Star Wars: The Cultural Earthquake of 1977

I walked out of the movie theater so excited I could barely contain myself. Honestly, there were probably some jumps interspersed with my steps. I had never, ever, imagined I would see a movie like that. Knowing my 12-year-old self, I was likely babbling a mile a minute to anyone within a few feet. I had to get back to see it again. I just had to. I laid awake in bed that night with visions of fast maneuvering starfighters flashing through my mind.

Star Wars TIE fighters
No one had ever seen anything like Star Wars in 1977. (

It was mid-summer of 1977, and I was 12 years old. My Dad had dropped me and my brother off for the 7 PM showing of a movie that was taking the country by storm: a sci-fi adventure film called Star Wars. Back in those days, movies didn’t have national releases or at least very few did. It was usually a regional release, and we would start seeing the trailers on TV a couple of weeks before they hit our part of Southwest Virginia. After the trailer, there would be a list of what towns with the words “COMING SOON!”

Star Wars 1977 newspaper ad
When ads started appearing in newspapers and on TV, you knew it was close. (

I had first heard of Star Wars earlier that summer at church camp by way of a girl from another part of the country who went on and on about it. Before long, this unexpected movie phenomenon made national news and I kept watching for the preview on TV. Finally, I saw it and started asking my parents if I could go.

By that time, we had seen the reports of people standing in line for hours to get in, but my Dad, never a moviegoer, wasn’t having any of that. As he always did, he took us down about a half-hour before showtime on opening night. I still remember his disbelief at the line stretching about a hundred yards from the door. Keep in mind that I grew up in a small town that had a population of about ten or twelve thousand people in 1977. He told us we wouldn’t get in, but we talked him into letting us try.

Star Wars Day, May the Fourth Be with You, Star Wars: The Cultural Earthquake of 1977 long lines
Long before the internet, Star Wars was a word-of-mouth phenomenon that had people standing in line for hours. (

We got lucky when we saw our neighborhood friend and his older brother about halfway up the line. His brother was a star football player and rather large. We got some dirty looks when they invited us to join them, but our friend’s brother stared them down. We got the last four tickets before the show sold out. I can imagine the murderous thoughts of the two people in line behind us.


So, where am I going with all this? Well, today, Star Wars is firmly embedded in our pop culture. It’s cool and fun for those who like it, but they really take it for granted. My kids are that way. It’s not their fault, it’s just that Star Wars is so accessible now. Even by the early 1980s, Star Wars was a familiar thing. Yeah, we were excited when The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi were released, but we pretty much knew what to expect by then. We loved it and looked forward to it, even stood in line for it, but it was never again quite like 1977 because that was the first time. If you were there, you understand.

1977 movie posters
As the hype grew, more dramatic movie posters appeared. (

And I should note that I am aware that the first Star Wars movie is now often called A New Hope in the context of the Star Wars movie franchise. But, to me, being there at the beginning, it will always be Star Wars because that’s how it was billed and how I initially took it in. That was the hyped title that we all learned.

That first time, not being the sharpest knife in the drawer, I missed parts of the plot, but I was dazzled by the massive scope and the special effects. We all were. There had just never been anything approaching that before. Sure, I liked Star Trek reruns and I’d even managed to talk my parents into letting me see Logan’s Run the previous year, but Star Wars made those look shoddy by comparison.

Star Wars light sabers
The special effects in Star Wars made everything else look shoddy by comparison. And come on, you know you want a lightsaber. (

The opening script crawling up and into the distance was the first hint that things were about to change. I wasn’t aware that George Lucas took that from the early Flash Gordon serials, but this was far grander in any case. A moment later, that huge star destroyer cruising from the top of the screen in pursuit of the rebel ship was literally breathtaking. Maybe you had to be there, but that’s how it was. I was used to seeing the Enterprise on TV, but this thing was obviously massive. I expect that opening scene was the first time my 12-year-old jaw dropped that evening. But it wasn’t the last.

Star Wars opening scene
The opening scene provided the first of many jaw-dropping visuals. (

The Imperial Stormtroopers looked appropriately menacing and, from the first, you knew Darth Vader was big and bad, even if you didn’t really know who he was. The jet-black armor among the all-white surroundings, coupled with the raspy breath, left no doubt. Even so, I recall not seeing Vader as the main villain until The Empire Strikes Back, or more likely right after he escaped the destruction of the Death Star in Star Wars. Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin seemed more sinister to me. Of course, that was Peter Cushing for you. Plus, he ordered Vader around in the first movie. But it doesn’t matter. Like all the great adventure fairy tales, you knew who was good and who was bad.

Grand Moff Tarkin and Darth Vader
A classic tale of good vs. evil, though Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin (L) seemed more sinister to me at the time than Darth Vader. (

Just Plain Fun

Star Wars was just that: a great adventure fairy tale. Yeah, it took place “In a galaxy far, far away,” and the characters rode spaceships and landspeeders instead of horses, but the mysteries of the Force looked like magic and there was a clear sense of right and wrong. I’m not saying that’s realistic, but I like that clarity. Moral struggle makes for some great stories and characters, like Anakin Skywalker in the prequel trilogy, but sometimes I want to cheer for the good guys. I especially did when I was twelve.

