Do you sense a disturbance in the Force? Maybe that’s because May 25 will be the 40th anniversary of the original release of Star Wars in theaters in 1977. To celebrate this auspicious occasion, we’ll be posting Star Wars stories all month, including choice vintage interviews, original videos, and some of our favorite pieces from years past. Just keep coming back here all month to see what’s happening in our galaxy.
How would you describe Star Wars to someone who’s never seen it? It’s not unusual for actors on a press tour to compare their movie to other beloved films, in hopes of getting audiences into the theater. But when Star Wars — Episode IV: A New Hope was first released in 1977, there really hadn’t been another film like it. So when the actors were asked to describe the film in interviews, they found a comparison that might not occur to modern audiences: the 1939 musical fantasy The Wizard of Oz.
“It’s sort of a combination comic book, fairy tale, Wizard of Oz — there are so many different elements in the movie,” star Mark Hamill told an Australian journalist at the time when asked to describe A New Hope.
Mark Hamill compares ‘Star Wars’ to ‘The Wizard of Oz’ in a 1977 interview:
“Every scene is in some way reminiscent of a scene in a film that we all loved before,” Carrie Fisher told the BBC in response to the same question. “Like in High Noon, there’s a bar sequence, only this time it’s with monsters instead of Gary Cooper. And you’ve got The Wizard of Oz — we have a robot that looks sort of like the Tin Man.”
It wasn’t just the cast who made the association. Along with more obvious genre comparisons like the space serial Flash Gordon and 2001: A Space Odyssey, references to The Wizard of Oz come up over and over again in the earliest Star Wars reviews, including those printed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Time, the Guardian, and the Chicago Sun-Times. “Star Wars is a fairy tale, a fantasy, a legend, finding its roots in some of our most popular fictions,” wrote critic Roger Ebert. “The golden robot, lion-faced space pilot, and insecure little computer on wheels must have been suggested by the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz.”
Watch a fan mash-up of a ‘Wizard of Oz’ trailer soundtrack with footage from ‘Return of the Jedi’:
There’s no doubt that The Wizard of Oz was one of many films that influenced George Lucas’s space opus, a far-reaching list that also includes the work of Akira Kurosawa, World War II dogfight movies, Metropolis, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and several classic westerns. The MGM musical was also a touchstone for Lucas’s collaborators; concept designer Ralph McQuarrie, for example, told Making of Star Wars author J.W. Rinzler that the Emerald City helped inspire the look of Cloud City in The Empire Strikes Back. As for the thematic similarities between The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars, the list is substantial: Both are stories about a teenage dreamer raised on a farm by an aunt and uncle, who journeys to a strange land full of wondrous creatures and whose companions include a furry creature and a metal man — and who must use his or her inner resources to defeat a black-robed dictator, and so forth. As the official Star Wars website has noted, Wizard of Oz parallels continue into the prequels, the series The Clone Wars, and The Force Awakens.
But the connection between Star Wars and The Wizard of Oz goes deeper than similar plot points and villains with unusual taste in headgear. The reason Lucas’s fantasy evoked The Wizard of Oz for so many people is that both films created immersive, dazzling fantasy worlds that expanded audiences’ understanding of what was possible in a movie. Both films boasted special effects that were so unprecedented, viewers had no idea how they were made. Both played with genre conventions in unexpected and delightful ways: Star Wars was a western in space with an orchestral soundtrack, while The Wizard of Oz was a children’s fairy tale elevated by Broadway-style character songs and a unique story-within-a-story structure.
Fans who fell in love with Star Wars during its first theatrical run wouldn’t necessarily have seen The Wizard of Oz on the big screen (though Oz did return to theaters several times prior to the VHS era). However, they almost certainly grew up watching the classic movie, which was broadcast annually on network television from 1959 until 1991. And for many, Star Wars brought back that childlike wonder they experienced watching The Wizard of Oz as actual children, along with the giddy sense that the world onscreen was as real as the one they lived in.
Now Star Wars stands beside The Wizard of Oz in the pantheon of films loved by moviegoers of all ages. And the world of Star Wars has become immersive in a way that The Wizard of Oz, for all its onscreen dazzle, never could: George Lucas’s vision of an ever-expanding story continues to be realized in sequels, prequels, merchandise, and other media, not to mention the future Star Wars theme parks that will enable fans to literally enter Luke Skywalker’s world.
In some ways, it’s surprising that The Wizard of Oz never expanded into a Star Wars-style mega-franchise, since the novel it’s adapted from had dozens of sequels. But despite many attempts over the decades to extend and reinvent the story — including 1985’s Return to Oz and 2013’s Oz: The Great and Powerful — no movie has managed to fully recapture the magic of Judy Garland and her co-stars dancing along the yellow brick road. The 1939 film, with its famously disaster-filled production, was lightning in a bottle. The Force ultimately surpassed “there’s no place like home” in the popular imagination because George Lucas figured out how to bottle lightning.
Back in 1977, the cast and crew of Star Wars could only dream that their “little space movie,” as Carrie Fisher often called it, would resonate as powerfully for audiences as the place somewhere over the rainbow. It has done that and more — and when George Lucas opens his Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles, Wizard of Oz and Star Wars memorabilia will be displayed side by side.
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