Secrets of the Force

Review by C.J. Bunce

If you skip over the commentary from the critics and modern writers, and focus on the quotes from the past from the actual filmmakers and actors, you may find some new details behind the nine Star Wars movies in a book coming in July.  In their two volume treatise The Fifty-Year Mission, The Complete Uncensored Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek, authors Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman compiled quotes from dozens of people inside Gene Roddenberry’s creation, which meant a lot of what you’d expect by way of discussing the creation of the franchise, colliding with what you might not expect–speculation, ranting, gossip, and even anger among the crew.  With their new book the authors switch gears to compiling quotes from people behind the scenes of George Lucas’s creation, including many expected, nostalgic trips to the past coupled with equal parts speculation, ranting, gossip, and anger. Secrets of the Force: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Wars explores the Star Wars material in a single volume.

It takes a great deal of effort to create such an account (I have a wall of books that were somewhat condensed into this single book), so the project is certainly commendable.  But passing fans may take the content from those outside the filmmakers and actors as gospel, while fans and film historians who have wrestled with the many opinions expressed in the book (and over the past 40 years) will probably know the wheat needs separated from the chaff.  In this book, that task is left to the reader.  What would help is guidance from the authors explaining when each quote, interview, or previously published remarks were first given, and in what context.  George Lucas is one of genredom’s most complex voices.  Like every other person, he changes his views over time.  So when he talks about Star Wars–as in A New Hope–today, his opinions are naturally different than what they were in 1974, 1977, or at any time since.  The arrangement of the book is chronological, but the quotes come from here and there and are shuffled sporadically throughout the book.  A fair amount is excerpted from other sources like magazines books including the well-known, 1980s tell-all book, Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas

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I went back and re-read my view of the authors’ Star Trek work.  Swap the players and the same critique applies to the authors’ method as applied to their Star Wars account three years later.  I wish the authors had taken the additional step of following the method of compilation taken by Marc Cushman in his These Are the Voyages books.  The lack of Cushman’s brand of citations and attribution–specifics, times, dates, context–may make this more of a challenge for discerning readers–simply including the date with each quote would have gone a long way. Why did the authors select the interviews they used, and why didn’t they interview others? The reader has no way to know. As an example, in a discussion of Star Wars comics and marketing, key player Howard Chaykin wasn’t interviewed or excerpted. Why not? In a discussion of the graphic novel adaptation of Lucas’s 1974 script, Mike Mayhew–the artist that translated Lucas’s script into incredible illustrations and one of the decade’s most popular books–wasn’t even mentioned. One ongoing thread is about John Williams, but despite the thousands of sources that actually quote Williams that should have been available the bulk of the commentary is from another composer. Every diehard Star Wars fan no doubt will have their own thoughts like this throughout the book.

Secrets of the Force includes plenty of criticism of some of the most beloved Star Wars eras by the modern, outsider, commenters.  Posit: As many people love X as hate it.  Insert for X The Star Wars Holiday Special, Return of the Jedi, The Clone Wars, Revenge of the Sith, The Last Jedi, the Expanded Universe, or pick any components of these.  The commenters/critics take decisive views on so many of these topics, making assumptions that everyone hates this or loves that, when there is actually no consensus among the fandom.  By the end of the book I began to skip over a few of the critics’ contributions–I took exception with everything one of them had to say–revisionist history, infusing opinions into statements as fact–resulting in a twist of reality.

It’s at times frustrating, and yet the quotes from Mark Hamill, John Dykstra, and George Lucas himself, as well as some other key players are enjoyable, nostalgic snippets from the past.  The best pieces probably come from the quotes of the technical crew members.  Other good discussions discuss the marketing, like details of getting the promotions and toys right, possibly because that is the least talked about bit of Star Wars (The Toys That Made UsStar Wars episode comes to mind as a rare recent example).  By comparison the Star Wars franchise seems to have far fewer angry insiders than as documented in the authors’ Star Trek volumes.  Most of the actual Star Wars insiders keep a professional, positive, and contemplative view of their time with the franchise, even if a few have been bitter historically, like the feud between Darth Vader actor David Prowse and Lucas, which should be no surprise to anyone.  There is less airing the dirty laundry for the public to see than in the Star Trek volumes, but maybe more sour grapes, questioning Lucas’s ideas and motives that ring of jealousy of Lucas’s success, again by those that didn’t get to be a part of it.

I was most excited to jump into three things when seeing the book’s title– a great Star Wars title at that–and the full franchise scope from the table of contents.  First, my nostalgia for the 1977 film.  Also I was anxious to read more about Gareth Edwards and the making of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and Jonathan Kasdan and Ron Howard’s inside scoop on making Solo: A Star Wars Story.  The good news: I was mostly satisfied with the coverage of A New Hope, outside the bits of revisionist history.  But when I got to the areas of the book where the two “Star Wars Story” movies should be found?  Nada.  The authors skipped the third and fourth best (only my opinion) Star Wars movies altogether.  No explanation.  So the “Complete” in the title is misleading.  I was definitely disappointed to see those discussions entirely ignored.  For fans of The Mandalorian, there is very little included from that show, too.

Mainly for the diehard Star Wars fan ready to raise an eyebrow, Secrets of the Force is available for pre-order at Amazon here from St. Martin’s Press/Macmillan, scheduled for release July 13.  Note: James Bond fans who like the style of the authors’ books may want to check out their other work, Nobody Does it Better, The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of James Bond, available here at Amazon.