If you were a film-goer in 1977, you saw the universe reorient itself above your head.
It was May 25 – a Wednesday, 40 years ago – and George Lucas’ Star Wars had just premiered in the United States. No one expected the film to be a success, let alone restructure the very basis of Hollywood filmmaking: it opened in just 32 theatres that day as a small film that hoped to attract a dedicated niche audience. George Lucas, exhausted from the final push to get the film over the line, caught a plane to Hawaii to recover with his wife and Star Wars editor Marcia Lucas, and his friend Steven Spielberg. He had a call that weekend from Alan Ladd Jr., the sole champion of Star Wars at 20th Century Fox, who implored him to turn on the television. There was Walter Cronkite, the man who had told America JFK had been shot, now reporting on audiences lining up around the block to see Star Wars.
Today, it’s difficult to imagine what it would’ve been like to have seen Star Wars for the first time in 1977 without the context of the sequels, the prequels, the special editions, the parodies and the homages. Today, almost every element of Star Wars is so comfortably part of popular culture that even those who somehow haven’t seen the original still exist in a world seen through a Star Wars glaze. But what was it like, in 1977 – before the Star Wars empire?
In the cinema, 1977...
It begins, of course, like a fairy tale: “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away....” (the grammatically incorrect four dots in the ellipsis are now iconic). In the 1960s and 1970s, space movies were more allegory than adventure (think 2001 or Planet of the Apes), so this half sentence was key for reassuring viewers that what they were about to see would be pure escapism. Supposedly, on seeing these words in 1977, beat poet Allan Ginsberg turned to his companion, exhaled, and said “Thank God, I don’t have to worry about it”.
There’s no time for contemplation, though. Those ten words are quickly followed by an enormous, bold logo that fills the entire screen. John Williams’ music begins here, already in overdrive, with an enormous Bb major chord in the brass – the same key as the 20th Century Fox fanfare that had preceded it. The logo quickly escapes our grasp, disappearing into space, daring us to follow into this new world. We’re then hit with something that would’ve clued audiences with longer memories on to what kind of film they were about to see – an opening crawl taken straight from the Flash Gordon serials of the 1930s and 1940s. “It is a period of civil war,” begins the narrative, which had undergone an uncredited rewrite from Brian De Palma.
Then, after Williams’ music steadies in anticipation, and the camera pans down – they appear. Two spaceships, one tiny and rugged, and another, impossibly long, in pursuit. This image often seems to be people’s defining memory of the film today, if they saw it at the time. The second ship, an Imperial Star Destroyer rumbling with the full fury of Ben Burtt’s industry-changing sound design, appears to enter the screen from above the theatre, replicating the movement into space of the opening titles from only moments ago. Enormous against tiny: it’s economic in its underdog iconography.
This pace and efficiency for Star Wars’ narrative is something that has been somewhat lost in time. Though today, writers tend to focus on the Joseph Campbell-esque mythical elements of Star Wars, we can’t forget just how lightning quick the whole thing felt in 1977. “Giddy effervescence,” is how George Lucas has described Star Wars and his other hit of the 1970s, the muscle-cars-and-rock-n-roll American Graffiti, and the tagline fits. The first reel of Star Wars – the first twelve minutes or so – tells us almost all we need to know about this universe at breakneck speed. We see an against-all-odds Rebel Alliance taking on an elite and well-resourced Empire: in one corner we have a courageous Princess, and in the other, a dark and menacing Darth Vader and his glossy Stormtroopers. An important message – at this point little more than a MacGuffin – has escaped certain capture with the help of two robots, the most unlikely heroes imaginable. The story of the little guys versus the big continues apace.
Although Lucas had self-consciously set out to make a fairy tale, this was no plodding morality parable. “[Lucas] showed people it was all right to become totally involved in a movie again,” said Ladd, “to yell and scream and applaud and really roll with it.” Journalist Chris Taylor tells us in How Star Wars Conquered the Universe that audiences actually hissed when Darth Vader first appeared on screen. You can hear the audience launch into spontaneous applause when the Death Star is destroyed in this child's tape recording from 1977 too.
Star Wars had tapped into something deep and innate for the film-going public. Audiences were overwhelmed by Star Wars’ sense of scale and possibility in every aspect – image, sound, music, and narrative. It felt like anything could happen in this galaxy far, far away, something that Lucas capitalised on with his shrewd merchandising and tie-in novels, comic books, and video games, where audiences could continue their own stories.
The world of cinema reoriented itself in 1977 when that Star Destroyer entered the screen from above. Escapism reclaimed the American cinema, and it hasn’t left since: the worlds of Batman, The Avengers, Jurassic Park and Harry Potter all owe something to that day, 40 years ago when something connected deeply with the public. Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz remembers hearing from one fan, a caller on talkback radio who seemed to know the film in intricate detail.
“I said, ‘You know a lot about the film’,” Kurtz recalled in 2010. “He said, ‘Yeah, yeah, I’ve seen it four times already’.”
The date of the call was May 25, 1977 – opening day.
– Dan Golding
ACMI staff remember Star Wars
“It was the sound more than anything. In my young mind it seemed all the more real because for the first time ever in a cinema I heard the space ship zoom past my head and around me. I was totally immersed! I had never seen such amazing special effects before either! My sister went and bought the sound track LP immediately after the screening, so moved were we by the experience. Those records were played and played. It remains one of the most memorable movie going experiences of my childhood.”
– Lynda Bernard, Collections Access and Licensing Manager
“I was sitting in the front row of the middle section of the massive (and long gone) Hoyts on George St in Sydney with my dad. I remember having to leave briefly to go to the bathroom just before the climactic Death Star trench run. It's that and the Jawas that I most remember from 1977. Afterwards we went over the road to the Space Invaders Leisure Centre which was a big, dark cavernous arcade and I can still remember the smell and sounds of that place. This was well before Timezone and a good many years before I got to experience my own version of the trench run by playing the original Star Wars arcade cabinet with my dad on a dodgy arcade in Soho London in 1983/4.”
– Seb Chan, Chief Experience Officer
“I saw it at the Sorrento Cinema during the summer, I was on my first date with a girl… don’t remember much about the movie!”
– James Hewison, Head of Film Programs
“I was 16 and saw it with my film critic father. Some TV presenter did a vox pop in the foyer afterwards & I remember being pretty enthusiastic; I think I said something about “swashbuckling in outer space” because I was very taken with the Douglas Fairbanks style swinging-across-the-gap-on-the-rope sequence. But I thought the attack planes going into the death star sequence was INTERMINABLE and in terms of film-as-computer-game it has an awful lot to answer to posterity for...”
– Linda Connolly, Collections & Access Advisor
“As an avid reader of science fiction seeing a film that matched the visions in my mind was awesome (to use the contemporary vernacular). The audio was particularly impressive and left me immersed in that universe. Stumbled out of the cinema back into the real world.”
– Sean Doyle, Mac Systems Administrator