but because they find the same hopes and fears and dreams that live in all of us played out across the stars in a story so clear and with characters so loveable that you can’t help but be enraptured. In our family, ‘Star Wars’ is a favourite for three generations, beginning with my mum at a drive-in in 1977 and now sitting with my nephew watching it on a DVD at home. And regardless of what dumb changes Lucas has made over time, it’s still essentially the same film they’re watching, a film that even after forty years of endless imitation, referencing and almost biblical reverence, still stands as possibly the most pure piece of cinema ever created. It really is just that friggin’ good.