While being pursued by the Emperor’s minion, Lord Darth Vader (David Prowse), Princess Leia of Alderaan (Carrie Fisher) hides the tactical plans for an Imperial battle station called the Death Star with a small droid called R2-D2 (Kenny Baker).
On Tatooine, however, the droids are captured by scavengers called Jawas and sold to the Skywalker farm. There, a young man, Luke (Hamill), hopes to leave his dreary life working at the moisture farm, and tender his application to the Academy. But his uncle resists. He doesn't want Luke to go. He doesn't want Luke to grow up.
When you stand back and gaze at Star Wars from a good distance, you can detect that the film tells a very old story: the hero's journey. But it tells that tale in a new way, and in a new (final?) frontier: outer space.
Rather, it is the explicit details of the narrative that are new to audiences, from the history of the Jedi Knights and The Force to the explanations of such things as snub-nosed fighters, T.I.E. fighters, tractor beams, hyper-drive, Wookies, land-speeders and droids. The way to make all these people, concepts, and ideas immediately understandable, Lucas understands, is to mine much of film history for visual antecedents, ones that make the story graspable for audiences, even though they don't know the precise details of the Old Republic, the Galactic Empire, or the Clone Wars.
By commencing Star Wars with a 1930s-era, serial-like crawl, George Lucas effectively renounced contemporary cinema, and reached back to an older tradition, a “golden age” of more innocent fantasy fare. Not incidentally, the screenplay seems to share his point of view, describing the light saber of the old Republic as an "elegant" weapon for a more "civilized time." In other words, the past inside the Star Wars universe, and the past of Hollywood history outside Star Wars were both more elegant and civilized than the present of the Galactic Empire/anti-hero cinema.
|Our invitation to adventure in a more elegant and civilized time: Flash Gordon (1936).|
|Our invitation to innocence in a cynical time: Star Wars (1977).|
This familiar sequence of events is repeated with the droids R2-D2 and C-3PO in Star Wars. Two likable (and funny) robots escape from the rebel blockade runner battle, become lost in the Tatooine desert, and unwittingly become involved with the rescue of a princess and the exploits of a Jedi-Knight. The point in both films is to highlight two unassuming, even “common” individuals who become caught up in huge, important events beyond their control, and even their understanding. It's a ground's eye view of world-shaking incidents, of history unfolding.
In terms of Star Wars, the first twenty minutes of the film or so mostly revolve around the droids and their exploits, and this kind of “macro” focus is one way to introduce the Star Wars universe without inundating audiences with tech-talk and difficult-to-pronounce names or sci-fi concepts. Matters of galactic import (like the Death Star), can wait, and Lucas introduces his core concepts one at a time without risk of sensory overkill or confusion.
|Two common men get caught up in world-changing events, in The Hidden Fortress (1958).|
|Two lowly droids get caught up in galaxy-changing events, in Star Wars (1977).|
|A trek through the wilderness, their future uncertain.|
|A trek through the desert, their future uncertain.|
|This famous Time cover set the tone for the late 1960s and early 1970s American cinema.|
|But Star Wars re-introduces spirituality in the form of "The Force..."|
|And the film even promises "eternal life" for those who believe in its precepts.|
Once more, viewers may not exactly recognize the specific reference, but they absolutely "get" the allusion to a previous global conflict, and a previous form of warfare. We may not understand how lasers work, or what powers TIE Fighters, but we do understand the settings and dynamics of aerial combat, even translated to space.
|The underside gun of a flying fortress in Twelve O'Clock High.|
|A view on the inside looking out (from the same film) as a gunner targets evading fighters.|
|From Star Wars: The Empire Strikes back at attacking rebel spaceships.|
|On the horizon, enemy fighters swoop in for the kill (in 633 Squadron).|
|TIE Fighters swoop in for the kill (in Star Wars).|
|In the trench, planes avoid blistering gunfire. (633 Squadron).|
|In the trench, rebel X-fighters avoid blistering gunfire (Star Wars).|
Even the idea to title his Star Wars films numerically and with melodramatic sub-title fits in with this tradition of the crawl concept of Flash Gordon which boasted titles such as “The Unseen Peril.” That sounds a lot like The Phantom Menace, doesn’t it?
|If Han Solo shoots first, is he Dirty Harry?|
A boy, a girl and a universe. The thrill and appeal of Star Wars are almost literally that simple. Despite making a high-tech film filled with laser blasts, spaceships, robots, and a complex internal history Lucas directs us through this complexity and gets right to the mythic, spiritual heart of his film.