|Superman (1978) had a lot in common with Star Wars|
Episode Nothing has occasionally looked at some of the other big films of 1977.
But today I'd like to look at a film which arrived more than 18 months after Star Wars – Richard Donner's Superman. It was released 40 years ago this week, and I think it's revealing to compare this huge superhero epic with George Lucas's much cheaper creation.
Superman was one of three key movies which established science fiction and fantasy as the business for film-makers to be in during the late 1970s. Star Wars and Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind were the other two.
Several of Star Wars' key creative contributors also worked on Superman. They included production designer John Barry, composer John Williams and the London Symphony Orchestra, art directors Norman Reynolds and Leslie Dilley, and special make-up artist Stuart Freeborn.
|Phil Brown as a state |
senator in Superman
Geoffrey Unsworth, cinematographer on Superman, came close to doing the same job on Star Wars. Phil Brown, who played Uncle owen in Star Wars, played a state senator in Superman's missile control room.
Superman was shot mainly at Pinewood Studios, Star Wars at Elstree, although both made some use of Shepperton. Many of the UK construction and technical crew worked on both movies, and still more Superman people would work on The Empire Strikes Back, including assistant director David Tomblin and actors Bruce Boa and John Ratzenberger.
Gary Kurtz visited the set of Superman at a particularly fraught time for the production in late 1977 (prompting rumours that he might be coming to bail out the movie), as did John Williams. The fortunes of the two films seemed to be connected.
Which came first: Star Wars or Superman?
|Marlon Brando and Ilya Salkind on the set of Superman|
"We were at work way before anyone had heard of a Star Wars or a Close Encounters of the Third Kind. We were the first kids on the block to foresee this renewed fascination with science fiction, space and fantasy. It's just taken us a little longer to get it on the screen."Only part of that statement is true. It's correct that Superman was in development before anyone among the general public had heard of Star Wars or Close Encounters. But Spielberg's agreement to make a science fiction for Columbia had been signed as early as 1973, and he had been fascinated by the ideas behind his film since childhood. George Lucas had been thinking about a Flash Gordon-style adventure for years as well – and as we saw in this post, the title The Star Wars had been registered in August 1971.
Ilya Salkind recalled coming up with the idea for Superman in the autumn 1973, as he walked past a cinema in Paris that was showing the 1940 film The Mark of Zorro. The moment tempted him to wonder about making a film about the ultimate fictional hero.
So Salkind conceived the idea quite a while after Lucas and Spielberg conceived theirs. Nonetheless, Superman was a long time in coming to fruition. Salkind and his father Alexander had intended to be shooting it in 1975, but production was not in full flow until 1977, and the film did not reach the screen until December 10, 1978.
I mention all this because I think it's revealing. Superman is a film that came after Star Wars, but in some key ways it is like a pre-Star Wars epic.
Superman: a film which could have come before Star Wars
In many ways, I think Superman seems like it belongs before Star Wars in movie history.
Before the success of Star Wars, there were certain assets that people thought a blockbuster should have.
One was that it should be based on an established literary property. Superman was based on comic books rather than a novel, of course, but early on, the producers hired Mario Puzo to write the script. Puzo had written The Godfather and co-authored the film adaptation (his only screenwriting credit up to to that point). He turned in a Superman screenplay that was full of camp humour and, according to the producers, would have made a six-hour film. Nonetheless, his name attached to the project gave it kudos.
In pre-Star Wars cinema, having a roster of stars helped a movie a lot. Star Wars had two, of course – Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing. But in Superman, most roles were filled by stars. Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman were billed above Christopher Reeve's Superman. The rest of the cast included well-known actors from the US (Ned Beatty, Jackie Cooper, Glenn Ford, Valerie Perrine, Phyllis Thaxter), the UK (Trevor Howard, Terence Stamp, Susannah York, Harry Andrews) and mainland Europe (Maria Schell). A teaser trailer, which I vividly remember, did nothing but list those names and follow them with the Superman logo.
As for Superman himself, the producers considered just about every star in Hollywood, along with non-actors including Muhammad Ali, before going for the unknown Reeve.
Another factor that traditionally helped a movie was to have a lot of Oscar winners on board. By the time Superman came out, its principal creative talent had picked up at least nine Oscars between them: two for Marlon Brando, one for Gene Hackman, two for Mario Puzo, three for John Williams, one for John Barry.
Big movies were almost invariably expensive movies in those days. Nobody intended the budget for Superman to get as high as its final $55 million, but with shooting in the UK, Canada and New York, and enormous amounts of effects work, it was always going to be an expensive movie.
The investment paid off for the Salkinds, after the film made $300 million at the box office. But Star Wars – which made $530 million over the years in its original version and £775.4 million if you count the Special Edition – only had a $10.5 million budget to recoup.
How does Superman measure up against Star Wars?
|The opening of Superman|
Like Star Wars, Superman takes a moment at the beginning of the movie to let us know that we're watching an old-fashioned story. Star Wars does it through the caption "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...", whereas Superman does it through a glimpse of an old comic book and the words "June 1938". Then, both deliver a spectacular opening, accompanied by tremendous John Williams music. In the case of Superman, the curtain-raiser takes the form of some of the most impressive credits you have ever seen.
After that, the films have a very different story-telling style. Superman builds slowly, giving us a lot of back-story in the knowledge that we'll stay with it in anticipation of the moment when its famous hero is revealed. It has the air of an important story, and it deliberately plays up the Biblical parallels (the heavenly father sending is son to save Earth; the son's spell in the wilderness). By contrast, Star Wars doesn't dwell on its mythological aspects or its possible Biblical parallels; Lucas keeps a pretty light tone throughout and he always moves the story along quickly.
Richard Donner's style is very different from Lucas's, too. He makes the most of sets and locations, lingering over John Barry's Krypton and Fortress of Solitude sets, and the Canadian countryside that stood in for the American mid-west. His approach suits this mythic story. Lucas, by contrast, rarely reveals anything slowly or dramatically, always moving on to the next shot an the next action.
But while the two movies are very different in some ways, they have some of the same strengths.
Both films showed us things that we had never seen before. Superman pulled off flying effects in a way no previous film or TV adaptation had been able to. Its flying sequences are as impressive as Star Wars' innovative space battle scenes.
Both films had the astonishing designs of John Barry, whose visual imagination is surely a large part of what makes them so memorable. And each film was given credibility and weight by John Williams' phenomenal music.
Both movies took something old and familiar – comic books and Flash Gordon adventures – and updated it, making it look fresh and spectacular. But they both managed to do it while taking the subject matter seriously, without falling temptation to send up the source material.
In re-imagining 1930s entertainment for the 1970s, Star Wars and Superman tried something similar, and both succeeded in very different ways. The result is that both have kept their original fans enthralled for forty years.
Did you see both Superman and Star Wars the first time around? I'd love to hear your memories. Do leave a comment below.