The Force Awakens: JJ brings fans a New Hope
The level of secrecy that surrounds Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which opens worldwide next Thursday, has been so obsessive that one of its stars compared working on the film to a wartime campaign. "It's literally like D-Day," Carrie Fisher commented of her experiences on the set. "If the Nazis find out we're coming! But I understand," she added. "There is just this insane interest. People grew up with these characters, so it's their childhoods."
Indeed it is, and die-hard Star Wars fans must surely be buoyed by the fact that the new film's director is one of their own. JJ Abrams was 11-years-old when the first Star Wars film came out: he bought a Chewbacca doll, and became an impassioned fan. He must surely have shared the general disappointment with George Lucas's trilogy of prequels released between 1999 and 2005, and seems determined that The Force Awakens will be very much a back-to-basics reboot in the manner of his recent Star Trek revivals.
Lucas himself is out of the picture, having sold his film company and the Star Wars rights to Disney in 2012. Abrams, veteran screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan and Little Miss Sunshine's creator Michael Arndt have handled the script, offering strong signs that the humourlessness of the Lucas prequels will be remedied.
A lot of the original design elements have been restored, John Williams is back doing the music, decent actors like Oscar Issac, Domhnall Gleeson and John Boyega have been cast in key parts, and Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford will all reprise their roles in a story set 30 years after the original trilogy. In short, the omens couldn't be better.
The only slight worry is this: because of how it was made, and the fact that no one believed in it, Star Wars: A New Hope had a kind of seat-of-its-pants charm, a delightful messiness that made it feel spontaneous, newly minted. That quality was still there in The Empire Strikes Back, but fell away in the plodding Return of the Jedi, and has never been seen since. JJ Abrams sounds like he's doing everything right, but if The Force Awakens is too blandly professional, too slick, a vital ingredient will be absent.
George Lucas' intergalactic odyssey all started with his love of 1940s serial adventures, the kind of cliffhanging follow-ups that were shown before the main feature and would also inspire the creation of Indiana Jones. In particular he loved Flash Gordon, and in the early 1970s attempted to purchase the rights to the character so that he could make a Gordon film. But he couldn't afford them, so he decided to write his own space story instead.
Lucas was inspired by Japanese legends, the cult of the Samurai, and the films of Akira Kurosawa, as well as the melodrama of the Saturday morning serials that had encouraged him to dream of becoming a film-maker in the first place.
His earliest attempts at a Star Wars script, based heavily on the plot of Kurosawa's 1958 historical adventure The Hidden Fortress, introduced the concept of a Jedi father and son, though the family name at this point was 'Starkiller' rather than the gentler Skywalker, and the father was a hero and a general, rather than a disfigured, heavy-breathing villain.
Flat broke and desperate for backing, Lucas spent several years in the mid-70s honing successive drafts of his story, including characters like the space smuggler Han Solo (who was initially bright green and had gills) and Chewbacca, an eight-foot hairy alien based on the Lucas family dog, Indiana, who would later provide the inspiration for other characters.
He thought it was brilliant, but when Lucas started touting a 13-page treatment for a film called 'The Star Wars - The Story of Mace Windu' around Hollywood in 1972, no one wanted anything to do with it. It was quickly rejected by United Artists and Universal, but in June of 1973 he was lucky enough to show it to someone with a bit of vision.
When 20th Century Fox boss Alan Ladd Jr read the sci-fi script he was bemused by the story and its rather pompous mythology, but decided to back it because he could see that George was talented. "He invested in me," Lucas later said, "not the movie."
Fox weren't all that confident about the film's chances, however, and decided to hedge their bets by offering Lucas the entire sequel and prequel rights if he'd work for a low fee.
But when shooting began in London's Elstree Studios in 1976, the crew reckoned that Lucas had been offered 100 percent of nothing. They had scant respect for what they thought was a hopelessly grandiose children's film, and some of the actors weren't too impressed either.
