Note: I wanted to post something to celebrate International Star Wars Day, but I’ve been way too busy. So I’m cheating a bit. This is something I wrote a year ago, which some of you may have missed. Enjoy.
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…
And so it began, a generation lost in space. Our eyes were wide in wonder, our mouths were fixed in grins of joy, and our parents’ wallets did open up and spew forth dollars and pounds unto the profit margin of Saint George of Lucas. The age of Star Wars was upon us. Love it or loathe it, in 1977 Star Wars changed cinema forever, heralding the return of wonder and spectacle after a decade of dark, introverted American movies.
Here are some of the things that I love about Star Wars. And one thing that I really don’t.
The weapon of choice for all Jedi knights, and without the doubt the single coolest weapon ever devised. Ever. Forget swords, forget pulse rifles, forget Uzi 9mm’s and forget Adamantium claws. This is cinema’s greatest contribution to iconic arsenal. They’re powerful, graceful, mobile, and they come in a range of colours. Who cares if they’re impossible? Who cares that you’d be more likely to cut your own legs off with it, than uphold galactic justice? They are just so damn cool. Who hasn’t, at one point or another, swung their clasped hands around and made ‘shwum mmmm shwum’ noises? Huh? Come on, admit it. Every little boy from 1977 onwards wanted one (myself included), and most men too (myself included). Christmas ‘77 probably holds the record for the highest number of household breakages, as millions of kids swung their plastic lightsabers around with gleeful abandon.
The lightsaber battles were pretty much the highlight of the three prequels. Having had to settle for the rather clunking battles of the original trilogy, which in contrast sort of resembled the fights you had with your mates when you stumbled upon a couple of long twigs, the prequels offered us fast, frenetic duels which fully utilised the fact that lightsabers were not made of wrought iron and could be swung around quickly. And Darth Maul had a double-ended lightsaber! Double the geekgasm!
Let’s face it, from a Freudian standpoint the lightsaber could be considered the ultimate in phallic symbolism, with the added bonus that this particular throbbing length between your hands lights up, comes in different colours, and makes ‘shwum’ noises. And they’re all the same length, which saves a lot of discomfort. All except Yoda’s, of course, which is smaller. But give the guy a break, he’s three feet tall.
Star Wars Figures
There was movie merchandising before Star Wars came along, but it was this franchise that really turned it into the multi-million dollar industry it has become. George Lucas was canny enough to have the merchandising rights and profits written into his contract for the first movie, thus generating the huge piles of cash that he probably sleeps on every night, smiling the smile of the smug.
Still, in helping Lucas accumulate his bedding, we were able to spend our childhoods recreating all our favourite scenes, with 3” replicas of the characters, major and minor, from the movies. Well, at least some of the scenes. Obviously this excluded scenes that involved sitting down, since they had no knee joints. I mean, they could sit with their legs straight out, lying down wasn’t a problem, and they could goose-step, but it has to be said that the original figures weren’t exactly ‘fully poseable’. But did we care? Nah. I remember how excited I was to get my very first figure, Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi. Old Ben came with a lightsaber which slid out of his arm, and a stiff plastic robe which made sitting him down, with legs straight out, even more difficult to accomplish. I spent hours making a cardboard version of the Cantina on Tatooine, only for most of the characters to repeatedly fall off their chairs. Trust me to recreate the one scene in the movie that involved sitting down and little else. Didn’t really think that one through.
Oh, but the thrill of separating that little plastic container from the card backing, and handling the 3” Han Solo (who looked even less like Harrison Ford than I did) for the first time. Oh, but the agony of realising that, a mere week after getting him, you’d already lost his little gun. Oh, but the sniggering amusement of putting Han Solo and Princess Leia into all manner of amorous positions. Damn those unbending knees!
In Episode IV, having discovered a group of slaughtered Jawas, Ben Kenobi sagely advises Luke that ‘only Imperial Stormtroopers are so precise’. Luke then rushes home to find his elderly, adoptive parents have also been slaughtered. Truly, we imagine, these soldiers of the Empire are fearsome warriors. Truly, the universe must tremble before them. Except that, for the next six hours of the saga, they can’t seem to hit a damn thing, including a seven foot wookie standing about 10 yards away. Apparently, Imperial Stormtroopers are great if you want kids in hoods or a couple of geriatrics murdered, but once they have to kill moving targets and major characters, the soldiers of the Empire may as well have their helmets on backwards. Witness an entire platoon of these bozos getting their asses kicked by a bunch of teddy bears with rocks. Fail!
But we love them. We love them because, despite being utterly rubbish, they look so cool. From a design point of view, the Stormtroopers are classic. Like much of the design elements in Star Wars, they’ve endured so well without looking dated. They have kind of angry eyes, with a bit of a frown, and a sad little mouth that makes them look a bit lost. You just want to give them a hug, and tell them that it will all be okay, one day they’ll be able to hit a barn door with their eyes open. And there are variations on the theme, too. You have the black Tie Fighter pilots who can’t hit other ships, or the Biker Scouts who like to crash into trees, or the Snow Troopers who let the good guys get away. Again. Bless.
Somewhere there is a parallel universe where logic prevails, and a three-foot, olive-green, big-eared creature with a speech impediment, who is older than your Nan, isn’t the coolest character ever. In this universe, however, Yoda is King. Having seen this cool little Muppet for the first time in The Empire Strikes Back, fans waited twenty-two years for the chance to actually see Yoda opening a can of whup-ass on someone. When he did, we weren’t sure whether to gasp in awe or laugh, as he leapt around like the Tasmanian Devil on acid. Still, he was the only Jedi who could unclip his lightsaber just by holding his hand out. Awesome!
