Most people born around 1977 or after — and who grew up with the original Star Wars trilogy and then its continuing sequels — probably are not that aware of how great a gamble George Lucas’ original movie was.
I know from first-hand experience how unsure 20th Century Fox truly was about Star Wars.
In 1977, I was working at a newspaper in Springfield, Ohio, a small city off I-70 almost midway between Columbus and the northeast of Dayton. I had been writing movie reviews there for about a year and had become friends with the man who booked the movies for the local theater chain. He was a character — one of those individuals regularly prone to hyperbole.
One day in April 1977, he called me and asked if I wanted to attend a screening of a movie that, as he put it, the studio had no idea what they wanted to do with.
It was a science-fiction film, he said, and Fox was going to screen it for a science-fiction club to gauge its members’ reaction. The screening, he added as an afterthought, was in Cincinnati, about 90 miles south of us. Oh: Did I mention he did not drive? So he was basically asking me to chauffeur him to the screening.
He told me he could arrange for us to get into the screening as members of the sci-fi club. But under no circumstances was I to let anyone know I was a movie critic. Nor, he said, was I to let any of his bosses know I was going to attend the screening as it could cost him his job.
Cut to the chase, and we are at the theater in Cincinnati. The place is packed and there’s a lot of chattering — everyone curious about what they are about to see.
I soon realized that none of us even knew the title of the movie.
But the atmosphere of the theater immediately changed after the theater darkened and the Fox fanfare blared from the screen, announcing the beginning of the movie.
Once the first notes of John Williams’ score hit, everyone was hooked.
My “ah” moment came after the Star Wars title and the words of the Episode IV — no A New Hope subtitle as yet — scroll began rolling. As a fan of serials, I immediately recognized it as a device that Universal Pictures had used for some of its serials in the late 1930s and early 1940s, most notably Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe.
I was smitten. Star Wars was original, yet it contained echoes to older movies and genres I loved — especially Westerns and serials. The scene in which Luke Skywalker races to his home only to find it destroyed reminded me of John Wayne returning to his brother’s ranch after the Comanche raid in The Searchers.
During scenes in the cantina when Obi-Wan Kenobi protects Luke by using his lightsaber and, later, when Han shoots Greedo, memories of similar incidents from countless Republic, Monogram and PRC B-Westerns flooded my mind. Space battles between Rebel and Imperial fighters looked like sequences from old World War II movies, down to the chatter between the pilots.
When the movie ended, applause and cheers broke out in the theater. And when the screen went dark and the lights came up, people did not leave. They milled around and quickly began discussing Star Wars. Like myself, many of them recognized what I had seen. We never did hear from a Fox studio representative. No one was in the lobby to solicit opinions about the film.
My friend and I drove back to Springfield. We talked about the movie. Honestly, I don’t remember any details of our conversation, but I do know we both felt confident that we had seen something new and different.
At home that night, I began writing a review of Star Wars, even though I knew it would not see print for several weeks. As many of my friends and colleagues can attest, I am not a closed-mouth person. It took a lot of control not to tell anyone about what I had seen, especially when ads for the movie began running on television. The first time anyone at the paper knew I had seen the movie was when I turned in my review at deadline. Thankfully, no one asked me when or how I saw the movie, and I did not volunteer any information.
All I remember about that time was realizing I had seen something that would somehow change the movie industry. I didn’t know how — or even why. I simply concluded that Star Wars was unlike any movie I had ever seen. And I also realized I probably would never be more affected at a screening than I was at that one in Cincinnati.
It was true then — and more than 40 years later, it still is.