This article is part of a special StarWars.com series in honor of Star Wars‘ 40th anniversary on May 25.
What better way to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Star Wars: A New Hope than by revisiting its reviews from 1977? This time machine of the written word is fascinating, as it charts the growth of the Star Wars phenomenon.
Initial reviews of Star Wars were, for the most part, really positive. The Hollywood Reporter printed in the first paragraph of its initial review that Star Wars would “undoubtedly emerge as one of the true classics in the genre of science fiction/fantasy films” and that “it will be thrilling audiences of all ages for a long time to come.”
Little did they know we’d be looking back on 40 years of thrills with a bright future ahead of us.
The Hollywood Reporter wasn’t the only paper to shower praise on the film. Gary Arnold, writing for The Washington Post, said that Star Wars offered a new lease on life for Twentieth Century Fox and wrote, “George Lucas has made the kind of sci-fi adventure movie you dream about finding, for your own pleasure as well as your kids’ pleasure.” Variety called it “magnificent.” The Wall Street Journal called it “a gigantic, lavish, brilliantly executed old-time movie comic strip.” The New York Times said that Star Wars was “the most elaborate, most expensive, most beautiful movie serial ever made.”
But the praise for Star Wars wasn’t necessarily unanimous.
The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael famously claimed that it was assembled of spare parts and had no emotional grip. There was even some backlash when TIME hailed Star Wars as the best film of the year. Pete Hamill of the New York Post said, flat out, that Star Wars couldn’t be the best picture of any year that had Annie Hall in it. Notorious showbiz columnist Barbara Bladen wrote on May 27, 1977 that there was no way Star Wars was the best, “because one can’t get emotionally involved with the characters and that’s the mark of a meaningful film in my thinking.” She did admit, though, that even without that impact, Star Wars still had to be seen to be believed.
Even Gene Siskel, the legendary film critic from Chicago who made up half of the At the Movies team alongside Roger Ebert, scoffed at the idea that Star Wars was the best film of 1977, though he still loved it. “Star Wars is not a great movie in the sense that it describes the human condition. It is simply a fun picture that will appeal to those who enjoy Buck Rogers-style adventures. What places it a sizable cut above the routine is its spectacular visual effects, the best since 2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Perhaps the biggest name in criticism that was wholly unreserved in his instant love for Star Wars was Roger Ebert, who bestowed upon it a perfect four-star review. He was the first critic to connect Luke’s journey to that of the mythological hero and closed his review by saying, “The magic of Star Wars is only dramatized by the special effects; the movie’s heart is in its endearingly human (and non-human) people.”
When the film became a genuine phenomenon, the writing about the film didn’t stop. Many critics sought an answer for why the film was so popular. Gene Siskel revisited the question of Star Wars once more on June 5 under the headline, “Plato would have liked Star Wars.” In that piece, he came to the conclusion with the help of fans and philosophers, “Star Wars expresses ideals like goodness and virtue so that we are able to imagine them once again. That’s what Plato said was the purpose of good art. So, from the point of view of a Platonic critic, Star Wars is a ‘good’ picture.”
Kids and adults alike latched on to that goodness. Jim Myers, writing on October 10, 1977, for the Ithaca Journal, took his kids to see Star Wars for the first time, worried that it would be too scary for them, or that they wouldn’t get the message. But they got it in a way that made that morality palpable for him. “What affected me most about the experience of seeing Star Wars with my kids was that we were three people, ages 4, 5, and 36, sitting in a row. All three of us enjoyed Star Wars and — to an unusual degree for people of different generations — agreed on what Star Wars had to say about life. This is obviously one of the artistic triumphs of Star Wars. But it also was a human triumph — for the three of us.”
Writing for The Guardian on December 13, 1977, Derek Malcolm boils it down to the familiarity of Star Wars that would have ordinarily seemed like clichés. “This is done, quite deliberately, by looking back into the past rather than forward in the future. Every conceivable convention of the genre is shamelessly brandished rather than concealed. Star Wars, as Lucas himself as remarked, seeks to generate a ‘high level of fantasy.’ And you can’t do that nowadays by blowing the mind without suitable references.”
All of these things are apparent, but the single biggest factor might have been the repeat viewer. People flocked to see Star Wars over and over and over again in a way that just did not happen during its era. Local papers all over the country profiled fans who had seen Star Wars repeatedly. The LaCrosse Journal in Wisconsin dedicated a whole page of their September 17, 1977, edition to a story framed around Deb Thompson, who was then a 20-year-old English major at Viterbo college. She’d seen the film 16 times at the time of that writing. “I know the dialogue by heart,” she told reporter Roland Nelson. “Next week, I’m going to give myself a test and write the script word for word and take it with me to my next viewing.”
Nelson even did an informal survey of theater patrons as he was writing the article and found that “one patron admitted to having seen 10 performances and another was on his way to viewing number 4.”
After that came all of the articles profiling the cast and crew and promises of another movie. Fox executive Alan Ladd talked to Gene Siskel for his June 5, 1977, piece and promised a sequel. “The sequel will concentrate more on the people,” Ladd said. “There’s no reason for us to do an enormous air battle sequence again. How could we top the original?”
How indeed. The world wouldn’t find out for another three years, until the release of The Empire Strikes Back. In the meantime, people would just have to go back and see Star Wars again.
Bryan Young is an author, a filmmaker, journalist, and the editor in chief of BigShinyRobot.com! He’s also the co-host of the Star Wars podcast, Full of Sith. You can also follow him on Twitter.
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