Friday, May 05, 2017

The Secret History of Star Wars

Many years ago, I stumbled across the free ebook The Secret History of Star Wars by Michael Kaminski.  Third edition, published 2007.  I grabbed it as a pdf, and I'm glad I did, because shortly after that point, he repackaged it as an actual book that he now sells on Amazon and elsewhere for a fairly hefty sum.  I managed to find it at the very end of its trajectory as a free, pdf ebook of original research on the creative process behind the "Star Wars Saga" and how we've been largely led to believe a myth about how it was conceived.  But if you don't mind the cost, or are able to find a copy of the old pdf still floating around somewhere, it's well worth the read.  It's meticulously detailed, and has tons and tons of quotes from all kinds of people directly involved in the making of Star Wars (and its subsequent sequels and prequels and other spin-off products), making his case quite definitively that much of the narrative that George Lucas himself has told, in commentary, featurettes, documentaries, etc. is actually wrong.  The original Star Wars is something quite a bit different than what Star Wars eventually became, both in terms of many details, but also in quite broad questions of tone and theme.  Let me selectively quote a small portion of the first chapter:
Now, I want to take you back to the beginning.  May 25th, 1977.  Star Wars has been released.  No, there is no "Episode IV," there is no "A New Hope"—those are additions in the years to come.  For now, there is only Star Wars, a magical fairy tale about a young farm boy who fights an evil Empire and rescues a beautiful princess, along with the help of his wizard mentor, loyal droid servants, pirate friend and a gentle giant [ed. Chewbacca isn't exactly gentle...]  A mysterious power known as "The Force" aids the hero with the strength to vanquish the forces of evil and destroy the battle station Death Star, while the menacing black knight of the Empire, Darth Vader, survives the battle; the conflict between the Rebels and the Empire will continue another day.  Ending the tale, the heroes are bestowed medals of honor in light of their heroic deeds which stand to "restore freedom to the galaxy," just as the opening scroll promises. 
Do you remember that movie?  It is hard to nowadays imagine Star Wars as simply "Star Wars, the movie."  While today, Star Wars has become an epic saga, filled with melodrama and a scope which spans the forty-year rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker, it is surprising to look back on the magical simplicity of that first film way back in 1977. ... Audiences today are largely unaware of how differently the first Star Wars film was perceived—and most importantly, presented—way back then.  A swashbuckling fairy tale, filled with humor, adventure and simple mythology, with good guys on one side and bad guys on the other.  It was a romantic story in its idealised and heroic depiction of chivalry and adventure, a perfect fusion of old-fashioned storytelling and modern technology, all told with the most sophisticated cinematic technique. It was pure and simple, and anyone could watch it, young or old, man or woman. 
When one looks back at that film, it is surprising to find how much things have changed.  George Lucas has said the prequels will change our perception of the original trilogy, and indeed they have, but before that the sequels alone changed the original film as well.  The Emperor was not a wicked sorcerer but a crooked politician, modeled after Richard Nixon.  Yoda did not train Ben Kenobi, because we didn't know Yoda existed (and neither did Lucas, as we will discover).  Darth Vader was not Luke's father and Princess Leia was not Luke's sister.  Part of the charm was the tradition of storytelling which Star Wars re-popularized—Luke was the naive peasant who rises to the status of hero and proves his worth by rescuing the royal princess from the clutches of the black knight. 
Living on Tatooine, a virtually uninhabited backwater planet with only the frontier bordertown of Mos Eisley as a link to the outside world, Luke was the idealistic young dreamer, awkward, unpopular, and confined to dull farm life.  Obi Wan Kenobi was the wise wizard; regarded as a senile old fool, he was once a powerful warrior and friend of Luke's noble Jedi father, and he teaches Luke the mysterious ways of the Force, unlocking its secret magical powers as Luke is swept away into an exciting world of romance and heroism.  It is a movie that has become buried under years of expansion and elaboration, and one that comes back to us from time to time, a distant and faded memory. 
The plot thickens with the mere mention of an iconic name: Darth Vader.  Remember, Anakin Skywalker does not exist, so far as the audience is concerned.  Darth Vader is the name of a man, a seemingly robotic henchman of the Empire, who was once a student of Obi Wan's but betrayed him long ago and murdered Luke's father.  He was labelled in the publicity materials and novels as a "Dark Lord of the Sith"—but without any further elaboration of what a "Sith" was.  For all audiences of the time knew, "Sith" could have been a race or an Imperial rank; in fact he is stated as a Sith Lord, presumably one of many, who also serve the Emperor, and it was not clear that Darth was even human.  In fact, the concepts of the Force and the Jedi were very different than what we now know them as. 
The Jedi were portrayed as a specialized mystical police force rather than a religious organization; anyone who is eager and wiling can sign up and be trained—only whose pure in heart and deed will succeed and be able to use the Force.  Han Solo can't be a Jedi because he is a cynic, he doesn't believe—but Luke is innocent and he does believe, and so he will train to become a Jedi like his father.... 
Yes, it was a very different galaxy
Anyway, there's obviously a great deal more—over 500 pages of it, in fact—but this is really in some ways one of the big money takeaways: Star Wars was once something fairly different than what it later became, and the original conception of what Star Wars was to be is, in most respects, a more compelling vision than what we actually got.  It was more simple, true, but more importantly, it was more straightforward, and it more accurately reflected classical storytelling traditions, much of which was reflected in the pulp stories on which Star Wars was originally based.  Lucas initially made few (if any) bones about the fact that he was writing a pastiche of Flash Gordon*; only later did it accrete a bunch of nonsense about moral grayness, politics, the real weird semi-Zen Buddhist anti-heroic and lying nature of the Jedi, with their weird little puppet mystic and his fortune cookie pronouncements.  And I say that as a big fan of The Empire Strikes Back, but as great a movie as it was, in many ways, it laid the seeds for the "fall" of Star Wars into something often seen as bigger, yet somehow feeling curiously lesser than it was originally.

