Today is the fortieth anniversary of the release of the original Star Wars and so it seems like an appropriate time to revisit a series of commentaries that I wrote to coincide with the release of The Force Awakens. Here is the piece most directly relevant to the original film:
The Star Wars Revolution
Star Wars has been such a dominating presence
in cinema for the last thirty-eight years that it is difficult to
imagine American movies and pop culture without it. But it’s worth
understanding where Star Wars came from to fully understand what it has become.
The original Star Wars was released in the
midst of the New Hollywood movement, which remains the greatest period
of American film. Spanning from the late 1960s until the early 1980s,
the New Hollywood movement gave rise to filmmakers like Francis Ford
Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Hal Ashby, William Friedkin, and
Stanley Kubrick who made movies like The Godfather, Taxi Driver, Annie Hall, Coming Home, The French Connection, and A Clockwork Orange.
These movies upended filmmaking conventions, redrew the boundaries of
censorship, told stories of moral complexity, and dealt with difficult
Two things happened at this time that made the New
Hollywood movement possible. The first was the destabilization of
American society. Watergate, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam
war, and insurgent social movements like second wave feminism and gay
liberation shook up American society. At the same time the American
film industry was going through its own structural change. The major
studios were in financial trouble and the old standards of musicals and
historical epics were no longer making bank. The studios went from
standalone companies to divisions of much larger conglomerates. The new
corporate owners didn’t know much about movies but they were
interested in reaching the youth market and so they turned to young
filmmakers. Under the old Hollywood studio system the average feature
film director was in his mid-forties but now twenty year olds were
given license to make what they wanted in the hope that it would regain
the public’s interest in the movies. These young filmmakers produced
motion pictures that reflected their own view of the world.
It’s in this environment that Star Wars was
made and the movie was in its own way revolutionary. Writer and
director George Lucas was operating within the studio system while
alienated from it. He and his contemporaries were among the first
graduates of film schools and Lucas saw himself as an outsider who
would make experimental movies. His first two features, THX-1138 and American Graffiti,
didn’t resemble traditional narrative filmmaking and Warner Bros. and
Universal reedited them before release, angering Lucas and prompting
him to assert more control over his films and properties. Star Wars
was more conventionally narrative than those pictures but it was even
more experimental in its style and technique. The rapid editing and
technological innovations revealed new methods of producing visual
effects and ultimately new ways of making movies altogether.
The story of Star Wars was also revolutionary
or perhaps more accurately it was counter-revolutionary. The film
spoke to the youth of the time as it depicted a galactic civil war in
which young people figuratively (and later literally) rebelled against
their fathers. But Star Wars rejected the ambiguity of the New
Hollywood movement in favor of the optimism and moral absolutism of an
earlier era. The youth of the 1970s saw their struggles against the
establishment in the Rebel assault on the Death Star but their parents
would have recognized Darth Vader’s headgear as a synthesis of the Nazi
helmet and the SS Totenkopf symbol, giving the conflict a different
point of reference. This mix of mainstream and revolutionary elements
is a large part of what made Star Wars a hit and made it both a part of and apart from the New Hollywood movement.
Star Wars is also a revolutionary film in the way that it altered the trajectory of the film industry. The enormous box office of Star Wars
recalibrated Hollywood’s barometer of financial success and so the
picture is often credited—or blamed—with ending the New Hollywood era.
But that’s not altogether true. Like any business owner, the executives
running Hollywood studios were always interested in making products
that would generate the most revenue. By the late 1970s the audience
was exhausted with downbeat stories and the success of Jaws and Rocky had already begun to shift Hollywood’s tone. Following Star Wars, the subsequent box office failure of somber films like Sorcerer and Heaven’s Gate and the success of upbeat pictures like Grease and Superman: The Movie completed the redirection of the industry toward escapist fare.
It’s become a cliché to say that Star Wars changed the American film industry. But that is so often said because it’s true. Star Wars was as important a cinematic milestone as Citizen Kane and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves
and like Orson Welles' and Walt Disney’s movies, the style and
techniques of George Lucas’ original space opera have been so embedded
in mainstream films that contemporary audiences can’t see what was so
special about them. We’ve been living in the era of Star Wars
for nearly forty years and what began as a youthful cinematic rebellion
has become an empire in its own right. Now that we are on the cusp of a
new era of Star Wars films, it is time for audiences, critics, and filmmakers to reevaluate what that means.
For further commentary on the past, present, and future of Star Wars, click here.