Show Hide image

Russia vs the west: the consequences of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has destroyed the peace in Europe for a generation.

A year since Vladimir Putin shocked Europe by annexing Crimea and fomenting rebellion in Ukraine’s previously quiet Donbas region, his undeclared war on the Russians’ east Slav brothers has become the “new-old normal” on the continent. It has displaced the seven-decade interlude in which Europeans thought they had established a postmodern order of peace in their heartland. It has induced a loss of hope that Europe’s embodiment of the liberal peace first envisioned by Immanuel Kant can be restored within less than one or two generations – if at all. It has confronted the west with a stark choice between appeasement of a regional bully or war with no mutually understood restraints in a nuclear-armed world.

Already the truce hammered out by the Ukrainian, Russian, German and French leaders on 12 February in all-night negotiations held in Minsk, Belarus, has collapsed in reality, if not in name. Separatists in eastern Ukraine and their allied Russian “paid volunteers” never halted their saturation shelling of the town of Debaltseve at one minute past midnight on 15 February, as had been agreed, but kept up the barrage for three and a half more days until the thousands of Ukrainian soldiers surrounded there died, or were captured, or managed to retreat under blistering fire to contiguous Ukrainian territory.

Only a few of the heavy weapons that were supposed to begin being withdrawn from the designated buffer zone on 16 February have been pulled back on either side. The rebels have not allowed international monitors to take up their designated posts in the ceasefire zone and on the Russian-controlled Ukrainian border.

The truce that was patched up again after the destruction of Debaltseve will probably provide no more than a brief winter respite before a spring offensive by rebels and Russian professional soldiers in eastern Ukraine. Moscow still denies that any of its troops and modern heavy weapons are there, despite all the direct photographic, electronic and eyewitness evidence of their presence and the indirect evidence of artillery and multiple-rocket-shell targeting on Debaltseve with a precision that only well-trained Russian crews could provide. Since fighting began last April, nearly 5,700 people have died and 1.5 million have fled their homes, according to the United Nations.

Even before the ceasefire that never was, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, provided the epitaph for European peace by warning that she could see no realistic scenario in which any arms the west might give Ukraine would significantly change the balance of power in the conflict. Russia cares more about the fortunes of Ukraine than any other outside country, and possesses the military strength, resources and capability to counter any new weapons that Ukraine may be gifted. The only hope Merkel could offer was that, with strategic patience, the west might eventually triumph, just as it ended the cold war – in tandem with the unmentioned Soviet statesman Mikhail Gorbachev – with the bloodless fall of the 28-year-old Berlin Wall in 1989.

This dark prognosis has been reached only in recent weeks. Throughout 2014, Europeans still hoped that their accustomed order could be restored soon. As Russian special forces in unmarked uniforms and masks abruptly ended the quarter-century of amicable coexistence of the Russian and Ukrainian fleets in their Crimean port and deposed the peninsula’s regional government at gunpoint last March, the US president, Barack Obama, dismissed post-superpower Russia as little more than a regional nuisance.

Chancellor Merkel took Putin’s irredentist threat far more seriously. She warned the US president that his Russian counterpart was living “in another world” of tsarist-era nationalism that, she implied, precluded any cost-benefit rationality or compromise. Obama, preoccupied with pullback from America’s overstretch in the Middle East and Afghanistan and his so-called pivot to Asia, in effect outsourced second-rank diplomacy about Ukraine to Berlin. For the first time since 1945, Germany had thrust upon it a geopolitical leadership of Europe commensurate with the country’s economic clout. And for the first time Merkel, whose hallmark had been leading from behind, stepped out in front.

As Putin raced towards annexing Crimea, Merkel told the Bundestag on 13 March 2014 that the previous 69 years of reconciliation, peace and freedom that had been created by an integrating Europe and the transatlantic democratic alliance were a feat that “can still be considered a miracle”. Russia’s theft of Ukrainian territory was unacceptable in 21st-century Europe and represented a reversion to the law of the jungle and to “the law of the strong against the strength of the law”, Merkel said.

