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How Critics Reviewed the Original ‘Star Wars’

How Critics Reviewed the Original 'Star Wars'

As the world — or just people on the West Coast who can stay up past midnight — waits for the first bonafide reviews of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” it’s worth looking back on how the very first movie was received when it opened in 1977: “Star Wars,” in other words, before it was “Star Wars.” It’s a popular parlor game to look back on what have become beloved pop culture icons and breezily point out past critics who just didn’t “get it” — the ones who thought, for example, that “The Shawshank Redemption” was solidly crafted corn but nothing particularly special, or that “The Big Lebowski” was a tossed-off trifle. (Don’t even ask what they though of “Clue.”) But sometimes, those have insights that are inaccessible, or at least hard to reach, from a place where the movie has been enshrined as great, encrusted with years or decades of accumulated personal and cultural history. Can you even approach “Star Wars” as just a movie anymore, looking it as if it was Episode 1 of one rather than IV of IX?

According to Star Wars historian Mike Klimo, what we now know as “Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope” was actually the second-best-reviewed of all six “Star Wars” movies. (The only one with a higher “Fresh” rating based only on original reviews? “Revenge of the Sith.” I sense the Dark Side at work.) Time famously proclaimed it “the best movie of the year so far” in May of 1977, and many others correctly placed it in the lineage of the Flash Gordon serials George Lucas openly drew inspiration from. (The Los Angeles Times’ Charles Champlin called it “Buck Rogers with a doctoral degree.”) Even Pauline Kael’s notorious pan is full of insights, some of which seem almost prophetic: “The excitement of those who call it the film of the year goes way past nostalgia to the feeling that now is the time to return to childhood,” she wrote, keying into the embrace of juvenile pleasures that now dominates blockbuster filmmaking. She also pointed out the sexism inherent in the genres Lucas was emulating: “Is it because the picture is synthesized from the mythology of serials and old comic books that it didn’t occur to anybody that she could get the Force?” Although “The Force Awakens” passes the Bechdel test, it’s taken seven movies and nearly four decades for the franchise to genuinely diversify.

What’s most interesting reading through the 1977 reviews, even those crafted with some awareness that the film was on its way to being an enormous hit, is that they treat “Star Wars” as a movie among movies, not a case unto itself. It reminds me of how the first movie’s designers were careful in crafting their droids not to produce anything too close to the three robots in Douglas Trumbull’s “Silent Running,” when as it turns out now, they could have ripped of Trumbull’s film wholesale and no one but fans of cult sci-fi films would be the wiser.

The reviews of “The Force Awakens” can’t return to this pristine state, and even the skeptical ones will have to admit the collective power of “Star Wars,” or else risk being written off as mere trolling. But critics in 1977 didn’t have that burden, and were free to only report on what they saw with their own eyes. It’s a perspective that’s always worth seeking out.

Vincent Canby, New York Times

“Star Wars,” which opened yesterday at the Astor Plaza, Orpheum and other theaters, is the most elaborate, most expensive, most beautiful movie serial ever made…. It’s difficult to judge the performances in a film like this. I suspect that much of the time the actors had to perform with special effects that were later added in the laboratory. Yet everyone treats his material with the proper combination of solemnity and good humor that avoids condescension. One of Mr. Lucas’s particular achievements is the manner in which he is able to recall the tackiness of the old comic strips and serials he loves without making a movie that is, itself, tacky. “Star Wars” is good enough to convince the most skeptical 8-year-old sci-fi buff, who is the toughest critic.

Charles Champlin, Los Angeles Times

Tributes to the movie past have often been campy spoofs which suggest that it was all rather quaint. “Star Wars” is a celebration which, in the ultimate tribute to the past, has a robust and free-wheeling life of its own, needing no powers of recollection to be fully appreciated. It employs some of the dramatic devices out of the past for the good and simple reason that they worked well (and probably because they evoked strong and positive responses in the souls of those of us watching)…. “Star Wars” is Buck Rogers with a doctoral degree but not a trace of neuroticism or cynicism, a slam-bang, rip-roaring gallop through a distantly future world full of exotic vocabularies, creatures and customs, existing cheek by cowl with the boy and girl next door and a couple of friendly leftovers from the planet of the apes and possibly one from Oz (a Tin Woodman robot who may have got a gold-plating as a graduation present).

Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (four stars)

“Star Wars” is a fairy tale, a fantasy, a legend, finding its roots in some of our most popular fictions. The golden robot, lion-faced space pilot, and insecure little computer on wheels must have been suggested by the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and the Scarecrow in “The Wizard of Oz.” The journey from one end of the galaxy to another is out of countless thousands of space operas. The hardware is from “Flash Gordon” out of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the chivalry is from Robin Hood, the heroes are from Westerns and the villains are a cross between Nazis and sorcerers. “Star Wars” taps the pulp fantasies buried in our memories, and because it’s done so brilliantly, it reactivates old thrills, fears, and exhilarations we thought we’d abandoned when we read our last copy ofAmazing Stories.

A.D. Murphy, Variety

“Star Wars” is a magnificent film. George Lucas set out to make the biggest possible adventure fantasy out of his memories of serials and older action epics, and he succeeded brilliantly. Lucas and producer Gary Kurtz assembled an enormous technical crew, drawn from the entire Hollywood production pool of talent, and the results equal the genius of Walt Disney, Willis O’Brien and other justifiably famous practitioners of what Irwin Allen calls “movie magic.”… Like a breath or fresh air, “Star Wars” sweeps away the cynicism that has in recent years obscured the concepts of valor, dedication and honor. Make no mistake – this is by no means a “children’s film,” with all the derogatory overtones that go with that description. This is instead a superior example of what only the screen can achieve, and closer to home, it is another affirmation of what only Hollywood can put on a screen.

Ron Pennington, Hollywood Reporter

Star Wars, a Lucasfilm Ltd. production for 20th Century-Fox, will undoubtedly emerge as one of the true classics in the genre of science fiction/fantasy films. In any event, it will be thrilling audiences of all ages for a long time to come. The film, written and directed by George Lucas and produced by Gary Kurtz, is magnificent in scope, but the script and the engaging performances also add an effective human element to the totally believable technological aspects. Lucas combines excellent comedy and drama and progresses it with exciting action on tremendously effective space battles. Likeable heroes on noble missions and despicable villains capable of the most dastardly deeds are all wrapped up in some of the most spectacular special effects ever to illuminate a motion picture screen. The result is spellbinding and totally captivating on all levels. 

Pauline Kael, New Yorker

“Star Wars” is like getting a box of Cracker Jack which is all prizes. This is the writer-director George Lucas’s own film, subject to no business interference, yet it’s a film that’s totally uninterested in anything that doesn’t connect with the mass audience. There’s no breather in the picture, no lyricism; the only attempt at beauty is in the double sunset. It’s enjoyable on its own terms, but it’s exhausting, too: like taking a pack of kids to the circus. An hour into it, children say that they’re ready to see it again; that’s because it’s an assemblage of spare parts — it has no emotional grip. “Star Wars” may be the only movie in which the first time around the surprises are reassuring…. It’s an epic without a dream. But it’s probably the absence of wonder that accounts for the film’s special, huge success. The excitement of those who call it the film of the year goes way past nostalgia to the feeling that now is the time to return to childhood.

Maybe the only real inspiration involved in “Star Wars” was to set it in the pop-culture past, and to turn old-movie ineptness into Pop Art. And maybe there’s a touch of genius in keeping it so consistently what it is, even if this is the genius of plodding. Lucas has got the tone of bad movies down pat: you never catch the actors deliberately acting badly, they just seem to be bad actors, on contract to Monogram or Republic, their klunky enthusiasm polished at the Ricky Nelson school of acting. In a gesture toward equality of the sexes, the high-school-cheerleader princess-in-distress talks tomboy-tough — Terry Moore with spunk. Is it because the picture is synthesized from the mythology of serials and old comic books that it didn’t occur to anybody that she could get the Force?

