The Star Wars Trilogy, often colloquially referred to as the original trilogy or the classic trilogy, is the first set of three films produced in the Star Wars franchise, an American space opera created by George Lucas.
It was produced by Lucasfilm and distributed by 20th Century Fox, and consists of:
- The original Star Wars film: Episode IV: A New Hope (1977);
- Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980); and
- Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983).
The films centre on the Galactic Civil War between the Rebel Alliance and the tyrannical Galactic Empire, as well as the archetypal hero’s journey of Luke Skywalker in his quest to become a Jedi under the tutelage of exiled Jedi Masters Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda. Luke joins forces with Princess Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca, C-3PO, R2-D2 and the Rebel Alliance in facing the Empire and the evil Sith Lord Darth Vader.
Beginning in medias res, the original trilogy serves as the second act of the nine-episode Skywalker saga. It was followed by a prequel trilogy between 1999 and 2005, and a sequel trilogy between 2015 and 2019.
Collectively, they have been referred to as the “Skywalker Saga” to distinguish them from spin-off films set within the same universe.
In 1971, Lucas wanted to film an adaptation of the Flash Gordon serial, but could not obtain the rights. He began developing his own story inspired by the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Immediately after directing American Graffiti (1973), Lucas wrote a two-page synopsis for his space opera, titled Journal of the Whills. After United Artists, Universal Studios and Disney rejected the film, 20th Century Fox decided to invest in it. Lucas felt his original story was too difficult to understand, so on 17 April 1973, he began writing a 13-page script titled The Star Wars, sharing strong similarities with Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958). By May 1974, he had expanded the script into the first draft of a screenplay, but found that the script had grown too long for a single film. Subsequent drafts evolved into the script of the original film.
Lucas negotiated to retain the sequel rights. Tom Pollock, then Lucas’ lawyer writes: “We came to an agreement that George would retain the sequel rights. Not all the [merchandising rights] that came later, mind you; just the sequel rights. And Fox would get a first opportunity and last refusal right to make the movie.” Lucas was offered $50,000 to write, another $50,000 to produce, and $50,000 to direct the film; his directing compensation was later increased to $100,000. He also negotiated the sequel rights and ownership of 40% of the merchandising profits. American Graffiti cast member Harrison Ford had given up on acting to try to become a carpenter, until Lucas hired him to play Han Solo.
Thousands of actors were assessed in the search for the trilogy’s main cast. The selected actors are considered by many viewers to have onscreen chemistry even though some of them were inexperienced, with the notable exceptions of Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing. Some, like Ford, have called the dialogue in the scripts clunky, and several lines were unscripted; some of these are considered the most memorable moments in the films.
Star Wars was released on 25 May 1977; unlikely hero Luke Skywalker is drawn into a galactic conflict between the Empire and Rebel Alliance by two droids and an old Jedi Knight; he helps make one of the Rebellion’s most significant victories.
The film’s unanticipated success led Lucas to make it the basis of an elaborate serial. With the backstory he created for the sequel, Lucas decided that the series would be a trilogy of trilogies, with the original film given the subtitle mentioned above to establish it as the first part of the second trilogy.
The first sequel, Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back, was released on 21 May 1980, and sees Luke begin training as a Jedi under the last living Jedi master, Yoda. Luke confronts Sith Lord Darth Vader, who is revealed to be Luke’s father. Vader attempts to convert Luke to the dark side of the Force.
Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi was released on 25 May 1983, and follows Luke as a full-fledged Jedi. Luke attempts to redeem Vader, thereby saving the galaxy from the Empire.
The sequels were self-financed by Lucasfilm, and generally advertised without the episodic number distinction present in their opening crawls.
A Rebel spaceship is intercepted by the Empire above the desert planet of Tatooine. Aboard, the deadliest Imperial warlord Darth Vader and his stormtroopers capture Princess Leia Organa, a secret member of the Rebellion. Before her capture, Leia makes sure the droid R2-D2 will escape with stolen Imperial blueprints for an armoured space station, the Death Star, and a holographic message for the Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi, who has been living in exile on Tatooine. Along with C-3PO, R2-D2 falls under the ownership of Luke Skywalker, a farmboy who has been raised by his aunt and uncle. Luke helps the droids locate Obi-Wan, now a solitary old hermit known as Ben Kenobi. He reveals himself as a friend of Luke’s absent father, Anakin Skywalker, who was Obi-Wan’s Jedi apprentice until being murdered by Vader. He tells Luke he must also become a Jedi. After discovering his family’s homestead has been destroyed by the Empire, they hire the smuggler Han Solo, his Wookiee co-pilot Chewbacca and their space freighter, the Millennium Falcon. They discover that Leia’s homeworld of Alderaan has been destroyed, and are soon captured by the planet-destroying Death Star itself. While Obi-Wan disables its tractor beam, Luke and Han rescue the captive Princess Leia, passing through incredible dangers. Finally, they deliver the Death Star plans to the Rebel Alliance with the hope of exploiting a weakness, and launch an attack on the Death Star.
