A long time ago in a theater far, far away actually, it was May 1977, at the Charles Street Cinema in Boston I saw "Star Wars" for the first time.
My roommates and I, juniors in college, stood in line on opening day to see it. The lines were short back then. The movie had little advertising (though very positive buzz) and it opened in a mere 50 theaters across the country. Its only hype was a remarkable cover story in Time magazine, proclaiming it "a grand and glorious film" and "the best movie of the year so far."
Critic David Ansen, writing for Boston's The Real Paper, captured a little of what we felt in the theater that afternoon. "Star Wars," he declared, "is the sworn enemy of all that is ambiguous, anti-heroic, angst-ridden, cynical, depressing, difficult and downbeat in movies today." Its sequels, especially "The Empire Strikes Back," the best-written and best-directed of the trilogy, added refreshing ambiguity to the story line, but the original's exhilaration and wonder remained key to the series' success.
Amazingly, "Star Wars" continues to work its magic across the generations. A young friend of mine, born about the time that the movie was released and now a gifted law student preparing to clerk for a federal judge, knows every single line of the film's dialogue. Prompt him, and he will begin exuberantly to recite it for you. The college freshmen I meet usually betray a similar enthusiasm, if not the same total recall. In fact, most young people these days seem to have grown up with the series in all its permutations, switching over the years from videos to video games and back again.
With the first prequel, "Star Wars: Episode One, The Phantom Menace," set to debut in less than a week in theaters nationwide, one wonders why the Force is still so much with us.
Dazzling special effects are part of the answer. But kids don't pore over plot and memorize dialogue because of special effects. Though the relentless merchandising of "Star Wars" toys, books and action figures may lure the very young, it disgusts everyone else and so furnishes little explanation for the films' enduring appeal, either. The mythological patterns that George Lucas took pains to reproduce, based on his reading of Joseph Campbell and other scribes, doubtless explain an important part of the movies' attraction. Yet cultural anthropology is more a turn-on for Bill Moyers than for a mass audience.
The reason for the series' lasting popularity, I think, is simpler and deeper. At its best, "Star Wars" speaks to our love of justice and our longing for a nobler life, and it is a great and fun adventure. Back in 1977, Jack Kroll, a Newsweek critic, was on the right track when he lauded the original movie as "a sparkling pop metaphor for the sheer joy of goodness." In its Flash Gordon-meets-"High Noon" way, "Star Wars" reminds us how good it is to be alive even to be willing to give up our life when we are fighting for a great and just cause.
Good vs. evil a simple theme, perhaps, but in the immediate aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate and in the middle of the "Me" decade, it was bracing. "'Star Wars' is a Seventies-slick movie with a Sixties philosophy from a director who was raised in the Fifties on the Flash Gordon fantasies of the late Thirties," Ansen commented. "It's five decades of boys' adventure heroics rolled into one, and it's made for the 12-year-olds of all ages."
True enough, but Ansen neglected the decade that the movie invoked most poignantly, namely the Forties, especially the dark days of World War II when the Allies were losing more often than they were winning.
That the good guys were embattled and on the verge of being defeated by the evil Empire was essential to the movie's derring-do, but it rang a familiar chord in the collective memory, too, harking back to 1940-42 and, more distantly, to the dicey days of the American Revolution itself.
Of course, in 1977 the Cold War provided the immediate context. "Star Wars" was a leading indicator, as the economists say, of the Reagan Revolution. Reagan's support of freedom fighters and his visionary missile-defense program (which critics derided, ineffectively, as "Star Wars") seemed to leap right out of the film, even as Lucas was, and is, hardly a conservative Republican.
Though Lucas' movies said little about the genuine moral dilemmas of foreign policy, his space fantasies helped to deliver a death blow to the doctrine of moral equivalence. The movies undermined the then-fashionable doctrine of convergence between the Soviet and American systems, too. In the "Star Wars" universe, the homogenizing power of technology was always less important than the fundamental moral and spiritual distinctions, which is why Lucas insisted that "Star Wars" was not, ultimately, "science fiction."
Technology's nemesis was the "Force," the ancient religion (apparently concocted by Lucas out of various Eastern sects, but with Stoic overtones as well) practiced by the Jedi elite, capable of being used for good and evil. Some folks denounced the Force as anti-Christian, but in the movies' own terms it was pre-Christian, indeed pre-biblical. A religion of self-control, dramatized as the control of mind over matter, is obviously not the highest form of faith, but then Lucas notes that "Star Wars" is, properly speaking, a work of fantasy.
At their worst, one must admit, these movies descend from fantasy to sheer silliness, as for example in the last installment of the original trilogy, "Return of the Jedi," in which the Ewoks, a species of annoying teddy bears, bop around like so many furry Teletubbies. Personally, I fear that the Ewoks are a bad omen for the new trilogy.
Still, "The Phantom Menace" and its two sequels will tell the story of the decline of virtue, the loss of freedom and finally the fall of the old Republic a challenging story to tell, and one that may be strangely relevant to our own Clintonian times. Will the Force still be with George Lucas and his wonderful creations? I can hardly wait to find out.