Kids, you might not believe this, but… a long time ago (35 years), in a galaxy not far away (in fact, right on Planet Earth), almost nobody knew what Star Wars was. And few of the Hollywood insiders who had heard of this science-fantasy project thought it would soar. Hatched by George Lucas after a life’s immersion in comic books, cheesy movies serials and Greek epics, Star Wars had no stars, no sex and, the cognoscenti thought, no chance of becoming a hit; two studios turned the project down before Alan Ladd, Jr., of 20th Century-Fox said yes.
Outside the movie business, though, Lucas’s vision had one big early supporter: TIME magazine. In an article intended for the cover of the May 30, 1977, issue, TIME writer Gerald Clarke proclaimed Star Wars “a grand and glorious film that may well be the smash hit of 1977, and certainly is the best movie of the year so far. … The result is a remarkable confection: a subliminal history of the movies, wrapped in a riveting tale of suspense and adventure, ornamented with some of the most ingenious special effects ever contrived for film.”
(READ: Why TIME Named Star Wars 1977′s Movie of the Year)
Though the story was bumped inside the magazine at the last moment, in favor of analysis of Menachem Begin’s ascension as Israeli Prime Minister, it marked the beginning of a productive relationship between TIME and Lucas. Each of the five ensuing Star Wars chapters graced the magazine’s cover: The Empire Strikes Back in the May 19, 1980, issue (with Darth Vader as the cover boy), Return of the Jedi for May 23, 1983 (Lucas) and, when the prequel series was launched, The Phantom Menace for April 30, 1999 (featuring Ewan McGregor, Liam Neeson and Jake Lloyd as the child Anakin Skywalker), Attack of the Clones for April 29, 2002 (Yoda) and Revenge of the Sith, May 9, 2005 (Darth Vader again).
The 1997 re-release of the first three films, with computer-generated “improvements,” spurred yet another cover, on February 10. Each of these stories made news — with on-location reporting, early hints of the plot wrinkles and fresh insights from Jedi George — and ranked among the magazine’s best-selling issues, even as the original Star Wars quickly became the top-grossing movie of its age. In real dollars earned at the box office, it trails only Gone With the Wind as the biggest hit in film history.
In May 1977, though, the choice of a PG-rated fantasy as the cover subject for the premier newsmagazine must have seemed a risk. The signature films of that super-serious movie decade had been anguished, acidulous exposés of an America torn apart by corruption in the police (Serpico), municipal politics (Chinatown) and the White House itself (All the President’s Men). Hollywood moguls were proud to be making grownup films for adult audiences — the same demographic as TIME’s readers. Who would care about a movie with light sabers and princesses in distress and chases that looked like those new things the kids loved, video games?
(MORE: TIME’s coverage of The Empire Strikes Back)
Yet that first Star Wars story presciently sensed a shift in the cultural barometer: that moviegoers were tiring of urban cynicism and ready for an enthralling, childlike distraction. The movie, Clarke wrote, is “aimed at kids — the kid in everybody,” and Lucas seconded that notion. “The word for this movie is fun,” he said. “My main reason for making it was to give young people an honest, wholesome fantasy life, the kind my generation had. We had westerns, pirate movies, all kinds of great things. Now they have The Six Million Dollar Man and Kojak. Where are the romance, the adventure, and the fun that used to be in practically every movie made?” In 2012, the icon status of Lee Majors and Telly Savalas has long since dimmed, while Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, and Darth Vader too, live in the minds of kids everywhere — the kids in everybody, for whom most movies of the past few decades have been made.
Clarke, who would later author best-selling biographies of Truman Capote and Judy Garland, was back in 1980 as the writer of TIME’s preview of The Empire Strikes Back. “In many ways the new film is a better film than Star Wars, visually more exciting, more artful and meticulous in detail. As a special effects wizard, Lucas fairly dazzles the eye with his optical magic.”
To get the full Empire story, TIME Correspondent James Willwerth had to penetrate the film’s tight security, which “would put the CIA to shame. Several of the actors were given their own lines only, with the speeches of other actors neatly crossed out on the script.” For Empire’s climactic duel, David Prowse, the actor inside Dark Vader’s suit, “was given dummy lines to say, and the real lines were later dubbed by James Earl Jones, the voice of Vader in both movies. ‘I don’t know much about what happens in the picture,” admits Prowse…. “They were paranoid, really paranoid, about security.’”
A champion of the first film’s sense of innocent entertainment, Clarke had reservations about its sequel: “The Empire Strikes Back is a more polished and, in some ways, a richer film. But to imitate Yoda’s way of speaking, and to answer the obvious question, as much fun it is not.” Citing Lucas’s wish that Star Wars would continue indefinitely like the old Saturday-matinees chapter plays, Clarke wrote that Empire lacks “a true ending. … one is left with a nagging sense of incompletion, a feeling of being somewhat shortchanged.”
(PHOTOS: Revisiting a Galaxy Far, Far Away)
Of course, Lucas’s anachronistic daring — to end a feature film with a cliffhanger, like an episode of the ’40s serial Spy Smasher — cued a trend that would continue not just through other Star Wars episodes but in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Harry Potter octet and untold Marvel comics movies. The writer-producer-director-mogul was simply reviving a tradition that stretches back millennia: when kids at bedtime, listening to some fabulous fantasy, would urgently beg their parents to know “What happens next?” And the parent would say, “Maybe tomorrow night.” For George Lucas, tomorrow night lasted 29 years, till the conclusion of Revenge of the Sith. And only he knows if the Star Wars bedtime story is over yet.