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Star Wars (1977)

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aka Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope (reissue title)

Director: George Lucas
Screenwriters: George Lucas, Willard Huyck (uncredited), Gloria Katz (uncredited)

By Roderick Heath

Most films lose their battle for cultural attention. Sometimes that proves an advantage. They’re free to be constantly rediscovered, to be alive for each viewer in a different way. Other films win the battle, and the price they pay for this can be they become so familiar they stop being seen, in the sense that, as a shared point of reference for a vast audience, they lose any quality of the unexpected, and instead become unshifting landmarks. This is especially true of Star Wars, which has been in turn celebrated and blamed for a monumental detour in screen culture in the years since its release. Decades after their first viewing my parents still mentioned the gobsmacking impact of the opening images of Star Wars, with the sight of a small spaceship fleeing a colossal pursuer, the passing of which unfolds on a new scale of imaginative transcription through cinematic technique. Suddenly the movies grew bigger than when D.W. Griffith besieged the walls of Babylon or Cecil B. DeMille parted the Red Sea. There’s a video on YouTube presenting an audio recording made by a mother and her young son during their first viewing of Star Wars in a movie theatre in 1977. The whoops of joy from the audience greeting Han Solo’s (Harrison Ford) cowboy yelp when he intervenes in the climactic battle, and the applause when the Death Star explodes, record a great moment in mapping the idea and ideal of moviegoing: you can hear the audience in the palm of a filmmaker’s hand, experiencing everything old being made new again.

That said, I would say the moment that makes Star Wars what it became arrived a little earlier in the film, during the scene where the assailed heroes Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) are trapped between two forces of enemy Stormtroopers whilst perched on the edge of a chasm. Whilst Leia exchanges fire with Stormtroopers on a high vantage and another band try to break through the sealed door behind them, Luke improvises a way of swinging across. John Williams’ music indulges a flourish of florid emphasis as the young would-be white knight and the lady fair in the flowing silk dress swoop across to freedom. This moment condensed generations of movies, serials, comic books, and their precursors in fantastical literature and theatrical melodrama and on and on back to classical folklore, into a new singularity. A moment that somehow manages to exist at once with scare quotes of knowing around it, an ever so slight tint of camp not really that far from the jokey, satirical lilt of the 1960s Batman TV series built around both puckishly mocking and celebrating juvenile heroic fantasy, whilst also operating on a completely straight-faced level: this is the universe Star Wars has successfully woven by this point, one where that heroism isn’t a wish but simply part of life.

The genesis of Star Wars is today just about as well-known as the movie itself. Young filmmaker George Lucas, taking time off after releasing his debut feature THX-1138 (1971), wanted to make a film out of the beloved comic strip Flash Gordon, but couldn’t afford to buy the rights. After rifling through the history of the subgenre commonly dubbed “space opera” the strip had sprung from, Lucas sat down and began dreaming up his own, working through variation after variation on his ideas until finally arriving at the form that would become so familiar. Even before Lucas scored a hit with American Graffiti (1973), he was able to convince 20th Century Fox boss Alan Ladd Jr to back his other, riskier project, and got American Graffiti’s cowriters Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz to punch up the dialogue. That nobody quite knew what they had on their hands is made clear by the film’s first teaser trailer, which evinces in lacking Williams’ scoring that the images still had thrilling energy on their own, even as it completely fails to communicate the tone of the thing. The roots of Star Wars are far more liberally free-range of course – Lucas took obvious and largely admitted inspiration not just from Flash Gordon but from DeMille, J.R.R. Tolkien, Akira Kurosawa, Fritz Lang, John Ford, Sergei Eisenstein, Frank Herbert, E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith, Isaac Asimov, Alistair MacLean, James Bond, the movie version of The Wizard of Oz (1939), Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories, Edgar Rice Burroughs, cultural theorist Joseph Campbell, and a panoply of Saturday matinee adventure serials and 1950s war, fantasy, and swashbuckler films. The real trick was fusing them all together into something not just comprehensible and individual but, on the whole, original, something the audience that greeted its release in 1977 beheld as new and exciting despite its hoary components, and which instantly sank hooks deep into the popular consciousness.

The trick lay partly in the way Lucas made the film, with perfect confidence in the medium, but also in the way he framed it. Those air quotes hover about the entire movie, as Lucas approached the material as if it was an artefact, something designed to seem like it had an identity that existed long before Lucas stumbled upon it, a little like the hero of his other great pop culture creation, Indiana Jones, and the relics he plunders. Star Wars has an odd relationship today with its many follow-ups and imitations. It’s become a singular point of reference as Lucas and others built vast fictional precincts around its story, which is a lot more complex than it’s often given credit for, but exceedingly straightforward in terms of its essential plotting, and built upon manifold reference points of its own. If Star Wars had failed at the box office it would still be perfectly sufficient unto itself, except perhaps in the detail of its major bad guy Darth Vader not getting a comeuppance at the end, and even that could be taken as a nod to the finale of The Prisoner of Zenda, where Anthony Hope resisted killing off his charismatic villain too (and indeed also brought him and other characters back for a follow-up everyone likes to pretend didn’t happen). And yet it’s conceived and executed as a story within a story. The in medias res plunge directly into the middle of a story already in motion not only nodded to the storytelling method of ancient epics, but also to the more profane traditions of the serial drama. The branded title card, the fairytale-like epigram “Long ago in a galaxy far, far away,” and in-universe flourishes, including character and place names that sound like they’ve been translated into some other language and back again, and the technological and architectural design – all cordoned the experience of Star Wars off into its own discrete space even as its roots lead off in every direction.

This aspect was greatly amplified when upon the film’s first rerelease in 1980 Lucas added to the opening explanatory crawl a new detail – suddenly the singular movie became “Episode IV,” specifically titled “A New Hope,” designating it as not merely a work in itself but part of what was then still an entirely theoretical legendarium. Compared to some of the films in the series it birthed, including the richer, darker palette of Star Wars – Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Star Wars – Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983), or the more lushly romantic and deceptively complex prequels, the original seems oddly stripped-down, absent some of the accumlated mythos, but it’s also that essentialised quality that helped it land so powerfully. Star Wars came out when dependable movie genres were dying and proposed a way to revive them through transposing their setting, freeing them from the constraints of real world reference points. The Western no longer had to be rooted in the increasingly, cynically questioned reality of the American colonial experience, the heroic war movie no longer the provenance of another generation. Star Wars was also a pure product of its cultural moment even as it seemed to reject that moment. Lucas based his all-encompassing evil Empire on the Nixon White House and the struggle against its predations in the Vietnam War zeitgeist, but with enough cultural echoes of other struggles – the American Revolution and World War II most obviously – to give a mollifying smokescreen. Lucas consciously turned the abstract, alienated parable of THX-1138 into something more readily engaging, more commercial, more communal, whilst still working with the same basic elements.

At the same time it can be said Star Wars grew conceptually out of the sporadic popularity of a certain brand of pop art-inflected moviemaking and TV that burgeoned in the late 1960s, encompassing the likes of the Batman TV series, Roger Vadim’s Barbarella (1968), Richard Lester’s antiheroic deconstructions of adventure films like his Musketeer movies and Robin and Marian (1976), and retro pulp tributes like Michael Anderson’s Doc Savage: Man of Bronze (1975) and Kevin Connor’s Burroughs adaptations. Moments like that swing across the chasm have a similar informing spirit to Lester’s films in particular, although Lester would probably have had them thud into the wall just to one side of the landing. The comedy in Star Wars helps build up the heroic infrastructure rather than question it ironically, lending it propulsion as the characters react to situation  but also ultimately helping create credulity rather than undercut it. Lucas’ famous stylistic flourish in punctuating scenes with wipes rather than dissolves or jump cuts, nodding to both Kurosawa and 1930s serial forebears, had already been employed by Anderson in recreating the old serial style on Doc Savage, if to much lesser effect. Science fiction film in the first half of the 1970s has a largely deserved reputation for a thoughtful, clever, but often grim sensibility, although playful fare wasn’t entirely dead, and was chiefly hampered by budget restrictions and directors who had little technical facility: witness the way the Planet of the Apes movies remained popular but had their budget cut with each entry.

Along came Lucas, who above all had schooled himself in the nuts and bolts of film production like few directors before or since. Star Wars in its time connected with similarly successful works by Lucas’ friends – much as it translated the generational anxiety of Francis Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) into a radically different generic zone and also presaged Coppola’s mythopoeic war movie Apocalypse Now (1979), it also accompanied Steven Spielberg’s semi-incidental companion piece in baby boomer sci-fi mythicism, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), arguably the superior movie but much less influential, in finding a way of tapping into a cynical audience’s hunger for transcendental cinematic experience. Those genre, industry, and imagination-altering opening moments of Star Wars, as a colossal Imperial Star Destroyer chases down a much smaller rebel spacecraft, give way to more familiar precepts. A gunfight between Rebel warriors and invading Imperial Stormtroopers, a conflict highly recognisable from who knows how many low-budget sci-fi movies and TV shows where people fire ray-guns at each-other along corridors. Two comic relief factotums stumble through the struggle. The great villain of the piece makes his dramatic entrance, directing the unleashed carnage. The newness lay in the veneer of strangeness applied through the technological vision, informed by the tangible and specific atmosphere inspired by Ralph McQuarrie’s design work and John Barry’s production design, and the canniness of the filmmaking.

Arthur C. Clarke famously wrote that sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic, but in creating a fictional zone that does actually include magic, or something like it, Lucas and those designers moved instead to cut across the grain of that and make the craft, machines, and equipment look palpable, as gritty, purely fit-for-purpose, grimy, and banged-about as the technology familiar to us: the Millennium Falcon, one of the series’ enduring icons, complete lacks any appearance of streamlining or aesthetic edge, and its appeal lies instead in its steely-looking functionality, like a Frisbee with a golf club head stuck on the side and a giant blazing energy portal in back. The Star Wars films have long been talked about as vital creations of audio effect as well as visual, thanks in large part to Ben Burtt’s groundbreaking labours. The care for the effect of sound as a storytelling device is plain at the get-go, as Lucas builds tension through the eerie, threatening noises the rebels warriors hear as their crippled spacecraft is intercepted by the Star Destroyer and drawn into its docking back, the fighters grimly waiting for the assault they know will be coming through the airlock bulkhead. Suddenly, action – the bulkhead door cut through and blasted out in moments, invading Stormtroopers plunging through. The Stormtroopers would eventually become a kind of punchline in movie lore as easily killable enemy soldiers, but here they’re first introduced as blankly terrifying and competent enemies, suffering a couple of casualties whilst shearing through the Rebel ranks, quickly setting them to flight.

