Earlier this year, the Star Wars franchise turned 40 years old. That’s right, it’s been 40 years since Star Wars was first released (later subtitled A New Hope). Since 1977, Star Wars has grown into one of the most lucrative movie franchises ever and has become a cultural touchstone. There is hardly a person in the world–and certainly not in the Western World–who is not aware of Star Wars. It is such a huge powerhouse of an institution, it’s bizarre to think that it started off on such shaky ground. It’s amazing to think of characters that are recognized and beloved by hundreds of millions of people around the world today beginning life in a very different manner and that some of the most noteworthy traits about these characters were decided on a whim.
Despite being massively famous, there’s a lot about the original Star Wars that many of us don’t know; even things that die-hard fans tend not to know. Die-hard Star Wars fans might know everything about every character in the Star Wars universe, but there’s still plenty about the movie’s production that people don’t know anything about. As fans, we get lost in the cinematic universe it creates, but have you ever stopped to think what it all looked like from behind the camera? Here are 15 behind-the-scenes secrets about the original Star Wars film of which even some die-hard fans are unaware.
15 The Fox Executives Were Not Happy
Although he had already directed and co-written a couple of films, George Lucas had a hard time finding a distributor to go for Star Wars. Lucas’ first film, the sci-fi THX 1138, was not a financial success. But his second film, American Graffiti, was. So distributors were wary of signing on to a sci-fi film. Fox eventually agreed, after several others–including Disney who decades later would pay $4 billion for the rights to the franchise–rejected Star Wars. After principle photography wrapped, Fox had buyer’s remorse. They saw what had been filmed and one exec is rumored to have called it “the world’s greatest piece of sh*t.”
Keep in mind, though, that this was before the special effects were added. If you saw Obi-Wan and Darth Vader battling with broomsticks, you’d probably be unimpressed, too.
14 Alec Guinness Was Embarrassed
Alec Guinness was by far the most successful and celebrated actor to appear in Star Wars. A trained Shakespearean stage actor, Guinness transferred over to film after WWII, won an Oscar for Best Actor for The Bridge on the River Kwai, and was even knighted in 1959. So, for him to be involved with what looked like a silly over-budget sci-fi film that was expected to flop was a bit embarrassing. He never liked to talk about it much and certainly didn’t do much to promote the movie.
However, any stories beyond that appear to be false. Guinness did not, in fact, lobby Lucas to kill off Obi-Wan so he could stay out of any sequels. That was Lucas’ idea. Anyway, Guinness was unlikely to think that there would be a sequel. Furthermore, while he may have been embarrassed, he didn’t let it affect his performance. He was a consummate professional on set, friendly, and helped mentor the younger actors.
13 The Other Side Of Midnight
Indeed, Fox executives were not the only ones underwhelmed at the prospect of Star Wars. However, Fox was the one with money invested in it. To get the biggest return on its investment, Fox needed the film to be shown in as many theaters as possible. But cinemas were less than enthused to be showing a B sci-fi movie that they fully expected to flop. As such, Fox had to go as far as threatening cinemas. Fox told movie theaters all around the U.S. that if they declined to show Star Wars, then Fox would not allow them to show The Other Side of Midnight, an upcoming movie based on a popular novel that was expected to do well at the box office. The Other Side of Midnight was well-regarded by critics and ended up making over $24 million USD at the box office. Not bad. But when compared to the record-breaking amount that Star Wars brought in–$237 million in its initial run–it seems ludicrous that Fox used The Other Side of Midnight as the bribe for showing Star Wars.
12 Lucas Bet On Himself
It seems all the negativity and pessimism got to Lucas as well. He did not even attend the film’s premiere, instead opting to go on holiday with his compatriot Steven Spielberg, so convinced was he that the film would flop. Funnily enough, the only one who seemed to believe that Star Wars would be a hit was Spielberg himself. (Side note: on that holiday, Lucas and Spielberg came up with the idea for Raiders of the Lost Ark)
However, that was just before the film’s release. Prior to that, Lucas seems to have strongly believed in its potential. This is evidenced by Lucas’ agreeing to waive the standard director’s/writer’s fee and receive only $175,000, plus 40% of the merchandise rights. This decision would effectively make George Lucas a billionaire. Just after the first film’s release, Star Wars toys sold so well that Kenner Toys, the makers of said toys, had to sell empty boxes at Christmas time with vouchers inside good for the toy purchased as soon as the toy could be produced and shipped. Many children didn’t end up getting their toys until mid-March.
