‘Star Wars’ – The Original Series (Part Three): A Film Saga by Any Other Name…

Obi-Wan Benobi (Alec Guinness) businessinsider.com

Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) businessinsider.com

“The Cost? No Man Knows ….”

The price tag for George Lucas’ epic science-fiction/adventure flick has been variously estimated at between $10 and $15 million U.S. dollars. It’s part of Star Wars lore and legend that, prior to studio head Alan Ladd Jr.’s interest in rescuing the production for Twentieth Century-Fox, several other studios had passed on the project, to include Universal (which had earlier released Lucas’ American Graffiti) and United Artists.

Originally, the budget had been placed at about $3.5 million. According to film critic and writer Charles Champlin, in his book George Lucas, the Creative Impulse, “inflation had doubled [the budget] to $7 million even before production began. It was then $9.5 million and the film went $3 million over budget because of the high cost of creating a nonexistent world. The eventual cost of the effects was $2.5 million, still extremely modest by the standards of that day and this.”

In Guy Haley’s Sci-Fi Chronicles: A Visual History of the Galaxy’s Greatest Science Fiction (2014), the picture had out-sold most other blockbusters of the period. “When released in May 1977, Star Wars was a huge hit, earning $460 million in the United States and $314 million overseas, and beating Jaws to become the world’s most financially successful film. (Adjusted for inflation, it remains one of the top-five movies of all time.)”

The subsequent installments in the series also did exceedingly well: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) earned a whopping $721 million; and Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983) took in approximately $679 million at the box office.

As Han Solo would say to the young hotshot Luke, “Great, kid! Don’t get cocky!”

What’s in a Name?

The characters of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda represent the positive mystical aspects of the Star Wars franchise. More precisely, they are two exalted high priests: one hooded, one hairy (and a little green around the gills) of the old Jedi order. The negative aspects of this decidedly unglamorous duo (the Yang to their Yin) fall to their opposite number: the evil Emperor of the Galactic Empire (i.e., the former Senator Palpatine) and his intimidating protegé, Lord Vader.

With the years, our perception of the three original films in the trilogy has indeed changed. To be clear, it’s been colored significantly by the fluctuating political scene, as discussed in our previous posts. We, the good ole U.S. of A., are now the Galactic Empire (or, if you so choose, the equivalent of a modern-day Roman Republic), a concept that producer, director, and screenwriter George Lucas was in favor of debating in the late seventies to early eighties.

We have become our own worst enemy, in the sense of the classic cartoon-strip character, Pogo Possum (created by cartoonist Walt Kelly), who used to remark as a running refrain: “We have seen the enemy, and the enemy is us.” Be mindful of ourselves, the films seem to be saying, for we, too, may one day undergo such challenges to our status quo as may render us helpless.

To recap where we stand, the first film in the series was shot on location in the desert of Tunisia in North Africa — the Tatouine Desert, to be exact (which also happens to be the name, or close to it, of the planet where Luke Skywalker lives) — and along the Arizona desert near Yuma.

Desert sagas from Lawrence of Arabia to Khartoum influenced the look and clothing worn by the individual characters. The saber wielding Jedi knights of yore were also modeled on samurai warriors and Akira Kurosawa movies, purportedly the Japanese master’s The Hidden Fortress (1958), which Lucas recalls from his early viewing days. Even the story of the first feature, A New Hope, had its derivation in the plot line of Kurasawa’s film, with samplings of The Seven Samurai (1954) strewn about. Certainly the concept of a ragtag bunch of misfits, few in number and facing impossible odds and overwhelming challenges, is made clear from the outset.

Both the timeliness and timelessness of the Star Wars films are what strike the viewer as unique, which makes them essential classics of the science fiction-war picture genre. They can mean many things to many people, at different times and in different places.

Luke confers with Yoda

Luke Skywalker confers with Master Yoda

For example, let’s take our young hero Luke (Lucas) Skywalker, the naïve, innocent, geeky, short-of-stature but big-of-heart teenaged adventure seeker. Full of boyish enthusiasm and an over-abundance of bravado, the rambunctious Luke is itching to break out of the boring, hum-drum life he’s been leading on his Uncle Owen’s “farm.”

Mark Hamill, the actor who played Luke, fit the profile of the gung-ho future fighter pilot to perfection. It’s been noted that his character’s name is derived from the ancient Greek word leukos, which means “light.” Somehow, we can’t quite picture Luke (or any Jedi knight’s apprentice, for that matter) wielding a leukos-saber against his or her foe, can you? It wouldn’t do.

To get back to a more “biblical” connotation, there’s always the Evangelist Saint Luke of the Gospels, who, according to accepted knowledge, was a physician before he converted to Christianity. He was also a follower of the Apostle Paul, another well-known biblical evangelist and firebrand, as well as a prolific letter writer, at that.

