What ‘Star Wars’ means to me
Sitting in a movie theatre in 1977 in Fort Smith with my oldest brother, friends and other family as we all prepared to see “Star Wars” for the first time, I had no idea what was about to happen to all of us. We certainly had no foreknowledge a popular culture tidal wave was about to wash over us. At that particular moment, I think we all just wanted to watch a fun, entertaining movie.
As “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” debuts in theaters worldwide this month, it’s all happening again. In 1977 though, I was a week away from turning 13, and the United States had just lived through Vietnam, Watergate, the oil crisis and a thousand other smaller travails. Many movies at the time seemed just as dark and brooding as the decade.
Then the words, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away …” came on the screen. With those words, George Lucas, the creator of “Star Wars,” said, “Don’t worry about all that outside. It’ll still be there when I’m done telling you my story. Don’t think about anything besides what’s on the screen. You’re about to see a fairy tale. For now, just have a good time.”
And boy did we have a good time. The people who loved “Star Wars,” young and old, fell headlong into a tale of exotic creatures, heroism, bad guys and high adventure.
Flash forward three years to “The Empire Strikes Back,” and we all were ready to do it again. My mother and I were visiting my brother in Atlanta early in the summer of 1980, and the new movie had not yet been shown back home in Fort Smith.
At the start of the first day of our visit, I suggested and all three of us agreed to go see “Empire.”So, we all went to a 10 a.m. show. We again were blown away, but then returned to our sightseeing. Just after dinner that first night, I expressed a desire to finish up the day with a second viewing of the movie. I wasn’t surprised when Tom, a longtime science fiction fan, seconded the idea. To this day, I still am stunned that my then 53-year-old mother said she wanted to watch it again that evening, too. Now, my mother is neither a lover nor a hater of sci-fi, but I had never known her to EVER watch the same movie twice in one day. But, that day, we all watched it again. The reason it drew all of us back is because the story Lucas was telling is perhaps the oldest story: the hero’s journey. Ultimately that hero’s tale is about you and me as individuals.
Luke Skywalker starts as a clueless teen living at the edge of the galaxy. In the next three films he loses and discovers family, gains mentors and makes lifelong friends. He struggles and sometimes wins, and sometimes fails. By the end of the third film, “Return of the Jedi,” Luke fully realizes who he is. He learns from the negative example of his father what not to do and what he doesn’t want to become. In the end, he brings redemption to his father.
Lucas took that ancient story and gave it such a fun makeover that we almost didn’t realize what deep psychological buttons he was pushing. Hey, we were just eating popcorn and having a good time, right? That’s what pulled all three of us back to the theater in 1980, and it is what is pulling many of us back to a fresh “Star Wars” tale.
Again, audiences will gather together in the dark of a theater around a glowing screen as our ancestors gathered around a fire to listen to the story of another hero’s journey.
To paraphrase the films’ character Obi-Wan Kenobi, “Star Wars” is what gives a fan his or her power. “… It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds us together.” Again, it is taking us to a galaxy far, far away to surprise us by showing us who we are and convincing us we can be heroes, too. Again, let the journey begin.
Ben Boulden is author of the book “Hidden History of Fort Smith, Arkansas,” a veteran newspaper reporter and columnist now working in public relations in Little Rock. He founded the Arkansawyer Geek Alliance and was the first person in line to buy tickets to the special event, 21-hour “Star Wars” marathon screening, starting at 3 a.m. Dec. 17 and showing all seven films at select theaters across the state. The new film debuts on Dec. 18.