She reprimanded Russia for violating international law and specific treaties to which Moscow was a party, including the 1975 Helsinki ban on changing European borders by force and Russia’s 1994 assurance of Ukrainian independence, sovereignty and borders in return for Kyiv’s surrender of its huge arsenal of inherited Soviet nuclear weapons to Moscow.

In dozens of phone calls she warned a disbelieving Putin that Europe’s hard-won peace trumped commercial interests and that this time he could not count on Germany’s pro-Russian business lobby to veto economic retaliation for his provocation. Europe and the US announced that they would not intervene militarily to defend Ukraine, a non-member of Nato, but would gamble instead on countering Russia with slow-impact financial sanctions on his entourage.

Roses on an army tank in Hrashevatoe, eastern Ukraine, abandoned by Ukrainian troops fleeing the Russian onslaught. Photo: Larry Towell/Magnum Photos

Merkel was the west’s logical interface with the Russian president. She was the ultimate Putin-Versteher, or “Putin understander”, not in line with the original coinage of this euphemism to describe German apologists for Putin, but in the sense of someone who grew up in Communist East Germany, spoke Russian and sensed the Russian mindset intuitively.

She understood Putin’s paranoia about being encircled by Nato, even if that alliance has expanded not by armed seizure of neighbours’ territory but by responding to the clamour for membership by central Europeans fearing Russian recidivism to Soviet-style forced hegemony. She comprehended the threat to his own rule that Putin feared from street protests in Kyiv; he had served as a KGB recruiter of spies in East Germany in the 1980s and watched the Berlin Wall fall to people power.

Merkel also grasped his resentment at the subsequent Soviet collapse that he calls the 20th century’s “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” – and at the independent Ukraine that emerged from the Soviet Union and illicitly tempted its people, in his view, to betray their elder brother Russians by no longer obeying them as tradition required. The humiliation he felt over the cumulative shrinkage of his influence in Ukraine was well known in Berlin.

Putin first lost all of Ukraine when his protégé Viktor Yanukovych, then president of Ukraine, allowed police snipers to murder scores of pro-European, pro-democracy
“Euromaidan” protesters a year ago. The violence alienated even Yanukovych’s own party and left him no choice but to abscond to exile in Russia, thus ensuring that Ukraine would not add its Slavic weight to Putin’s pet “Eurasian Economic Union” project. Putin’s insistence that Kyiv join the newborn Union, sometimes called “the Soviet Union lite”, was the original spark for the Euromaidan demonstrations in late 2013.

Putin next lost Novorossiya, as he anachronistically called the eastern third of today’s Ukraine that he suddenly claimed for Russia. (The term dates back to the time of Catherine the Great, who seized “New Russia” from the Ottoman empire in the 1780s.) He seemed to believe his own propaganda that discontented Russian speakers in the region would rise up if Russian special forces ignited a rebellion there.

Yet the masses failed to revolt. Only in the rust belt of the Donbas could Russian proxies mobilise ill-paid retirees and buy or coerce enough additional support to set up the self-proclaimed People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. Indeed, in the east of Ukraine as a whole, where many made no clear distinction between Russian and Ukrainian ethnicity, opinion polls showed that most people favoured staying within the Ukrainian state.

Merkel understood that Moscow’s cost-free takeover of Crimea in the name of restoring Russia’s lost greatness – the greatly outgunned Ukrainian army on the peninsula did not resist the regional coup, and no Russian blood was shed – was boosting Putin’s popularity ratings to more than 80 per cent. This gave him renewed domestic legitimation even as his decade-old social contract of restoring order and offering a better life to a new, urban middle class in post-Soviet Russia was becoming ineffectual at a time of economic slowdown.

Merkel therefore did not expect the Russian leader to budge from his zero-sum view of international relations. Nor did she expect to deflect him from his reversion to Russia’s historic sense of victimhood and need for a security so absolute that Moscow required the insecurity of neighbours in its sphere of influence.

She did, however, see Putin as an improvising tactician rather than a single-minded strategist. This made him unpredictable, but it also allowed for movement.

At the first stage of the Ukraine crisis Merkel repeatedly offered to help Putin save face if he would cease his depredations, to the point of suggesting European Union-Eurasian Union talks about creating a common economic space. She hoped to keep him talking rather than shooting for as long as possible and to nudge him towards a more realistic perception of the advantages he was losing and the tactical costs that he was incurring in his drive to punish both the Ukrainians and the west for its treatment of Russia as a second-class power.