So where does all this leave our friend, Young Skywalker (whose original surname happened to have been Starkiller)? Among the immortals, one hopes …

Here are a few more examples of names and their meanings:

Han Solo (“solo” = by himself, alone, acting on his own), played rather charmingly by the roguish Harrison Ford (who loves to channel the vocal mannerisms of big John Wayne). Always acting unilaterally in his own self-interest, Han is a “scoundrel,” according to Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher). His name may have been derived from Hans, a variation of the German form of John, as in Johan or Johann. Maybe even Johannes, as in Johannes Brahms (“Check out Brahms … He’s good too,” hinted Gary Oldman in Luc Besson’s Leon, the Professional).

Han Solo & Chewbacca (glamorama.cl)

Han Solo (Harrison Ford) & Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) (glamorama.cl)

Solo’s close friend, colleague, and partner in intergalactic crime is a woolly creature called Chewbacca, or Chewie for short. He (it?) belongs to a race of towering fuzzballs known as Wookiees, whose name may have come from a possible ad lib heard in producer-director Lucas’ earlier sci-fi actioner THX 1138 (“I think I ran over a Wookiee back there”).

Now, the “Chewie” part most probably refers to his carnivorous diet and razor sharp teeth. Incidentally, Wookiees are tremendously strong and fearless, and fancy themselves the best star pilots in the galaxy (but don’t tell them that, or they’ll get a swelled head). GGGRRRRRRHHHHHH!

Princess Leia Organa (aka Fata Morgana, or Morgan Le Fay of fabled times), spunky, feisty, self-sufficient, and, of course, lovely to look at. Leia sports dual side braids that make her look as if she’s wearing cinnamon rolls over her ears (thank the New York Times for that description). She may even evoke fondly remembered memories of Lady Galadriel from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (another excellent action-adventure series, we would add), although Leia happens to be about a foot shorter.

Princess Leia

Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher)

The Organa portion of her surname could be a hint of her “organic nature,” or that “back to the land aesthetic” so favored by many in the 1970s. Remember: that was the start of the burgeoning environmental movement. I like to think it came from her adopted dad, the late Senator Organa (he and his planet were blown to smithereens, you will recall, in the first Star Wars feature). He’s played by the tall and handsome Jimmy Smits. But of course, we won’t know that until we arrive at Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. “Patience, young padawan, patience …”

Darth Vader (i.e., Dark Father, or even Der Fuehrer), voiced in sepulchral tones by stage actor James Earl Jones; and portrayed, under the burdensome mask and cloak, by former British bodybuilder and physical fitness trainer Dave Prowse (A Clockwork Orange, The Horror of Frankenstein), was originally named Anakin Skywalker. Now, Anakin is a variation on the name of a race of giants found in the book of Genesis (there’s that biblical reference again). Someone had the nerve to suggest that Lord Vader’s face mask, or breathing apparatus, was “inspired,” to put it politely, by the front grille of a 1956 Chevy. “I hope so, for your sake!”

Ben Kenobi (Uncle Ben) or Obi-Wan Kenobi (the one and the only), played by the redoubtable Sir Alec Guinness, has the most impressive-sounding lineage of the lot. We know that “obi” is the Japanese word for sash, which is used to tie one’s kimono. Along those same lines, the “wan” part may imply the honorific term “san” attached to most Japanese names (as in “Joe-san,” or “Yoshi-san,” for instance). Hah, and “OB” could also be a shortened form of Old Ben, which Luke likes to call the wizened geyser at various points in the story.

Finally, there’s our metallic buddies, the Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy of droid-dom, R2-D2 (or is it Artoo Deetoo?) and C-3PO (Threepio, if you don’t mind). R2 emits sounds more in line with a “whistling Hoover vacuum cleaner,” as one wag described him. Supposedly (now we haven’t been able to verify this, so don’t quote me) the little droid got his name from some sound editor’s shorthand for “Reel Two, Dialogue Two,” from Lucas’ American Graffiti. That may well be, but I wouldn’t bet the ranch … Skywalker Ranch, that is.

As for Threepio, well … he’s more of a butler-type than a robot, and a prissy little snit at that. For a protocol droid, he certainly has a lot of pent-up ennui. He’s good at math, though — of that we are more than certain. And so is Artoo. But he’s been known to be wrong … from time to time … Oh, dear, dear, dear …

And there we have it. These play-on-words and puns, and fancy put-ons on top of put-ons are both fascinating and delightful, but do not necessarily add to or detract from our enjoyment of the trilogy as a whole. The best one can say about them is that they’re plain old fun!

(End of Part Three)

Source and Suggested Reading:

• “The Names Came from Earth” – Eric P. Nash, The New York Times, January 26, 1997

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

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