Last weekend, I was out in California, watching my daughter graduate from law school. Commencement speaker Richard “Dickie” Scruggs, known for taking on the asbestos industry and Big Tobacco, wanted to make the right comparison to communicate what it meant to join the brotherhood of lawyers. The graduates, he said, were like the Knights of the Round Table. A moment later, he switched metaphors: they were like Jedi Knights, fighting against the Dark Side of the Force.
When a 61-year-old Southern lawyer references a movie, you know it’s made an impact. George Lucas has made a global impact with the Star Wars films, which have served some of us as a bright shining beacon of our youths. For me, that beacon’s a little tarnished now, but I wondered if there’s still anything left of my cherished memories.
It was 30 years ago today that Star Wars premiered, the movie known to true fans (a.k.a. geeks) as Episode IV: A New Hope. If you’re of a certain age, it’s likely that summer of ’77 remains one of the highlights of your life. I actually saw Star Wars that opening weekend and I still remember the beginning of the film quite vividly. The first crashing chords of John Williams‘ score thundered out, while the screen filled with the text: “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”
It was a brilliant mix of Akira Kurosawa, Joseph Campbell and John Ford, featuring both cornball cliches and visionary big ideas. It was a movie that transcended its status as just a movie to become an event. Back then, a hit film would play in theaters for longer periods of time; for example, I saw Star Wars five times between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Star Wars was the first epic blockbuster film trilogy, something worth remembering as Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End fills the nation’s movie theaters this weekend.
My fond memories got a little squished by the second trilogy, released between 1999 – 2005. If it had featured a new set of characters that led into the original Star Wars, it would have been more tolerable. But old favorites like R2D2, C-3PO and Chewbacca were awkwardly forced into the new films, which also seemed more poorly written and acted than the original movies.
Trying to get a fix on where Star Wars stands today, I called up my old friend Larry Ross, now proprietor of Blast from the Past, a store that sells collectible toys and movie memorabilia. He sees a steady stream of devotees of the movies in his store, both original fans bringing in their kids and younger fans that discovered the series more recently. When I spoke to him, he was actually at the epicenter of the phenomenon: Star Wars Celebration IV, a convention being held this weekend in Los Angeles.
It’s the definitive event, with any actor who can lay any claim whatsoever to a Star Wars movie making an appearance and selling autographs. It includes a lot of people who acted while buried inside big costumes, meaning that there is no way of proving that it’s them. This includes people like David Prowse (Darth Vader), Kenny Baker (R2-D2) and Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca), but also a couple of guys who supposedly played stormtroopers. The most egregious example is a guy who wore a wampa ice creature costume, not even in the original The Empire Strikes Back, but in the Special Edition.
But despite the commercial nature of the event and my natural cynicism, Larry won me over with his enthusiasm. That, and his report of a Captain Jack Sparrow walking by with a Slave Leia in tow. “In regular life, if you geek out, people will punish you socially,” he reminded me. “If I was in a bank and I yelled out ‘I love Star Wars,’ people would clearly think I was strange. If I did that here, about 30 people would start cheering.”
Both Larry and I were huge geeks in high school, so I fully appreciated his point. When you’re obsessively devoted to something that judged to be out of the mainstream, it generally plays havoc with your social standing. “The weirder you are here, the more you’re celebrated and honored,” reported Larry. “It’s not even a competition to see who can be weirder, it’s a contest to be yourself.”
And so I was won over. I forgive George Lucas for everything, even Episode I: The Phantom Menace, the most universally reviled film in the series. As Larry said, “I know a woman who comes into my store – granted, she’s autistic – but she loves Jar Jar Binks.” We should all be allowed to love those things in life that give us pleasure and make us happy. The Star Wars phenomenon is bigger than any of us and allows us a place to feel safe.
Three decades later, I make peace with my childhood dreams. May the Force be with you.