THE ORIGINS OF STAR WARS: EVOLUTION OF A SPACE SAGA
By John L. Flynn
The Star Wars Trilogy, comprising Episodes four through six "A New Hope," "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi" (respectively), did not begin as one fully-developed, high-concept pitch but rather evolved over a five-year period through a variety of scripts and story treatments. In fact, the origins, original storylines and development of the characters are just as fascinating as anything that has appeared in George Lucas's final vision, and provide the impetus for this article. But like all great sagas, one must go back to the beginning, back to that first spark of the imagination.
"There's a whole generation growing up without any kind of fairy tales," Lucas first stated in 1972, thinking in very nebulous terms about a timeless fable that would help teach children about the differences between right and wrong, good and evil. "And kids need fairy tales--it's an important thing for society to have."
After failing miserably to satisfy the corporate executives at Warner Brothers with his first feature film, THX 1138 (1970), George Lucas began submitting ideas for two other motion pictures to several of the other studios. One of his ideas, which was drawn from his youthful experiences growing up in Modesto, California, eventually became the hit movie American Graffiti (1973). The other was a remake of Alex Raymond's "Flash Gordon." Lucas had long since dreamed of making a space adventure that would evoke the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials of the thirties, and tried unsuccessfully to purchase the movie rights to several Raymond properties. (Federico Fellini had already optioned them, and the film Flash Gordon would eventually be made by Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis in 1980.) Still obsessed with making a big budget space-fantasy, George obtained tentative approval from David Picker at United Artists for a completely original story he had yet to write.
While he was completing his final touches on American Graffiti in February 1973, Lucas started sketching rough ideas for his film. He wrote every morning, and spent his afternoons and evenings researching fairy tales, mythology and the writings of Joseph Campbell (in particular, The Hero With a Thousand Faces) and Carlos Castaneda (notably Tales of Power). He also consumed every work of science fiction, from the classics of the genre by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Alex Raymond to the more contemporary tales of Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, E.E. "Doc" Smith, and Arthur C. Clarke. But George knew that he was much more of a conceptualist than a writer, and admitted to having great difficulty getting his ideas down on paper. He was still struggling with those ideas when he first met Ralph McQuarrie, an illustrator for Boeing Aircraft who had also worked for NASA, and asked him for suggestions how to visualize his concepts for the screen.
By May 1973, George Lucas had completed a ponderous thirteen-page story treatment. Handwritten on notebook paper, it told "the story of Mace Windu, a revered Jedi-bendu of Ophuchi who was related to Usby C.J. Thape, a padawaan leader to the famed Jedi." His agent Jeff Berg and attorney Tom Pollack didn't understand a single word but, nonetheless, agreed to help him submit the idea to United Artists, which still held first option on his "big sci-fi/space adventure/Flash Gordon thing." David Picker reviewed Lucas's treatment for The Star Wars, as it was then called, and passed on the project fearing how much it would cost to make. Universal Pictures, which also held an option on George's next picture as part of the Graffiti deal, was equally cautious, and eventually declined to develop the project.
Somewhat discouraged, Lucas finally consented to meet with Alan Ladd, Jr., then studio executive at 20th Century-Fox. (Prior to that meeting, his agent had managed to smuggle prints of THX 1138 and American Graffiti to the studio head; Ladd was impressed with what he saw. He had a special eye for talent, and desperately wanted to work with the young director.) Once George had finished pitching his complicated story to Ladd, the executive agreed in principle to a deal, even though he really didn't understand the concept. (Lucas later relied on production sketches from Ralph McQuarrie to further cement Fox's offer to back a big-budget space-fantasy.) Less than two weeks after Universal had turned Star Wars down, the 20th Century-Fox Film Corporation agreed to pay George Lucas $50,000 to write and $100,000 to direct a film that would eventually gross $250 million. Of course, Lucas was still without a workable script.