Merkel first prepared the domestic foundation to support her diplomacy. She forged a close policy partnership with her Social Democratic foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. He and others in his SPD parliamentary caucus weaned the Social Democrats from their romantic nostalgia for the old Ostpolitik days of Chancellor Willy Brandt. Together, the grand coalition between the SPD and her own conservatives gave Merkel an 80 per cent majority in the Bundestag in support of targeted sanctions against Russia.

The chancellor then rallied German business to the cause of sanctions – well before the shooting down of a Malaysian passenger airliner over rebel Ukrainian territory last July, an event that is commonly credited with causing a change of heart among Germany’s pro-Russian elite.

Finally, Merkel took the sacrifices that German importers and exporters were ready to make (the huge trade between Russia and Germany shrank by one-fifth between 2013 and 2014) to her EU partners. She argued that the French should make their own sacrifices by not delivering two Mistral-class helicopter carriers they had contracted to sell to the Russians, and that the British should enforce their money laundering laws in dealing with the many Russian tycoons who have made a second home in London.

In the end, Merkel delivered the unanimous vote of all 28 EU members that was required to approve sanctions; and she saw to it that the authorisation was written with enough flexibility to add names to the target list and subtract others without making every shift subject to a new vote of unanimity. It was a quiet tour de force.

However, one task the chancellor did not take on was persuading the generally Russophile German public that Putin’s behaviour was unacceptable. That did not matter, because foreign policy remains an elite exercise in Germany – and because the Malaysia Airlines tragedy did alter popular perceptions of the Russians and yield 70 per cent public approval of sanctions.

In mid-April last year, Merkel initiated a brief Geneva agreement that put on paper a basic wish-list: stopping the violence, disarming illegal armed groups, returning seized buildings to their rightful owners and giving international observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe a monitoring role in eastern Ukraine. By bringing the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, and his Ukrainian counterpart together at the same table, the Geneva accord also finessed Moscow’s tacit recognition of the legitimacy of the interim Ukrainian government (appointed by parliament after Yanukovych fled), which Russian propaganda was presenting as the illegitimate result of a fascist coup.

Ironically, the west was aided by the weakness of the provisional Ukrainian government. Over five weeks in April and May, Putin mounted menacing war games by placing up to 80,000 Russian troops on high alert on Ukraine’s northern, eastern and southern borders. But he did not need to invade in order to extend his influence. Local mercenaries, criminal gangs and other proxies under the command of special Russian forces were occupying administrative buildings in a string of medium-sized towns in eastern Ukraine. Putin presumably thought he could control whichever leading politicians emerged in Kyiv without having to shed Russian blood. In this decision he displayed tactical caution, preferring the weapon of intimidation to that of military occupation, with its risks of quagmire and even guerrilla resistance.

The next phase of the Ukraine crisis began in late May with the unexpected landslide election as president of Petro Poroshenko, the “chocolate king” oligarch who
built his confectionery empire in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and who also has construction and media businesses. Poroshenko had served in several crony governments and was briefly trade minister under Yanukovych. But he had been a strong backer of the Orange Revolution, which began in 2004, sparked by elections rigged in favour of Yanukovych. He also supported the Euromaidan demonstrations from the beginning.

Poroshenko quickly sent the Ukrainian army and militias on an “anti-terror” counteroffensive to recover territory lost to the rebels and their Russian special forces allies. In April the long-neglected and underfunded army had failed miserably in the same mission, in part because hardly any soldiers had such simple protection as Kevlar vests or night-vision goggles, and also because the Ukrainians couldn’t believe that they must shoot at brother Russians who were shooting at them. There were defections to the pro-Russian side.

By the summer, however, older Ukrainian soldiers who had once served in the Soviet army helped the ragtag Ukrainian forces and the better-equipped militias to get their act together. They gradually recovered most of the territory held by the rebels and by mid-July were besieging the remaining rebel strongholds in the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk. In Kyiv, hopes rose that the Ukrainians could prevent further dismemberment of their country.