The film’s wit on a visual exposition level is also made apparent as Lucas seems to undercut the cliché of villains dressing dark colours whilst merging set decoration and costume design with a deliberation scarcely seen in cinema since the days of Lang and Eisenstein, by having the Stormtroopers clad in white armour that matches the polished white environs of the rebel spaceship. It’s as if they’re animated parts of the ship rather than mere invaders, the technological paradigm threatening the paltry humans. Ironically, the most “human” characters we get for much of the first part of the film are the “droids” C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker), seemingly hapless pseudo-sentient mechanical beings caught in the midst of war and terror. This was in part the result of editing choices to make the early scenes more fluid, but the consequence was to provoke a distinct new idea of what a protagonist in a movie could be. The twist on cliché twists back as we gain out first glimpse of the enemy commander Lord Darth Vader, emerging from the blown bulkhead and resolving from smoky haze, pausing to survey the scattered corpses of the rebels before sweeping on. Vader is swathed in black like a superscientific edition of Dracula, the embodiment of evil from the very first, face masked, breathing registering as a hoarsely filtered sound. Here is a figure who exists between the two paradigms, a fusion of man and machine where the combination is most definitely malign, and whose appearance has been carefully engineered, both for the people within this particular world and for those watching it, for the pure sake of intimidation.

Whilst actor David Prowse, the actor filling out Vader’s costume, would have his voice dubbed over by the originally unbilled James Earl Jones, his talent as a mime is nonetheless very important to Vader as a character in his ability to convey a remorseless purpose, an inherent physical aggression and fixity of purpose, charging the way he moves, even before he’s portrayed as throttling and tossing about rebels and fearsomely confronting and accusing the captive Princess Leia. Leia herself, a diplomat and envoy for the newly defunct imperial senate, makes her own impression in standing up this figure of menace incarnate. The casting of Fisher, a 19-year-old progeny of Hollywood royalty invested with levels of knowing far beyond her years, proved perfect for amplifying the way the script plays updating games with the figure of the classical aristocratic heroine, inflecting the hauteur with pure ‘70s California sass. But Leia first enters the movie in the shadows. Like Vader, she is initially glimpsed amidst smoky haze as a figure, resolving out of the pure stuff of myth, the incarnation this time of good in her white silken garb, even as her actions are initially ambiguous: she’s seen from the bewildered viewpoint of C-3PO as she loads information into R2-D2, before gunning down a Stormtrooper and getting shot herself with a stunning blast. Leia condenses the movie’s whole frame of cultural reference into her petite frame, fulfilling a role directly out of legend and melodrama tradition, whilst also presenting modern spunk and attitude.

It’s well known that Lucas took strong inspiration from Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958) for the early sections and general narrative shape of Star Wars. C-3PO, and R2-D2, or Threepio and Artoo as they’re generally dubbed, are inspired by the two shit-kicker peasant antiheroes of the Kurosawa film, and their early travails similarly playing out in a desolate setting that eventually sees their path intersect with proper heroes. The differences are important, of course. Threepio and Artoo are robots, and instead of wandering medieval Japan, they eject from the captured spacecraft and land on the neighbouring desert planet of Tatooine. One thing that’s a little surprising today about Star Wars is how coherent and consistent the story is, despite the outlandish conceptual conceits, and when the need for such a thing is often casually dismissed as an interest in such genre zones. The plot stakes are initially vague, but soon gain shape and urgency as it becomes apparent Leia used Artoo as a last-ditch vehicle to try and get the plans for the Empire’s new, terrifying superweapon, the Death Star, to her fellow Rebels. The Death Star will soon provide both a partial setting for the story and the great threat driving the last act. Leia’s choice of Artoo as a messenger capable of slipping the net of Imperial scanning proves inspired and logical, where humans would be detected. Artoo is characterised as knowing in ways well beyond his nominal status and electronic twittering language, whereas Threepio, despite his effetely loquacious and pompous manner, knows even less than he thinks, and this disparity proves a propelling element for the story as well as a source of character comedy. The two split up once dumped by their escape pod in the desert, with Threepio furious at his companion for maintaining his wilful way, only for both to be quickly snatched up by a race of nomadic scavengers called Jawas, who specialise in selling on anything of value they find.

Artoo’s capture by the Jawas creates an unsettling atmosphere as Artoo makes timorous sounds as he becomes aware of hidden, watching beings in the desolate landscape around him, a little like a character from some early Disney animated short. A Jawa jumps up and zaps him with a paralysing ray gun, causing Artoo to topple over with a slapstick thud. This brief but ingenious sequence illustrates both Lucas’ talent at toggling swiftly between tones whilst kneading them into the unfolding narrative, switching between points of view and allowing the audience and onscreen characters to discover things in tandem. That the Jawas are themselves diminutive and faintly absurd in their frantic industriousness leavens the note of creepiness they initially strike. The process of them bundling Artoo to be sucked up into a huge tube connected to their giant crawling vehicle is allowed to play out without any dialogue necessary, using visuals to present the already rapidly expanding sense of this universe and the teeming oddity and wonder, and the oddly familiar opportunism, it contains. This evinces a sense not just of a variety of sentient species and their technology but also clues to the social setup on Tatooine, with its many kinds of survivors with different ways of weathering the blasted and seemingly dead landscape, and also the way this eventually feeds the narrative back from vacant outskirts towards the centres of power in the universe. Threepio’s own encounter with the Jawa sandcrawler sees him calling out to the distant vehicle in appeal, framed as he is by the huge skeleton of some long-dead creature. Once both Artoo and Threepio are trapped within the shadowy, sleazy space of the Sandcrawler’s belly, Lucas offers glimpses of the other robots of radically differing designs the Jawas possess, an early example of a motif taken up more vividly and strangely in the later Mos Eisley cantina sequence, where Lucas delights in showing off a vast array of peculiar beings.

Artoo and Threepio are soon sold to Owen Lars (Phil Brown), who lives with his wife Beru (Shelagh Fraser) and adopted nephew Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who engage in what is described as “moisture farming” somewhere in this flat and barren zone. Here the narrative performs another zigzag whilst also reorienting to another viewpoint, and another genre: now we’re in the classic Western territory of the isolated homesteaders and the wistful young farmhand. Luke, like the heroes of American Graffiti, is on the verge of moving on. Where Richard Dreyfuss’ Curt in that film suffered cold feet, Luke seems desperate to “transmit my application to the Academy this year.” Like the characters of American Graffiti and the protagonist of THX-1138, Luke’s voyage of discovery is announced via imagery of the sun, with a small but important difference. The rising sun in the first two films signalled the end of childish things and simple dichotomies of choice, whereas the setting sun(s) here preserve the dreaming: thanks to both the visuals and Williams’ plaintive, evocative scoring, this locks that pure moment of yearning in a crystal of expressive perfection. Luke Skywalker gazing at the twin suns setting is of course a singular character, a young man eager for experience and as much pained as excited by his dreams, and is also the audience itself, an essential avatar for every dreamer, every anxious eye turned onto the cinema screen looking urgently for transportation and release. It’s also a moment of incantation, immediately rewarded by Luke being presented with his mission, when he heads back into his repair space to find Artoo missing and Threepio hiding in anxiety. Hamill, doomed to be remembered for a long time as a failed star, was too perfect for the role in providing a ready connecting point for the audience: if Fisher was Hollywood royalty Hamill presents heroism as looking a bit like a SoCal surfer. But Hamill was crucially able to communicate Luke’s deep emotional need underneath the dreamy, frustrated optimism and youthful charm duelling with his early callow streak.

Generational tension is also in play. Owen doesn’t want Luke heading off to “some damn fool idealistic crusade” and is afraid that Luke “has too much of his father in him.” But Luke is bent on a course that will eventually lead him to the “dark father.” At this point the mythos of Star Wars was still evolving and things that are now set in concrete were still nebulous at this point, but the connection between Luke and Vader is already predestined, Vader identified as “the young Jedi” who “betrayed and murdered your father.” He is the ultimate and inevitable nemesis for the young man who has to find his way not just through space but pick his way through the wreckage of a collapsed political paradigm and a waned parental generation. Luke quickly gains the call to adventure when, as he cleans up Artoo, he accidentally plays the end segment of a holographic message recorded by Leia, addressed to an Obi-Wan Kenobi. The portion of Leia’s appeal with its looping, totemic phrase “Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope,” gives Luke the first intimation that he’s stumbled onto something tantalising in its import. Moreover, it’s personally suggestive to him in the familiarity of the name Kenobi, making him think of the local hermit Ben Kenobi. This in turn gives Artoo a lead, and he quickly flees in his determination to fulfil Leia’s assignment to fetch the old sage and press him back into action for the Rebel cause, forcing Luke and Threepio to follow him into the rocky wastes.

But it’s the vision of Leia herself, beautiful, distressed, rendered ghostly in the flickering holographic recording, that powerfully evokes a fundamental psychological need, as if Artoo is projecting Luke’s own private anima, the pure spirit of romantic longing that is also a direct urging towards great things. If Darth Vader is the dark father, Kenobi is of course his counterbalance, part Gandalf, part guru, part aging but still able gunslinger from a Howard Hawks movie. These two spiritual parents supplant Owen and Beru, who are murdered by Stormtroopers on the trail of Artoo and Threepio, and are bent towards their own fatal showdown. Lucas presents a brief synopsis of that vital Movie Brat foundational text, Ford’s The Searchers (1956), as Luke ventures out into the wilderness and encounters both savagery in the form of the Sandpeople, also called Tusken Raiders, another nomadic and larcenous desert race but these frightening, brutal, and seemingly subhuman, forms a bond with a protective paternal stand-in, and returns to the homestead to find it burning and the smouldering skeletons of loved-ones sprawled nearby. The pacing of Star Wars in this portion is a telling counterpoint to many of its imitations and even direct follow-ups. Where, say, Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015) crams four different special effects-heavy set-pieces into its first hour, Lucas’ template only offers one, at the very outset, and then a couple of minor tussles. The sequence in which Luke is attacked by a Sandperson whilst he think he’s safely surveying them from a distance is a good example of restraint as well as a spasm of violent action.

Lucas plays a game with viewpoint, harking back to the obsession in THX-1138 with viewing through technological detour as Luke spies on the Sandpeople through the fuzzy image of a pair of electronic binoculars, only for a strange rush of motion to rise into his field of vision – a Sandperson suddenly looms in front of him, the safe vantage suddenly and rudely swapped for imminent danger. This is impressive and clever not just on a visual exposition and drama-setting level but also on the thematic: this is the first, actual occasion where Luke is faced with a genuine danger in the course of his nascent adventure, as what was before remote and harmless is suddenly very real and deadly. It’s an early test Luke fails, as the Raider, swiping down at him on the ground, easily bests him, and the Sandpeople dump his unconscious form and begin looting his hovering “speeder” (the closest thing to a reliable old Chevy in this universe). The actual disabling blow to Luke isn’t showing, only the fearsome and disturbing image of the creepily masked Sandperson brandishing its club and releasing a triumphant, bloodcurdling cry that echoes off amongst the surrounding canyons, a recourse back to the mood of the early moments on Tatooine and the permeating mood of disquiet and dislocation in an oneiric space. For the first but certainly not for the last time in his career, to occasional disquiet, Lucas displaces the old, racist function of Native Americans in the Western narrative onto the imaginary race of the Sandpeople, who are daunting but are also small potatoes, displaced from their role in many Westerns as engines of turmoil and resisters of civilisation, whilst nominally defusing the cultural tension between myth and reality that was rapidly dismantling the Western’s pre-eminence. Here, instead, the Empire is both the zenith of civilisation and its purest foe. That it’s not just humans and droids who are jittery in this region is made clear when the Sandpeople are suddenly driven off by a weird cry and the sight of a weird being looming into view. This proves to be Ben Kenobi (Alec Guinness) himself. He quickly admits to Luke to being the former Obi-Wan, in one of those indelible little instances of various elements – Guinness’ incarnation of wistfully ruminative good-humour and Williams’ trilling woodwinds on sound – woven together to forge mystique and spark new mystery even as the answer to a propelling narrative question is resolved.

