A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, “Star Wars” opened in Washington, D.C. on Memorial Day weekend of 1977 — in exactly one theater.
That’s how movies were typically released back then. Instead of storming the multiplexes, they opened small and spread across the country gradually. For the first half of that summer, Cleveland Park’s Uptown Theatre was one of only a couple dozen screens in the U.S. where you could see George Lucas’s new epic. “Susceptible teens from Charlottesville to Gettsyburg would have needed to nag their folks to make weekend pilgrimages,” recalls film critic Gary Arnold.
With such a slow build, you might forgive a film critic if he didn’t quite get what the big deal was about “Star Wars” — and some critics didn’t. The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael called it “an assemblage of spare parts — it has no emotional grip”; the New Republic found it an “unexceptional” bunch of “corny, solemn comic-book strophes“; New York magazine dismissed it as “a set of giant baubles maniupated by an infant mind.”
But Gary Arnold — the Washington Post’s film critic from 1969 to 1984 — was on the right side of history. He loved “Star Wars” from his early first viewing. He even predicted, correctly, that it would topple “Jaws” as the all-time box office champ, that Harrison Ford would become a major star, and that it would change the way Hollywood did business.
Here, we have republished Arnold’s original review — along with a few editor’s notes explaining the references you maybe had to be around in 1977 to understand. Below the review, Arnold shares some of his thoughts looking back on what he wrote.
‘Star Wars’: A Spectacular Intergalactic Joyride
By Gary Arnold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 25, 1977
George Lucas’ delightful science-fiction adventure fantasy “Star Wars,” opening today at the Uptown, is a new classic in a rousing movie tradition: a space swashbuckler.
Lucas, the young filmmaker who rose to prominence with “American Graffiti,” spent four years writing, preparing, directing and editing “Star Wars.” He has achieved a witty and exhilarating synthesis of themes and cliches from the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers comics and serials, plus such related but less expected sources as the western, the pirate melodrama, the aerial combat melodrama and the samurai epic. [NOTE: Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers were sci-fi heroes popular in the 1930s and ’40s; both franchises were briefly revived to cash in on the “Star Wars" craze, the former as a movie, the latter as a TV series.]
The movie’s irresistible stylistic charm derives from the fact that Lucas can draw upon a variety of action-movie sources with unfailing deftness and humor. He is in superlative command of his own movie-nurtured fantasy life.
In “American Graffiti” Lucas created the illusion of compressing a time of life and a period of American social history into a single night.
In “Star Wars” he has refurbished stock scenes, conventions and spare parts acquired from a variety of action movie genres, which assume an affectionately parodistic and miraculously fresh configuration.
The young protagonist, called Luke Skywalker, ingenuous but intrepid and mechanically skillful, pits himself against an evil intergalactic empire. Lucas the filmmaker engineers a kind of intergalactic joyride in a souped-up, customized cinematic hot rod, fueled by an $8-$10 million investment [a lot of money at the time!] and serviced by dozens of talented craftsmen and technicians.
The movie begins with a written prologue which seems to place us in an early episode of a vintage serial. Lucas brings this motif to a spectacular resolution in the climactic scenes, which ricochet from one perilous situation and rip-roaring battle to the next, suggesting the way a typical 12-chapter serial might look if one had the opportunity to cut it down to the action-packed essentials. [Big in the 1930s and ’40s, serials were short, low-budget action-adventure films that ran before the main feature. Lucas and Steven Spielberg later said their “Raiders of the Lost Ark" was inspired by vintage serials.]
“Star Wars” gets off with a bang as the spaceship transporting the heroine, Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), a rebel conspiring to restore the intergalactic republic, is captured and overrun by the Death Star, an apparently impregnable military space station conceived as the ultimate weapon by the totalitarian empire. Before her guards are defeated and she is taken prisoner, the Princess manages to slip an S.O.S. and secret blueprints of the Death Star into the memory banks of a squat little robot called R2-D2. [“It amuses me to realize that I hadn’t latched on to the term ‘droid’ to describe R2 or 3PO," Arnold says. “I can’t remember if I decided to retire ‘robot’ later on."]
