Part 17: Re-make / re-model
Star Wars didn’t come out of nowhere. Many elements contributed to its success, not least among them the way it refined and reconsidered dusty pieces of science fiction from the past. Star Wars owed a particular debt to movie serials, those chapter-by-chapter adventure films that played before the main feature each week in the days when going to the movies was part of a weekly ritual, particularly for matinee-bound kids.
Born in 1944, Lucas was too young to catch these serials the first time around, but they found a new audience, Lucas among them, on television in the 1950s. He began his feature career rejecting their tropes—ray guns and oversized clashes between square-jawed heroes and unrepentant villains—by making THX 1138, where the dreary dystopia plays like a response to space-opera serials like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. (The later releases of THX 1138 even open with some footage from the 1939 serial Buck Rogers, for ironic effect.) But with Star Wars, whose origins include a failed attempt to license and adapt Flash Gordon, Lucas seemed to remember what made him love science fiction in the first place. He used the stuff he’d embraced in childhood as raw material. And he molded it into new shapes to meet the needs of a new age, and to serve his own ideas of what stories could be told at the edge of the universe.
He wasn’t alone. By the time of Star Wars’ release, the father-and-son producing team of Alexander and Ilya Salkind had already spent four years working on and promising the imminent release of a Superman movie, one they claimed would update the comic-book hero for modern audiences. Their annual tradition of buzzing Cannes with planes and helicopters trumpeting the project became something of a joke. Meanwhile, Gene Roddenberry labored to revive a more recent science-fiction touchstone, his own TV series Star Trek, which had aired for three influential, poorly rated seasons between 1966 and 1969. And making a Flash Gordon film did sound like a good idea to Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis, who held the rights, and an even better idea when the upstart director he wouldn’t let make the movie had such great success with his own space adventure.
The resulting films—Superman: The Movie, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and Flash Gordon—appeared in the years after Star Wars, and each was marked in some way by the success of Lucas’ movie. Though Superman was well underway when Star Wars appeared in theaters in May 1977, the two films still shared some creative DNA. Production designer John Barry worked on both films, and the sterile halls of Krypton, in particular, suggest some lost outpost of The Empire. John Williams provided both scores. Working at the peak of his anthemic powers, he creates a feeling of continuity between Star Wars, Superman, and Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. Grouped together, the music makes the three films play like a suite, each offering variations on the themes of space, wonderment, flight, and heroism.
Yet Superman is very much its own distinct entity, which is miraculous, given its tortuous path to the screen, and the structure of the film itself. The Salkinds and co-producer Pierre Spengler at least entertained the thought of hiring seemingly every director who might have made sense (Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, William Friedkin) and some who didn’t (Sam Peckinpah) before tapping James Bond veteran Guy Hamilton for the role, then losing Hamilton due to tax issues when the filming location switched from Italy to England. Similarly, they considered numerous leading men to put on the tights, from the obvious (Robert Redford, Paul Newman) to the unconventional (Muhammad Ali) to the puzzling (Clint Eastwood, Al Pacino), before deciding on Christopher Reeve, a relative unknown whose screen test as both Superman and his alter ego Clark Kent wowed the filmmakers. Richard Donner, hot off the success of The Omen, came in to direct relatively late in the process, and set about making the film his own.
He had his work cut out for him. Superman’s script began as a 300- to 500-page tome from Godfather author Mario Puzo (the length depends on who’s doing the telling) meant to provide the material for two features to be shot simultaneously.This got passed on to David Newman and Robert Benton (who’d written the book for a Superman musical in the 1960s), then David and Leslie Newman, when Benton took on other work. Donner brought in Tom Mankiewicz, who reworked the script and landed a “creative consultant” credit.