The reference point of The Searchers is purposeful not just in orientating the audience to a fantastical universe in terms of pre-existing generic touchstones, but also arguing with its essence, the source of the intimidating power it had for filmmakers of Lucas’ generation. John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards was above all a man, one with a history, who cannot erase his past mistakes but finally avoids making new ones, and provides uneasy mentorship to Jeffrey Hunter’s Martin Pawley, who eventually learns to stand up for himself, but that means placing himself in the way of a bullet. The Searchers is a work for an age where the crux of drama fell to grown-ups, where Star Wars is the by-product of a youth culture, made for a generation for whom the most dramatic events of the average life take place between the ages of 15 and 25, and so the stress of the story moves from the older man’s experience to the younger’s. Star Wars presents the orphaned hero as severed from continuity, forced to essentially invent his own method of maturing when the adults are dead or dying: by story’s end he has lost all his elders, but the lessons he has learnt are literally ringing in his ears as he takes up the mantle. The killing of Owen and Beru invests all that follows with an emotional wellspring that doesn’t need reiterating. The grammar in the scene of Luke’s discovery of their remains is simple but enormously effective. The camera tracks in imitation of Luke’s point of view until he focuses on the scorched skeletal remains of his aunt and uncle, and Lucas allows a medium close-up of Hamill as he registers the awful moment. Importantly, the rhythm of Hamill’s gestures are the same as in the earlier sunset scene — gazing on in fixation, dropping his gaze and hiding from his reaction for an instant, before resuming with a new glaze of acceptance, except this time with different, terrible, life-changing import. Lucas then cuts to a long shot of Luke before the burning homestead as Williams’ music swells. His solitude and complete excision from what was just a day earlier a stultifying but settled and stable life is encapsulated, before an inward iris wipe shifts the scene.

The depiction of consuming evil and raw violence visited by offended authority immediately segues into a sequence depicting Darth Vader preparing to use a hovering droid to torture Leia for information about the Rebels’ secret base. That’s soon followed by a sequence where Death Star’s commander, Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing), uses the threat of destroying Leia’s home planet Alderaan with the Death Star’s incredible firepower to get the information out of her. Leia gives an answer, albeit a deceitful one, but Tarkin still destroys Alderaan because it fulfils the basic function of the Death Star, which is to inspire fear, as a substitute for any lingering vestige of collaboration and consultation (“The last remnants of the Old Republic have been swept away,” Tarkin reports). Such moments obviously indict the Empire as a truly despicable beast one absolutely no-one will mind seeing taken down a few pegs, but also as one possessed of reasoned motives and a sense of what their force is intended to achieve. Which points to another peculiar aspect of Star Wars: as the title suggests, it’s preoccupied by war. Not a war like, say, the clash of civilisations in the Trojan myths, or a fusing of factional chaos into order as in the Arthurian cycle. Lucas instead presents a specifically modern political paradigm, however naively rendered: absolute authoritarianism versus romantic resistance. Not at all hard to see Lucas fretting over the military-industrial complex, with the Death Star as the atomic bomb, the deaths of Owen and Beru as suggestively My Lai-eque. Luke, Han, and Leia (and Chewie, Artoo, and Threepio) remain individuals even when they join a faction, a point underlined at the film’s end where the characters remain smirking and ironic even when being showered with rewards in the midst of martially regimented ranks.

Kenobi’s brief narration of the truth of Luke’s background and its connection to the current events, once Kenobi takes Luke to his remote domicile, is in itself a little marvel of screenwriting concision and general mythmaking, with its allusions to the Old Republic, the Jedi Knights, and the Clone Wars, all grounded not just in recent political history but in the personal identity of both old man and young. All of these have long since been elaborated upon, but here are allowed to float as grand things lost to time and nearly to memory in the age of the supplanting Empire. Kenobi hands to Luke his father’s lightsaber, a tantalising weapon, ridiculous but irresistible, humming with totemic power and meaning, a little bit Excalibur, a little bit Notung, a little bit the sword D’Artagnan’s father gives him. Guinness, not an actor who needed by this point in his career to prove himself in any fashion and easily the biggest name in the film, lends inestimable sagacious presence, encapsulating the nature of the Jedi, composed, restrained, intelligent, moral, and spiked with just the faintest edge of world-weariness and regret over the calamities of the past. Here finally the whole of Leia’s message is seen and its import processed. Luke displays the classic resistance to the call to adventure when Kenobi tries to enlist him in his looming mission to spirit Artoo and the stolen plans to Alderaan. Luke, who was champing at the bit to leave Tatooine hours earlier, still feels the tethers of responsibility as well as intimidation when actual adventure demands. Soon Luke has a double motive to join the Rebellion, as both the entity in large has killed his guardians, and a personal grudge against Vader.

When Luke sets off back home with Kenobi and the droids, they come across the shattered sandcrawler of the massacred Jawas. Luke, grasping the reason for their slaughter, rushes home too late. Finally and completely freed from who he was, Luke elects to “learn the ways of the force and become a Jedi like my father,” and he and Kenobi make for the spaceport of Mos Eisley, a “wretched hive of scum and villainy” crawling with Stormtroopers looking for the droids, but also a motley collective of species representing a cross-section of the galaxy’s swarming populace. The cantina sequence, where in Luke uneasily mingles with a rough crowd of humans and aliens representing the demimonde of innumerable worlds whilst Kenobi looks to hire transportation off Tatooine, is another inspired, instantly iconic vignette. Again, it’s a fairly familiar situation, redolent of a thousand tough saloons in a thousand westerns, but transformed with the application of sci-fi elements. Here are manifold species, ingeniously designed and animated through makeup and puppetry, drawn together in one place by what is to a human eye at least a perfect logic, sharing a penchant for intoxicants and doing dirty business in a disreputable dive. There’s even, for added piquancy and indeed resonance, the spectre of seemingly arbitrary prejudice, as the bartender tells Luke the joint doesn’t serve droids, forcing Artoo and Threepio to withdraw.

Appearances can also be deceiving: one of these motley denizens, the huge, hirsute Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), appears one of the roughest, but is actually an intelligent being who falls into conversation with Kenobi, and proves a link to the rest of the story. Luke is picked on by a pair of bullies looking for a fight, but gets one instead from Kenobi after he tries to defuse the confrontation. Here, for the first time, the lightsaber is seen in action, in a vignette that again utilises Luke’s viewpoint to underline the startling impression of the weapon’s deadly precision in the right hands, and alters the visual technique to effect: glimpsing a blur of motion punctuated by the already familiar sound and flash of the weapon and the dreadful scream of the suddenly curtailed thug as conveyed through a brief handheld shot, Luke focuses on his severed arm lying on the floor amidst drops of blood. Kenobi slowly eases from his tense and ready poise as he’s sure no-one else wants to try it on, and disengages the lightsaber. Whereupon everyone in the bar, momentarily arrested by the spectacle, goes back to what they were doing. Strong as lore-enhancing action; just as good as wry pastiche of classic gunslinging spectacle.

This sequence fulfilled a largely ignored promise of science-fiction cinema until this point in presenting a vision of a universe of deep variety and eccentricity that nonetheless evokes something amusingly familiar in its concept of sentience. It comes directly after Kenobi has given Luke a first demonstration of Jedi power, using psychic influence to get past some searching Stormtroopers with seemingly casual ease. The threat of Jedi power to the Empire becomes clearer here, and suggests a symbolic link with the artist’s relationship with power, dismantling it through artfully broadcasting on wavelengths incoherent to the authoritarian mindset. The first encounter with Han Solo is consequentially defined by him being at first just another of these shady characters in a shady den, so shady indeed he’s no sooner finished arranging to fly Luke, Kenobi, and the droids to Alderaan than he’s accosted by Greedo, an obnoxious, green-skinned, snouted bounty hunter who wants him dead or alive, preferably dead, to please their mutual master Jabba the Hutt, a gangster Han owes money too. Fans were understandably aggravated by the clumsy revision of this scene in Lucas’ 1997 special edition of the film, which tried to reforge this confrontation to make it seem that Greedo shot at Han first, where the point of this moment is defining Han as accustomed to dealing with dangerous opponents with both guile and brute force. Moreover, it established him as a character entirely adapted, just as Kenobi already has, to this environment, knowing precisely when and how to unleash deadly force. Han’s motivations are also plain enough, his motivation to make money not just pure greed, but necessary to extricate himself from a deep hole.

Han emerges from a different wing of pop culture to Leia, Luke, and Kenobi, and a nominally more modern one. He’s initially a film noir hero connected to Bogartian characters like To Have and Have Not’s (1944) Harry Morgan, putting both and craft on the line and urged on by his uneasy place in the food chain of profit motive, and whose streak of heroic decency only emerges over time. A sceptical figure for whom The Force has no meaning. Someone whose actions and reactions can be surprising, at least in his first outing, because his nature seems confused and dubious, his actual values concealed under a hard shell of wiseacre pith and stoic cool. Where Luke is pure youth and Kenobi is wise experience, Han lurks between, a player in the game who knows all too well how hard the game is and sees no way out of it. He’s the essential interlocutor in the drama, negotiating the perspective of the more cynical sectors of the audience. There’s keenness in the difference in dialogue patterns attached to each character. Kenobi’s speech is courtly, structured, replete with aphorisms and slightly archaic curlicues (and, it’s worth noting, sounds exactly the same as the dialogue in Lucas’ prequel trilogy), whereas Luke, Han, and Leia are more “contemporary,” particularly Han, who shifts from salesman lingo to gunfighter terseness on a dime. When Han improvises a line of verbiage after he, Luke and Chewbacca shoot up the Death Star prison command, in trying to keep more Stormtroopers coming to them, he reveals a more subtle survival skill than gunplay, and it’s a trickier one, one he doesn’t quite pull off. It’s a moment that became the seed for a more sustained comic streak to the character as scene in later movies, but the striking thing about Ford’s performance on his first go-round, and the character he’s playing, is precisely that hard, ambiguous, deadly edge he’s allowed, a quality that the notes of occasional diffidence in Ford’s performance only helps strengthen.

The cantina scene is also an example of a renowned aspect of the film’s aesthetic, its presentation of a convincing physical universe, where the technology, no wonder how fantastic, and the settings and life-forms have a solidity and a feel that evokes some inchoate need for a splendid diversity of life. The close-ups of Artoo and Threepio present the tiny scratches and dents all of their bodies, looking just like what they are, machines who have been working since the moment they were first switched on. That first shot of the Star Destroyer completely rejects what had been the general sci-fi movie faith in sleekness as the totemic quality of the futuristic, appealing instead to everyday associations in the age of technology and industry where things are busy and functional, their workings often obscure to those not directly engaged in the making or upkeep. Moreover, the special mystique that distinguished Star Wars then and now is evinced not merely in the busy paraphernalia of set, costume, FX, and makeup design, but in the careful construction of mood, and the connection of that mood to the deeper underlying aesthetic. Artoo and Threepio’s desert wanderings, Luke’s venture out after Artoo and his encounter with the Sandpeople, the meeting with Kenobi – all of these scenes weave a sparse, dreamlike mood, nudging the realm of fairy-tales where the young and vulnerable venture into the dark woods alone, whilst also evoking the vast spaces of Salvador Dali’s surrealist landscapes and Lang and DeMille’s oversized, monumental evocations of past and future.

