May 25, 2022

The First Star Wars Movie Hits Theaters

The First Star Wars Movie Hits Theaters

May 25, 1977. After a production plagued by mishap and doubt, the first Star Wars film is released and becomes a global sensation.


Cold Open

It’s March 27th, 1976.

In the desert outside the Tunisian city of Tozeur, a storm rages.

Through wind and rain, a Land Rover battles across the muddy sand near the edge of the Sahara, a vast desert littered with salt flats, canyons, and strange rock formations that lurch up unexpectedly. A rain shower is unusual here – a storm like this is almost unheard of.

Soon, the rover reaches its destination. Two men - both film producers - clamber out, braving the storm. Immediately, they almost lose their footing on the slippery wet sand. The men have been sent here to check on a film set that’s been erected in the desert. They peer through the deluge to see the gigantic structure looming in front of them, two stories high and ninety feet long.

Above the howl of the wind, they can hear the set creaking, bending, and groaning. The men don’t dare get any closer. They know the structure wasn’t built to withstand anything like this. If it were to tumble down, it could crush them.

And soon, a mighty gust of wind blows through… and the structure does begin to come apart. The two men watch, despairing, as the set crashes to the ground before what’s left of it sinks into the muddy sand.

Today was meant to be first days of filming on a new production called Star Wars. Its director, thirty-one-year-old filmmaker George Lucas, is waiting at the hotel for his producers to return. When they do, they don’t bring good news.

The storm is the biggest the region has seen in half a century and it throws George’s whole shooting schedule into disarray. Once the storm passes, the crew cleans up as best they can and the production limps on. But by the time he leaves Tunisia, George will have filmed less than half of what he’d planned.

He will fly next to London for the second phase of principal photography. And there, at least there he will be indoors and able to control conditions.

But the stormy weather George is leaving behind in North Africa will be matched by the tempest waiting for him in London. Nothing on this production will go as George hoped. But in spite of the many obstacles, just over a year later, George’s finished film, Star Wars, will open in theaters on May 25th, 1977.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is May 25th: The First Star Wars is Released.

Act One: A long time ago…

It’s January 28th, 1975, more than two years before the release of Star Wars.

It’s morning in San Anselmo, a small town in California, just over the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. Gripping a cup of coffee, George Lucas trudges up the stairs to his office – it’s at the top of the house, with wraparound windows and a desk George made himself out of three old doors.

The 29-year-old filmmaker settles himself in his chair, carefully setting his cup of coffee next to a thick pile of papers.

It’s the script he’s been working on for more than a year. Today, he hopes to finish the latest draft. On the front page is the title: Adventures of the Starkiller: Episode 1: The Star Wars.

It’s almost eighteen months since George signed a deal with the movie studio Twentieth Century Fox to create a new science-fiction epic.

The young director is a hot property in Hollywood. His first film, THX 1138, won critical praise for its dark vision of the future, but it performed poorly at the box office. George’s second picture however was a hit. American Graffiti was one of the top-grossing films in 1973. Made on a budget of less than a million dollars, the coming-of-age story was hugely profitable and it gave George the clout he needed to find backing for a new and very different project.

George has loved science fiction all his life. He grew up watching the space adventures of Flash Gordon on television and dreamed of telling similar stories one day. In 1970, he tried to secure the rights to do a remake. When that attempt failed, George decided to write a space adventure of his own.

At first, all he had was a swirl of fantastical images and outlandish characters. Shaping that into a coherent narrative hasn’t been easy. George has already finished one version of the story – and then dumped it completely. This new draft has totally different characters and a new plot. But George is still unhappy and knows the script needs more work. It’s a prospect he dreads. He doesn’t enjoy writing; He finds it torturous. The only way he can do it is through sheer discipline, forcing himself to sit at his desk for eight hours every day until he has written five pages.

But now, finally, the end is in sight. Today he’s reading through the script and making adjustments one last time before it goes off to be typed up and sent to the studio for notes. And then, George can take a break. At least, until the rewrites begin.


It’s December 12th, 1975. Ten months after completing the second draft of the script, George Lucas is in Los Angeles casting the three lead roles in the film: a naive farm boy, a fiery princess, and a roguish James Dean type.