The first rough draft, titled The Star Wars, introduced “the Force” and the young hero Luke Starkiller. Annikin [sic] appeared as Luke’s father, a wise Jedi knight. Between drafts, Lucas read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and was surprised to find that his story “was following classical motifs.” The third draft replaced (a deceased) Annikin with Ben Kenobi. Some months later, Lucas had negotiated a contract that gave him rights to two sequels. Lucas hired Alan Dean Foster, who was ghostwriting the novelisation of the first film, to write them – with the main creative restriction that they could be filmed on a low budget. By 1976, a fourth draft had been prepared for principal photography. The film was titled The Adventures of Luke Starkiller, as taken from the Journal of the Whills, Saga I: The Star Wars. During production, Lucas changed Luke’s name to Skywalker and shortened the title to The Star Wars, and finally just Star Wars. At that point, Lucas was not expecting the film to warrant full-scale sequels. The fourth draft of the script underwent subtle changes to become a self-contained story ending with the destruction of the Empire in the Death Star. The intention was that if the film was successful, Lucas could adapt Foster’s novels into low-budget sequels. By that point, Lucas had developed a tentative backstory to aid in developing the saga.
Star Wars exceeded all expectations. The success of the film and its merchandise sales led Lucas to make Star Wars the basis of an elaborate film serial, and use the profits to finance his filmmaking centre, Skywalker Ranch. After the release of the first sequel, the original film was subtitled Episode IV: A New Hope in the screenplay released in the 1979 book The Art of Star Wars and for all subsequent re-releases beginning with a theatrical re-release in 1981.
Three years after the destruction of the Death Star, the Empire forces the Rebel Alliance to evacuate its secret base on Hoth. Instructed by Obi-Wan’s spirit, Luke travels to the swamp world of Dagobah to find the exiled Jedi Master Yoda. Luke’s Jedi training is interrupted by Vader, who lures him into a trap by capturing Han and Leia at Cloud City, governed by Han’s old friend Lando. During a fierce duel, Vader reveals a shocking truth about Luke’s father.
Owing to financial concerns, Alan Dean Foster’s sequel novel, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye (1978), restricted the story to Luke, Leia, and Darth Vader. After the success of the original film, Lucas knew a sequel would be granted a reasonable budget, and hired Leigh Brackett to write it from Lucas story. She finished a draft by early 1978, but died of cancer before Lucas was able to discuss changes he wanted her to make. His disappointment with the first draft may have made him consider new directions. Lucas penned the next draft, the first screenplay to feature episodic numbering for a Star Wars story. Lucas found this draft enjoyable to write, as opposed to the yearlong struggle writing the first film, and quickly wrote two more in April 1978. The plot twist of Vader being Luke’s father had drastic effects on the series. After writing these drafts, Lucas fleshed out the backstory between Anakin, Obi-Wan, and the Emperor.
With this new backstory in place, Lucas decided that the series would be a trilogy of trilogies, designating the first sequel Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back in the next draft. Lawrence Kasdan, who had just completed writing Raiders of the Lost Ark, was hired to write the next drafts, and given additional input from director Irvin Kershner. Kasdan, Kershner, and producer Gary Kurtz saw the film as a more serious and adult story, and developed the sequel from the light adventure roots of the first film.
About a year after Han’s capture, Luke joins Leia and Lando in a rescue attempt to save him from the gangster Jabba the Hutt. Afterwards, Luke returns to Dagobah to complete his Jedi training, only to find Yoda on his deathbed. In his last words, Yoda confirms the truth about Luke’s father, and that Luke must confront Vader again in order to complete his training. As the Rebels lead an attack on the second Death Star, Luke engages Vader in a lightsaber duel as Emperor Palpatine watches; both Sith Lords intend to turn Luke to the dark side and take him as their apprentice.
Ford had originally not signed on to appear in a second sequel, but was convinced to return under the condition that his character would die. Kurtz wanted a bittersweet and nuanced ending outlined with Lucas that not only saw Han dead, but also depicted the Rebel forces in pieces, Leia struggling as a queen, and Luke walking off alone (as in a Spaghetti Western) – while Lucas wanted a happier ending, partly to encourage toy sales. This led to tension between the two, resulting in Kurtz leaving the production.