On the rebel side, Colonel Igor Strelkov, the designated Russian military intelligence commander of the local proxies and mercenaries who were being pushed back, complained bitterly that they were being deserted by the leadership in Moscow and asked for more heavy weapons. The Russians obliged by rolling over the border into the Donbas more multiple rocket launchers, anti-aircraft missile systems, plentiful ammunition and the powerful ground-to-air Buk missile system, which can reach an altitude of 10,000 metres.

In late August the first known direct invasion of eastern Ukraine by Russian paratrooper units followed, rolling back the Ukrainian sieges and delivering Putin’s clear message that he would not let his proxies in the Donbas be defeated. Some, perhaps all, of the Russian airborne troops returned to their home bases after their punitive raid.

Poroshenko understood Putin’s line in the sand instantly and, on 5 September, he agreed through an envoy to a truce with rebel leaders that made the half of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions then under rebel control a no-go zone for Ukrainian troops. The ceasefire was never fully observed but it de-escalated the fighting to low-intensity shelling, and the front line remained relatively stable for four months.

German diplomacy in this interlude consisted of trying to freeze the conflict by converting the September truce and subsequent protocol into a permanent, comprehensive ceasefire, or at least into an acceptance of common constraints on escalation. The fear was that if that could not be agreed on, Europe would enter an era of acute Russian-western hostility without even the mutual restraints that the two superpowers settled on at the height of the cold war.

Menacingly, Putin boasted that his troops could be in Kyiv within two days if he so ordered; and could reach the capitals of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania, all Nato member states, just as fast. Indeed, he has been illustrating the point graphically by aggressively testing Nato defences of the Baltic and Atlantic states daily on the seas and in the air – and endangering passenger flights by sending bombers with their transponders turned off into airspace that civilian liners use. On 18 February, RAF jets were scrambled after two Russian military aircraft were spotted off the coast of Cornwall.

The debacle of this month’s attempt to secure a truce has killed the last residual hope of a swift peace. Clearly, the end of the neo-cold war will not occur the way its superpower original did a quarter-century ago, when Washington ostentatiously outspent and out-innovated Moscow in weapons as well as general prosperity just as the Soviet economy and society reached a dead end, making Mikhail Gorbachev decide to trade in empire and feud in return for soft power and animal spirits.

Nor will it come alone from Angela Merkel’s strategic patience, which Philip Stephens of the Financial Times parses as long on patience but short on strategy. And it is unlikely to stem from Vladimir Putin’s progressive foreclosure of his own options by doubling down militarily after every failure to persuade non-Russians of the splendours of Great Russian hegemony. The only certainty is that the war between Russia and Ukraine will go on.

Elizabeth Pond is a journalist based in Berlin and the author of several books about Germany, Europe and the Balkans. They include “Beyond the Wall: Germany’s Road to Unification” (Brookings Institution)

This article first appeared in the 27 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Russia vs the west

Creative Commons
Show Hide image

Starting Star Wars: How George Lucas came to create a galaxy

On the 40th anniversary of the release of the original Star Wars, George Lucas biographer James Cooray Smith shares the unlikely story of how the first film got made.

While making THX 1138 in 1970, writer/director George Lucas told composer Lalo Schifrin that he wanted to make a Flash Gordon picture, an updating of the 40s sci-fi serials that he’d enjoyed as a child. It would, however, be those serials not as they were, but how he remembered them as having been. When the rights to these proved unavailable, he began to work on original idea, hoping to create something similar, but which he would own himself.

In January 1973, after completing his 50s nostalgia picture American Graffiti but before its release, Lucas began his outline for this space adventure. The first line of this near-incomprehensible document was The Story of Mace Windu. Mace Windu, a revered Jedi-Bendu of Opuchi who was related to Usby CJ Thape, Padewaan learner to the famed Jedi.’

"Jedi" was a word Lucas had coined to describe a clan of warrior mystics who were essential to his story. A man whose fascination for Japanese cinema had become a general interest in Japanese cultural history, he’d named them after the branch of Japanese drama that drew moral and instructive lessons from stories set in the past – Jidai geki.

