Looking back at the (mostly glowing) reviews from 1977
Happy birthday, Star Wars.
This week marks the 40th anniversary of the film that launched not just a franchise, but an entirely new universe of thrilling stories, lovable characters, and more tie-in merchandise than you can shake a stick at.
But back in 1977, of course, no one knew just how big Star Wars would get. At the time, it was just an intriguing new release from the promising young director of THX 1138 and American Graffiti. On its very first day of release, it played in just 32 theaters across the U.S.
However, it didn’t take long for moviegoers, critics, and industry execs alike to realize they had something special on their hands. Those 32 theaters saw record-breaking ticket sales. Lines began to form, 20th Century Fox stock went up, and news outlets started to take notice. And, of course, the reviews started coming in.
In 2017, we generally take for granted that just about everyone has seen Star Wars, and that just about everyone who’s seen Star Wars likes Star Wars. It’s hard to name a property more beloved or more ubiquitous.
It’s fascinating, then, to look back at the initial reviews from 1977. These critics couldn’t assume their readers had any interest in Star Wars, or even any idea of what it was. It was impossible for them to anticipate the twists and turns to come in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi (to say nothing of the prequel trilogy, the current sequel series, the A Star Wars Story spinoffs, and all the supplementary canon material).
All they had was the movie in front of them: an original sci-fi adventure, starring a mix of familiar and up-and-coming actors, steeped in a mythology that only gradually revealed itself over the course of the movie. So with all that in mind, what did they think? Well …
Did critics like Star Wars?
There were a few pans, of course. The New Yorker‘s Pauline Kael sniffed that it was “an assemblage of spare parts—it has no emotional grip.” In a similar vein, New York sneered, “Star Wars will do very nicely for those lucky enough to be children or unlucky enough never to have grown up.”
But most reviews fell closer to this rave by The Toronto Star:
Star Wars is one of the most enjoyable movies ever made – a funny, exciting and magnificently spectacular two-hour space fantasy that leaves the audience panting for a sequel.
How did critics describe Star Wars?
Star Wars is such a universal point of reference these days that anything remotely similar to Star Wars is described as being “like Star Wars.” But that, of course, was not an option when critics were describing the original Star Wars.
Instead, people described it more or less like Roger Ebert does below. The Wizard of Oz, Flash Gordon, and 2001: A Space Odyssey are all referenced often across these reviews.
“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 of Amazing Stories.
What did reviewers think of Darth Vader?
Less than you might think. Darth Vader looms large over Star Wars now – his black helmet is to Star Wars what Mickey Mouse ears are to Disney – but he’s only actually in A New Hope for about ten minutes. It wasn’t ’til The Empire Strikes Back that fans realized Darth Vader was a Skywalker, and that Star Wars was the story of the Skywalker family.
Instead, a lot of reviews from the era present Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin as the main villain, and Darth Vader as … uh …
“[Tarkin’s] executive assistant” (The New York Times).
“[Tarkin’s] sorcerous, black-masked aide, Lord Darth Vader” (Variety).
“a six-and-a-half-foot renegade knight of The Force (David Prowse) who wears a black (what else?) uniform and cape and a predatory beaked black metal face mask” (Newsday).
“a knight in chilling black armor (who should have been dubbed ‘The Breather’)” (The Denver Post).
“an assistant who looks like a black vinyl-coated frog” (The Chicago Tribune‘s Gene Siskel).
But hey, it could be worse. Some reviewers don’t even mention Vader – including The Guardian, who simply refers to “an assortment of villains so unterrifying that it looks as if you’d only have to pinch them to produce a fit of giggles (but who would dare do any such thing to Peter Cushing?)”
Ouch. Okay, what about the other characters?
R2-D2 and C-3PO were incredibly popular with critics of the era, which probably isn’t that surprising considering how well loved they still are today. The pair drew comparisons to Laurel and Hardy, as well as a bunch of superlatives. Here’s a sampling:
The duo even won over New York, which was otherwise critical of the film. After sighing that all the other characters and conflicts were “all as exciting as last year’s weather reports,” writer John Simon acknowledges:
Rather more can be said for the two robots that steal the show: one humanoid, British-accented, and with an Edward Everett Horton persona; the other, a kind of mobile electronic trash can, all nervous beeps and hearty bloops, waddling along in vintage Mickey Rooney style.
