I’d like to think that the last two or three years of heavily dedicated movie watching have given me a fairly rounded view on cinema. I do still like my mix of summer blockbusters in among the more art house delights I’ve discovered as I’ve started to venture into middle age. But I think it’s taken a while for me to refine my critical faculties and to truly appreciate what was good. For evidence of this, look no further than my childhood.
Whenever I read about how people my age got into movies, it often relates to a Star Wars epiphany. Now I’m 36, which means that when Star Wars arrived in the UK, I’d have been no more than four. If I did go and see it at the cinema, then that memory is lost to the ravages of time now. So the first experience I can remember of a Star Wars movie when I was a kid was The Empire Strikes Back in the cinema.
And it was OK. On reflection, it may have made slightly more sense if it hadn’t been the first Star Wars movie I ever saw, but it was OK. Although I remember seeing it, my memories are more around the experience of going in, and the long climb up the stairs to the entrance to the screen, which for a six year old felt like climbing Everest. It was one of two cinemas in my home town of Ramsgate at the time, and soon became the only cinema for a while. It’s now an Iceland, which is just a tragedy, as it was a fantastic building, and too many like it have now been lost to the soulless multiplex.
Although the picture here calls it the Odeon, its former name, it still in my day had the three poster windows you can see down the side. If there was a queue for a new film, you would end up queuing down that side and got the opportunity to take in the posters for new releases in intricate detail. I can remember the day I saw the poster for the first time in the queue that had those Star Wars words on again, and then seeing the trailer in front of the film that day. What I couldn’t understand was why something I thought was all about spaceships seemed to be set almost entirely in a forest – wasn’t that more Robin Hood? And didn’t that guy with the floppy hair have his hand cut off last time, or have I forgotten something?
But when the movie finally arrived, it was great, one of the best I’d ever seen. Return of the Jedi pushed all this nine year old’s buttons – the speeder chase, the Death Star attack, the Emperor, and that nice man who made it had thoughtfully included some fluffy cuddly teddy bears so that my mother and sister would want to come back and watch it again as well.
This being the days before VHS, the cinema knew which side its bread was buttered and the film made a few return trips to the cinema – in particular one weekend event where Empire and Jedi showed back to back on the Friday night and then all three would be shown on the Saturday. My family and I went to see the Friday night showings, which was a good refresher for what happened in Empire, but consequently missed out on Star Wars.
So I had the toys, and played with them regularly. As well as the AT-AT pictured here, which still resides in my mother’s spare room to this day, I had an AT-RT (named Rover and Henrietta respectively, which is how my mother still refers to them) and a selection of all the action figures. I was also extremely jealous of my mate Clive who had a Millennium Falcon, but I was glad for what I had.
But through it all, Star Wars seemed like the poor relation. Instead of seeing it blown up on the big screen, my only viewing experience of Star Wars was thanks to ITV’s afternoon showings, where it would have commercials chopped in every twenty minutes, and the wonders of pan and scan left that action feeling condensed. I would have to say that Star Wars was my least favourite Star Wars film for a very long time.
I did finally get the chance to enjoy it on the big screen – well, most of it, as I was first in line when the special editions hit cinemas in 1997. Now I could be truly affronted in a grown up way by Greedo shooting first, and the other unnecessary changes. But I got to appreciate Star Wars for the first time as it was meant to be; from the Star Destroyer hoving into view in the opening shot to the final run on the Death Star trench, I finally got to see Star Wars the way I should have done nearly twenty years earlier. There really is no substitute for the cinema.
My Star Wars geek love was now complete. I spent an hour in the queue for The Phantom Menace even though I had a ticket, just to get the best seat possible, and saw it four times at the cinema, just to see and hear the three way lightsaber battle with Duel of the Fates playing in the background, now my favourite piece of Star Wars music. I bought the Revenge of the Sith making of and artwork books and read them cover to cover before it came out. And if they made another today, despite the collective disappointments of the prequels, I’d be first in line again.
And now, as a grown up, my critical faculties fully intact, I know the true order of the Star Wars movies, and can justify my opinions to others in a meaningful way. For the record:
1st – The Empire Strike Back – 10/10
2nd – Star Wars – 10/10
3rd – Return of the Jedi – 8/10
4th – Revenge of the Sith – 7/10
5th – The Phantom Menace – 5/10
6th – Attack of the Clones – 3/10
The saddest thing in all this? My wife has never seen Star Wars. She came to see Clones and Sith with me at the cinema, and understood when I told her that the first twenty minutes of Sith “was what a Star Wars movie was supposed to be like”; and she’s even watched Blue Harvest and Something Something Something Dark Side, the Family Guy parodies, although I have to provide a director’s commentary explaining which bits are from Star Wars and which are Family Guy additions. But she’s never had that big screen Star Wars experience, and I hope one day I can share that with her – whether she likes it or not.