This day in history: Star Wars opens

The movie that started it all opened Memorial Day weekend, May 25, 1977
The original movie poster for Star Wars (Courtesy of 20th Century Fox)

These days, it's kind of difficult to imagine a world before Star Wars. There are LEGO sets, action figures, T-shirts, and comic books. Millions of people tell each other "May the 4th be with you!" on May 4th every year. And with a new trilogy already started, Disney is releasing a separate adventure this December, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, as well as casting a young Han Solo spinoff film.

But make no mistake, there was a world before Star Wars. For all of those lightsabers and Jedis and wookies to exist, it took the brain and determination of one shy young filmmaker who turned movies upside down.

A space western

In the mid-1970s, George Lucas was a rising star in Hollywood filmmaking. His second film as a director and writer, American Graffiti (1973), was a big hit and nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture (it also starred Harrison Ford). But it was a movie about teenagers and cars in the 1960s. When Lucas started talking about his next project — a "space western" called The Star Wars about a general named "Annikin Starkiller" — movie studios weren't too excited. Science fiction movies weren't very popular at the time. The studios wanted him to try to make something more like American Graffiti again.

But Lucas stuck to his guns (or blasters), working on nothing but the script for weeks at a time, constantly changing characters and themes. In the process, he borrowed from everything including Japanese samurai films and classic myths to World War II movies and the sci-fi novel, Dune. Annikin Starkiller became a farm boy named Luke Skywalker, Han Solo was changed from a green monster with gills to the space pirate we all love, and the story of the order of the Jedi was born. And after about four or five rewrites, 20th Century Fox studios finally agreed to back his new project, now called just Star Wars. They had no idea what was coming.

Making it up as they went along

George Lucas and Mark Hamill filming Star Wars in Tunisia in 1976 (Courtesy of LucasFilm)
The filming of Star Wars was a long process that even involved a lot of Lucas funding the movie himself (the film's budget started at only $8 million — The Force Awakens was made for over $300 million!). When he discovered that the studio's visual effects team had been disbanded (a funny thought given all the CGI in today's movies), he formed his own company, Industrial Light and Magic (ILM). While Lucas and his cast was filming scenes in places like London, Tunisia, and Guatemala, these guys were working around the clock trying to build the crazy monsters, robots, ships, battle stations, and visual effects the director saw in his mind.

Lucas called it the "used future". He wanted his spaceships to look futuristic, but still beat up and used (before then, anything from the future in movies or TV was always shiny and new). So the crew at ILM used scrap from junk yards, hammered giant cables for laser sounds, and basically made things up as they went along. It was such huge task to complete all of the effects that when Lucas first screened the film for 20th Century Fox, the final attack on the Death Star was just borrowed World War II airplane battle footage!

Movies were never the same

Star Wars opening at Mann's Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles. (Mann's Chinese Theatre photo)
Star Wars was a huge risk, but when the film finally opened, it really did change everything. It made science fiction movies cool. It took visual effects to a level never before seen. And even though it took until 1978 to happen, it was the first film to create a huge line of toys. Most of all, it created a legion of fans who loved everything about the movie and its universe. And who still do love it.

So in between watching the Clone Wars cartoons or The Force Awakens, maybe take a moment to watch the film that started it all. And imagine what it must have been like to make something like that before computers, before huge budgets, before anyone believed it would work.

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