What about the human characters?
Alec Guinness drew his fair share of praise for playing Ben Kenobi. (The Denver Post described his casting as a “stroke of genius.”) Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford aren’t talked about as much, perhaps because all three were still so early in their careers.
Still, a handful of critics spotted their potential right away. Ford got a particularly gushing rave from The Washington Post:
Han Solo is the film’s most flamboyant human role, and Harrison Ford, who appeared as the hot rodder who challenged Paul Le Mat in “American Graffiti,” has a splendid time capitalizing on its irresistible style of cynical heroism. It would be professionally criminal to flub such an ingratiating, star-making assignment, and although Ford plays in a relaxed, drawing style, reminiscent of Jack Nicholson at his foxiest, he maintains a firm grip on this golden opportunity. He would have kids and grownups by the millions roaring their approval at defiant sentiments like the following: “Bring ’em on! I prefer a straight fight to all this sneaking around.”
In addition, The Toronto Star dropped this bit of praise for the director: “Lucas proved in American Graffiti that he works well with performers, and he does it again in Star Wars.” It makes perfect sense in context, of course; it’s just funny to read now that we’ve suffered through the stilted acting of the prequel trilogy.
Were there any standout scenes?
Different reviewers highlighted different scenes, but one that came up again and again was the cantina scene. The Washington Post devotes roughly four paragraphs to this one sequence, and Gene Siskel described it as “the film’s funniest sequence.” It was also a favorite of Roger Ebert‘s, who wrote:
The most fascinating single scene, for me, was the one set in the bizarre saloon on the planet Tatooine. As that incredible collection of extraterrestrial alcoholics and bug-eyed martini drinkers lined up at the bar, and as Lucas so slyly let them exhibit characteristics that were universally human, I found myself feeling a combination of admiration and delight. “Star Wars” had placed me in the presence of really magical movie invention: Here, all mixed together, were whimsy and fantasy, simple wonderment and quietly sophisticated storytelling.
How about those special effects?
The visuals were so stunning that, according to Gene Siskel, “the audience applauded the names of its special effects artists” after a preview screening of Star Wars. (Siskel agrees that the clapping was “deserved.”)
Likewise, The New York Times enthuses:
The true stars of Star Wars are John Barry, who was responsible for the production design, and the people who were responsible for the incredible special effects—spaceships, explosions of stars, space battles, hand-to-hand combat with what appear to be lethal neon swords.
Comparisons to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey were frequent and usually favorable:
“‘Star Wars’ is as beautiful as anything on a movie screen in a decade, and can hold its own in comparison to ‘2001: A Space Odyssey'” (Newsday).
Lucas has assembled the most brilliant special effects and futuristic characters this side of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’ (The Denver Post).
Lucas’ film cost significantly less than Kubrick’s even after inflation. But the small army of inspired technical effects creators he assembled have worked wizardries in some ways more lavish and varied than Kubrick’s own (The LA Times).
Star Wars is an impeccable technical achievement: a quantum — or maybe quasar — leap beyond 2001 (New York – which, remember, did not like the movie).
Any famous last words?
Look, it’s obviously unfair to fault critics of the time for not predicting the crazy plot twists ahead. But this summary, from The Washington Post, of the Han-Leia-Luke dynamic might make you spit out your drink:
Lucas creates a romantic triangle between Luke, Han Solo and the haughty, bossy, indomitable Princess that seems perfectly resolved by not being resolved at all.
If the Princess ever chooses to share her favors, poetic justice seems to demand that she favor the heroes equally. Could this mischievous hint of a menage-a-trois in-the-making, which is about as racy as the byplay between Hope, Crosby and Lamour in the “Road” comedies, have been as responsible for the PG rating as the fighting, which is abundant but scarcely realistic?
“Menage-a-trois in-the-making.” We’ll let Han Solo’s face do the talking for us, here: