Film History: Star Wars (1977): The Power of Editing

January 1977: George Lucas in Winter

Christmas 1976 rolled over into New Year’s Day, and the Bicentennial year was over. A Democrat was about to take over the White House, always a happy event in Hollywood. As January began, the town went back to work, crafting 1977’s most hotly anticipated hits: A Bridge Too Far, with Sean Connery, Robert Redford, and Ryan O’Neal; a new James Bond, The Spy Who Loved Me; The Deep, from the author of Jaws, and a pair of highly touted dramas celebrating the viewpoints of women, Julia and The Turning Point. Woody Allen and Burt Reynolds also had movies on the way. Everybody was poised to get rich or richer during the upcoming summer gold rush. But 20th Century Fox started the new year with a costly hangover.

They’d spent two years backing a dubious novelty, the American Graffiti guy’s quirky tribute to the forgotten world of Flash Gordon serials, rumored to be something about a gorilla who flies a spaceship and a mystical force called “The Power”. From the screening rooms, word was filtering out: Star Wars was likely to be a loser—dull, confusing and corny, despite a couple of great special effects shots. The rough version was a mess and an unbreakable release date, May 25, was breathing down their necks. Thank God Lucas stepped up and took charge of fixing it.

Marcia Lucas, that is. Far from just being the director’s wife, she was a respected film editor much in demand. She’d already edited films for Martin Scorsese and Brain De Palma. Marcia Lucas worked with two other accomplished editors, Richard Chew and Paul Hirsch (Hirsch in particular would have a long career), and the narrative neatness of the Lucas-and-Lucas storyline shouldn’t leave them out of the picture. But at this turning point in the fate of Star Wars, they didn’t have and could never have had the no-nonsense clout with George Lucas that Marcia did.

Some words about what a movie looked like while it was being edited: Right up through most of the ‘80s, editors worked on a cheaply and quickly made copy of the 35mm film—the “rushes”—which would get cut up, scratched and dusty during the edit process. At this stage, colors and brightness varied from shot to shot, and the original sounds of, say, a sword fight on an armored space station sounded like two guys with wooden broomsticks, huffing and puffing while shuffling around on a plywood floor. Missing special effects shots (which on this picture were taking forever to finish) were temporarily titled as Sequence Missing. This made it tougher than usual even for jaded, experienced film pros to fully imagine the image-and-sound impact that this finished film would have.

For decades, studios “previewed their movies to death”, refining rough edits in response to real audiences. But crucially, by the time of Star Wars, directors with the strongest contracts were (nearly) all powerful compared to the strict studio controls of classic-era Hollywood, or even of present-day Hollywood, and secretive directors like Kubrick or Lucas declined to have early preview audiences decide how to finish their pictures. Lucas had a wonderful contract, thanks to his legal eagle, Tom Pollock, and a patient, gentlemanly paymaster for a 20th Century Fox boss, Alan Ladd Jr.

Once all the edit decisions were made, the music and sound effects all in perfect place and mixed together, only then were the working picture and sound elements replaced in the lab with pristine, polished ones. In the pre-digital era, that was an unavoidable, months-long lab process. It all had to take place by the end of April. That’s when finished, permanent film prints would be provided for nationwide advance shows to local film critics and theater owners. You couldn’t duck those screenings no matter how big a deal you were. That meant that even with the opening date still four months away, in January 1977 there was literally not a moment to lose.

Most of the film’s problems were felt to be in the first act, and that’s what got changed the most. It wasn’t exciting and audiences were not getting into the characters or story.

Like the movie we all know, the rough-cut version begins with the famous intro crawl, the text introduction to the story that stretches out to the vanishing point. Unfortunately, it didn’t focus audience attention. It was nearly twice as long as the finished version, written in the floridly yakkaphonic mythological style later given free reign in the prequels. Then it got back in the Star Wars groove with the iconic space chase with laser blasts that begins the action. And we cut to—

A bunch of teenagers laughing it up somewhere in the desert on the planet below. One of them, obviously a main character, notices traces and light flashes of the space battle visible in the daytime sky and raises a set of futuristic binoculars to his eyes. For most of the next twenty minutes of Star Wars, we remain on hot Tatooine with the cool kids, like rural California kids with little to do, riding around in hovering speedsters, holding races, and hanging out at teen-oriented hangouts; the hot-rodders of American Graffiti on Mars, in effect, probably a major come-on to the studio that helped sell the picture to Fox—a somewhat different picture than the one we know. Superficially, though, it made some sense, relying on referencing Lucas’ popular triumph of 1973.

It was also classic, recommended story structure: get the lead actors in early so the audience cares about them right from the beginning. Luke’s very name is a tipoff that he’s a stand-in for Lucas himself, just as the earliest descriptions of daring, risk-taking Han Solo match those of Lucas’ slightly older friend and wildly successful mentor, Francis Coppola.

