Star Wars celebrates 40 years of escapism, influence, and cultural currency today. The founding chapter of this now colossal property was released May 25, 1977, across a pittance of screens. Popularity ignited like a house on fire and before anyone could blink this thing was obliterating contemporaries like A Tale of Two Critters, Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo, and Viva Knievel!. Only Smokey And The Bandit gave Star Wars any kind of run for its money, and there’s still a gap of about $180 million in domestic gross between the two. Burt Reynolds just couldn’t charm his way around Chewbacca.
There’s a documentary feel to the 1977 Star Wars which helps it resonate deeply, a framing where the audience isn’t following narrative but observing environment; the awkward broth of fantasy exposition is dismissed and we’re allow us to ferret out details as we witness events in these alien realms. This is especially true of desert planet scenes where the robots fumble along, get swooped up by the junk dealers, and are unceremoniously dumped into Luke Skywalker’s life. This fly-on-the-wall style counters so many other sci-fi films that desperately want to impress upon you their grandiose, mythical nature. Star Wars just drops you in there and lets many fantastical moments unfold nonchalantly, because these characters see lasers and blue milk every day.
Pivoting on that point, one of the best decisions George Lucas ever made was to insist this beginning Star Wars is actually the fourth installment of a who-knows-how-long saga. That let our imaginations go purple trying to fill in the priors. As incredible as the visuals and characters in Star Wars are, they suggest much more with that context. On the other side of the ewok, one of the dumbest decisions George Lucas ever made was giving in to temptation and actually filming the first three chapters, bluntly extinguishing the dreams we spun for ourselves across several decades.
Star Wars numbers four and five came before one, two, and three; there are probably those who also believe the immediate sequels—1980’s The Empire Strikes Back and 1983’s Return of The Jedi—should have never been made, allowing the 1977 film to remain the purest of entities. Foolish mortals! Star Wars made so much fucking money it was never going to be singular. Let’s just count our blessings over the miracle of The Empire Strikes Back, that rare sequel which bests its founder in pulp, artistry, and thrill. Star Wars 6 and 7 (and Rogue One) are great too, but there’s just something about the dreamy nightmare of Empire that cannot be equaled.
Of course, Star Wars at 40 is more of a conglomerate than ever, absorbed by Disney so they can have Darth Vader roaming the halls of their luxury hotels with minimal overhead. Star Wars belongs to our entire planet but it’s a U.S. invention and there’s nothing more “American” than celebrating a successful business. So rats off to maximizing profits and creating a global brand. And thanks for being so lenient with the fans who have restored and distributed the theatrical versions of the ’77 movie and its two sequels; this must be an admission of guilt or disagreement regarding “the vision” George Lucas suddenly decided he had for the original trilogy in 1997.
What else is there to say? Nanu nanu, put more Greedos in Star Wars 8.
Here’s a nugget of Star Wars history you never hear much about: In 1990 Canadian writer Dean Preston sued George Lucas for copyright infringement and “breach of implied contract” to the tune of $128 million, claiming Lucas swiped the idea for Return Of The Jedi’s famed ewok characters from a script Preston authored in 1978 entitled Space Pets.
Preston sent his script to Lucas the year he completed it but heard nothing back. A half decade later, Preston’s “heart sank” when he spotted a car on a Northern California highway with the vanity license plate “EWOK.” Preston tailed the car until it pulled over; a pair of little people emerged, explaining their plate was a reference to recent work on a Star Wars film.
In addition to claiming invention of the term “ewok” (an abbreviation, Preston said, of “he walks”), the Calgary-based scribe argued Space Pets contained “a full description of [the ewoks’] nature, characteristics, habitat…and way of life in general.” The case actually went to trial in Canadian Federal Court, where Lucas took the stand to explain no unsolicited materials sent to him were ever opened and that ewoks were in fact an offshoot of his beloved wookiee character Chewbacca.
“It’s the price of success, I guess,” Lucas told reporters outside the court house. “Anytime you have a successful movie you have a lot of lawsuits.”
Some drama erupted during George’s testimony—at first he stated that he had pulled the term “wookiee” out of thin air, but under cross examination the director admitted disc jockey Terry McGovern had first presented the word (McGovern did ADR work for Lucas’s debut, THX 1138; after flubbing a line, the dj remarked, “I think I ran over a wookiee back there!”).
