Forty years ago today in a galaxy not so far away…

You’ve taken your first step into a larger world.

In the beginning there was Georges Méliès’s 1902 space fantasy/science fiction film Le Voyage dans la Lune.  It would take another 65 years before we’d get a look at what a realistic outer space could look like in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but before that we’d get glimpses from film visionaries in the likes of Forbidden Planet, TV series like Lost in Space and Star Trek, and a final, old school vision of the future in the 1976 film Logan’s Run.  Each of these has its place in the history of science fiction, but none can compare to the epic storytelling, characters, and special effects–the surprise rollercoaster ride–we walked into on May 25, 1977, as the opening crawl passed over our heads to reveal an enormous spaceship and our first breaths in a world with this phenomenon called Star Wars. 

What would we be looking back on if not for the imagination and personal interests of George Lucas, the writer?  What if Lucas hadn’t grown up a fan of Flash Gordon, classic sci-fi movies, classic fantasy lore, and Akira Kurosawa films?  What would we be talking about in 2017 to escape the challenges of the real world if not the first images of an eighth follow-on film to Star Wars?  From Star Wars sprouted changes across cinema.  Cutting edge sound improvements thanks to THX.  Cutting edge visuals thanks to Industrial Light and Magic.  Mass marketed tie-ins of every sort throughout the creative arts as a new, multi-billion dollar, international industry.

Ten times.  My brother, my sister, my mom and dad, and me, first at the old Southridge III Theater.  We saw it ten times in the theater, and a few of those screenings we just sat through over and again all day on a Saturday, and then we saw it on the giant, wide screen downtown at the River Hills theater.  I missed the premiere and opening days, but my schoolmates at the end of my first year of school couldn’t stop talking about it.  My innate stubbornness and hesitation to join the crowd was already fixed: “But Star Wars is such a boring title!”  And then I saw it.  And everything changed.  Hardly a year would go by that I, or my parents, weren’t contributing to what would be Lucas’s $4 billion dollar empire, buying tie-ins we’d never even heard of before May 1977.  But what a fun ride he provided in return!

One of the biggest screens in the Midwest at the time, River Hills was the venue for the Des Moines area exclusive booking of Star Wars on May 25, 1977, in amazing “Cinerama”. The movie ran for 29 weeks in the River Hills auditorium (May 27-Dec. 13, 1977), and then, replaced by Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, it moved to the adjacent Riviera auditorium, where it ran for another 27 weeks.

What is your recollection of seeing Star Wars in 1977?  Were you even born yet?  How about when you first saw it?  Do you remember anything about your specific experience seeing it for the first time?  What is your favorite image from Star Wars?  The first image of Luke or Leia?  Darth Vader’s entry onto the Rebel blockade runner?  Luke gazing out toward the twin suns?  Ben, Luke, C-3PO, and R2-D2 looking out over Mos Eisley as Luke left his rural life behind?  The cantina?  The trash compactor on the Death Star?  Obi-Wan dueling Vader?  Maybe it was the film’s climax, the World War II-inspired dogfight between X-Wing fighters and TIE fighters?  Luke hearing Ben tell him to shut down and trust his feelings?  Or Han Solo and Chewbacca coming to save the day?  Or phrases, like “a wretched hive of scum and villainy,” “these are not the droids you’re looking for,” “aren’t you a little short for a Stormtrooper?”, “I find your lack of faith disturbing,” the awesome “but I was going into Tosche Station to pick up some power converters,” or the epic “May the force be with you”?

If you get the opportunity, check out George Lucas’s own attempt to pull out the best scenes from the film in his astounding book Star Wars: Frames, reviewed here at, a great look at Lucas’s often overlooked artistry.  In early May 1977 Star Wars was just another film coming to a theater near you.  Soon there would be an unprecedented demand for comic books, toys, LPs, Halloween costumes, paper plates and table covers for birthday parties, sheets and pillow cases, pajamas, posters, collectible glassware, model kits, T-shirts, trading cards, school folders and notebooks, stickers, and even a disco version of the movie themes.  In kindergarten I recall my friend bringing his Six Million Dollar Man action figure to school.  The next year I’d be smuggling into class a new thing called a “Stormtrooper action figure” to play with at recess, and I nearly always stuffed a mini Star Wars toy catalog or trading card in my pocket for quick reference.  Who could have predicted Star Wars would still be playing in theaters in May 1978 (or that I’d be able to share my enthusiasm for the film personally one day with most of the main cast members)?  Who could have guessed that someone would bring back the lead actors for another installment and fetch returns of more than a billion dollars for the franchise some four decades later?

Phenomenon indeed.

It seems like the past eight weeks have been an onslaught of Star Wars events, marketing, and merchandising leading up to today.  With new images and trailers for Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, we begin yet again building excitement for the next chapter in the Star Wars universe.  The theaters where I first saw Star Wars have long since been demolished.  What will we see in the next 40 years, and what will we look back on 40 years from now?  Until then…

May the force be with you.

C.J. Bunce

One comment

  1. I was born when it came out – I was 3 that year. My first memory was seeing Star Wars and the Empire Strikes Back at our local cinema back to back. I loved R2D2 and I was always getting the toy of him but somehow he kept getting lost or broken. 🙁

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