This version is set in the thirty-third century and features a teenage Princess, droids, an Evil Empire and a grizzled Jedi warrior, General Skywalker, whose plot role resembles Luke’s from the finished film, although his character is Obi-Wan Kenobi’s. It climaxes with a space dogfight and ends with a medal ceremony. Among the planets named are Alderaan (here the Imperial capital) and Yavin, at this point the Wookiee homeworld. Some characters from this draft (Valorum, Mace Windu) would eventually find a home in The Phantom Menace more than twenty years later.

By May Lucas had a 132 page script, The Adventure of Anikin Starkiller. Skywalker had acquired the forename Luke but was no longer the protagonist. This was Anikin (sic) Starkiller, one of the sons of General Skywalker’s old comrade, the partially mechanical renegade Kane Starkiller. Anikin had to protect a Princess, aided by two robots R2-D2 and C-3PO.

Lucas had worked backwards from Flash Gordon, looking to uncover the source of his appeal, hoping to transfer it to his own story. Once he’d worked his way through the comic strips of Gordon’s creator Alex Raymond, he tackled Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jules Verne and Edwin Arnold’s Gulliver on Mars. Conversations with his New Hollywood peers about the archetypes thrown up by his reading – and which he increasingly saw everywhere – brought him into contact with Joseph Campbell’s then newly published Myths to Live By (1972) an anthology of lectures and essays from a man who devoted his career to identifying the basic archetypal characters and situations which he felt underpinned all human mythologies.

"The book began to focus what I had already been doing intuitively" Lucas later said, an idea which seemed to him to itself reinforce Campbell’s contention that such archetypes and situations dwelled in a collective unconsciousness. Lucas expanded his reading to epics of all kinds, and began planning a visual style that would combine the vistas of Japanese master director Akira Kurosawa with the kind of static-camera realism which he’d used on American Graffiti.

Lucas wanted over-exposed colours and lots of shadows, but shot in a way that made them seem unremarkable. Seeing the Apollo missions return from the moon "littered with weightless candy bar wrappers and old Tang jars, no more exotic than the family station wagon" had illustrated to him the problem with every fantasy movie ever made. Their worlds never looked like people lived in them. His film would depict a "used future". Describing the aesthetic he’d sought to American Cinematographer he explained: "I wanted the seeming contradiction of…fantasy combined with the feel of a documentary."  To Lucas Star Wars wasn’t science fiction, it was "documentary fantasy".

There was only one studio executive Lucas thought had any hope of understanding what he was trying to do, Fox’s Alan Ladd Jr, son of the late actor. Like Lucas and his contemporaries in New Hollywood, Ladd was a man driven by a love of cinema. Lucas could communicate with him through a shared vocabulary, describe a planned scene as being like something from The Searchers (John Ford, 1956) or Fahrenheit 451 (Francois Truffaut, 1966) and be understood. Ten days after his presentation to Ladd, they signed a development deal. Fox agreed to pay Lucas $15,000 to develop a script, plus $50,000 to write the movie and another $100,000 to direct it, should it actually be made. American Graffiti associate producer Gary Kurtz was named as Producer for Star Wars, and received $50,000.

The script development money gave Lucas enough to live on whilst he continued work on the screenplay. As he did so it changed again; a ‘Kiber Crystal’ was written in and then written out. Skywalker became Deak Starkiller’s overweight younger brother before becoming the farm boy familiar from the finished film. Characters swapped names and roles. A new character named Darth Vader – sometimes a rogue Jedi, sometimes a member of the rival ‘Knights of Sith’ – had his role expanded. Some drafts killed him during the explosion of the Death Star, others allowed him to survive; across subsequent drafts his role grew. Some previously major characters disappeared altogether, pushed into a "backstory", Lucas choosing to develop the practically realisable aspects of his story.

This is an important clarification to the idea that Star Wars was "always" a part of a larger saga, one later incarnated in its sequels and prequels. That’s true, but not in an absolutely literal way. Star Wars itself isn’t an excerpted chunk of a vast plotline, the rest of which was then made over the next few decades. It’s a distillation of as much of a vast, abstract, unfinished epic as could be pitched as a fairly cheap film to be shot using the technology of the mid 1970s. And even then much of the equipment used to make the film would be literally invented by Lucas and his crew during production.