George is borrowing another production company’s office; and sitting in a large wicker chair, he watches across a coffee table as the shortlisted actors perform a scene from his script.

The plan is to cast young unknowns – George doesn’t want any famous names bringing the baggage of their previous roles with them. And over the past few months, he feels like he’s met every up-and-coming actor in Hollywood, but now he and his team have whittled down the contenders to just a few dozen.

George has a stand-in reading with all the hopefuls. He’s a carpenter, a former actor who had a part in George’s last film American Graffiti but has since failed to make the breakthrough he hoped for and has given up on his career. 

As George watches this carpenter, Harrison Ford, and the other actors wrestle with the script’s unique dialogue, he cannot help thinking about a big meeting due across Hollywood the following day.

The film has not yet been given the official go-ahead; the board of Twentieth Century Fox will meet tomorrow to decide the film’s fate. George has already spent more than two years and several hundred thousand dollars of his own money on the project. He’s reworked the script over and over again. Preproduction is already underway in England, where he plans to film. And he has a whole team of designers and technicians developing the cutting-edge special effects that will bring his vision to the big screen. He just needs the official green light.

On December 13th, 1975, after a long and anxious wait, he finally receives the phone call he’s been waiting for. Twentieth Century Fox will provide a 7 million dollar budget for the film. It’s far more than George has ever had to work with before. Still, he worries it won’t be enough. But now, at least, George can finish casting and get to work.

As the sessions in Los Angeles go on day after day, George realizes that the young carpenter reading with the other actors would be perfect for the film. So George casts Harrison Ford as the roguish smuggler, Han Solo. Alongside him, as Princess Leia, he chooses 18-year-old Carrie Fisher, who is still studying at drama school. And for the lead role of Luke, he picks Mark Hamill, a 24-year-old television actor.

George is keen to surround the inexperienced leads with veteran performers. For Obi-Wan Kenobi, an old warrior who takes the hero Luke under his wing, George approaches the British actor Sir Alec Guinness.

Guinness is skeptical at first. He’s never done a science-fiction film before and never wanted to either. But as he reads the script, Guinness finds himself enjoying the strange story of wizards, magic, and an evil empire in space. And in early 1976, he signs a deal to appear in George’s film.

Soon afterward, Guinness is joined by fellow veteran British actor Peter Cushing as the villainous Governor Tarkin.

With his main cast in place and preproduction in full swing, George leaves for England. There, final revisions to the script are made before cast and crew fly out to Tunisia, where filming will begin in March of 1976.

After three years of work, and overcoming countless obstacles, George’s grand vision seems finally within reach. But for George, the real difficulties are just beginning.  

Act Two: In a galaxy far, far away…

It’s June 16th, 1976, just under a year before the release of Star Wars.

In a studio on the outskirts of London, George Lucas shouts “action!” and Sir Alec Guinness begins one of his final scenes on the movie.

Perched in his director’s chair, George watches the experienced British actor work. He’s pleased with what Guinness has brought to the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi. Guinness has real gravitas and charm; George thinks casting him is one of the best decisions he’s made on the film. But in so many other ways, for the young director, this production has been one disappointment after another.

There have been problems on set in England ever since they returned from Tunisia, which was its own set of problems. In North Africa, George’s crew started at 6.30 AM and worked solidly until late. But here, the British unions dictate a strict eight-hour day with regular breaks. If George wants to shoot past 5.30 PM, he must put it to a vote with the crew, and he rarely wins those. Even if he needs just ten or fifteen extra minutes to get a shot, at 5.30 PM, everyone stops work and goes home. It’s driving George crazy.

The production is running over budget and behind schedule, props don’t work, costumes look wrong, sets sit unfinished, nothing is quite as George imagined it.

Now, as Sir Alec Guinness finishes his last scene, George joins in the applause on set. But he’s already thinking about the next shot. The next scene. The next problem.

Star Wars, as the film is now called, will live or die on whether audiences believe they have been transported to another galaxy. To do that will require complex special effects of a kind never attempted on this scale before.

