Check out those sideburns!
[Editor's Note: Today is the 40th anniversary of the initial release of Star Wars, and keeping with tradition on this blog, I'm writing about it.]
For years there's been a narrative in film criticism that Star Wars was the death knell for the flowering of personal, edgy American cinema in the 1970s. After that point Hollywood would prize blockbusters more than small films by auteurs, seeing them as the key to big bucks after Star Wars' unprecedented success. This is all mostly true, of course, but it ignores one crucial factor: Star Wars itself was a product of the 70s cinema culture that it helped to destroy. Its roots in the auteur-driven, realist cinema of the polyester decade are in fact what made it so good and has helped it endure.
Let's first take the fact that 20th Century Fox was willing to give George Lucas millions of dollars to make a kind a movie with a plot and setting more commonly associated with B movies and 1940s serials. The freedom given to directors by studios is what enabled Lucas to even make this film in the first place. In today's environment there's no way a studio would allow a director the level of creative control Lucas had on Star Wars.
On the surface, the setting of Star Wars seems antithetical to the realist currents of 70s cinema. Watch a Robert Altman film of the era, for example, and you will go into people's cluttered living rooms in a way Hollywood films today never do. In Star Wars, we are sent off into a fantastical galaxy far, far away. But it still has the values of 70s cinema. As many before me have discussed, this is a "lived in" universe in ways that prior sci-fi and space fantasy never were. People usually talk about the beat up spaceships and dirty taverns, but there are even deeper examples. For example, when we go into the Lars homestead and see that bottle of blue milk and hear the hum of cooking machines, it reminds me of Elliot Gould's apartment in The Long Goodbye. The "lived in" world of Star Wars makes it so much more human and accessible than all of the space movies that came before and after. Luke Skywalker feels like a small town kid aching to get out, as much as Richard Dreyfus in American Graffiti.
Then, of course, there's Lucas himself. Like most of the other directors of New Hollywood, Lucas was of a generation that went to film school and was deeply influenced by foreign film. His first film, THX 1138, is both small and challenging, much like the films of other auteurs of his generation like Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorsese, and others. American Graffiti was a crowd-pleaser, but it really just shows a slice of life on one night in a small town. Star Wars was more ambitious, but was grounded heavily in his foreign film influences. As Lucas himself has been quick to point out, Star Wars owes a huge debt to Akira Kurosawa. The plot resembles that of Hidden Fortress, and R2D2 and C-3PO were directly inspired by characters in that film. That's only the beginning, obviously. You can add the samurai sword nature of lightsaber fights and the long shots of the droids traversing the Tatooine desert.
But hey, don't take my word for it. If you can, get your mitts on a despecialized edition of the film and see it was originally made without all the embellishments. What you will see is a gloriously shaggy 70s movie, from the sideburns all over the rebel pilots and imperial officers to the ratty cantina to the matte paintings to Luke's haircut. And yes, Lucas did a lot of things new, such as his much more rapid pace of editing and his pulpy subject matter. But as much as Star Wars heralded the changes to come in filmdom, it only got there because it incorporated so well the milieu it would ironically destroy.