This messenger, which has a “vocabulary” of beeps and whistles, rather like Harpo Marx, and employs them to similar humorous effect, escapes in a capsule with its talking robot sidekick, a lanky, fussy, goldplated machine named C3PO, whose personality suggests an overspecialized cross of Edward Everett Horton with Hal the Computer. [Harpo was the silent, curly-haired member of the Marx Brothers comedy act, big in the 1930s; Horton was a character actor known for playing fussy, dithering second bananas, also big in the 1930s; Hal the Computer you probably know from “2001: A Space Odyssey."] The robots land on the arid planet Tatooine, where they eventually fall into the hands of Luke (Mark Hamill), a farmboy who lives with his aunt and uncle, and the other characters who are destined to rocket to the Princess’s aid.
There’s a wobbly stretch of exposition during which the prattle of C3PO threatens to become a naggy, prissy nuisance. Things begin to perk up again when the marooned robots are captured by hooded, red-eyed little creatures called Jawas, (a gratuitous phonetic joke, one assumes), who seem to run a hijacking and junk salvage business on Tatooine. Luckily for the galaxies, they peddle the robots to Luke’s uncle.
The movie seems a trifle unsure of its tone and bearings until the entrance of Alec Guinness, who portrays a hermit warrior called Ben Kenobe, a former comrade of Luke’s late father and the boy’s mentor.
The Princess has sent her distress signal to Ben, and when Guinness arrives on the scene, one feels no further distress about how the picture may turn out. There’s a humorous serenity about his presence that seems to stabilize the exposition. He supplies emotional equilibrium and authority at a critical moment, when one had begun to fear that Lucas’s ingenuity would become precious and callow.
The movie soars over the top when Luke and Ben go to town to hire a means of intergalactic transportation and encounter the peerless team of Han Solo and Chewbacca, respectively a dashing, albeit mercenary, pilot and his shaggy first mate, a towering, bellyaching monster known generically as a Wookiee. These characters prove wonderfully amusing company in their own right, but their entrances are enhanced by a fantastic, hilarious setting — a futuristic cantina catering to all the human, semi-human and non-human riffraff in the territory.
This dive for monstrosities is an inspired comic fancy, and I assume that production designer John Barry was motivated partly by an inside joke: He was the designer on Stanley Kubrick’s version of “A Clockwork Orange,” which opened in a dive for futuristic delinquents. The Tatooine cantina is the sort of joint the same toughs might frequent several disastrously mutant generations later. The bubble-headed, long-snouted patrons made up by Stuart Freeborn, whose credits include David Lean’s “Oliver Twist,” Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove” and “2001” and the Hercule Poirot makeup for Albert Finney in “Murder on the Orient Express,” leave some tantalizing unanswered questions about Tatooine civilization.
Han Solo is the film’s most flamboyant human role, and Harrison Ford, who appeared as the hot rodder who challenged Paul Le Mat in “American Graffiti,” has a splendid time capitalizing on its irresistible style of cynical heroism. It would be professionally criminal to flub such an ingratiating, star-making assignment, and although Ford plays in a relaxed, drawing style, reminiscent of Jack Nicholson at his foxiest, he maintains a firm grip on this golden opportunity. He would have kids and grownups by the millions roaring their approval at defiant sentiments like the following: “Bring ’em on! I prefer a straight fight to all this sneaking around.”
There’s a rapturous moment of whimsy during the cantina sequence in which we briefly glimpse one monster beginning to laugh heartily at another monster’s unheard joke. It’s as if an Edward Koren cartoon had suddenly sprung to life. [Koren is a longtime New Yorker cartoonist, still active, known for his human-like monsters and fuzzy, beaked humans.] From that instant I felt complete confidence and pleasure in Lucas’ directions.
The way the moment is almost but not quite thrown away seems a key to the movie’s wit. Although the look of “Star Wars” has been influenced by Kubrick — many people on the crew have worked with him or been directly influenced by him — the tone and tempo are utterly, happily different from “2001” or “A Clockwork Orange.” Lucas’s film is jaunty rather than portentous. One of the reasons Barry’s cantina seems charged with humor is that Lucas doesn’t linger over it, as Kubrick lingered over the decor of the nightclub in “Clockwork Orange.” New perspectives and monsters keep turning up and moving on with astonishing and amusing rapidity. Lucas’ style of sci-fi prodigality is playfully funny.
