…or Fool, or any other MF name you choose to insert. Just not Finale. Not yet.
On a Friday in summer, 1977, I tidied up a court case in Prescott, got in my car and headed across two deserts and one mountain range to join my wife and sons at the home of my brother in San Diego, who was a Chief Petty Officer at Coronado. A round of golf, a cook out and then I’d fetch them home on Monday.
When I arrived, around 4, my oldest son and his cousin, both aged 8, were dancing in the driveway. “Where have you been, Daddy? Where have you been? Hurry” My brother came out, and said, “Come on, you gotta see this.” What? “Star Wars.” I’d heard of it, of course, reading about it in a piece in Time, where they said (my words) it marked the end of the era of anti-heroes in film and brought back good ol’ Good versus Evil adventure stories. They even had a kind word for bedrock truths (religion), if I recall. For a liberal rag in the Carter days, that was saying a lot. Besides, if my brother wanted to see a kid’s movie twice, who was I to disagree? I kissed my wife and younger son, jumped in the car and we were off to the first true cinema-plex I’d ever seen. The line ran around the side of the building. My first 45-minute line, too, with a hundred kids just dancing like they had to pee, they were so excited.
We got in. As the kids still had to have soda and popcorn it would be another year and a half before I’d actually see the film from beginning to end, but as we were making our way down the aisle looking for seats onto the screen came this martial music right out of Prokofiev and this guy in a big black helmet and black cape strides in. Then an amazing thing happened. All the kids in the theater stood up and started booing and hissing. My son and nephew went squirrely and my brother turned and looked as if to say “What did I tell you?” It wasn’t a movie, it was a cultural event. I hadn’t heard kids boo at a character on the screen like that since a desperado named Blackie walked into a saloon in a Lash Larue matinee in oh, 1953 or ’54. Felt kinda good. I was impressed.
I knew this would be an important film in my son’s life, as he was mesmerized. He’d met his first John Wayne hero, or Johnny Mack Brown or Clint Eastwood. That’s all he wanted for Christmas. A year and half later “Star Wars” finally made it across the desert to my little cow town of 1500 in Arizona, so we all piled down to the only indoor theater within fifty miles, this time carrying along my younger son, who at five could finally appreciate the finer arts of space warfare. As parents you all know the rapture of watching your kids watch something else (intently)…the changing expressions, hands over the face, the hunkering in the back of the seat, the expectant leap to the front of it, the boos, the hisses. The wide eyes. “Star Wars” played as big a role in his young life as it did my older son’s. Maybe bigger, as he writes sci-fi today.
Flash forward. I hadn’t seen “Star Wars” in full since 1979. Just bits and pieces. It’s never the kind of movie you just say, I think I’ll rent that. That’s like going to Maisonette and ordering a tuna-fish on toast. No matter where, Netflix, the movie cupboard in the closet, there’s always at least a dozen items on the menu you’d choose instead. So, last night, around 7:00, I’m sitting on the couch, playing my air-bouzouki, humming “Zorba”, trying to imagine what Charlie Daniels would look like in one of those tutu’s Greek men wear when they’re clogging. My wife, as she is every night at 7, is curled up at the opposite end, her laptop open, tending to one of her seven or eight properties on *&*!#*^* Farmville, in a race to see who can collapse civilization first…Facebook or Obama. The television is on, but I don’t know what station, and as I’m about to reach for the remote, the opening scroll and music to “Star Wars” comes on. TBS I think. My wife looks up, and say “Ohhh. I haven’t seen that since my boys were little. Let’s watch it.” She even closed the laptop. What can I say? I’m trapped.
We watched the entire film, and I gotta tell you. This is not the same “Star Wars” I saw in 1977. For one, the first stuff you mentally ditch is the kid-stuff. Those ‘droids, and even Vader. The sock puppets. And even 12-year olds start to wonder, with all that amazing weaponry, why no body, on either side, could hit a bull in the arse with a bass fiddle. Even when i saw it the first time I thought what a cool-hand like Josie Wales could’ve done with pistols like that. He sure wouldn’t be shooting up masonry over door sills.