In August 1973 Graffiti was released and became a box office sensation, not only did the profits make Lucas rich (he became, at 29, a millionaire literally overnight) its success meant that Lucas was able to renegotiate the terms of his Fox deal. Rather than making demands in the traditional arenas of salary and percentages Lucas wanted control of the music, sequel and merchandising rights to his creations. Fox conceded him 60 per cent of the merchandising, aware of its potential value to them, but eventually agreed that Lucas’s share would rise by 20 per cent a year for two years after the film’s release. Few films made money from spin-off products for a whole 24 months, and Star Wars would surely be no different. Lucas got the sequel rights as well, albeit with the proviso that any sequel had to be in production within two years of the film’s release or all rights would revert to Fox.

Most important amongst Lucas’ demands was that, if it went ahead, he wanted the film to be made by his own company, not by Fox. That way he could control the budget and ensure all charges and costs made to the production were legitimately spent on the film. The experience of watching Mackenna’s Gold being made while a student on placement a decade earlier had taught him just how much money a studio could waste, and on a film like Star Wars – which was both ambitious and would inevitably be under-budgeted – it was crucial that this did not happen. Control of the music rights also had a sound reason behind it. Universal were making a fortune out of an American Graffiti soundtrack that was simply a repackaging of old hits featured in the movie. Of the profits of this Lucas saw nothing despite having selected the tracks featured and fought long and hard for their inclusion in his film.

In March 1975, Ladd took Lucas’ draft to the Fox board. They passed it and budgeted the film at $8.5m. Characters bounced in and out of that script right up to the preparation of the shooting draft, dated 15 January 1976. This was tailored to be as close to the film’s proposed budget as possible, and contain as many of the ideas, characters and situations Lucas had spent the past few years developing as he considered feasible.

This draft is the first version of the script in which Kenobi dies fighting Vader. Previously he had been injured, but escaped with Luke’s party. Alec Guinness, who had already been cast, was initially unhappy with this change, but was persuaded by Lucas that a heroic death followed by appearances as a spectral voice would prove more memorable to audiences than his spending the last third of the film sitting on Yavin whilst the X-Wings went into battle.

Filming began on location in Tozeur, Tunisia on 22 March 1976. Before shooting Lucas sat his crew down and made them watch four films which he felt between them defined what he was after in Star Wars. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 (1969), Douglas Trumbull’s 1975 Silent Running, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time In the West and Fellini’s Satyricon (Both 1969). The Leone picture was full of the sun-blasted vistas Lucas wanted to evoke for Tatooine, and the Fellini film, with its aspects of travelogue and attempts to portray an entire society in a fly-on-the-wall manner gave an idea of the "documentary fantasy" approach the director was so keen on. All four films shared one vital element: they’re windows onto lived-in worlds remarkable to audiences but regarded as ordinary by the film’s characters.

The first scenes shot for Star Wars were those of Luke buying Artoo and Threepio from the Jawas outside his foster parents’ home. Producer Kurtz had allowed 11 days for the shoot, after that a borrowed army C130 Hercules was scheduled to pick up the cast and crew.

A few days into shooting, creature make-up man Stuart Freeborn was taken ill and had to be flown back to Britain where he was diagnosed with pneumonia. Other crew members contracted dysentery. On 26 March Tunisia experienced its first winter rainstorm for half a century, damaging equipment and exterior sets delaying filming of key scenes.

Lucas wanted the stormtroopers to ride ‘dewbacks’, dinosaur-like domesticated beasts that allowed the troops to move across the desert. One dewback was built, out of foam rubber stretched over a wire frame. It could only be used in the background and no one was ever seen riding one. The other live animal Lucas wanted to portray was a Bantha, a huge horned, shaggy beast reminiscent of a prehistoric mammoth. It was to be the mode of transport for the Tusken Raiders, faintly Bedouin, vaguely mechanically-enhanced humanoids who attacked Luke in the Jundland wastes. In the end, creating the beasts proved impossible, and while they were referred to in dialogue in scenes that were shot (‘bantha tracks…’) none of their sequences were lensed.

