Putting together this short selection of voices took me back to when I first saw STAR WARS on its original theatrical release in 1977. I was sixteen. Pretty much the perfect age! I could enjoy the spectacle but also was aware there was something really special going on. Returning to it now made me think again about the artistry of the series, its storytelling technique and what ultimately it was trying to say.
STAR WARS was new of course in 1977 but there was so much about the film that was already familiar. The sci-fi element was a bit of a steal from the FLASH GORDON television series that, though made in the 50s, was still a popular Saturday morning TV filler, as was, incidentally, the original 1936 version. The swashbuckling side of the STAR WARS adventure reminded me of two of my favourite childhood movies, Douglas Fairbanks Junior’s GUNGA DIN and Errol Flynn’s ROBIN HOOD. The swords may have become luminous sticks but the principle was much the same. Even those coarsely woven fabric cloaks of Obi-wan had a familiar look to them for a generation brought up on ‘sand and sandals’ biblical epics popular in the 50s and 60s such as THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD, or even the more contemporary JESUS OF NAZARETH made by Franco Zeffirelli and shown on television the same year STAR WARS came out.
The sound of the film, with its big, melodramatic orchestral score, was to be fair, a throwback to the Golden Era of the Hollywood studio days, but oddly enough for kid growing up in Yorkshire where brass bands were part of the fabric of life it was not completely out of the ordinary. Even with a strange cast of characters that included a tin man, a growling furry like-lion or an alien frog, STAR WARS was a movie that was hardly a surprise for anyone who’d seen THE WIZARD OF OZ pretty much every year since living memory or watched STAR TREK on a weekly basis. I suppose for some children the ‘spiritual quest’ at the heart of STAR WARS might have been a new experience but I was at the time being educated at a Jesuit school and studying Old Testament history and so I could see a parallel between a character such Obi-wan Kenobi, a contemplative outsider who lived in the desert, and the prophet Elijah, another meditative outsider who, well, lived in the desert. They probably wore the same clothes, too.
In truth then there was little that was actually new in STAR WARS but what was unique was that we had never seen all those elements combined before. Just as a few years previously with THE GODFATHER in 1972 no one had seen a gangster movie that had the look of a European art film, with STAR WARS no one had thought to combine before a swashbuckling monk, a camp gold-plated computer robot with a persecution complex, a wake-you-up-at-the-back trumpet section, an amphibious green alien who seemed to speak English as a second language and then mix them all up with a big dollop of mythical religiosity. None of it should have worked, but boy, oh boy, it did! And arguably cinema has never been the same since.
There were influences too on STAR WARS that for a sixteen year old in 1977 I was completely unaware of, but which I later discovered and sought out. I read with a passion Joseph Campbell’s HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES, a book that is clearly seminal to the themes and storytelling in the trilogy, as George Lucas himself has acknowledged. Campbell’s prose is not the easiest to read (THE POWER OF MYTH is a more accessible alternative as it is a much more reader friendly transcript of Joseph Campbell in conversation) but nevertheless his work and research is a fascinating insight into where many of the mythological ideas and narrative techniques of STAR WARS come from.
There is much discussion too about the religious or spiritual nature of the series. Perhaps too much since it is fundamentally a made-up story. Most religions from Hindu to Islam have claimants who can show their ideas and theological concepts are present in STAR WARS. I would put in a polite word for the duality of Zoroastrianism combined with the Judeo-Christian mythos of The Fall, but hey, let’s not get too silly about this. I hear some people put ‘Jedi’ as their religion on their Census forms. I have my doubts most of them would be happy lifting a saucepan from a washing up bowl with their hands never mind a spaceship from a swamp with just their thoughts, but let that pass.