This pervasive mood continues even when the heroes are trapped within the “technological terror” of the Death Star, a place containing pockets infested with nightmarish monsters and tremendous canyons of space, where crucial mechanisms seem to have been deliberately placed to make them difficult to access without master control of the apparatus. From the careful downward pan from deep space to a triptych of tantalising planets that sets up the inimitable opening, we are drawn in two different directions, at once tactile and subliminal, where both the evocations of scale and the ghostly image of Leia touch the boundaries of a Jungian zone. In this regard Star Wars rearranges the spare, haunting, submerged imagery explored in THX-1138 for clear narrative ends – it feels very telling, for instance, that the sight of a flashing point far away in an otherwise featureless zone, the sign that helped THX and his companions escape the void prison in that film, is here recreated when Threepio sees the Jawa sandcrawler miles away in the deep desert. The underlying oneiric quality is rendered more literal in the first sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, when Luke comments that the planet Dagobah is like out of a dream, before heading into a place that makes the stuff of his subconscious come to life. In this manner, despite its bright and jolly visual palette and love of chitinous technology, Star Wars is in essence a full colour distillation of the early Expressionistic urge in cinema: the entire design of what we see is an animation of a psychological zone. It adds another axis of torsion to the film as a whole, working in synchrony with the multi-genre play, travelling back to the point where all stories become one somewhere in the subbasements of the consciousness.

The gathering crew of Luke, Han, Chewbacca, Artoo, and Threepio, with Kenobi at first and later Leia, forge a core gang of heroes, at once describing a child’s idea of adult life, and an updated take on teamed-up heroic bands ranging from the Argonauts to Dumas’ Musketeers. Luke’s first glimpse of Han’s ship, the Millennium Falcon, sparks his inimitable comment, “What a heap of junk!” only for Han, with ever so slight irritation and a dash of professional smarm, to talk up his souped-up hot rod (this is also the viewer’s first glimpse of the ship, unless one has only seen the reedit, which clumsily inserted a cut scene featuring Jabba). Han boasts that his ship has accomplished legendary feats, like a sword in myth, and that’s pretty much the function it has here, as a tool of greatness, serving for Han as the lightsaber does for the Jedi, albeit simultaneously deglamourized as the tool of a roguish smuggler and a mutt of machinery. Things of value in Star Wars often turn a slightly absurd face to the world, in a way that, whilst the overall story seems to be bending reality towards a romantic vision, the nuts and bolts cut across the grain of the traditionally heroic. The “your kind” droids are dynamic players. The nobody farm boy is a future hero. The old hermit is a great warrior. The shady loser in the bar is a man of myriad gifts and his “piece of junk” a ship out of folklore. All require only the correct stage to operate and interact upon. The Falcon also signals that Han is essentially a spacefaring version of the drag racers in American Graffiti, keeping one step ahead of the cops in his workshop-cobbled racer: Ford, who had played Bob Falfa, the blow-in challenger to the local racing champ, in the precursor film was here promoted to a lead role, initially just as slippery and ambiguous, but showing his true mettle when he unleashes thunderous havoc on the Stormtroopers who try to intercept them before fleeing at top speed.

After the thrills of escaping Mos Eisley and the Star Destroyers patrolling around the planet, the voyage on the Millennium Falcon provides a respite, but still provides important character and scene-setting elements, particularly as Kenobi uses the time to start introducing Luke to using The Force, including learning how to defend himself against beam-shooting drones without using his sight. The idea of The Force provides the essential new aspect of the appeal of Star Wars, distinct from its precursors. Of course, Lucas hardly invented science-fantasy as a subgenre, and space opera had sported quasi-supernatural and magical powers since its earliest exemplars. The Force owed a little something to the role of the spice in Frank Herbert’s Dune novels as a device charged with metaphysical vitality occurring in a universe otherwise defined by technocracy, and perhaps the Ninth Ray in Burroughs’ Barsoom novels too. But The Force provided Lucas with a supple tool, one that gives definition to both story and character. The Force is itself a distillation of traditions, part wuxia film chi power, part 1970s New Age creed (Guinness found himself fending away offers to become a guru), with a description as “an energy field created by all living things” that evoke the craze in those heady days for things like auras and Kirlian photography and biofeedback. Lucas offered a version of it anyone could get on board with, given the very faintest lacquer of rationality in stemming from the life-force of beings rather than being a power working on them (Lucas would firm this up to much complaint in his prequel trilogy). The Force also operates on the same quasi-medieval level as other elements of the story, echoing an age of human thinking where faith in unseen forces was immediately connected with perception of the world, and renders the good-vs-evil motif more than symbolic: those extremes of action and principle are instead literal powers in the world that become more significant, more dangerous, more cruelly tempting, the more one becomes attuned to its workings.

At the same time, The Force is also a metaphor for the screenwriter’s power, drawing its heroes together and gifting them with advantage in situations where they would otherwise flail and die, and excuses coincidences that would make Charles Dickens blush. That Kenobi experiences the extermination of Alderaan resembles an artist’s capacity for pure empathic connection. It’s also chiefly registered in this original outing through its absence. The Force, along with the Jedi Knights who once wielded it as “the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic,” has slipped beyond the horizon of general cultural memory. “That wizard’s just a crazy old man,” is all Owen has to say about Kenobi. Han disdains Kenobi’s championing of it, claiming to only put faith in a good blaster. The only force user in their prime on hand is Vader himself, who casually throttles Imperial Admiral Motti (Richard LeParmentier) from a distance, after he echoes Owen’s description of Ben in referring dismissively to Vader’s “sorcerer’s ways” in comparison to the Death Star’s encapsulation of technical and military might. This scene makes the strength of the Force, even its “dark side,” very clear, and establishes that not only does Vader adhere to it but considers it a higher loyalty than whatever political faction he works for. One reason, perhaps, Tarkin is described by Leia as “holding Vader’s leash,” nominally holding him, as a kind of discrete weapon himself, in obeisance to the needs of the military hierarchy and the more stolid precepts of the era he is ironically trapped in enforcing. In the following films Vader ascends to sole command once it becomes clear another Force user has come onto the scene. Kenobi’s demonstrations of The Force are craftier. Even in the climax when Luke decides to trust his primal, mystic intuition rather than technology at Kenobi’s unseen insistence, it’s a matter of a slightly heightened edge of awareness added onto skills and talents he’s mastered through his youth on Tatooine: he’s already an experienced pilot and a good shot, tested in both indeed in by the extremes of his home planet in a way that proves to transcend tamer learning processes.

Tarkin himself represents authority at its most icy and contemptuous, a pure minister for technofascist force and the relish of wielding it, to the point where he’s able to boss even Vader around with supreme confidence. Cushing’s presence in the role provided an authentic link to some of Lucas’ genre film touchstones, and much like his characterisation of Baron Frankenstein in the Hammer Films series, Tarkin acts like a surgeon remaking the universe in his own image, entirely divorced from any sense of consequence: he plainly gets more satisfaction from shocking and tormenting Leia than from exterminating millions of Alderaanians. The heroes’ journey to Alderaan goes all wrong as the Death Star is still hovering near the field of debris left from the planet’s destruction, and the Falcon and its crew are scooped up in a tractor beam and brought forcibly aboard the awesomely massive station. It’s a pity that, by necessity, the Death Star had already been glimpsed by this point, considering the effective pitch of ominous realisation that something incredible and indelibly threatening looms before the hapless heroes, captured as Kenobi murmurs in awe, “That’s no moon, it’s a space station,” the Falcon already having ventured too close to avoid capture.

Han’s quick thinking as a professional evader of authority helps them escape initial discovery by hiding in smuggling compartments, and the heroes infiltrate the Death Star, managing, in the early glimmerings of a theme flowing right through the initial trilogy of films, to turn their nominal disadvantage of small numbers to great effect with guile and improvisation. Whilst trying to work out a way of escaping the station, they’re distracted when Artoo plugs into the station computer network and finds Leia is a prisoner aboard. Han, Luke, and Chewbacca take the chance to rescue her, whilst Kenobi moves to shut down the tractor beam. Compared to the careful story, character, and mythos-building of the film’s first half, this portion becomes something of a tour through the hub of different but connected genres, like innumerable war and adventure films where the heroes put on enemy livery and sneak about, before invoking classic cliffhanger situations, as the foursome dive into a trash compactor when it proves the only escape route only to find the walls closing in, and when Luke and Leia encounter the aforementioned chasm. True to the essence of such adventure stories, the characters emerge most fully reacting to peril, from Han’s edge of aggravation ratcheting higher along with the danger and as Leia’s presence perturbs him, gaining a head of madcap steam useful for the fight, to Leia revealing her own talents for quick thinking and unexpected gutsiness in a laser battle, and Threepio cleverly adlibbing in a tense situation when Stormtroopers burst in on him and Artoo. There’s an edge of comedy to much of this, in the queasily funny diminuendo where Threepio thinks the whoops of joy he hears from the quartet in the trash compactor are their death throes, and Han howling in trying to seem like a small army to intimidate some Stormtroopers only to be forced to retreat when he runs into a squad room, and the Stormtroopers themselves trying to seal off his escape only to foil themselves. Except again perhaps in that chasm-swing, the humour is blended into the texture of the action, rather than commenting on it – a subtle but important distinction, as the characters are absurd within these situations rather than the situations themselves kidded.

The high spirits dampen when the other thread of character drama reaches its climax, as Kenobi, who’s been sneaking about the Death Star interior with all his Jedi art, encounters Vader, who has sensed his presence and lies in wait. The sight of Vader on the vigil, clutching a lit lightsaber, this one glowing a malefic red, and guarding the way out from within the Death Star’s labyrinth, returns after the jaunty swashbuckling to the innerverse of myth and dark fairy-tale. Like the Minotaur in the labyrinth,  the dragon on the road through the forest, Death waiting at Samara, Vader is a malevolent force at the height of his powers and cannot be escaped. But Kenobi is the smarter and braver opponent, knowing exactly what he needs to do, in providing a key distraction for the other heroes to get back to the Falcon, and to complete his new mission of helping Luke become a Jedi. Kenobi proves unafraid of perishing upon Vader’s saber, indeed confident that he will ascend to a new kind of strength and influence in death, and after giving Luke a knowing sidewards glance lifts his lightsaber and takes the death stroke. Luke unleashes his anguished wrath on Stormtroopers and manages to cut off Vader by forcing a bulkhead to close (I love the shot of Vader still advancing with unnerving fixity until the doors shut tight) and he and the others finally flee on the Falcon, with the effect of Kenobi’s sacrifice already clear, as Luke hears his disembodied voice guiding him on. They manage to destroy a flight of four small Imperial ‘TIE’ fighters sent after them, but Leia correctly suspects they’ve been set up by Vader to lead the Empire to the Rebel base.