One is more or less prepared for the science-fiction sources Lucas borrows, embellishes and satirizes. The borrowings from other action genres are a terrific bonus. For example, Luke’s return to a burnt-out homestead and the Han Solo’s showdown in the cantina with a hired-gun monster are classic Western confrontations (the former appears to be directly inspired by the key motivational scene in “Nevada Smith”) which Lucas has intext. [“Nevada Smith" was a 1966 Western starring Steve McQueen.] One of the most priceless moments is Fisher’s reading of the line, “Good luck,” to Hamill just before they go swinging across a chasm on the Death Star. Lucas creates a romantic triangle between Luke, Han Solo and the haughty, bossy, indomitable Princess that seems perfectly resolved by not being resolved at all.
If the Princess ever chooses to share her favors, poetic justice seems to demand that she favor the heroes equally. Could this mischievous hint of a menage-a-trois in-the-making, which is about as racy as the byplay between Hope, Crosby and Lamour in the “Road” comedies, have been as responsible for the PG rating as the fighting, which is abundant but scarcely realistic? [Another reference you don’t hear a lot anymore. “Road to Singapore," “Road to Morocco" and five other similar titles were wildly popular (in the 1940s) comedies starring Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour.]
If “Logan’s Run” and “King Kong” deserved last year’s Academy Awards for special effects, no honor under the sun is sufficient to recognize the contribution of people like John Dykstra and John Stears to “Star Wars.” One assumes that Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the third Kind,” scheduled for Christmas release will boast effects of comparable quality. The Academy might do well to revoke last year’s special effects prizes before conferring this year’s. [He was right. “Logan’s Run" was a sci-fi hit in 1976, but by the time “Star Wars" came around a year later, its effects looked painfully amateurish.]
The aerial dogfight Dykstra and Stears have helped Lucas perfect as his climactic piece de resistance looks more exciting than its antecedents in live-action war movies. It’s the most gorgeous stylized combat sequence since the underwater battle at the end of “Thunderball,” a project that won an Oscar for Stears. The final combustive image is particularly inspired: One’s melodramatic apprehensions for the good guys are dissolved in a lyrical shower of stars.
Parents who suffered dutifully through “Logan’s Run” in quest of a decent attraction for juveniles may now claim their reward. George Lucas has made the kind of sci-fi adventure movie you dream about finding, for your own pleasure as well as your kids’ pleasure.
Stockholders in 20th Century-Fox may be coming into another sort of reward. “Star Wars” is virtually certain of overwhelming popular and critical success. It has a real shot at approaching the phenomenal popularity of “Jaws,” and I wouldn’t be surprised to discover “Star Wars” in the runner-up position among modern hits before the year is out.
I know two market-playing movie nuts who placed orders with their brokers minutes after seeing the film. More and more the studios are riding on the ability of a handful of talented young filmmakers to deliver them from banality or bankruptcy in the clutch. In “Star Wars” George Lucas has supplied 20th Century-Fox with a new lease on life.
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Arnold left The Washington Post in 1985; he wrote for The Washington Times from 1989 to 2009. In a 2005 retrospective, he named “Star Wars” one of the best movies of his reviewing career. So he stands by that rave, huh?
“It’s clearly what is known in the trade (or was) as a selling notice,” he says, “but I don’t believe I oversold the nature of the fun to be had.”
All those Old Hollywood influences he detected in this modern epic? No surprise they resonated with Arnold, a native Californian. “Lucas is a year younger than I, and I doubt if there was much difference between his boyhood moviegoing in Modesto and mine in Alameda and San Leandro.” He was glad to look back and see that he credited Alec Guinness with lending heft to the film; he regrets he didn’t cite the dynamic score by John Williams or the design work by illustrator Ralph McQuarrie. He hasn’t seen the new “Star Wars” yet “but plan to do so at the Uptown.”