A bigger bombshell, though, came via University of Calgary drama professor James Dugan, who told the court had the plaintiff and defendent been his students, with Preston submitting Space Pets as a final project prior to Lucas submitting Return Of The Jedi, he would “bring Lucas before the dean on a charge of plagiarism.” In response, Lucas’s lawyers doubled down on the “we’ve never opened strange mail” defense.
It worked—Preston ended up losing this battle of Endor, and the powers that be have done a pretty good job of shoveling dirt on the entire story. Still, you have to wonder about the actual reality. Who would go toe-to-toe with Star Wars without a shred of merit? What are the odds of two people independent of one another dreaming up roughly the same alien mythology? Wouldn’t those vanity license plates have violated a non-disclosure agreement?
All I know for sure is Dean Preston’s Space Pets script included a character named Chi Chi Gomez. Ay Carumba.
Something to ponder: If Return of the Jedi had never been made, the highest grossing film of 1983 would have been Terms of Endearment. Terms was the only other film that year to hit the nine figure mark, whalloping Flashdance, Trading Places, and even Tom Cruise’s breakout hooker comedy Risky Business. People in ’83 really wanted to watch Debra Winger die (SPOILER ALERT).
Of course, the concept of Return of the Jedi never being made is ludicrous. I recently read an interview where George Lucas was asked what he would have done if Mark Hamill had died in that famous car accident just before Star Wars came out, and King George said something to the effect of, “Oh, I would have introduced another young mystical Jedi person and centered Empire and Jedi around them.” Piss off with your dying, Luke Skywalker. You think you can stop this fucking Star Wars juggernaut? You think being the “main character” means anything? Try again.
I’m sure not even the combined deaths of Mark Hamill, George Lucas, the rest of the cast, and every unnamed talent at Skywalker Ranch would have prevented a franchise. The original SW made too much money—“fuck you” money, as my father would call it. 20th Century Fox would have given us something, even if it was pure z-level schlock that followed Doug McClure around Tunisia as he searched for C-3PO’s evil clone with Chewbacca’s “force sensitive” second cousin at his side. Star Wars was a license to print money. Hell, it still is. How else do you explain those prequels?
Still, I’m fascinated by an alternate universe where, for whatever ungodly reason, Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back exist yet Return of the Jedi doesn’t, leaving fantasy film’s greatest cliffhangers forever unresolved. It would have to be the result of some complicated legal thing, right? Some Day The Clown Cried situation? Imagine if our rigid American copyright laws prevented anyone from ever seeing Darth Vader without his mask, from ever meeting and/or complaining about an Ewok, from ever hearing Admiral Ackbar bellow, “It’s a trap!” If you think Star Wars nerds are fussy now…
An even crazier scenario: George Lucas, burnt out from Empire, vows to never complete the trilogy and has it written into his contract somehow that no one else can ever make Star Wars III. I mean, he’d be assassinated like two days later, right? None of Boba Fett’s helmet polishers would put up with that.
The real question is: in a world without Jedi, does Kenner switch their focus to produce Terms of Endearment action figures? I’d buy a Debra Winger toy in a heartbeat. Like a twelve inch doll of her smiling like she is on the poster? Oh, that’s going right next to my Gremlins bubble gum machine.
Return of the Jedi’s thirtieth anniversary is just one week away. I hope you’ve got your shopping done. I’m just kidding—we’ve all poured enough money into the Lucasfilm merchandising juggernaut already. If we melted down all the Chewbacca figures sold between 1977 and today there’d probably be enough plastic to make prosthetic limbs for every single person who’s stepped on a forgotten land mine since Star Wars first came out. Not to depress you or anything.
That reminds me of a hilarious story: I was four when Jedi came out and even though I was already amped on America’s number one space opera I didn’t want to see this final installment because Jabba the Hutt looked really scary in the tv commercials. My grandparents bought us all tickets to see the thing anyway, and I was just beside myself that entire morning. Kid logic told me I’d die of shock the moment Jabba came onscreen. Shortly before the movie’s showtime Grandma and I were wandering around K-Mart when I became instantly enamored of an Admiral Ackbar action figure on one of the toy racks. For whatever reason (he looked like a fish person and I liked fish?) this Ackbar toy was shifting the tectonic plates of my Jedi stance. I stood there in a weird daze.
“I’ll make you a deal,” my grandmother said as I clutched the Admiral’s blister pack like it was my only food for the day. “I’ll buy this man for you if you go see the movie with us. Okay?”
There was a brief pause.
“Oh-kay!” I shouted like one of the Little Rascals.