Mankiewicz’s primary job: remove the camp. Glen Weldon’s indispensable book Superman: The Unauthorized Biography notes that the Salkinds encountered resistance from DC Comics in part because the company feared a film would adopt the campy tone of the 1960s Batman TV series. Even though the producers made assurances that Superman would be taken seriously, they ultimately had to go over DC’s head and obtain the rights from Warner Bros. But whatever the Salkinds’ intentions were, Mankiewicz was handed a script with a campy tone, which he then attempted to comb out to meet the requirements of the word Donner would hang throughout the Superman offices during the shoot: “Verisimilitude.” “The original Superman was quite campy,” Mankiewicz told Starlog in 1983. “It was filled with stuff like Superman flying over Metropolis with Telly Savalas on the street waving up at him and saying, ‘Who loves ya, baby?’ It was wonderful stuff, but much more campy.” Donner and Mankiewicz’s Superman, on the other hand, was serious and respectful, giving a meaningful American icon his due.
They mostly succeeded. Superman plays like four different films. In the first, a highly serious science-fiction film, Jor-El (Marlon Brando, his services obtained at a headline-making rate) and his wife Lara (Susannah York) preside over the last days of Krypton. After condemning a trio of villains to imprisonment in The Phantom Zone—they’ll be back in Superman II—the couple send their son off to the distant planet of Earth, where he’ll have superpowers and, Jor-El hopes, set an example for the primitive but well-meaning Earthlings. In the second, a coming-of-age story filled with John Ford-inspired images of the American plains, the boy is adopted by Jonathan (Glenn Ford) and Martha Kent (Phyllis Thaxter), who give him the name Clark and instill him with all-American values while helping him to cope with his new powers. The third is a breezy, banter-y, His Girl Friday-inspired film about the adult Clark (Reeve) working as a journalist at The Daily Planet, where he befriends Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure), works for the gruff Perry White (Jackie Cooper), and falls for fellow reporter Lois Lane (Margot Kidder)—all while working a side career as a superhero. In the fourth, all hell breaks loose in an special-effects-filled action film in which the villainous Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) and his henchpeople—the lovely Eve Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine) and the oafish Otis (Ned Beatty)—attempt to enact a scheme that will destroy the California coast and make a lot of seemingly worthless land Luthor has purchased extremely valuable.
Each section has its virtues, and has proven influential on future portrayals of Superman—in comics, on film, and in other media. They also work together better than might be expected. Donner’s film has visible seams, some of them owing to a troubled production that found him clashing with the Salkinds as he was asked to focus on scenes from the first film while plans for the second film hung in limbo. It also has a generous running time. But it sweeps along and keeps offering one visual surprise after another. If special effects can be divided into pre- and post-Star Wars, Superman very much falls into the latter camp, even though it was being developed simultaneously with Lucas’ film. The effects work is both immersive—creating worlds out of miniatures—and seemingly casual. The tagline promised, “You’ll believe a man can fly,” and delivered on that promise in part by making the flying seem so casual, as when Superman just drops in to hang out with Lois. He’s Superman, that’s what he does, even though making it appear so ordinary required a lot of work.
Yet if there’s one element that puts the film over above all others, it’s Reeve’s performance. Reeve doesn’t appear in the film until about the halfway mark, but when he does, he’s Superman. And with some minor adjustments, he’s Clark Kent. But really, he’s both, putting the age-old debate over which is the true identity and which is the alter ego to rest by letting the farm-boy goodness define the superhero, and playing the nebbish with more than a hint of the super-powered confidence beneath the klutziness. He was also, as Weldon observes, the right Superman for the time:
There is… something new about Reeve’s Superman, something he adds to the character that feels like it’s been there for the last fifty years, and we just never noticed it: a calmness. In his squared shoulders and compassionate blue gaze, Reeve’s Superman is unhurried, unforced; his very presence soothes and reassures… Reeve’s Superman would be the kind of leader the neurotic 1970s so desperately cried out for.
That got Donner a long way toward accomplishing his mission. The latter half of the film sometimes clashes with the tone established early on. Hackman’s performance, though fun, frequently crosses over into camp. Beatty is a great actor, and he tries to summon the spirit of classic movie clowns, but his contributions still read as low comedy. Rex Reed shows up for a winking cameo. It’s as if camp is the default mode for superhero films—or was at the time—and Superman eventually gives up and opens the door to it. But by this point, it doesn’t matter. (Nor do puzzling moments, as when Kidder recites the lyrics to “Can You Read My Mind?” a song written for the film, in voiceover during a flying sequence.) Superman didn’t just dust off Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s most famous creation, it gave 1978 audiences a Superman that looked like he belonged to their times, and one they could take with them into the future.
