Star Wars: why did the film make history?

Professor Nicholas John Cull explores the history of the Star Wars franchise, and explains why in 1977 thousands of people flocked to cinemas to be taken to a galaxy far, far away…

This article was first published in December 2015

Star Wars, 1977. (© Glasshouse Images/Alamy Stock Photo)
Peter Mayhew, Harrison Ford, Alec Guinness and Mark Hamill, on-set of the film Star Wars, 1977. (© Glasshouse Images/Alamy Stock Photo)

There is a moment in the first Star Wars film when the mystic Obi Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) detects across at great distance of space the destruction of a planet and remarks: “I felt a great disturbance in the Force… as if as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.”

The release of the seventh installment of the Star Wars saga today therefore prompts the question of exactly what the particular “disturbance in the Force” associated with the release of the first film in the series back in May 1977 might mean historically. What does it say about the time in which it was made and the people who so took it to their hearts? And what does the ongoing success of the franchise say about us?  

At one level, Star Wars was – and is – a commercial commodity: a milestone in the evolution of the film industry. Its creator, George Lucas, demonstrated that films could be made for families; that spectacular effects could help film to claw back some territory from the small-screen entertainment; and profits could be swollen to astonishing proportions though tie-in merchandise.

Other films of the era attempted similar synergies, but there was plainly something about Star Wars that struck a particular chord. Reports of initial audiences in the US stressed how hungry they seemed for what Star Wars offered: the film was fundamentally not like so many other elements of the culture in which it landed – a world that was only too happy to embrace the film’s escapism because it had so much that it wished to escape from.   

For the initial audiences in America and beyond, the experience of viewing Star Wars was a curious mixture of watching something completely new and something incredibly familiar.  It was a paradox, illustrated in the film’s opening declaration that it was set “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”.

The familiar components in the film were the incorporation of multiple elements of beloved genres that were out of step with the cynical post-Watergate, post-Vietnam War, energy crisis world of the mid-1970s. Star Wars’ abstract and distant location with absolutely no point of reference to humanity or earth culture enabled favourite tropes of the screen to be revisited without the necessity of apology or self-examination or of any danger of alienating a nationality or ethnic group at home or abroad.

Star Wars was the product of and for an American society yearning to be free of its own bonds of history and be good again. It was the perfect transferable product in which everyone could find themselves, not just within the US, but worldwide. It helped that the film’s heroic structure was borrowed from the myths common to all human cultures: Star Wars recovered the energy and zest of the old Flash Gordon serials; it borrowed characters and settings from the classic western, which by the 1970s was burdened in its explicit form by America’s awareness of the moral ugliness of the historical reality.

Star Wars’ location allowed much play and humour at the expense of ethnic and racial differences that would have been impossible (and tasteless) in the wake of the Civil Rights movement. Various characters seemed to fill the role of the ethnic ‘other’: the droids experience segregation in the bar scene, and Chewbacca is cast as a noble, ethnic side-kick, providing heroic support and comic relief.   


Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca and Harrison Ford as Han Solo in Star Wars, 1977. (© Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo)

Two genres had particular significance within Star Wars: the war film and the religious epic. Star Wars enabled the representation of a war without having to worry about that war’s consequences; the merits of its antagonists; or that any participant might be offended. Much of it channelled the Second World War with Imperial uniforms and the terminology of Storm Troopers borrowed from the Third Reich; however, it was also swiftly noticed that in Star Wars a country that had just been defeated by an army of guerillas was able to happily identify with a rebel alliance. So, much of the film’s look could be borrowed from Asia, in particular the Vietnam War, without audiences having to recall who firebombed Tokyo or dropped Agent Orange on the Ho Chi Minh trail.

The elements of Star Wars lifted from religious epics functioned in much the same way: the film recovered a genre that had been an immense part of 20th-century cinema, reaching its apogee in the late fifties with wildly successful films like The Ten Commandments or Ben-Hur (its chariot race scene was the model for the pod-race in Episode I: The Phantom Menace). By creating its universe of right and wrong, and its religion of The Force, George Lucas was able to tell an essentially religious story of awakening, sacrifice, temptation and redemption, and it so doing he could touch his viewers’ sense of wonder and the infinite.  The setting in space enabled maximum engagement with minimal alienation, and enabled visual wonders every bit as impressive as the parting of the Red Sea.  

Overall, then, in 1977 Star Wars was a mechanism to culturally have your cake and eat it at a time of great uncertainty in America and the west. It allowed its viewer to luxuriate in the triumphalism, ethnic voyeurism and religiosity without apology.  

Of course, it didn’t take long for people in America and many other parts of the world to outgrow the uncertainty of mid 1970s; to trade Jimmy Carter for Ronald Reagan or James Callaghan for Margaret Thatcher, and reconnect with the self-confidence that allowed triumphalism, ethnocentrism and religiosity to flourish openly.

It turned out that audiences weren’t too alienated anyway.  The Rambo cycle had the political sensitivity of a sledgehammer and did well around the world. By the time the original trilogy was re-released in the late 1990s (with up-dated effects), the Second World War’s Allied victory was a cause for celebration again, and did not have to be evoked by proxy.

In the meantime, Star Wars itself had become a cultural reference point: Ronald Reagan could tap into its language when he called Russia an ‘evil empire’; Ted Kennedy did the same when he dubbed Reagan’s pet strategic defense initiative the ‘Star Wars program’; and the Oklahoma City bomber, Tim McVeigh, compared himself to Luke Skywalker destroying the Death Star. In the end, the cultural phenomenon struck back. Comments on the decline of democracy and evils of “with us or against us” language in the script for Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, were unmistakable barbs from the liberal Lucas aimed at the George W Bush administration.  

Looking back, it is plain that in its nearly 40-year (and counting) career, the Star Wars franchise has evolved. The films still turn on a twin drive to escape and to remember, but the direction of the remembrance has changed. In the beginning, audiences were remembering a film culture that had become unfashionable or untenable. Today we watch Star Wars to remember Star Wars. Given that the need for both remembrance and escapism remains undiminished, the new films should do very well indeed.

Nicholas John Cull is Professor of Communication at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School. He is the author (with James Chapman) of Projecting Tomorrow: Science Fiction and Popular Cinema (I B Tauris, 2012) which includes an extended discussion of the making and reception of Star Wars. To find out more, click here.

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