Nothing quells fear quite like spontaneous consumerism. The only memory I have from the actual presentation of Jedi that day is having to pee really badly during the speeder bike chase. Grandpa sensed this, trotting me out to the bathroom so as to prevent me from ruining the fine upholstery at the Sanford, Florida megaplex. I hated giving in, though, because the speeder bikes were so super cool. The theater bathroom was far less enthralling. Once you’ve seen Mark Hamill racing through the Redwood Forest on a space motorcycle self-flushing toilets seem less than outré.
I feel like I’ve told this story before elsewhere, but this version is really the best. Ewok image courtesy of Merchandising Is Forever. Stay tuned for more baloney like this in the coming days.
George Lucas has been molesting his original Star Wars movies with CGI nonsense since 1997 while simultaneously disavowing the edits that grossed him millions back in the day. Sucky, but lightsaber-wielding nerds aggravated by this nonsense such as myself have long taken solace in what we perceived to be a tiny loophole in George’s quest to stamp out his “first drafts”: The National Film Registry. Established in 1988, the NFR annually selects twenty-five “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” movies to induct and preserve for the rest of history, so after we vaporize each other in the final nuclear war there’ll be some big movie vault for our aliens overlords to discover proving we were an intelligent and artful race. One of the NFR’s first draft picks in ’89? Star Wars.
Ostensibly, the NFR chose Star Wars that year, Lucasfilm sent them a copy, and it’s been sitting there ever since, government property a la the Ark in Raiders. So even though George might digitally scribble The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi to the point of no return, even though he might be able to completely block the commercial availability of previous non-“Special Edition” trilogy releases, at least Uncle Sam has retained an untouched copy of the first film. At some point in the future, cinema restoration people could use that government copy of Star Wars to create a another home video release of what audiences first saw May 25, 1977. At least we could have one regular Star Wars movie some time before the apocalypse…right?
Yeah, about that: Preservation website SaveStarWars.com recently investigated the National Film Registry situation at Washington, D.C.’s Library of Congress, and they’re reporting that the NFR never received the copy of Star Wars they requested in 1989. Apparently Lucasfilm ignored the NFR until 1997…the year the “Special Edition” of Star Wars was completed. When George told the gub’ment that’s what he planned on sending them, they balked. Quoth Reference Librarian of Congress Zoran Sinobad:
“While both Star Wars (1977) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980) are on the National Film Registry, the Library has not yet acquired new prints of either one. When the request was made for Star Wars, Lucasfilm offered us the Special Edition version. The offer was declined as this was obviously not the version that had been selected for the Registry. We have not yet requested a print of The Empire Strikes Back, [which was] added to the Registry late last year.”
Our leaders may have been fucking up the economy and starting unnecessary wars for the past decade, but hey, at least they’ve been trying to do the right thing when it comes to Luke Skywalker.
So there you have it—more Lucas allegedly being Lucas. But what of the separate copyright prints that exist for Star Wars, Empire, and Jedi? A 35mm print of every film in this country has to be sent to the Library of Congress to officially be copyrighted (or had to be sent—I don’t know if they still put movies on 35mm). So yes, the LoC is sitting on at least one set of original original Star Wars films from the years of their release that could prove a total failsafe. Unfortunately, according to Zoran, the copyright version of Empire now boasts “extreme color fading” and there is “no report” on the condition of Return of the Jedi (which one assumes could mean it has turned to finite dust by now).
Of course, the very notion that anyone but George Lucas/Lucasfilm will ever control the ultimate fate of Star Wars is laughable. I’m sure it’s written in blood somewhere that public domain doesn’t exist in Obi Wan’s dojo and that no other entity can ever even consider purchasing the rights to those movies. Related tidbit: The aforelinked report throws out a claim that Lucasfilm’s contract with Fox RE: Star Wars has some foreboding clause which demands versions of the pre-’97 trilogy must be “hunted up and destroyed.”
This sounds like fabricated fanboy fear-mongering, but who knows. It seemed just as crazy thirty years ago that a relatively unknown filmmaker would give up his studio paycheck in favor of merchandising rights for the characters in his cheap little space movie everyone and their uncle thought would bomb. Today, Darth Vader’s face is on every household item imaginable and George Lucas is so goddamn rich he can just blatantly fuck with the government (allegedly).
Private collectors, it looks like the future of unaltered Star Wars may be up to you. Don’t let your moms clean out your basements!