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 continues his three-part look at the manner in which the first Star Wars film evolved between conception and production.
In my previous instalment, I explored Lucas’ original outline for The Star Wars, where he used the plot of Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress as a springboard for his ideas. Now it’s time to dig into Lucas’ first full draft, written five months later in July of 1974.
We open on a desert world where Akira Valor lives in hiding, teaching his sons Justin and Bink the ways and philosophies of the Dai warriors. The Dai were instrumental in spreading the reach and influence of the Galactic Kingdom before it turned on them, declaring them a rebel cult and all but wiping them out with a rival sect called the Legions of Lettow. One such Lettow warrior, clad in a black cloak and face mask, tracks the Valor clan down and attacks. He’s defeated, but not before little Bink is slain. The teenaged Justin tells his father he’s tired of hiding and the two decide to return to the front lines.
The Galactic Kingdom, under the iron-fisted rule of Son Hhat, has evolved into a dictatorship that’s conquered nearly every system within reach. The final holdout is the Townowi system run by King Kayos and protected by one of the last remaining Dai warriors, General Luke Skywalker. The Townowi system has been given several days to sign a treaty pledging their unity to the Kingdom, but it’s widely known the Townowians will reject such an offer, so plans are made for the Kingdom to launch a sneak attack. These plans are intercepted by Clieg Oxus, a rebel spy.
On Townowi, General Skywalker is growing impatient because he expects an attack, but the senate is delaying their approval of him moving the army into place and King Kayos doesn’t want to overstep his power by forcing their hand. Skywalker is pleasantly distracted when his old friend Akira shows up, then shocked when his friend reveals he’s dying and that over half his body has been replaced by cybernetics. Akira wants Skywalker to accept Justin as his apprentice and continue the boy’s training. Skywalker agrees. Justin stumbles out of a closet where he just had sex with the first interested woman he met.
Though the treaty isn’t due for another day, a massive object suddenly approaches Townowi. It turns out to be a Death Star, a massive space fortress that, instead of taking out a planet with a single zap like it does in the finished film, settles into orbit and begins a steady barrage as the planet slowly rotates beneath it. It’s commanded by Darth Vader, who has no suit or powers and is just an evil guy in a uniform. King Kayos is quickly killed. Skywalker scrambles his fighters and they launch an outgunned yet valiant attack against the fortress. Justin is sent to recover Princess Zara, who was just settling into her last year at an academy. Justin and Zara instantly don’t get along, and he’s forced to punch her out when she refuses to leave, telling a handmaiden to disguise herself as the Princess while he rushes off with the real one.
Skywalker is forced to stand his fighters down when corrupt members of the Senate convince the Queen to agree to negotiations. The Death Star ceases its attack and starts sending in waves of ground forces. It’s decided that the best way to keep the throne alive is for Skywalker and Justin to smuggle Princess Zara and her two little brothers off the planet, as well as the liquefied brain matter of the top 30 scientists of Townowi, who can be cloned at a later time (this thread never really goes anywhere beyond its setup). The two Dai warriors are joined by Oxus – injured in his attempt to get information to his allies, but still eager to fight – and a pair of droids. A-2 and C-3 ejected from the Death Star when their section came under heavy attack and it’s hoped they contain enough information about the fortress to help take it down.
After a number of encounters with Stormtroopers (who, like the Dai, all have laserswords) – including yet another variation on the famous horseback sword fight from Hidden Fortress – our heroes make their way to a spaceport town where they meet up with Han Solo, a grizzled old lizard who may have been a Dai long ago, but now runs a freighter. The plan is to smuggle everyone out as crew members, with the two young Princes being stuffed in small cryo-cases that blend in with the cargo, but it’s not long before they’re made by Dodona, a Lettow warrior tasked with wiping out the last of the Dai. Everyone is captured, then quickly escapes, and our heroes are flying for their lives with enemy fighters swarming around them. Our heroes put up a good fight, but they’re outgunned and their ship is mortally wounded when they’re forced to pass through an asteroid field. Oxus sacrifices himself to get everyone to the lifepods and the rest are scattered on a back water jungle planet.
Justin searches for Princess Zara only to find she’s been captured by trappers, who have also snagged themselves some local Jawas (Wookiees). Justin kills most of the trappers and frees the Jawas, but is unable to rescue the Princess when the last surviving trapper drives off with her. Justin is taken back to the tribal village of the Jawas where, after a scuffle with the local alpha bully, he gains the respect of the elder and the man’s curious son Boma. Justin, with Boma on his tail, reunites with Skywalker and Han Solo, who left the two young Princes in the care of a kindly anthropologist who lives nearby.
