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Friday, 14 December 2018

Star Wars v Superman: The two biggest fantasy films of the 1970s

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 WarsPhil 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

Interviewed for David Michael Petrou's 1978 book The Making of Superman The Movie, executive producer Ilya Salkind said:
"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

John Barry, production designer for
Star Wars and Superman
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

The release of Superman at the end of 1978/beginning of 1979 was a huge event for young fans of adventure films. How could it not be? Star Wars had needed to sell us on a whole new galaxy; Superman just had to promise us that it had brought a well-loved character convincingly to life on the screen.

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.


Harrod said...

Bruce Boa, not Ben! =o)

Darren Slade said...

Good spot. Duly corrected.
How could I mistype the name of the Fawlty Towers Waldorf salad guy?

Harrod said...

As to the question the article posed, I was a ten-year-old boy in 1978, and that kind of says it all. Star Wars had blown my mind a year and a half prior, but Superman went much farther back in my inner mythos- this was my first-ever experience of going to a movie knowing a lot about the source material in advance, and seeing Hollywood get it so right in every way was a wallop. I had been a fan of Superman, but as a 2-D comic book "fun" thing, not as the "REAL" experience they made it into. I had no idea how movies were made, I just knew how eye-popping the opening titles were, how MASSIVE Krypton loomed on the screen, and how every story element fell into place afterwards. When I moved to New York City many years later, among the first places I went out of my way to visit was the Daily News building, which played the part of the Daily Planet. The film made Reeve the one true Superman in my world, and seeing the sequels decline in quality was sad. Thank heavens for permanent media preserving the original forever, though future generations can't experience it through the exact same eyes I did that day forty years ago.

Ray T said...

Superman The Movie was one of my first cognizant movie experiences. I was a toddler between 3 and 4 years old, but I distinctly remember seeing the movie at the old Hiland (correct spelling) Theater in Albuquerque, NM. I remember this for two reasons, 1) There was a line around the building which I had never seen before and didn’t understand why; and 2) When Supes screams after Lois dies (before the infamous time reversal scene) that really frightened me to the point of being scared of him and crying until my grandma comforted me.

Even though Superman wasn’t a big part of my childhood the way Star Wars or Star Trek The Motion Picture were, I still always had and still have a fondness for it. Watching it 40 years later I really have an appreciation for what Donner and Salkind accomplished and really feel that Christopher Reeve gave an outstanding performance to which all future Supermen will be judged.

Anonymous said...

I too vividly remember the teaser trailer consisting of nought else but an animated 3D cavalcade of the all-star cast's names. Being about 11 years of age at the time, I was of course not the target audience for that kind of promotion -- but the point must surely have been lost on most young viewers, who would have wondered who the hell all these people were and why their names were more important than any actual superhero action...

Darren Slade said...

@Harrod: That's very well put. The movie seemed so huge and important. I know some people found it self-important, but I didn't. The Krypton and Smallville sequences seemed necessary to prepare us for the big reveal of the adult Superman.

@Ray T: Yes, I remember being new to the phenomenon of lines around cinemas. Then, in close succession, it happened with Star Wars, Superman and Grease.
I can imagine that scream being scary for such a small child. It was one of several moments that were intensely emotional and potentially frightening, in a way that Star Wars wasn't.

@Anonymous: That really was a teaser trailer, wasn't it? I think I probably saw it with Grease. All you got was those names and finally the Superman logo, but I remember being intensely excited by it.

dusty abell said...

I saw Star Wars about a week after it opened at a Drive-In in Southern California........ my uncle took me along while he was on a date........I was 8..........I fell asleep during the 3rd act, lol!!!! After that, I saw it about another 3 times that summer, and didn't fall asleep once!

I sawSuperman with my mom at the first Saturday morning matinee it was out (Dec. 16th i'd say) Packed house and we were dead center. Lots of kids my age were there that morning with their parents.

There are three movie moments that to this day send shivers down my spine. The combination of imagery and music is just overwhelming. Two of those moments are from these 2 films....

From Star Wars, Luke looking out at the twin suns....

From Superman, Jor-El's reveal of Superman for the first time in the Fortress of Solitude.......

HuyenPham said...


SaturdayMorningFan said...

There's one more thing they had in common: David Prowse. He trained Christopher Reeve when Reeve decided he wanted to bulk up rather than use fake muscles sewn into the costume.