Again, the plotting here is sensible despite all the fun derring-do. Moreover, the mythos is again still expanding even as it seems to be resolving. The clash between Kenobi and Vader, whilst far less physically dynamic than many subsequent, presents the first true lighsaber duel, suggesting the fierce concentration and skill required to fight in such a fashion, as well as revealing the powers of the Jedi extend beyond death. The fight with the chasing TIE fighters is a vivid piece of special effects staging, but is most important as the moment that sets the seal on the bond between the heroes, with Han simultaneously congratulating Luke and warning him against cockiness, and Leia joyfully embracing Chewbacca, who she called a walking carpet not that long before. These particular Argonauts are fully defined. They reach the Rebel headquarters on a moon of the planet Yavin, a jungle zone where cyclopean ruins are repurposed as the operating zone for the Rebels, another fittingly dreamlike zone that also again visually underlines the dialogue between the arcane and the futuristic. The contrast between the teeming greenery of Yavin with the desolation of Tatooine also speaks to Luke’s evolution, arriving in a place where he’s no longer faced with a paucity of options but an overwhelming explosion of experience.

On his first two films Lucas had mediated a spare and evocative style, employing subtle zoom lensing and layers of mediating effect, both visual and aural, with a documentary-like effect, at once seemingly happenstance and carefully filtering, with manipulation of the captured images in the editing room to imbue them with a density accruing a very specific mood, the fractured reality of THX-1138 and the seamless melting between vignettes in American Graffiti. Star Wars inevitably wanted a more forceful touch, and getting the right editing approach proved difficult until Lucas assembled a team including his then-wife Marcia. Lucas’ choice of a clean, bright, easily legible look, achieved in uneasy collaboration with the veteran cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, imbued the film with comic strip-like fluency that sometimes look like Roy Lichtenstein’s pop art panels filmed (particularly in the whaam!-rich climax), and the varying wipe techniques that simultaneously provide keen brackets for each stage in the journey whilst also constantly urging the story on. The best, wittiest example of this comes after the attack by the sandpeople when Luke and Kenobi retrieve Threepio, who’s been sundered in pieces in the melee, and as the two men pick up his top half the screen wipes up as if daintily covering his sorry state. If the landscape shots were patterned after maximalist talents like Lang, Ford, and David Lean, the interpersonal scenes and character group shots have a stark, clean hardness and efficient use of the frame more reminiscent of Anthony Mann and Raoul Walsh.

The stylistic rules Lucas set down dispensed with slow motion, Dutch angles, zooms, non-linear or associative edits, and anything but the most functional tracking, handheld, and crane shots. This approach harkened back to another age of cinema, rejecting much of the New Wave stylistic lexicon that had infiltrated Hollywood even if the film’s overall glitz seemed cutting-edge, wringing all the visual energy from the interaction of elements within the shots and the rhythm of the cutting. It would be borderline ridiculous to talk about Star Wars without talking about Williams’ score in more depth, as well-trodden a topic as it is. The mission brief Lucas handed Williams, recommended to him by Spielberg, was to provide a score reminiscent of the kind Erich Wolfgang Korngold did for the likes of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Sea Hawk (1940). Whilst he had already provided some major hit films with scores, including The Poseidon Adventure (1972), The Towering Inferno (1974), and Jaws (1975), it was with Star Wars that Williams made himself a genuinely rare thing, a star composer, and almost single-handedly revived the ideal of the big orchestral film score at a time when most were rather spare, pop-inflected or muted and atmosphere-chasing. This in turn had an impact that’s sometimes been less than salutary in terms of the bombastic strains that decorate many a recent blockbuster-wannabe. Listening to Williams’ score in isolation is an instructive experience in distinguishing it from pale imitations, in encountering the dense layers of instrumentation as well as the illustrative cunning invested in each motif and phrase, the evocative tenor of even the most casual passages as well the instantly recognisable, quite Pavlovian intensity of tracks like the title theme, Leia’s theme, and the scoring for the setting suns scene, as well as the skull-drilling catchiness of the oddball space jazz played by the cantina band. Star Wars would still have been a success without the music, but the film with the music became something else: Williams allowed Lucas to plug more directly in the purest language of fantasy.

Despite being remembered as the film that enshrined the ideal of the special effects blockbuster, Star Wars was hardly a huge-budget film, costing half of what Irwin Allen spent on his marvellously awful The Swarm (1978) around the same time. Lucas had a specific desire to create special effects on a par with 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), but didn’t have the time or money to pursue the same painstaking work as Stanley Kubrick and Douglas Trumbull had achieved. So the special effects team (which included new luminaries of the field John Dykstra, Dennis Muren, Richard Edlund, and Phil Tippet) took advantage of evolving technology and created the motion control camera, a computer-guided mechanical system that allowed photography of model work to be made vastly easier and briefer. Which helps the overall aesthetic of film more than simply in being dynamic and convincing: the action scenes are the moments when the camerawork becomes unfettered, tracing vivid lines and arcs of motion, most impressively in the climactic Death Star attack as the camera adopts a fighter-eye-view of plunging into the equatorial trench, visuals that have an immersive vigour barely seen in cinema before. The impact of these effects in 1977 was colossal, and they still, despite the odd awkward shot, look very good: indeed the original work has aged far better than the terrible CGI inserts Lucas purveyed in his special edition.

But a great part of the texture and pleasure of Star Wars lies in its small touches. Threepio laying slain Jawas in a pyre with paltry but definite sense of duty. The tableaux of the aliens in the cantina locked in conversations of varying intensity. Luke chasing away Jawas who take too much interest in his speeder, and the long-snouted spy who tracks the heroes through the busy alleys of Mos Eisley. Chewbacca playing a variety of animated, 3D chess with the droids. Shots of Imperial soldiers perched on catwalks and work stations beholding awesome vistas of space and colossal energy surges. So much of this stuff bolsters the impression of richness and incidental commotion in the Star Wars universe, even as it never feels tempted, as many such movies do, to collapse into a succession of world-building exercises. That’s largely because of the basic plot, which resolves in an attack by the Rebels in small fighters and bombers trying to take advantage of an identified weakness in the Death Star, working according to the information Artoo has brought them, with Luke volunteering to pilot an “X-Wing” fighter amongst their ranks. Before setting off to war Luke has a charged confrontation with Han, who seems determined to return to type and declines joining the Rebel assault, but offers Luke a salutary “May the Force be with you,” to the young tyro – a vital concession for the arch cynic, underlined when it’s hinted he might have other intentions in mind. A fine little character moment that also has inevitably large consequences for the way the story plays out.

Perhaps the only addition for Lucas’ special edition I feel was effective is the restoration of the subsequent vignette of Luke encountering his old friend from Tatooine, Biggs (Garrick Hagon), giving context to Luke’s early mention of him, and bolstering our sense of Luke’s movement as a character. Biggs goes to bat with a superior in assuring him of Luke’s great piloting talent. Notably, in the coming fight Biggs’ death and Han’s resurgence are signal moments, one leaving Luke to find the nerve to survive alone and the second proving he doesn’t have to. The Rebel pilots try desperately to fend off the Imperial fire long enough to deliver a hit that can ignite the station’s reactor. As a climactic sequence this has many forebears in classic war movies including The Bridges At Toko-Ri (1954), The Dam Busters (1956, which Taylor also shot), The Guns of Navarone (1961), and 633 Squadron (1964), as the impossible mission to knock out the enemy extermination machine comes down to the wire. The obeisance to this specific wing of the war film makes sense – this is, after all, a film about war in the stars, as well as handing Lucas a situation easy to make sense of and render propulsive and exciting. But it also stands to a degree at odds with most of its follow-ups, in winnowing down the concerns to a single act of martial courage, where in the later films the schism between the Force users as a microcosm of conflict and moral contention, and the more standard warfare as macrocosm, would become a consistent contrast and finally, in Return of the Jedi, pulling ethically and imperatively in differing directions.

The assault on the Death Star is nonetheless one of the great movie sequences, thrilling and, as clear-cut as it is conceptually, impressively intricate as a feat of filming, editing, and scoring. Part of the beauty here is the way the outcome is kept in contention, as in The Guns of Navarone, until the very last seconds of the battle as the Death Star looms closer and closer to blasting the Rebel moon and the attacking force is whittled down. Tension constantly whips up as Luke is finally left almost alone, Biggs is killed, and new comrade Wedge (Denis Lawson) is forced to withdraw after saving Luke’s life, whilst Vader leads a tag-team of TIE fighters taking out the small foes. In their brief moments between life and death the Rebel warriors become shining avatars of heroism whilst they’re chased down by enemy pilots who wear black, grinning skull-like masks (one of many nods to Eisenstein’s stylisation of the Teutonic knights in Alexander Nevsky, 1938). Artoo is badly damaged by Vader’s gunfire. Luke again experiences Kenobi’s guidance and switches off his targeting computer, signalling his new confidence in using the way of the Force, pure instinct, for the last possible chance at a day-saving shot, which he’s only saved to give thanks to Han’s intervention, which accidentally saves Vader in turn when his fighter is flung off into space. There’s an extra edge of malicious pleasure supplied by Tarkin, as intense and nervelessly cool as ever, calmly ordering the moon’s destruction and confidently expecting victory until he and everything else that comprises the Death Star explodes like a small sun, spraying the void with a trillion gleaming pieces of superheated matter – the end of evil and the death of thousands becomes a brief vision of strange and perfervid beauty.

This all works on both the level of pure myth – the pure knight guided to victory by the hand of his magic guardian and the aid of his fated companion. And on a rather more profane level, a very American story of the star quarterback scoring the winning touchdown thanks to his own personal Jesus and his defensive tackle. The film’s last scene sees Han and Luke presented with medals by Leia and the fully repaired and lively Artoo making his presence known, before they’re applauded by the ranks of Rebels. This climax has been a strange object of contention despite seeming to offers plain old heroic validation, as snarky commentary has been levelled at this noting its seeming similarity to some shots in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935). Most likely, the reference points are the same, both drawing from Lang’s rectilinear framings and fascination with a finely balanced tension between order and decay as the ranked humans and the grandiose cyclopean surrounds, as well as the Michael Curtiz swashbucklers that drew on Lang. In that regard Star Wars is of course much truer to the source, particularly as, again, the tone here is at once officially noble but also comedic. Han, Luke, and Leia can’t keep a straight face through the ceremony, Han winks at Leia, and Luke gives Threepio the nod to let Artoo come out, shattering the formality of the proceedings, telling us these heroes remain themselves and not puppets of power.