When his first $10,000 check from 20th Century-Fox arrived in September 1973, George was hard at work on a script. "I was fascinated by the futuristic society, the idea of rocket ships and lasers up against somebody with a stick," he later commented, but he still had problems fleshing out the characters. Lucas looked everywhere for ideas for Star Wars and borrowed very liberally from his sources. The major influence on his writing was Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon serials. Light bridges, cloud cities, space swords, blasters, video screens, medieval costumes and aerial battles were all lifted from the crude serials of the thirties. From Asimov's Foundation trilogy, he incorporated ideas dealing with political intrigue on a galactic level; from Frank Herbert's Dune, notions of rare spices (ultimately dropped), galactic traders and spacing guilds and a desert planet; from Edgar Rice Burroughs's John Carter of Mars, banthas and huge flying birds (also discarded); from E.E. "Doc" Smith's Lensman saga came his notions about the Jedi knights and the Force. He also borrowed ideas from his own THX 1138, including the robot policeman (who became stormtroopers) and the underground dwellers (Jawas). Star Wars would be derivative of every great science fiction theme and yet, at the same time, would remain completely original.
For two and a half years, he struggled with his worst fears, and went through dozens of ideas. (Many of those scripts and story ideas are summarized below.) He started with one storyline, but soon realized that it was too long for a single picture. He cut it in half, and then divided each half into three episodes. The Star Wars Trilogy, as it exists today, is actually the second part of that larger story. On March 25, 1976, George Lucas began production of the first film in the bitter cold of the Sahara Desert, and slightly more than seven years later watched his collection of ideas become the most popular film series in cinematic history.
THE ORIGINAL STORY TREATMENTMay 1973--The original story synopsis for The Star Wars told "the story of Mace Windu, a revered Jedi-bendu of Ophuchi who was related to Usby C.J. Thape, a padawaan leader to the famed Jedi." Far above the blue-green planet of Aguilae, a silent battle takes place. Six sleek, fighter-type spacecraft rocket toward an orbiting speck, which is a gargantuan space fortress, and fire their laser bolts. The small ships are no match for the fortress, and are easily dispatched. The explosions echo across the vastness of space, and a roll-up explains that "it is the twenty-third century, a period of civil war . . ."
Leia, a rebel princess accompanied by her family and retainers, flees across that sector of space, pursued by Imperial forces of an evil sovereign. She is protected by General Luke Skywalker, an aging man who is the last of the Jedi knights. She carries 200 pounds of a rare cargo of spice and two terrified, bickering Imperial bureaucrats aboard her ship. Forced to land on Aguilae, she and the others hide from an Imperial patrol in the ruins of a religious temple. There, they discover a rebel band of ten boys (aged fifteen to eighteen) who are planning to attack an Imperial outpost. Skywalker reluctantly accepts their help, and the group of allies heads toward a shabby cantina on the outskirts of the space port. (Leia hopes to make contact with the rebel underground, and hire a ship to take her to Ophuchi.)
Betrayed by an Imperial spy, they narrowly escape the port in a stolen space freighter, only to be chased across the galaxy by Imperial starships. Their ship is hit several times by laserblasts, and they are forced to hide in an asteroid belt to make repairs.
When they resume their trek across space, the ship is again fired upon by Imperial troops, and crippled beyond repair. Skywalker manuevers the doomed ship toward the mysterious jungle planet of Yavin, and orders everyone to jettison safely away with rocket packs. Their group is separated, attacked by giant furry aliens, and eventually reunited by a grizzled old farmer (who is married to one of the alien creatures). Leia, however, is not as fortunate as the others, and finds herself captured, then sold to Imperial troops, by the furry aliens. (She is to be taken to Alderaan, capitol of the Empire, and exchanged for a huge bounty posted by the Sovereign.)
Determined to free her from the clutches of the evil galactic emperor, General Skywalker trains the boys to fly one-man "devil fighters." Then, with their ships disguised as Imperial rangers, the small armada flies right through the defenses of Alderaan. They penetrate the prison complex, and free the princess from her captors. Several of the boys are killed in duels with laser guns and swords, while the others fight their way through the Imperial fleet in a laser-blasting dogfight in space. Once back on Ophuchi, the boys and General Skywalker are greeted with a great ceremony to welcome the conquering heroes. They are rewarded with medals and offered commissions in the guard by the princess, who reveals her true "goddesslike" self. The two bureaucrats get drunk and stumble off into the darkness, "realizing that they have been adventuring with demigods."