What hits you in the face is the sudden believability of the dark side. It’s no longer fantasy. Forget the stage props, something in my world (and yours too) since 1977 has made this no longer make-believe. This film was about Good vs Evil all right, but so was Tolkein’s trilogy, and by the way, the film versions of his stories carried us to this same understanding, only when they aired on the screen, Good still looked like it might win. And it came at the war from a different angle, with an Evil out there in the dark, a deep brooding force, angry at having lost its Precious. What overwhelms you in “Star Wars” is the changed nature of “the Empire” since you first saw it, symbolized by the Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing). It is so, well, corporate. Talk about remorseless, black-hearted sumbitches entirely dedicated to a “mission” which, while in 1977 seemed a little far-fetched and fantastical, today is oh, so very real.
Oh, I know, we’ve all read the histories. Pick any century, any war. The Golden Horde, Stalin’s Ukraine, Hitler’s holocaust, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, still we haven’t any real sense of the Evil that lurked in men’s hearts that carried these things out. I am quite sure when Ike marched troops into the death camps in ’45, while smitten with the utter depravity of it all, he never stopped to consider the nature of the Evil his troops had just uncovered. In 1977. the “Empire of “Star Wars” was just as remote to our sensibilities as Genghis Khan building a mountain of human skulls at Balkh. That kind of evil belonged in the world of ‘fantasy”; Tolkein’s world, not ours.
So then, why did my skin crawl when I visited those icy command centers on the Death Star last night? Because, of all history’s mass murderers, these were most like Stalin’s, where millions were wiped out…not from anger, not from racial hatred…but from sheer bureaucratic necessity. Business…carried out with the indifference of a butcher wringing a chicken’s neck. I’ve seen this first hand, at least the tailings, the leftovers from the wreck. In fact, you all have, in the business-like indifferent manner “those kinds of systems” naturally carry out their daily business. The Evil Empire aboard the Death Star of 1977 is something millions of Russians and East Europeans, from 1918 onward, could reach out and touch. It is also something, albeit in embryo form, you can also now reach out and touch right here.
There were other themes that you would catch today you might have missed in 1977. Religion. Go back and see the first few scenes from the original M*A*S*H film, just a few years before “Star Wars”, where Hawkeye Pierce and others mocked Frank Burns as he said the Lord’s Prayer. Not so funny, anymore, huh? And why you shudder today is not because of the sacrilege so much as the fact, in 1972, you (I) laughed. And not a nervous laugh. You (I) really laughed, you (I) were cool then. I thought I was. But by 1977 you (I) were perhaps relieved to believe maybe those sacrilege days were over for here a religious “Force” was portrayed as a good thing, being insinuated into the next generation, the X’ers. It was a redemption of sorts, and a hope for tomorrow, as kids would carry the Force around for a long time. Not sure how much closer it brought them to God…still, it made us feel better.
And there was the time-honored theme, as Tolkein used so well, that Evil might be defeated from a place he isn’t looking, or by people he considers insignificant, half-lings instead of Kings. Luke and Hans Solo served that role in a similar way. And it is a theme that needs to be pondered more in coming days, as I’m sure you can see modern day parallels now, with so many people waiting for the “return of a king” on our side, while in fact it may just be something/someone else, from an un-planned-for road, that might be Evil’s final undoing.
But as the Death Star exploded, (followed by a commercial break and that awful medal ceremony only kids could like) I looked over to my wife and said, “Do you realize, there might have been 2-3 hundred thousand people die on that Death Star in that single instant? When they planned the attack? Not a mention of cooks, servants, innocent people who might have been there?” My wife looked up, (and she’s known be be wiser than me, and quoted often by many) and said, “They didn’t blink when they destroyed Alderon. Millions. Tough sh*t.”
Next time we get to put Evil on trial, we might consider this little bit of wisdom. TS.
My oldest son now has a son, aged 4 months, who I promise, the first full length feature film he will see will be “Star Wars”…but only after about 36 hours of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. (He’s been saving those up a long time.) The beat goes on.