Hollywood studios have largely disbanded their special effects units, so George was forced to start his own company to work on Star Wars. He called it Industrial Light & Magic. But it’s all the way across the globe on the Pacific coast of America and George can’t supervise the work there while he’s on set here in England. Without him, things aren’t going well at Industrial Light & Magic. The schedule has fallen apart. Costs are spiraling. And the company has little to show for its work so far.

Soon, word of these struggles will make their way back to George’s financial backers at Twentieth Century Fox. Doubts grow at the studio. And executives wonder whether the ambitious film will ever see the light of day; and whether all the money they’ve given to the young director will be for nothing.


It’s seven months later, in early February 1977, and a group of filmmakers gather in Los Angeles to watch an early cut of Star Wars.

Among them are the famous directors, Steven Spielberg and Brian De Palma, as well as other writers, editors, and producers. These are George’s family. Many of them have been helping him create Star Wars from the earliest days of the project when George was wrestling the story into shape.

But now, as the first cut of film ends and the lights in the screening room are switched back on, George looks around, trying to gauge his friends’ impressions.

Everyone is silent.

Principal photography in England ended on July 16th, 1976 after 84 days of shooting. George returned to Los Angeles the following day in a downhearted mood. He made it to the end of filming without Twentieth Century Fox pulling the plug. But there was still so much to be done.

By then, Industrial Light & Magic had spent half their budget and delivered just one finished shot. With more than 300 shots still to be completed, George threw himself into the work of fixing Industrial Light & Magic – and saving Star Wars. For the next six months, he worked harder than he ever had before in his life. The stress and exhaustion was so severe that at one point, he ended up in the hospital. But still, George didn’t slow down.

By early 1977, there were still dozens of special effects shots to be completed as well as the film’s musical score. But George was finally ready for his friends to see a rough cut of what he’d been working so hard on all these years.

After the screening ends, most of his friends think the film is a mess. George wanted to create a mythical fable for all ages, but his friends think he’s made a movie for little children. George’s solitary beacon of hope is Steven Spielberg - he thinks the film is great and forecasts a box office bonanza.

And with the official release date just a few months away, George will soon discover which of his friends is right.

Act Three: An incredible adventure took place…

It’s May 25th, 1977. Star Wars is finally ready for release. But just 32 theaters in America are showing the film on opening day.

Its director, George Lucas, knows what that means - opening on such a tiny number of screens will make it harder to gain traction. And unless the screenings are sold out all the way to the weekend, there’s little reason for the theaters to hold onto the film. Especially when there are bigger, better-publicized movies about to be released.

Nevertheless, George, always the perfectionist, hasn’t stopped working. He’s spent all-night tweaking the foreign language mixes for Star Wars’ upcoming international release. And as George emerges from the editing bay, blinking into the daylight, he’s met with his wife Marcia, an editor who’s helped him pull Star Warsinto shape. Together, they head out to Hollywood Boulevard to grab lunch.

But later, as they leave the restaurant, George and Marcia notice long lines of people outside Mann’s Chinese Theater. When they realize the film all these people have come to see, George and Marcia are amazed. They’re lining up for Star Wars.

Soon theaters across the country are scrambling to show the film. Star Wars is a triumph. A sensation. From the first epic shot of a spaceship looming overhead to the final notes of the stirring score, audiences across America are hooked.

By Christmas 1977, Star Wars is the top-grossing film of all time.

For George Lucas, life will never be the same. He’ll soon start work on a sequel, turning the stand-alone story into an epic franchise that will eventually become a multi-billion-dollar business empire.

And through eight sequels – and counting – Star Wars will dominate the box office for decades to come.

But even today, more than forty years after its first release, the original Star Warsstill captivates new generations with its incredible special effects, its sweeping score, and, above all, its story. Through endless imagination, hard work, and the help of talented friends and collaborators, George Lucas created a whole new galaxy; one that audiences fell in love for the first time, on May 25th, 1977.


Next on History Daily.May 26, 1896. In the aftermath of a financial crisis, the Wall Street Journal begins printing the Dow Jones Industrial Average. 

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack. 

Sound design by Derek Behrens. 

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by William Simpson.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.