Today marks the 40th anniversary of the original Star Wars film (well, its release in America anyway), and four decades since the world of cinema, sci-fi and pop culture in general was turned upside down.
Pretty much from day one Star Wars was a phenomenon; all the jitters of the cast and crew working on their weird little sci-fi movie in England came to nought as it conquered the box office and entered the zeitgeist.
Today, Star Wars is in a stronger position than ever, with a new trilogy in cinemas, spin-off movies keeping the ticket sales up in the off years.
In its first 30 years, six Star Wars films were produced. Come 2020, that number will have doubled.
So with that in mind, we have to wonder – what makes Star Wars stand out? What is it about George Lucas’ vision that has helped it not only stand the test of time, but continue to thrive?
We tried to find out by asking three experts – a lifelong superfan, a cultural anthropologist and a man who actually made one of the Star Wars films – and hopefully gained a partial picture of what made a story about a farmboy with a laser sword one of the most influential creations in modern culture.
Let’s start with the man behind-the-scenes…
“I don’t remember the first time I saw it,” director Gareth Edwards tells RadioTimes.com of the franchise that would come to dominate his personal and professional life. “It just kind of existed.”
Edwards was speaking ahead of the release of his Star Wars prequel Rogue One, which was released last December and fills in some of the mysteries left up to the audience’s imaginations in the original 1977 Star Wars. Clearly, lifelong fan Edwards was the perfect man to bring that classic era of Star Wars history back to life – but how does he look back on Star Wars 40 long years after it first began?
“I felt like I was born into a world where it was just there,” he said. “It means everything.
“When I was growing up as a kid it promised this world with stormtroopers and spaceships, and then you realise the real world is a lot more boring than that and you have to get over it and get a real job – you can’t join the rebel alliance!”
To many, that escapist appeal is a big part of what makes Star Wars so successful – though for Edwards, it wasn’t to remain a fantasy forever.
“I was really lucky that I got to make a Star Wars film in my career,” he says now. “Everyone’s talked about the pressure of doing that, but it’s weirdly felt like the original promise. It felt like going back to my childhood.
“It was incredibly comforting, how the world was supposed to be, before the world was a lie.”
Of course, there are also more complex societal and cultural reasons why Star Wars appeals to so many around the world – at least according to cultural historian and anthropologist Matthew Kapell, who believes a perfect storm of different factors put Star Wars in its prime position.
“It came out in exactly the right moment,” he says. “Initially in American culture, because I think the original Star Wars film is very much a post-Vietnam kind of film.
“But then, Star Wars hit right for a moment in which American film was going to start becoming global film, and it has done that tremendously well.
“It happened at exactly the right moment. It caught on in the United States because of the Vietnam experience, and then it was at the exact moment in which American film was about to leave the United States far more forcefully than it had previously.”
Kapell also believes that George Lucas’ storytelling structure, the ‘Hero’s Journey’ story common to many myths, legends and other tales that was brought into popular knowledge by mythologist Joseph Campbell, has a big part to play in the franchise’s success.
Here’s how Campbell described the basic story pattern, which Kapell and many others argue has become structurally ingrained in humanity after centuries of use in storytelling:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
“When you combine that with Lucas using the mythic structure that is the monomyth, Joseph Campbell stuff, everybody can watch that movie,” he said. “Because we have, to a certain extent, been programmed to feel in our gut.
“So it works – it works perfectly. There is no better representation of myth in popular culture than Star Wars. There was a moment there when I thought The Matrix was going to pull it off, but it did not.”
He concluded: “I think Star Wars is the most complete version of at least Western myth that has been done in popular culture.”
“I’ve always been a big movie buff, fan, call it what you like,” actor Gary Hailes, who may be familiar to EastEnders fans as 80s character Barry Clark, tells us.
“Particularly a sci-fi fan since I was a kid. And I can remember watching Star Wars back in ’77, and I actually did watch it in ’77. And it’s a big family treat, a Christmas present. Most of my family went to see it at Christmas that year.
“I remember being enamoured, and once the Stormtroopers came on to what we now know as [Princess Leia’s spaceship] the Tantive IV at the beginning, I was just fascinated by Stormtroopers.”
For most people, this interest in the white-suited shock troops of the Evil Empire would have resulted in picking up a few action figures – but for Gary, things went a little further. Since the late 2000s he’s been a member of a worldwide costuming club called the 501st Legion, an international group that dress up as Stormtroopers or other Star Wars villains to a professional standard for charity events, premieres and conventions.
These days, he’s head of the UK Garrison and second-in-command of the 501st worldwide (which includes around 10,000 active members), meaning he has a close insight into the sort of dedicated fan communities that mark Star Wars out from other movie franchises.
“I use the word community because we’re so diverse and so far spread, but yeah, we’re like a family,” he says. “We had an American lady come stay with us who I’ve never met before in my life. She’s a member in Seattle, Washington, she put a message on our board saying she’s visiting the UK, she wants to sofa surf where possible and hang out and meet people at the very least.
“I’ve been to the States several times, and I’ve met and hung out with lots of people who I would never have otherwise met, and I instantly have a rapport and a kind of relationship with them.
“My favourite thing will always be that one person, generally a kid, that you connect with. That you just see their day changed just as a result of seeing your costume. And it really doesn’t matter whether it’s a kid in hospital or a 50-year-old in a shopping centre, people will come up and say, ‘Man, you’ve completely made my day. I just cannot tell you how excited I am…’
“Community’s the key word I think – it’s this community and camaraderie. It’s a crazy hobby, and you know 20 years ago, if it weren’t for the internet and everything else – you told your mates, ‘Oh yeah I dress up as a Stormtrooper on the weekend’ and people would ridicule you – you’d feel really isolated,” he added.
“90 per cent of the numbers in my phone are to do with this hobby. And I’m just coming up to nine years now, doing this. It’s taken over my life, but in a very positive way. A very good way!”
The writer of this article
Twist ending – I’m in this piece too.
Like Gareth Edwards, I’d struggle to remember a time Star Wars didn’t exist, though for me there’s a very clear reason for that – I was born about 15 years after the first movie came out, but was just the right age for the re-release of the original trilogy for Star Wars’ last big anniversary back in 1997.
Since then it’s safe to say the films have occupied a small but consistent part of my life, from endlessly collecting statuettes of the characters from cereal boxes and buying all the terrible tie-in games to scheduling an overnight marathon of all six films (those were the days) with my friends which we attended in full home-made costumes.
Let me tell you, watching Return of the Jedi at 6am with a plastic Chewbacca mask and a stomach full of energy drinks is TOUGH.
Anyway, I’m not here to claim any sort of obsessive superfandom or special connection to Star Wars – there are bound to be many people reading this with much closer connections to the films by dint of being alive when they were first released, dedicating themselves to reading every Expanded Universe novel or actually learning the Jedi arts – but I can’t deny that as someone who writes about sci-fi for a living, Star Wars has had a shaping influence in my personal and professional life just like the people interviewed above.
Star Wars Episodes I-VII
In brutal terms, Star Wars has lasted because it’s a franchise that makes good, entertaining films with mass appeal while simultaneously selling GREAT merchandise.
But it’s more than that; it’s that personal sense of connection, continuity and nostalgia so many feel to the series that helped it stand the test of time after the original trilogy ended, and certainly what brought it back twice for new trilogies.
Whether you’re a Star Wars director, a sci-fi academic, a professional Stormtrooper or just someone who loves the second trailer for The Force Awakens, we all have our own Star Wars stories – and here’s hoping that over the next 40 years even more people will too.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi will be released in UK cinemas on 15th December
Additional reporting by Thomas Ling