Though somewhat crude and unpolished, the thirteen-page story treatment sketches out most of the action which will follow in the series. The group's adventures on Aguilae (in the desert and cantina), Leia's rescue from the prison complex, the dogfight in space and the rewards' ceremony all survive to the final draft of Star Wars. The chase across space, and in the asteroid belt, and the intrigue on the city-planet of Alderaan form the basis of The Empire Strikes Back, and the jungle battle finds life in Return of the Jedi. The characters also remain surprisingly faithful to their first inception, even though certain changes do occur. Leia continues as princess, while the character of Luke Skywalker is made a teenager (replacing the rebel band of boys). The aging General becomes Ben Kenobi, the desert rat and aging Jedi knight. The two bumbling bureaucrats are transformed into two bumbling robots; the furry aliens evolve into both Chewbacca, the Wookiee prince, and the Ewoks, and the Sovereign becomes Emperor. The only central character that is missing from this early screen treatment is Darth Vader, but he would turn up later as two villains.
THE SUBSEQUENT REVISIONSMay 1974--After working for more than a year, George completed the first draft screenplay to The Star Wars. The story introduced the Jedi Bendu, who were the chief architects of the invincible Imperial Space Force and personal bodyguards of the Emperor, and pitted them against the evil Knights of the Sith, a sinister warrior sect. The hero Annikin Starkiller, eighteen, his younger brother Deak, and their father Kane - the last of the Jedi Bendu - have been hiding out on the desert planet of Utapau for many years. When Deak is killed by a seven-foot tall black knight, who comes looking for them, Kane decides that it's time to end their exile.
Meanwhile, on the cloud city of Alderaan, the Emperor Cos Dashit launches a final assault on the last of the independent systems with secret orders to destroy the last of the Jedi on Aquilae. Luke Skywalker, an aging general in his sixties and former Jedi master, tries to mount an adequate defense against the assault; but the leaders of Aguilae decide to settle for peace when an armored battle station, the size of a moon, approaches. (The small "devil fighters" are no match against the fortress.) Skywalker suspects a trap, and urges the Imperial family (with their fourteen year-old daughter Leia) to hide. When Kane and his son Annikin arrive, Luke enlists the aide of the young Starkiller (who wants to learn the ways of the Jedi from the old master) to escort the princess and her family to safety. (The King is eventually killed, and the Queen demands that Leia and her two brothers, Biggs and Windy, be taken to Ophuchi.)
During the one-sided battle, two construction robots (Artwoo Detwo and See-ThreePio) on the battlestation complain about the laserblasts (striking nearby their location) and are ejected to safety in a space pod. They crashland in the Jundland wastes of Aquilae, and stumble across the royal party. The robots join forces with Annikin, Luke and Leia, and the others and travel to the space port at Anchorhead.
The invasion force, led by General Darth Vader and Prince Valorum (a black knight of the Sith), enter the capitol city of Aquilae, and discover that all have fled to safety. Valorum is angered, and demands that Vader produce both the royal family and the last Jedi-Bendu. Determined to find them before they can escape the planet, Imperial troops are dispatched to all the major space ports, including the one at Anchorhead. At the same time, Luke has managed to contact Han Solo, a huge green-skinned smuggler who might have a space ship fast enough to get through the Imperial bockade.
Han produces the ship, a "Baltarian" freighter, but unfortunately it lacks an intregal part for one of the freezing chambers. (Imperial troops cannot identify lifeforms frozen in suspended animation, and that's the only way they'll get through a blockade.) Kane, who has already admitted that he is slowly dying, sacrifices himself by pulling the power unit from his cybernetic armor; Annikin is torn with grief, but comforted by both Leia and Skywalker.
