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Tuesday, 10 September 2013

'A new classic': Contemporary reviews of Star Wars

A Twentieth Century-Fox trade ad announces that Star Wars will be released in Dolby Stereo.

After Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace garnered the kind of notices usually given to war crimes, George Lucas said: "Everything that was said about The Phantom Menace was said about Star Wars, almost verbatim."

But in fact, the early reviews of Star Wars were almost unanimously positive.
Maybe the critics of 1977 were not jaded from an endless run of big, empty-headed summer blockbusters. Maybe they were ready to enjoy an upbeat film after so much of the gloom that pervaded 1970s cinema. Or maybe they just knew a great film when they saw one. But the initial reviews were mainly very positive  and that can't have hurt the opening day's box office.

Star Wars was a "reward" to 
parents  for sitting through 
Logan's Runaccording to 
Gary Arnold of the 
Washington Post

In Variety on May 20 1977, A.D. Murphy said: "Star Wars is a magnificent film ... Like a breath of fresh air, Star Wars sweeps away the cynicism that has in recent years obscured the concepts of valor, dedication and honor.”

The Hollywood Reporter said on the same day: "Lucas combines excellent comedy and drama and progresses it with exciting action in tremendously effective space battles.”On May 22, Charles Champlin, wrote in the Los Angeles Times that Star Wars was “… the year's most razzle-dazzling family movie, an exuberant and technically astonishing space adventure in which the galactic tomorrows of Flash Gordon are the setting for conflicts and events that carry the suspiciously but splendidly familiar ring of yesterday's westerns, as well as yesterday's Flash Gordon serials.”

Star Wars was less imaginative than 
2001: A Space Odyssey but still
 "exuberantly entertaining",
according to Penelope Gilliatt 

of the New Yorker

Gary Arnold said in the Washington Post on May 25: "Star Wars ... is a new classic in a rousing movie tradition: a space swashbuckler ... Parents who suffered dutifully through Logan’s Run in quest of a decent attraction for juveniles may now claim their reward. 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.”

Vincent Canby said in the New York Times on May 26: “Star Wars ... is the movie that the teenagers in American Graffiti would have broken their necks to see… It’s both an apotheosis of Flash Gordon serials and a witty critique that makes associations with a variety of literature that is nothing if not eclectic: Quo Vadis, Buck Rogers, Ivanhoe, Superman, The Wizard of Oz, The Gospel According to St Matthew, the legend of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table.”
Time used a front page strap 
to tease its review by Jay 
Cocks of Star Wars
"the year's best movie".
Penelope Gilliatt of the New Yorker joined the chorus on June 13: “There is something dazzling about a sci-fi film that manages to call upon the energies of both futurism and long-held faith. The movie is not to be compared in ferocity of imagination with Kubrick’s 2001 ... but it is exuberantly entertaining.”

Time magazine's Jay Cocks had been at that rough cut screening where everybody but him and Steven Spielberg hated the film. He wrote that Star Wars was “a subliminal history of the movies, wrapped in a riveting tale of suspense and adventure, ornamented with some of the most ingenious special effects ever contrived for film.”
Reviews like that will probably have mattered little to the younger audiences that made up so much of those first day crowds for Star Wars, but they would have prompted mature viewers to think about seeing the movie the kids were going crazy for. Everything was going George Lucas's way.

Next time I'll look at the reaction of the London critics. Many of them were, inevitably, much more uptight and snooty about the film, but even in the UK there were people cheering a great piece of cinema.

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