“Why didn’t the Star Trek movie happen?” Starlog asked Gene Roddenberry in its March 1978 issue. “Paramount,” Roddenberry replied, “went about the movie in exactly the wrong way to accomplish anything artistic. They decided to make it a committee effort, and have no one really in charge… Good movies are made almost invariably by one person carrying the enthusiasm and vision of it into completion. This is the way George Lucas made Star Wars over three years of struggle.” It wasn’t the most objective answer to the question, but then, it wasn’t the most objective interview, either. Susan Sackett, Roddenberry’s assistant (and, she later revealed, lover), who penned a monthly update column for the magazine, was asking questions even though she already knew the answers. Everyone involved also knew they’d have a sympathetic readership of Star Trek fans who really wanted the movie to happen, and would be happy to point the finger in any direction but Roddenberry’s. (Roddenberry mentioned being busy with other projects anyway, like a screenplay starring Paul McCartney and Wings.) But a funny thing happened between the time the interview was conducted and the issue went to press: the movie, a notion Roddenberry had been kicking around in public since Star Trek went off the air in 1969, was put back on track.
But that meant canceling Star Trek: Phase II, a new Trek series then in development in place of the Star Trek film project. It also meant finally deciding on what kind of Star Trek movie to make. Many writers tried to get Star Trek film ideas to the finish line over the years, including Roddenberry, Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison, and Robert Silverberg. Some got further than others. Philip Kaufman, for instance, came close to directing Star Trek: Planet Of The Titans, which would have reunited the original cast for a time-travel story whose creative team would have included James Bond production designer Ken Adam and Star Wars concept artist Ralph McQuarrie, and whose cast might have included Toshirô Mifune as a Klingon.
Ultimately, what would become Star Trek: The Motion Picture arose directly from the ashes of Phase II, though it took a while. A story by Alan Dean Foster, a rising science-fiction star later to become the king of the movie novelization, became a screenplay credited to Harold Livingstone. By all reports, it encountered a lot of revisions along the way. Among those shaping it was Robert Wise, the veteran director of The Day The Earth Stood Still, The Sound Of Music, West Side Story, The Andromeda Strain, and many other films. Like Brando and Hackman on Superman, Wise lent the film an air of respectability. His hiring clearly indicated this would not be a silly space movie for kids.
Not that Star Trek: The Motion Picture would have lacked seriousness without Wise. If anything defines the film that finally got made, it’s gravitas. First one familiar face, then another appears onscreen, and the film practically pauses for applause at each arrival, knowing its audience has been waiting a decade to see William Shatner as Captain Kirk (now Admiral Kirk), Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock, DeForest Kelley as Dr. McCoy, and so on. It similarly spends a long stretch just circling the Enterprise as it sits in a docking station, while Jerry Goldsmith’s majestic music blares on the soundtrack. ST:TMP practiced fan service before the term even had a name.
It also attempts to play catch-up at warp speed. Roddenberry didn’t reference Star Wars by accident. As a movie, Star Trek: The Motion Picture ultimately owed its existence to the success of Star Wars and Close Encounters, and the ensuing demand for all things science fiction. It also had to compete in a space now owned by films defined by their remarkable special effects, even though Trek’s effects had always been a secondary consideration, if that. The TV show put storytelling first. Now Star Trek risked being laughed off the screen if it didn’t live up to contemporary standards. There would be no strapping a horn on a dog this time.
The film shows the strain of trying to satisfy many demands. The story, in which a threatening entity makes its way to Earth for reasons unknown, plays like a solid episode of Star Trek, with moments of peril giving way to moments of discovery, and intellect winning out over brute force. But it also seems like it’s been padded out to fill ST:TMP’s 132-minute running time. The effects are often dazzling, especially some late-in-the-game contributions from Douglas Trumbull, who revisits some of the space-travel-as-experimental-film techniques he brought to 2001: A Space Odyssey. But they’re also a bit gratuitous. Whole scenes, though effective in isolation, seem like they’ve been added to satisfy the stars. That’s especially true of a scene in which Kirk, having resumed control of the Enterprise from its intended captain (Stephen Collins), establishes himself as the top dog, talking to a mere underdog with aspirations. It’s, in short, a bit of a mess.
