the first few seconds of star wars -- 1/7/15

Today's selection -- from How Star Wars Conquered the Universe by Chris Taylor. The first few moments of George Lucas's smash hit Star Wars set a tone that immediately hooked moviegoers:

"Back when Warner Brothers wrested THX 1138 [George Lucas's first feature film] from Lucas's control, Fred Weintraub -- the studio's 'youth expert' -- gave the young director this advice. 'If you hook the audience in the first ten minutes,' he said, 'they'll forgive anything.' Those ten minutes, roughly the length of a film's first reel, could make or break a movie -- especially one that required viewers to make a leap of faith, as both THX and Star Wars did.

"Lucas resented Weintraub, as he resented all studio interference, but he would proceed to follow Weintraub's dictum for the rest of his career. The entire set up of the plot of American Graffiti was conveyed in its first ten minutes. And more ground was covered in the first ten minutes of Star Wars than in -- well, just about any other movie up until that point. Within this short timeframe the film won over skeptical audiences around the world, and earned itself and its Creator a place in cinematic history.

"The first reel of Star Wars was vital -- and yet a surprising amount of the credit for it belongs to people whose names are not George Lucas. It's an object lesson in how filmmaking is a fundamentally collaborative endeavor, and the collaboration often extends across decades. Take the first thing the audience at the Coronet [the theater where Star Wars debuted] would have seen in that first public screening on the morning of May 25, after the Duck Dodgers cartoon: the Fox fanfare. Five seconds of thumping drums and bright brass in B-flat major, the fanfare was composed way back in 1933 by prolific movie composer Alfred Newman, a friend of Irving Berlin and George Gershwin, and expanded in the 1950s for the launch of CinemaScope, the studio's wide-screen movie format. The fanfare had fallen into disuse by 1977, but George Lucas loved Newman's work and asked that it be revived for Star Wars. If you're counting, that's one point for Newman and one for Lucas.

"For generations of kids, that fanfare would not mean Twentieth Century Fox so much as it would mean Star Wars. The part of the fanfare that was extended in the '50s is the bit that plays over the Lucasfilm logo; many viewers wrongly assume it to be some kind of separate Lucasfilm fanfare. Indeed, while not technically part of the film, the fanfare has become so widely associated with the following two hours of entertainment that it was rerecorded by John Williams in 1980 and placed at the beginning of every Star Wars soundtrack album.

"After the fanfare dies away, the screen falls silent and black. Up pop ten simple words, lowercase, in a cool blue:

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away ...

"These are Lucas's words, as edited by Lucas: the corny addendum 'an amazing adventure took place' from the fourth draft is gone. No title card in the history of cinema has been more quoted; no ten words are more important. Watching the movie in a theater in Colorado, the beat poet Allen Ginsberg read those ten words and said aloud to his companion: 'Thank goodness. I don't have to worry about it.'

"It was a revolutionary statement -- but why? Leave aside the fairy tale cadence, which lulls us into story time. Consider instead that this is exactly what every fantasy epic needs to give you right off the bat: a setting in space and time that says, relax. Don't bother trying to figure out the relationship between what you're about to see and your own Earthbound reality, because there isn't one. This isn't Planet of the Apes; the Statue of Liberty isn't going to turn up in a last-reel twist. No other movie had ever announced its divorce from our world so explicitly before; with the exception of Star Wars sequels, none would ever be able to do so again without seeming derivative.

"The perfect simplicity of those ten words appears to have been hard for a lot of people to understand in the run-up to the movie's release. The words that open Alan Dean Foster's novelization ('another galaxy, another time') aren't quite the same -- that might place us in the future, rather than in a story that is safely in some history book. Fox didn't get it at all: its trailer for Star Wars opened with the words 'somewhere in space, this may all be happening right now.'

"The ten words remain on the screen for exactly five seconds, long enough for the casual viewer to think, Isn't this supposed to be a science fiction movie? Aren't they all set in the future? What kind of thing is--

"Boom. The largest logo you've ever seen fills the screen, its yellow outlines nudged right up to the top and bottom of the frame, the color a deliberate contrast with the blue of the preceding ten words. It is accompanied by a violent orchestral blast in the same key as the fanfare, B-flat major. Both were placed there by Lucas."


Chris Taylor


How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present, and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise


Basic Books


Copyright 2014 by Chris Taylor


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