Today is the 41st anniversary of one of mankind’s greatest achievements. The desire to travel to space, to know what is out there to find what is next,took a giant step on July 20, 1969. Eight years later, the fantasy of space was realized in the most effective Science Fiction/Fantasy film of all time. I chose this day to watch and comment on Star Wars, as a tribute to all the American Heroes that took us to the Moon on the summer day in 1969. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are the names that people remember, but there were thousands of scientists, engineers, technicians and laborers that built the American Space program. To all of them I say a heartfelt thank you for inspiring the world. Film makers draw us in with imagination, you made reality more compelling then our imaginations.
Star Wars (A New Hope-as it was subsequently retitled) opened on May 25, 1977. Dolores and I had gone to a screening of an animated fantasy film called “Wizards” at Bovard Auditorium on the U.S.C. campus in early December of 1976. Before the film started there were a couple of trailers including the one you see above. I know many people in the theater that night had mixed reactions. Some laughed and thought it looked cheesy, some cheered as if it was a firework exploding in the sky above us. My heart soared with the phrase “The story of a boy, a girl, and a universe.” When Luke and Leia swing across the chasm escaping their pursers, I knew this movie was for me. If you are not aware of it, my favorite movie is “The Adventures if Robin Hood” with Errol Flynn. I love a swashbuckler and Star Wars looked every inch the modern equivalent of a heroic adventure story, including sword-fights with lasers. This was the first we had heard of the movie, so we put it in our heads for the next Summer. There was not a lot of promotion of the film in the next five months. A couple of posters appeared, but no big stories in the papers, no guests showing up promoting on TV shows. I don’t remember seeing an ad for the movie other then the trailer in movie theaters. I think the day the movie opened, it opened on a small number of screens. In the Los Angeles area, it was playing on only one screen. The one screen that really mattered in those days, Grauman’s Chinese Theater.
I don’t think it was on Dee’s radar as much as it was on mine, and frankly, I had not focused on it much since that December evening. John DeBross was the Coach of the Trojan Debate team, a man I admired with all my heart and to this day still inspires me to be a good person. He and several other people from the team decided to go over to Hollywood on opening day and see the movie. I went with them because I desperately wanted to be part of the group and I did not have a lot in common with everyone else on the team. Movies, though, that was my domain, and I was deep in the mix. We got there for the second show of the day, bought tickets and walked right in. You read that right, without advance planning, on opening day, we went to see Star Wars and got right in. The theater was not even completely full. It was maybe two thirds to three quarters full. The phenomena that was about to take over popular culture for the next thirty years had not yet started. It felt like the breath one takes before diving off the high platform into a pool. A long intake of air that will be expelled with force but only after the surface of the water is broken. We sat about in the middle of the theater, a little more then halfway back. I don’t remember everyone who went with our group but I do remember everything I felt for the next two hours.
The opening fanfare was loud, and thrilling. The title scrawl of story set up was exciting. Nothing prepared us for the opening shot of a space ship flying across the screen over the audience. It was a huge ship, a space vehicle that would be our escort into this new world, but we were wrong. That first ship is actually being pursued by an even larger ship, the bottom of which consumes the whole screen and moves slowly so that we can take in the immenseness. This is the first surprise in Star Wars, twenty seconds into the movie. There had never been anything like this, and if that was the start of the film guess what was coming. If you are reading this and you have never seen Star Wars in a big theater, I am afraid I have to pity you. A home screening on a big TV is OK but it will never match the sheer audacity of that opening and the impact that it had on the audience. Later on in the movie there are space battles and aliens and robots and heroes and villains, but for that one moment there is just your mind asking you what the hell am I about to see? Holy Criminey this is AWESOME!!!
The story of Star Wars is well known, and there are a hundred other moments that will stand out to different people. I have no intention of writing an analysis or criticism of the movie. Today I’m simply sharing an experience with you that really defined me as a person. That summer, was the year that Dolores and I bonded and were deeply in love enough to know that it was going to stick. We were between our sophomore and junior years in college. We lived in Southern California, the weather was great, we had enough money from working that we could enjoy our leisure time and we were in love. This movie exploded after that first day and for the rest of the summer, if you wanted to see Star Wars, you stood in line, usually for several hours. Friday nights for nearly the whole summer, we did just that. We made the trek down to Hollywood, bought tickets for whatever showing we could get into and waited in line. We held hands, necked, made jokes, and visited with friends and strangers. It was a magical summer.
I have been in theaters for screenings where audience reaction has been amazing, “The Dark Knight” at the midnight show was great. We saw Robocop at a sneak preview and at the end of the movie I thought the audience was going to tear the theater down, they loved it so much. Nothing has ever compared to the audience reaction the first few times I saw Star Wars. The roar of the crowd at the end was like a freight train careening down the tracks at a speed well above what was safe. The first five or six times we saw it, there were standing ovations, and for the rest of the summer there was continuous applause at the credits for the actors, the special effects, the music and every technical category you can think of. This was a movie that was for the most part critically well received, but nothing any critic could say would change the love the audience had for this movie. Late in the summer, I took my Mom, Dad and my brother Kirk, to see the movie , finally at another theater, the Fox Theaters in Century City. Those were showplace movie houses for the 20th Century Fox studio which was basically across the street. We watched the movie, sat in awe at then end, and then my Dad said something I would never have imagined would come from him. He said, “Let’s stay and watch it again.” I don’t know if my brother has seen more then a dozen movies in theaters since then. I can only remember one other time that my parents wanted to to that. That night the four of us sat through Star Wars twice in a beautiful theater, with a gigantic screen and fantastic sound system. It is a great family memory for me.
Over the years there have been sequels, and prequels and I have always wanted to be a part of the experience. When we saw the trailer for the re-release of Star Wars in 1997, with our kids, you don’t have to guess what happened. They knew the movies from home video, but back on the big screen, it was almost like reliving that feeling from the summer of 1977. The feeling of falling deeper in love with the person you want to spend the rest of your life with, the feeling of friendships and youth that make us older folks long for our younger days. And the feeling of falling in love with a film, that changed the way you saw the world.