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, the final instalment in his three-part look at the evolution of the script of the first Star Wars film, Noel takes on the final drafts that led the film in to production.
In the first installment of this article, we explored George Lucas’ March 1973 outline, where he used Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress as the springing point for what would become The Star Wars. In the second piece, we looked at the first full draft, written over a year later in July of ’74, where he poured all of his thoughts onto the page in a massive, rich, sweeping first draft that, as amazing as it is, would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, to film at the time. So it’s with his second draft, dated January 1975, that Lucas started to strip things down and find his focus.
The Adventures of the Starkiller
The Star Wars
The Skywalker is a prophetic figure, a man who learned how to manipulate the spiritual fabric of reality, the Force of Others, to give himself great powers and insight into the universe. He taught this art to others who took the title of Jedi Bendu and spread throughout the universe, using their abilities as spiritual warriors to defend the growing Galactic Republic. But while the Force of Others has a positive aura, the Ashla, it also has a dark side, the Bendu. A padawan disciple named Darklighter became obsessed with the Bendu and defected from the Jedi, instead hooking up with a legion of space pirates he trained into the Warriors of the Sith.
The Sith backed corporate guilds and used them to create a fear campaign in the Republic that forced the Senate to hunt down the Jedi in a crusade and reform itself as a Galactic Empire. The few remaining Jedi live in hiding and word of a prophecy has spread: that one among the Jedi line known as Starkiller will rise up and, using the Kiber Crystal (greatly enhances the Force abilities, light or dark, of whoever holds it), will overthrow the Empire and lead us to peace. The Sith have made it their mission to eradicate the Starkiller name, but the patron has become impossible to find and he’s intentionally left many sons scattered about the cosmos.
That’s the backstory, partially drawn from an opening crawl, partially from other points throughout the narrative. The story opens, much like the movie, with a rebel freighter failing to outrun several Imperial Star Destroyers. Instead of a princess, the rebel ship is carrying Deak Starkiller, who’s trying to get word to his brother on the planet below about reuniting their father with the Kiber Crystal. He doesn’t make it as the Star Destroyers catch up with him and he’s captured by the dreaded Sith Lord Darth Vader (the iconic dark cloak and breathing mask in place). But not before he spreads a secret message to all R2 droids aboard to jump ship and seek out his brother. R2-D2 is the only one who makes it away, dragging along his friend C-3P0.
The two droids wander the desert, then are captures by Jawas who plan to break them down for scrap, then escape when all the other robots launch a revolt, before finally making their way to the homestead of Owen Lars, his wife Beru, and their teenage daughter Leia. Also staying with them are Deak’s brothers: Luke Starkiller, a clumsy teen struggling to live up to his family’s legacy, and child twins Biggs and Windy. Owen has taught the boys everything he knows about the art of fighting, both pistols and laser swords, but knows nothing of the Force of Others, leaving Luke only partially trained. After learning of his father’s plight, Luke takes the Kiber Crystal (hidden in his belt buckle) and the two droids, and makes for the Mos Eisley space port. Owen, his family, and the two younger Starkiller twins pack up their things and leave. They aren’t seen again, but there is mention they got away and would have played a part in a sequel.
At Mos Eisley, Luke hooks up with Han Solo and Chewbacca, who are close to what you’d expect, though Han is much more a sleezy conman than he is a dashing space pirate. Even though Luke can’t pay the full bill up front, Han agrees to smuggle him to Ogana Major, where the boy’s father is supposedly hiding, after Luke saves his hide from a drunk bar patron (the “He doesn’t like you” scene). But there’s a twist! It seem Han isn’t captain of his own ship, he’s a lowly deck hand on a pirate freighter captained by Oxus, who’s often snoozing at the controls, drunk on beverages laced with spice (which must flow, I’m assuming). Other members of the crew are navigator Montross Holdaack, Han’s cautious mentor who’s had the majority of his body replaced with bionics, and a large thug named Jabba the Hutt. When he can’t sell the passengers to his Captain, Han triggers an alarm that causes Oxus and Jabba to evacuate so he can smuggle Luke and the droids aboard, then takes off in the stolen craft with Montross and Chewbacca (who’s never called Chewie, a name instead given to a random rebel pilot later on).
