Star Wars was meant to be a simple hero’s journey, a fantasy for young people, and then John wrote the music and he raised it to a level of art – popular art that would stand the test of time. What I’m trying to say is, ‘You made my life so easy! I had so many ideas for other movies, but I never got to them because you ensured that Star Wars would endure forever.’
—George Lucas, 44th AFI Life Achievement Award Ceremony, June 2016
On the 25th of May, 1977, Star Wars exploded onto cinema screens across the United States, and by the end of its international theatrical run it had become the highest-grossing film of all time.1 As one of the very first examples of blockbuster cinema it is regarded by many as the film that changed Hollywood forever. Its legacy can be seen and heard in practically every big-budget film since its release.
Similarly, John Williams’s score has enjoyed tremendous success: the soundtrack album is the best-selling score-only soundtrack album ever made,2 in 2004 the United States National Recording Registry made Star Wars the first film soundtrack, that wasn’t from a musical, to be preserved for being ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically important’,3 and in 2005 the American Film Institute’s ‘100 Years of Film Scores’ initiative recognised Star Wars as the number one American film score of all time.4 There can also be no doubt as to its influence on the music for today’s blockbusters, many of which still rely on orchestral instrumentation and make use of several of Williams’s techniques.
Scoring for orchestra was not a new idea in Hollywood when Williams wrote the music for Star Wars. In fact it was considered old-fashioned. From the 1960s to the mid-1970s film scores became increasingly influenced by pop music, jazz and the avant-garde. This was largely in response to the tastes of film-makers and audiences shifting from escapism to realism. Hollywood films in general became darker, grittier and more reflective of the real world, and the music used to score them consisted of fewer, more isolated cues that relied on the suggestion of mood or the deliberate contrasting of music and image.5 With Star Wars, Lucas and Williams decided to go against this trend and instead resurrect the lush, melodic and descriptive style of orchestral scoring associated with the Golden Age of Hollywood (ca. 1930-1960).
The majority of films produced in the Golden Age were romantic adventures that provided escapism and had a particular focus on visual spectacle and exciting action. The music written for them was stylistically derived from late-Romantic (ca. 1800-1900) and early-Twentieth Century Western classical music. The harmonic language and compositional devices used can be heard in the operas of Wagner and other representational works, such as the symphonic poems of Liszt and Richard Strauss, and the ballet scores of Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. Such music suited the melodramatic content of Golden Age films perfectly and, in most cases, it was the glue that held the film together emotionally and narratively. It was often present throughout, underscoring not only the set-pieces and scene changes, but dialogue scenes as well, always providing emotional and functional support to what was happening on screen in order to clarify the meaning in a very obvious way.6
The same can be said for Williams’s score for Star Wars. The music underscores the majority of the film, and almost every compositional decision Williams made has its roots in Golden Age film music, chief among them being: the orchestral instrumentation, the expressive use of tonality, the close synchronisation of image and music, and the unification of the score through the use of leitmotifs. It is for this reason that Star Wars and its score are considered to be neoclassical: ‘classical’ here referring to the Golden Age.
Star Wars was not the first neoclassical Hollywood film, however. That title belongs to Steven Spielberg’s box-office smash-hit Jaws (1975). Largely due to Williams’s contribution of an Oscar-winning orchestral score, Jaws is more than a typical ‘70s disaster movie. The audience’s perception of the murderous shark is significantly affected by the use of music: the incessant repetition of the now famous two-note motif and the violent, almost balletic, music that synchronises with its attacks serve to transform it into an unnatural being that is the film’s embodiment of pure evil.7 Then, in the second half of the film, the music becomes reminiscent of that heard in seafaring adventure films, responding appropriately to the optimistic change of tone when the heroes venture out to hunt down the elusive shark. It accompanies the action closely, and adds emotional weight to certain dialogue scenes in an appropriately neoclassical vein until the very end.
