It was thirty years ago today that my parents took my sister and I across town to the Showcase Cinemas in Monroeville. You see, Star Wars wasn’t yet playing in any of the theaters in our part of town, but I had been clamoring to see it since I had seen the first commercial for it at my grandparents’ house two weeks earlier. I had never been so excited about a film’s release. In fact, I doubt that I had ever been particularly interested in any movies before Star Wars. Of course, I saw them with my parents on many occasions. I recall frequently going to the local drive-in to watch Disney films—usually starring Dean Jones, performing alongside an animal or a Volkswagen. But to the best of my recollection, that commercial for Star Wars in May 1977 was the first to make me think, “I must see this movie.”
I was in fourth grade at the time. Only a year earlier we had moved from a slightly seedy working-class neighborhood to a new development in the suburbs. I had no conception of it at the time, but we had in the past few years become solidly middle-class. I also had nothing more than the vaguest awareness of what had been going on in the past few years. I remember television news stories about the agony of Vietnam, my mother’s rapt attention to the Watergate hearings, protests in the streets and college campuses (I clearly recall the obscene graffiti referring to various U.S. politicians), and the painful images of desperate Vietnamese trying to escape Saigon on U.S. helicopters. I saw in our own neighborhood angry young men with long, dirty hair, and was frightened of them. I had little understanding of what was going on, but I remember the worried faces of my parents and grandparents, and recall a general sense that there was something wrong, with the country and with the world.
Perhaps that was why I found Star Wars so fascinating, and why I fell in love with it the first time I saw it. Somewhere along the line I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve watched the film and the two sequels, and I’d rather not think about the amount of money I spent on the related merchandise. T-shirts, the soundtrack, books, action figures (no, they weren’t “dolls”), even Star Wars wallpaper all found their way into my bedroom. My father observed that someone could pick up a turd, slap a Star Wars logo on it, and market it as Wookie dung, and I’d buy it. He was probably right.
What did I find so appealing about the entire phenomenon? Lord knows the script wasn’t anything to get excited over; when I watch the movie today I find myself wincing at a lot of the dialogue. And it certainly wasn’t the acting, some of which was wooden in the extreme. Some might claim that it was nothing more than the typical prepubescent boy’s fascination with special effects and well orchestrated battle scenes. But there had been plenty of films with such features in the 1970s. Nor did I have any particular fascination with science fiction; Star Trek, for instance, had run on television throughout my childhood, but it never made the least impression on me.
I think that Star Wars occupies a special place in my heart, and in the hearts of millions of my contemporaries, because it delivered messages that I desperately needed to hear at my tender age. At a time when Americans were rejecting moral standards, and questioning whether their country was still (or ever) a force for good in the world, Star Wars reminded us that there was such a thing as good and evil. It told us that there was nobility in committing oneself to a higher cause. It informed us that evil stemmed from a lust for power, and that although it may be seductive, it was ultimately deadly. It reassured us that tyranny was wicked, and that freedom was worth fighting for. And it told us that, as powerful as evil might be, or how dark the situation seemed, good would triumph in the end.
In recent years I hadn’t been inclined to speak favorably of George Lucas. The last three Star Wars films didn’t deserve to bear the name. There was that appalling Jar-Jar Binks creature, of course. And like a lot of die-hard fans, I practically cried when Obi-Wan Kenobi told Anakin Skywalker in Revenge of the Sith that “only a Sith deals in absolutes.” Weren’t “absolutes” the whole point of the original films?
But I couldn’t bring myself to stay angry with George. How could I be upset with a guy who put everything he had on the line to make a wildly expensive film that nobody in Hollywood thought would succeed? Moviegoers, they assured him, wanted subtlety, nuance, and moral ambiguity. They would sneer at anything that delivered a moral message similar in tone to the Westerns and war films of the 1950s. But they didn’t sneer; they applauded, and then demanded more. Star Wars would have a more profound impact—not only on me, but on millions of my peers—than any other film I have ever watched. It changed me, I think, for the better. So on this thirtieth anniversary of the film’s release, I want to say thanks, George, for giving a nine-year-old kid something to believe in.
John E. Moser is an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center and an associate professor of history at Ashland University.