No-one looks at Star Wars as a work of private imagineering and pop art anymore; it’s become its own sequestered thing, practically a substitute for the mythologies it references. How well Star Wars works, then and now, depends on one’s attachment to the fantastical, to that state it evokes that’s located in the subliminal zone between childhood and adulthood, the place of epitomes and symbols and the need for excitement and release, even as it masquerades as a story. Such art is generally described as escapist, but there’s no such thing, really, as escapism, as such works simply transmute experiences into other less immediate, less realistic, but, conversely, more powerful forms. It’s a truism now to state that Star Wars begat a specific style of cinematic blockbuster that gained a complete stranglehold on pop culture. What’s more peculiar, though, is that it didn’t. Certainly Star Wars gave science fiction box office voltage for a time, proved that special effects could be a force equal to star name marquee appeal in drawing people into movie theatres, and inspired a host of cash-ins ranging from cheap and cheerful to monumentally expensive. But for decades after Star Wars most successful movies were still in old-fashioned genres driven by old-fashioned filmmaking precepts, in large part because aspects of it were too hard to mimic. Rather than revive space opera, Star Wars permanently foiled it by assimilating it all into an essential glossary. Star Wars rather laid a seed for imitators constantly trying to revisit the specific feeling it captured, a feeling it was trying itself ironically to recall. Which is perhaps the deepest underpinning reason for Star Wars’ indelible success, on top of all the basic cinematic things it leverages to effect. The ultimate act of homage it tries to pay is to the cinematic experience itself.

Standard
1950s, Action-Adventure, Drama, Epic, War

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

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Director: David Lean
Screenwriters: Carl Foreman, Michael Wilson, David Lean (uncredited)

By Roderick Heath

My father once told me the story of how when he was a child, he and my grandfather, who had been a professional soldier in the British Army since before World War II and remained one for a time after, went to see The Bridge on the River Kwai. They saw it in a grandiose Piccadilly movie theatre during the film’s first release, a movie experience they had to skirt one of Bertrand Russell’s ban-the-bomb marches to attend. My grandfather, who had fought in North Africa, Malta, and Burma, and survived being struck by a mortar bomb, the shrapnel from which he carried until the day he died, was normally rather disdainful of war movies, but nonetheless he emerged from The Bridge on the River Kwai extremely impressed, particularly by the climax’s realism in capturing an injury he had suffered. He wasn’t alone: the film was granted colossal success, capturing multiple Oscars and proving one of the biggest hits of the 1950s, and fatefully catapulting director David Lean into new and lasting fame as a maker of epic tales. And yet, The Bridge on the River Kwai was and is a strange kind of popular hit, a movie that mediated a crested and now waning surge of nostalgia for the war’s certainties and manifold heroic tales, and the onset of something new, more doubtful and questioning, and did so through a bleak, semi-satirical storyline wielding a edge of barbed cynicism aimed at several key mythologies of the war.

The Bridge on the River Kwai was adapted from a novel by French writer Pierre Boulle, whose peculiar, acerbic imagination would also produce a very different popular tale nonetheless sharing preoccupation with culture clashes and reversals of dominance, Planet of the Apes. Boulle, an engineer who worked in rubber plantations in what was then called French Indochina, became a spy when war with Japan broke out, only be eventually captured by Vichy collaborators and thrown into a Japanese POW camp, where he was forced to take part in the construction of the infamous Burma-Thailand Railway, where his observations of collaborating French officers would inform his eventual novel’s acidic portrayals. Boulle tried his hand at writing after he returned to France and fell on hard times, scoring an enormous breakthrough success with Le Pont de la rivière Kwaï, his third published work. In his novel, perhaps to avoid controversy with a French readership but also certainly to deploy his sardonic perspective on different forms of national and imperial arrogance contending, Boulle focused on British POWs and amalgamated the officers he remembered in the figure of an imaginary British Lieutenant-Colonel named Nicholson. The novel was brought to the screen by the entrepreneurial, Anglophiliac Polish-American producer Sam Spiegel, but the project owed its inception to writer Carl Foreman, who had left the US after writing High Noon (1952) because of blacklisting, and bought the movie rights to Boulle’s novel.

Spiegel, after considering an array of major directors including Orson Welles, eventually settled on David Lean. Lean and Foreman eventually suffered a clash of vision of Foreman, and when he pulled out of the project Foreman suggested fellow blacklisted émigré Michael Wilson to take over, whilst Lean also later said he contributed much to the script. In a stinging but fairly familiar irony when it comes to the annals of 1950s moviemaking, none of them gained screen credit, with a screenwriting Oscar eventually instead given to Boulle, who didn’t speak English. Lean was already a respected and successful director, although he had not quite been able to recapture the acclaim garnered by his early collaborations with Noel Coward, including In Which We Serve (1942) and Brief Encounter (1945), and his diptych of Charles Dickens adaptations, Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948), films where Lean’s rigorous filmmaking and illustrative verve were perfectly suited to his preoccupation with half-stifled, half-rampant quixotic urges. The films Lean made after that legendary run have only slowly gained the respect they deserve, particularly The Passionate Friends (1949) and Madeleine (1950), Lean’s most intimate and agonised portrayals of romantic frustration shading into acts of violence against self and others. The Sound Barrier (1952), Hobson’s Choice (1954), and Summertime (1955) all tackled characters pushing themselves to shatter boundaries that repress and stymie their capacities, with the latter film offering a mediation between the personal, domestic focus of Lean’s early films in depicting a spinster finding love during a holiday in Venice, and a fantastic liberation in a foreign clime realised in splendid colour that presaged Lean’s own emergence into the glare of international spectacle cinema.

The Bridge on the River Kwai was certainly never intended to be a documentary or true account any more than the book had been, although Boulle, working from his own hazy memory of the region where he set the book, wilfully crossed paths with some agonising events. As with the rather more populist The Great Escape (1962), based more directly on a real incident, the fame of the fictional version made the real history invoked all the more stinging for those involved in it, including the real commander of British troops who had built a bridge over the Kwae Hai river in Thailand, Lt-Col. Philip Toosey, and the Japanese commander, who Toosey defended as a relatively humane man amidst the general cynicism and degradation that marked the railway’s construction, the building of which cost upwards of 100,000 lives, mostly South Asian slave labourers but also including 12,000 POWs. The Bridge on the River Kwai’s take on imperialism, and militarism aggravated members of its cast, including Alec Guinness and James Donald, whose fretting about the alleged anti-British streak in the material contributed to the general tension that grew between Lean and his actors on set during the film’s lengthy shoot in Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon. This almost caused a permanent falling-out between Lean and Guinness who was cast as Nicholson, whose movie career Lean had vitally boosted by casting him in his Dickens films, especially when Lean kept reminding Guinness he originally wanted Charles Laughton in the role. The film’s success, and Guinness’ Oscar win, nonetheless proved irrevocably that they were a winning team.

Today some of The Bridge on the River Kwai’s original stature has been reassigned to another great antiwar film about an obsessed military leader released the same year, Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. Whilst feeling both are very great films, I think The Bridge on the River Kwai is the superior work in large part because it’s more ambivalent: Kubrick’s film all but screams its humanist principles from the rooftop, where Lean’s sustains the opposing tensions between its many perspectives. The Bridge on the River Kwai’s famous early scene of the column of British POWs under Nicholson marching into the POW camp run by Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) whilst whistling the march “Colonel Bogey,” is more than just a jaunty interlude in an otherwise cruel and concerted drama: it’s an act of calculated showmanship, the first of Nicholson’s many attempts to hold his men together as a coherent team despite captivity and privation, obliging them to mark time march on the spot as they whistle. The sight is at once inspiring and more than a little sadomasochistic. The scene is also an evergreen example of Lean’s technique, his ground in editing and sense of cinema as a rhythmic thing that could stand being stretched or curtailed to any degree in service of a point. The scene has no particular dramatic necessity, and yet it illustrates everything about what we’re about to see, expostulating the essence of the drama entirely through cinematic gesture. The tune’s ear-invading catchiness officially invokes regimented yet waggish defiance. Nicholson’s stiff-necked pride and force of command over his men who play along, despite sceptical glances to one-another, is plain, as the men march in past the graves of their predecessors in this fetid little hell. Survival is the name of the game, survival must be communal, and Nicholson feels fully the lot given to him as commander to lead. Composer Malcolm’s Arnold’s counterpoint arrangement rises up to give accompaniment to the whistling, interlacing it with a sarcastically carnivalesque quality that resurges in the film’s very last scene.

Circularity is also staked out by the opening and closing shots of eagles reeling in the sky above the jungle, before Lean and his cinematographer Jack Hildyard offer sweeping helicopter shots descending into and retreating out of the greenery, the viewpoint of gods and carnivorous birds aligned in considering the mean human drama about to unfold. The opening credits unfurl over shots of Nicholson and his men, deposited at the end of the completed line by train in the middle of the jungle where desperately thin and exhausted men are working on digging cuttings, before marching through the jungle and looking down upon what is to be their new home, the River Kwai, which they’re to build a bridge across as part of the railway. Nicholson’s solution seems to be to pretend nothing is wrong, that he and his men are still on the parade ground back in old Blighty, under the comforting sway of the Union Jack rather than the Rising Sun. But Nicholson’s choice to bring his men into the camp with a show of discipline and spirit is really the first shot in a different kind of war, one where one side seems to have all the cards. Saito looks on, perhaps sensing the oncoming battle of wills and grasping the soldiers’ defiance of his particular, very different sense of honour.

The last gang of POWs kept in the camp, including the hardy, wily American Navy man Shears (William Holden), are a mostly shattered and withered remnant, many resident in the camp hospital: Shears himself has stayed strong through his talents as a scrounger and the nourishing nectar of his own cynicism. He’s introduced bribing a guard to get put on the sick list with a lighter purloined from a soldier he and another captive have just buried. Holden was plainly cast as Shears as an extension of his Oscar-winning role as J.J. Sefton in Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 (1953), although where Sefton was a misanthropist, Shears is decent, but sceptical about warfare in general, representing an articulate everyman’s perspective: Shears, who has been accepted as a Commander but is actually, secretly a ranking sailor, having put on an officer’s uniform in the hope of getting better treatment from his captors only to suffer Saito’s utter indifference to such things, presents the polar opposite to Nicholson’s governing philosophy and outlook. “I don’t mock the grave or the man,” Shears assures his comrade as he knocks a crude crucifix grave marker into the ground over the new grave, after he delivers an acerbic eulogy, just as he surely means nonetheless to mock the forces that put the man in the grave.

The first half of The Bridge on the River Kwai depicts Nicholson seeming to prove himself right as he stands up to Saito’s harshest punishments and humiliations. Nicholson determines to insist he and his men be treated according to the Geneva Convention, which in particular means resisting Saito’s insistence that the officers work with the men, because as Nicholson formulates it, “our men must always feel they are still commanded by us and not by the Japanese – so long as they have that idea to cling to they’ll be soldiers and not slaves.” The degree to which Nicholson is directed as much by snooty pride as by gallant motives is left ambiguous, although perhaps such things can never entirely be separated. Saito responds furiously to Nicholson’s defiance, smacking him on the parade ground and leaving him and his officers standing at attention through a broiling hot day. Saito tries to threaten Nicholson with shooting him and the officers, but Nicholson’s medical officer Clipton (James Donald) intervenes, warning Saito that he can’t kill all the potential witnesses in the sick bay, a move Shears has already, sullenly anticipated. But Clipton’s intervention, which uses Saito’s own invocation of his bushido against him – “Is this your soldier’s code? Murdering unarmed men?” – works.