Samuel Delany, Science Fiction and Fantasy

Motion: That’s the feeling you take away from the film more than any other. People tramp, run, sprint; sand skimmers skim; spaceships race, chase, or careen off to hyperspace. One ship explodes — cut to cloaked figure striding ominously forward, as if out of the explosion itself. The door to a prison cell falls — cut to a booted foot falling on a lightly gridded floor…. “Star Wars,” as far as I can tell, has no story at all — or rather, there are so many holes in the one it’s got you could explode a planet in some of them (about a third of the way through, one does); but it all goes so quickly that the rents and tears and creaking places in it blur out….

Lucas, like his fellow American, Bogdanovich and the Italian, Bertolucci, is aware specifically of the history of film. “Last Tango in Paris” had its little recalls of Vigo and Godard; “What’s Up, Doc?” paid its loving tribute to Howard Hawks and Mack Sennett. Lucas’s gestures to the science fiction film as a historical genre may make somebody a Ph.D. someday. Chewie’s marvelous head is for those of you who loved “Planet of the Apes.” The robot C-3PO it the “Maria” robot from Lang’s silent Metropolis. R2-D2 is first cousin to the little fellow trundling after Bruce Durn in Trumbull’s “Silent Running.” I believe I recall the extended bridge sequence from “Flash Gordon.” Certainly the last time I saw those alien clarinetists they were taking much more sinister roles in “This Island Earth,” and the Death Star interior where Kenobi (played wisely by Alec Guinness) deactivates the Whoseywhatsit, makes a most reverential bow to the shafted city of “Forbidden Planet.”…

When you travel across three whole worlds and all the people you see are so scrupulously Caucasian and male, Lucas’s future begins to seem a little dull. And the variation and invention suddenly turn out to be only the province of the set director and the special effects crew.

Robert Hatch, The Nation

Star Wars belongs to the sub-basement, or interstellar comic-strip, school of science fiction; Terry and the Pirates with astro-drive. The main participants are a princess in mortal peril, a splendid young Four-H type who is fated to rescue her, an irreverent free enterpriser with a space ship for hire, an aged mystic possessed of “the Force,” and a gaggle of villains who, when they are not entirely encased in elegantly fitted plastic armor, look very much like extras borrowed from scenes of the Wehrmacht general staff plotting Hitlerian strategies…. This is the sort of thing that will leach one’s brain, and I suspect that George Lucas (the director previously of American Graffiti) concocted the plot and personages deliberately to put us all in a slack-jawed state of mind suitable for maximum appreciation of his astonishing cinematic trickery

John Simon, 
New York

Strip “Star Wars” of its often-striking images and highfalutin scientific jargon, and you get a story, characters, and dialogue of overwhelming banality, without even a “future” cast to them…. Still “Star Wars” will do nicely for those lucky enough to be children, or those unlucky enough never to have grown up.

Stanley Kauffmann, The New Republic

The only way that ‘Star Wars’ could have been interesting was through its visual imagination and special effects. Both are unexceptional…. I kept looking for an “edge,” to peer around the corny, solemn comic-book strophes; he was facing them frontally and full. This picture was made for those (particularly males) who carry a portable shrine within them of their adolescence, a chalice of a Self that was Better Then, before the world’s affairs or — in any complex way — sex intruded.

Joy Gold Boyum, Wall Street Journal

There’s something depressing about seeing all these impressive cinematic gifts and all this extraordinary technological skills lavished on such puerile materials. Perhaps more important is what this seems to accomplish: the canonization of comic book culture which in turn becomes the triumph of the standardized, the simplistic, mass-produced commercial artifacts of our time. It’s the triumph of camp — that sentiment which takes delight in the awful simply because it’s awful.

Kansas City Star

On the Way to resolving these momentous matters, “Star Wars, ” a new film written and directed by George Lucas, turns out to offer as much fun as it does good, old-fashioned corniness — and that’s plenty. Along with the comic book dialogue arid pulp novel derring-do, the picture also reveals an immense amount of imagination and technical virtuosity…. Not since you curled up with a sci-fi magazine at the age of 12 has so much wondrous hokum been pumped into your skull.