And it was just fun, unlike much of the sci-fi of the day. Even though it’s a good movie, Logan’s Run was dystopian, and you knew the smiles were forced or faked. 2001: A Space Odyssey was visually stunning at times, but it was also kind of boring in many places, not to mention confusing. Star Wars was fast and intense, you liked the characters, and the good guys won after all seemed lost. On a side note here, I want to remind everyone that Han Solo fired first. If you don’t know what that means, look it up. Greedo was a dirtbag and totally deserved it.

Han Solo
Han totally shot first because Greedo was a dirtbag. (

Plus, who doesn’t love C3PO and R2D2 as comic relief? I once saw someone refer to them as the Abbot and Costello of the science fiction genre, and I agree wholeheartedly. There’s a reason the droids are as popular as anyone in the movie. They weren’t just clunky automatons. They had real personalities. So much so that their designations were humanized into See Threepio and Artoo Deetoo. Real names.

R2D2 and C3PO
Artoo Deetoo and See Threepio are the Abbott and Costello of science fiction movies. (

Realistic Looking Science Fiction

Finally, it was dirty. Get your mind out of the gutter. By dirty, I mean gritty and grungy in places. Other sci-fi of the time, especially Star Trek, seemed clean and sanitized. Everything worked, and if it went down, Scotty was always there to fix it.

Star Wars landspeeder
As cool as it was, Luke’s landspeeder looked like an old used car that any teenager might drive. (

But Star Wars was different. Luke’s landspeeder, which I coveted, was beat-up like a well-used thirdhand car that any teenager might drive. The Millennium Falcon is repeatedly referred to or looked upon as “a piece of junk,’ prompting Han Solo’s dander to rise.

Star Wars Millennium Falcon
“You came in that? You’re braver than I thought.” The Millennium Falcon looked the part of a beat-up tramp freighter. (

Threepio and Artoo got knocked around and sometimes had crap smeared all over them, as did the white armor of the Stormtroopers. Mos Eisley wasn’t some clean futuristic city. It was a dump, befitting its status as a “wretched hive of scum and villainy.” It was more like a Western in some ways. I could go on, but you get the point. It looked real.

Mos Eisley
Mos Eisley was the opposite of a clean futuristic city, making it far more believable. (

And the aliens. Yeah, I’d seen aliens on Star Trek, but you knew they were humans with fake ears and makeup. But Star Wars made it clear that humanity was just one more species in a galaxy full of every kind of life form imaginable. And, unlike Alien a year or so later, which showed us a narrower focus of the same principle, they weren’t automatically evil and destructive, Greedo notwithstanding.

Star Wars Cantina Band
The band in the Mos Eisley Cantina were just a few of the many aliens to be seen. The song they played was also a radio hit. Just part of the phenomenon. (

X-Wings Rule!

All that was mind-blowing but, as a 12-year-old boy, it all took a backseat to the eye-popping X-Wing fighter. I was just getting into building model airplanes after reading a book called Flying Aces of World War I, the book I credit with starting me on the path to becoming a military historian. When Luke climbed into that X-Wing and took off, I knew I had never seen anything cooler. That is, until they opened their S-foils before attacking the Death Star. Then, when the X-Wings locked horns with the Imperial TIE Fighters, I thought I would die from excitement. I think the shots of the attack through the Death Star’s trench are still among the best in cinema history. Period.

Star Wars X-Wing fighters
I had visions of these things flying through my mind after seeing Star Wars for the first time. (

Star Wars was a True Phenomenon

Let me re-emphasize that it wasn’t just me that felt that way. NO ONE had ever seen anything even close to that. Forty-five years later, it’s hard to describe the phenomenon to anyone who didn’t experience it. For the first time, it wasn’t “Have you seen Star Wars?” It was “How many times have you seen Star Wars?” My parents would only put up with me seeing it twice, since they were paying for the tickets and snacks, and driving me there and back. But I had friends who saw it half a dozen times in the two or three weeks it was in town.

kids in line to see star wars in 1977
“How many times have you seen Star Wars?” Many kids skipped school to see the movie as many times as they could. (

I’ve since seen reports of kids ditching school in larger cities with daytime showings and folks who saw it 15 or 20 times. The movie was rebooked over and over and stayed in theaters from its May 1977 release date until well into 1978, with re-releases into the early 1980s. In the days before Al Gore invented the internet, Star Wars was a true word-of-mouth phenomenon. As I said, I first heard about it at summer camp.

I’ve racked my memory, but I can’t think of anything comparable in my 57 years of life. The closest thing I can think of was the Harry Potter craze, but even that didn’t really take off until the third or fourth book. Star Wars literally came out of nowhere and backhanded the entire country like nothing ever had before or since. Of course, it wasn’t for everyone. Some didn’t like it, but many more did.