I had read somewhere early on about the influence of Akira Kurosawa’s THE HIDDEN FORTRESS on the narrative structure of STAR WARS. The Kurosawa movie tells the story of a war between rival clans but it does so from the point of view of two lowly peasants. What George Lucas took from this was a way of telling the story of the Empire’s battle against the Alliance at least in part from the perspective two lowly droids, C-3P0 and R2-D2. Simple but quite inspired, really. Also I think that Lucas was smart enough to realise that the younger children would love the two bickering robots, even if they don’t always get the finer details of what was going on in the rest of the story. All in all you begin to see that this George Lucas fellow is really quite a clever chap. No wonder STAR WARS became to be such a big hit.
But then something strange happened. Somewhere in the late 80s and early 90s STAR WARS sort of disappeared. The films hardly ever appeared on television and even VHS copies were hard to come by. My nephew, Scott, born in 1985, and in fact his whole generation, didn’t really know what STAR WARS was. If it was mentioned it was talked about as something that was in the past. I decided that this had to change and so one Christmas when all the family were staying with me, we had a STAR WARS themed Yuletide where I showed the trilogy over Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day (when they were older I did the same thing with THE GODFATHER). STAR WARS once again proved a big hit.
Scott, then aged about seven, completely loved it. He returned home to Leeds and went to school and his football club and told all his mates. My 1985 box set was then duly lent to Scott and, with no complaints from me, the STAR WARS films were watched so often and the tape worn so thin that they eventually became unplayable. But by then there had been the 1997 re-release and Scott, now twelve, was the real STAR WARS expert. I was constantly corrected if got a line wrong and mocked silly when I forgot the name of the planet where Yoda lived (“What, Steve, you don’t know where Dagobah is? Soft lad!”). His sister, Jordan, enjoyed the films (she would have been about five years old at the time of that Christmas viewing), especially the funny robots. I’m not quite sure that she was ever what you could call a fan. When I took them both to see THE PHANTOM MENACE in 1999 Jordan was about twelve. As she left the cinema she told me her favourite character was Jar Jar Binks. Enough said.
I suspect the voices I do for the STAR WARS series came to me as much by osmosis as anything. That said, the voices are all quite fascinating and varied, and quite a challenge to do. As with impersonating any character the key is to capture the attitude. For example, for me the Emperor Palpatine has all the characteristics of a sad, bitter and twisted old queen who is so bitter and twisted it has turned him slightly demonic. Those brought up in the seventies will I hope understand what I mean when I say that one way of describing that voice would be ‘Hartley Hare meets THE EXORCIST’.
Chewbacca is a very odd one. To get that strange growl you sort of combine a yawn with a gargle and then produce a slowed-down version of that noise you make when you accidentally stub your big toe on a chair. C-3P0 on the other hand is part glorified abacus, part silly fuss pot. Those doom laden calculations that everything will almost certainly go wrong, delivered in a slightly camp manner, make him incredibly endearing. And as for Yoda, well, to do him practice you must.
The real challenge was Alec Guinness. Vocally he has always been seen as a difficult voice to get. People did impersonations of Laurence Olivier and Richard Burton and yes, people did Guinness as Fagin in OLIVER TWIST and even as Professor Marcus in THE LADYKILLERS but these were Guinness hidden behind characters that were often very much a caricature. I’d say in playing Obi-wan Kenobi it was the nearest Alec Guinness had come to use his own natural persona and voice to play a character in a film (TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY was two years later in 1979).
Guinness has always been difficult to pin down, and not just vocally. He was an exceptionally private man who rarely allowed himself to come through in the rolls he played. He was one of those what I would call ‘invisible actors’ who liked to embrace disguise. In KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS, for example, he famously played all the D’Ascoyne family characters, including the women. My way into the voice, odd as it may seem, was to combine elements of Harold Wilson, the former Labour Prime Minister, with John Gielgud, the Shakespearean actor. Sir Alec has the earthy tones of Wilson who had a slight gravel-like catch in his voice that made him so distinctive, but actors of Guinness’s generation were heavily influenced in how they spoke by Gielgud with that mellifluous voice of his and its distinct sing-song rhythm. So, I combined Sir Harold with Sir John and got, I hope, a kind of Sir Alec.
