Tuesday, October 20, 2015

"The Name is Skywalker, Luke Skywalker."

George Lucas' Star Wars (1977) is one of that handful of mid-'70s films celebrated, and attacked, as giving us the contemporary blockbuster. However, when asked about the matter in one long-ago interview, he remarked that "It was more James Bond than 'Star Wars' that brought in the 'adrenaline' movies."1

The Bond films have, of course, been a prominent part of the pop cultural landscape of the last half century. And Lucas is far from the only one to remark them as having been important in the development of the action movie, something of a consensus existing about their importance.

Still, it is rare that anyone explains the reason for that. To put it simply, it was the makers of the half dozen '60s-era Bond films that, looking to extend and amplify the style of prior thriller-makers like Alfred Hitchcock, sought to give the audience a shock, a thrill, a "bump" every couple of minutes, and accomplish this in part with a new cinematic structure (pre-credits scenes, a swifter pace leading from one shock to the next), while also working in large, complex set pieces of a kind previously unseen in contemporary-set thrillers. They also revolutionized the photography and editing of such set pieces with the use of close shots, "jump cuts," undercranking and exaggerated sound effects to intensify the action.2

Of course, in considering the Bond films' influence it has to be kept in mind that they were not really a Hollywood product. They were financed by United Artists, and involved the participation of some Hollywood talent, like veteran screenwriter Richard Maibaum, but were generally made by British-based (if expatriate) producers at Britain's Pinewood studios, with British directors and (mostly) British stars.

That limited their impact, even when, with Goldfinger, the movies started to get a little respect from tinseltown, which shamelessly imitated them, while usually missing what was most important about them. The multitude of '60s-era Bond imitations were mostly cheap-looking parodies (I was shocked when I learned the Derek Flint movies cost almost as much as Goldfinger--proof, I suppose, that basic math skills were scarce at the big studios then as now). The big action movies that followed--Bullitt (1968), The French Connection (1971), Dirty Harry (1971)--tended to be crime dramas which tossed a bit of action into a more conventionally structured, slower-paced narrative.

It was only Star Wars that really brought all the elements of James Bondian action (structure, pace, set pieces, editing technique) to big-budget Hollywood filmmaking.

Indeed, one can see much of the famous "formula" of the Bond films in the movie's structure.

Just like the Bond films, Star Wars hits the viewer hard with a flamboyantly stylized opening image (the title, the crawl) set to a now-classic musical score (John Williams' theme), which quickly gives way to an action scene that reveals something of the plans of a bizarre-looking and apparently psychotic villain—Darth Vader pursuing Princess Leia's smaller consular ship in his colossal Star Destroyer.

As it turns out, the enemy is operating out of a vast, high-tech, apparently impregnable fortress from which they are controlling a super-weapon that can destroy a world. In the course of their mission our hero is issued a gadget by an older, wiser figure (Obi-Wan, light saber), heads out to the destination to which he has been summoned (Alderaan), gets captured (tractor beam, Death Star), faces the villain (Darth), escapes from the fortress with knowledge of what must be done--with a new female ally, incidentally (Leia)--returns with allies in a military assault (X-Wings) that narrowly destroys the facility and the super-weapon as the clock ticks down to the destruction of a world (Yavin).

And of course, by this point the Bond films had already made repeated use of space themes that look like even closer precedents for Lucas' film. The most pointed were of course You Only Live Twice--which also opened with a larger spaceship capturing a smaller one--and Diamonds Are Forever--which put a super-laser in the heavens that the hero took out mere seconds before it delivered a catastrophic blow at the planet below at the film's climax.

Just about all that was missing was the sexuality. But then Princess Leia did wear that gold bikini in Return of the Jedi--for many a Star Wars fan, the equivalent of Ursula Andress' arrival on-screen way back when. So much so that watching that episode of Friends all those years ago, many must have totally expected just what fantasy Ross was going to confess to Rachel even before he said a word.3

1. Lucas' comment can be found in David A. Kaplan, "The Force Is Still With Us" Newsweek, 20 Jan. 1997, 56.
2. You can read a lengthier discussion of this history in The Forgotten James Bond, which discusses the movies' place in the development of the action film.
3. The title of the episode is actually "The One With the Princess Leia Fantasy," but I didn't know that at the time.

Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
My Posts on Star Wars
My Posts on James Bond

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