Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)
A field of stars. Pan down to reveal two moons and a glowing planet. A small starship, entering from the top right foreground, races downward across the frame, retreating into the background. A much larger spaceship follows in pursuit overhead, shooting laser beams. The gigantic spaceship’s presence expands across the whole width of the frame as it displays its long armoured underbelly, like some vast technological dragon.
Everyone knows this famous opening shot. Although it is simple, involving only one camera movement and depicting a handful of objects, the shot conveys so much narrative and expository information, explaining the world and setting the tone for the movie to come. While the opening title crawl has already given some details about the galaxy’s “period of civil war,” the actions of the spaceships and their relative sizes convey the stakes and dynamics of the conflict. The small Rebel Alliance against the giant Galactic Empire, the latter the predator, the former the prey. The Imperial Star Destroyer dominates the first shot, and it dominates the viewer, who is positioned below looking up. The second shot reverses the viewer’s position to further align us with the fleeing rebels, who now race towards the camera. The simplicity and iconicity of the opening of Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope can obscure its remarkable formal achievement. The same could be said for much of the film.
There is no disputing that the original Star Wars is one of the most beloved films of all time among moviegoers. It is widely recognized as a movie classic. Nevertheless, an underappreciation of writer-director George Lucas’s formal and narrative craft persists. The phenomenal box office success of Star Wars in 1977 has acquired the status of movie legend. The AFI ranks Star Wars near the top (no. 15 in the AFI’s 100 Years . . . 100 Movies, released in 1998, and up two to no. 13 for the 10th Anniversary Edition). However, none of the more elite and prestigious Sight & Sound polls list Star Wars. Fan-based polling, such as Empire magazine’s, tend to favour The Empire Strikes Back, but they reward both the first two Star Wars movies highly.
Most writers on film consider Star Wars a significant movie, even if many think it might not be incredibly well made. The dialogue, acting, and camerawork are objects of common derision, and, as I will briefly argue, misunderstanding. Peter Biskind, in his book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (1998), offers a good example of this kind of negative take on Star Wars. Biskind styles Lucas as a shoddy director but a savvy, if nerdy, entertainer. In Biskind’s popular history, Lucas and Spielberg are the main filmmakers responsible for killing the artistic renaissance of the New Hollywood, as they ushered in the new commercial era. On the side of critical appreciation, we get Roger Ebert, who lists Star Wars as one of his Great Movies, yet treats it as great because of its childishness, innocence, and simplicity.
I’ve encountered similar takes on Star Wars throughout my life. I can’t mention how many times people are surprised when, in spite of my film buff credentials, I name Star Wars as my favourite movie (along with Lawrence of Arabia). If they accept it, they do so with a sort of nod towards a shared nostalgia, or with the acknowledgement that it was also a “childhood favourite” of theirs. I grew up with Star Wars on full-frame VHS and for many years I didn’t think about its filmmaking. I just enjoyed the story and action. Later, when I had acquired some more knowledge about cinema (and a distaste for pan-and-scan), I finally watched the movie on widescreen. The craft of Star Wars blew me away.
George Lucas’s visual techniques, particularly his compositions and command of editing, have been vastly underrated. This is common especially if we equate camerawork with camera movement. Ebert, for example, always praised Scorsese’s moving cameras, which, he argued, conveyed a subjectivity, and it’s easy to love long takes and impressive dolly shots. But many people have not only overlooked the precision and thought Lucas puts into his shot choices, but also how his style is consciously informed by important film antecedents. Lucas uses a lot of medium and wide framing, often relying on the “cowboy shot,” which features characters from the hip up. Lucas limits his camera movements and use of complex angles, features we typically associate with auteurs and artistic filmmaking. In terms of his framing and composition, Lucas is indebted to Akira Kurosawa and classical Hollywood, particularly the Westerns of John Ford and Howard Hawks. The camera does not drawn attention to itself, allowing us to become more immersed in the world so vividly realized on screen via the exceptional artistic design and production, as in the case of the Mos Eisley Cantina, and to get caught up in the action, which happens so effectively during the suspenseful final attack on the Death Star.
Lucas is also indebted to Ford for his complex editing, which, together with composition, is evident in the early laser gun fight on the rebel starship. The scene is more experimental than Lucas is typically given credit for. It’s worth noting that Lucas got his start making more experimental films, such as THX 1138 (1971). It’s also an open question how significant Marcia Lucas, Lucas’s first wife, was on Star Wars as a whole (they divorced in 1983). She is credited with editing the first film, for which she won an Oscar, and she certainly deserves a lot of praise for it. The opening fight is less clear in terms of narrative than you might expect. George and Marcia cut together rapid shots of stormtroopers, rebel troopers, blaster guns, laser beams, smoke, running. It’s a clear display of montage editing, in which the total subjective effect is more important than demarcating a clear line of action, which places the scene in tension with George’s more classical Hollywood mannerisms. He repeats this style in Attack of the Clones during the Battle of Geonosis.
Another aspect that is frequently underappreciated is the acting and dialogue. Yes, that’s right. The acting and dialogue. It’s a cliche to deride Lucas for this, but, like other accepted canards of film and TV wisdom (such as Captain Kirk as a caddish lover in Star Trek), it might not be entirely accurate upon closer inspection.
Alec Guinness, for one example, is brilliant as Obi-Wan Kenobi. His performance, and Peter Cushing’s as Grand Moff Tarkin, are key to adding weight to what was a fresh new leading cast. The seasoned actors add a great deal to the film. Guinness starred in numerous Ealing comedies, and it comes across in his occasional witty line and the twinkle in his eyes, whether talking to the droids when he meets them or chiding Han about the Force. Guinness also starred in David Lean’s epics The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962) (another point of connection between Star Wars and Lawrence for me!), and audience knowledge of his many previous roles adds to our sense of the character’s experience in past wars, which, when the movie first appeared, we only gleaned through some expository dialogue. This is long before the prequels, remember. Cushing was famous for playing the hero against Christopher Lee’s villains in various Hammer Horror movies. His casting as the villain here was against type, but it adds a certain charisma to what could easily be a flat military villain. His cat-and-mouse verbal sparring and trickery with Leia shows an intelligence that is formidable, making him an opponent to fear in spite of him being an old thin boss type.
In terms of the leads, the chemistry between Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford is great. Their banter as they race around the Death Star is delivered with real chemistry, emotion, and genuine feeling, and it’s fun and witty. In fact, I would argue, it’s so good that it has convinced people that this is the essence of the Original Trilogy. I myself have fallen prey to how this aspect blinds us to the fact that Han, Luke, and Leia spend very little time together onscreen during and especially after A New Hope. For most of The Empire Strikes Back, they are either fighting, cold and awkward, or separated. There are fond reunions at Jabba’s Palace and then the great feeling of the gang getting back together for the Battle of Endor in Return of the Jedi, but that only works because it works so well in this movie.
Pulling Lucas’s threads of visual filmmaking together is what I consider the greatest scene in movie history: the binary sunset. The shot sequence is simple. Wide shot of Luke walking and kicking the dust outside his uncle’s farm on Tatooine. Reverse medium close-up of Luke standing and looking. Reverse again to show what he sees: a close-up of the two suns setting. And then back to the second shot of Luke and his reaction. He looks down and then back up, wistfully. The scene lasts a little over 30 seconds. In these four shots, Lucas constructs what I think is arguably the greatest moment in cinematic history, for it embodies what Star Wars is in its essence, and why that makes it great. The scene is the cinematic visualization of the longing for something more and greater than ourselves that we all feel at different points in our lives. It’s a yearning for transcendence, but that yearning is stimulated by the experience of a sunset, an ordinary, everyday wonder. Luke wants to be a part of the “Bigger Story” beyond his everyday life, but the movements of regular life, the setting of the sun, also inspire that longing within him, suggesting the immanence of the “Bigger Story” in each ordinary life.
