The Great Unmade? The Early Drafts of Star Wars, Part 1

Discussion of the origins of Star Wars must 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 pursued by the clan who 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 to make off with their gold. It’s very common to hear comments along the lines of “Star Wars is such a ripoff of The Hidden Fortress!” but these are overblown and are often made by people who’ve never 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 (elements which 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 goons in the opening of The Hidden Fortress, with both pairs 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 come off a little unfair.

But such was not always the case, as we see in George Lucas’ original outline from March of 1973, simply titled The Star Wars.

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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, 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 whom they’ve been traveling 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 stabs at the Empire. Somewhat resembling Peter Pan’s 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. Surprisingly, 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 which doesn’t include Skywalker, the Princess, or the two bureaucrats.

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Probably the lowest point of the outline comes when our heroes crash land 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 don’t later 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 an innocent native for no real reason.

The rebels scrounge up fighter craft 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, this 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 before the 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 one could debate as to whether or not that’s an inclusion which ultimately made things better down the road.

This is an entertaining read, but it’s nowhere near the polished classic it would become.

Now it’s time to dig into Lucas’ first full draft, written five months later in July of 1974. There was an earlier “rough draft” dated May of 1974, but the differences between the two are minor, primarily in the form of numerous names and titles which have been changed. For example, the rough draft is where we first get the lead, Annikin Starkiller.

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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 teen-aged 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 which has 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’s commanded by Darth Vader, who has neither suit nor powers, 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 punches 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 which 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.

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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.

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As I’m sure you can see, there’s quite a few elements already in place which 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. Plus, 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.

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 extremely dense with heaps 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 comically-played “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 minor 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 polish 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. And this easily could have become 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 next time when 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.

Before closing, let me point out two more things. In the time since I first wrote this article, the entire rough draft version of the script was adapted by Dark Horse Comics as an 8-issue final hurrah before their license of Star Wars slipped away. I have yet to read the whole thing, but I love the art, the adaptation is snappy, and kudos to Dark Horse for giving it a long enough issue run to fit all of that massive script in there.

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Also, there’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye. I won’t detail the full book, as Tim previously wrote about it here, but while I knew Alan Dean Foster was tasked with writing a story which could be filmed on the cheap with props and costumes already made for the first film, it seems as though he had access to early drafts of the script as well, as numerous bits from the second half of the above draft are recycled throughout the novel. Luke, Leia, and the droids crashing on a swampy, jungle world, with Luke having to rescue Leia from assault by the locals. There’s an imperial installation where native tribesmen (here, the Coway) have been enslaved. When our heroes encounter the natives in the wild, they have to prove their place by felling a champion fighter, then lead the natives in an attack against Imperial invaders. Much of this would also be recycled in Return of the Jedi, making Splinter an interesting middle look at what Lucas originally intended for his broader saga and what it finally became. And bringing back some Hidden Fortress elements, Splinter also has Leia scowling as she’s forced to dirty herself up and act like a peasant, and an Imperial General who’s left with a nasty facial scar when he suffers a defeat at the heroes’ hands. I’m not much a fan of this choppy, dreary book, though, so don’t take this as a recommend.

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Noel Thingvall is a blogger and podcaster. His various projects can be found at The Noel Network, including Masters of Carpentry, a podcast exploring the complete filmography of John Carpenter. An earlier version of this article first appeared at Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second.

Originally posted 2015-10-22 22:49:26. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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