1977 Star Wars LPs
Star Wars was available in every medium of the day. These are LPs released in the mad aftermath. I got the one on the left for Christmas in 1977 and my brother got the one in the middle. I remember the other one but never owned it. (

Even after everyone saw it, the hype didn’t stop. My brother and I each got Star Wars LPs for Christmas that year. I got the musical soundtrack and he got one with recordings of various scenes from the movie. The cover featured Artoo and Threepio. Like I said, the droids were as popular as any other character, which really was another first.

We all wanted Star Wars t-shirts, hats, lunchboxes, and action figures. I wish I could say I was smart enough to keep mine, but they were played with big-time and Mom and Dad weren’t gonna buy replacements.

Original 1977 Star Wars tie fighter and x-wing toys
Some of the hottest toys of the late 1970s. As much as I loved the X-Wings in the movie, I didn’t like the toy as much. It wasn’t really to scale, and I didn’t think it was realistic enough. (

I even watched the Star Wars “Holiday Special” that aired in November of 1978. Never mind that it was supposedly “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” If it was Star Wars, I was gonna watch. Lots of other people did too, though, admittedly, it wasn’t that great and has kind of become a joke. It was part of the phenomenon.

1978 Star Wars holiday special ad
The Star Wars Holiday Special in 1978 wasn’t all that great but it’s a testament to the Star Wars craze that gripped the country a year and a half after the movie’s release. (

Star Wars fan magazines popped up with full-page photos from the movie. Sure, there were Hollywood movie magazines, but whole magazines devoted to a single movie? Unheard of. Many of those photos ended up on my bedroom wall.

1977 magazine covers featuring Star Wars characters
Star Wars was in all the magazines (

I still remember reading one magazine claiming that Lucas could not have possibly dreamed up all that stuff by himself and had been given access to top-secret UFO crashes by the US government. Supposedly, the Millennium Falcon was a direct copy of one of those UFOs. As an adult, I recognize that stuff as a ploy to sell magazines. As a twelve-year-old boy, I not only thought it was possible, I wanted it to be true. As I said, I wasn’t exactly a brainiac as a kid.

1977 Star Wars radio and comics
Public radio did a Star Wars serial series and Marvel released comic book versions of the movie. I didn’t listen to public radio, so I missed that, but I did wonder why Darth Vader was green and Luke and Obi-Wan had red lightsabers. (

There were Star Wars trading cards and Marvel Comics released a series of comic books based on the movie. There was a novelization, actually published in 1976, which I dutifully read after the fact. It was actually really good and kept parts of Lucas’ story that had been edited from the script, like Luke’s friendship with Biggs Darklighter. It also described Darth Vader as “a Dark Lord of Sith,” which was the first time I’d ever seen that. It also described the fall of the Republic and the rise of the Empire quite differently from the movies, which seems remarkably prophetic in 2022.

Star Wars book covers
(L-R) The November 1976 Star Wars novelization; the 1977-78 version with movie art; and the 1978 “sequel,” Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, which I think of as an alternate Star Wars timeline. (

A “sequel” novel was published in 1978 by Alan Dean Foster called Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, which was quite good and continued the crush that Luke had on Leia, who wasn’t officially his sister just yet. It also features Luke’s first lightsaber showdown with Vader and even Leia gets in some swings with the Jedi weapon. Of course, Vader wasn’t their Old Man yet either. I’ve read that it was planned as a low-budget sequel story in case the movie didn’t do well. We know how that turned out. It’s still available and I like to think of it as a Star Wars alternate timeline.

Star Wars novelization prologue
The prologue from the novelization seems remarkably prescient to me. (

Why I Still Love Star Wars

Almost half a century later, I still love Star Wars. I never tire of it. It’s by far my favorite of the entire franchise. Not because it’s the best movie or the most artistic, or even has the best special effects. It’s because it brings back the feeling of being a kid again. Of the joy and excitement it brought me when I first saw it.

I watched it again today before writing this article. Just before, I pulled up the original 1977 trailer that I saw on TV back then. Man, it looks like a B movie in that thing, but you have to remember, it kind of was. Many people at 20th Century Fox didn’t believe in the movie and Lucas was so nervous that he left town the night before it opened. He thought the studio people were yanking his chain when they called to tell him how well it was doing.

main cast
Star Wars gave us heroes to cheer for. And cheer we did. (

While watching the movie today, I still marveled at how cool the opening shot with the star destroyer is. I still got the thrill when the X-Wings approached the Death Star. And I still smiled at everything in between. To this day, whenever I hear the 20th Century Fox opening fanfare, I expect it to be followed by the rousing opening of the Star Wars music, and I’m disappointed when it isn’t. I honestly think that is a real loss in the later movies.

I hope I never lose those feelings. Because, as long as I have them, I can still be a twelve-year-old kid for two hours. And what better thing can be said about any movie? Happy Star Wars Day, y’all. May the Force be with you!

William "Bucky" Lawson is a self-described "typical Appalachian-American gun enthusiast". He is a military historian specializing in World War II and has written a few things, as he says, "here and there". A featured contributor for Strategy & Tactics, he likes dogs, range time, and a good cigar - preferably with an Old Fashioned that has an extra orange slice.


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