The question of what constitutes realism in art is complex and not easy to illustrate. This is owing in part to the many different movements that purport to embrace realism, all of which approach the question from a different angle. Is realism the accurate depiction of what the eye sees, as some of the early French Realist painters suggested? Or is it something more intangible, a quest for artistic truth rather than mere mechanical reproduction? Perhaps it is both.
Dziga Vertov’s 1929 masterpiece, The Man with a Movie Camera, is a superb example of Soviet Constructivist Realism. It offers both realistic depictions of everyday life, owing to the indexical quality of the photographic medium, but also abstract interpretations and manipulation of visuals through the unique tools of cinema, some of which were pioneered by Vertov himself. The film was commissioned under the Stalinist regime, and was therefore at odds with the new Socialist Realist movement that had been endorsed by the state. Considering that the film is unabashedly pro-Soviet, this highlights the absurdity of the state confining the artist to one narrow definition of acceptable material.
An opening title card states the film’s intention: to create a new international language of cinema, rejecting the conventions of theater and literature. The film largely achieves this, though with some caveats. It purports to be a documentary, but portions of it are staged, such as a woman getting dressed. Also, the ways in which Vertov manipulates reality through shot selection, editing, and special effects in order to convey a particular meaning mark it as more of an experimental art film than a true documentary. Though it genuinely is capturing real moments featuring real people (i.e. non-actors). To be fair, the opening card does call the film an experiment. And while it eschews intertitles, it nevertheless relies on signage within the frame to convey meaning.
The film was dismissed by contemporary critics for its avant-garde style, which clashed with the popular cinematic approach of the day. Indeed, the film was ahead of its time, anticipating the more fast-paced editing of modern films. Today, the film is recognized for its genius, and even many modern films cannot match its sheer momentum. If I were to choose one word to describe the film, that word would be kinetic. The film’s raw energy is consistent with the prevailing mentality of Constructivist Realism, embracing motion — the movement of objects within the frame, movement of the camera itself, or both.
But the core strength of the film is its embrace of “the real,” through its earnest depiction of everyday life. In spite of its evident support of the Soviet State, there are many inherent truths on display. Though the film is almost a century old, the world it depicts is startlingly familiar, the lives of its subjects relatable. In essence, it is the story of a day in the life of a city. The city is not named, and in fact multiple cities served as filming locations. In this regard, Vertov departs from mechanical documentation and ventures into a constructed reality that is nevertheless truthful in terms of its ideals. This city story plays out in parallel with the story of the titular man with the movie camera (Vertov’s brother), whom we follow throughout his process of documentation. In this regard, the film is reflexive, commenting on itself. As a result, the cumulative work is both a celebration of the modern Soviet state and of the art and possibilities of cinema itself, all the while highlighting the universal truths that make us human.
The film opens with a crowd slowly gathering in a theater, reflecting the actual audience watching the film. Seats lower automatically, highlighting the Constructivist Realist movement’s embrace of modern technology. Close-up shots of the mechanism of the projector remind us of the mechanical process at work behind the art we’re experiencing. Then the movie unfolds on the screen-within-a-screen and we, the actual audience, experience the film along with the on-screen audience. Throughout the film, we periodically cut back to the filmed audience, breaking the spell and reminding us that we’re watching a film. This is a technique that is often employed by avant-garde filmmakers who wish to draw attention to conventions within the medium. In this case it serves both that purpose and also the purpose of linking us together in a mutual appreciation of cinema itself and the wonders of technology that make it possible.
As the movie-within-the-movie begins, the pace is initially slow. There are still shots of the city, with some beautiful and unconventional framing to draw the viewer in. People are shown sleeping, with an emphasis on the stillness of their bodies. As a pro-Soviet piece, the film arguably breaks down here, since we see the disparity between different strata of civilization. Some people sleep comfortably in their beds, while others are homeless and sleep on the streets. This is truthful however, harkening back to the harsh depictions of poverty seen in the French Realist movement. As such, it is honest and very real. Various shots of objects — a telephone, a car tire, a typewriter — hint at the activity that is to come. Slowly the world begins to wake up, and the day begins. Some of the shots of people going through their morning routines are clearly staged, again placing the film at odds with its stated goal of avoiding the conventions of theater. This was one of the most common criticisms of the film at the time of its release. But although these moments are staged, they are nevertheless relatable. So we see here the emphasis on truth over mechanical documentation. While it contradicts the mission statement, it is nevertheless an exploration of the real.
Once the world wakes up, the pace of the film quickens. Cars begin to move, trollies zip back and forth, and people fill the streets in growing numbers. High angle shots show the growing progression, from a few people, to dozens, to hundreds. Vertov places his camera atop vehicles to achieve stunning tracking shots as we follow cars, carriages, trollies, and so on. The trollies become an important element, which Vertov returns to throughout the film. In particular, there are multiple split-screen shots of trollies moving in opposing directions, sometimes four of them filling each quarter of the frame. Perhaps the trollies symbolize the role of technology in modern life, connecting us to one another. In this regard, the film is also an example of Modernism.
Juxtapositions feature prominently in the film. A couple is seen filing for a marriage license, then a subsequent couple is seen filing for divorce. The film breaks its own rule here. While it doesn’t use an intertitle, it does rely on a close-up of the documents to tell us what’s happening. The documents are in Russian, though, so a non-native speaker needs a translation to understand the significance of what’s happening. In this regard, the mission statement of creating a universal cinematic language divorced from any text breaks down. Other parallels work much better, however. A funeral is intercut with a woman giving birth. This is followed by a shot of two trollies: one approaching and one receding, suggesting the eternal cycle of decay and renewal. It’s perhaps the most beautiful and poignant moment in the film, and arguably the most real.
And of course there’s our man with the camera, documenting it all. At one point, the two cameras (the on-screen camera and the one capturing the image we’re seeing) seem to be deliberately filming each other, making a commentary on the reflexive nature of the film. At one point, the two cameras are superimposed over the crowd. We see Vertov’s brother filming, but the other camera is unmanned, reflecting the fact that we never see that camera operator, who remains mysterious to us. This reminds us that the person behind the camera is usually unseen, yet is still there manipulating the on-screen reality.
After a lengthy burst of activity and motion, the film suddenly grinds to a halt, focusing on freeze-frames of the faces of the people we’ve been seeing. This suggests moments frozen in time, recorded by the camera, and the viewer is invited to reflect on the ephemeral nature of life. This is another of the film’s inherent truths, another way we experience “the real.” But then Vertov uses this as a segue to take us behind the scenes and into the editing room. We watch the editor physically cutting and splicing the film, revealing the mechanical and artificial process of making a film. This is both a modernist celebration of technology and of the process of filmmaking itself, yet it also serves as another reminder that we’re watching a film and to be mindful of the processes involved.
We then move into an examination of people at work. Close-up shots of wheels and gears turning, pistons moving, serve as a modernist perspective on the role of machines in everyday life. Human faces superimposed on these machines draw a connection between humans and their tools. This is an example of how abstract concepts can serve a realist purpose. There are some shots of activity in a steel mill, of switchboard operators frantically moving cables about while wearing headsets (another example of modern technology), of a woman rolling cigarettes, and of another woman wrapping packages. Rapid montages show the fast pace of modern factory work. It’s repetitive, but runs at breakneck speed, and that speed accelerates as the sequence progresses. Fast-motion shots accentuate this sense of relentless productivity. Yet there are frequent shots of people smiling. Unlike the exploited factory workers of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, this is not a Marxist indictment of Capitalist alienation, but a celebration of Soviet empowerment. There’s a disconnect, however, as the cinematic language employed suggests dehumanization, which does not align with the way people are depicted relating to their work. Perhaps Vertov was experiencing some cognitive dissonance. He wanted to embrace a positive perspective on work in the modern Soviet state, which would have pleased the Soviet Realists, but he may have been intuitively aware that things weren’t perfect. Intentional or not, the abstraction of Constructivist Realism arguably provides a more real experience than the concrete imagery of Soviet Realism.
Finally the machines grind to a stop. The work day is over and it’s time to play. This is by far the most relatable portion of the film. People go to the beach, they sun themselves, they swim. Children watch a street performer. We see empty recreation spaces, and then through a dissolve, they’re filled with people, once again drawing our attention to time and the connection between people and the places they occupy. Other people hit the bars, engaging in one of the oldest human pastimes. Again we’re treated to an abstract reminder of the filmmaking process, as our man with a movie camera is superimposed on a shot of a beer mug, looking as if he’s actually inside the mug. It is during this sequence that the decades melt away. We could be the people in these shots. Many impressionist paintings celebrated middle class recreation, but here we celebrate universal recreation across classes.
The film culminates in a sweeping montage of visuals, a synthesis of everything we’ve seen so far. The editing reaches a fever pitch, with some shots lasting only a few frames. Fast motion shots transport us into another realm, where time melts away and we embrace the pure momentum of cinema. All this builds to a climax of rapid-fire imagery that the eye can barely perceive, a veritable explosion of visuals, leaving one awestruck at the technique on display as well as the wonder and magnificence of our modern world. We’ve left behind mere documentation and ventured into purely abstract territory, and yet this is still an exploration of the real, since emotion is abstract, and the visuals are their manifestation.
It is in this way that Man with a Movie Camera serves as an example of realism in the sense that Soviet Constructivists sought to understand it. While it differs from the concrete sense of reality seen in both French Realism and Soviet Realism, it finds its own truth in much the same way that Impressionism and Social Realism did. It’s an ambitious and daring film, so it’s not surprising that it took a while to find its audience. But it ultimately proved to be highly influential and is today rightfully viewed as one of the most important movies ever made.
I was born in 1977, the year the original Star Wars came out. I cannot recall a time when Star Wars was not a part of my life, though I do have dim memories of the first time I saw it. The original Star Wars trilogy was such an important part of my formative years, it’s only natural I would carry that fandom into adulthood. In the mid-90s, after a brief lull during my pre-teen years when I was still technically a fan but wasn’t really thinking about Star Wars all that much, I saw The Empire Strikes Back on cable TV and my passion for the saga returned with a vengeance. Throughout my late teens and early twenties, my Star Wars fandom reached a fever pitch rivaled only by those magical years when the original trilogy was still being released. It should be no surprise that I went into The Phantom Menace with not only great excitement, but very high expectations, particularly since I’d spent the last twenty years speculating on what the prequel and sequel trilogies would entail and dreaming of one day seeing the complete saga sitting on my shelf in nice, pretty packaging. With so much anticipation and buildup, it was perhaps unavoidable that I would be disappointed.
Like many fans, I came out of The Phantom Menace with a bad taste in my mouth. It just hadn’t lived up to my expectations and in some ways didn’t even really feel like Star Wars. It lacked that lived-in aspect of the original trilogy, and the grungy, utilitarian aesthetic had been replaced by a slicker, glossier look. There were no fun, memorable characters for me to bond with – Anakin was just an annoying little kid, Padmé had no real depth whatsoever, and Obi-Wan was barely in the damn thing. And yes, I hated Jar-Jar with a passion. As the subsequent films in the prequel trilogy played out, I was equally disappointed. Attack of the Clones briefly appeared to be getting things back on track and had more of a proper Star Wars vibe than the previous entry in the series, but the lackluster romance and bad dialogue ultimately sank my opinion of that film. Revenge of the Sith was arguably the best of the three, but it had feet of clay, having been built on the shaky foundation of the previous two films. I wondered how this could possibly be what George Lucas really had in mind when he launched the saga in 1977.
Back then a lot of people, myself among them, believed there were completed screenplays for all nine movies that had been in existence since the 70s, but now I was starting to doubt that. I began to think Lucas had been lying all along, that there had never been a long-term plan for the saga. This belief grew stronger when Lucas announced there was not going to be a sequel trilogy and that there had never been a story in place for any events following Return of the Jedi – this despite his having stated in the early 80s that he had planned a saga of nine films. I was burning with curiosity to know the truth. Indeed, it became almost an obsession, and I’ve been sifting through the evidence ever since. Like the Watergate scandal, there was one simple question: What did George Lucas know and when did he know it? I’ve spent many hours scouring the internet for any tidbits I could find that might shed light on this question. My search led me to two key sources that I consider to be reliable: The Making of Star Wars by J.W Rinzler and The Secret History of Star Wars by Michael Kaminski. Both books are excellent, highly readable volumes that offer a wealth of information on the history of the Star Wars saga and I highly recommend them. In brief, here is what I learned.
George Lucas began his journey toward what would ultimately become Star Wars by trying to purchase the rights to Flash Gordon sometime in the early 70s. When he was unsuccessful, he decided to craft his own space odyssey from scratch. He first put pen to paper sometime in 1973 with a two-page treatment entitled Journal of the Whills. This version would have chronicled the adventures of a Jedi-Templar named Mace Windy and his padawan, C.J. Thorpe. After being expelled from the Jedi order, the two embark on a mission at the behest of the Chairman of the Alliance of Independent Systems. Much of the text is lifted from the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, A Fighting Man of Mars. Lucas quickly abandoned this version. His next attempt was a sci-fi remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 samurai film, The Hidden Fortress. In that film, Toshiro Mifune plays a general tasked with escorting a princess through hostile territory. The character eventually became the template for Obi-Wan Kenobi. Lucas was unable to secure the rights to The Hidden Fortress, so he reworked the story into something more original. Multiple drafts later, he finally arrived at the version of Star Wars with which we are all familiar. But the question remains – how much of the overall saga had he worked out when the first film was released? The answer is somewhat convoluted.
The first evidence that Lucas had any sort of overall plan for the saga comes in 1976 when he met with prolific sci-fi author Alan Dean Foster to discuss a novelization of the first film. At that time, Lucas was still negotiating his contract with 20th Century Fox and did not know if he would get to make any sequel films. For this reason, he broached the idea of Foster writing sequel novels. It was at this point that Lucas first revealed his plans for a trilogy of stories followed by a possible prequel. He told Foster that the sequel would essentially be Gone With the Wind in space, exploring the love triangle between Luke, Leia, and Han Solo. In fact, the finished version of The Empire Strikes Back lifts some of its dialogue from Margaret Mitchell’s novel. Even the poster for Empire is patterned after the poster for Gone With the Wind. So this part of the plan at least came to fruition. Lucas went on to say that the third story would be a soap opera about the Skywalker family and that at some point he might like to do one about Obi-Wan Kenobi as a young man and chronicling the rise of the Empire. No details are provided, with Lucas’s only specific instruction being that in the second story Luke and Leia should kiss. This would seem to refute any notion that Leia was always going to be Luke’s sister. It does, however, demonstrate that Lucas did indeed at least have a general idea of how he wanted the series to play out. So now we have four stories: the Luke Skywalker trilogy and a prequel about Obi-Wan Kenobi. Was that the entire plan or was there more to it? Difficult to say. All that’s known for certain is that he had a script in development for the first film and wanted to make sequels.
Things changed after the release of the first film. Lucas had expected Star Wars to be a failure, but it went on the become the highest-grossing movie ever made and an international sensation. Now Lucas could do anything he wanted and there were claims at the time that the series might go on indefinitely, like the James Bond franchise. Many story concepts were proposed. There was to be one about the founding of the Jedi Order, another about the Clone Wars, one about Wookies, one about driods, all of them only loosely connected by a shared universe and not necessarily told in chronological order. Lucas soon put a cap on the series. There would be twelve films in all, a number chosen because the old cliffhanger serials of the 30s and 40s which had been the original inspiration for Star Wars usually consisted of twelve chapters. Each film would have a different director, but then Lucas himself would return to direct the final film in the series, sometime around 2001. Mark Hamill recalls Lucas asking him on the set of the first film if he would like to be in episode IX. Asked for details, Lucas told him it would be a mere cameo, passing the torch to the next generation. Still, it indicates that during production of the first film Lucas was already envisioning a long-running series.
By the time Star Wars II went into production, Lucas scaled things back. Instead of twelve films, it would now be nine. His claim was that in the mid-70s he had written a single giant script of epic proportions that told the entire story of Star Wars. Realizing it was too big for a single film, he split it into two scripts, then further divided it into two trilogies, and then after the success of the first film he added another trilogy. The current trilogy would be the story of Luke Skywalker and the rebellion against the Empire, the second trilogy would be a prequel story about how the Republic fell and was replaced by the Empire, and the third trilogy would be set years later and focus on the rebuilding of the Republic. But was any of this true? Well… sort of.
The giant script he’s referring to is his first draft, entitled simply The Star Wars. This version of the story was truly epic in scope, with many characters and locations and of course plenty of action. An opening title card tells us that the valiant Jedi Knights have been all but wiped out by a rival sect called the Sith. The galaxy is now in the grip of a corrupt empire. The story opens on the planet Utapau where Kane Starkiller is marooned with his two sons, Annikin and Deak. A spaceship lands nearby and a Sith Knight emerges. When the Sith kills Deak, Kane immediately takes his revenge. Kane and Annikin then take the Sith’s ship, traveling to the planet Aquilae to find Kane’s old friend, General Luke Skywalker. Kane is dying, and much of his body is now mechanical, so he asks Luke to train Annikin. The planet is invaded by the Empire, so the General must escort Princess Leia across hostile territory. They flee to the spaceport of Gordon where they meet an old friend of Luke’s, a green alien named Han Solo. They are also joined by two bickering Imperial bureaucrats who provide some comic relief. Together they obtain a spaceship and flee the planet with the Imperial forces in hot pursuit. There is a tense chase through an asterioid field and the ship is damaged, forcing them to bail out in space pods. They land on the jungle planet Yavin, where they encounter a tribe of yeti-like primitives called Wookies. The Imperials catch up with them and capture Princess Leia, taking her to their space fortress, the Death Star. Annikin rushes off to rescue the princess while Luke trains the Wookies to do battle with the Empire. On the Death Star, Annikin encounters Prince Valorum, a noble Sith Lord who is at odds with the Death Star’s commander, General Darth Vader. In the end, Valorum decides to turn his back on the Empire, helping Annikin and the Princess escape just as Luke and the Wookies arrive in a fleet of stolen spaceships. The Death Star is destroyed, the Empire overthrown, and peace returns to the galaxy.
Gradually, over the course of many revisions, the script morphed into the original Star Wars which was released in 1977. In subsequent drafts, Annikin Starkiller would become Luke Skywalker and General Luke Skywalker would become Obi-Wan Kenobi. Han Solo would become human. The bickering Imperials morphed into C3P0 and R2D2. The names and details changed, but the characters and overall story structure were already more or less in place. That first draft script is by no means identical to the finished version of the entire Star Wars saga as Lucas claims. It’s just an early version of the original Star Wars. However, it does contain many concepts that were not in the original film, such as the chase through the asteroid belt and the tribe of primitives. There’s also a sequence that takes place on a city that floats in the clouds. Lucas would eventually dust off these elements and use them in the second two Star Wars films. Prince Valorum’s change of heart also foreshadows Vader’s arc in Return of the Jedi. It could be argued that in a sense the first draft script actually is a condensed version the entire original trilogy. It doesn’t have all the details, of course, but the broad strokes are there. So what Lucas told us is true – from a certain point of view.
But Darth Vader is clearly not Luke’s father in this version, nor is this the case in any of the subsequent drafts, and there is no suggestion of any sort of prequel. When did all this come about? Lucas has long insisted that the plan all along was for Darth Vader to be the father of Luke Skywalker, that he held onto this secret for a long time, even putting fake dialogue in the movies to throw people off. Is any of this true? Did Lucas really have the entire prequel story worked out before filming the first Star Wars? Again, yes and no. Despite having claimed early on that he had originally written the screenplays for the prequels as part of his original massive screenplay chronicling the entire saga, Lucas has since clarified that he had only ever written an outline for the prequels, and this is true. The evidence for this can be found in Alan Dean Foster’s novelization of the first Star Wars, published before the release of the film, which features a prologue chronicling the fall of the Republic and the rise to power of Emperor Palpatine. Though some of the details are different, this prologue closely follows what we see in the prequel films, so it’s clearly true that he did indeed have the prequel story written out at least as an outline. But despite what Lucas claims, Darth Vader was not originally Luke’s father.
This story beat came about during the development of The Empire Strikes Back. Originally marked as episode II, the first draft of Empire opens with the ghost of Luke’s father appearing to Luke to tell him he has a sister hidden away on the other side of the galaxy who is also training to be a Jedi. It’s possible this story element first entered into Lucas’s mind during the development of the first film, when he briefly considered making the protagonist a girl. The sister character would have shown up in a future episode. When screenwriter Leigh Brackett died, Lucas was forced to complete the script on his own. It was in 1978 that Lucas made the momentous decision to merge Luke’s father and Darth Vader into one character. The reason for this is unknown, but in The Secret History of Star Wars, Michael Kaminski speculates that the reveal that Darth Vader killed Luke’s father was slated for the climax of Empire. Lucas did tease in 1976 that the second story would feature a big reveal about Vader, and this may have been it. But Lucas eventually included that bit of information in the first movie, leaving the second film without the shocking reveal Lucas was looking for. After much brainstorming, Lucas must have come up with the idea for Vader to be Luke’s father. I find this theory to be plausible. So prior to 1978, Darth Vader and Luke’s Father were always separate characters.
Does this make Lucas a liar? Well… not entirely. Remember that the first draft script featured three separate characters: the Sith Lord Prince Valorum who is initially a villain but ultimately redeems himself, the partially mechanical Kane Starkiller, and the evil General Darth Vader. Aspects of all three characters would eventually be rolled together into the final version of Darth Vader, and one of those characters was indeed the father of Annikin Starkiller, who would be called Luke Skywalker in the final version. So once again, there’s a grain of truth in Lucas’s assertion that this was the original story. The elements were all there, just in a different form. Still, the fact remains that the version of Darth Vader introduced in the first Star Wars film was not intended to be Luke’s father. That aspect was introduced in the second draft of Empire. We could quibble over whether Lucas is being entirely truthful about the origins of the character, but what really matters is that not only was this a great twist, it made the backstory more interesting. It was once this new revelation about Vader was added into the mix that Empire changed from episode II to episode V. Now, instead of a single prequel about Obi-Wan Kenobi, there would be an entire prequel trilogy about the fall of Anakin Skywalker.
It is now established as fact that the scripts for the prequels were written in the late 90s and early 2000s. Before that, they only ever existed as an outline. Part of that outline definitely existed before the original Star Wars went into production, but the history of Darth Vader was added during the development of Return of the Jedi. Lucas would eventually admit that Episode III constitutes the bulk of that outline, with only about twenty percent of the rest of the material spread across the other two episodes. Characters like Count Dooku, Qui-Gon Jinn, and Jar-Jar Binks did not exist until the 90s, and Anakin was not originally intended to be a chosen one of prophecy. However, it’s also pretty clear to me that Episode I as filmed is cobbled together from abandoned story beats from his first draft of the original Star Wars as well as worldbuilding elements from his earliest notes.
When you go back to the beginning, the core elements are all there. Lucas’s early notes describe a planet called Aquilae which became Utapau in a later version and then finally Naboo – Lucas tends to play musical chairs with names. The planet is inhabited by both human colonists called Bebers (the prototype for the Naboo) and a race of amphibious creatures called the Hubble people (the prototype for the Gungans). The original script for The Star Wars features a planet being invaded by a hostile force, just as Naboo would be invaded in The Phantom Menace. That script also features a Jedi general who rescues a princess and helps her escape from her planet, which is clearly the template for the rescue of Padmé in The Phantom Menace. In interviews from the late 70s, Lucas talked about how Senator Palpatine used a crisis to maneuver himself into becoming Chancellor of the Republic, so that was already in the mix. Also, both A New Hope and The Phantom Menace conclude with the destruction of a space fortress, a story beat derived from the first draft script. So while the finished script didn’t exist back in the 70s, the story elements were already in play. There were some changes along the way, of course. In the earliest version of The Phantom Menace, Anakin was older, and Qui-Gon Jinn’s entire role was originally written for Obi-Wan. Personally, I would have preferred it that way, and I know I’m not alone. Nevertheless, the basic story is definitely derived from material that dates back to the 70s.
Attack of the Clones is the entry in the series which had the most blanks to fill in. Lucas admits that this film contains only two story beats that were outlined in the 70s. The first is Anakin falling in love with Luke’s mother, a story beat that had only been developed in the most basic terms. The second is Palpatine’s reveal of an army which he was developing in secret. At some point during the prequels, the Clone Wars would have been addressed, though it’s not clear at what point they would have entered into the story. The details would have been different too. Instead of the Republic being menaced by a droid army, the main threat would have been an army of invading clones. This was revealed by Lucasfilm in the early 80s. Interestingly, they also revealed that the Imperial stormtroopers were clones too. This would eventually be changed and in the current version of the story, by the time of the original Star Wars, the clones of the prequel era had been replaced by natural-born human recruits. Still, we have proof that the concept of the Republic having a clone army had already been introduced in the early 80s.
As for Episode III, a transcript of a story meeting between Lucas and Lawrance Kasdan reveals some details about how the original version would have gone down. Having been corrupted by Palpatine, Anakin secretly begins assassinating Jedi. Anakin’s wife is pregnant with twins but doesn’t tell Anakin because she can see he’s falling to the dark side. She confides in Obi-Wan, who tries to sway Anakin back to the light. Anakin won’t listen, leading to a duel on a lava planet in which Anakin is horribly burned, becoming the Darth Vader we all know and love. Palpatine and Vader succeed in wiping out the Jedi and establish the Empire. Anakin’s wife sends Luke to Tattoine with Obi-Wan to watch over him, and she takes the baby girl and goes into hiding with Bail Organa on Alderaan, dying a few years later. From a narrative perspective, the final version seen in Revenge of the Sith is probably a little bit better, because it would have been hard to sympathize with an Anakin who is systematically murdering his fellow Jedi. His actions in the last act of the film are horrible, but having to watch Anakin committing cold-blooded murder for most of the film’s running time would probably have been too much. Lucas must have realized this, so the change was a smart move. From a continuity perspective, it still bothers me that Padmé dies while Luke and Leia are both infants – which directly contradicts Jedi, in which Leia says she has childhood memories of her mother.
I can see why Lucas did it though. He was clearly going for some poetic parallel storytelling, with Anakin metaphorically dying at the same time as Padmé, both of these events juxtaposed against the creation of new life in the form of Luke and Leia and the unnatural “birth” of Darth Vader. Admittedly, it’s a really elegantly staged scene. It’s just… not what was established by the original trilogy. But that is often the case in a long-running series. Star Wars was not the first saga to contradict itself in this way, nor would it be the last. Lucas was groping his way through the dark, trying to tell the best story he could, and given that this all played out over multiple decades, he must have been getting new ideas all the time. Those new ideas would have been exciting and enticing, and the temptation to fudge things in order to tell a better story was probably irresistable.
Much of Episodes II and III were developed in the storyboarding phase, with Lucas weaving relevant story beats from his outline into newly conceived set-pieces and introducing new characters such as Count Dooko and General Grievous as the unfolding story demanded. Revenge of the Sith also underwent heavy revisions during post production. New scenes were filmed and added into the finished film to establish that Anakin’s obsession with Padme is the reason he falls to the dark side. This created a bit of a problem, as they ran out of time in advance of the release date, so the final act does not quite align with the first two thirds of the film. It is unfortunate that the finished product fell short in this capacity, since most fans agree it is the best of the prequels. If only they’d had a little more time, it could have been better still. It would be easy to criticize Lucas and his team, but the reality is that there are often such pressures in Hollywood. Empire and Jedi suffered from similar issues. Empire somehow managed to overcome these difficulties and is now generally considered the best of the series, but Jedi would not fare so well and is widely regarded as the weakest of the original trilogy.
But what about the sequel trilogy? Lucas was already talking about that when Empire was still in production, though he was tight-lipped for decades about what it would entail. All he would say was that it would focus on the rebuilding of the Republic and themes of morality and passing on knowledge to the next generation. In the early 90s, Timothy Zahn released his popular trilogy of novels which continued the story after the events of Jedi, leading many to suspect these were novelizations of Lucas’s planned sequel trilogy. However, while Lucas did offer his input and had veto power over any story decisions, Zahn largely crafted these novels on his own. It is unlikely they reflect what Lucas would have done with a trilogy of films.
Further adding to the confusion, in the early 2000s, Gary Kurtz, who produced the first two Star Wars films, shared details of what he claimed was the original plan for the whole saga. In interviews and convention appearances, he said that Jedi would have seen Han die and Leia crowned queen of the surviving people of Alderaan. Luke’s sister would have returned from the other side of the galaxy, and the twins would have carried on the fight alone. Eventually, in the final episode, they would face the Emperor together. Lucas has not corroborated these claims, however, and they do not align with what is known of the plans for the original trilogy. It’s true that if Harrison Ford had elected not to sign on for the third film, Han would have been written out, but that was only ever a contingency plan. Lucas intended for Han to survive the film. Also, it was always intended that the Emperor appear in Jedi and the Empire be overthrown. Every draft of the script reflects this. On a side note, in early drafts of the script, the final confrontation between Luke, Vader, and the Emperor took place not on the unfinished second Death Star, but on the city planet of Had Abbadon, which would later appear in the prequels, having been rechristened Coruscant by Timothy Zahn in the expanded universe novels. As for the sister character, that story was abandoned when Lucas decided to merge the characters of Darth Vader and Luke’s father in the second draft of Empire. It was felt that Vader having one child was already stretching credibility. Two would have been too much. Obviously Lucas changed his mind when he made Leia both Luke’s sister and the “other” that Yoda refers to, but this was only a convenient solution to a problem. By 1983, Lucas’s marriage was falling apart – largely due to his involvement with Star Wars consuming his life and leaving him no time for his family. Lucas decided to scrap his plans for all future Star Wars movies and wrap everything up with Jedi. Had he gone ahead and made more Star Wars movies, it’s possible he would have dusted off the sister character for use in the sequels, but there is no concrete evidence that was his plan. The simple fact is that only George Lucas knows what his plan for the sequels was back in the 80s, if indeed there was any plan at all.
Years later, after he’d had some time to heal, the special effects revolution brought about by Jurassic Park prompted Lucas to revisit Star Wars and finally do the prequel trilogy. Having scrapped the sequel trilogy in favor of wrapping the whole thing up with Jedi, that gives us a fully-realized narrative in six parts: the rise and fall of Darth Vader set against the backdrop of the rise and fall of the Empire. At that point in time, Lucas claimed he had no story in place for a sequel trilogy and that he was done with Star Wars. And yet when he sold Lucasfilm to Disney a few years later, it turned out that treatments for a Star Wars sequel trilogy were part of the package and that new films were going into production. So what’s the story? Was there a treatment for a sequel trilogy or not? It’s impossible to say for sure, but given that Lucas had been talking for decades about making sequels, he probably did have at least some notes stashed away and maybe even a basic outline. But after all the criticism hurled at him over the prequels, he was just tired of it all and lacked any motivation to go ahead and do the films. And that attitude is understandable. So how closely does Disney’s sequel trilogy align with Lucas’s plans? That’s difficult to say. It depends a lot on just how much material Lucas had worked out. If his notes were vague, then the films probably had to be invented largely from whole cloth. We simply don’t know just how detailed they were or exactly what changed between his version and Disney’s.
We do know a few things about George’s version though. For starters, Leia would have been the focus of the story and would ultimately have been revealed to be the chosen one (this at least was clearly a recent development, as the chosen one story element had been invented in the late 90s). Lucas’s sequels would have focused on rebuilding the Republic. There would have been remnants of the Imperial army that refused to surrender, much like what was depicted in Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy. These Imperials would have formed a terrorist organization, carrying out attacks on the New Republic. This aspect isn’t all that different from the First Order seen in the Disney version. Also, Luke would have become a recluse and he would have trained a female apprentice, just as happens in the Disney films. Luke was even going to die in George’s version. So at least some of what happens in the Disney films can be traced directly back to Lucas. Whether these were things Lucas came up with in the early 80s or were recent inventions only Lucas knows.
Other aspects were very different though. It was going to turn out that Darth Maul was still alive. He seizes control of the criminal enterprise left vacant by the death of Jabba the Hutt and works to sow chaos throughout the galaxy. He also begins training a new apprentice – Darth Talon, who had been introduced in the comics. Han and Leia’s children would have been part of the story, and their names would probably have been Sam and Kira. Sam would have been a cocksure pilot like his father, and Kira would have sought Luke out to be trained as a Jedi.
Lucas has also said he would have delved into a “microbiotic world.” We would have met the Whills, the beings who control the Force and are essentially the gods of the Star Wars universe. That would have been interesting to see, assuming Lucas didn’t botch the execution. It’s possible the microbiotic world of the Whills would have just been weird, and if he’d handled it as awkwardly as he did the introduction of the midichlorians in The Phantom Menace, it might have been painful to watch. Nevertheless, both concepts date back to the 70s and were part of the genesis of the saga all along, so it’s not surprising that Lucas would eventually want to bring them in.
Would Lucas’s version of the sequel trilogy have been better? Maybe, maybe not. It may have just been different. I do think that he would have introduced new concepts and new worlds rather than retreading old material just as pure fan service the way Kathleen Kennedy and J.J. Abrams did. But it probably would have had its own problems too. Certainly I take issue with some of what he was going to do, my biggest problem being the return of Darth Maul. That character clearly died at the end of The Phantom Menace and to resurrect him just seems tacky to me (I feel the same way about Boba Fett, by the way). I think it would have been much better to introduce a brand new Sith character to be the villain of the new trilogy. Snoke had the potential to fill this role well if they’d handled his backstory better. Alas, they screwed that up completely. But while I would have preferred a new character, if you’re going to resurrect a villain, Palpatine actually makes much more sense than Maul as it’s established in Revenge of the Sith that Palpatine is seeking immortality. Also, his return unites the whole saga under one main umbrella villain and ties it all together.
And in fact, the return of Palpatine was something of a turning point for me. When The Force Awakens was first released, I had mixed feelings about it. I was already conflicted about Lucas selling the property to Disney. All of the Star Wars movies up to that point had been released through 20th Century Fox. Hearing the Fox fanfare at the opening was part of the experience of watching a Star Wars movie. To this day, if I hear the Fox fanfare with the Cinemascope extension, I have a Pavlovian response where I expect it to be followed by the Star Wars theme. So when the lights came down and the movie opened with silence, it just felt off out of the gate. On top of that was the knowledge going in that Lucas had been pushed out of the process. Say what you will about the quality of the man’s work, he’s still the original author. He created this wonderful universe that we all get to enjoy. To dismiss him like that was just disrespectful. For a long time, I had trouble thinking of the sequel trilogy as anything but really expensive fanfiction. Things didn’t get any better when The Last Jedi came out. I’d waited all these years for the triumphant return of Luke Skywalker only to find he was some bitter old recluse who’d turned his back on his family and friends. It was just utterly disappointing. But then came The Rise of Skywalker. As the date approached for me to finally see it, I realized this was the last time I was going to see a new Star Wars movie. Oh, sure, there might be new movies like Solo or Rogue One, but as far as the nine-part Skywalker saga was concerned, this was it. I decided I was going to try to be less critical, try not to nitpick over little things and just have a good time. In effect, I tried to see the film through the eyes of the child I had once been when I saw the original Star Wars so many years ago. And I had a blast.
Yes, there were aspects of the plot that were redundant or didn’t make any sense. Yes, there was a bit of fanservice on display. Yes, some of the dialogue was cheesy. But I didn’t care. There were spaceships and laser battles and lightsaber duels and droids and aliens and it was all just a heck of a good time. And then there was Palpatine, as delightfully evil as ever and it was awesome. Some people complained that his return didn’t make any sense, but as far as I can see, none of the rules of the universe were violated. We know that in the Star Wars universe cloning is a thing and we know also that Force Ghosts are a thing. So Palpatine continued after his death as a Force Ghost, then inhabited the body of a clone that had been grown for him. Simple, really. The movie doesn’t belabor the explanation, but it’s there if you care to look. But simply having Palpatine repeat his line from Revenge of the Sith tells you everything you need to know: “The dark side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural.” Boom, there you go. Dark side spooky spooky, Palpatine back, moving on. I accept that it didn’t work for some people, but it worked for me.
And then information started to leak about what George had been planning for the sequels. With each new tidbit, it began to feel more and more like the sequels had followed George’s original plan much more closely than it initially appeared. They began to feel less and less like fanfiction and more like a legitimate continuation of the story. And while they deviated from the original treatment in certain respects, it’s important to remember that all of the movies evolved during their development. There never really was a master plan in the first place. Only a vague idea that yes, there would be more movies, but what form those movies would take was always in flux. It all grew out of the same pot of ideas, the same creative soup that George Lucas cooked up way back in the early 70s. There were many creative voices who contributed to the original Star Wars trilogy. Marcia Lucas, Leigh Brackett, Lawrence Kasdan, Ralph McQuarrie, Willard Huyk, and Gloria Katz to name a few. And even in 1983, a burned-out George Lucas said that any future Star Wars movies would be someone else’s vision, not his. Going back even further to immediately after the release of the original film, we find George’s statement that each film in the series would be helmed by a new director, with the story going in any number of possible directions. All this prompted me to reassess some of the movies I’d criticized so harshly.
Rewatching the prequels now, having seen them so many times, I can much more readily accept their flaws. Jar-Jar, while annoying, is not quite so unbearable to me as when I first encountered him. And finding out that midichlorians were part of the world-building all along has helped me to warm to that particular element, so I no longer cringe so much at their mention. Anakin and Padme… yeah, that’s still a disaster. But it’s set against the backdrop of so much cool action and sci-fi spectacle that I can deal with it even if there are problems I can’t fully overlook. The prequels are not the greatest movies ever made but they’re still entertaining – to me, at least. I still complain about all the problems, but at the end of the day I have a good time watching them. The same goes for the sequels. And frankly, there’s nothing wrong with the sequels that isn’t also wrong with some of the other films. Yes, The Force Awakens recycles plot elements from A New Hope but so does The Phantom Menace. Yes, Starkiller base is just a retread of the Death Star, but Return of the Jedi also features an unnecessary extra Death Star. Yes, we play ping-pong with Rey’s identity, but it’s not any more painful than the nonsensical reveal that Leia is Luke’s sister, which really adds little to the overall narrative and retroactively makes the previous two films somewhat icky. Despite some pacing issues in The Last Jedi and some other problems here and there, I find the sequels to be fun. And as I said before, they do use at least some story elements from George’s version.
Ultimately, we got what we got. It isn’t perfect, but in hindsight, the original trilogy wasn’t perfect either (I’m looking at you, Jedi). In any long-running saga, it stands to reason that there are going to be some entries that don’t live up to the rest. Really, it’s amazing the overall Star Wars saga is as good as it is. The point is, we do finally have the nine-part Skywalker saga that Lucas promised us in the early 80s. It may not be exactly what we were expecting or even what we wanted, but that doesn’t automatically make them terrible. For my part, now that I’ve had some time to process and get used to what both the prequels and the sequels gave me, I’ve actually found much to love about them. Ian McDiarmid’s dual performance as the devious Senator Palpatine and cackling Darth Sidious is a delight. Natalie Portman eventually grew into her own as the cerebral Padmé. And Ewan McGregor’s turn as a swashbuckling Obi-Wan Kenobi was plenty of fun. There’s lots of action and spectacle, and thanks to modern special effects, the Star Wars universe is finally revealed in a way that the original trilogy could only hint at. I thoroughly like the character of Rey, and Daisy Ridley’s performance is right on the money. Kylo Ren, who failed to impress me at first, finally won me over thanks to Adam Driver’s tortured performance. And while at first I didn’t care for the idea of a rogue Luke Skywalker, upon reflection I realized that this was a really interesting and unexpected direction to take the character. In the end, I came to the conclusion that there’s more for me to love about all nine movies than there is for me to complain about. And at last I have the complete nine-part Star Wars saga sitting on my shelf in nice, pretty packaging just like I always wanted and it’s wonderful. I’m at a point now where I can make my peace with the saga’s flaws and just have a good time. So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go enjoy some Star Wars.
Despite numerous eye-witnesses insisting that the Titanic broke in two as it sank, engineers said that was impossible, so for decades after the event the conventional wisdom was that the ship sank intact. When Robert Ballard finally discovered the wreck in the mid 1980s, the truth was revealed. Although A Night to Remember (1958) can be forgiven for this historical misstep, the error nevertheless exists. But at least the title of the movie wasn’t The Ship That Sank Intact. Arthur Penn’s The Left Handed Gun, released the same year, did not escape the same fate.
There is only a single authenticated photograph of notorious gunslinger Henry McCarty, alias William H. Bonney, A.K.A. Billy the Kid. In this picture, the Kid can be seen wearing his gun on his left hip, leading everyone to assume he was left-handed. But in the 1980s, someone finally noticed that the loading gate on Billy’s 1873 Winchester Carbine was on the wrong side, proving that the picture was actually a reverse image. Billy the Kid was right-handed.
The film does not dwell on or indeed even mention Billy’s left-handedness (though he does wear his gun on his left hip), however the fact that the film’s very title is a historical inaccuracy underscores the emphasis on drama rather than fact. To be fair, many other films didn’t even try. The Billy the Kid series of the 1940s starring Buster Crabbe featured a guy in a cowboy hat who bore no resemblance whatsoever to the real person, and it’s probably safe to assume that Billy the Kid vs. Dracula did not prioritize historical accuracy. In terms of broad strokes, The Left Handed Gun is more-or-less faithful to the actual events, but it does get a number of details wrong.
Expanding on an episode of the TV series The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse called “The Death of Billy the Kid,” penned by Gore Vidal (who would later revisit the material himself in the 1989 TV movie Billy the Kid), screenwriter Leslie Stevens focuses on Billy as a tormented youth. Reprising the role from the TV episode, Paul Newman plays Billy as moody, reactionary, and temperamental. While he is occasionally shown clowning around with his friends, Newman’s Billy is morose more often than not, moping about and dwelling on how he’s been wronged, quick to fly into a rage even at his friends. While there is much we don’t know about the real Billy, and there’s certainly room for interpretation, none of this aligns with what we do know. By all accounts, the real Billy the Kid was a gentleman: courteous, polite, and laid back even when things were dire. While in jail awaiting sentencing, Billy told a reporter, “What’s the use of looking on the gloomy side of everything? The joke’s on me this time.” Stevens writes Billy as illiterate, but this too is inaccurate. During his incarceration, Billy sent multiple eloquently-written letters to Governor Lew Wallace pleading his case.
One of the most obvious ways in which the film takes liberties with history is in the compression of time, with the events depicted in the first third of the film being especially condensed. In the movie’s version of the tale, rancher John Tunstall (Colin Keith-Johnston) is murdered by his competitors, Billy and his friends kill the corrupt Sheriff Brady (Robert Foulk) in retaliation, and the angry residents of the town corner Billy at the home of Alex McSween (John Dierkes) and set fire to the place. To say that the movie leaves out some details would be an understatement to say the least. In reality, Tunstall’s death sparked a sweeping conflict involving hundreds of people that came to be known as the Lincoln County War. Following Tunstall’s death, Alex McSween had Billy and rancher Dick Brewer deputized. They attempted to serve warrants on Tunstall’s killers, but Sheriff Brady ignored the warrants and instead threw Billy and Brewer in jail. When they got out, Brewer formed the Regulators, a group consisting of thirteen men, including Billy the Kid, who swore to serve their own brand of justice. A lengthy and violent conflict ensued, with multiple shootouts and a substantial body count. It all culminated in the Battle of Lincoln, a protracted gunfight that finally ended with the burning of the McSween mansion. Whole books have been written on the subject of the Lincoln County War, but this film boils it down to only the barest of essentials. The burning of the McSween house is nothing at all like the real incident. Instead of an actual battle involving two sizable factions and lots of shooting, the scene plays more like a lynching. Billy is depicted as being somewhat cowardly, diving out a window and leaving McSween to die in the fire. In reality, Billy led several Regulators out the front door to draw enemy fire while McSween escaped out the back. Unfortunately, the plan failed, and McSween was shot dead before he reached the back gate. What in real life was a three-day standoff takes up just a few minutes in the movie. After the portion of the film that corresponds to the Lincoln County War, the story is allowed to breathe for a bit, focusing on character-driven drama and Billy’s lingering anger over what took place, but in terms of real history, even this is condensed. All of the events in the film seem to take place within a matter of months, but in fact things played out over several years.
There are other inaccuracies to be found throughout. In an early scene, a character talks about Billy having killed a man in Silver City for insulting his mother. This is likely a reference to Billy’s killing of Frank “Windy” Cahill. But the real incident took place at Fort Grant, not Silver City, and Billy did not shoot Cahill for insulting his mother, but because Cahill physically assaulted him. In the film’s climax, Pat Garrett guns Billy down in the street, whereas the real shooting occurred indoors. The village of Old Fort Sumner, where Billy spent much of his time in the final two years of his life, has for some reason been renamed Modero. Billy’s gang, the Regulators, are never mentioned by name, and their numbers are reduced from thirteen to just three. Similarly, the Murphy-Dolan faction, backed by the infamous Santa-Fe ring and employing multiple gunmen from several gangs, are reduced to just four conspirators, none of whom are named Murphy or Dolan. One of the most puzzling departures from real history is in Billy’s famous showdown with Joe “Texas Red” Grant, in which the Kid covertly sabotaged his opponent’s pistol before things got ugly. In the movie, Grant survives his encounter with the Kid. In real life, he did not. Really, the whole scene is an inversion of fact, with Billy raving like a madman at the calm and collected Grant. The truth is that Grant was drunk and confrontational, while Billy kept his cool the whole time. The reversal is an odd choice, considering the decision of the filmmakers to depict Billy as short-tempered and violence-prone.
Most of these issues are trivial, however. It’s a movie after all, not a documentary, and it’s not uncommon for movies based on real events to combine characters and streamline narratives for dramatic purposes. However, there is one pivotal element that doesn’t quite work and which leaves the rest of the film on slightly shaky ground. All of Billy’s violent actions stem from the murder of his employer, John Tunstall, depicted here as a kindly old man (he was really only 24). But the movie never really conveys why Tunstall is so important to Billy that his death sparks such a reaction. Very little time elapses between the opening of the film, when Billy wanders onto Tunstall’s ranch, and the sequence depicting Tunstall’s murder. There is really only one scene in which the characters bond, when Tunstall gives Billy a copy of the Bible and tries to teach him to read. (This never really happened.) Otherwise there’s nothing. The reality of the bond they shared and the effect Tunstall’s death had on Billy cannot be understated.
In real life, after the death of his mother, young Henry McCarty struggled to get by. Scrawny and with feminine features, he was mercilessly bullied by the ruffians he encountered and had to learn to act tough to hold his own. When he fell in with the wrong crowd, he was on a path to disaster. Now using the alias William H. Bonney, he arrived in Lincoln County, New Mexico, where he was soon thrown in jail for horse rustling. But after a conversation in the town jail, the owner of the horses decided not to press charges, instead giving Billy a job. That man was John Tunstall, and the event would have changed Billy’s life for the better if things had gone differently. Billy found dignity and stability in the months he spent working for Tunstall, who even gifted him with new clothes and new guns. This was Billy’s first and only chance at an honest life, and it was snatched away from him when Tunstall was murdered. The rage he must have felt is perfectly understandable and is completely glossed over in the film. They try to plant a flag on it, with the other characters wondering why Billy has flipped out over the death of a virtual stranger, but that just makes the whole thing feel even more awkward. It’s one of the weakest aspects of an otherwise really fine film.
Not all of the details in the film are wrong, of course. Though the situation is vastly oversimplified, it does accurately depict the motivations behind the Lincoln County War. The reasons for Tunstall’s murder at the hands of his business rivals are truthfully relayed, and Sheriff Brady’s participation in the conspiracy and thus the impossibility of justice ever being served are faithful to history. Out of all the Regulators they could have picked to include in the story, Charlie Bowdre and Tom O’Folliard are an understandable choice, as they were the only ones to continue riding with Billy after the Lincoln County War ended. It is true that after the fire at Alex McSween’s house, the governor declared amnesty for all participants in the Lincoln County War, but the movie leaves out the caveat that this did not apply to anyone with an indictment, so only the Murphy-Dolan faction was covered. Also, in the film it is ultimately Billy who breaks the truce. In reality, it was the Dolan faction who violated the agreement by killing Suzan McSween’s lawyer, Huston Chapman. This led Billy to seek a pardon for his indictment from Governor Wallace in exchange for testimony against Chapman’s killers. Wallace agreed to the pardon but never delivered, instead leaving the Kid to his fate. None of this is depicted in the film. Pat Garret’s capture of Billy at the cabin in Stinking Springs is more-or-less accurate, but Tom O’Folliard had already been killed several days earlier, and Billy angrily shoving Charlie Bowdre out of the cabin to be gunned down by Garrett’s posse is pure nonsense.
Just about spot-on, however, is the depiction of Billy’s most famous exploit: his escape from the Lincoln County Courthouse. With Garrett out of town, Deputy Bob Olinger (played here by Denver Pyle) was across the street having dinner, leaving Billy alone with Deputy James Bell. Since they were alone, no one knows what happened for sure, but somehow Billy managed to get his hands on a pistol and shot Bell. Billy would later tell a friend he didn’t like having to shoot Bell but felt he had no choice. This is depicted in the movie, with the Kid hesitating before firing. Drawn by the sound of gunfire, Olinger came running toward the courthouse but stopped in his tracks when he heard a voice from the window above. “Hello, Bob,” the Kid said, and blasted Olinger with his own shotgun. This event as filmed is almost perfect on a cinematic level, but for one slight flaw. Director Arthur Penn deviates from history slightly, staging the Kid on a balcony, backlit by the sun, rather than standing at the window. It’s a valid choice artistically, but we see the Kid in a POV shot, with a rack-focus attempting to convey Olinger straining to see, which doesn’t quite work as intended. Also, the moment lasts a few seconds too many. Billy waiting so long to fire is neither believable nor accurate. Aside from that, however, the scene is well-staged, tense, and true to history.
One of the most satisfying aspects of the movie from a historical standpoint is the casting of John Dehner as Pat Garret, who looks the part far more than any other actor to take on the role. The performance is solid as well. Dehner plays Garret as an everyman, which is probably not far from the truth. As for his relationship with Billy, well, that’s a bit complicated and depends largely on who you ask. According to Garret himself, he was on friendly terms with Billy, but he tried not to involve himself in the gunslinger’s activities. However, according to Fort Sumner resident Paulita Maxwell, “Garrett was the best friend Billy the Kid had in Fort Sumner,” and they were “as thick as two peas in a pod.” In the film, Garrett tries to mind his own business until he’s elected sheriff, and then he just does what he has to do with detachment, so the filmmakers are clearly leaning toward Garrett’s version of events. One thing that is decidedly a fabrication, however, is the scene where Billy guns down Tom Hill at Garrett’s wedding. This incident never took place, though it works dramatically to give Garrett the necessary motivation to turn on Billy and serves to sway the audience in Garrett’s favor. Had the film stuck to Garrett’s real motivation – the five-hundred-dollar reward on the Kid’s head – the audience would probably not be so sympathetic.
Needless to say, the selling point of the movie is Paul Newman’s performance, and he absolutely dominates the screen. Newman portrays Billy as dangerously unstable and obsessive. As with many other Billy the Kid films, he is the driving force behind his gang, browbeating his friends into going along with his criminal activities. In fact, Billy was never the leader of his gang. Dick Brewer, Frank McNab, and Doc Scurlock, who aren’t even depicted here, were the real leaders of the Regulators. And while Billy was certainly all-in, he never had to coerce anyone. But that isn’t what audiences want to see, and Newman’s performance is so magnetic it’s easy to forgive. Harder to overlook is Billy’s somewhat rapey seduction of romantic interest Celsa Guitirrez (Lita Milan). That is decidedly out of character for the real Billy and an uncomfortable smear on his reputation. That said, within the constructed narrative, it makes sense and is consistent with the forceful nature of Newman’s version of the Kid. Not true to life by any means, but certainly good drama. On that subject, it’s unclear whether Billy really had a relationship with Celsa. He was rumored to have been involved with Paulita Maxwell, though she vehemently denied it and even threatened to sue biographer Walter Noble Burns if he named her as Billy’s lover in his book, The Saga of Billy the Kid. It was she who pointed the finger at Celsa Guitirrez. The truth on that particular point will probably never be known.
Ultimately, this film is less about history and more an examination of the fine line a person with dangerous personality traits can walk and how easily such a person can succumb to an innate penchant for violence. Strangely, this is at odds with the ballad that plays over the opening credits. The song speaks of Billy as a tragic figure, a victim of circumstance, but that is not the story the movie serves up. On the whole, this film is a morality play. Shortly after Tunstall’s murder, as Billy is pondering revenge, Alex McSween urges restraint, saying that revenge will be wrong despite the miscarriage of justice. (McSween did no such thing.) This mission statement informs everything that follows, and while the movie does manage to tread on some morally complex themes as some of the conspirators struggle with guilt over their involvement in Tunstall’s murder, the bulk of the film focuses on Billy’s deteriorating mental state as he is inexorably swallowed by the violence in his soul. The film wants us to forgive Tunstall’s murderers and condemn Billy for not letting it go. The real-life events surrounding Billy the Kid and the Lincoln County War were not nearly so simple. They were full of shades of gray. Both sides were guilty of questionable business practices. Both sides carried out acts of bloody violence. The conspirators were unrepentant, the Regulators relentless. The Hollywood-style Western formula of easily identified good guys and bad guys bears little resemblance to history. The real Lincoln County was a lawless land, lorded over by corrupt politicians and shady businessmen who steamrolled ordinary people, where dangerous gunslingers ran rampant. Into this situation came Henry McCarty, an orphan without guidance caught up in something bigger than himself, scapegoated for crimes he was not solely responsible for, and propelled to international notoriety by sensationalized newspaper articles and an inaccurate biography written by the man who killed him for the purpose of assassinating his character. Westerns of the 1950s had no interest in such moral ambiguity, preferring simple tales of right and wrong, where lawmen served up justice and bandits got the punishment they deserved. Given that backdrop, it’s actually impressive that this movie has the level of complexity that it does.
The Left Handed Gun may not be the most historically accurate film made on the subject of Billy the Kid, but it’s most definitely one of the more entertaining ones. Under the steady hand of Arthur Penn in his directorial debut, working from a solidly constructed script by Leslie Stevens, it delivers a compelling character study, and Paul Newman’s performance alone is a must-see. With The Saga of Billy the Kid, Walter Noble Burns arguably created the modern legend of Billy the Kid, and Burns was no more interested in historical accuracy than Hollywood is. As the saying goes, if the legend is more interesting than history, go with the legend. That’s what The Left Handed Gun does, and the results are certainly interesting. Unfortunately, most people, if they know anything about Billy the Kid at all, are only familiar with Hollywood’s version of the story, and they assume that’s what really happened. They forget that Hollywood, after all, is not history.
How much time has to pass before a rip-off becomes an homage? Consider the following pitch: An embittered war veteran leads a rag-tag band of space pirates on a never-ending quest for the cash they need to keep their ship flying. Sound familiar? No, I’m not talking about Firefly. I’m talking about the 1983 low-budget Roger Corman cash grab, Space Raiders. One is a beloved though short-lived sci-fi series which borrows elements from Star Wars while injecting enough original elements to find its own identity. The other… is fondly remembered by some while being largely forgotten by most. But is Space Raiders a rip-off or does it have enough of a unique identity to stand on its own? Does the question even matter? When you boil it down, is it actually any good? Let’s have a look.
The late 70s and early 80s saw a glut of outer-space films designed to cash in on the success of Star Wars. Most of them focused on the superficial – space fighters in dogfights, strange aliens in droves, larger-than-life heroes and villains, and an emphasis on fun and adventure. Few if any of them touched on the mythic aspects at the core of Star Wars which was the key to its enduring success. Most of them, such as Star Crash and Message From Space survive today largely as curiosities. But others, including Space Raiders, have managed to garner their own cult followings. What makes the difference? In developing Firefly, Joss Whedon readily admits to drawing his inspiration from Star Wars, but he had the luxury of introducing his space opera over twenty years after the fact. And even though the Star Wars prequels were in the process of being released at the time, the cultural impact of the former saga had already soaked in. Star Wars is just part of the DNA of storytelling now. You can draw from it as readily as you might draw from Robin Hood or King Arthur. But when Star Wars was fresh, people were still trying to figure out what it was. A lot of producers didn’t even care. They just saw a space movie making lots of money and assumed that spaceships would be a draw. But others were still interested in trying to tell a good story. They saw the success in the space opera format, but they also knew that you still had to follow the rules of good storytelling. So into which category does Space Raiders fall? Well, a little of both.
The first thing a viewer will notice is the overall cheapness. The opening sequence, which takes place in a warehouse, is hardly futuristic. The exteriors are pretty obviously southern California, and one sequence takes place at a very present-day looking factory. What’s more, the special effects, sets, and music are all lifted from Corman’s earlier and far superior space film, Battle Beyond the Stars (which was also a Star Wars clone). When you know this, it becomes painfully obvious that Space Raiders was written around the existing effects rather than the effects being tailored to the script. To be fair, though, it was a smart business move. By comparison, Battle was lavishly-produced, featuring A-list talent like Richard Thomas, Robert Vaughn, and George Peppard. The sets looked great and the music was fantastic. All that doesn’t come cheap, so it’s understandable that Corman would want to get his money’s worth. The effects were originally created by James Cameron, and while not quite up to the standards set by Star Wars, they’re nevertheless impressive, especially considering the budgetary limitations. The stirring score was composed by James Horner, and it’s not surprising that both he and Cameron would go on to bigger and better things. Taken on their own, both elements integrate pretty well into Space Raiders, and it’s only when you know about the previous film that they contribute to the sense of cheapness. But such technical aspects aren’t necessarily everything. If the story and performances are strong enough, a film can rise above such shortcomings. So how does this film fare in that respect?
Space Raiders centers on Colonel C.F. Hawkins, or “Hawk,” played convincingly by veteran actor Vince Edwards. Once proud of his military career, he now laments his status, talking about the old days when “being in the space service really meant something.” Now he is affiliated with a criminal organization run by a reptilian creature called Zariatin. When a young boy named Peter (David Mendenhall) accidentally stows away on a ship Hawk’s crew is trying to steal, Hawk feels responsible and vows to get Peter home. The corporation that employs Peter’s father sends a robot ship (why does a robot ship have windows?) ostensibly on a rescue mission, but really in hopes of destroying Zariatin’s operation. Hoping to ransom Peter, Zariatin turns on Hawk, picking off the crew one-by-one. Finally Hawk bests Zariatin in a shootout but is wounded in the process. Fortunately, Peter paid really close attention when he watched the crew give first aid to a wounded comrade, and he manages to resuscitate Hawk, who then finally gets Peter home. It’s a pretty simple narrative, and it’s executed simply: setup, complication, payoff. As a cash-grab, that’s smart, and at 84 minutes, it’s definitely well-paced. That said, there’s such a thing as being too simple, and there are areas where Space Raiders probably should have been allowed to breathe. For one thing, aspects of the worldbuilding are implied rather than explicitly established. It certainly seems as if the galaxy is run by a single corporation but the movie doesn’t tell us that. We’re left to infer it. And that’s a bit sloppy.
But the most critical of these areas is in the relationship between Hawk and Peter. The entire film hinges on the bond between these two, and by extension, between Peter and Hawk’s crew. When the crew first discovers that Peter is aboard, he’s in the way and everyone is bemused and annoyed by his presence. Hawk even jokes about chucking him out the airlock. But when they come under fire by hostile space fighters, a critical ship component is damaged and they can’t get to it. Peter is just small enough that he can worm his way down into the engine to fix the problem, and presto! Peter has now earned his stripes and is treated as a full-fledged member of the crew. Just like that. It works… sort of. In reality that might earn him some token respect, but it’s hardly the sort of thing that makes people ready to sacrifice their lives for you. From this time on, they all act like Peter is a member of their family who has been traveling with them for years, or at least months. Contrast this with Simon and River, who occupy a similar role in Firefly. It’s the end of the two-hour pilot before Mal even invites them to stay aboard, and even that only if Simon earns his keep by acting as ship’s medic. And their position aboard ship is only ever tenuous. Indeed, in the big-screen film, which takes place eight months after Simon and River first come aboard, Mal actually loses his temper and kicks them off the ship. It’s only after Mal’s moral compass is triggered by the nefarious actions of the Alliance that he reverses and is ready to die for them if need be. Firefly earns that level of devotion only after fourteen TV episodes and half a feature film. Of course, Space Raiders doesn’t have that kind of time. But there are ways to accomplish that efficiently. The big-screen Firefly film, Serenity, is designed to still function even if you haven’t seen the show, and it manages to tell what in many ways is the same story much more effectively.
Part of the reason the dynamic doesn’t work is Peter himself. He’s frankly kind of annoying. Outside of that one instance when he saves the ship, and later when he briefly helps out by acting as gunner, he mostly just gets into trouble. After he comes aboard Hawk’s ship, the first stop is Zariatin Station, a hotbed of criminal activity not unlike the Mos Eisley Spaceport in Star Wars (complete with a cantina filled with aliens). Hawk puts Peter in a room and tells him to stay put. Naturally, Peter sneaks out and gets into trouble with a couple of thugs who look like the burglars from Home Alone. After chasing Peter through the bowels of the station, they finally catch him, forcing Hawk and company to go rescue him. But the company robot ship finds the thugs first and blasts them to smithereens. Peter gets away in an escape pod, sees Hawk’s ship in the distance, and actually yells, as if Hawk can hear him. When I was 10, I already knew that sound doesn’t travel in space, and I don’t live in a society where space travel is commonplace. What’s this kid’s excuse? Peter is not exactly a genius, and he’s certainly no Luke Skywalker. Even little kid Anakin had more charm. At least Anakin wanted to help out and save the day. Peter’s great ambition seems to be to get a job in an office and have an average, boring existence. Not quite the stuff that legends are made of.
But the biggest way in which the dynamic fails is in the fact that the movie wants us to think Peter sees Hawk as some kind of Big Damn Hero, but there’s never any point in the film that really shows us that. Peter never displays any kind of respect or admiration for Hawk. He just wants to go home. Yet Hawk even says out loud to a shipmate that Peter sees him as a hero. Where does that come from? Search me. Midway through the film, there’s a mislead where they think Peter has gone home and they’re all moping that he’s gone. But not enough has happened to really make us feel it. If anything, they should be relieved to be free of the responsibility so they can get on with their lives.
If any character in the film has a relationship with Peter that actually makes sense, it’s Amanda, who is played quite effectively by Patsy Pease. She spends almost all of her screen time annoyed by his presence. Really, she’s had enough of the space pirate life and is ready to bail. Hawk understands, and charges her with one last task: see Peter home. She agrees and it is when Peter is under her charge that they fall under attack and Peter has to act as gunner. He’s initially reluctant to take a life, but it finally sinks in that it’s kill or be killed and he manages to do what he needs to do. Amanda is suitably impressed, and it’s at this point that they finally bond. They crash on a planet, the bad guys close in, and she goes down fighting. One of the reasons this works is that it’s not just Peter who’s in danger. The bad guys are after both of them, so Amanda has no choice but to fight. We don’t need to bother with her having any ambiguity over whether she thinks Peter is worth her life. They’re just in it together and that’s it. The element of choice is taken away. Yes, it might have been more interesting to have an arc where she actually is ready to sacrifice herself, but given the tight running time it unavoidably would have felt forced, as it does with the other characters. At least Amanda is believable.
Rounding out the cast are Ace (Luca Bercovici), who is basically a non-character; Aldebaran (Drew Snyder) who has kind of a B.J. Hunnicutt vibe but otherwise doesn’t have much going on; and the alien Flightplan (Thom Christopher). Flightplan is probably the most interesting of the supporting cast, even if he’s something of a cliché. Thom Christopher seems to have been typecast as the aloof, mysterious alien, having played a similar character on Buck Rogers. This time he has psychic powers, which makes it a little different, but such characters are a dime a dozen in sci-fi, so it’s really nothing special. I’m also pretty convinced that Alan Rickman’s make-up in Galaxy Quest was based on this character.
Another aspect of Space Raiders that doesn’t quite work is Zariatin. He has the potential to be a great villain, and he almost succeeds. Played with gusto by Ray Stewart, Zariatin oozes pure evil in every scene. As an interstellar kingpin, it would be easy to dismiss Zariatin as an imitation Jabba the Hutt. He certainly functions in much the same capacity. The degree to which his character was influenced by Star Wars is up for debate. Space Raiders was already in production when Return of the Jedi premiered, so it’s unlikely that film had any real impact. But Jabba had already been mentioned in previous films. We didn’t necessarily know that Jabba was an alien, but we knew that Han Solo owed money to an interstellar kingpin named Jabba. So it would seem that the basic concept was definitely lifted straight from Star Wars. But is it executed well? For the most part, yes. Zariatin mostly works as a villain, even if he doesn’t have a lot of depth. And that’s sort of the problem. Hawk says that he and Zariatin have been friends for a long time, but there’s no indication of that friendship in their on-screen dynamic. Zariatan does nothing but yell and threaten and menace Hawk and everyone with him. When Peter gets kidnapped, Zariatin has what might be the best line of dialogue in the film: “This is why I never liked you, Hawk. You bring out the good in me. Go and get your kid.” At this point, it seems like Zariatin may actually have some depth, but the movie undoes that when Zariatin immediately double-crosses Hawk, not only deciding to take Peter himself to hold for ransom, but also to kill Hawk and his crew. If there had been some explanation for this, it might have made sense. Maybe if Zariatin had made Hawk promise to bring Peter back so they could ransom him and then word gets back to Zariatin that Hawk has reneged on the deal, that might have worked. But there’s nothing. Zariatin just flips and decides to murder everybody. Just cause evil or whatever.
With so many elements not working, it would seem like Space Raiders is an utter disaster. And, well, it kind of is. And yet there’s just something kind of charming about it. For everything it does wrong, it does something else right. Many of the film’s jokes fall flat, but many of them work. In particular, Roger Corman fans will enjoy a cameo by Dick Miller as a fast-talking salesman in a holographic commercial. The aliens in the cantina are a bundle of clichés and played for laughs. At one point, Ace flirts with what he thinks is a hot human blonde, but when she turns around she’s a hideous alien – which Flightplan finds attractive even though they’re not the same species. I guess all aliens are attracted to each other? I dunno. And the sci-fi cantina concept itself is shamelessly lifted from Star Wars. However, the Space Raiders cantina sequence has a food fight. Star Wars can’t boast that. The punchline is a bit much, with the proprietor trying to restore order only to get covered in food, but the scene itself is so over the top that it’s fun in spite of itself. For the most part, the alien masks are pretty bad, ranging from barely acceptable to the sort of thing you’d find in any given discount Halloween store. On the other hand, the make-up for Flightplan is pretty decent and Zariatin looks fantastic – truly alien and frightening. But above all, Space Raiders is fun. Maybe not as fun or immersive as Star Wars, but as fun as a knock-off drive-in version could have possibly been. It may not be Shakespeare, and there may be some gaps in the narrative, but screenwriter Howard R. Cohen certainly understands story structure. He keeps things moving, and even though key character moments are sometimes forced, at least they’re there. Other movies of this sort don’t even bother.
In the end, Space Raiders is unquestionably a knock-off of Star Wars. But given when it was released, that’s pretty obvious. When you go to the dollar store and buy a Transmorphers action figure, you know it’s a Transformers knock-off and you know what that means. You don’t expect Wal-Mart freezer pizza to taste like gourmet pizza from a pizzaria. When you know what you’re signing up for, you adjust your expectations. And sometimes the off-brand product surpasses those expectations. Such is the case with Space Raiders. It’s not Star Wars and it doesn’t have to be. And in a way, Space Raiders finds its niche. While films like Star Crash just recycled what the producers thought audiences liked about Star Wars – space battles and robots – Space Raiders takes a specific element from Star Wars and expands on it. Jabba the Hutt was just a sub-plot, a bit of character development for Han Solo. But it hints at a whole backstory with its own range of possibilities. Space Raiders seeks to deliver on that promise and despite its shortcomings, it mostly delivers.
And that brings us back to our initial comparison between Firefly and Space Raiders. Without a doubt, Firefly is superior. The characters in Firefly are more fully realized, the wit is sharper, the drama is deeper. But Firefly is very much its own thing. It’s not Star Wars, nor was it meant to be. In 1983, we all thought Return of the Jedi was the end of the road for Star Wars. Ten years would pass before the first expanded universe novel. The adventures of Han Solo before he met Luke were left to our imaginations. At the time, Space Raiders was as close as we were going to get, and it certainly scratched that itch. But if it has endured in the era of Star Wars as an institution, it’s because the people who made it cared. Its genesis was to quickly write a story around existing special effects culled from a previous Star Wars rip-off. That should have been a death sentence. But it wasn’t. Space Raiders rises above the pack thanks to the dedication of the people involved. Against all odds, they did the impossible: the took a project that should have been a disaster and turned it into something memorable. So does it matter whether something is a rip-off or an homage? I would say that depends on the quality of the work. Firefly is both an homage and an original work and it’s amazing. Space Raiders is absolutely a rip-off, a technically sub-par low-budget cash-in. But it’s got heart. And that’s enough.
Since its release in 1994, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction has continued to entertain and captivate audiences. With its endlessly quotable dialogue and endearingly twisted humor, the film has established itself as an unequivocal classic and is arguably Tarantino’s finest work. Yet while its popularity is no doubt due to its sheer entertainment value, close scrutiny reveals it as a deceptively simple morality play buried cleverly beneath layers of violence, foul language, and absurdity. It is through the film’s famous non-linear structure along with subtle clues, symbolism, and clever camera work that its themes are revealed.
The opening scene is, of course, a direct lead-in to the final scene. This is an effective framing device as it book-ends the film both literally and thematically. It also helps to give the first-time viewer a frame of reference for the film’s structure, as once we get into the main body of the story, it initially appears we’ve moved past the characters in the opening scene and into a series of unconnected, or loosely connected, vignettes. It also helps to pay attention to the opening titles, as the credit “Stories by” rather than “Story by” hints that there will be multiple narratives. Additionally, halfway through the title sequence there’s an abrupt burst of radio static as the station changes, suggesting a short attention span and a bounce to something else. Already we know we’re in for a wild ride.
Now we meet Julius and Vincent, the most famous and lovable hit men in all of cinema. At first they appear to be having a meandering conversation about nothing relevant, talking about how McDonald’s is different in Europe, and the content of the discussion itself is indeed nonsense. But it’s relatable and it humanizes these men. Aside from being brutal killers, they’re just like everyone else. And of course, Tarantino is setting up the next scene, where the same content will be used in an entirely different way.
Arriving at their destination, Vincent begins asking questions about Mia, the wife of their boss, Marsellus Wallace. At first, it appears to be more irrelevant dialogue, but this conversation will have deep ramifications for what is to come. In the elevator, they discuss the fate of Antoine Roccamora, AKA Tony Rocky Horror, whom Marsellus had thrown from a fourth story window, supposedly for giving Mia a foot massage. The camera tracks with them as they emerge from the elevator, keeping them in a medium shot, while they discuss whether Marsellus was justified in his actions. They arrive at the door, realize they’re too early, and move on down the hall, continuing their discussion. Instead of following them, the camera lingers by the door. This has the dual effect of keeping their ultimate destination hovering in the viewer’s mind, while also allowing the remainder of the conversation to play out in an unconventional composition. Long shots alienate the viewer from the subject, while close-ups are more intimate. Key information is typically conveyed in close-up, or at least medium, but this entire portion of the conversation plays out in a long shot. They’re also framed in a doorway, creating a frame-within-a-frame, giving the moment a fly-on-the-wall quality, like we’re eavesdropping. And the frame is canted slightly, telling us that all is not as it seems. At this point, Vincent’s tone shifts from playful banter to one of gravity. The ultimate effect is to suggest that this is something important – and it is. As he explains to Julius the sexual aspect of giving a woman a foot massage, as well as the implicit betrayal on the part of Tony, he sets up the tension for his own upcoming scenes with Mia. Nestled within Vincent’s assertion of Tony’s betrayal is another tension – between greed and nobility. This is underscored by Julius’s biblical quote (an invention of Tarantino’s) about the good shepherd versus the “inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men.” The choice between greed and nobility is the film’s central theme and will determine the fate of the characters.
When at last we get to to crux of this sequence, the McDonald’s dialogue comes back, only this time Julius uses it to intimidate his victim. This motif of seemingly innocuous things like hamburgers and milkshakes as masks for what’s really going on will continue throughout the film. The target of the hit, Brett, stands as he tries to explain himself, but Julius motions for him to sit. With a simple hand motion, Julius establishes his dominance, and then the camera stays low, giving us Brett’s perspective, as Julius looms over him, eating Brett’s food and slurping his drink till it’s empty, all while looking Brett in the eye and telegraphing that it’s all over for him. This is the first of many examples of power plays within the film, and the tension between greed (the weak), power (the tyranny of evil men), and morality (the shepherd) is the core of the entire piece.
Everything thus far has been prologue, and we now move into the main body of the film. As the segment entitled “Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife” commences, we take a detour to introduce the character of Butch Coolidge. It saves us time down the road when we get to his story in full, but more importantly, it introduces Marsellus in a tangible way. We get a direct sense of who he is and how he operates. But it’s more of a tease, really. Initially, we’re focused on Butch and we only hear Marsellus’s voice. Our first actual glimpse of the crime lord is the back of his head, with a band-aid at the base of his skull, generating mystery. That’s all we’ll get until later in the film, but it’s enough to build him up for now so that the stakes feel more real as we get into the meat of the segment. There’s also a brief exchange between Vincent and Butch, establishing the animosity between them which will be resolved later.
After a brief bit setting up Vincent’s drug-dealer friend, Lance, we finally introduce Mia Wallace. Our first glimpse of Mia, as with Marsellus, is from behind, once again creating an aura mystery. But in this case, rather than sitting face-to-face with someone, totally at ease, Mia is perched over a control panel like some kind of Bond villain, watching Vincent on a security feed and giving him instructions while using a joystick to follow him with the camera. The immediate impression is that she’s toying with him. She’s not a super-criminal. She’s just the bored wife of one, and Vincent is her entertainment for the evening. Our first glimpse of her face is a close-up of her lips, suggesting sensuality. And next, as she finally joins Vincent, Tarantino keeps the camera in a low tracking shot, following Mia’s bare feet – a direct visual link to the previous conversation about Tony and the foot massage. The sexual tension is immediate and clear, as is the power dynamic between these two.
The “date” takes place at Jack Rabbit Slim’s, a retro diner filled with classic cars and look-alikes of movie stars from the golden age of cinema – the era when the sort of lurid crime novels on which the film is based were popular. It is divided into two segments. The first is filled with the sort of nonsense talk that made up the first scene with Vincent and Julius, but instead of a display of easy camaraderie, here it consists of forced small talk and discomfort. As with the previous scene, though, we’re setting things up for later. We’ve already learned that Mia starred in the pilot episode for a TV show that didn’t get picked up. Now we learn that her character would have had a running gag where her character had picked up a bunch of jokes from her vaudeville performer grandfather and that she would have told a different joke in each episode. Since only one show got made, she only ever got to say one joke. Vincent wants to hear the joke, but Mia refuses to tell him, because she’s afraid she’ll be embarrassed. He presses her, but she refuses, exerting a different, less sexual kind of power over him, but one which is still a sort of forbidden fruit. The small talk fizzles into an awkward silence where Vincent and Mia are framed in profile, heightening the uneasiness. Mia says she’s going to the restroom to “powder her nose,” a fun little euphemism as she snorts cocaine for the second time this evening. Before leaving the table, she tells Vincent to think of something to say while she’s gone. This serves as the dividing line between the two segments.
When she gets back, Vincent has thought of something to say, though he’s initially reluctant to say it. She presses him and he reluctantly asks her what she thinks of Marsellus pushing Tony out of a window. We learn from Mia that Tony did not give her a foot massage after all, and she doesn’t know why Marsellus pushed him. But since the incident is still on Vincent’s mind, it must be weighing heavily on him. When focused on Vincent, Tarantino keeps the camera at eye level, even though Vincent can’t seem to look Mia in the eye. But when we’re looking at Mia, it’s a low angle. Mia still has the power here. The power to impart information or not. The power to give Vincent what he wants or not. The tension is broken when a dance contest is announced and the two of them take to the floor in a beautifully composed profile shot where the background frames the two of them in wonderful symmetry. And Mia is still barefoot.
Returning home after winning the trophy, Mia and Vincent are still dancing, having evidently broken the ice, and as he dips her, they share a moment. The sexual tension is on the rise, and Vincent retreats to the bathroom to talk himself out of screwing his boss’s wife. Mirrors in film are a commonly used device, often indicating introspection or sometimes duplicity. Here, Vincent speaks to his reflection of loyalty, returning to the central theme of honor versus selfishness. Earlier, the drug-dealer Lance, who made a point of calling Vincent a friend, was visible reflected in a mirror during their conversation, indicating duplicity. It is the drugs Vincent bought from Lance that cause Mia to overdose. Vincent calls Lance for help, but Lance refuses, dodging responsibility for his part in this and fulfilling the foreshadowing set up by the mirror. When Vincent crashes his car into the front of Lance’s house, causing some damage, it makes for a nice comeuppance. In a tense scene, they save Mia with a shot of adrenaline. With Mia looking considerably worse for wear, and sex decidedly off the table, Vincent takes her home. Before he leaves, Mia tells him the joke from her TV show. The exchange is something real and heartfelt. They’ve bonded in a way far more meaningful than if they’d just had sex. And Vincent has kept his honor – at least as far as Marsellus goes.
This theme of honor versus greed continues in the following segment, entitled “The Gold Watch.” We return to Butch Coolidge and learn of the heirloom which has been in his family for several generations. But where Butch’s ancestors were all war heroes, having achieved honor by fighting for their country, Butch is just a second-rate boxer at the end of his career, and much to his own distaste getting paid by Marsellus Wallace to throw his last fight. In the end he can’t go through with it, breaking the pact he made in favor of pride – and the alternate deal he made with another bookie. But the gold watch still has deep meaning for him, and not just sentimental meaning. It is a link to the nobility of his forebears that he himself was never able to achieve. So when it turns up missing, he has to go back for it, seeking something he hasn’t earned but desperately needs. By a twist of fate, he catches Vincent off-guard. The animosity set up earlier comes to a head, and Vincent meets his fate, murdered by his own gun. This is significant, and will tie in at the film’s finale.
At last we get our first look at Marsellus’s face in a nice little homage to Alfred Hitchcock. Butch, driving back to get his girlfriend before leaving town, sees Marsellus crossing the street, who stops and sees Butch. The staging and the framing are identical to the scene in Psycho when Marion encounters her boss while fleeing town after stealing the money. The best films deliver the unexpected, and after a suspenseful chase down the street, we veer right into bizzarroland as the fight between Butch and Marsellus is interrupted and they fall into the clutches of some weirdos who seem like something out of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Butch manages to escape, and at last reaches the turning point of his arc. It would have been so easy for him to just leave his enemy to his fate, but he can’t bring himself to do it. Reclaiming his honor, he selects a weapon for the rescue. As he goes through several possibilities, the choice is significant. We go from hammer to baseball bat to chainsaw, and each of these weapons is more effective than the last, but finally Butch settles on the perfect selection: a samurai sword. The weapon of a noble warrior. And Butch is rewarded for this nobility. He still has to leave town – Marsellus has to save face – but he will no longer be hunted. Butch can live out his days in peace, knowing that at last he has earned the gold watch through the honor of the battlefield
In the film’s final segment, “The Bonnie Situation,” the arcs of Julius and Vincent converge in a perfect showcase of the central themes. We loop back to the beginning, resuming the sequence where we first met them. We pick up just as they’re about to finish off Brett. The first sequence concludes with Brett’s death, and as bullets riddle his body, there’s a series of quick dissolves to flash frames before a final dip to black as his life fades. We’re experiencing that moment from his perspective. He reaps the rewards of his life of crime and dies by the sword, as it were. He doesn’t get to see what comes next. But now we’re seeing it from the perspective of Vincent and Julius. Examining information the film has already given us from new perspectives will be the dominant motif of the remainder of the film. There’s one final exchange of gunfire as one of Brett’s friends bursts in, emptying his gun. He has them dead to rights but somehow every shot misses and the two hit men gun him down. Julius becomes convinced that only divine intervention could have saved them, and it has a profound effect on him.
The following portion of the segment, in which Vincent accidentally kills the sole survivor of the massacre, is largely played for laughs, but there are still some interesting things going on. We get to see the difference in character between Julius and Vincent. Marsellus dispatches a fixer known as the Wolf to bail them out. The Wolf bursts onto the scene, wasting no time and and taking care of business, doling out jobs to everyone involved. Julius is respectful and appreciative of the help, but Vincent gets uppity, demanding respect that he hasn’t earned. This is after all his fault, accident or no. This speaks to his inner self-involvement and weakness of character. He may show loyalty to his boss, but in all other respects he’s kind of a jerk – in addition to being a criminal.
There’s also another nice fly-on-the-wall moment as the Wolf speaks with Jimmie, the owner of the house where they’ve brought the body. The camera is placed in the hall and we’re looking through a doorway at the Wolf, while Jimmy is only partially visible, sitting on the bed across from him. Jimmy argues about using his best linen, an irreplaceable wedding present, to cover up the blood in the car. But when the Wolf flashes a wad of cash, suggesting that the gift givers would no doubt love for him to have a beautiful new oak bedroom set, Jimmy immediately caves. To Jimmy, money is obviously more important than sentimentality. The camera switches to a profile shot for this exchange, bringing us into the moment and leaving us to ponder what we’d do in Jimmy’s place. Yeah, we’d probably take the money.
With the Bonnie situation neatly wrapped up, and sporting the ridiculous clothes we saw them in earlier, thus answering the question of why they were dressed like that as well as helping us to place the current sequence chronologically, Vincent and Julius decide to grab some breakfast. Sitting in a diner, they return to the question of divine intervention and Julius reveals that he’s chosen to give up his life of crime. Vincent thinks this is ridiculous, and it is indeed played comically, with Julius alluding to becoming like Kane in the TV show Kung Fu, but things turn serious while Vincent takes a bathroom break – and is seen reading the same book he has with him when Butch kills him, reminding us of his fate. The armed robbers return and we realize we’ve returned to the opening scene, once again looking at something from a different perspective. During the ensuing standoff, with everyone pointing guns at each other, Julius refuses to give up the case belonging to Marsellus – honor among thieves – but more importantly, demands his own wallet back while giving the money inside to Ringo. Julius tells Ringo he’s buying Ringo’s life, and he recites the fictional Bible passage from the earlier scene. Once again, we’re looking at something from a different perspective. What was previously just a way to intimidate his victims has now taken on deeper meaning for him. After surviving something that should have killed him, Julius experiences an awakening and makes a choice. He spares Ringo, choosing the path of the righteous man rather than aligning himself with the tyranny of evil men. This sets him apart from Vincent, who has chosen to continue his life of crime. As they exit the film, what awaits Julius is for him to decide, but we already know Vincent’s fate. The moral is clear and simple and encapsulated in that Bible passage.
That the film’s core theme should manifest as a bible passage, even a made-up one, is worth examination. There is a fan theory that the glowing contents of the mysterious briefcase are actually Marsellus Wallace’s soul. It sounds absurd, but the theory is not without merit. When Vincent opens the case and sees what’s inside, he pauses, momentarily breaking the persona of the unflappable murderer to puff on his cigarette and gaze at the contents of the case, his face bathed in golden light while a low rumbling sound fills our ears. It’s not drugs or money in the case – that wouldn’t provoke such a reaction in Vincent. When Ringo gets a look inside, he gawks and says, “Is that what I think it is?” and then, “It’s beautiful.” Like Vicent, Ringo would not be so stunned by drugs, money, or even bars of gold. No, there’s something very special in that case. Then there’s the band-aid on Marcellus’s neck, presumably covering the wound where the soul was extracted. And of course there’s Marcellus’s detached demeanor, like someone lacking humanity, lacking a soul. Lastly, the combination to open the case is 666. Maybe Marsellus made a deal with the devil? Another theory is that the briefcase contains the diamonds from Reservoir Dogs, and there’s some evidence for this as well, since it is implied and Tarantino has confirmed that Vincent Vega is the brother of Mr. Blonde from the earlier film. While the briefcase did contain diamonds in an early draft, that concept was ultimately abandoned. This is one question the film leaves deliberately unanswered. In fact, the briefcase is a direct reference to the 1955 noir film, Kiss Me Deadly, in which the MacGuffin is a box with glowing contents. Does the briefcase in Pulp Fiction contain diamonds? Could be. Does it contain Marsellus Wallace’s soul? Maybe. I can’t refute any of that conclusively. But it’s never explicitly established, so it can’t ever be part of a definitive interpretation of the film. Tarantino has said that the contents of the box were left mysterious on purpose, so personally I think that it is really just an homage.
Despite the debate over the contents of the box, it remains a fact that there are references to the Bible in the film, and for many people, morality and religion are inexplicably linked. Pulp Fiction, for all its delightful quirks and in-jokes and references, is in the end a simple morality tale. But it is one that is so expertly crafted, in terms of narrative as well as visual style and symbolism, that it emerges as more than the sum of its parts. The combination of all these elements will ensure that this film will continue to enjoy its status as a time-honored classic that will be remembered for many years to come.
My goodness, Attack of the Clones is terrible. Sure, we all know the prequels suck. But conventional wisdom tells us The Phantom Menace is the worst, right? Wrong. There’s something far, far worse than the maniacal screeching of Jar-Jar Binks. And it’s called The Hot Mess of Anakin and Padme.
I sat down to watch Clones this time around with the same attitude I’ve had watching all the Star Wars films recently. At all times, I would ask myself, “What would little kid Jon think of this?” And usually I figured little kid Jon would be pretty entertained by all of it. But in this instance, I just couldn’t look past the sheer suck of what was unfolding.
Right from the start, Anakin is off-putting. In the elevator car, as he tries to one-up Obi-Wan, there’s an instant sense that this kid is going to be insufferable. The second-hand embarrassment as he fails to impress Padme in their first scene together is bad enough, but we’re just getting started. Padme lays it all out up front: “Anakin, you’ll always be that little boy I met on Tatooine.” This will inform everything that follows.
In TPM, Padme was only sixteen years old, but she’d already been elected to the highest office on her planet. She was smart, capable, and she led her people through a crisis and saved them from the Trade Federation. Granted, Anakin helped with that, and that’s not to be overlooked, but bottom line, it was Padme’s show. It was her plan. She was in charge. Now, ten years later, she’s grown from an already impressive girl into a woman. She radiates professionalism and maturity. She’s the very epitome of grown-up. And here’s this little punk Anakin trying to get into her pants because he has a crush. EEEWW!!!
Every scene they share is awkward. From his confession that he’s been obsessing over her for ten years to his leering at her every chance he gets – which she tells him flat-out makes her uncomfortable. He trash-talks Obi-Wan behind his back, which clearly does not impress Padme, coming off as a whiny, entitled brat. He talks over her during an important meeting just to flex his muscles, which she clearly finds off-putting. And then he starts touching her inappropriately when she’s made it very clear she’s not interested. On their little outing to the countryside when he talks about how great fascism would be, not only does he make himself look stupid with his utter lack of understanding of politics, but this should have been the last straw in which Padme sends him packing and informs the Jedi she no longer needs their protection.
But holy crap, we’re not even done! We’ve got their super-awkward fireside chat in which she’s so uncomfortable she has to move to the other side of the room. And as painful as that is to watch, it’s nothing compared to Anakin confessing that he just slaughtered a whole village of Sand People – including the children – and she just brushes it aside, and then a few scenes later tells Anakin, “I truly, deeply love you.” What the ever-loving God Fuck?!!! There is absolutely no basis whatsoever for her to fall in love with this creep! All along, it has been played as a creepy stalker chasing an older woman with whom he has nothing in common. This should have ended with her making a full report to the Jedi council about what he’s been up to and his expulsion from the order. Certainly not them getting fucking married!!
I used to enjoy the set pieces – the chase on Coruscant, the fight on Kamino, the Battle of Geonosis, but all of these fell flat this time around because my skin was still crawling from the scenes between Anakin and Padme. Okay, fine, we’re supposed to see how this guy becomes Darth Vader. But in order for us to be invested in that, we need to see an essentially good man who is seduced by the Dark Side. Instead we get a whiny, creepy stalker sociopath who is completely off-putting. And it undermines the character of Darth Vader. In the original trilogy, Vader was a super-badass. He had his shit together. He whined about nothing. And for his backstory you give us this?!
Not only that, but for us to be invested in the doomed romance of Anakin and Padme, we have to want them to be together. We know going in they’re not going to have a happily-ever-after. But for that to mean anything, for us to follow them on that journey, it needs to be tragic. We need to see them happy up front in order to be sad that it’s not going to work out. Instead, we just want to scream to Padme, “Run! Run as fast as you can!”
This movie sucks. My god, this movie sucks. I wish there were something I could praise, but there isn’t. You could argue that it has nice visuals, but the CGI hasn’t aged well, and compared to any given modern movie, they’re nothing special. You could say it’s got decent action scenes, but if you’re not invested in the story, it’s just shit blowing up and I don’t care. This is easily the biggest botch job of the entire saga. And with the resources at their disposal, they should be ashamed of themselves.
A while back, my wife and I decided to watch all the Jaws movies. When we got to Jaws: The Revenge, mid-way through my wife said, “This is really stupid. Sharks don’t have telepathy. They don’t target specific people.” And she’s right about all those things. So I got to thinking… What if there was no supernatural element to this move? What if the shark wasn’t hunting Brodys? What if there were no telepathy and this was just a regular Jaws movie? What would that movie even look like? Would it even make any sense? I decided to find out.
My first step was
ripping the video files off the blu-ray disc, something I’d never
done before. I had to google how you do that and download some
software, but eventually I had some video files that I could work
with. Next step, convert the files to a format my editing software
could read, which required another software download. After fiddling
with the settings, I was in business and ready to edit.
Digital scissors in
hand, I began mercilessly hacking away at the film, removing
everything I thought was stupid. Not just every single reference to
telepathy or vengeful sharks, but needless padding like Mike and
Carla arguing about garbage, a seemingly endless casino scene, and
Jake giving Mike a hard time the day after his brother’s funeral.
The end result was barely over an hour, really lean and to the point.
When my wife and I watched it together, we agreed that it was an
improvement over the official version, but it was a little too short
to be satisfying. So I went back to the drawing board. In the end, I
added back in pretty much all the padding, leaving the original
storyline intact, minus the psychic shark stuff. However, I did make
a few other minor alterations to two scenes.
The first is Sean’s death scene. When the shark initially attacks him, we see the shark thrashing about and hear the tearing of flesh as Sean screams. Then, a moment later, he pops out of the water looking no worse for wear. I thought that was silly, so I cut that bit, ending the scene with the boat sinking and a shot of the shark’s fin lifted from Jaws 3-D.
I also recut the
sequence where the shark attacks Mike in the mini-sub and then
pursues him into a shipwreck. Some of this footage actually wound up
in a completely different part of the film. The result is more
realistic and more consistent with the tone of the first two films. I
don’t want to say exactly what I did, though, because I think
you’ll get a kick out of it.
Finally, I fixed the ending. All home video releases of Jaws: The Revenge have featured the ending from the international cut where the shark inexplicably explodes and then Jake pops out of the water, still alive. I got rid of that nonsense and restored the original ending from the theatrical version where the shark just gets impaled and Jake stays dead – except in my version, the shark no longer roars. Oh, and I replaced the main title card, retitling the film Jaws 4 and using the proper Jaws font. And I made a minor tweak to the Universal logo that probably only die-hard Jaws fans will notice.
end result is… well, it’s still bad. After all, I could only do
so much. But it’s slightly less bad than it was. Like by about 20%
or so. If you’re interested in checking out my work, feel
free to contact me.
I want to stress that I do not condone piracy and will not sell my fan edit in any format. The typical way it works is that you will need to send me a photo of yourself holding a legally-purchased copy of Jaws: The Revenge on blu-ray and I will then be happy to share my fan edit with you at no charge.
There’s little I could possibly say
about Steven Spielberg’s 1975 masterpiece that hasn’t already
been said. So instead I’ll focus on my own personal memories. My
relationship with one of my all-time favorite movies.
My parents were your average middle-class suburbanite couple. They were both slim, fit, and attractive, and their teaching jobs at the local high school had allowed them to purchase a pretty nice house with a great big yard. That house would be my home for the remainder of my childhood. We had just moved in and were still getting comfortable. It was 1980, and I was three years old. I wandered into the family room one evening where my parents were watching a movie. I asked what it was and they told me it was Jaws. For some reason, they let me join them, even though I was easily scared and prone to night terrors. But I’m glad they did, because it was a revelation. I was utterly captivated by what was playing out on screen.
not sure exactly at what point in the movie I started watching, but
they were already aboard the Orca.
It might have been the scene when they’re comparing scars. I have a
vague memory of the planks bending in as the shark attacks the hull
and Brody falling down with water under him. I didn’t know what a
shark was, so my parents had to explain it to me. I had seen fishing
boats on Mr. Rogers, so I sort of understood that. I thought that
when they went down through the hatches to work on the engine that
they were in the hold where the fish are kept. I also didn’t really
know the difference between that and the forward cabin. I just knew
they went down into the bowels of the boat to do things. When the
boat starts flooding, I didn’t understand that it wasn’t supposed
to be that way. I didn’t understand how these things work. I
figured they kept water down there for the fish to swim in. You know,
so they’d be fresh, I guess. I was three, okay? What do you want
from me? When Hooper went down into the cage, I didn’t understand
what that was. I thought he was going down into the bowels of the
boat again, and somehow the shark had gotten into the boat. Then when
it pops out of the water and lands on the deck, I thought it was
coming up out of the hold. I wasn’t sure how the shark had gotten
into the boat, but there it is.
that moment on, I was utterly obsessed with sharks in general and
Jaws in particular. I
talked about both topics constantly, probably annoying everyone. For
my fourth birthday, I got a children’s book called Whales,
Sharks, and Other Creatures of the Deep.
This was my first encounter with many sea creatures, such as
manatees, manta rays, giant squid, and others that would also
fascinate me for the rest of my life.
next few years were a dry spell for me. I didn’t see Jaws
or any other shark movies for what seemed like forever. Remember,
this was the early 80s – before Netflix, before home video. You had
to wait for things to come on TV. Finally there was a movie on HBO
called Beyond the Reef
about a young man and the tiger shark who befriends him. At the time,
I found it a bit tedious, but I watched it anyway because there was a
shark in it. I saw it several times, but then it disappeared from my
life. I would think of it from time to time, but I didn’t see it
again until recently – a span of more than thirty-five years.
Watching it as an adult, I found it to be a flawed but entertaining
film – though perhaps I’m viewing it through rose-colored
glasses, filtered through memories of my toddler self watching it
with my brother and grandmother.
day I asked my brother if he’d ever seen Jaws
and he told me he’d seen Jaws 2.
He had to explain sequels to me. His only memory of it was a woman on
a boat seeing a shark fin and yelling,
“Uh-uh-uh-SHAAAARK!!!-uh-uh-uh-uh.” He was clearly referring to
when Brody and Ellen find a traumatized Tina lost at sea. Somewhere
during this period, I must have seen Jaws 2,
or at least part of it. All I remember is the shot where the camera
follows Brody out to the end of the dock, where Hendricks is aboard
the police launch. I guess I couldn’t tell the difference between
Roy Scheider and Don Adams, and since I didn’t know the character’s
name, I started calling him “Get Smart.” At some point, someone
told me they killed the shark with a power line. I thought that meant
they just threw the power line onto the shark.
summer of 1982, we took the first of many annual vacations to
Jacksonville Beach, Florida. I would have been four years old. I have
a vivid memory of running out across the vast expanse of sand between
our motel and the Atlantic Ocean. The beach was huge, not at all the
narrow strip of sand I had been expecting. Because I didn’t know
the actual setting of Jaws,
I arbitrarily decided that it took place at Jacksonville Beach and
that Brody killed the shark from the end of Jackonville Beach Pier.
The first time I went swimming in the ocean, I was terrified of
getting eaten by a shark. There actually was a day when we couldn’t
go swimming because of a shark warning. Despite straining my eyes as
I stared at the ocean, I did not see a shark.
It was around this time that I saw a documentary about sharks and learned of the extinct giant shark, megalodon. The host erroneously stated that the shark in Jaws was a megalodon. I took this to heart, and assumed that the shark in Jaws was a hundred feet long.
The following summer, Jaws 3-D was released. By now I was in school, and a classmate saw it and told me about it. I was excited to see it, but missed it in the theater. I didn’t catch up with it until it played on HBO. I think I found the premise a bit odd, a little sci-fi compared to the others, but it was scary and I dug it. I was also surprised to find that it was about a regular great white and not a megalodon. There was still much for me to learn about sharks, of course, and I didn’t understand how utterly absurd it was that this film’s great white was thirty-five feet long. Real great whites grow to a maximum of twenty feet long, so despite calling it a great white, it really was much closer to a megalodon in size. I was too young to realize what a stink-bomb the movie was. There was a shark in it, so that was good enough for me. My brother watched it with me and even though he thought it was stupid, he embraced it for my sake and we obsessed over it together for a while.
decided, my brother and I, that we were going to make Jaws
4. The neighbor kid, however,
told us that they’d already made Jaws 4,
so we changed our plan and said we were going to make Jaws
5. The neighbor kid then told us
that they’d already made both Jaws 4
and Jaws 5. In my gut,
I knew he was messing with us, but my brother believed him, so we
changed our plans yet again. Despite knowing perfectly well that
there are only four Jaws
movies, I still occasionally go searching for part 5 thanks to that
idiot neighbor kid. Anyway, we got to work. My brother would write
Jaws 6 and I would
take on Jaws 7.
Probably just to be a jerk, my brother decided that his shark was
going to be so big, the only way to kill it was to blow up the world
– which they did, with a doomsday bomb. But he left the door open
for part 7, saying that Earth had a sister world called Amnesia where
the Jaws saga would
continue. Sigh. Thanks, Collin.
an entire novel proved to be an overwhelming task for a
five-year-old, though, and I eventually gave up. My brother and I
briefly talked about using the family’s Super-8 camera to film a
Jaws movie, and we
approached our Uncle Ron about playing Brody because we thought he
bore a passing resemblance to Roy Scheider. But those plans came to a
halt when my uncle refused to work without his daily wages. Years
later, I would encounter the same problem with professional actors.
For a long time, it seemed like Jaws 3-D was the only Jaws movie I was ever going to get to see. It played multiple times on HBO, and I seized on every chance I had to watch it. It was a Jaws movie goddamn it. But of course, a part of me longed to see the original. I wondered if I would ever get to see it again, and I asked my mom to tell me the story. Initially, she just said a bunch of people got eaten by a shark, but I knew there had to be more than that. I pressed her, and she continued. “The chief of police and an oceanographer went out on a great big boat. Aaand… some people on the boat got killed. And they… shot the shark… yeah, they shot it. And the chief of police and the oceanographer… swam back to shore.”
Everything changed. We got our first VCR. We drove to a video store
called Nite Owl Video to get our first video membership. When my mom
and I walked in, I started browsing titles, and there it was. That
iconic image of the shark hurtling up under the unsuspecting swimmer.
That bold font. Jaws.
I grabbed it and showed it to my mom and obviously she had to rent it
for me. To my utter disappointment, we couldn’t rent it that day.
I’m not sure why – something to do with the process of signing
up. But we would be able to next time.
wait was agony, but finally there we all were – me, my parents, and
my brother. By now, my brother had made it clear that he didn’t
really care for the Jaws
movies, and I had the sense that my parents were indifferent. They
were indulging me. I recorded the event with my tape recorder so I
could at least enjoy the audio after we’d returned the film.
“Jaws,” I said. “Jaws One. Starting.” Duh-dunn. Duh-dunn. The
movie began to unfold. Instantly I sensed that this was a better film
than the third one. Everyone laughed at the jokes, and the shark
attacks were bloodier and more intense than the ones in the third
film. I was enjoying what seemed to be to be a pretty good Jaws
movie. And then the switcheroo happened.
from my mom’s telling of the story that they would eventually go
out on a boat to kill the shark, but I figured that would be at the
very end, and I had no idea what the movie was going to pull. The
camera dollies in on the jaws of a shark mounted on a window, the
Orca visible beyond,
heading to sea, as if sailing right into the jaws of the shark, and
John Williams was suddenly scoring a different movie. Not a horror
movie. An adventure
movie. I still get chills every time I watch the movie and it gets to
this point. But this was only the beginning. After a while of hanging
out on the boat, I began to realize that we were nowhere near the
climax. And then the shark pops out of the water. Rather than a
horror set piece, suddenly it’s adventure on the high seas! Quint,
Brody, and Hooper leap into action as the score builds the
excitement. It’s fun, funny, and thrilling, and then… that
harpoon comes into view as John Williams delivers six musical notes
that would forever change the way I experience movies. Holy. Goddam.
Shit. This isn’t just a Jaws
movie. This is Jaws.
rest of the movie played out. There were more exciting chases, more
thrills, and then some mind-bending terror. When it was over, my
brother and I went upstairs and went utterly ape shit. Later that
day, I came up with QBH, a sitcom which I performed live with my
action figures in which Quint, Brody, and Hooper get an apartment in
New York and have many comedic adventures together, including run-ins
with Superman and Lex Luthor, a giant mechanical arm, and a trip to
space. QBH became a way of life for me and my brother, dominating the
rest of our childhoods.
Due to a great cosmic injustice, there were no Jaws action figures for us to play with, so we had to substitute. For me, Emperor Palpatine became Quint, an ATST pilot with Luke Skywalker’s head was Brody, and a little astronaut figure from my Construx set stood in for Hooper. For my brother, Quint was a Chief Quimby figurine from Inspector Gadget, Brody was Luke Skywalker in his Jedi outfit, and Hooper was a jet pilot. It was the best we could do, and it served us well enough at the time. But we needed a playset, and that’s where Grampap came in.
Grampap was an interesting man. With his high cheekbones and weathered complexion, he was like a wooden Indian come to life. A veteran of World War II, he was full of stories from a colorful past. He was a carpenter, and it seemed as if he could build anything you wanted in his garage. He’d already made numerous wooden toys for both of us, so it seemed only natural to ask him to build the Orca. Working from memory, I drew the boat to the best of my ability and gave it to him for reference. A few days later, I had my first highly inaccurate model of the Orca. Not long after that, my brother spent a week in the garage with Grampap building what he called, “The Ultimate Orca.” The overall shape was wrong, but the details were all there and it was functional. It had a removable fighting chair, removable barrels, and a fold-up shark cage. Many hours were spent on the further adventures of Quint, Brody, and Hooper using this model of the Orca.
grandmother was a roly-poly bundle of love who had seen some hard
times and had learned the value of family. She was also a hard-core
shopper, and if there was something you wanted and it could be found,
she would find it for you. So I asked her for Peter Benchly’s
original Jaws novel in
hardcover. I figured I had set her an impossible task, and in a way I
had, since Jaws was
not even in print at the time. But she came through, sort of. I don’t
know where she found them, but she picked up Jaws 2,
by Hank Searls – in hardcover, no less – one each for me and my
brother. And she inscribed it on the first page: to Jonathan, from
I took the book to
school and began reading it – my first grown-up book. It was a bit
difficult for me, and I kind of slogged through it. Much of the book
dealt with gangsters and police work. I felt a bit guilty for finding
it so dull, but I kept at it. It took me all year to read it, but I
did, reading through the final few chapters in one sitting and with
trembling hands. It had been a tough book to get through, but the
ending was a good payoff. However, there had been a price for taking
it to school. The dust jacket had been ripped to shreds. I was mad
about that, holding a plain red book in my hands with no picture of a
shark on the cover. I put it on the shelf in my bedroom closet, where
it stayed for many, many years.
may have been tough to get through, but I still wanted to read the
original, so my Grandma took me to Nancy’s Fireside Book Exchange,
which she thought was our best shot at finding it. Sure enough, there
it was. Not hardcover, of course – the mass-market paperback that
had flooded book stores in advance of the film’s release. I didn’t
start reading it right away, and by the time I did, my brother had
already read his copy and spoiled much of it for me. But I read it
anyway, zipping through it much faster than Jaws 2.
There was much more shark in this one, and even the romance and mafia
stuff held my interest. Maybe I was growing up; who knows?
The movie version
of Jaws 2 played on ABC, and we taped it. I was surprised at
how different it was from the book. It drew me in pretty quickly. The
opening attack on the two divers was cool, and the attack on the
speedboat was downright awesome. But then it ran out of steam. Talk,
talk, talk, talk. Where the hell was the shark? By the time it showed
up again, it was time for me to go to bed. I had to wait until after
school the next day to finish watching. The second half was much more
satisfying than the first. I was a little bored by all the scenes of
the teenagers drifting around at sea, but there was enough shark
action to hold my interest, and the climax was pretty slick. My
verdict at the time was that it was okay, but not as good as one and
three. Still, it was the first Jaws movie that we actually
owned, so I watched it quite a bit.
And then, on our next trip to Florida, the original Jaws played on ABC and we taped it too. We had to set the VCR to record it automatically, and I recall being really tense for the whole trip, worrying that something had gone wrong and it had failed to record. But I put that out of my mind when we stopped at a motel on the way down and watched the movie in our room. To my surprise, there were several scenes that hadn’t been in the version we’d rented. My brother didn’t believe me, and it wasn’t until the movie aired on HBO several years later that I was finally able to prove that the TV version was different.
One day my grandma
informed me they were making Jaws Goes to Hawaii. The title
sounded like a joke, and I didn’t know where she heard that.
Grandma was very good at the things she was good at, but there were
also lots of things she was just clueless about. I figured she didn’t
know what she was talking about. Over the course of the next year or
so, anytime I brought up Jaws, she reminded me that Jaws
Goes to Hawaii was going to be coming out. I took this with a
grain of salt, of course. A new Jaws movie would be nice, but
I wasn’t getting my hopes up. And then one day we were at strip
mall a few miles from home. She was busy hunting bargains when I
asked her if I could go over to the drug store to look at the books.
She said yes and I headed over. I spotted it immediately: Jaws:
The Revenge, a new novel by Hank Searls. Holy crap, it was true!
As I’d suspected, the title was not Jaws Goes to Hawaii. The
destination, it turned out, was the Bahamas. Still a tropical
setting, but not Hawaii, and with a much more sensible title.
Needless to say, I got Grandma to buy it for me.
I started reading
it at once and was horrified to discover that Shawn Brody dies in the
opening scene. Partly because I was so shocked, but also partly
because I decided that I didn’t want to spoil the movie for myself,
I set the book aside for the time being. Finally the movie came out
and my whole family went to see it. The marquee said Jaws 4.
So that settled that. There was no Jaws 5 and I could
permanently put that matter to rest. (Please wait while I conduct a
Google search for Jaws 5.) It may seem strange to you, but I
actually enjoyed Jaws 4 quite a lot. Maybe it was just because
this was the first time I was seeing a Jaws movie in the
theater, or maybe it was just because it was brand new. But whatever
the reasons were, I loved it, and it completely escaped my notice how
utterly stupid it was. Hey, I was ten, okay? I was still at the age
where I was watching He-Man. Cut me some slack, will ya?
Not only did I
enjoy it, but I liked it enough that I dragged my poor Aunt Patty to
see it just to have an excuse to see it again. Every so often, I
glanced over to see how she was reacting to things. She just sat like
a statue, not reacting at all. I’m sure she was thinking, “What
the hell is this garbage?!” When it was over, she told me
she’d enjoyed it. God bless her.
By the time high
school rolled around, Jaws was an old friend. I not only knew
all the dialogue by heart, I could actually watch the movie
shot-for-shot in my head with almost perfect clarity. I’d come
around to the notion that the sequels weren’t worth anyone’s
time, and I hadn’t watched them in years. My brother had always
said his favorite movie was 2001: A Space Odyssey. I had never
really settled on a favorite movie. For a while, maybe between the
ages of twelve and fourteen, I would often say my favorite movie was
Dawn of the Dead. That didn’t quite feel true, though. I
loved it, but was it really my favorite? Then one day, my brother
said that while he still loved 2001, if pressed he would have
to say his favorite movie was Jaws. Whoa, buddy! You don’t
get to go claiming that! I’m the Jaws nut in this
family! I didn’t say that, of course, but on the spot I decided
that Jaws was my favorite movie of all time. That felt much
more true than Dawn of the Dead.
In my senior year
of high-school, I needed a sound byte for an audio drama I was
working on. I pulled out our old copy of Jaws 2 so I could
record the sound of the shark being electrocuted, but the audio
quality was not that great, so I went down the street to the nearest
video store and rented it. I was surprised at how much better the
picture quality was on the studio-produced copy. Since I’d paid to
rent it, I figured I may as well watch it. To my surprise, it wasn’t
nearly as bad as I thought it was. In fact, it was pretty good. Not
good like the original, but pretty good.
My experience with
renting Jaws 2 had convinced me that the taped-off-TV copies
we’d been watching weren’t going to cut it anymore. I had to get
factory-made copies of both Jaws and Jaws 2. Not 3 and
4, mind you. I still thought of those as crap. But the first one for
sure, and the second one, meh, why not?
After all these
years, I finally encountered a hardcover edition of the original
novel – in, of all places, the high-school library. It wasn’t
anything like I’d imagined. Instead of the famous artwork from the
movie poster, it was a plain black cover with a basic-looking shark.
If this had been what my grandmother had given me, I likely would
have been disappointed. It occurred to me that perhaps I could
photocopy the dust jacket from my brother’s copy of Jaws 2.
But color photocopying was not as advanced then as it is today, and I
wasn’t happy with the results. Still, at least my copy had a cover
again, albeit an imperfect one.
Many times on our vacations to Florida, we would go deep sea fishing aboard a big party boat called the Miss Mayport. It was fun, but crowded, standing elbow-to-elbow with strangers. The summer after I graduated from high-school, however, Grampap had a surprise for us. We showed up at the dock and my brother and I headed for the Miss Mayport as usual when Grampap called to us. We turned around to see him standing on the deck of a small charter boat. At first we thought he was kidding, but he wasn’t. He’d done what we’d been talking about doing since we’d first seen Jaws. He’d chartered a small fishing boat like the one in the movie. Usually when we went fishing we’d each come home with maybe one or two small-frys. This time we caught so many fish – big ones, king mackerels – that we had to throw some back. It was the best day at sea I ever had and one of my fondest memories.
Life marched on. I
did a semester at Cal U, I went to film school, I got a job. I made
my first feature film. I got my first grown-up job working as a
projectionist at various local theaters. I dated. I had my heart
broken. My uncle and my grandparents died. I struggled with creative
success. I made friends. I lost friends. My twenties disappeared into
a black hole. And I emerged from it all… changed. And kind of
tired. I decided that in the interest of looking smart, I had turned
my nose up at a lot of movies I’d once loved – sequels
especially. After a long time away, I revisited Jaws 3 and
Jaws: The Revenge. And God, they were so… awful. By
any objective standard, they were prime examples of the worst drek
Hollywood had churned out in the early 80s. And I loved them anyway.
Every godawful frame of them, I loved it all.
Thanks to the internet, I was able to obtain a new dust jacket for my copy of Jaws 2. Also, Random House released a new edition of the original novel, this time with the cover art from the mass-market paperback. It was exactly what I’d hoped my grandma would find for me all those years ago, and it made a nice companion edition to what she’d bought me. I decided to revisit the novel of Jaws 2 and it was a different experience reading it as an adult. I was able to appreciate the subtle nuances of character development that I’d missed as a kid. The mafia stuff didn’t bore me this time, and I plowed through it quickly. Ultimately, I did decide that the movie was better. In the novel, Brody doesn’t even suspect there’s a shark until the very end, instead wasting his time chasing after a two-bit crook. It makes him look like a fool. His arc in the movie is much more satisfying. But I didn’t care. I was able to enjoy this childhood gift with a new level of appreciation. As I read the final chapters, I trembled with the same excitement I’d had the first time, and when I finished, I closed the book and looked at it for a moment, then hugged it as if it were my grandma.
One day my brother
declared that he’d always suspected that Jaws wasn’t
really my favorite movie. He said he thought The Thing was my
favorite movie. At the time, I insisted he was wrong, that Jaws
really was my favorite movie. But these days, if I’m going to be
honest, I’m not sure I really do have a favorite movie. I love
Jaws. I also love The Thing. And I love Dawn of the
Dead. And Back to the Future. And Raiders of the Lost
Ark. And a host of others. I have a lot of favorite movies, not
just one. And that’s okay. I don’t think it’s necessary to
single out one movie as your tippy-top favorite. There’s room in my
heart for more than one movie.
As of this writing,
I’m forty-one years old. In many ways, I couldn’t be more
different from the little toddler who wandered into the family room
to find his parents watching a strange, scary movie about a shark. In
other ways, it’s like I’ve come full-circle. Or perhaps almost
full, the starting point forever out of reach. I’ve lived this long
life full of discovery and change, and now it’s like I’m trying
to reconnect with myself. Or maybe I’m just grasping at a simpler
time, my fingers closing around water, the reflection dancing and
rippling before me, teasing me. But at least I know now that I don’t
have to impress anyone. It’s okay for me to like whatever I want,
even if it’s bad, and I owe an explanation to no one. When a friend
saw blu-ray copies all four Jaws movies sitting on my shelf,
he was baffled. He could understand owning the original. He could
even understand owning the second one. But the third and fourth?
Surely I had better taste than that. Why did I own them? The answer
is simple. Because a little boy I used to know likes sharks and wants
to watch movies about them.