With Star Wars the neoclassicism of both film and music is more blatant and deliberate, permeating every frame from beginning to end, in an effort to replicate the television serials and fantasy adventures that Lucas enjoyed in his youth. The opening crawl, for example, was borrowed from Universal’s serial Flash Gordon (1936), as was the episodic structure of the plot, which sees the heroes progress from one encounter or predicament to the next in a linear fashion without the use of flashbacks or an excessive use of passage of time montages.
The story was designed to be an update of the common narrative and character motifs found in myths and folk tales.8 Lucas was directly inspired by Joseph Campbell’s concept of the ‘Hero’s Journey’ from The Hero With A Thousand Faces, a philosophical study that consolidates the stories of numerous world cultures into a single ‘monomyth’. The Hero’s Journey details the various stages of the protagonist’s progression from departure, to initiation, to return, and the challenges, defeats and victories he faces along the way.9 It can be found in nearly every film of the Golden Age, another reason why Star Wars has such a neoclassical feel. However, Lucas was possibly the first film director to make a conscious effort to replicate it, as it was his goal to make Star Wars an accessible retelling of the Hero’s Journey that audiences everywhere, of all ages, would be able to understand and appreciate.10 (The relationship between Star Wars and the Hero’s Journey is given in the table below.)
Furthermore, through the clever unification of numerous film and literary genres into the all-encompassing super-genre of ‘space fantasy’, together with the use of cutting-edge special effects, sound effects and editing techniques, Lucas and his team were able to improve upon the classical Hollywood style to produce a visually spectacular adventure film unlike anything audiences had seen before. Lucas himself described the film in this way:
I’ve always loved adventure films. After I finished American Graffiti , I came to realize that since the demise of the western, there hasn’t been much in the mythological fantasy genre available to the film audience. So, instead of making ‘isn’t-it-terrible-what’s-happening-to-mankind’ movies, which is how I began, I decided that I’d try to fill that gap. I’d make a film so rooted in imagination that the grimness of everyday life would not follow the audience into the theater. In other words, for two hours, they could forget.11
Williams had this to say when asked what he thought was the explanation for the ‘Star Wars phenomenon’:12
I think we all expected a successful film. In my mind I was thinking of it as a kind of Saturday afternoon movie for kids really, a kind of popcorn, Buck Rogers show. A good, you know, sound and light show for young people, thinking that it would be successful, but never imagining that it would be this world-wide international success, […] The films surprised everyone I think – George Lucas included – in that they reached across cultural bounds and beyond language into some kind of mythic, shared remembered past – from the deep past of our collective unconscious, if you like. That may be an explanation as to why it has such a broad appeal and such a strong one. […] All of these aspects of journey and heroic life and aspiration and disappointment, all of the great human subjects that this seems to touch and tap in on, must be one of the reasons for its great success.13
The Hero’s Journey
|Luke stumbles across Leia’s hologram message to Obi-Wan Kenobi whilst cleaning Artoo.||DEPARTURE||
The Call to Adventure
|The hero is drawn into an adventure seemingly by chance.|
|Uncle Owen tells Luke to forget about Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke reluctantly agrees to stay on at the homestead for another season.||
Refusal of the Call
|The hero refuses the call out of fear, ignorance or a misplaced sense of duty.|
|In searching for the runaway Artoo, Luke is rescued by Ben Kenobi who tells him about the Force and gives him his father’s lightsaber.||
|A protective figure or mentor provides the hero with amulets against the forces of evil.|
|Luke agrees to take Ben as far as Anchorhead, but along the way they discover the work of the Empire in the slaughtered Jawas and the burned homestead.||
The Crossing of the First Threshold
|The hero passes the threshold guardian with the promise of the dangers to come.|
|Luke decides to go with Ben to Alderaan. They go to Mos Eisley in search of a pilot, and Luke is attacked by thugs in the cantina.||
The Belly of the Whale
|Now fully willing to undertake the adventure, the hero is swallowed into the unknown.|
|Han Solo and Chewbacca agree to transport Luke and Ben to Alderaan in the Millennium Falcon.