Saito instead has Nicholson beaten and flung alone into a corrugated iron box to swelter away, whilst the other officers are similarly imprisoned. Saito doesn’t realise the moment he reveals there are limits to his methods he loses the fight. Hayakawa, who forty years earlier had been Hollywood’s most popular male actor with a niche playing cruel and destructive “exotic” lovers, made a sudden resurgence thanks to his performance as Saito. Hayakawa, who unlike Guinness got along famously with Lean, proved his charisma hadn’t entirely deserted him even though he was pushing 70 at the time, as well as his tendency to get typecast as Asiatic brutes. Hayakawa nonetheless is quite brilliant at portraying weakness hiding within apparent strength, apparent in Saito’s frantic, incompetent reaction to being challenged, and his desperately smarmy attempts to save face even whilst trying to get Nicholson to let him off the hook, before he again erupts in a quivering harangue: “I hate the British. You are defeated, but you have no shame. You are stubborn but have no pride. You endure but you have no courage.” Nicholson remains steadfast: even when Clipton eventually talks Saito into letting him attend to him in the hot box, he finds Nicholson retains all his strength of purpose as if he’s the one being perfectly reasonable, commenting with exasperation, “That man is the worst commanding officer I’ve ever come across – actually I think he’s mad,” a judgement Saito in turn passes on Nicholson. “Without law, Commander, there is no civilisation,” Nicholson tells Shears, who ripostes that here there is no civilisation: “Then we have the opportunity to introduce it.”

Nicholson’s approach to his new and his men’s new situation emerges as he resolves that, with escape more or less impossible and his legal situation strange – he explains that he was ordered to surrender when Singapore fell, which might mean escape attempts might well constitute a breach of those orders – he resolves instead that “here is where we must win through,” particularly after Shears and some other men seem to all be killed attempting an escape. Nicholson’s defiance stokes his men’s resistance, singing “For he’s a jolly good fellow” as he’s put in the hot box, and they sabotage and generally foul up the bridge-building attempts, causing the project to fall far behind schedule. Saito’s anger falls heavily on his chief engineer, eventually taking over the construction himself, but to no avail. Eventually Saito makes overtures to Nicholson, first trying to win him over by offering to let him remain exempt from working, but Nicholson refuses. Finally, under the cover of a magnanimous deed in celebrating the anniversary of the Battle of Tsushima, Saito agrees to Nicholson’s demands. Soon, Nicholson sets his engineering officers to the task of building a better bridge, to give his men something to labour on and take pride in, and leave something to posterity even in their defeat.

Lean’s films hinged on crucial identification with his heroes as mediators of his intense but divided personal nature, his creative and emotional passion clashing with his firmly instilled personal morality stemming from his Quaker upbringing, with his unique talents for animating landscape, either through the careful studio stylisation of his Dickens films or the dynamic sense of landscape exhibited in his epics, offering elemental contrast to the human irony of his stories. And yet Lean resisted identifying too overtly with Nicholson for both himself and the audience, reportedly insisting that Nicholson needed to be a bit of a bore, despite Guinness’s desire to make him more appealing. I think I know why. The first time I ever watched The Bridge on the River Kwai as a child, I burst into tears at the climax, for I had granted Nicholson all my sympathy in the story, identifying with his pride in creation without quite understanding the depth of his breach of duty. Lean understood this, and guarded against it: the story’s rich irony demands both sympathy with Nicholson but also some distance from him. But it’s also plain Lean knew Nicholson was the avatar for his creative-romantic streak. Hayakawa, in an interview given to Films and Filming, recalled one of the crew complaining that Lean “shot 30 seconds of film a day and then sat on a rock and stared at his goddamn bridge!” It’s impossible not to see Lean and Nicholson almost fusing there in their near-religious sense of craft, just as it also offers pertinent context to the scenes Lean’s next hero, T.E. Lawrence, dreaming up his attack on Aqaba in a similarly contemplative position.

By contrast, Clipton offers a constant counterpart also constant in Lean’s films, the figure of moral authority and adamant perspective, a figure that would splinter across various protagonists in Doctor Zhivago (1965) but reconfigure as the priest in Ryan’s Daughter (1970) and Fielding in A Passage To India (1984). Clipton’s business is saving lives, a service he performs for Nicholson, but later prods him with questions as to whether he’s now collaborating with the enemy, and the end refuses to be involved in the christening of the bridge, a choice that accidentally saves his own life. Nicholson’s arguments in riposte make sense to a degree: assuming the bridge will be built somehow and either by his men or atop their graves, Nicholson determines to make it suit his purpose. Trouble is, Nicholson’s sense of the camp and bridge as their existential amphitheatre forgets there’s still a world beyond. Foreman’s attraction to the story seems fairly obvious: like High Noon it’s a story of a man suffering to stand up for principle, and culminates with the whistle of a train announcing an imminent battle.

But that film’s moral certainty and elemental approach to violence-as-justice have been scattered all to hell. Nicholson’s rigid stance against Saito is at once heroic and unnerving, a matador provoking the bull’s horns, in part because Nicholson knows as well as Saito that killing him would be, in a strange way, to lose the game. Saito in turn, although he seems clearly tempted to kill Nicholson at several points including by stabbing him after Nicholson refuses his peace offering meal, nonetheless holds off. Saito’s restraint matches Nicholson’s, as if proving the British officer’s stance by responding to his show of fortitude with his own. Saito, however, is in a radically different position, knowing he’ll be expected to commit seppuku if the bridge isn’t completed on schedule, and his vehement, shuddering displays of anger and disdain for his British counterpart register the overtones of fear lurking behind his own cruelty. Nicholson and Saito represent, at their broadest, symbolic conceptions of the respective British and Japanese armies, the former defined by a mysterious high-tensile ability to be rigid and flexible at once in hyper-courteous browbeating, the latter by the maniacal severity of its concepts of honour and purpose.

But the narrative plays some intricate games with these presumptions. The Bridge on the River Kwai glances back at Lean’s films with Coward, in their mythological engagement with the wartime ethos of the stiff upper lip, particularly In Which We Serve, where Coward’s idealised Captain hero figure coaches his men through disaster. Here the fortitude is laced with irony and delusion, the adamantine strength of purpose questioned and eventually found confused and self-defeating. Saito is the official representative of the barbaric treatment meted out by the Imperial Army on just about they considered their inferiors, but as the story unfolds he becomes a faintly comic figure, outmanoeuvred by Nicholson. Lean and Hayakawa oblige sympathy for Saito for glimpsing his deep, weeping humiliation after caving in to Nicholson. This vignette proves one Saito never truly seems to recover from, spending much of the rest of the film in a near-silent, almost zombified state, gazing on silently and beggared as Nicholson and his men set about feverishly doing his work for him, whilst also aware that Nicholson’s purpose, to triumph in the face of shame, is one he cannot encompass. Nicholson earns the love of his men as the seeming exemplar of his creed, and yet collaborates actively with the enemy to fulfil his own ends, however self-justifying those ends are. Saito, a prisoner of his own values, can’t do that, and it’s made plain late in the film that he intends to commit seppuku upon the passing of the first train down the railway line, even though he and Nicholson eventually seem to work up an odd kind of camaraderie.

That militarism eventually consumes all its children, British or Japanese or anyone else, is made abundantly clear in the climax, particularly when Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) mortar bombs some of his own people to prevent their capture, and the possibility of any kind of private achievement or separate peace eventually, literally goes up in flames. The stand-off between Nicholson and Saito consumes most of the film’s first half, and whilst in many ways it presents the inverse situation to the first half of Lawrence of Arabia with its sweeping portrait of Lawrence’s desert-spanning, myth-making raid on Aqaba, in concentrating on a tiny microcosm that gets even smaller when Nicholson is jammed in the hot box, it nonetheless has the same rolling, compulsive power and sense of punishing physical straits. Lean shoots extremely low-angle shots of the sweltering, at-attention soldiers with the glaring sun above, and makes maximum use of the widescreen frame’s expanse and depth of field in moments like when Shears comments balefully on Nicholson’s actions as he and other men in the sick bay watch the officers on the parade ground, one man fainting dead away as they speak in the distance of the centre frame. One moment of sublime accord for Lean’s direction and Guinness’ performance, one indeed Guinness himself felt was his best screen moment ever, sees Nicholson, exhausted, bedraggled, and barely able to stand, nonetheless forcing himself to walk unaided from the hot box to Saito’s office with an automaton-like gait (which Guinness said he based on his son, who was recovering from polio), watched with deadpan patience by the camera in a tracking shot with his men saluting as he passes.

Something of Boulle’s more sarcastic, quasi-satirical sensibility filters to the surface in the scene where Nicholson and his officers take over Saito’s conference on how to proceed with building the bridge, Saito now the one acting mechanically with his repetitions of “I have already given the order” in response to Nicholson’s utterly reasoned and quietly irresistible logic. The same streak returns later on as Shears, softly blackmailed into joining a commando raid on the bridge, is repeatedly acclaimed with the arch old-boyism, “Good show!” Shears’ story, pushed off to one side during Nicholson’s resistance except for a brief depiction of his and his companions’ escape attempt, which seems to end brutally when Shears is shot and plunges into the river. But Shears, only lightly wounded, crawls out of the river and stumbles desperately through the jungle, where, in perhaps the film’s oddest and most misjudged touch, he mistakes a kite for a buzzard swooping to pick his carcass: the kite proves to be flown by some kids from a nearby village. The villagers happily give Shears a boat so he can continue downriver, but when he runs out of water he makes the mistake of drinking the river water, and drifts out of his mind with fever down to the ocean, where he’s eventually spotted and rescued by a plane and taken to Ceylon. Cue another unfortunate moment, this time the result of Columbia’s insistence at least one white woman be added to the cast, adding a romantic scene for Shears cavorting with a nurse (Ann Sears) from the hospital where he recovers on the beach.

This scene nonetheless serves as the moment Shears meets Warden, a former Cambridge teacher of Oriental Languages turned demolitions expert and commando (“We’re trying to discourage the use of that words, it’s come to have such a melodramatic air about it”) with a group called Force 316. The Bridge on the River Kwai is in essence two separate stories, and Foreman put that down to it having two writers who never quite reconciled things. But the stories are also deeply entwined, one commenting on the other and coinciding in the finale. Shears’ story is a more traditional kind of adventure story than Nicholson’s, but no less barbed a story of people who prove avatars for incoherent values. Warden, who keeps alive a sort of happy amateur ideal of the English gentleman of war as he playfully shows off the new wonder of plastic explosive, invites Shears to join the group. They want him to guide them from the village he visited back up to the Kwai bridge, so they can sabotage it. Shears, who’s been maintaining his pose as an officer in the hospital, confesses his deception in the course of vehemently refusing to go back, but Warden reveals that he and his superiors had already learned about this and the US Navy, to avoid embarrassment, has handed Shears over to them.

Shears sourly volunteers, and at least gets the rank of “simulated Major” out of it. Asked by the commander of 316, Colonel Green (Andre Morell), for his impressions of the prospective team, Shears is less anxious about the young, unblooded accountant-turned-warrior Lt Joyce (Geoffrey Horne) elected to the unit than by Warden, who strikes him as playing a game of war. Green starts telling him about Warden’s combat experience, including of being captured by the enemy, an anecdote left crucially unfinished. When they are eventually parachuted into the jungle, one member of the team is killed in the drop. The rest reach the village Shears visited before, and the village chief, Khun Yai (M.R.B. Chakrabandhu), and six of their young women volunteer to help their mission. They begin a trek through the jungle. Joyce’s hesitation in stabbing a Japanese soldier they encounter obliges Warden to do it for him, but injures his ankle in the process: Warden insists on continuing with the team, limping along in agonising fashion.