While Luke is sleeping, Han and Chewbacca search his things, hoping to find any tasty pickings or signs of wealth they can exploit for further profit. They find nothing, but it’s a little too late for them to turn back. They reach Ogana Major only to find the planet has been torn to pieces by some unknown force. Uncertain of whether his father is alive or not, Luke’s only option is to somehow rescue Deak, who’s been brought to the dungeons deep in Alderaan, the central city of the Empire. While hesitant at first, Han and his partners agree to go along because they have nothing better to do.
Alderaan is a massive island city floating on the cloud ocean of a gas giant. The scene plays out much like in the films, with the pirate ship seemingly abandoned with our heroes hiding in the scan-proof smuggling lockers. Stormtroopers step in to investigate and are taken out. Luke and Han don their armor and use a handcuffed Chewbacca to head to the dungeons while Montross stays with the ship and the droids casually head to a computer terminal. This play out much like in the final film. The differences are, instead of Vader being present, there’s four unnamed Sith warriors on the scene; instead of grabbing a gun and fighting along like the Princess, Deak has been severely tortured and spends the entire rescue slumped over Chewbacca’s shoulder, unconscious; Chewbacca is much like Scooby Doo in that he often faces danger with his legs shivering and his hands over his eyes; and instead of encountering a creature in the trash compactor, they counter a creature, then the trash compactor. And, of course, there’s none of the Obi-Wan stuff.
There’s lots of action (including the bit of Han bravely charging around a corner, then dashing back with a dozen Troopers on his tail) and our heroes take off, just barely escaping by the skin of their teeth after taking out the pursuing Tie Fighters. The gravely injured Deak won’t wake up, but Luke connects to him with the Kiber Crystal, learning their father is with rebel forces on fourth moon of Yavin. As they make their way, their scans pick up a massive ship slowly heading in the same direction, but all they can see is what looks to be a small, drifting moon.
They arrive at the moon and are forced to go down to the surface in escape pods when Montross can’t find a landing spot. They splash down in a bog world filled with dark trees, vines, and the sounds of many unseen animals. Luke and R2-D2 are separated from the group… for about two pages before they reunite. They find the rebel headquarters where a rift has formed between the aged but imposing Starkiller and some of his followers, who feel his connection to the force is slipping because he didn’t see the destruction of Ogana Major and they barely escaped. Luke finally reunites his father with the Kiber Crystal and it glows and makes him stand tall, but otherwise does nothing further in the story. Instead, everyone turns their attention to the approaching object which is, of course, the Death Star that blew up Ogana Major.
The fighters are scrambled. Big battle. Han and his crew, who bailed after collecting their money, swoop back in to help out. Luke fires down the vents. The day is saved. Darth Vader even shows up again, leading a squad of Tie Fighters, but when he’s hit, instead of spiralling to a sequel, he kamikazes into the pirate freighter, taking it out. But Han, Chewbacca, and Montross make it out okay and everyone is set for a promised return. Starkiller declares the revolution has begun, and the screen then reads:
And a thousand new systems joined the rebellion, causing a significant crack in the great wall of the powerful Galactic Empire. The Starkiller would once again spark fear in the hearts of the Sith knights, but not before his sons were put to many tests… the most daring of which was the kidnapping of the Lars family and the perilous search for:
The Princess of Ondos
As you can see, Lucas has completely reworked his story and settled into what will be the structure of the final film. Luke is a kid going through the hero’s journey to prove himself. Han is a scoundrel who decides to put aside his greed for once. Focus is put more on the rebellion than on an attacked monarchy. The Empire is the looming black cloaked menace, with Dark Vader prominently featured. While I personally prefer the rich narrative of the First Draft, this was the right way to go as it brought the budget and scale down to something a studio would realistically be willing to fund, and it does simplify the story for the audience by sharpening the focus and weeding out extraneous characters. And we finally see a couple elements that will resurface again in Empire Strikes Back: the cloud city, and Luke and R2-D2 stranded on a swamp jungle world.