They escape from Mos Eisley under fire and Luke begins his Jedi training.
Having found Alderaan destroyed by the Empire, the heroes become trapped aboard the Death Star.
The Road of Trials
|The hero undergoes a series of tests and ordeals, and encounters friends and enemies.|
|Luke, Han and Chewie fight through the Death Star to rescue Princess Leia.||
The Meeting with the Goddess
|The hero undergoes a test to win the boon of love.|
|Luke convinces Han to help rescue Leia by promising him a substantial reward.||
Woman as Temptress
|The hero is tempted by physical or material pleasures.|
|Having survived the ordeal in the trash compactor, the group fight their way back to the ship.
Meanwhile, Ben encounters his former pupil, Darth Vader, and they duel.
Atonement with the Father
|The hero undergoes a terrible ordeal and atones for their sins.|
|Ben sacrifices himself to allow the group to escape. In doing so he becomes a spirit of the Force, leaving Luke to fend for himself.||
|The hero achieves a greater level of understanding, often passing to the immortal realm.|
|The Princess has been rescued and the group’s escape is guaranteed thanks to Ben’s sacrifice.||
The Ultimate Boon
|The ultimate goal of the quest is achieved.|
|Luke becomes dejected as he can’t believe that Ben is really gone.||
Refusal of the Return
|The hero is reluctant or unable to leave the unknown.|
|In order to escape, Luke and Han have to take out the enemy TIE fighters.||
The Magic Flight
|The hero escapes from the forces that were guarding the boon.|
|The group deliver the Death Star plans to the Rebels and an assault is planned.
Luke joins the fighter squadron and meets his old friend Biggs.
Rescue from Without
|To enact the return the hero often needs assistance from another.|
|Luke leads the final bombing run on the Death Star. Whilst targeting, he hears Ben telling him to use the Force.||
The Crossing of the Return Threshold
|To complete the adventure the hero must integrate what they learned back into the real world.|
|Han returns and saves Luke from Vader. Luke then uses the Force to successfully target the exhaust port.||
Master of the Two Worlds
|The hero is reborn and achieves mastery of the two worlds.|
|The Death Star is destroyed and the Rebel Alliance is victorious.
Luke is reminded by Ben that the Force will be with him, always.
Freedom to Live
|The hero is free to live in the moment.|
- Larsen, Peter, Film Music (London: Reaktion Books, 2005), pg. 172-73, and Rinzler, J. W., The Making of Star Wars: The Definitive Story Behind the Original Film (London: Ebury Press, 2008), pg. 363 [in-set picture page opposite]
- Classicfm.com, <https://www.classicfm.com/composers/williams/guides/facts-williams/star-wars/>
- Complete National Recording Registry Listing – National Recording Preservation Board|Programs|Library of Congress, <https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-recording-preservation-board/recording-registry/complete-national-recording-registry-listing/>
- American Film Institute, <http://www.afi.com/100Years/scores.aspx>
- Kalinak, Kathryn, Film Music: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), pg. 67-74
- Ibid. pg. 62-65
- Rinzler, J. W., The Jaws Blog, <http://www.jwrinzler.com/the-jaws-blog.html>
- George Lucas commentary, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (USA: 1977, 1997, 2004, 2006), Directed by George Lucas, Music by John Williams (DVD editions. Lucasfilm Ltd., 2004, 2006)
- Campbell, Joseph, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, (United States: Pantheon Books, 1949, 1968, 2008)
- Rinzler, J. W., The Making of Star Wars: The Definitive Story Behind the Original Film (London: Ebury Press, 2008), pg. 48
- Lucas, George, quoted in sleeve notes from Williams, John, Star Wars: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (20th Century Records, 1977)
- Byrd, Craig L., ‘The Star Wars Interview: John Williams’, Film Score Monthly, 2/1 (1997), pg. 18
- George Lucas and John Williams: houstonchronicle.com
- Flash Gordon – Opening Crawl: Wikipedia