To be honest only James Earl Jones can reach those deep resonant tones of Darth Vader. I pushed my own voice as low as I could over several days by progressively going down the musical scale. What you hear is me, it has not been ‘pitch shifted’ in any way technically, though to give it that unique Darth Vader acoustic some slight electronic distortion has been applied (for sound engineers and techno geeks I used DaTube). I also do a few words of Darth Vader in a stand-up routine where I get Delia Smith to describe the ‘recipe’ of how to create the Fozzie Bear voice ‘the ingredients’ of Vader and Homer Simpson. The advantage of course of live performance is you can wrap your hand round the mike and then let the over-clipping and natural reverb do the real work.
The appeal of STAR WARS is undoubtedly strong. In his book USES OF ENCHANTMENT Bruno Bettelheim writes about the importance of fantasy and fairy stories for children. Without getting too deep into a complex subject Bettelheim argues that stories for the young allow them, meaning us, to deal with all sorts of complex and conflicting issues, especially relating to family relationships. Well you can’t get much more obvious than the fantasy Father-Son conflict in STAR WARS. I suspect some of my own Father-Son conflicts were floating around somewhere in my sub-conscious as I watched the film but most were dealt with elsewhere. STAR WARS also appeals to many children and even adults because it offers them a spiritual take on life they can deal with at a sub-conscious or even conscious way. This never really affected me as I already had that through my Catholic upbringing with its numerous rituals and festivals. I had the sort of education where we studied Plato and early Christian history and so when Yoda says “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you; here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere, yes” I was the sort of know-all who could say “Oh, he’s talking about Platonic forms that later became such an important part of early Augustinian Catholic theology”. Though as Hans Solo might have said, “Great, kid. But don’t get cocky.”
So then, I had great fun returning to STAR WARS and putting all the voices together. It brought back some happy memories. What, though, do I make of STAR WARS nearly forty years on? Well, when I watch the films now, as I do perhaps every couple of years or so, they remind me of my teens and also, of course, of the time when I introduced the film to the next generation. But like MARY POPPINS or THE WIZARD OF OZ, STAR WARS takes me to a time that is now past. Another country, as L. P. Hartley put it. Interesting to visit every so often but advisable not to live there. I can understand the continuing appeal but in truth I find it a little odd that middle-aged men still collect STAR WARS figures, though as I have several Disney animation cells of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and THE ARISTOCATS on my wall, who I am to talk?
It seems to me, however, that two strong messages do stand out in STAR WARS. First, you must discover spiritual growth inside yourself by facing up to both the fears inside of you and the adult challenges of the outside world. Hardly an easy path but as Yoda says, “Try not. Do… or do not. There is no try.” Second, lay aside technology, trust in your own feelings and experience life as a fully and unfiltered human connection. The key quotes here being Obi-wan’s “Let Go. Trust me. Use the Force” and Darth Vader’s “Just for once… let me… look on you with my ‘own’ eyes.” Dare I say that neither idea seems to me to be entirely compatible with a life spent collecting plastic figures or sitting in front of computer games and playing with gizmos.
Perhaps I was lucky. In 1977 I was of an age and disposition to take from STAR WARS what I needed. The simple truth is that after my teenage years I never felt any real emotional need to return to STAR WARS, though when I have seen it again I’ve certainly enjoyed the story and spectacle. The Force then, I would say, is no longer so strong with me. That said, I really did have fun putting the voices together and as Yoda might have said, “Enjoy I hope you do.”
STAR WARS Voice Cast
Obi-wan Kenobi: Alec Guinness
The Emperor Palpatine: Ian McDiarmid
C-3P0: Anthony Daniels
R2-D2: Ben Burtt
Chewbacca: Ben Burtt
Darth Vader: James Earl Jones
Yoda: Frank Oz
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