Every great idea comes from your imagination, or rather; your imagination that has been inspired by something or someone else to give you said great idea.
George Walton Lucas Jr, the founder of small production company Lucasfilm since the 1960s, had a great idea for a movie in 1974; a Flash Gordon adventure. This was encouraged by his love of the Flash Gordon serials and the works of visionary director Akira Kurosawa. Before the seed was planted however, George Lucas had successful graduated from the University of Southern California and been turned down by the United States Army due to his diabetes. So, the only course that beckoned was his love for film.
After a few low-budget films under his belt like the panned ‘Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB’ in 1971 the well-received ‘American Graffiti’ in 1973, Lucas set his sights on buying the rights to Flash Gordon to make his own epic adventure film for the big screen. However, even with the help of his friend Francis Ford Coppola, George failed to acquire the rights and his vision was crushed
But this was a man with a dream, and one way or another he was going to achieve it! So, after ‘American Graffiti’ performed well, George began writing his own sci-fi adventure with a synopsis entitled ‘Journal of the Whills’. And so over the course of the next year, a vision started to come together that fused inspiration from world cinema, various genres and even his pet dog Indiana. Multiple drafts were done, and he threw ideas around trying to think what audiences would want to see; visions of a fantastical future, or adventures of a mystical past? Characters started to come together like General Annikin Starkiller, a large green smuggler with gills called Han Solo and mysterious villains known as Sith.
It became a classic story of good v evil, heroes and villains. A fantastical quest across the stars taken by a band of heroes to save the day, and a damsel in distress, held by evil villains as they try to conquer the galaxy. With conceptual artist Ralph McQuarrie helping George turn his ideas of spaceships, sprawling planets, huge control rooms, armoured villains and roguish heroes into reality, by the time the fourth and final draft was complete, the story of Luke Starkiller, Jedi Knight, was ready to go. Securing a budget of $8.5m and the backing of 20th Century Fox, George laid the foundations through 1975
Forming his own visual effects company called ‘Industrial Light & Magic’, George began hiring the talent to bring his story to life. Visual effects engineer John Dykstra. Cinematographer Gilbert Taylor. Producer Gary Kurtz. Composer John Williams. Editor Paul Hirsch. Location scouting took place across America, North Africa and Europe to seek out locations ripe for turning into desert worlds and bustling cities, and Elstree Studios in London was hired for the more focused and controlled shooting.
Young actor Mark Hamill was cast as Luke Skywalker – formally Starkiller – and with little experience to his name, George felt he was the perfect unknown face to become a young, naïve farm boy thrust into a galactic adventure.
Carrie Fisher, following a debut opposite Warren Beatty and Goldie Hawn in ‘Shampoo’, took the role of Princess Leia, a member of the Galactic Senate and royal family, beating off competition from Jodie Foster, Karen Allen and Amy Irving to bag the role.
For the smuggler Han Solo, George Lucas wanted a new face for the role and so initially rejected young carpenter Harrison Ford, whom had worked with Lucas before on ‘American Graffiti’. It was only when Ford read lines for the auditions that his delivery actually won him the part, beating off competition from Sylvester Stallone, Christopher Walken, Jack Nicholson, Steve Martin and Billy Dee Williams to name but a few.
To counter his cast of unknown faces, Gary Kurtz made it clear that George needed some established actors to give the film credibility. For that, veteran actors Peter Cushing and Alec Guinness were cast as Governor Tarkin and Obi-Wan Kenobi respectively to add depth and a gravitas to their roles and importance to the story.
Theatre and radio actor Anthony Daniels was cast as protocol droid C-3PO who would act with his voice and body alone behind a full costume. Kenny Baker, standing at just 3ft 8 was cast as astromech droid R2-D2 to help control and operate the droid from inside. Rounding out the aliens and droids was Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca, a 7ft gentle Wookiee with fierce loyalty to the heroes of the piece.
The physically imposing bit-part actor David Prowse was cast as Sith Lord Darth Vader, our villain clad in black. Due to his West Country accent, his physical stance was all that was needed. Orson Welles was wanted to voice Vader, but due to him being too well known, George cast American actor James Earl Jones for his deep and menacing voice as Vader, recorded in post-production to help create a villain full of mystery and danger.
With many more British and American talent filling out the rest of the cast of good guys and bad guys, ranging from farmers to pilots to aliens and soldiers, the shoot commenced in March 1976.
It initially became more surreal as it went on. Cast and crew injected their passion and professionalism into the shoot for a film that seemed to be nothing but a “children’s film”. The harsh climate of Tunisia hampered external shots and proved difficult for Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker to work in, confined to their robotic suits, let alone the armoured clad Stormtroopers on set. The sets on Elstree were difficult to fit out and light correctly with their dark and brooding black and gray colours. Furthermore, director George was a very quiet and introverted man on set. Focused, serious and adamant to battle on to get his dream to the big screen, he was difficult to work with at times and many of the cast tried to crack his serious shell.
Even the actors, having as much fun as possible, found it one big joke. Harrison Ford lauded the script – “you can type this shit George but you sure can’t say it” – and production design – “there’s a princess with weird buns in her hair”. Kenny Baker felt the film was going to be a flop. Alec Guinness at times felt the film was mindless and had no real direction.
George was diagnosed wish exhaustion and hypertension by the end of shooting. Post-production was also a tough time in getting the visual effects right, working to a tight deadline that pushed a Christmas 1976 release back to summer 1977. Convincing studio execs and peers to have faith in the film was also tricky. It was a tough film from start to finish, and the budget expanded by $3m to a total of $11m taking in re-shoots and added effects. Composer John Williams recorded the soundtrack in March 1977 with the London Symphony Orchestra to help tell the story with music, not just words.
With little faith and marketing from Fox, only 40 theatres ordered the final cut of the film.
On Wednesday May 25th 1977, George Lucas’s dream of a small scale sci-fi space saga was finally released to low expectations.
It was called ‘Star Wars’.
40 years to that day, the rest, as they say, is history…