Coulda Been A Contender is a new occasional column from Noel Thingvall, in which he delves in to his vast archive of unproduced film scripts and teases as what could have been. In this instalment Noel begins a three-part look at the manner in which the Star Wars films evolved along the way of their production.
Discussion of the origins of Star Wars must, of course, begin with Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, the tale of a bearded General and a young Princess, both in the guise of peasants, trying to sneak across enemy lines while being pursued by the clan that overthrew their kingdom and having to work with a bumbling pair of lowly goons who keep shifting between helping the leads and trying to sell them out and make off with their gold. It’s very common to hear comments along the lines of “Star Wars is totally a ripoff of The Hidden Fortress“, but these are overblown and are often made by people who haven’t even seen Kurosawa’s film. There is a bearded general in Star Wars, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and a feisty young princess, Leia, but not only has the plot of them fleeing across enemy lines together been removed, they never actually meet on screen, and Leia is never disguised as a peasant (these elements would, however, pop up in The Phantom Menace). The scene of the droids R2-D2 and C3P-0 arguing as they wander through a desert is almost identical to the two goon in the opening of The Hidden Fortress, and both pairs are quickly rounded up by slave traders and then freed, but they otherwise have no connection in terms of persona or story. There’s also a duel between old allies and the frequent use of wipe cuts, but the point I’m making here is that the influence of The Hidden Fortress was so diluted by the time Star War came to be that claims of how much the final film owes to the earlier work can seem a little unfair.
But this was not always the case, as we see in George Lucas’ original outline from March of 1973, simply titled The Star Wars.
A fierce battle is raging in orbit around the Earth-like planet of Aquilae, as a huge Imperial space fortress fends off a swarm of rebel fighter craft. Explosions rip out, lasers fill the air, and something, either a wrecked ship or an escape pod (never specified), crashes down on the world below. Rising from the wreckage are a pair of Imperial bureaucrats who wander about a bit before coming across a bearded man claiming to be a farmer, and his teenage daughter. It turns out the man is General Luke Skywalker and the girl is the Princess of a fallen kingdom, and they’re crossing territory controlled by the Empire in the hopes of reaching a safe haven. The helpless bureaucrats join the pair even though they’re far more interested in running off with the Princess’ sacks of priceless Aura Spice.
As you can see, we’re in full on Hidden Fortress territory here. The surprising thing is that Lucas wasn’t just ripping off Kurosawa’s film, he actually bought the remake rights with the intention of this being a restaging along the lines of The Magnificent Seven. It’s not just the setup, either, as there’s a big duel between General Skywalker and a large furry alien (they weren’t called Wookiees by this point, but I’ll use the term for clarification), a famous horse chase battle has been restaged using “Jet Sticks” and large mounted birds, and the ending is very much the same, with the award ceremony of the final film including the bumbling bureaucrats finally learning who they’ve been travelling with all this time. Even though the outline is short and light on the details, Lucas does a pretty admirable job of staying faithful to the tone and meaning of Kurosawa’s classic, while still bringing in new ideas of his own.
One such idea is a gang of rowdy youths who we first meet taking little guerrilla jabs at the Empire. Somewhat resembling the Lost Boys or the Artful Dodger’s band of ruffians, the outline constantly touches on General Skywalker teaching them skills and strategy and pulling them together into the best fighting force he can get his hands on, even though he initially rejects them in a scene entirely lifted from Seven Samurai. But none of the boys are ever explored or named in the outline, there’s no expected romance with the Princess, and the gang seems to be the size it initially is simply so Lucas can build up a body count that doesn’t include Skywalker, the Princess, or the two bureaucrats.
Probably the lowest point of the outline comes when our heroes crashland on a jungle planet and are encountered by Wookiees mounted on birds. Instead of trying to communicate, General Skywalker dives right into a chase, kills a bunch, kills their leader in a duel, then just happens to survive when the rest angrily gang up on him and toss him into a volcano. And despite all the death he’s caused, one lone Wookiee takes his side and leads him to a human who lives on a farm with his Wookiee wife, who puts our heroes in touch with the rebels so they can go after the Princess, who’s been kidnapped. There was very little point to any of this, especially since they didn’t team up with the natives in an uprising echoed by the end of Return of the Jedi. It’s empty action and I winced every time Skywalker slaughtered a native for no real reason.
The rebels scrounge up fighters for the General and the surviving boys to pilot in a climax very reminiscent of the centerpiece of the finished film. One ship docks with the space fortress while the others draw fire, there’s a big prison break, and they all fly for their lives. There’s no second space battle with a huge explosion, just them finally escaping the still looming Empire and reuniting the Princess with her uncle. To be fair, it does make for a rousing enough climax as, realistically, these wildly outgunned rebels wouldn’t believably be capable of taking out a huge fortress with just a few fighters (big climax of the finished film aside, of course), and it is great reading a largely unchanged stretch that made it to film. There’s also a bit earlier on where Skywalker walks into a cantina to hire a ship, slices up some thugs with his laser sword, and then everyone runs for the ship while soldiers pursue, immediately followed by a dog fight in space as they fly off.
This outline makes for an interesting read as you can see Lucas use Hidden Fortress as the initial springboard for his ideas. It’s a fast story, well paced and structured, and already has some solid setpieces that will make it to camera. But it’s very underdeveloped, with little character or depth to chew on beyond the main beats of the action. There’s no history to the General or the Princess. There’s no lessons learned or choices made by the Bureaucrats. There’s too many boys just there to die. The Wookiees come and go without doing much of anything. The Empire and Rebellion are faceless organizations with no characters to give them life. There’s also no The Force, though it’s debatable as to whether or not that’s an inclusion that ultimately made things better.
This is an entertaining read, but it’s nowhere near the polished classic it would become.
In the next piece, I’ll cover George’s first draft. As you’ll see, he took it off in some very different directions.