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Friday, 2 February 2018

Spoilers in 1977: How much did people know about the original Star Wars going in?

The Marvel Star Wars comic book was
one of many ways to get Star Wars spoilers
Photo: Comics A-Go-Go! 

The phrase "spoiler warning" is a pretty recent invention. Back in the 1970s, you could stumble upon films' plot twists quite easily. 

Today, Episode Nothing considers the spoilers that were around in 1977, as news spread of the incredible success of Star Wars.

These days, when a new Star Wars film is about to come out, I subject myself to a social media blackout. That's especially important in the few days between the film's premiere and the first day of general release, which is when I like to see it.

Back in 1977, of course, things were different. We may not have had social media, but most people had weeks or months to wait between the film's opening in key US cities and it reaching our own localities.

What's more, Lucasfilm and 20th Century-Fox were happy to release quite a lot of information in an effort to drum up interest in the movie. And when it became clear that the film was doing record-breaking business wherever it was screened, newspapers, magazines and TV stations all over the world were keen to tell people about it.

I think people were used to more spoilers in those days. I knew the plots of all the Planet of the Apes movies, including the endings, before I saw them, because there was a handy summary in the Brown Watson Planet of the Apes annual in the UK. And before home video, I remember it was quite common for kids in the school playground to recount every detail of a film they'd seen – including the ending. Sometimes those accounts turned out to be wildly exaggerated when I finally caught up with the films in question.

So, with spoilers so common, why would Star Wars be an exception? 

How much could you find out about Star Wars before you saw it?

The Star Wars novel, published
in November 1976

Even if you saw Star Wars on the first day of its release, on May 25, 1977, you could have known the entire plot in advance.

The novel of the film, credited to George Lucas but ghost-written by Alan Dean Foster, had been out since November 1976, and half a million people had bought it. Even if we assume that not all of those people had read it, that's quite a few people who already had the story in their heads. They would have seen some things unfold differently – with no Biggs scenes, for example – but the key plot points would be there.

As the release of the film rolled out, coverage appeared in newspapers and magazines everywhere.

You would have seen the Jawas, the Sandpeople (or Tusken Raiders, as they were called in printed materials but not in the film), the stormtroopers, the droids and Darth Vader. You would probably have seen production stills showing some of the desert scenes, the Millennium Falcon, the main hangar of the Death Star and the chasm that Luke and Leia swing across. You might even have seen production art showing the final space battle.

As we saw in last week's post, it took a long time for the release of Star Wars to spread across America, and much longer for the film to reach the rest of the world, so a lot of people will have heard accounts of the film spread by word of mouth.

By the time it reached the UK and Europe at the very end of 1977, the novel was available there. And although the UK's Star Wars Weekly comic only began in February 1978, collectors could have read imported copies of the American comic.

If you were highbrow enough to read the British Film Institute's Monthly Film Bulletin that November, you could have seen a complete summary of the film's plot. But in all the excitement, the MFB's reviewer seemed to have misunderstood a couple of points. Its synopsis says, without ambiguity, that "Kenobi is killed in a laser duel with Vader", and also that "Han Solo, who had earlier vowed to continue the fight only for money, returns in time to shoot down Darth Vader."

That must have been baffling for anyone who had also seen the 'Darth Vader Lives' badges that were going around. 

The one major Star Wars spoiler I came across before the movie

The Star Wars Original Soundtrack album on cassette, complete with a major spoiler

Although I don't remember consciously avoiding Star Wars spoilers, I came across one that really saddened me at the time. And it came from one of the most official sources possible.

I knew the characters of the movie and had read the first two or three instalments of Marvel's adaptation in Star Wars Weekly.

Then, in a branch of the now-defunct record and bookshop John Menzies, I looked at the cassette version of John Williams' original soundtrack double-LP.

Unlike the vinyl version, the cassette displayed the track listing on the outside. And as I browsed, I saw this track title:

'Ben's Death and TIE Fighter Attack'.

Ben's death? Surely not Obi-Wan 'Ben' Kenobi'? 