Lean’s emergence as the doyen of “epic” filmmakers entailed a new way of filming, some of it engaged with the changing nature of cinema itself. Widescreen formats had been introduced in 1953 to counter television with a new expanse and vividness of visual experience. Despite Fritz Lang’s infamous comment that it was only good for snakes and funerals, many major filmmakers immediately began experimenting with what could be achieved in widescreen, but most of the movies made in the format were very brightly lit and glossily colourful. Lean, seeing the widescreen style was punishing on any sort of artifice, completely eschewed any shooting shortcuts like rear projection or sets, helping imbue a monumental, tactile quality that immediately changed the way other filmmakers would approach such things, where just a year before epic cinema had meant the total artifice of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. The Bridge on the River Kwai has a palette of muddy greens and browns and shaded, shadowy frame reaches. In its way, Lean’s film might well have done the most of any movie up until that time to demonstrate that colour cinema could be as compellingly immersive and realistic, just as black-and-white had become the accepted language for realism as opposed to the usually decorative effect colour was put to. Lean had filmed stark figures amidst bleak, near-animate landscapes in the opening scenes of his Dickens films, creating backdrops that seethe and overwhelm in a manner harking back to J.M.W. Turner, an artist Lean had vital traits in common with. He expanded on this motif in The Bridge on the River Kwai, which is now part of the basic lexicon of large-scale moviemaking, in the sequences depicting the demolition team’s march through the jungle, bestriding cliff faces and marching up the flanks of hills, humans dwarfed by natural forms, in a reversal of the deadly intimacy of the first half.

Unlike filmmakers who would absorb his influence and transmute it into a more rarefied thing, including Werner Herzog and Terrence Malick, Lean’s approach to the natural world doesn’t regard it as sublimely indifferent but rather as a stage humans can’t escape from, nor it from them. The narrative is on one level a straightforward adventure movie, with the heroes braving the wilderness to achieve a difficult, noble objective. But as Lean would reiterate more completely in Lawrence of Arabia, the punishing drive of his heroes, Tennyson’s Ulysses-like, to cross and conquer the earth feels more like neurotic compulsion than straightforward intrepidity, as if identity can only be gained by risking its negation, becoming part of the landscape – death, in short. The jungle trek is defined by its objective, one where the characters are searching for an answer to a question, sometimes asked aloud, sometimes not. Whether Joyce can kill a man. Whether Shears can escape hell twice, and whether there’s something he would actually consider worth dying for. Whether Warden can prove he’s the man he wants to be, the great war commander. They counterpoint Nicholson, who finds the last chance for identity in the project of building the bridge, something to leave to the age. And of course the commandos want to destroy his brainchild, meaning that inevitably the men will destroy each-other in their pursuit of identity. Nicholson’s first fight with Saito is at its heart that same quest, as Nicholson knows being reduced to chattel will destroy him and his men as men. Nicholson’s quasi-messianic sense of mission eventually sees him leading out the sick and lame men from the hospital to work, and Nicholson’s strange genius is his ability to make it all seem utterly reasonable.

The trek culminates when Shears, Joyce, and Warden gain a vista over the Kwai, camera tilting down vast horizon until the bridge comes into view, seen for the first time in its complete state. That the bridge proves to be an all-wood pastiche of the Forth Bridge, that signal monument to the emergence of the industrial age’s height in Britain, is both a mordant underlining of Nicholson’s desire to make British genius bloom in the desert, and an entirely earnest nod to it, the last stand of imperialist export. Nicholson is right in one regard: here is where the stand must be made, but civilisation isn’t just righteousness and tea. It’s also rivalry for resources and tests of strength and will — in short, war. So inevitably Nicholson’s desire to build civilisation must meet the determination to destroy it. Lean’s roots in editing are equally crucial in his then-unusual approach to building scenes, most indefinably yet vitally in the rhythmic unfolding of Nicholson’s resistance, and sometimes more overtly. The scene where the commando team are surprised by a unit of Japanese soldiers whilst swimming at a cascade is a fine example, in the way Lean circles around standard action staging to instead present quick, vivid tableaux and symbolic force. The scene starts playfully, the soldiers and the women taking a last chance to enjoy themselves, before the enemy arrive: they, seeing only the women, seem to have the same end on their mind. Lean cuts from Warden throwing a grenade and the commandos firing down on the enemy to shots of teeming fruit bats scared out of the trees and flocking madly in the sky, their screeching panic mimicking the violence. When Lean returns to the Japanese soldiers they’re now dead, blood pooling in the water. Life and death, human and inhuman, natural and unnatural, all stirred into a state of flux, thesis and antithesis.

The march through the jungle, whilst describing human smallness and mutability, is punctuated with personal vignettes noting the growing bond between the men and the village women. This skirts potentially risible romantic interest but instead registers an extra, finite emotional texture that rubs salt in during the climax, where the women, each with their own preferred potential warrior-mate, have to watch as they die, as much unwitting priestesses in a death cult as lovers. One of the film’s notable descendants, Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), would provide the peyote-soaked take on all this; Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972) would strip it down to maniacal-visonary essentials. When the raiders finally arrive at the Kwai, Nicholson is at the same time inspecting his construction, indulging pride, and he muses on his career and disappointments to a quietly receptive if bewildered Saito, and it becomes clear why all that’s happened on the Kwai has happened, a last stage for Nicholson to make his life matter. Guinness was aggravated by Lean choice to shoot the scene from behind, but why is very clear when viewed, Nicholson allowed a degree of privacy even as he confesses something poignant about himself, the weight of emotion carried by Guinness’ lilt.

Nicholson then attends a celebratory performance his men put on, including drag acts and dubious song numbers, intercut with Shears, Yai, and Joyce silently and methodically stealing up on the bridge and laying explosive charges on its stanchions, in a sequence that suggests the influence of the quiet robbery scene in Rififi (1955) as the men do their best to not make noise and attract the attention of guards above nor ruffle the moonlit water. The attention to the saboteurs’ method and the deadly seriousness of their endeavour sharply offsets the festivities echoing from above and the placidity of Nicholson’s musings on life and the glorious sunset, tension slowly building all the while. Finally, with all their preparations deployed with nerveless patience, Shears leaves Joyce to his job to set off the explosives, which has been deigned will go off as the first train crosses the bridge and must be detonated from the only good cover within reach, located on the other side of the river from where his fellows take up position. When dawn breaks, the commandos realise to their cringing horror that the water level has dropped and the wire to the charges is visible at points. Joyce does his best to conceal the length closest to him, whilst Shears gives a smile of something like pride when Nicholson’s men march out over the bridge, again whistling “Colonel Bogey.” Whatever else he’s done, Nicholson certainly helped his men survive.

The climax of The Bridge on the River Kwai is one of the greatest in narrative cinema, charged with dizzying, bone-jarring physical force and tragicomic wildness, the long and patient build-up justified as the many threads of story and character collide in a spasm of apocalyptic violence. Nicholson spots the explosives wire as he again bestrides his precious bridge, and he and Saito descend to puzzle it out. As Warden and Shears both from their positions cringe in agony as they near Joyce and realise their own man is about to foil the operation, Joyce works up the nerve to spring out of cover and knife Saito, but it’s Nicholson’s panicked reaction to Joyce’s explanation about what’s happening, grabbing the young man and trying to hold him down, that attracts the guards’ lethal attention, and bullets start flying. Shears, screaming out for Joyce to kill Nicholson, leaps into the river and swims across to aide his pupil, only to be wounded by bullets, whilst Joyce is also shot by the advancing guards. Nicholson’s look of pure shock upon recognising Shears as he crawls out of the river, knife in hand, face twisted in warlike grimace even as he dies, completes the circuit.

Meanwhile Warden rains mortar bombs down on the area, through his own, traumatised conviction they’re all better off dead than captured and tortured, at the cost of having the village women retreat from him in fear. Lean’s control over the eruption of frantic action and the dovetailing of so many narrative and thematic strands into a singular sequence remains quite remarkable, utilising the widescreen expanse to encompass multiple planes of action with a blend of ferocity and grace, ironic distance and immediate furore, building to the epic close-ups that ram home the drama – Nicholson’s look of profound surprise at recognising the wounded Shears as he stumbles ashore, his exclamation of “You!” answered by Shear’s own, enraged, agonised utterance of the same word before collapsing. Boulle pointedly did not have the bridge blown up in his book, leaving it as an ironic monument to war’s madness. The film needs the bridge destroyed, both for the sake of climactic showmanship, of course, but also because the story of the film as opposed to the book demands it, particular in Lean’s private moral scheme, which emerges in harkening back to Great Expectations where Miss Havisham murmured “What have I done?” when she realises she’s destroyed people’s lives.

Lean again (and if he did actually contribute anything to the script, it’s hard to doubt this was it) puts this question in Nicholson’s mouth as he experiences a moment of devastating clarity even as all hell breaks loose about him, the proof of his own blinkered convictions littered about him and bleeding out. Nicholson sets his sights on the plunger and moves for it, only for one of the mortars to land behind him, killing Shears and Joyce and leaving Nicholson with a gouge wound in the back of his head. Nicholson stands and once more makes a controlled effort at recovering his soldierly bearing before resuming his advance, only for him to collapse dead. Fortunately, he falls on the plunger, and the bridge blows apart in a thunderous calamity, train plummeting into the river. Lean was apparently bothered until he died that he didn’t make it clear enough that Nicholson intended to destroy the bridge and the explosion wasn’t just dumb luck. I’ve never doubted it, as Lean’s careful scene grammar plus that crucial line makes Nicholson’s chain of thinking very clear, but I can see why some didn’t. The fact that Nicholson doesn’t quite set of the blast with his last breath, but instead stumbles towards his final, redemptive act of refutation, is nonetheless just as important, taking the moment out of the realm of melodrama and placing it rather in the absurd.

The destruction of the bridge that takes the train with it provides the orgasmic moment of destructive carnage and spectacle, amplified immeasurably by the undeniable reality of the staging, the wonderful bridge, a real, strong thing, and the train crashing into the river, huge logs and rigid iron crashing and breaking, waves of smoke and steam wafting. Cinema staging had scarcely been so immediate, so wantonly mighty and reckless, since the silent era. The visuals underline the descent of all art and pretence into pure chaos, but the final gestures retain meaning. Warden hurls his mortar away into impotent frustration before retreating, successful yet chagrined, back into the forest. He has succeeded in the letter of his mission, but what he stood for has gone bust, failed to reclaim his creed as the locus of stability and sanity in the world, and now the village women are afraid of him, the first flutters of the post-war, post-colonial wind. Meanwhile Clipton’s immortal, stunned, cringing cries of “Madness! Madness!” as he surveys the scene of carnage became the essential viewpoint of an entire generation still children watching the film but soon to be all too aware of the knife-edge that was the post-war, atomic-age world. And that last shot, sailing endlessly up into the sky, leaving the follies of humanity in splinters on the ground, the ghost army still marching.

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