Where It All Began: The History Of The Original “Star Wars” In The Cinema

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Star Wars is more than a movie. It is more than a franchise. Star Wars became a part of our culture and one of the few cinematic experiences that was literally embraced by not only our county, but by the entire world. With the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge this week, we wanted to go back to where it first started. How one movie changed the way movies were made and touched the lives of billions of people.

It all started back in 1977 with the release of Star Wars. It changed the lives forever of its main stars, Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher. It also led to George Lucas transcending from a rookie filmmaker and into a movie-making legend.

George Lucas was born in Modesto, California and attended film school at the University of Southern California. He received a lot of recognition from a student film that he made called THX 1138. In 1971, Lucas was commissioned by Warner Brothers to adapt his student film into a feature film. When Warner Brothers saw the finished product, they were disappointed and shelved the film. After that experience with Warner Brothers, it motivated Lucas to go off on his own and formed Lucasfilm LTD.

Lucas envisioned an adventure that was set among the stars with a cast of heroes, villains, futurist cowboys and wizards. When Lucas pitched the idea of his story to various studios, he told them that it was similar to the 1930’s action adventure Saturday afternoon serials based on Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. Universal and United Pictures passed on his film, but eventually Lucas was able to convince 20th Century Fox to give him a chance. Fox saw real talent and potential in Lucas, especially after seeing an early cut of American Graffiti, and they wanted to see what he could do. In 1973, Fox released Lucas’ American Graffiti and it became a financial success for the studio. And the success of American Graffiti led to Star Wars being green-lit by the studio.

Lucas started writing the screen play for The Star Wars in 1974. It was to be an epic battle between the forces of good, the Rebel Alliance, and the forces of evil, the Galactic Empire.

Here is a summary of the original 1974 draft by George Lucas:

The Jedi-Bendu warriors served the Empire for many millennia, before rebelling against the new corrupted emperor. Hunted down and killed by the Knights of Sith (a sinister rival sect), the Jedi are now all but extinct and a New Galactic Empire has arisen.
Kane Starkiller, a Jedi-Bendu master, is in hiding on the Fourth Moon of Utapau with his two sons Annikin and Deak, when a Sith warrior finds them and Deak is killed. The surviving Starkillers head to the Aquilae system, where they are met by Kane’s old Jedi friend, General Luke Skywalker. Kane, whose war-battered body is a concoction of artificial limbs, knows that he is dying, and persuades Luke to become Annikin’s Jedi teacher. He then travels to the city of Gordon, leaving his son with Skywalker and the King of Aquilae. Clieg Whitsun, a rebel spy on the emperor’s planet of Alderaan, has learned that an Imperial fleet, led by General Darth Vader and Governor Crispin Hoedaack, is about to conquer Aquilae with a “death star” space fortress. Rebel fighters are sent out to stop the attack, but the Aquilaean king is killed, and instead of Princess Leia (the rightful heir), a corrupt senator takes over, surrendering the planet to the Empire.
Annikin, Luke and Whitsun, joined by Artwo Detwo and See Threepio (two bickering robots who have escaped from the space fortress), bring Leia and her two younger brothers to the spaceport at Gordon, from where they can reach safety. After a fight at a cantina, where Skywalker uses his “laser sword” to kill his antagonists, the group meet up with Kane and his alien friend Han Solo who have arranged transport to a friendly planet. They need a power unit for suspended animation in order to get past Imperial scanners, and Kane heroically rips one from his body, causing his death. After avoiding a trap set by Vader and Prince Valorum (the black Knight of the Sith), the rebels are pursued into space, where the arguing Leia and Annikin realize that they love each other. Their craft is damaged in an asteroid field and Whitsun dies as it explodes, but the others abandon ship in time and land on the jungle planet of Yavin, where Leia is captured by alien trappers. Annikin tries to rescue her, but only succeeds in freeing five “Wookees” (huge, grey and furry beasts), and Leia eventually ends up in the hands of the Empire.
After a tip from two anthropologists, the rebels and the Wookee tribe (including Prince Chewbacca) attack an Imperial outpost, and a forest battle ensues. When he learns that Leia is held captive aboard the space fortress, General Skywalker starts training the Wookees to fly fighter ships in order to conquer the death star. Annikin is skeptical of the plan and gets onto the fortress (together with Artwo) on a mission of his own, dressed as an Imperial “skyraider”, but he is soon captured and tortured by General Vader. Valorum sees this and realizes that the Imperials are completely without honor and codes, and that he has more in common with the young Jedi than with the emperor. Turning his back on the Empire, he frees both Annikin and Leia, and they escape down a garbage chute. After almost being crushed in the garbage receptacle, Valorum, Leia, Annikin, and Artwo manage to abandon the station just before the Wookees destroy it, killing both Vader and Governor Hoedaack. Back in her throne room, Queen Leia honors the heroes (including Valorum), and Annikin is appointed new Lord Protector of Aquilae.

