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Wednesday, 23 September 2015

The Force Beam: possibly the first Star Wars bootleg toy

The Force Beam, as advertised on the
back of the UK's Star Wars Weekly

It is hard to believe today that someone would have had the audacity to produce an unlicensed Star Wars toy and sell it right under the noses of Lucasfilm, even running big advertisements in at least one official Star Wars publication.

But that is what happened with a product called the Force Beam, apparently a completely unofficial lightsaber-type toy that emerged soon after Star Wars became a massive success.

In the UK, we saw it regularly in Star Wars Weekly, where it was sold through a full-page colour advertisement on the back cover.

The ad promised us the chance to “be a Star Wars hero and defend your galaxy”. It promised that the Force Beam was “strong enough for heroes – light enough for princesses” (they could say that kind of thing in the 1970s). “Enjoy the cosmic fun and galactic excitement as your 41” long illuminated FORCE BEAM cuts through the darkness with a single shaft of red or green lights – visible earth blocks away”. The Force Beam was yours in return for £2.95 plus postage, to be sent to Loydale Limited of Wokingham.

The word “lightsaber” (or, indeed “lightsabre”, British-style) was carefully avoided in the copy. And yet the trademarked words Star Wars are there in huge type, alongside artwork depicting two people who look, to any reasonable observer, uncommonly like Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia. Amusingly enough, the ad puts the initials “TM” after the words Force Beam to signal that nobody else had better go around stealing this trademarked and entirely original idea.

The 21st century observer is surely inclined to ask a couple of basic questions about this ad:



Why was there no official Star Wars lightsaber in 1977?


The Force Beam might have been a shameless attempt to cash in on Star Wars, but it was filling a gap in the market, because there was no official lightsabre toy in the stores.

I think you have to remember here that the toy world of the 1970s was very different from today. Star Wars, you have to remember, almost single-handedly showed the world that toys based on a single movie could be successful. Yes, we had seen Planet of the Apes toys, but that was a franchise that spawned five films and two TV series. We had seen plenty of Star Trek, Thunderbirds, Space: 1999 and UFO toys too, but TV series were a very different proposition from films, which might well turn up at cinemas for a couple of weeks and be quickly forgotten. Twentieth Century-Fox had tried merchandising Doctor Dolittle in 1967 and got its fingers badly burned.

So the Star Wars Corporation, as it was called back then, and particularly its publicity and merchandising supermo, Charles Lippincott, did not have easy time selling the idea of Star Wars toys to manufacturers. These days, of course, movie merchandising has become so sophisticated that you can see a film and count the licensing opportunities in its characters and hardware as they appear on screen.

Hasbro, which took on the Star Wars toy line, was famously unable to get action figures into the shops by Christmas 1977, and had to sell people a now very valuable “early bird collector's pack” – as we saw in this post – consisted of little but a box and a promise to deliver the characters in the new year. So it's not really so surprising that there was no official lightsaber, presenting an opportunity for an enterprising bootlegger who could turn one around without all that tedious negotiation with Lucasfilm and Fox.


How did the makers of the Force Beam not get sued?


You have to admire the creators of the Force Beam for their sheer chutzpah.

Not only did they make something suspiciously like a lightsaber, but they put it on the back page of the UK's Star Wars comic book, using – as mentioned above – the Star Wars logo and the likenesses of two film characters. You could hardly get more blatant.

The surprise is that they got away with it, at least for a long while. Movie merchandising as we know it may have been in its infancy, but movie studios and their lawyers were not born yesterday, and we know from the blog and Facebook page of Charles Lippincott that lawyers were already sending “cease and desist” letters to people infringing Star Wars' trademarks. Maybe they did clamp down on the Force Beam; there doesn't seem to be any evidence in public. If you know, I'd like to hear from you.



What was the Force Beam toy like?


The fact that the Force Beam was not the real McCoy has, paradoxically, made it a collector's item.