With little sense of what kind of shape the film would ultimately take, they felt lost in their bizarre costumes and Lucas' eccentric story. Neither Ford, Fisher nor Mark Hamill were established stars, and this added to the general unease about a production that seemed to lack cohesion, and focus.
Alec Guinness, who played Jedi master Obi Wan Kenobi, later said he did not enjoy his time on the Star Wars set, and claimed it was his idea to have his character killed off so that he "wouldn't have to carry on saying these rubbish lines".
Even George Lucas' friend and former house carpenter Harrison Ford balked at the oddness of the script, though no one seems quite sure whether it was Ford or Carrie Fisher who uttered the immortal complaint, "you can type this shit, George, but you sure can't say it".
Lucas rarely spoke to his actors on the set and gave little by way of direction. The crew didn't like his taciturn ways, and tendency to try and control everything from set design to lighting. And from the very start, the omens for Star Wars were anything but good. When English actor Anthony Daniels first tried on his C-3PO android suit on location in Tunisia, the left leg piece shattered, stabbing him in the foot. And later in the shoot Mark Hamill was badly disfigured in a car crash, which made re-shoots tricky.
The toll of shooting in London, LA and Tunisia eventually told on Lucas, who was briefly hospitalised with hypertension. And things didn't improve very much when he showed a rough cut of the film to industry friends.
John Milius came away from the screening convinced that Star Wars was going to be a flop, and Brian De Palma warned Lucas that he was about to become the laughing stock of Hollywood. But in fairness that first cut was far from complete, and featured clips of World War II dogfights in place of the epic space battles, which hadn't been completed.
The final cut would be considerably leaner too, but one person at Lucas' private screening saw Star Wars' potential straight away. Steven Spielberg reckoned he'd just watched something special.
No one else - least of all Lucas - was particularly confident in advance of the film's release, on May 25, 1977. A camp and wordy two-hour-long space drama starring Alec Guinness and a bunch of unknown young actors didn't seem an especially hot prospect in an era dominated by conspiracy thrillers and disaster movies.
In May of 1977 George Lucas fled to Hawaii to avoid his film's première, and it was not until he saw a TV news report about crowds queuing around the block to see Star Wars that he realised he'd made a huge hit. Star Wars stayed in cinemas around the world for months on end, and eventually became the highest grossing film ever to that point.
Within six months it had replaced Jaws as the highest earning film in American history, and went on to earn over $220m during its initial release, or $850m when adjusted for inflation.
While he may not have been entirely confident about Star Wars, Lucas had struck that deal with Fox whereby he charged a mere $175,000 directing fee in exchange for the merchandising rights, and all rights to any future sequels. It was the smartest decision he ever made.
By the time he came to make the sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, in 1980, he had three times the budget, a brilliant screenwriter in Lawrence Kasdan, and had established his own studio. He never looked back.
Empire Strikes Back is often cited by critics and fans as the best Star Wars film of all. Lawrence Kasdan has also worked on the new one - let's hope that's a good omen.
Star Wars: the story so far
George Lucas' daring space opera appeared from nowhere in the summer of 1977 and became an all-conquering cultural phenomenon. In Star Wars IV: A New Hope, a farm boy, a princess and a cynical space pirate set out to topple an evil intergalactic empire. Probably the best of the Star Wars films, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) saw Luke fulfil his destiny by becoming a powerful Jedi warrior and squaring up to Lord Vader in a memorable lightsaber battle that ended with a seismic revelation. And in Return of the Jedi (1983) an ever more powerful Luke leads a Rebel Alliance assault on the new Death Star. But after that, the problems started.
Fans were hugely disappointed by The Phantom Menace (1999), which starred Ewan McGregor as a young Obi Wan Kenobi in a slow-moving adventure overburdened by special effects. In the second of George Lucas' tedious 'prequels', Attack of the Clones (2002), the talented but impetuous Jedi trainee Anakin Skywalker is assigned to protect a beautiful young senator. Revenge of the Sith (2005) was a bit better but not much, as Skywalker was gradually drawn to the dark side. And the mind-numbingly boring 2008 animated instalment Clone Wars was the worst of the lot.