There were many changes to the original story.

  • The main villains were General Vader and Prince Valorum, Lucas eventually merged the idea of the two characters together and came up with Darth Vader, and artist Ralph McQuarrie came up with the classic helmet-clad design.
  • Han Solo was described as a tall, reptilian creature with green skin, no nose, and a hefty set of gills but later was changed to a space cowboy/pirate character.
  • The original hero of the story was a character called Mace Windu, which later became Kane Starkiller and then finally became Luke Skywalker. An interesting tidbit is that the name of Luke Skywalker is derived from George’s sir name, Lucas. Or Luke S.
  • Lightsabers are called Laser Swords in the originals screenplay. They do not ignite on and turn off. They are constantly lit and kept in sheath when not in use.
  • The Kyber Crystal was the source of a Jedi’s powers, not The Force.

Lucas hired artist Ralph McQuarrie to help provide the Fox executives with a visual aid to his screenplay, which conveyed to them what the story might conceptually look like on film. The Fox executives were impressed with what they saw and approved a budget of $8 million, which eventually increased to $11 million.

The script was originally 200 pages long and Lucas decided to just use the first third of what he has written as the movie. When Lucas originally made the deal for Star Wars, he made the deal before American Graffiti was released. Lucas was originally paid $200,000 for writing, directing, and producing the film. What Lucas did when negotiating for a pay increase, is instead of a bump in salary, he wanted the rights to make the remaining two thirds of his story with the sequels. He also negotiated a deal that would give him the licensing rights for future merchandising.

In 1975, Lucas founded the visual effects company, Industrial Lights And Magic (ILM). Precise models were made to duplicate the ideas from Lucas’ story and McQuarrie’s art. It was important to get the main story to work, but it was equally important to provide groundbreaking special effects throughout the journey of the space epic.

While auditioning for Star Wars, Lucas was looking for fresh new unknown faces to portray the main heroes. The casting of Mark Hamill as Luke and Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia was a lot less difficult task than finding someone to portray the role of Han Solo. Lucas had previously worked with Harrison Ford in America Graffiti and felt that he was too well-known from that film to be cast in Star Wars. Instead, Lucas hired Ford to read lines as Han Solo with actors auditioning for the roles of Luke and Leia. But it turned out that Lucas felt that Ford really added something special to the character of Han Solo and he offered the job to Ford.

In 1976, Lucas and the cast and crew arrived in the Tunisia to begin filming principal photography. The conditions in the dessert made filming extremely difficult due to the intense heat and unpredictable weather. Costumes broke apart and electronics were constantly malfunctioning, making for an extremely difficult shooting environment. It was a miserable time for the cast and crew, but once filming was complete in the desert, they moved to Elstree Studios just outside of London. The controlled environment of the studio made filming much more enjoyable.

One of the problems that Lucas faced was, for the most part, the cast and crew did not share Lucas’ passion and they just saw this film as another job and doubted that this would be anything more than a children’s film. Lucas’ direction was mocked by the cast and crew because he spoke very little and relied on them to perform their scenes exactly how he had written them without any direction or assistance from Lucas. He would mostly request that a scene be re-shot and for the actors to perform “faster and more intense”.

Lucas also had problems back home from the executives at Fox as they felt that the production was going too much over budget and was taking longer than anticipated to film. Lucas was given the ultimatum to either finish the movie by the end of the week, or the studio would shut the film down. The final scenes were split into three units, which resulted in Lucas bicycling from set to set and with the assistance of two other directors handling minor sequences. In the end, Lucas met the deadline and saved the film from being shut down.

Fox had intended the release of Star Wars to coincide with the Christmas holiday of 1976, but due to production delays, the date was pushed back to the summer of 1977. Lucas was not happy with the original cut of the film and asked the editor to re-edit the film based on his instructions, but the editor refused and was subsequently fired. This resulted in Lucas having to hire additional editors and he would also help with the editing process.

Lucas also had problems with ILM, since this was their first time doing special effects of this caliber. A large portion of the budget was used in making motion control cameras, models and also experimenting with innovative special effects. Lucas would step in and assist with the special effects himself, but in the end he was still disappointed in the final results and many of those special effects would haunt him for years to come.

Ben Burtt was hired as the sound designer to come up with the memorable sound effects that were heard in the film. Using growls from such animals as walruses, tigers, lions and bears, he gave Chewbacca the Wookiee his voice. He also came up with the sound of laser blasts from striking a tightened cable line with a tuning fork. The beeps and squeaks from R2-D2 came from a combination of an electronic synthesizer and Burtt actually imitating baby voices himself.

