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The empire strikes back

On the eve of an eagerly awaited Ashes series, Peter Wilby reveals how the forces of globalisation a

Whoever designed this summer’s cricket programme must have had a sly sense of humour. Immediately after the newest, brashest form of the game, the World Twenty20, comes the oldest, most traditional contest of all: an Ashes series between England and Australia comprising five five-day Test matches, starting in Cardiff on Wednesday. White clothes, red balls and ancient rituals of lunch and tea replace the coloured costumes, white balls and dancing girls that greet each Twenty20 boundary. It is as though a performance of the St Matthew Passion had been preceded by a karaoke session.

It is one of cricket’s strengths that it is infinitely adaptable, and that a short game can be as demanding of players’ skills as the longer versions. For cricket connoisseurs, however, there can be no doubt about which form of the game is superior. There are rarely empty seats for the first three days of a midsummer Test in England, and never for the Ashes. For a few weeks between Wimbledon and the start of the football season, cricket will hold public and media attention, with Kevin Pietersen’s Achilles attracting the coverage normally reserved for Wayne Rooney’s metatarsal. Yet the survival of the traditional game hangs by a thread. Earlier this year, when England visited the Caribbean, where cricket once brought normal life to a standstill, most support came from England’s travelling “Barmy Army” – and even they couldn’t half-fill the region’s modest stadiums. Tests during England’s most recent tour of Pakistan, in 2005-2006, attracted roughly 10,000 a day only by giving away 70 per cent of the tickets. The first Test between South Africa and Australia in Johannesburg this year, for the unofficial world championship, attracted average crowds of fewer than 15,000 spectators a day in a ground that holds 34,000.

The rulers of English cricket would never admit it (they have spent more than a century denying the need for change, until desperation forces it upon them) but, in most countries, Test matches might not survive another decade. The Ashes may go on for longer – much depends on whether England remain competitive, as they have managed only spasmodically for the past 20 years. But, as the former Somerset captain and writer Peter Roebuck observed, “the remarkable thing is not that shorter matches have been introduced, but that the longer version endures”.

The rise of India has changed everything. The subcontinent now generates 70 per cent of world cricket’s revenues and doesn’t hesitate to exercise the power and influence that brings. Cricket has always been a vehicle for national self-assertion. The ruling elite of Victorian England saw it as part of the empire’s civilising mission, binding its far-flung subjects into loyalty to the mother country and its values. “To play it . . . honourably,” said Lord Harris, the governor general of colonial Bombay in the 1890s and a former captain of Kent, “is a moral lesson in itself and the classroom is God’s air and sunshine.”

Later, the game would unite the scattered populations of Australia, becoming an expression of Australianness: aggressive, unsentimental, egalitarian, unadorned by frills and refinements. In the West Indies, cricket began as a proclamation of white settler supremacy – no black player was allowed to become the regular captain until 1960 – then turned into an assertion of black autonomy and self-respect. Now India, an emerging world power in politics and economics, finds in cricket an arena where it may dominate.

It offers by far the largest and most lucrative market for the game. As the academics Nalin Mehta, Jon Gemmell and Dominic Malcolm put it in the current issue of the Sport in Society journal, “cricketers are the biggest brand names in the [Indian] consumer economy”. The Indian Premier League (IPL), a Twenty20 competition between city-based teams that is modelled on the English football Premiership, offers players previously unimaginable sums for a couple of months’ cricket. For 2008, the league’s first year, global media rights and team franchises were sold for $1.7bn and some players commanded contracts worth more than $1m. This year, security fears during a general election forced the league into exile in South Africa, but that seems likely to be a temporary setback. Across the world, many of the best professional players no longer aspire to a Test place but want an IPL contract.

Leading England players are still bound by contracts that supposedly limit their freedom to play elsewhere. But the IPL offered Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff, the two star players, £450,000 over three weeks. The ECB dared not stop them from joining the league, even though they risked injury ahead of the Ashes. Flintoff’s agent has already suggested that leading players will in future refuse contracts from their national boards, offering themselves, like golf players, to the highest bidders from tournaments around the world. Now that England’s attempt to enlist Allen Stanford as saviour has ended in disaster – the Texan was arrested on fraud charges in the US – most such bidders are likely to be Indian.

Once, the English would have enlisted their Australian allies to keep the uppity natives in their place. In 1996, after a series of wrangles over, for example, who should host the next World Cup, England, Australia, the West Indies and New Zealand drew up a secret plan to split world cricket by playing each other and nobody else. Anything on those lines is now inconceivable, because leading players would opt to follow the money to India. Talk of “mercenaries”, lacking commitment to their national team, rings hollow when Pietersen is a South African (and by no means the first one) who opted for England to maximise his income. Moreover, the Twenty20 game, enthusiastically embraced in India, was invented in England to shore up the budgets of penurious county clubs.

India’s new power represents an astonishing reversal of history. For a century, from the first Test match against Australia in 1877, England was the undisputed ruler of world cricket. The Imperial Cricket Conference (ICC), formed in 1909 by England, Australia and South Africa, administered the international game, but was in reality a front for the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), based at Lord’s in north London. This was a private club of the English elite that had governed the domestic game and laid down the rules (or “Laws”, as they are pompously called) since 1787. The ICC (renamed the International Cricket Council in 1989) became an independent body only in 1993. Until then, England and Australia retained a veto over any decision taken by other cricketing nations. When a World Cup was first created (involving matches of 50 overs each side), the first three tournaments, in 1975, 1979 and 1983, were all held in England.

But by then, the English elite’s control was already threatened. In 1977, the Australian TV mogul Kerry Packer bought up most of the best players and established his own cricket circuit, with white balls, coloured clothing and floodlit matches, all now familiar but then thought revolutionary. The authorities tried to ban the “mercenaries” from playing again in England, only to be overruled by the courts. The matter was settled when Packer, who set up his circus because he was denied Australia’s cricket broadcasting rights, got what he considered his fair share of the official action. But the lesson for Lord’s – repeated during the 1980s as South Africa, isolated by apartheid, tempted leading players into “rebel tours” – was that, to repel further raiders, it must allow the best cricketers an income that reflected their commercial value.

The English reluctance to take professionalism seriously lies at the heart of cricket’s crisis in this country. Cricket, as the historian Ross McKibbin has pointed out, was until the 1950s the most “national” of all sports. Unlike football and rugby league (working class) or tennis and rugby union (middle class), it was played and watched by people across the social spectrum. Its strongholds were not just in the shires and suburban villages, as its literary and artistic representations might suggest, but in the mill-towns of Lancashire and Yorkshire. Between the wars, the 14 clubs of the Lancashire League – all within 20 miles of Blackburn – got 200,000 spectators a season and sometimes more than 300,000, totals that few county championship clubs could match. The northern leagues attracted overseas professionals, such as the West Indian Learie Constantine, who was paid £750 a season when the maximum football wage was £500.

But cricket never quite escaped the control achieved by the English ruling classes in the early 19th century. The game came to embody patrician values and political attitudes. Style – keeping a straight bat, for example – counted for more than technique and success. The earliest organised games involved dukes and earls raising teams that included grooms, gardeners, butlers, gamekeepers and labourers. The plebs did the bowling, fielded energetically and scored runs inelegantly to leg while aristocrats captained the teams, fielded languidly and batted stylishly, if often briefly and ineffectually. (Rugby had a similar divide between squat, determined working-class forwards who won the ball so that long-striding, socially superior three-quarters could run with it.)

So it remained for generations. Until very recently, English cricket was feudal in its structure. Most players were vassals, poorly paid during their careers and dependent for security beyond retirement on a “benefit” (a tax-free lump sum derived from gate receipts, raffles and collections), awarded by the good grace of their social betters on county committees. Like the passive Russian serfs who so infuriated Lenin, all but a few professionals humbly accepted their lot. The late cricket commentator John Arlott, himself a Liberal Party supporter, doubted there were more than half a dozen Labour voters in the whole county game. If cricket has faced upheavals over the past 30 years, they represent not a workers’ uprising, but a bourgeois revolution which, to borrow from Marx and Engels, “has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors’”.

A distinction between amateurs and professionals continued until the 1960s: most county captains and, with one exception (Len Hutton), all England captains were amateurs. Because amateurs were often paid more than professionals, the distinction was a social one, and the fault-line survives to this day. The old-style, straight-talking professional, lacking in social graces, often leaves the England captaincy under a cloud: Brian Close (1967, time-wasting in a county match), Mike Gatting (1988, consorting with a barmaid during a Test), Kevin Pietersen (2009, insubordination) are examples. Players such as the current captain, Andrew Strauss (Radley College and Durham University) – euphemistically described by cricket writers as “thoughtful” – fit the English idea of a natural leader.

English cricket held the plebs at bay not only on the field but also at the turnstiles. It might have retained, even enhanced, its wide appeal, but attempts to make the game more competitive and popular were resisted until there was no alternative. A knockout cup (first proposed in 1873, introduced in 1963), Sunday cricket, a two-division championship, 20-overs-a-side games on summer evenings were introduced only when the county game faced bankruptcy. Until the 1960s, the counties played only three-day matches while the masses were at work; professionals played for a pittance because most revenue came from socially exclusive county memberships. Cricket still prefers small numbers of affluent supporters, many of them in corporate boxes, to a mass following. Black supporters, who keenly attended Tests involving the West Indies until the 1990s, have been largely priced out, along with many Indian and Pakistani fans.

This history leaves English cricket ill-equipped to cope with the game’s new world order. Globalisation, in sport as in economics, can be cruelly destructive of tradition. It favours mass production over craft skills, and international brands over long-established local names. Through TV and the internet, cricket, like football, can now reach a global audience, and the instant excitement and simplicity of Twenty20 – which, some think, might even catch on in America or China – make it a more sellable form of the game than the subtleties of Test matches.

Once, sporting loyalties were based on locality. Now, Manchester United – essentially a multinational business – matters almost as much in Shanghai as it does in Salford. A top football player’s first loyalty is no longer to an international team but, first, to his own brand and, second, to his club. Something similar is happening to cricket, the difference being that while England, with its Premiership, is a football superpower (as it is also a rugby union superpower), it must yield second place to India in cricket. The Delhi Daredevils or Royal Challengers Bangalore will compete for the services of a Flintoff or a Pietersen, as Manchester United and Real Madrid compete for Ronaldo.

To most of the cricketing world, the Ashes series will be a quaint sideshow. But the rivalry with Australia remains English cricket’s most precious asset, the only event that still holds the nation’s attention. Even that may not last much longer. Since the Second World War, England have only occasionally beaten Australia, usually by small margins and often at times of upheaval (as when Packer signed up nearly the entire Australian first team).

England narrowly won the 2005 series – hailed by the editor of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack as the greatest of all – and yet, give or take a couple of dropped catches, they could easily have lost. That would have made it nine consecutive series defeats since 1989, all by decisive margins. After another defeat in 2006-2007, would the nation then be awaiting this series so eagerly? Would Australia – who, before 2005, increasingly treated India as their more important rival – still be interested? And if England lose badly over the next two months, will 2005 come to be seen as a brief, happy revival of a dying contest?

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005. He is writing a socialist history of cricket

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 06 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, HOWZAT!

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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.

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