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Wednesday, 18 September 2013

The UK reviews of Star Wars: "Less than meets the eye"

A queue to see Star Wars in London's Leicester Square. Picture from

In December 1977, the London film critics were, in many people's estimation, among the luckiest people in Britain. They had seen Star Wars long before it reached most of the country. 

Star Wars wouldn't even get to London's West End cinemas until December 27 and most of the nation would have to wait until February 1978. Yet, as John May shows on his website The Generalist, there had been special screenings and trade shows for a selected audience at on July 20 and September 28 at the Dominion in Tottenham Court Road. 

The reviews didn't appear until mid-December, by which time cinema managers were desperate to see the film released and millions of people were itching to watch it. David Robinson, reviewing the film in The Times on December 16, was among those who knew how fortunate they were, reporting that "this is a film not made by a committee of accountants trying to devise a chemical formula out of the incalculables of box-office attractions, but a single person’s creative fantasy, which by grace of luck and a moment of bravery at 20th Century-Fox, he has been able to realize."

He went on: “Star Wars unashamedly restores all those qualities which film-makers and audiences have almost forgotten in their chase after illusory sophistication – brightly defined characters; a story that hurtles along at such a pace that it leaves no time for questions; a world of fantasy so confidently portrayed … that there is no thought of disbelief; a genuine escapism that obliges you to make no connexions with real worlds.”

Derek Malcolm in The Guardian on December 13 was less effusive but had still been impressed. "It isn’t the best film of the year, it isn’t the best science fiction ever to be translated to the screen" he wrote. "... But it is, on the other hand, enormous and exhilarating fun for those who are prepared to settle down in their seats and let it all wash over them.”

The Planet of the Apes TV series: more intellectual than
Star Wars, according to the Sunday Times

Not everyone concurred. Alan Brien in the Sunday Times of December 18 said: “It has almost no intellectual content whatsoever, even on the level of TV’s Star Trek or the Planet of the Apes series, where social or moral problems, however simplistic, continue to be posed … Everywhere there is less here than meets the eye. If Star Wars has a message, that is it.”

Critics in the more rarefied culture of the British Film Institute's two periodicals were predictably sour. Richard Combs in the Monthly Film Bulletin of November 1977 said: “Star Wars is monumentally empty, based on not a single idea but a wealth of conceits. Most of these are recognition effects… The discrepancy between the naivety the film pretends to and the know-how (and knowingness) that went into its making results in strange lacunae and a resounding emptiness overall.”

Meanwhile, Jonathan Rosembaum  who, years later, would write that it would have been no great loss if every print of the film were burned to a crisp like Luke Skywalker's family said in the BFI's quarterly Sight and Sound of autumn 1977: "One would probably have to go back to the 1940s, as Lucas did, to find such a guiltless celebration of unlimited warfare.”

But those who slated the film were drastically out of step with public opinion and knew it. Russell Davies wrote in The Observer of December 18: “The man who doesn’t like Star Wars puts himself instantly at the centre of an HM Bateman cartoon. All around him are raised hands, shocked faces and cries of ‘Shame!’ … Not that I dislike Star Wars all that much. My complaint about it is that there is not much in it to have an opinion about.”

At least he was aware he was being a party pooper.

1 comment:

John White said...

And it's funny, when we were kids, even if we heard the critics' slating it - it wouldn't have mattered. Being unpretentious, we believed in the evidence of our own little eyes, ears and experience.
We loved it, and nothing could take it away.
Did I mention that we were also uncynical?