Sticking with Luke’s story took much of the momentum away from that slam-bang opening. In this early 1977 cut, even after the droids are sent to the surface, more time goes by before it begins to directly affect Luke. He’s back at the metaphorical Mel’s Diner, talking about how much he wants to ditch this soul-deadening farm planet and see the galaxy. It establishes motivation; to George it was a big scene, a key scene for Luke. We’ve now spent most of the first third of the whole movie with Luke on Tatooine.

That was slashed. It meant dropping a lot of the young adult American Graffiti stuff, which was part of Lucas’ thoughts that reflected his own long-ago divided attitudes about leaving Modesto, and tied in wider attitudes about American small towns and nostalgia in an ironically futuristic context. It’s been said that there are two types of film editing, the deftness of the scalpel and the decisiveness of the meat axe. Someone who could say no to George was going to have to use that axe on fiercely defended scenes that he spent years writing, scenes that took millions of dollars to film. Saving Star Wars required somebody talented, ruthless and un-fire-able. Marcia Lucas was that person, put in place by des-tin-y.

Now, in the cut we recognize, we stay with the action in space. The audience is focused on the primal battle of good and evil that starts the film. Sympathy with the rebels, and a boo-hiss reaction to the forces of the Empire starts early and never lets up. The movie undeniably ran faster and more excitingly now, with better defined conflict. It looked like the way to go, but there’d be some price tags to deal with. They had to make sure the loose ends of this fairly radical chop could be handled, story-wise and every other way. It meant that when rebel pilots who were apparently Luke’s friends on Tatooine show up at the Death Star attack briefing and the attack run itself, we don’t know who they are, but the Lucases decided it was clear enough in context and got away with the continuity jump. Fortunately, there were later bits of dialog that recount discarded scenes you no longer see, like bull’s-eyeing Wamp rats and stunt piloting.

The way we’re introduced to Luke now, the way we’ve accepted for 43 years, is a woman’s voice calling a simple farm boy to dinner, accompanied by music, a lightly sweet, sentimental restating of the film’s theme, like a scene from Lassie Come Home. It’s an amazing change in perception: the same actor, same footage, same everything else as in the cut a few weeks previous, but the mid-story sudden intro to Luke subtly makes him seem more like a dutiful 16 year old boy, not a fed up, ready to leave 18 year old man. A character more akin to one in The Wizard of Oz than to The Last Picture Show. This change, in turn, meant that Luke’s character was no longer the unquestioned center of the movie. The modern term “Mary Sue” hadn’t become popular yet, but not actually seeing minute after elaborately produced minute of Luke doing all of these things as a skilled, cocky teenager took him down a bit in our eyes, made him seem a bit of a Mary Sue. Now, as a dynamic male lead, Luke Skywalker would be overshadowed by Han Solo.

There were other mid-picture changes in Star Wars between January and late February 1977 but the biggest remaining change from the January cut was a crucial change in the ending, sharpening it greatly. In the version we’ve always known, it’s a desperate us-versus-them, good vs. evil situation, with the rebels trying to blow up the Death Star, and the Death Star only moments away from destroying the rebel base. It’s a film editing classic, illustrating one of the oldest film tricks: cross-cutting between two parallel opposing paths of action.

But it didn’t start that way. In the chill of January, the attack on the Death Star was basically Pearl Harbor in reverse; the bad guys are sitting around having coffee and the good guys suddenly appear and blow them up. There was no parallel action. That was invented in the cutting room to intensify the drama, and it succeeded brilliantly. The actors, sets and props were long packed away, so the editors worked with what they had, shots of Peter Cushing ordering the destruction of Alderaan and Imperial technicians preparing to fire. They used a new voiceover about the Death Star soon being cleared to fire and placed it over a pensive, unrelated close-up of Carrie Fisher. They filmed a no actor, no sound, low-low cost shot of a translucent screen, animated to show the occlusion of the planet in the shadow of the Death Star. It not only made the ending much, much more suspenseful; it gave it greater moral force. If the Nazis are two minutes away from using an atom bomb on us, then at all costs we need to wipe them out first; that’s the stark logic.

The result is film history that’s lived on for more than forty years. Victory has a thousand fathers. It’s only human nature that the stunning box office victory of Star Wars has led to competing stories about who deserves credit. Memories change and come into conflict, sometimes for honest reasons.

Can we say that Star Wars, one of the most successful works of outsider art of all time, was saved in the cutting room? Not from the point of view of the many fans, from May 1977 to the present-day, who would have loved it at any length. But if Marcia had indulged the inner George, would there have ever been so many of us to begin with? Of course, we’ll never know.