As hard as the shoot was on Lucas, he at least had an idea of what he was trying to do and how it would all fit together. The actors, suffering stomach troubles, sunburn and long days, were less clear. Anthony Daniels trapped inside an almost immovable fibreglass body suit suffered the worst. Twenty five years later he would give credit for helping him to get through the Tunisia filming to Alec Guinness. "He was incredibly kind to me…I firmly believe that I wouldn’t have completed that arduous task of shooting without him."

Once the Tunisian shoot was over, the cast moved to EMI Elstree Studios in Borehamwood, outside of London. Star Wars was being made in the UK because it wasn’t possible to shoot the film in Hollywood at that time, not that Lucas – with his lifelong disdain of LA itself – wanted to anyway. Star Wars required nine stages simultaneously, something that no Hollywood studio complex could guarantee at anything like sufficient notice. In March 1975 producer Kurtz had flown to Italy to look at studio space, but found nothing suitable. He then caught a plane to London, where Lucas joined him.

Together they scouted UK film studios. Pinewood was a possibility, but management insisted Lucasfilm hire their technicians, a condition which became a deal-breaker. Neither Shepperton nor Twickenham had enough sound stages (although the giant Stage H at Shepperton  - bigger than any stage at Elstree – would ultimately house one scene of the film) which left only EMI Elstree. Then losing £1 million a year, Elstree was being kept open more or less on the insistence of Harold Wilson’s government, whose allies in the Trades Union movement considered the closing of the facility unconscionable. Elstree had no staff, and anyone who wished to rent it had to supply their own technicians and much of their own equipment. Off-putting to many, it sealed the deal for Lucas and Kurtz, who wanted to move their own people in. They hired the facility for seventeen weeks starting at the beginning of March 1976.

To design and build the sets needed to turn to Elstree into a realisation of Lucas’s screenplay they hired John Barry, a British designer who had worked under Ken Adam on Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick, 1975) a film Lucas admired enough to hire its costumier John Rollo as well.

Elstree’s two largest stages were given over to Mos Eisley Spaceport and the interior of the Death Star. Both the Mos Eisley hangar bay and the one inside the Death Star which replaced it on the same stage were constructed around the full size Millennium Falcon set created by John Barry’s protege Norman Reynolds. Built by Naval engineers at Pembroke Dock, Wales it was 65 feet in diameter, 16 feet high and 80 feet long. It weighed 23 tonnes.

The absence of Stuart Freeborn, still recovering from Tunisia, meant that most of the aliens seen in the Mos Eisley cantina sequence were completed by assistants and lacked any articulation at all. Unhappy with the scenes as shot, Lucas resolved to do to re-shoots back in the USA.

The last scenes to be shot were for the opening battle, as Vader and his stormtroopers boarded the blockade runner. With little time Lucas used six cameras, manning one himself (Kurtz manned another) and shot the sequence in two takes. The six cameras produced so many different perspectives on the action that even the duplicated events that are in the film are unnoticeable. The finished sequence, chaotic though the creation of it was, is amongst the best put together moments in the movie, a superb evocation of Lucas’ documentary fantasy approach, and the cameras dart in and out of the action like reporters shooting newsreel footage. Virtually the first live action seen in the picture, its style later went a long way towards convincing audiences that what they were seeing was somehow real.

Principal photography completed on 16 July 1976, although some re-shoots and pick up shots for the Tatooine sequences were undertaken in Yuma, Arizona in early 1977. Amongst those scenes shot were those featuring the Banthas. Lucas borrowed a trained elephant from Marine World, and had it dressed to resemble a more hirsute, fearsome pachyderm. Mark Hamill was unavailable to participate. He’d crashed his car of the Antelope Freeway in LA shortly before and was undergoing painful facial reconstructive surgery. Although Hamill should have been involved in the re-shoot, in scenes of Luke’s landspeeder moving across the desert, Lucas had no choice but to film them without him; he took a double to the shoot, dressed him in Luke’s costume and put Threepio in the foreground. Also re-shot, over two days in La Brea, California, were portions of the cantina sequence. New cutaways and background shots were filmed to be inserted into the Elstree footage in order to eliminate as of the unsatisfactory masks as possible.