Gene Siskel, Chicago Tribute (3 1/2 stars)

“Star Wars” is not a great movie in the sense that it describes the human condition. It simply is a fun picture that will appeal to those who love Buck Rogers-style adventures…. “Star Wars” is expected to be a big hit. If that turns out to be the case, then coupled with the success of “Rocky,” a message will have been sent by filmgoers to Hollywood: Give us old-fashioned, escapist movies with happy endings.

Joseph Gelmis, Newsday

“Star Wars” is one of the greatest movies ever made. It’s a masterpiece of entertainment. I haven’t had as much fun at a movie in years…. “Star Wars” is dense, compressed like good poetry, without any wasted sound or motion. It is utterly simplistic and at the same time totally sophisticated.

Penelope Gilliatt, New Yorker

“Star Wars” is both amazing and familiar. The robot-and-computer couple seems to be out of Beckett or vaudeville. The astonishing spacecraft have wars that summon up the effect of a bundle of kindling thrown onto a bonfire…. The movie is not to be compared in ferocity of imagination with Kubrick’s “2001”—significant that the music here is merely illustrative, never caustic or memorable, and that there is nothing of Kubrick’s vision of a blanched form of existence—but it is exuberantly entertaining.

Kathleen Carroll, New York Daily News

Most futuristic movies — one thinks particularly of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” — are chillingly antiseptic, with heavy accents on the scientific accuracy of the hardware. But “Star Wars” radiates a surprising amount of warmth – thanks to two personality-plus robots (the timid, goldplated See-Threepio with the high-pitched, Noel Coward-like voice, and the stubby independant Artoo-Detoo with the soulful beep) who are more endearingly human than the actors confined to one-dimensional, comic-strip roles.

John L. Wasserman, San Francisco Chronicle

The major science-fiction films of the past few years — the Russian “Solaris,” the French “Hu-Man,” the English “Man Who Fell to Earth,” as well as “2001” — have all been exceptional, but all have displayed pretensions of one kind or another, generally cosmic. “Star Wars” is not without content, but reaches as well for an area as embraceable by children or teenagers as by us older folks. With the opening declaration, it stakes out its turf: It will be a wonderful adventure, a fairy tale, a contemporary “Star Trek,” a stylish “Space: 1999” that will whisk us on the magic carpet of our imagination and Lucas’ vision to a time and space where spaceships exceeding the speed of light are flown by anthropoids, where slavers deal in hot robots and where chess games are played with mini monsters instead of rooks and pawns. The only audible preaching by Lucas – in a whisper, to be sure – suggests that man is man and creatures are creatures, and it doesn’t really matter how far forward or back you go to check it out. God is here The Force, feelings defeat the calculation, good conquers evil (but not without sacrifice) and love will keep us together.

Derek Malcom, Guardian

Viewed dispassionately – and of course that’s desperately difficult at this point in time — “Star Wars” is not an improvement on Mr Lucas’ previous work, except in box-office terms. It isn’t the best film of the year, it isn’t the best science fiction ever to be translated to the screen, it isn’t a number of other things either that sweating critics have tried to turn it into when faced with finding some plausible explanation for its huge and slightly sinister success considering a contracting market. But it is, on the other hand, enormous and exhilarating fun for those who are prepared to settle down in their seats and let it all wash over them. Which I firmly believe, with the extra benefit of hindsight, is more or less exactly what the vast majority of the cinema-going public want just now.

Philip Wuntch, Dallas Morning News

Director-writer George Lucas (“American Graffitti”) has composed a stunning visual symphony with elements of “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Three Musketeers” and even “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” as well as obvious science-fiction antecedents. Yet its technical scope and creativity, with space sequences more varied than those in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001,” place the film in a firmament of its own; you will not confuse “Star Wars” with any other movie you have seen.

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