Prior to 1977, beyond the sci-fi nerd demographic, not too many Americans knew anything about pulp science fiction beyond B-Movies and Flash Gordon (and even then, that might be a bit of a stretch since this was around six years prior to its blockbuster movie). That is, until 40 years ago today – when Star Wars hit the big screen – creating millions of fans for generations, and catapulting two of its three leads into instant stardom overnight – as it became the highest ever grossing film at the time. But it was more than a mere sci-fi film. It was, and is a saga of a struggle of democracy and freedom versus tyranny; a coming-of-age tale of a young man thrust into a war across the galaxy; and it had a classic hero stand with unlikely heroes.
I think that its currently difficult to appreciate how genre-busting and trope-defying that this film was. George Lucas fused Western concepts of chivalric knights with Eastern spirituality. He presented a ‘used future’ where as opposed to everything looking shiny, bright and new, it presented machinery and buildings as high-tech, but with a bit of rust and dirt around what was still and adventurous setting. The ‘damsel-in-distress’ turned out to be the leader of a well-organized interplanetary rebellion, a capable marksman, and actually chews out the quality of the rescue: “somebody’s got to save our skins!”, indeed. A ne’er-do-well bounty hunter who comes to take part in a resistance movement while keeping his independence, an old master who more-or-less willingly gets killed to get his student to step up, a villain who became the very face of cold, ambitious evil, whose imposing figure, menacing voice and fearsome visage came with obvious chinks (metaphorical and real) in his black armour, such as his labored breathing – which at first seemed pitiful but became very creepy.
Further installments developed the characters and the overarching saga even further, as Luke’s idealism took a major blow, Han and Leia were held captive in some form, and the plot-moving major villain moved from cold agent of evil, to the fore-bearer of a twisted legacy (“I am your father”), and finally, a path to redemption. The series from the first sequel onwards became a saga on the Skywalker legacy and its impact on the galaxy, with the original, prequel and sequel trilogies acting as generational arcs of the whole tale (Anakin’s generation, Luke and Leia’s generation to Ben’s generation). Whether or not that’s an improvement to Star Wars is up to the viewer, but what is undeniable is the effect it had on popular culture. From lightsabers, to Leia’s style, quotable lines, even extending to religious affiiliation, and a nickname for (in my opinion, a very misguided) potential space program by the Reagan administration (Reagan himself was amused by the comparison, even implicitly comparing the Soviet Union to the Galactic Empire).
Even this year, Princess Leia Organa became the face of resistance during the global Women’s March in January. This year, Star Wars will have released its eighth film in the series Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. With the new trio of sequel protagonists – Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega) and Po Dameron (Oscar Isaac), taking the baton fro the actors who are now mentors to a film series that none of them envisioned that it would become the success that it was. And while one of the leads had passed in December, in her death, she acheived a form of immortality – not as a captive, but an icon of resistance. She had become more powerful than anyone could ever imagine. And that, my friends, is the enduring legacy of Star Wars. The current trio have (as did the prequel actors) big boots to fill, even after the success of Episode VII The Force Awakens. But I am confident that as the New Tens end, they would have made an indelible mark on Star Wars and pop culture as a whole. But for today, it’s a happy anniversary to Star Wars – the greatest sci-fi franchise of all time. May the force be with you.