And this is in some ways what I really hope to do with AD ASTRA as an ersatz Star Wars—not Star Wars as it is, but Star Wars as it was, and Star Wars as it promised to be.  Before it became something else.  If you read more of The Secret History of Star Wars, it talks a bit about George Lucas' original conception of the series as being much more like the Republic serials of which it was a pastiche, rather than what it became.

To aid in this, hey—check out these pieces of art by Timothy Anderson, where he whipped up old-fashioned pulp novel style covers for the three movies of the original trilogy.  That's more the tone that we're going for here.

* Well, among a few other elements.  It was Flash Gordon that he initially wanted to remake, but it also borrows a lot of obvious elements from the Lensmen and even more from Dune.  And the plot started out as borrowed from The Hidden Fortress, which is a fairly well-known aside—although many commentators fail to point out how much it ended up deviating from it, even as it migrated from it's early summary treatment to an actual first draft, to say nothing of further evolution as it underwent the second, third, and fourth drafts, etc.  The Hidden Fortress knock-off features Luke Skywalker, but he's a character more like "General Kenobi" than he is like the Luke Skywalker we now know, and there wasn't any element of the Force or Jedi in the treatment that really follows the Hidden Fortress carefully.  Nor is there a Death Star, or Darth Vader.  I'm surprised to see that chestnut repeated even today that Star Wars is a remake of The Hidden Fortress.  If you've ever actually watched both movies, that becomes obviously a ridiculous thing to claim.  The only thing that remains is that, yes, there is a Princess on the run, the two droids as kind of the two peasants from Kurosawa's treatment, and the fact that the Jedi ended up being broadly modeled on the samurai from that and Kurosawa's other films.  Much of the rest of the elements that are sometimes attributed to The Hidden Fortress are so common to any kind of swashbuckling adventure story that they're more fairly treated as scènes à faire rather than attributions to a specific source.


Gaiseric said...

Love this quote from Lucas in Film Quarterly in spring 1974; after American Graffiti was a big hit and people like Film Quarterly were interested in what he was working on next: "[The Star Wars] is a space opera in the tradition of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. It's James Bond and 2001 combined—super fantasy, capes and swords and laser guns and spaceships shooting at each other, and all that sort of stuff. But it's not camp. It's meant to be an exciting action adventure film."

Gaiseric said...

From Kristen Brennan, quoted in this book: "Galactic Patrol tells the story of Kim Kinnison, a Lensman who jettisons in a space lifboat with a data spool containing the secret of the enemy's ultimate weapon, the Grand Base. He jets around the galaxy in his speeder, gets caught in tractor beams, passes his hip off as a chunk of loose metal, eludes the bad guy's star cruisers by tearing off into the fourth dimension and finally destroys the enemy base in his one-man fighter. During his training he wears a flight helmet with the blast shield down, but he can still 'see' what's going on using his special powers. The Lensmen's mystical powers are almost certainly a strong inspiration for The Force: In an early draft of the Star Wars script Lucas calls the good side of the Force 'Ashla' and the bad side the 'Bogan.' In Smith's Lensmen books the benevolent creators of the Lens are the 'Arisians,' the bad guys the 'Boskone.' Lucas may have absorbed even the language of Smith, who uses the word 'coruscant' at least a dozen times (it means 'shiny and glittery')."

It's kind of sad that she feels the need to explain the word coruscant rather than refer one to a dictionary. But Lucas didn't come up with that name anyway; Timothy Zahn did, in the early 90s. The Imperial capital planet was originally to be named Alderaan, a detail Lucas obviously rearranged during the drafting of the Star Wars script. It was later to appear during the Return of the Jedi script process as Had Abbadon, but it again got cut.

A more interesting correspondence is Lucas talk of the Kaiburr crystal (various spellings exist) which, initially, worked almost exactly like a Lensman's lens.