Galloway on Film: Why I Hate ‘Star Wars’ – Hollywood Reporter
With ‘Rogue One’ tickets on sale Monday, the 1977 original has spawned the very empire George Lucas warned against.
In the early 1970s, 20th Century Fox was a leaking ship.
Following the disastrous Cleopatra — the 1963 epic that had hemorrhaged money, forcing the studio to sell off half its land — the company had brought back its co-founder, Darryl F. Zanuck, who returned from self-imposed exile in Paris and was charged with righting the vessel. At first, he did so with some success, hiring his son, Richard, as head of production and greenlighting such giant hits as The Sound of Music (1965), Fantastic Voyage (1966) and Planet of the Apes (1968). The future looked bright, until it didn’t.
By 1970, the “didn’t” part had become evident to one and all. Following a series of bombs (most notably 1967’s bloated Doctor Dolittle and the 1968 Julie Andrews musical Star!), Darryl fired Richard in a misguided attempt to save himself. By then it was too late, and soon he too was gone, bobbing up and down on the periphery of Hollywood, a beacon with a flickering amber light warning other studio chiefs of the rocky shoals that lay ahead.
Not long after Zanuck’s departure, Alan Ladd Jr. stepped in to head the movie division. A former agent, and the son of a movie star, he knew everything about film and everyone in it. Under Laddie (as he was known) and his key lieutenants, Gareth Wigan and Jay Kanter, Fox bounded back. One hit came tumbling after another — from the 1974 disaster flick The Towering Inferno to the 1977 drama The Turning Point to the 1977 romantic period piece Julia.
Each of these had some artistic or commercial merit. But none had the impact of the film that made Ladd’s name, Star Wars.
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Star Wars was the kind of picture Zanuck would have understood, a throwback to the boy’s own adventures and serialized product he remembered from his early days as a writer-director. What would have surprised him (and perhaps Ladd, too) was that it fundamentally changed the nature of the business.
It took an executive steeped in Hollywood tradition to understand the movie that would set tradition on its ear. And it took a director who adored Hollywood’s past to crack that mold and send it spinning into the future.
George Lucas had started as Francis Coppola’s assistant, then turned his USC student short into a 1971 feature, THX 1138, after which United Artists gave him just enough development money to move forward with two other projects. The first was American Graffiti, an autobiographical coming-of-age story set in the director’s home town, Modesto, Calif. (It was originally called Another Quiet Night in Modesto.) The second was The Star Wars, as it was then titled.
It’s unclear whether Lucas would have gone ahead with Star Wars if he had managed to obtain the rights to his dream project, Flash Gordon; but he didn’t. Years later, Coppola recalled that Lucas “was very depressed because he had just come back and they wouldn’t sell him Flash Gordon.” Unable to proceed with that space fantasy, he declared, “I’ll just invent my own.’ ”
He did so by drawing on a number of known and less-known sources. The most familiar, of course, was Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. One can see its influence in the long, haunting shots of heavyweight spaceships passing right over us, images that have become a staple of almost every space-age movie ever since.
Another source was Fritz Lang’s 1927 futuristic drama Metropolis, whose dystopian vision is absent from Lucas’ work, but whose Maschinenmensch (or “machine-human”) is alive and well in the form of C-3PO.
Then there was The Hidden Fortress, Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 Samurai adventure, whose story gave Star Wars its framework. That picture’s two medieval Japanese warriors were reimagined as Jedi knights, just as their bumbling peasant counterparts were reconceived as comically touching robots. Kurosawa brilliantly counterpointed the courage of his heroes with the cowardliness of their acolytes, deftly mapping out the spectrum of human emotion; Lucas used both, but with a counterpoint far less clear.
I have no objection to his adoption of any of these sources. In stealing from the masters, Lucas followed a long tradition in Western art, and proved his talent by the way he reconceived their works. With Fortress, he plucked these medieval characters and plopped them down in a faraway galaxy; it was a brilliant conceit, to which he paid homage by suffusing his movie with such Japanese iconography as the Samurai helmets that bedeck the Stormtroopers.
As it happened, all this meant little to the studio executives who heard Lucas’ pitch. Like most executives, they paid lip service to history, and were more focused on Star Wars’ cost and viability. United Artists said no, as did Universal and Disney. Not even Lucas’ wildly successful Graffiti, which grossed 200 times its three-quarters-of-a-million-dollar budget, could help him get his space epic off the ground — until Ladd stepped forward.