Once outfitted with the new part, their space ship easily manages to slip through the Imperial starfleet, but is later spotted by a routine patrol. Han decides to flee the enemy craft by flying into an asteroid belt; however, the fragile freighter sustains massive asteroid damage, and they are forced to eject their lifepods over the forbidden jungle world of Yavin. On Yavin, the princess is captured by trappers and exchanged for bounty from Imperial troops. Annikin is separated from the others, and frees Chewbacca and other Wookees from the same trappers. They reward his courage with their allegiance against the Empire. Luke, Han, C-3PO and the boys meet anthropologists Owen and Beru Lars, who lead them to the Wookee camp. Finally reunited, the group convinces the Wookees to attack the Imperial outpost to free Leia, but discover much too late that she has been returned to Aquilae.
General Skywalker is determined to free her from the clutches of the evil galactic emperor, and trains the Wookees to fly one-man assault fighters. Meanwhile, Annikin has slipped aboard the battlestation, disguised as an Imperial starraider, to locate and free Leia from her detention cell. But before he can reach her cell, he is brought down by stormtroopers. Vader takes the young captive to the control room, and begins torturing him in front of a disgruntled Valorum. Then, as the Wookees attack the space fortress and Han coordinates an uprising on the planet (among members of the spacing guild), Valorum has a change of heart. He frees both the princess and Annikin Starkiller, and escapes with them in a lifepod. The battlestation is destroyed, and the Imperial ground troops are beaten. Once the battle is won, Queen Leia rewards Luke, Annikin, Valorum and the others with medals in the magnificent throne room of Aquilae. Artwo and Threepio are simply relieved all the excitement is over, and exit the hall of honor.
This first draft screenplay alters and expands much of the original material, but is still very crude and bloated in cinematic terms. Lucas's year-long effort introduces two villains: a sadistic general named Darth Vader and Prince Valorum, a Black Knight of the Sith. The characters are both interesting but still, at this point in the saga, somewhat one-dimensional. By making them into one person, who starts out as the embodiment of evil then changes in reaction to another's evil deeds, Lucas has the essence of the space-fantasy's tragic figure. Also, George seems to transpose Kane Starkiller's disability (--he must remain in protective cybernetic armor to maintain his life systems--) onto later conceptions of Vader. Han Solo, the huge green- skinned smuggler, remains somewhat unchanged (except in appearance) by the final draft. Owen and Beru Lars would eventually become farmers (not anthropologists), and place a much more important role as Luke's uncle and aunt. Of course, the two bumbling bureaucrats are now bumbling robots.
Other sequences, like the group's adventure in the desert and cantina of Aquilae, Leia's rescue from the prison complex, the dogfight in space and the rewards' ceremony also continue untouched to the final draft of Star Wars. The asteroid chase and cloud city remain in tact to The Empire Strikes Back, and the jungle battle, which would eventually form one of the key sequences in Return of the Jedi, has been fleshed out in much greater detail. The earlier sequences (on Utapau and in the capitol of Aquilae) also provide interesting clues to characterization; for example, Grande Mouff Tarkin appears, not as a governor, but as a religious leader, and Kane's decision to leave his son in the hands of a master is similar to that made by Ben Kenobi, surrendering Luke to the master Yoda. But there was still much work to be done before the script could be a film.
July 1974--Two months later, Lucas produced a slightly revised version of the first script. Although the central action remains the same, several names and concepts have been reworked (for inexplicable reasons). Luke is still an aging General, but now he is identified as a former Dai Noga who master the great space Force. "Force" is used, for the first time, to identify a metaphysical power which only Dai Nogas can utilize. Princess Leia has become Zara; Annikin Starkiller is now Justin Valor, and Wookees are referred to as Jawas. Captain Dodona replaces Prince Valorum as a member of a warrior sect known as the Legions of Lettow. He has been given the task of hunting down and destroying the remaining Dai Nogas; but he, like Valorum, undergoes a change of heart. Other changes, for the most part in name only, appear throughout the story, and provide a surface, somewhat cosmetic change to the whole saga. George Lucas knew the script was still a mess, and worked hard to produce another version.
ARTICLE CONTINUED IN ORIGINS OF STAR WARS PART TWO
THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN NOT OF THIS EARTH, SUMMER 1994 SPECIAL.