While supervising editing of the film Lucas experienced chest pains, and was rushed to hospital where he was treated for a suspected heart attack. He was later diagnosed with hypertension and exhaustion, both exacerbated by his diabetes.

Fox were by now trying to book Star Wars into cinemas, and had picked a release date in May, long before the 4th July public holiday, long regarded as the opening weekend of summer. Fox wanted $10m in advance bookings for Star Wars, desperate to recoup an investment that internal studio sources had now decided was foolish. They secured less than $2m, and achieved that only by implying to theatres that they wouldn’t be offered Charles Jarrot’s much-anticipated The Other Side of Midnight if they didn’t sign up for Star Wars too. Before its release several exhibitors complained at this "block booking" and filed suits; Fox was later fined $25,000 for the practice, punished for forcing cinemas to agree to show something which was, by the time they paid the fine, the most financially successful movie ever made.

In early 1977 Lucas screened Star Wars for a group of friends, it was nearly finished – although the opening crawl was longer and many of the special effects shots were absent, represented instead by sequences from World War II films and real combat footage shot by the USAF. Among those present were Brian De Palma, Alan Ladd Jnr, Steven Spielberg and Jay Cocks. Martin Scorsese had been invited but troubles editing his own New York, New York meant he didn’t turn up.

De Palma hated Star Wars, and spent the post-screening dinner rubbishing it to anyone who would listen. Others present were unsurprised, De Palma had behaved in the same way during the group screening of Scorsese’s’ Taxi Driver; laughing loudly through Cybill Shepherd’s conversations with Robert de Niro, and at one point shouting "Shit!" halfway through a tense scene. Only Spielberg seemed impressed, and told Lucas that he thought Star Wars would take $100m. Lucas pointed out that nothing took $100m, and countered that Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind would do better at the box office. The two directors wrote what they considered realistic estimations of what each other’s film would make in its first six months of release on the inside of matchbooks, which they then traded. By the time Lucas got round to opening Spielberg’s matchbook and saw the figure $33m in his friend’s scrawling hand Star Wars had already made ten times that.

Odd as it seems now, when every blockbuster is prefaced by months of breathless, unrelenting media "enthusiasm", Star Wars wasn’t released on a wave of hype or accompanied by an extensive marketing campaign. It was released (on 25 May 1977) to thirty-two screens, after a barely publicised premiere at Mann’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. It made $2.8m in its opening week, but didn’t receive a nationwide release for two months. Despite almost unprecedented success in preview screenings, Fox were still unsure of what to do with Lucas’ bizarre children’s film. Indeed it, only got a Hollywood opening at all because William Friedkin’s Sorcerer – which had been intended for this slot at Mann’s – wasn’t finished.

So negative had advance feeling about Star Wars been that Lucas left the country; he was still in LA on opening day, finishing the sound edit (he was unhappy with the copy playing downtown, and unknowingly embarking on a lifetime of revising his movie) but the next day he and his wife (and Star Wars film editor) Marcia flew to Hawaii, where they were joined by friends, including Spielberg and Amy Irving. It was an attempt to escape what Lucas felt would be the inevitable terrible reviews and wrath of the studio. Even when Ladd called him to share his excitement over the movie’s colossal opening weekend, Lucas was unmoved; all movies labelled science fiction did well in their first few days due to the business attracted by the neglected fanbase for such things. It was only when the film continued to do outstanding business and was expanded to more and more theatres that Lucas considered returning early from his holiday, and began to realise that the film he’d just delivered had changed his life.

As "Star Wars" expanded into more cinemas, and people began to queue round the block to see it, shares in Fox climbed from well under $10.00 to $11.50 each; over the next three months the value rose to $24.62, nearly trebling in price, such was the film’s value to the embattled studio. It was a magnificent vindication for Alan Ladd Jr, who had more than once had to intervene to stop colleagues closing down the film’s production completely. He had never lost faith in Lucas and his bizarre idea, but he was virtually the only person employed by Fox itself who hadn’t.

Just a few weeks before, as the end of the financial year approached, Fox had tried, and failed, to sell its investment in Star Wars to a German merchant bank as an emergency pre-tax write off.

0800 7318496