This slip-up in Marvel's version of
the burning homestead scene
I tried to kid myself that maybe I hadn't discovered a big spoiler. After all, there had already been a slip-up in the Marvel comic. In Marvel's version, Luke Skywalker had yelled "Uncle Ben" instead of "Uncle Owen" when he returned to the burning homestead. Could it be that the track listing referred to Luke's uncle? It didn't seem likely, but perhaps.... 

I was dejected at the time – partly because I'd discovered a major plot point, but also at the thought that Luke's apprenticeship with Obi-Wan was to be so brief.

First generation fans and their memories of Star Wars spoilers

I asked some first generation fans for their memories of Star Wars spoilers.

Craig Stevens, author of The Star Wars Phenomenon in Britain, which we discussed last week, said:

"You're right of course that people could have found out everything about Star Wars in advance of seeing it in Britain in 1977/78. The hype was in many ways based around spoilers, as the various promotional arms of Star Wars marketing wanted to spell out clearly what the film was about and explain that for once there was a film that had a happy ending. The general public was not going to get up off of the settee for a film that was not guaranteed to deliver. " 

The first  Star Wars picture John White ever drew.
He says it shows he didn't have a lot of pictures
to work from
John White, of the brilliant Star Wars Age 9 comic book, admits his memory is hazy about what he knew before seeing the film.

"I doubt that spoilers would have bothered me at all," he said.

"There was too much to enjoy in terms of sound, vision, and performances to care about plot spoilers. I would have wanted to know as much as possible. When I got my dad to come with me for a second viewing i think it was still amazing. Maybe even better."

Declan McCafferty, who is quoted in Craig's book about Star Wars in the UK, is slightly younger and had to wait to see the film until it was issued on a double-bill with The Empire Strikes Back in 1982, by which time he'd filled his head with detail about the movie.

"It's become a tired anecdote in my family that on my first viewing I was being very irritating to my sisters: 'This is the bit the bit the Jawas shoot Artoo', 'This is the bit where...'.. Constantly. To a film i hadn't seen." 

Did Star Wars spoilers matter?

I've said that the movie-watching world was very different in the 1970s, and that kids in particular lapped up as much information as they could about Star Wars before seeing it.

But it strikes me that Star Wars was really pretty spoiler-proof, because the plot wasn't the point.

We knew, going in, that it largely involved an effort to rescue Princess Leia from Darth Vader. Plot-wise, it was hardly surprising that the heroes entered the Empire's fortress and disguised themselves as their own enemies. The film dealt in familiar story ideas, which is partly why is resonated with audiences so well.

But even if you'd read every word of the novel, or all of the Marvel adaptation, you would not have been prepared for the experience of watching Star Wars. The film had a look, a sound and a visual energy that nobody had encountered before.

It was, in many ways, the ultimate piece of cinema – because however much you'd read, however many pictures you'd scrutinised, and how however much you'd imagined it, you 
hadn't come close to getting the movie experience.


John White said...

I think that was a wonderful quote of Declan annoying his siblings at the screening.

I can imagine from that how excited he was, and it shows how eager he was to actually see--for the first time--the things he'd only known about second-hand.

He was also part of a tribe that knew about the film and this was a child's chance to show greater knowledge.

I bet he wasn't disappointed as each big moment revealed itself. You might think these days that imagination would always trump actually seeing it, but the film was almost without precedent in terms of visual spectacle and style, so it probably couldn't disappoint a child, especially. Adults with more jaded eyes and maturity and greater intellect might have been less impressed.

Seeing_I said...

That Marvel comic page of the Death Star explosion fascinated me as a kid. It seems so much grander than the big 'splosion we see in the film, and the reference to the wreckage burning itself out over several days sounded like a great idea I wish we'd seen. In the back of my mind that's exactly what happens.

Darren Slade said...

Good point. I like the idea that people on Yavin, or wherever, would be watching this event in the sky for some time afterwards. Makes the galaxy seem bigger.