That’s not to say there aren’t still budgetary issues. The Force is finally portrayed as an actual power instead of a cultural religious mantra, with Vader and Deak using it to knock dozens of people aside and hurl ripped up pieces of a corridor at one another. And everyone – the Jedi, the Sith, the Stormtroopers, Han & Chewbacca – has a laser sword, the Jedi instead having the distinct weapon of explosive pellets they whiz at their enemies using the Force.
And there are still some problematic new elements Lucas brings to the table. The unnecessary prophecy of the Starkiller line feels like cheap rhetoric and robs Luke of a choices that let him rise to the occasion. The Kiber Crystal, a plot device that saves the story a few times, ultimately does nothing come the climax. Another problem is that, with Beru and Leia out of the picture by the first act and the Princess being saved for a sequel, much of the story lacks a female presence, leaving it a bit of a sausage fest.
In August of ’75, Lucas put together his third draft – The Star Wars, Episode I: The Adventures of Luke Starkiller – which brought things much closer to their final version. It’s Princess Leia who’s captured by the Empire in the beginning and her homeworld that’s destroyed as a test of the Death Star. Luke (still Starkiller) is a desert world farm boy living with his aunt and uncle and dreaming of adventures that come true when he find the droids. Luke quickly joins with the veteran Jedi Ben Kenobi (the name Obi-Wan is never used) who goes through the same arc with Darth Vader, his former apprentice. Han Solo is less flamboyant, is literally described as “a cowboy in space”, and is having problems with local thug Jabba the Hutt that he uses the mission to escape from. Our heroes find the destroy Organa Major, fly across enemy lines to rescue the princess, then make it to a rebel fortress and take on the Death Star. Oh, and laser swords are finally reserved for Jedi and Sith, and are finally referred to as lightsabers.
But there are still a few key differences:
- Luke already knows about his father’s past and owns the man’s lightsaber, and it takes quite a bit of doing for him to convince Ben Kenobi to come along as the Jedi is old, weak, half bionic, and wants nothing more than to keep hiding from his past. Also, Luke simply runs away from his aunt and uncle, who are never killed.
- Vader is finally the most prominent villain. Several other Sith are encountered at times and the stiffly bureaucratic Grand Moff Tarkin still doesn’t exist as Vader’s imperial adversary. I should note that the name Grand Moff Tarkin has appeared several times during these drafts, including as one of the bit rebel commanders in the later section of this script, but never in conjunction with the character he would become.
- The imprisonment and rescue of Princess Leia still takes place on the cloud city of Alderaan. When our heroes first find her, she’s been badly bloodied up by torture and spends half the rescue unconscious before finally coming to and being her feisty self as she grabs and gun and fights alongside the others. There’s no romantic setup between her and either of the male leads, and no kiss for luck. Also, the tentacled monster and the trash compactor are still two separate encounters.
- Kiber Crystals are still present and are amplifiers that all Jedi use to focus their Force abilities. Ben lost his long ago and all remaining crystals are believed to be in possession of the Sith. During the rescue of the Princess, Ben finds and steals a crystal. It charges him up and he starts slicing and Forcing through dozens of stormtroopers, Prequel Trilogy style. When he’s cut down, he passes the crystal to Luke, who uses it to take the final shot against the Death Star. Ben also doesn’t die, instead spending the remainder of the film recuperating and appearing again during the final medal ceremony.
By the beginning of ’76, Lucas had put together a fourth and final draft, that went through a few revisions and a light dialogue polish by his American Graffiti co-writers Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz (mostly banter). From there, it went on to become the cultural phenomena we know today. While I do personally prefer the richness of the first draft, you can’t deny how well A New Hope works after the story was stripped down and built up again into something slick, iconic, and unforgettable.
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.