Very few of them survive, it seems. You can see some here  and here and it seems they were essentially a torch with a long tube attached, so the illumination didn't necessarily go all the way to the end. People suggest in the comments on those sites that they fell apart pretty easily, despite the claim that they were “strong enough for heroes”.

I have to admit that I never particularly coveted a toy lightsaber. The saber was a cool idea, of course, and one of the talking points of Star Wars. But for every moment of lightsaber action in the movie, there's a great deal more gunplay. And I would have been much more thrilled to own a genuine Han Solo blaster.

Did you have a Force Beam? Did you send off your £.2.95 in response to that Star Wars Weekly ad? I'd love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below or get in touch via the Episode Nothing Facebook page.

9 comments:

Dec Cart said...

I owned a Force Beam.

I got mine around the time of ROTJ. I've spoken to pals from around here who remember similar. Maybe a local cash-and-carry found a ton load of them and flooded the Glasgow tat shops.

I quite liked it. It was the only lightsaber available to me.

And the best thing about it? If you took the torch apart you could remove the transparent filter that gave the Force Beam its colour. You could then pull the foil of the various transparent Quality Street or Roses chocolate wrappers and have whatever colour Cadbury's had to offer.

I bought a green saber but - thanks to a Strawberry Cream - it was red for much of the time.

Declan

Darren Slade said...

Excellent story. Thanks Dec. I had no idea Force Beams survived until the time of Jedi, or that you could modify them that way.

Stuart Gray said...

Great memories as I read this. I remember almost choking on my "cola cubes" in 1978 when I saw the SW Weekly ad...and then there was the agonising wait for my Force Beam to arrive. And when it did...the blade was slightly banana shaped and the end cap kept popping off when I hit my little sister with it. Yet - magical it truly was. Turn the lights out and crank up the taped Star Wars soundtrack...lets play! :-)

Darren Slade said...

Thanks for the comment, Stuart. Cola cubes -- I'd forgotten those.
Great that you got a Force Beam. Has it long since disappeared?

Unknown said...
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dunebasher1971 said...

I got a Force Beam from a shop in London for Christmas 1978, after seeing the ads in Star Wars Weekly. Even though I was only seven years old I remember being disappointed with it, mainly because even with a brand-new battery the light was pretty insipid and barely reached halfway along the tube, which was very easily kinked or bent (the instructions recommended that you not touch anything with it due to the risk of damage) and had an end-cap that popped off at the slightest provocation.

The actual torch part was very cheaply made too, and my memory is that it broke before it was even six months old.

Anonymous said...

I was in an advert for them back in October 1978 - I still have the toy magazine it appeared in :)

Unknown said...

I still have mine :-)

Got it for Xmas in 1978. ,it's in my garage, and works perfectly...still the original bulb!

Craig Stevens said...

The Force Beam is the biggest mystery that I'm looking to clear up. In all the research I've done and all the people I've spoken to, nobody has given me an answer, or was able to give me a straight answer (including LFL related people).

The story that I heard as a collector years ago was that The Force Beam was invented and copyrighted by a very lucky American businessman before Star Wars was even announced. This prevented Lucasfilm from developing its own solid, light-up lightsaber and had to resort to what amounted to a giant blow-up condom and a torch! For The Empire Strikes Back, LFL approved a solid lightsaber that didn't light up but made sounds when air moved through the blade. There never was a solid, light up official SW lightsaber.

It seems to me that if the Force Beam was a genuine illegal copy, LFL would have produced their own but they never did. It seems also that Force Beam advertising was allowed in Star Wars Weekly, because it was a product that would help sell Star Wars. Recently a competition leaflet from 1978 turned up on Fakebook, to win a Force Beam that apparently came from the Official Star Wars Fan Club.

Some time ago someone gave me what he said was the actual phone number of the American businessman who invented the Force Beam, who is still in business today (probably investing the millions he made). The trouble is that no-one ever answers. If I ever get through, I'll let you know!