My Father's Original 'Star Wars' Review from 1977 (with special guest star Muhammad Ali!)
A few days after Christmas, my 84-year-old father, me (53), and my 15-year-old nephew Jordy sat in the basement of my sister's house in south Minneapolis and did a podcast on three generations of movie reviewers talking about three generations of movies: “Four Feathers” from 1939, “Star Wars” from 1977, and “Fantastic Mr. Fox” from 2009. I first wrote about it here. You can listen to it here.
During the podcast, we referenced my father's 1977 review of “Star Wars,” which he famously, or infamously, didn't like, or at least didn't gush over. He has gripes. But if you read the piece, he's not wrong.
Because the Minneapolis Star-Tribune currently doesn't give subscribers access to its archive the way The New York Times does (and Strib: I would totally be a subscriber if you offered this service), I typed it up myself from the original newspaper review. I typed up a few other reviews of his from the '70s, too, including “Annie Hall” and “The Godfather Part II,” which I'll post someday.
Dad's “Star Wars” review shared a column with another film—The New Yorker still does this. Anyone remember “The Greatest” starring Muhammad Ali? Ironic title, given its release the same week as “Star Wars.” I've included that one, too, to give a better feel for the times.
‘Star Wars’ may be good fun, but leave your brains home
June 5, 1977
George Lucas’ “Star Wars,” his first movie since “American Graffiti,” is obviously the film phenomenon of the year, judging by the crowds it’s attracting at the St. Louis Park theater. It even packed them in at 11 a.m. last Sunday, which is an ungodly hour to see a movie. Clearly it’s the “Jaws” and “Exorcist” of 1977.
But is it also the best film of the year? Time magazine has already awarded it that accolade without bothering to check out the competition. If Time’s editors are so confident of premature judgments, why don’t they also select their Man of the Year now, instead of waiting till December?
I certainly don’t think it’s the best film of the year, or the month, for that matter (it ranks well behind “Annie Hall” and “Jonah” in my May rankings). It does have some gorgeous special effects and an amusing plot, if you like comic strips. There’s also a certain fun in spotting all the sources from which the eclectic Lucas has drawn his material.
It’s got some Flash Gordon, of course, but there’s also a good hunk of “The Wizard of Oz,” with a gold, English-speaking version of the Tin Woodsman and an apish version of the Cowardly Lion looking for that Yellow Brick Road in the sky, and a tribe of Sand People that sounds suspiciously like Munchkins. [Editor's Note: Yes, Jawas.]
Not to mention the Arthurian legends—the golden-haired, untested squire tilting lances with the Black Knight, who turns out to be a heavy-breathing warrior who sounds like the wrong end of an obscene phone call.
Most of Lucas’ dialogue sounds as if he’d lifted it unaltered from World War II John Wayne movies. “This is it, boys!” says the squadron commander as he prepares to attack the space station, followed by “Cover me!” (Sorry about all of those exclamation points, but this is a comic strip, so every sentence, no matter how innocuous, must end with an exclamation!)
The film also contains an ear-splitting amount of gunfire, none of which hits the outnumbered good guys. There’s a cornball story interred somewhere in the mish-mash—something about an interplanetary rebellion, a kidnapped princess (more of a take-charge type than we’re accustomed to in costumed epics) and the attempt to recover some secret plans. Your kids will love it, and you may too. But leave your brains at home.
Watching “The Greatest,” which is the filmed autobiography of Muhammad Ali, is like attending the weigh-in for one of Ali’s fights. For two hours.
The braggadocio, the doggerel, the taunting of a glowering opponent are all amusing in short doses. Stretched out for 120 minutes, they lose their fizz fast.
A hint of part of the problem emerged from a recent interview with Ring Lardner Jr., who wrote the screenplay but encouraged Ali to rewrite his own lines in the interest of authenticity. As a result, many of those lines become speeches—pontifical, redundant, verbose. It may be the way Ali talks, but it’s not very dramatic.
That’s just one of the problems, however. “The Greatest” certainly deserves one superlative: It’s the worst edited film I’ve seen in some time. Scenes are built up, then dropped, and key scenes are omitted. There’s very little about Angelo Dundee’s effect on Ali, for instance, either because it would have intruded on Ali’s ego or because it’s convenient to ignore his pre-Muslim past.
Ali is certainly an engaging actor, and the fight sequences are exciting, particularly if, like me, you’ve forgotten who won which fights. But despite the promise of the ads to discover the “real” Ali, you don’t learn much about him that you didn’t already know from the papers.
That “Leave your brains at home” line? Who knew we'd be doing that for the next 40 years?