11 The “Dragon Skeleton”
The scenes on Tatooine were filmed in Tunisia. Indeed, the name “Tatooine” was adapted by Lucas from the Tunisian town of “Tataouine,” which Lucas liked the sound of. However, filming there was met with several obstacles. On the very first day of filming, there was a rainstorm—the first big rainstorm in the region for 50 years. Later on, during filming, they were hit with a sandstorm that destroyed several sets.
In an early scene, C-3PO is seen on Tatooine walking past the skeleton of what looks to be a dragon—a Greater Krayt Dragon, to be precise. That skeleton was simply left where it was filmed in Tunisia. At the time of writing, it is believed to still be there. That’s right, you can go wandering through the Tunisian desert and walk past the Greater Krayt Dragon if you want. Though I don’t necessarily recommend it.
10 An International Incident
Initially, Lucas envisaged Tatooine as a jungle planet. A few locations were scouted in the Philippines, but Lucas eventually decided that a jungle would be a logistical nightmare (and would also “make [him] itchy”). He then decided to make Tatooine a desert planet. Sadly, then, as now, much of the Middle East was unstable in sociopolitical terms. However, Tunisia itself was relatively stable and therefore a common place for films to shoot.
However, next door, Libya under dictator Muammar Gaddafi was not quite so stable. Indeed, during filming, the Libyan government threatened Tunisia with troop mobilization if Tunisia did not move a military vehicle away from the Libyan border. That military vehicle? The Sand People’s Jawa Sandcrawler. As a result, Lucas had to move it away from the border.
9 WWII Footage
Speaking of military vehicles, they play a big part in this movie. And not just the onscreen constructions we see in the film, but real military vehicles. For the final climatic scene with the Death Star, the Battle of Yavin, George Lucas had no way of storyboarding the scene. What he did was he used archival WWII aerial footage for the basis of the spacecraft’s movements. Because the footage was in black and white, Lucas colored in the cells to indicate which planes would be rendered as X-Wings and which would be Tai Fighters. Then the team from Industrial Light and Magic got to work, and what we see is the end product. It’s amazing to think that the spectacular space battle we see is actually based on the movements and positioning of real-life WWII aerial dog fights.
8 Left-Handed Stormtroopers
One last thing about the weaponry in Star Wars. Have you ever noticed that many of the Imperial Stormtroopers in the film appear to be left-handed? It’s true. This is not because there were a disproportionate number of left-handed extras on hand. It has to do with their weapons. The Stormtroopers guns looked awkward if held in their right hands, as parts of the gun (what looks to be the sight) were on the right side of the weapon. Their guns were based on the Sterling L2A3 9mm SMG which were used by the British and Canadian armies. The longer Sandtrooper weapon, however, was modeled on the MG-34 machine gun from Germany. So it’s not that Lucas was trying to subtly implicate his Stormtroopers as being sinister by making them all left-handed. It was just awkward for the actors and extras to hold their guns in their right hands.
7 “General Luke Starkiller?” (Mrs.?!)
The character of Luke went through many changes in the first few drafts of the screenplay. Initially, he was named “Luke Starkiller,” but Lucas eventually felt that this was a little too on-the-nose and opted for the far more subtle “Skywalker.” But, Luke’s changes go beyond just his name. At various times, he was set to be a 60-year-old general, a dwarf, and a woman! Lucas was bothered by the fact that there was no woman in the main case so he opted to change Luke’s character into a female. Later, he settled on keeping Luke male but introducing the Leia character.
Fittingly enough, the reinvigorated Disney trilogy pays homage to these initial ideas for Luke. In Episode VII, The Force Awakens, the main protagonist is indeed female (Rey), and the new supersize Death Star is “Starkiller Base.”
6 The Origins Of Chewbacca
Far from the lovable scruffy Chewbacca we see on screen, the initial Chewbacca costume was much more apelike. Stuart Freeborn, the makeup artist for Star Wars, also worked on 2001: A Space Odyssey. He brought the ape animatronics he used on that film to Star Wars to use as the basis for Chewie. However, Lucas and others felt that this made Chewie too simian. To fix this, they added long strands of knotted hair to the suit and thus, we have our favorite Wookie. As for the man inside the costume, that was Peter Mayhew. Was Mayhew chosen for the role because he was a renowned physical actor or accomplished puppeteer? Nope. He was a hospital orderly. Lucas cast him within 10 seconds of seeing him. Why? Because Mayhew seven-foot-three-inch tall. That’s it!