Simply put, Yoda is the best of both worlds; he’s as wise as the ages and he could kick your ass without breaking a sweat. The interesting thing about him, though, is that, unlike Han Solo or Mace Windu, no-one really wants to be Yoda, they just want to know Yoda. People want Yoda to be there when things go wrong. Bad day at work? Talk to Yoda. He’ll say something extremely wise, backwards, and you’ll feel better. That gang of kids on the block giving you trouble? No problem. Introduce them to Yoda. He’ll say something wise, backwards, and then kick all their asses. Twice. The perfect friend, he is.
Okay, so he failed spectacularly to see the Emperor’s machinations until it was too late, then royally screwed up when charged with kicking the one ass that would have made all the difference, before sodding off to a big swamp and hiding for twenty years. Details, mere details. If that was your Nan, you’d forgive her.
Used Future and Design Classics
One thing that stood out about Star Wars was the ‘used future’ aesthetic which Lucas wanted to bring to the movies. Up until then, science fiction movies and visions of the future were pretty shiny and spanking. Spaceships were usually pristine, well kept and whiter than white. People wore clean, pressed jumpsuits or walked around half naked, with clean, pressed bodies. Then Star Wars came along and dragged the future (or technically the past) through the dirt. Hi-tech suddenly looked beat up. Here we had a vision of technologically advanced societies that were ‘lived in’. The clothes were crumpled, the droids were a little rusted, and the Millennium Falcon looked like a flying student’s bed-sit. It suddenly made the far-fetched seem everyday.
There were even little references in the script of Star Wars which hinted at technological advances as matters of everyday conversation. Disappointed at the amount of cash he gets for his Landspeeder, Luke turns to Ben and says, ‘Since the XP-38 came out, they’re just not in demand’. Ben clearly couldn’t care less. Probably still uses Windows ’95. Your powers are weak, old man.
The Star Wars movies, or at least the original three, are littered with enduring, influential designs. The Millennium Falcon was singular in that it was the first spaceship (that I’d ever seen) which was not completely symmetrical. It had its cockpit, not in the centre, but sticking out of one side. Unique! You may not find this particularly interesting, but I have distinct memories of studying the design and being totally blown away by that element alone. Yes, I was a strange child.
But then there was…
The Star Wars Holiday Special
Oh dear Lord, where to even begin with this one. How about a little background? In 1978, the year following the release of Star Wars, CBS aired the two hour long Star Wars Holiday Special. George Lucas had no involvement in its production, but it did feature all the lead characters from the movie. It revolved around Chewbacca’s attempts to return to his home world, Kashyyyk, to celebrate Life Day with his family. Along the way, various guest stars made appearances, there was an animated adventure, and kids were glued to their TVs. Mostly, as it turned out, in abject horror.
The Star Wars Holiday Special is bad. No, it really is bad. It is not even bad in a way that is enjoyable. It’s the worst kind of bad. It is awful. It has never been aired again, never been officially released, and George Lucas won’t even talk about it. It’s that bad. Not funny bad, not bad in any way that could be considered endearing, just really fucking bad.
We open on a clip, from the original movie, of the Millennium Falcon being pursued by two Imperial Cruisers. Cut inside the Falcon to find Han Solo (Harrison Ford, who spends his time in this looking like he’d rather be anywhere but here) and Chewbacca sitting in the cockpit. Or rather, a rubbish TV studio mock-up of the cockpit. In fact, I think Han Solo is sitting on an office chair!
Then we get to meet Chewbacca’s family. Yep, Chewie likes to work abroad, and within five minutes it’s pretty clear why. There’s his wife Mallatobuck (Malla), happily pottering around in the kitchen, his father Attichitcuk (Itchy), sitting in an armchair grouching, and his son Lumpawarrump (Lumpy), running around annoying everyone. After about 10 minutes of watching these characters grunt and growl at each other, with no subtitles and no clue what they are saying, you start to wonder if there isn’t something better you could be doing with your time. Like, say, picking bits of fluff from the carpet and eating them.
And it gets worse. So much worse. Wait until you see the rest of the returning cast. Having just recovered from a car accident, and reconstructive surgery to his face, Mark Hamill was forced to wear extensive make-up, and what looks suspiciously like a wig. So, when the shaggy family contact Luke Skywalker on a screen, they find Hamill doing a passable impersonation of Mia Farrow. It’s shocking, to say the least. And Carrie Fisher’s appearances as Princess Leia are even more jaw dropping. Clearly high as a kite at the time, she can barely walk and wears a fixed, hazy smile that must have frightened most of the viewing kids.
Slotted into all this fun and games are a series of ‘entertaining’ variety acts. We have Art Carney as a trader, helping out the Chewie clan. Bea Arthur sings a shit song in the cantina which seemingly last for hours. Harvey Korman presents a cookery show, in drag. And, in one of the most unintentionally disturbing scenes, Diahann Carroll turns up as some holographic singer, and apparently gets Grandpa Itchy off.
Then, when you think it can’t get any worse, Carrie Fisher, still floating on the ceiling, sings the Star Wars theme. Yep, someone wrote lyrics; terrible, awful lyrics, and Carrie Fisher sings them. It’s at this point that you have to remind yourself that you’re nearly at the end, and there’s no need to open up your veins and end your suffering.
The Star Wars Holiday Special is like nothing else you’ll ever see. And you have to see it to believe it. That the franchise survived this train wreck is surely a testament to its enduring magic.