One of the important decisions that Lucas made was hiring John Williams to compose the score for the film. Lucas had previously worked on Jaws and received an Oscar for composing the score for that film. In March of 1977, John Williams conducted the Star Wars soundtrack with the London Symphony Orchestra. With all of the problems that Lucas faced during the production, he was pleasantly surprised with the end result of Williams work.

Fox released the trailer for Star Wars during the Christmas holiday of 1976 to attract audiences to the upcoming spectacular. The film was still not complete and there was no official music score to accompany the trailer. But this short trailer wet the appetites of children and adults alike as they were now looking forward to something truly spectacular.

Fox was still not confident that Star Wars would be able to compete against the upcoming summer blockbusters, so they moved the release date to the Wednesday before Memorial Day, May 25, 1977. Theater owners were not sold on the movie and less than forty theaters agreed to show it.

Fox also refused to heavily market the film and Lucas hired Charles Lippincott as the marketing director for Star Wars. Lippincott was able to make a deal with Marvel Comics to provide a comic book adaption of the movie. He also struck a deal with Del Rey books for the novelization. Lippincott had connections within the sci-fi community and promoted the movie at San Diego Comic-Con, which helped spread the word among fans and create anticipation beyond the convention. Kenner was one of the few companies that took a chance on Star Wars, but the toy company was not prepared for what was to happen once the film was released.

On May 25, 1977, Star Wars was released and shown across the country in thirty seven theaters. Lucas was fearful that the film would fail, so he decided to book a Hawaiian vacation for his wife and himself to avoid the news. Demand was unexpected and thirty six of those theaters broke house records.

On its first day, Star Wars made over $255 thousand. After six days, it accumulated over $2 million. In just three weeks Fox’s stock had risen to a record high. Star Wars played for an astounding 43 weeks and made over $226 million domestically. It also became a huge success overseas and added an additional $314 million.

Star Wars was re-released in theaters on August 13, 1982 and made an additional $15 million. On January 31, 1997, Fox and Lucasfilm released a Special Edition, which included never before seen footage and enhanced digital and special effects. The Special Edition for Star Wars, now subtitled A New Hope, made an additional $138 million.

Currently, Star Wars has made $775 million at the the worldwide theatrical box office. Adjusted for inflation, that amount is roughly worth $2 billion. Star Wars brought even more money when it was released to home video on various formats including VHS, Betamax, Laserdisc, DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

Star Wars ultimately became a cultural and worldwide phenomenon. It made stars out of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill. And it gave George Lucas legendary status. Lucas went on to make two sequels, but not direct, and complete his original story. On May 19, 1999 Star Wars: The Phantom Menace was released, which reunited Lucas with the Star Wars movie franchise as both writer and director. This new Prequel Trilogy would tell the story of how Darth Vader came to be and the rise of The Empire.

In 2012, George Lucas sold Lucasfilm to Disney for $4 billion. Disney immediately announced that after a long absence in the cinemas, they would soon begin production on Star Wars: Episode VII and make additional Star Wars movies in the future. This new Sequel Trilogy will conclude this year with the release of Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker in December.

As of this date, the Star Wars franchise has made close to $70 billion and is the fifth highest grossing media franchise of all time. They have made roughly $40 billion in merchandising sales, $10 billion at the box office, $9 billion through home video sales, $5 billion through video game sales, $2 billion in book sales and $5 million through TV revenue.

Just think that one little movie started all of this, along with the vision of one man. The next chapter in the Star Wars franchise is set to begin this week when Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge opens in Disneyland on May 31st. We hope that you enjoyed this history of how Star Wars was made and that you are looking forward to the future of all things Star Wars in the years to come.

About the author

Joe Hogarty

Joe moved from New York to Florida back in 1997. He currently resides in St. Petersburg and visits the parks frequently. His first visit to the Magic Kingdom was when he was 8 years old back in 1974. Joe originally originally started as a photographer for WDWNT and is now the host of WDWNT: Nerd Alert, our movie reviewer and reports the news for WDWNT. You can contact Joe through email at [email protected]

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You wrote:” Star Wars played for an astounding 43 weeks…”

Star Wars actually played in some theaters for over a year. The Chinese Theater had a “birthday party” when Star Wars reached its one-year milestone at that venue. In the early days of its release at the Chinese Theater, Star Wars was shown 24 hours a day. I remember because the 2 AM showing was the earliest tickets we could get. (Yes, we actually went to the Chinese Theater at 2 o’clock in the morning.)