Friday, 1 June 2018

Han Solo, as he was in 1977

Harrison Ford as Han Solo in Star Wars, 1977

Ron Howard's Solo: A Star Wars Story is currently reintroducing many people's favourite Star Wars character and giving him a new, official backstory.

I won't concern myself here with what I thought of the new film. (I'm intending to blog about that next week at Amazing Stories.) But it seems like a good time to consider Solo as played by Harrison Ford, and the reasons he was so important to the success of Star Wars.

Han Solo was the one role in Star Wars that made a major star of the actor who played it. Among the contemporary critics, Gary Arnold of the Washington Post nailed the importance of the part:

"Han Solo is the film's most flamboyant human role, and Harrison Ford, who appeared as the hot rodder who challenged Paul Le Mat in American Graffiti, has a splendid time capitalizing on its irresistible style of cynical heroism.
"It would be professionally criminal to flub such an ingratiating, star-making assignment, and although Ford plays in a relaxed, drawing style, reminiscent of Jack Nicholson at his foxiest, he maintains a firm grip on this golden opportunity. He would have kids and grownups by the millions roaring their approval at defiant sentiments like the following: Bring em on! I prefer a straight fight to all this sneaking around."

Together, George Lucas's script and Harrison Ford's performance created a character who would loom large in the imagination of the audience. I want to look at a few reasons some obvious, some less so  why Solo was so popular.

1. He was a gunslinger, straight out of a western.

Han Solo, 1977

I've mentioned before that a lot of young people were still enjoying westerns on TV, right up until Star Wars came out (and beyond, of course).

Solo is a recognisable western character. His costume references the genre, with his cowboy-style vest (in the UK, we say waistcoat) and his blaster slung low in a quick-draw holster. He hangs out in a rough saloon, where violence breaks out and is quickly forgotten. He even guns down a hoodlum before throwing some coins to the bartender.

How could fans resist a film that put a western gunslinger into a spaceship?

2. He had a memorable sidekick.

Han Solo and Chewbacca

His name was Solo, but he didn't travel solo  any more than the Lone Ranger was really alone.

Like the Lone Ranger, Han has a travelling companion. And the fact that this unlikely pair have come together is an indication that there must be something deeper and less selfish about this man than he would have us believe.

3. He was nonchalant and cool.

Han Solo  in the Mos Eisley cantina

Solo rarely gets excited about anything other than a fight or a space battle.

He remains resolutely laid-back through much of the film. The fact that he apparently cares so little about impressing other people is what makes him so impressive.

Take the moment when he confronts Greedo in the cantina. In this situation, which could end with him being gunned down, Solo is apparently so relaxed that he picks at the surface of the wall. My pal John White of the Star Wars Age 9 website calls this the "peeling the stucco" moment. It's perfectly in character for this most casual of heroes.

It might be relevant to remind ourselves of some facts about Harrison Ford here. He had already been an actor for some years, but had more or less given up and was working as a carpenter. He had been drafted in to help with the screen tests for Star Wars by reading lines with the actors who were auditioning. But Lucas did not envisage having him in the movie, until lobbying by Francis Coppola's casting director Fred Roos persuaded him. 

Ford was a few years older than the other actors – nearly 34 when the film was shot – and he had clearly established that he could make a decent living at carpentry. Maybe those facts contributed to the nonchalance that defines the character.

4. He had a back story which was only hinted at.

Han Solo and Greedo

Consider what we learn about Solo but don't see on screen.

We know his ship made the "Kessel run", and if we're concentrating, we might relate that to the spice mines of Kessel, which C-3PO feared being sent to earlier in the film.

We know the Millennium Falcon has outrun Imperial star ships, by which he means the "big Correllian ships", not the "local bulk cruisers", so he is no servant of the Empire.

We also learn that he recently dumped a shipment and that the mysterious Jabba wants back the money he lost on the deal.

All of this suggests a backstory without pinning it down. It's one of the keys to creating a memorable character.

5. He was a sceptic.

Han Solo boasting that he's flown "from one side of this galaxy to the other"

Star Wars gave us the Force, a distillation of various religions, but it also gave us an unbeliever. Solo thinks the Jedi are crazy, dealing in "simple tricks and nonsense" and that "there's no magical energy field controls my destiny".

His world-weariness is a welcome counterpoint to the earnestness of Luke and Obi-Wan. And although Solo learns to respect their religion (intoning "May the Force be with you" when he parts from Luke), the events of the film's climax validate both his and the Jedi's points of view. Luke blows up the Death Star by turning off his conscious mind and using the Force, but it's the unbelieving Solo who knocks Darth Vader out of the fight to prevent Luke getting obliterated first.

6. He was the cool big brother.

Han Solo offers Luke the chance to fly with him

This is not often commented upon, but Star Wars is, among other things, a buddy movie.

Luke and Han meet up, dislike each other initially, then work together and become firm friends.

When Han offers Luke the chance to go adventuring with him instead of sacrificing his life in the battle against the Death Star, we know Luke will do the right thing. But I think we also sense that the two have bonded. Luke (who, in the deleted scenes, was mocked by his peers) has finally been accepted by cool people.

Luke's story is full of older men who are possible role models. There's the father he never knew; Uncle Owen, his surrogate father on Tatooine; and Obi-Wan Kenobi. In the deleted scenes, there would have been his pal Biggs.  And then there's Solo, the worldly rebel who contrasts with Obi-Wan's earnestness.

In this story, we see Luke fulfil his destiny by becoming a great pilot like his father and beginning to use the Force like the Jedi. 

But he does it without sacrificing the excitement and yearning for adventure that he shares with his big brother figure, Han Solo.


Francis Dollarhyde said...

7. He has almost all of the best one-liners in the film. ;-)

Darren Slade said...

Good point!

John White said...

You nailed it, Darren.

By the way, I have to credit Neil Baker with the "picking the stucco" comment at Star Wars age 9. I mentioned that Ford was nonchalantly doing it during the scene, and Neil came up with a name for it!

One of the things that worries me about the new films is that the characters seem a bit fuzzy at times (not as much as the Prequels, as famously pointed out by Redletter Media). Finn starts as a recent Stormtrooper recruit, but he was trained for it since being snatched as a young orphan; but we later find out that he was a janitor. In the next film he knows a fair bit about techy stuff such how ships might be tracked via hyperspace; and later he's not a bad pilot of those skater craft things. I expect in the next film, Rose might suddenly transition to top military strategist.

Finn does make a Solo-like transition of attitude and behaviour though. He goes from being terrified (and somewhat self-serving) to selfless hero.

I think George did a great job in forming his original characters and dreaming back-stories for them. Harrison Ford was perfect for the part. You can see in the screen tests how easily dismissive and sarcastic and cynically eye-rolling he is. Sometimes I think that Solo is more like Ford than Indiana Jones is, and that's the reason why Ford dislikes Solo, and prefers Indy!


John White said...

Ha ha. I just checked my comic page.

Neil commented about "picking the stucco" and I sort of formalised it if you like!

If this becomes a Hollywood acting term, my work on earth is done.