Our heroes converge on a royal installation which has the only starships on the planet. It’s heavily guarded, but the Jawas have made several attempts in the past to attack it because of brutal pillaging from the storm troopers within. We get a bit of Seven Samurai as the Dais build a strategy and quickly train up the Jawas, who take out the enemy forces much like the Ewoks did in Return of the Jedi. Now that they’re in possession of fighter craft, Skywalker and Han Solo set about training the Jawas to fly while Justin disguises himself as a royal storm trooper and sets out to rescue the Princess, who’s been sent to the Death Star. He’s joined by A-2 after the squat labor droid tells Skywalker everything he knows of the fortress’s weak points.
Infiltrating the Death Star isn’t easy as the big brother checkpoints and ever watchful eye of the Kingdom keep snagging Justin and A-2 at every turn. He’s eventually captured, but then he encounters Dodona. The Lettow warrior was heavily punished and demoted following his failure to capture Skywalker and he finally realizes he sacrificed his honor when he took up the cause of the wrong side (another bit lifted from The Hidden Fortress). So he frees Justin and the two of them rescue the Princess just as Skywalker and Han Solo launch the surprise attack with their Jawa-piloted fighters. The fortress is destroyed and Queen Zara takes the throne, honoring all the brave heroes in a final ceremony.
As I’m sure you can see, there’s quite a few elements already in place that would make it to screen, and that includes a cantina sequence (the “He doesn’t like you” encounter fully intact) and the catchphrase “May the Force of Others be with you.” What’s surprising, is how much this script resembles The Phantom Menace more than it does A New Hope. General Skywalker and Justin Valor feel much closer to Qui-Gon and the young Obi-Wan from Episode I than they do the elder Obi-Wan and Luke of Episode IV, down to their mentor/student banter and ceremonial hair knots. Though Princess Zara has the feisty attitude of Leia, much of her story – forced to flee an occupied kingdom after the signing of a treaty is refused, a handmaiden disguised in her place – would be recycled for Queen Amidala/Padme. And, it must be said, the weakest element of the script is a very stiffly written forced romance between Justin and Zara that comes off about as effectively as the one in Attack of the Clones.
Now, all that aside, is it a good script? Yes. It’s very good. In fact, I’d say it’s the best script George Lucas has ever written. It’s very dense with lots of weird names and concepts and characters, but it’s so casually and crisply delivered that it’s surprisingly accessible, only dumping exposition when needed and otherwise keeping the narrative constantly moving. In other words, the details give the story a richness without weighing it down. It’s also a meticulously structured story, with a nice slow build to the Death Star’s assault as they distinctly bring each of the characters to the stage, and a perfectly set pace as it constantly flows from discussion to action with each scene naturally building out of the last. Even the Jawas and their jungle planet are nicely woven into the narrative, with their silly “primitive” tactics far more effective from 8 foot tall warriors than little teddy bears and the needed hilarity of their flight training giving us a solid laugh before we enter the constant and mounting tension of the finale. There’s also a surprising amount of honest death and emotion as our heroes go from ruthlessly cutting down their enemies to breaking into tears when one of their own falls. There are some little problems with the script – the clonable brain matter setup that never goes anywhere, Justin’s random closet sex, the two young princes that ultimately add nothing but the presence of children – but they could easily be snipped without losing anything, and all the stiff romance needs is a little tweaking of the dialogue. Otherwise, it’s marvelous.
So why wasn’t the script used as is? Well, it’s kinda huge. Even for 147 pages, it’s excessively dense and the running time could have easily ballooned out to more than three hours. Not only is it doubtful a studio would have signed off on such a running time back in the day, but getting it into theaters would have required a lot of editing which could have taken this rich, meticulous thing and left it choppy and nonsensical. Also, this easily would have been the most expensive film of the time, and that’s assuming they’d be able to pull off half of the special effects it calls for. It’s a fantastic piece of work but, as much as I’d love to have seen them take a stab at getting this version up on screen, I have to acknowledge that it would have been absolutely impossible given the limitations of the mid 70s. Hell, this would be a massive and difficult production even by today’s standards.
Before it ever got to the point of either of those being an issue, Lucas himself decided to start streamlining and refocusing his ideas, as we’ll see in the next part where I explore his second draft, The Adventures of the Starkiller: Episode I – The Star Wars, and briefly cover the subsequent drafts as the story finally made its way to the screen.
Noel Thingvall, a native of Minnesota, co-hosts the podcast I Hate/Love Remakes and writes for the blogs The Super Saturday Short-Lived Showcase, Deconstructing Moya, and Review Journal of an Obsessive Completist. Follow him on Twitter.