5 The Secrets Of R2-D2
There’s a lot behind the R2-D2 character—first, his name. In filmography parlance, “R2, D2” stands for “Reel #2, Dialogue track 2” which Lucas asked one of his aides to fetch him at one point. He liked the way it sounded. Thus, R2’s name was born. Furthermore, in the initial screenplay, R2 was scripted to speak English, not a selection of beeps and boops. This was later changed, obviously. However, C-3PO’s dialogue was not. That’s why 3PO’s response lines to R2 are so believable. He’s responding to actual lines. We just can’t understand them. What’s more is that much of R2’s lines were bawdy and rude. Thus, explaining 3PO’s often offended responses.
And lastly, many of you will know this, but for some, this will blow your minds. There was a man inside R2! That’s right, R2 wasn’t just some remote control device but was inhabited by an actual actor, Kenny Baker. Baker said that much of the cast and crew would forget that he was inside R2 and leave for lunch without him. That must have been lonely.
4 The Feuding Vaders
Most people know that Darth Vader was played by two different actors. First, there was David Prowse who plays the physical Vader, the man inside the costume. Second is Vader’s voice played by James Earl Jones. At first, it was assumed that Prowse would do both, but with his heavy Bristol accent, he sounded too much like a rural English farmer. Thus, Jones was brought in.
The two have apparently never met and neither were initially credited in the film. (In Jones’ case, at least, this was his choice, as he was still a young and inexperienced actor and didn’t want to be typecast.) Sadly, the two probably have no desire to meet. Prowse was upset and angry that his voice was replaced and once even went so far to claim that “reverse racism” was the reason for the switch, as the initial film had no significant role for a black person. But ultimately, I think we can all agree that the switch was made because James Earl Jones’ bada*s bass voice is perfect for Vader.
3 The Mystery Of The Metal Dice
In at least one scene in Star Wars (when they are preparing to leave Mos Eisley), you can spot a pair of metal dice hanging in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon. These were placed here by production designer Roger Christian. Christian placed them there as a reference to both Lucas’ and Harrison Ford’s previous movie, American Graffiti. American Graffiti was Ford’s first film role of any note, and it began a lifelong working relationship with Lucas.
However, Christian got it wrong. Ford’s character had a skull hanging from the rear view mirror of his car. It was Ron Howard’s character that had the fuzzy dice. In any event, you don’t see the dice in many (any?) other scenes because, allegedly, somebody stole them.
2 About The Trash Compactor...
The trash compactor scene on the Death Star is full of little notes of interest. Having said that, it surely was not an enjoyable scene to film for the actors to shoot. For one, Mark Hamill held his breath for so long while battling the Dianoga underwater that he broke a blood vessel. Talk about method acting. Furthermore, after getting it wet, the Chewbacca costume smelled bad for the rest of filming, perturbing all the actors, especially Peter Mayhew. For their sake, I hope the compactor scene was one of the final ones to be shot.
Lastly, there is one fun little Easter egg. The hatch number that Han reads down to Luke (326-3827) was Mark Hamill’s actual phone number. You could have given Hammill a ring back in 1977!
1 The Jedi And The Force
Lastly, let us deal with two of the principal factors in the Star Wars universe—the Jedi and the Force. Firstly, the word “Jedi” is derived from the Japanese word “Jidaigeki,” which translates as “period adventure drama.” The term refers to Japanese TV soap operas set in the days of the samurai. Lucas had been in Japan about a year before the filming of Star Wars began, and he heard the phrase mentioned on TV and liked how it sounded.
Also, there’s something you may not have noticed about the film’s most famous line, “May the Force be with you.” This phrase is never actually spoken by Obi-Wan; he always says a close variation of the line. Word for word, the line is only spoken by Han Solo (to Luke) and General Dodonna (while addressing the assembled rebel pilots), neither of whom actually has Force powers. (Similarly, there is no “Luke, I am your father” in Empire Strikes Back, but that’s for another time.)