The Star Wars trilogy, unlike science fiction that features sleek and futuristic settings, portrays the galaxy as dirty and grimy in Lucas’s concept of a “used universe”. This was in part inspired by the period films of Akira Kurosawa, which like the Star Wars original trilogy, often begin in medias res without explaining a complete backstory.
Political science has been an important element of Star Wars since the franchise launched in 1977, focusing on a struggle between democracy and dictatorship. Darth Vader’s design, initially inspired by Samurai armour, also incorporated a German military helmet. Lucas originally conceived of the Sith as a group that served the Emperor in the same way that the Schutzstaffel served Adolf Hitler; this was condensed into one character in the form of Vader. Lucas has also drawn parallels between Palpatine and historical dictators such as Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte, and politicians like Richard Nixon. Stormtroopers borrow the name of World War I “shock” troopers, Imperial officers wear uniforms resembling those of German forces during World War II, and political and security officers resemble the black-clad SS down to the stylised silver death’s head on their caps. World War II terms were used for names in the films; e.g. the planets Kessel (a term that refers to a group of encircled forces) and Hoth (Hermann Hoth was a German general who served on the snow-laden Eastern Front). Shots of the commanders looking through AT-AT walker viewscreens in The Empire Strikes Back resemble tank interiors, and space battles in the original film were based on World War I and World War II dogfights.
- Mark Hamill.
- Harrison Ford.
- Carrie Fisher.
- Peter Cushing (Episode IV).
- Alec Guinness.
- Billy Dee Williams (Episodes V and VI).
- Anthony Daniels.
- David Prowse.
- Kenny Baker.
- Peter Mayhew.
- Frank Oz (Episode V and VI).
- Ian McDiarmid (Episode VI).
- The original Star Wars film was re-released theatrically in 1978, 1979, 1981 and 1982.
- The trilogy was theatrically re-released in a 1997 “Special Edition”, featuring various additions and changes, some of which were negatively received.
- These versions were released on VHS, replacing the original versions of the films as Lucas’s ‘original’ vision, and were created in part to re-invogorate interest in the saga ahead of the prequel trilogy.
- Further changes to all three films were made for a DVD release in 2004, intended to bring the films into greater continuity with the prequels.
- These were re-released in 2006 with bonus discs of the original versions of the films (transferred from the 1993 LaserDiscs).
- In 2011, original and prequel trilogy box sets were released on Blu-ray, all including another round of alterations.
- In the early 2010’s, 3D releases were planned for the then-six-film franchise. However, after the financially disappointing 2012 3D release of The Phantom Menace (1999), the rest were cancelled.
- It was initially unclear whether the first six films of the Star Wars franchise would be available on Disney+ upon the service’s launch, as TBS held streaming rights through 2024 as part of its cable rights to the franchise.
- However, on 11 April 2019, it was announced that the films would be available at launch.
Star Wars Series
- Overview of the Star Wars Franchise.
- Overview of Star Wars Films.
- Prequel Trilogy Overview (1999-2005).
- Original Trilogy Overview (1977-1983).
- Sequel Trilogy Overview (2015-2019).
- Star Wars Holiday Special (1978).
- Overview of Star Wars Parodies.
- Overview of Star Wars TV Series.
- Overview of Star Wars Documentary Series.
- Overview of LEGO Star Wars.
Production & Filming Details
- Director(s): George Lucas (IV), Irvin Kershner (V), and Richard Marquand (VI).
- Producer(s): Gary Kurtz (IV and V) and Howard Kazanjian (VI).
- Writer(s): George Lucas (IV and V), Lawrence Kasdan (V and VI), and Leigh Brackett (V).
- Music: John Williams.
- Cinematography: Gilbert Taylor (IV), Peter Suschitzky (V), and Alan Hume (VI).
- Editor(s): Marcia Lucas (IV and VI), Paul Hirsch (IV and V), Richard Chew (IV), Sean Barton (VI), and Duwayne Dunham (VI).
- Production: Lucasfilm Ltd.
- Distributor(s): 20th Century Fox (1999 to 2019) and Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures (2019 to Present).
- Release Date: 25 May 1977 (Episode IV), 21 May 1980 (Episode V), and 25 May 1983 (Episode VI).
- Running time: 121 minutes (Episode IV), 124 minutes (Episode V), and 132 minutes (Episode VI).
- Country: US.
- Language: English.