Going a bit further with comparison, we can see how the binary sunset scene also displays the film’s simplicity as well as depth. A common touchstone of comparison since the first promotional activities before the film’s 1977 release has been The Wizard of Oz (1939), one of the other great Hollywood fantasies and arguably the only other film to have wider influence on North American culture. A comparison between the binary sunset scene and another famous scene of movie longing, Dorothy singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” helps to clarify the two movies’ connection. Both scenes are marked by strong simple visuals and powerful music. For John Williams’ score is the other essential piece to the achievement of Star Wars. Both Luke and Dorothy are on backwater farms, wishing to be someplace else. Both characters have just been chided by their farm (and non-parental) families, which motivates their emotional situations. Both are marked by a view of the sun: light through grey clouds in Oz, the setting suns in Star Wars. Oz has the song and Judy Garland’s luminous voice, but Lucas’s scene, with the aid of colour, is more visually eloquent.
But this is also the kind of scene that not only means something special to me, but also to countless others. It uses simple, clear shots to tell a universally understandable and relatable story. The shots are of walking downtrodden, looking, seeing a sunset (something as universal as possible, but given a strange newness with the two alien suns), and then a reaction—the power of the Kuleshov effect. The scene signifies longing for something with almost objective precision.
That longing for something more also stems from the narrative Lucas selects, which is the hero’s journey, the universal myth whose beats Joseph Campbell most famously articulated in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949). Lucas says that he discovered Campbell when writing the early drafts, and that it helped him clarify what he was trying to do. The story’s themes of entering, in Obi-Wan’s words, “a larger world,” and the necessity of self-sacrifice (which Obi-Wan performs and Luke and Han learn, in their own ways) complement the hero’s journey. The hero starts in an ordinary world and crosses the threshold into the world of extraordinary things. The hero has hidden special lineage, which this film only hints at. The hero then returns to the ordinary world with a boon to aid others. In A New Hope, that’s Luke bringing the Force to help the rebels defeat the Empire.
With the exception of Rey’s origins in The Force Awakens, which are made to duplicate Luke’s, A New Hope is the only Star Wars to have “crossing the threshold” built into the narrative. Luke is at first just a lonely boy in an ordinary world. It’s the only Star Wars to really show the ordinary side of the “galaxy far far away,” which gives it a special power.
A sense of a dusty, mythic past pervades every inch of A New Hope and indicates one of the unique pleasures of the movie: the feeling of hearkening to past times and hidden things. We don’t meet the Senate or the Emperor, for example. We don’t see flashbacks to the Clone Wars. The large skeleton of a creature beside Threepio on the sand dune is never explained. Luke’s origins are quickly (and vaguely) described and the larger implications are only hinted at. All of that held a certain power to me as an imaginative boy. If Jaws is the great movie touchstone for concealing the villain until the final act, then A New Hope is a touchstone for mentioning things that we don’t see, and thereby enriching a work through ambiguous, referential, and allusive exposition and history-making. This is pure world-building, in the most effective and accomplished way. The term “world-building” gets bandied about too often these days, but A New Hope shows how essential it is to fantasy storytelling.
Star Wars. The original movie. Episode IV. A New Hope. Your version of the name conveys something about its power, but also, as I’ve written before, its mythic aspect. What sets the original movie, especially its 1977 version, apart for me is its ability to conjure a special feeling of ancientness—a sleepy, old, vividly-real world. The prologue to the original novelization also conjures that feeling, with the haunting suggestion of the “Journal of the Whills.” While the Special Edition Mos Eisley spaceport fits better with the other trilogies and the Expanded Universe, the more lonely Mos Eisley in which all the aliens hide out in the cool dark of the cantina has its own special atmosphere.
Anders will confirm that back in the day, on the old TheForce.net message boards, there was a poster who went by the name Binary Sunset. He only liked the original movie. He didn’t even like Empire. Of course, I don’t really agree, but there’s a sliver of truth to his stringent view of Star Wars. Anders often describes Empire as the great universe-opener, the work that first and drastically enlarges the scale of the Star Wars story-world. And that’s correct. But A New Hope, as a self-contained work, in whatever version, and as the only truly self-contained Star Wars movie, works effectively on its own, and holds a special power all its own.
Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977, USA)
Written and directed by George Lucas; starring Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, Peter Cushing, and Alec Guinness.