Friday, 29 July 2016

What came before Star Wars in 1970s science fiction?

George Lucas directing Star Wars

It's true to say no one, in 1977, had ever seen a film quite like Star Wars. But that doesn’t mean no one had been trying to get big budget, old fashioned entertainment off the ground.

Today, Episode Nothing looks at film makers who were trying to make science fiction and fantasy, or to revive old movie genres, in the 1970s.

What genre entertainment came before Star Wars in the 1970s?

The story of 1970s cinema is often told like this: First there were imaginative new directors making all sorts of fresh and challenging films. Then, almost out of nowhere, along came Jaws. And then Star Wars. And all those individual, personal films were forgotten in the quest to find another blockbuster.

But it didn't quite happen like that. Other people had attempted to revive dormant genres in the same way George Lucas did. It's just that no one pulled it off quite so spectacularly.

1970s cinema pays homage to the 1930s 

What's Up, Doc?, with Ryan O'Neal and Barbara
Streisand, was another throwback to the 1970s
Before we get on to science fiction, it's worth remembering that Star Wars – which grew out of George Lucas's hopes of making a Flash Gordon film – was by no means the only film of its time to look back nearly forty years for inspiration.

In a recent Star Wars-themed edition of BBC Radio 3's Sound of Cinema, presenter Matthew Sweet made the astute observation that Star Wars had a lot in common with films like What's Up, Doc? (1972) and Bugsy Malone (1976) – movies that referenced the screwball comedy and the gangster movie respectively.

The 1976 King Kong
He might also have mentioned The Godfather (1972), which revived the gangster genre in serious vein for the 1970s (and on which Lucas contributed to a couple of key scenes). Meanwhile, there was a campy attempt to revive a pulp magazine hero in Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze (1975). And in 1976, producer Dino De Laurentiis gave us a remake of one of the seminal films of the early 1930s, King Kong

For all the new ideas that were around in the cinema if the 1970s, plenty of film makers were harking back to movies made before some of them were born. But George Lucas did it rather better than De Laurentiis.

Star Wars’ contemporaries: the other genre movies in production in the 1970s

Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Today, practically every other major movie release is a science fiction or fantasy film of some kind. In the mid-1970s, genre films were rare by comparison, and when George Lucas got Star Wars into production, he had to assemble his own visual effects unit because the Hollywood studios had dissolved theirs. 

But we shouldn’t get the idea that nothing at all happened in genre cinema between the fizzling-out of the Planet of the Apes film series in 1973 and the arrival of Star Wars. In fact, there was a steady trickle of mainly gloomy SF films for an adult audience – Slaughterhouse Five, Soylent Green, A Boy and His Dog, Rollerball. There was very little for a family audience – but some people were working on that.

Alexander and Ilya Salkind bought the rights to Superman in 1974, but the long and troubled process of bringing the superhero to the screen meant their film came out eighteen months after Star Wars. Steven Spielberg, who was every bit as much attached to outer space tales as his friend Lucas, began shooting Close Encounters of the Third Kind in May 1976 – a couple of months after photography on Star Wars got under way.

Logan's Run, the big SF release of 1976

The year 1976 saw the release of two big-budget genre films: the aforementioned King Kong and MGM’s Logan’s Run. The latter had a number of similarities with Star Wars: a big budget, impressive art direction, a fine music score (by Jerry Goldsmith) and a distinguished Briton (Peter Ustinov) playing a hermit character. But while a lot of people enjoyed it well enough, it was pretty much derided by critics.

So much for the films that made it into production. But I’ve been reading Chris Taylor’s book How Star Wars Conquered the Universe (which I’ll be reviewing here before long) and the author does an excellent job of pointing out that plenty of other film-makers were interested in science fiction and trying to get projects off the ground.

The reason Lucas began working up his own space opera story in the first place was that King Features would not sell him the rights to Flash Gordon. They had Frederico Fellini interested in that property. Meanwhile, several Hollywood film-makers were pursuing their own ideas, emboldened by the achievements of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes, both released in 1968, as well as Star Trek on TV – and the small matter of the first men on the moon in 1969.

Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins had written a science fiction script called Home Free, which for some time went by the title Star Dancing. It told of a space mission which results in Earth’s first encounter with life on other planets. At one point, it looked as though Spielberg might direct Home Free for Universal, but the studio got cold feet after the failure of Douglas Trumbull’s downbeat SF movie Silent Running. The film went unmade, while Barwood and Robbins wrote Spielberg’s debut film The Sugarland Express and did uncredited work on Close Encounters

Frank Herbert's Dune
Meanwhile, Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky got pretty close to getting the green light for an expensive production of Frank Herbert’s Dune – a book to which the script of Star Wars was indebted. Taylor quotes Edward Summer, a film-maker turned comic book dealer and a friend of Lucas’s. He recalls Martin Scorsese buying options on stories by Philip K Dick , while Brian De Palma wanted to film Alfred Bester’s novel The Demolished Man. And Summer says he was himself involved in three separate attempts to get another Bester novel, The Stars My Destination, off the ground.

Yet while several of his contemporaries looked for literary properties to adapt, Lucas was busy assimilating SF literature with no intention of adapting it for the screen. After his failure to acquire Flash Gordon, he was on a mission to distill an enormous number of stories into one adventure.

The fact that other people were interested in reviving the science fiction genre – and that so many of them couldn’t pull it off – makes Lucas’s achievement all the more impressive.

I'd welcome your recollections of 1970s cinema and the arrival of Star Wars. Please consider leaving a comment below. Every one is appreciated.


morrisonmovies said...

Great article! Many people assume that Close Encounters and Superman were made as a response to Star Wars.

Paper Moon is another early 70s throwback to the 30s.

And for movies that revived dormant genres, another is Rocky, which revived the boxing genre (The Harder They Fall with Humphrey Bogart, etc.)

John White said...

My, that was interesting. I haven't seen 'Slaughterhouse 5' or 'A Boy and His Dog'. Would you recommend them, Darren?

I often think of that period as a really groundbreaking one—though after reading this article—I'm now seeing at as one which was heavily influenced by the filmmakers' personal old movie loves. I also see the period as one which later gave rise to lots of negatives.

If you look at Michelangelo—who was deeply influenced by previous artists—he created a new, authentic, sincere style. It was then taken up by others who tried to ape the mere surface of it and its flashier aspects. They didn't originate the style, didn't share his influences, and didn't necessarily have his talent. What followed Michelangelo then, for a time, is now labeled as 'Mannerism'.

Much of Mannerism is ridiculous. Michaelangelo in a sense, caused it. Similarly, Lucas in a sense blamelessly caused the likes of 'The Humanoid' and 'Starcrash', and Spielberg caused 'Pirahnha'. They also possibly brought about the kind of big budget, brainless, focus-grouped grabage which fills the cinemas today.

Though I have to admit that I'm nearly as guilty as the next person of often going to the cinema for spectacle, rather than a moving or powerful story with no FX.

Darren Slade said...

Thanks very much both for commenting.

Morrisonmovies: I really appreciate you taking the trouble to contribute. You're absolutely right about Paper Moon, of course. And I can't believe I didn't think to mention Rocky, which as you say, owed a lot to another era. I think Rockys II & III seemed even more like black and white movies updated than the first one did.
A lot of 1970s entertainment was also full of nostalgia for the relative innocence of the 1950s and early 60s, of course: Happy Days, American Graffiti, Grease etc.

John: Your knowledge of art history makes that argument so much more interesting than it is when I make it! Yes, Lucas and Spielberg have taken a lot of criticism which would be better directed at their imitators.
Slaughterhouse 5 and A Boy and His Dog are both films that I haven't seen for a long time. At the time, I liked the first a lot, and thought the latter was very clever but disturbing and misogynistic. But those are impressions from 30 years ago, so don't hold me to them!