Follow by Email

Friday, 16 February 2018

Star Wars is now as old as Flash Gordon was in the 1970s. What does that tell us about its staying power?

Star Wars in 1977, when Flash Gordon was 41

Star Wars is as old today as the original Flash Gordon serial was back in 1977.

Today, Episode Nothing ponders that sobering thought 
and considers how Star Wars has aged compared with some of the films that inspired it.

Flash Gordon, 1936 

If you were there on day one, it's getting on for 41 years since you first saw Star Wars.

However, as we've seen before, the whole world didn't get the film at once. Fans in many parts of the UK, for example, get their Star Wars 40th anniversary round about now.

As the anniversary of its release in my home town came around recently, my friend Gary Dalkin made a sobering observation: The original Star Wars is now as old as the original Flash Gordon serial was back then.

That thought is going to make first generation fans feel sort of ancient. But I think it also tells us something positive about how Star Wars has aged. 

Star Wars and the films that inspired it 40 years ago

The Adventures of Robin Hood, 1938

Almost every critic and commentator who talked about Star Wars, back in 1977, talked about other films that inspired it.

Among the first reviewers of the film, Vincent Canby said in the New York Times: "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.” Jay Cocks of Time called the film “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".

It wasn't surprising that critics noted the parallels with the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers movie serials of the 1930s. After all, George Lucas had been candid about the inspiration he drew from those sources, and it was known that he had originally sought the rights to remake Flash Gordon. But critics and cineastes enjoyed spotting all kinds of allusions not only to those serials, but to many other earlier, classic films.

If you watched alll this as a child in the 1970s, it might have seemed as though the films being referenced were from a long-ago era. But consider it now.

Flash Gordon, the original Universal serial starring Larry 'Buster' Crabbe, was 41 years old when George Lucas released his movie in May 1977. That's the same age Star Wars is today.

The Adventures of Robin Hood, the high point of the swashbuckler genre whose spirit is in Star Wars, was 39 years old. The same age Alien, Apocalypse Now or Star Trek: The Motion PIcture are today.

Buck Rogers, the serial that had Buster Crabbe travelling forward in time, was 38 years old. The same age The Empire Strikes Back, The Elephant Man or AIrplane! are now.

The Dam Busters
, one of several World War II movies that inspired Star Wars' space battles, was 22 years old. The same age as Independence Day, Scream or The English Paitent today. 

John Wayne in
The Searchers, 1956
Forbidden Planet, the first million-dollar science fiction film  a huge leap forward for the genre in a similar way to Star Wars  was just 21 years old. So was The Searchers, the great John Wayne western whose burning homestead looks very much like that of Star Wars. Those two great movies were the same age as Titanic, The Lost World: Jurassic Park or Men In Black are today. 

The Hidden Fortress, Akira Kurosawa's adventure which may have inspired Star Wars in all sorts of ways (captured princess, master swordsman, two bickering nobodies who witness the whole story) was just 19 years old. That's the age of The Truman Show, Shakespeare In Love or Saving Private Ryan today. (Now the list is really starting to bug me, because there are films from that year that I've been meaning to get around to watching ever since.)

Two of Star Wars' most significant predecessors in the science fiction genre, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes, were both less than a decade old. Reach back nine years from today and we're only back as far as Avatar, The Hurt Locker and the JJ Abrams Star Trek reboot. 

So, how old does Star Wars look?

Forbidden Planet, 1956

I think this all tells us something about how well Star Wars has aged.

Back in 1977, I think the Flash Gordon serials looked a bit creaky. Imaginative, exciting and a lot of fun, yes, but we could see the flaws in their production values and special effects. I suspect they had always looked a little creaky, though, especially to adults. They were also in black and white, of course, which instantly signified that they were from another era.

Most of the other films on that list still would have come across as big, high-quality productions. If anything, it would be the acting in some of them that might have looked like it belonged to another time. But The Searchers and Forbidden Planet looked like great movies in the 1970s and I think they still look that way today.

Star Wars itself doesn’t look anything like as primitive to us today as the Flash Gordon serials might have in 1977.

There are things that date it, and I’m not just referring to the 1970s hair and make-up. In our age of spectacular CGI, we don’t see big, practical sets like those John Barry had built for Star Wars. And I think even a viewer who knew little about visual effects would instinctively sense that those in Star Wars are not like the ones we see today. (That’s due, of course, to the fact that the film used miniatures and optical effects that have fallen out of favour with the film business.)

Increasingly, we don’t see big, melodic music scores, carefully synced to the action on screen, today. (The continuing Star Wars movies being an exception.)

And today, we wouldn’t see a key battle represented by just a few people on screen, as we do in the opening scenes of Star Wars. Today’s movies would add CGI to the mix, but would struggle to out-do Star Wars for excitement.

A 21st century viewer is unaccustomed to these things, but that doesn’t mean the film creaks in the way those Flash Gordon serials did. If you’ve ever watched a young viewer get caught up in the 1977 movie, you’ll have realised that it’s still as fresh and compelling as it always was.

Sure, Star Wars may not be like films of 2018. But it wasn’t like films of 1977 either.

No comments: