May 25: On this day more than a few decades ago, the space race got a big boost. A little sci-fi movie filmed mostly on sound stages in England, was released with some much ballyhooed publicity that would become the new model for film releases. As word spread, lines, long lines began forming outside of theaters.
The media sensed there was something about this movie that was different, and at a time when the United States was still reeling from a catastrophic war, a failed presidency, the energy crises, gasoline shortages, high crime rates… the country was ripe for escape from bad news and this little movie with its quirky characters and special effects was the answer. Not only did it provide a summer of entertainment, it created an idea that imagination was something to be sought and cherished.
The movie’s producer said he wanted to create a contemporary movie based on the old episodic movies he remembered as a kid where the good guys wore white hats and the bad guys wore black; if only it were that simple.
At the time George Lucas had no inkling that his sci-fi thriller he called “Star Wars” would become a cultural icon not only in America but the entire world. Before its release, the studios didn’t have faith in the movie, much less believe that it was a franchise opportunity. They sold the rights to all future sequels and merchandise to Lucas. I imagine an executive decision regretted more than a few times in the years since.
Several years later, President Reagan revealed his Strategic Defense Initiative which the press mockingly referred to as his Star Wars Initiative. Yet, so popular was that movie that even the political powers in the USSR understood the term and its implications. Their Soviet Empire had been hopelessly lost in the space race and feared the Americans were on the verge of actually having some of those military weapons on display for all to see in the hit movie. They surrendered and when President Reagan asked the Kremlin to tear down the wall in East Germany, they realized it was futile to resist the power of the American space program. Certainly there were other contributing factors, but isn’t it delicious to give credit to a movie?
On this day in 1977, the movie that would become one of the largest grossing box office hits, Star Wars, was released. It received 7 Oscars, grossed close to $800 million, created new mega-stars worthy of any galaxy. Even before the hit movie had moved on to second run theaters, production was already underway for the next two episodes. Today, those episodes are still being released to hungry fans, many of which are grand children of those who witnessed this first release.
Even more surprising is the fact that sixteen years earlier on this very day a young president made a speech before congress asking for support of a new program that would put a man on the moon within the decade which happened on July 20, 1969 when Ohio born astronaut Neil Armstrong, became the first human to leave a footprint on the moon.
Even more amazing is that when President John Kennedy addressed Congress on this day, we had only just recovered our first man in space, Alan Shephard, less than 3 weeks earlier. His flight into space lasted just 15 minutes, but it was long enough to inspire an entire country to go to the moon and back and make a movie like Star Wars seem feasible a few years later.