In his Time review, Richard Schickel led with an observation that would just get more meaningful in the years to come:
It used to be that special effects were created to serve a movie’s story, to permit the camera to capture that which could not be found—or recorded on film—in the natural world. But now, in the post-Star Wars era, stories are created merely to provide a feeble excuse for the effects. Star Trek consists almost entirely of this kind of material: shot after shot of vehicles sailing through the firmament to the tune of music intended to awe.
What he didn’t allow for, and what Star Trek didn’t realize with this first big-screen entry, is that films could be filled with effects and tell great stories. ST:TMP gets the balance wrong; it doesn’t even to seem to realize there’s a balance to get right. Viewers showed up. The film made money, though less than the studio hoped. But few walked away satisfied. This might have been unavoidable, however. In some respects, everyone in the film was going where no one had gone before, attempting to turn a cult TV show into a film for blockbuster-hungry, Star Wars-trained audiences. It didn’t quite work out. Fortunately, they’d get a second chance.
Seriousness is the last term anyone could use to describe Flash Gordon, which, instead of keeping camp at arm’s length, cozies up and makes a best friend of it. Inspired by the success of Star Wars, Dino De Laurentiis decided it was finally time to make a film of Flash Gordon. He’d almost made it twice before, once with Federico Fellini and once with Nicolas Roeg, the latter project getting as far as the design stage. Ultimately, directing duties landed with the talented Mike Hodges, working between the early-career triumph of Get Carter and the late-career triumph of Croupier. Hodges usually directed crime films, but had one previous foray into science fiction with the Michael Crichton adaptation The Terminal Man.
It’s tough to sniff out Hodges’ personality here, however, amid the overwhelming, and occasionally gloriously silly, production design. Adapting Alex Raymond’s comic strip, Flash Gordon tells the story of a football hero named Flash (Sam Jones) who’s swept into an interplanetary conflict alongside girl-next-door type Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) and mad-scientist type Dr. Hans Zarkov (Topol). The three are forced to do battle with the evil emperor Ming (Max von Sydow) while winning over allies from the various parties interested in seeing Ming overthrown. But it’s really about oversized sets, ridiculous costumes, and a badly masked enthusiasm for kink.
If there’s one sensibility driving the film, apart from Queen’s bombastic songs and score music, it belongs to writer Lorenzo Semple, Jr., who developed and wrote for the jokey Batman series that defined live-action versions of comics characters until Superman changed that impression. Flash Gordon seems determined to change it back, taking every moment to its silliest extreme, as when Flash defeats some bad guys by essentially playing football against them. Semple, who also wrote the King Kong remake for De Laurentiis, worked on many straight-faced films, like The Parallax View and Papillon. As with Batman, however, seriousness abandons him here.
That can be fun. As comics artist Alex Ross, perhaps the film’s biggest fan, points out on a featurette included on the film’s DVD and Blu-ray edition, Flash Gordon is, like Batman, entertaining for kids and a different sort of entertaining for grown-ups, who pick up on the goofiness, understand the double entendres, and can read between the lines of all those scenes of bondage and flogging. But there’s more than a whiff of condescension to it, too, as if it’s ridiculous to even consider Raymond’s vision of clashing heroes and villains as anything but comedy fodder. The film didn’t connect with critics—though Roger Ebert concluded his three-star review with the half-hearted “Is it fun? Yeah, sort of, it is.”—or moviegoers. In time, Flash Gordon found an appreciative cult audience, but as Semple put it in an interview also included on the film’s DVD and Blu-ray, “one of the definitions of a cult classic is the cult are not people who buy movie tickets.” But in the years after Star Wars, and in most of the years since, audiences didn’t want to see such fantasies held up for ridicule. They wanted to find ways to keep them alive, consider why they lasted, and understand why they still matter.
Next: The deluge