Thirty five years ago today, the original Star Wars was released. It opened in the U.S. on a Wednesday, in just 38 theaters. The studio chose the pre-Memorial Day slot in the hope of getting a jump on the other, bigger movies coming out that summer. George Lucas, the film’s director, was worn out after a long, frustrating shoot, and was not convinced that his movie would be a success. He’d even gone so far as to trade 2.5% of the film’s profits as a bet with his friend Steven Spielberg in the belief that Close Encounters of the Third Kind would out-gross Star Wars.
It’s almost impossible to overstate the impact that Star Wars had on audiences in 1977. Long before it became “Episode IV”, and long before there were sequels, prequels, toys, novels, comic books, and video games there was only Star Wars. It was a cultural event that changed the way movies were made and marketed forever. Decades later, it is sometimes difficult to even mention the words “Star Wars” without stirring up passionate – sometimes heated – debate. Everyone has an opinion about something: Han shot first. The prequels are terrible. George Lucas has lost his mind and/or ruined someone’s childhood. Star Wars ushered in the era of the soulless blockbuster. The Star Wars Holiday Special is a moving, must-see celebration of the season.
In May 1977, however, the topic of discussion was not, “Which Anakin was worse?” (Answer: Jake Lloyd). It was, “How many times have you seen Star Wars?”. People lined up for hours to see the movie, and when it was over, they went back and lined up again. They bought too-tight R2D2 ringer t-shirts to coordinate with their bell-bottomed jeans. Some viewers were so inspired by the experience that they airbrushed Mark Hamill’s face onto their vans. Back then, Star Wars didn’t make people angry; it made them happy.
Of course, it’s easy to forget that there were other movies released in 1977. It’s true — although if you’ve forgotten The Exorcist II, don’t feel bad: so has everyone involved with the movie. The summer’s other big hit was Smokey and the Bandit, which delighted the moviegoers who couldn’t get into Star Wars because it was sold out. The two films are similar in many ways: both involve wisecracking heroes, high-speed pursuits, and smuggled cargo (400 cases of Coors in the former, Death Star plans in the latter). And like Star Wars, Burt Reynolds’ pièce de résistance had a significant impact on audiences. Sales of CB radios skyrocketed, and demand for mustaches reached an all-time high. Alas, Smokey’s impact was fleeting; despite being the fourth highest grossing film of 1977, it is currently ranked at number 983 on Flickchart, winning only 39% of its matchups. Compare that to Star Wars, which is currently ranked number 1 of the films of 1977, and the best movies of all-time, winning 77% of all matchups, and it’s no wonder Burt Reynolds seems so angry these days.
The second highest grossing film of 1977, Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, has had more of a lasting impact than Smokey. Although it involves UFOs and aliens from other worlds, it is actually quite dissimilar to Star Wars. Lucas uses his sci-fi setting as a backdrop for a frenetic fantasy/adventure tale, whereas Close Encounters is a more deliberately paced, cerebral story. Both films featured groundbreaking special effects, but while Star Wars wowed moviegoers with adrenaline-fueled space battles, Spielberg uses his effects to produce a sense of awe and wonder. The year was certainly a memorable one for the young director; not only was his own film a huge hit, but thanks to his bet with Lucas, he still makes 2.5% of the profits of Star Wars to this day.
If you want to talk about cinema in 1977, you can’t ignore Saturday Night Fever. Like Star Wars, it had a massive impact on seventies pop culture, helping to spark the burgeoning disco craze in the United States, and producing one of the best selling soundtracks of all time. Men stopped buttoning their top buttons and layered on the gold chains. Women feathered their hair and went crazy with eye makeup. Record producer Meco had the genius idea to combine America’s love of Star Wars with its love of strutting. The resulting creation, a disco version of the Star Wars theme, was a smash hit, reaching number one on the Billboard Hot 100. It was the most ingenious combination of tastes since someone first thought to combine chocolate with peanut butter. Ultimately, disco proved to be a short-lived fad, and despite its awesome dancing and a star-making turn from John Travolta, Saturday Night Fever today sits at a lowly 1,431 on Flickchart.
There were plenty of other noteworthy movies released in 1977, too. The documentary Pumping Iron introduced audiences to future superstar (and governor) Arnold Schwarzenegger and his ridiculous muscles. The Spy Who Loved Me was a big hit for the Bond franchise, and is remembered fondly today as “The Roger Moore One That Isn’t Terrible”. Apparently, there was even an ABBA movie released in 1977, something that I only recently learned from right here on the Flickchart blog. Flickchart is fun and educational, it turns out.
Three and a half decades later, however, we’re still talking about Star Wars. We’re still watching it, reading about it, and sometimes even dissecting it to death. The fact remains that Star Wars continues to be a part of film and popular culture. And thirty five years from now, long after even most of the films of 2012 have been forgotten, I’m pretty confident we’ll still be talking about it. (I won’t be, because I’ll likely be dead from all the caffeine, but other people will be, I’m sure.)
So Happy Birthday, Star Wars! You don’t look a day over 34.