On July 4 of this year I will be turning 40 years old. That is a big day for any person. It seems bigger to the person actually making the milestone than to the people around them since everyone has a 40th birthday eventually…unless they die before they get there. And barring any unforeseen circumstances over the next six and a half months I will probably be blowing out those candles on Independence Day.
But I want to conduct a little experiment with myself. I am a movie guy. I love movies and I love television. I have been this way since I was a child. To me there has never been a more pleasant and satisfying pastime as sitting and letting a story wash over you the way that a movie can do. The two or three hours that you spend watching film are the culmination of hundreds of hours of work by hundreds of individuals that poured their heart and soul into that project. The actors, the director, the camera guys…all the way down to the guy that sweeps up after everyone has left have all built their careers on making stories for us to consume as entertainment.
This year, as I approach the big Four-oh, I have decided that I want to go on a journey. I want to find out what the 40 most important movies are to me. What are the 40 movies that I love more than anything in the world? And to do that I am going to start in the year that I was born and do a review of my favorite film from that year. I will post an entry for my favorite movie out of every year that I’ve been alive. These are not the top movies of those years. These are not the classics that are on the “movies you should see before you die” list. These are my favorite movies and the ones that have had an impact on my life.
A lot of the earlier ones I obviously didn’t see until later in life. And my no means have I seen every film that has come out in the last 40 years, so my list may change in the future.
The year that I was born was 1977 and a lot of things happened on the silver screen that year. John Travolta had Saturday Night Fever, Woody Allen was back with Annie Hall, 007 was taking us on another thrilling adventure with The Spy Who Loved Me, and Burt Reynolds was eastbound and down in Smokey And The Bandit. But there was one movie that was released that year that has been more of part of my life than almost any other movie that will be on my list. Of course I’m talking about Star Wars.
When it originally came out it was known as Star Wars, though fans today refer to it either as Episode IV or A New Hope. I can’t imagine that there would be anyone reading this blog that has never heard of this film, but it is a fantasy story that takes place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. It’s the story of Luke Skywalker, a farm boy who lives on the planet Tatooine. He intercepts a message from Princess Leia, one of the leaders of a rebellion against the evil Empire, on its way to a former Jedi knight by the name of Obi Wan Kenobi. The message contains the plans to the Empire’s newest weapon, a planet destroying space station known as the Death Star. Now Luke finds himself embroiled in a battle that will decide the fate of the galaxy and a road that will lead him to becoming the last Jedi warrior.
When George Lucas dreamed up this movie he came up with so many concepts that have been borrowed and reused hundreds of times in the decades since. But a lot of the storytelling elements that make this movie so great were themselves borrowed from things that have come before. This is more than just a science fiction story. Those kinds of stories are a dime a dozen. This movie is a perfect storm that occurs when you take a story that we’ve heard before and throw in a few dashes of things that we’ve never dreamed of.
This movie had a princess, a wizard, a pirate, starships, swordfights, a couple of monsters, some soldiers, and everything in between. It introduced us to Storm Troopers, TIE Fighters, X-Wings, and light sabers. We hear sounds that resonate even today. There is no other sound in cinematic history like the sound of a light saber being turned on.
And then there is Darth Vader. In this first film he is terrifying. Dressed all in black and wearing a mask that completely hides his face…I can remember the way my little heart thumped in my chest the first time that I saw him. The sound of his breathing sent a chill down my spine. Vader was a dark lord of the Sith, the evil mirror image of the Jedi. Lucas took the scary away from him in later films, but in this one he was perfect. I remember watching him first step into the frame in those first few scenes and having horrible thoughts about what was under that mask and being convinced that he was going to pull it off and scare me.
This movie also did things with special effects that had never been done. Not only that, they had never even been thought about. You’ll find in future blogs that I don’t really think much of George Lucas as a writer. But I stand in awe at his ability to create an environment and to figure out how to show us on the screen what he’s seeing in his mind. When I watch this movie now it is usually some sort of remastered version that has doctored all of the effects shots to make them look more modern. Back then I was watching a VHS that had been recorded off of television. You could see the blank squares around the X-Wings and the TIE Fighters during that famous dog fight and in the battle around the Death Star. We notice all of that when we go back to it now. All we saw then was that this world was unveiling before us. We were being transported to this galaxy and it was amazing.
The movie that we got wouldn’t have been the same without the cast. Mark Hamill was the only one that could play Luke. Sir Alec Guinness was a the veteran actor that brought credence to the project, even though he thought that it was all rather silly. Harrison Ford went on from here to become one of Hollywood’s A-List actors and he’s still working today. James Earl Jones was the perfect resonating voice of Vader. And the late Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia…
When I heard of her passing I mourned as though she were family.
Many, many filmmakers have tried to do their own version of Star Wars. Even Lucas tried to catch lightening in a bottle a second time when he made his prequel trilogy 20 years later. But nothing has equaled what we got in the summer of 1977.
There are a few movies throughout the history of cinema that are true game changers. Star Wars changed the way science fiction and fantasy unfolded before us. There is no question that it takes the prize as my favorite movie from 1977.