This article is part of a special StarWars.com series in honor of Star Wars‘ 40th anniversary today, May 25.
One of the great things about Star Wars is that it inspires endless debates and opinions on a wide array of topics. Best bounty hunter? Most powerful Jedi? Does Salacious Crumb have the best haircut in the saga? In that spirit, StarWars.com presents From a Certain Point of View: a series of point-counterpoints on some of the biggest — and most fun — Star Wars issues. In this installment, two StarWars.com writers discuss which one scene from the first Star Wars film is the greatest.
The Death Star trench run is the best scene, says Alex.
Luke Skywalker’s a young man with a dream: to leave his family farm behind and travel the galaxy. “He just wants to get out of the house,” Mark Hamill says on the film’s Blu-ray commentary, “and everybody can relate to that.” Luke gets his chance when he crosses paths with Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi, finds his aunt and uncle murdered by the Empire, and winds up on Yavin 4, one of the key bases of the Rebel Alliance. Having witnessed the Imperial war machine in action — the kidnapping of Princess Leia, the death of “Old Ben” Kenobi at the hands of Darth Vader, the obliteration of the pacifist planet Alderaan — Luke takes flight with Red Squadron during the assault on the Death Star.
It’s a truism that great art is often the product of imposed limitations, and the “trench run” scene makes for a good case study of that idea. Almost everything we find interesting about Star Wars can be found here — X-wing fighters, a Dark Lord of the Sith, the Force. But the making of the original movie was a veritable gauntlet of budgetary constraints and technical problem-solving, and George Lucas’s ambitions went far beyond the norms of ’70s genre filmmaking. Up until that point, sci-fi films typically had no more than 50 or so total effects shots; the original cut of A New Hope had about 400. “We were trying to do something that would normally take five years to do, and we were trying to do it in a few months,” Lucas says on the most recent director’s track. There were no conventional special-effects companies in those days, because, according to Lucas, industry tastes had shifted toward realism sometime around the 1950s. Success stories like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes were the exception rather than the rule. So the director sought out the few people he could find with any experience in special effects, and founded Industrial Light & Magic.
The Battle of Yavin is the climax of the movie, and the trench run also happens to be the single longest scene. The entire X-wing sequence is essentially spliced together from one effects shot after another, and the fact that it’s still so thrilling even today shows how ingeniously crafted the whole thing was. There’s an amusement-park-ride quality to the way the camera rolls toward the Death Star and then dives into the canyon of jagged gray Imperial architecture. “We talked about how the camera would be in motion with the aircraft, much like gun cameras were in the Second World War,” effects supervisor John Dykstra recalls on the Blu-ray commentary. “So that was really the conceit: how do we get these images on film and make the audience feel as though they’re a participant on an individual basis?”
To modern eyes, the space battle has begun to show its age some — how could it not? But what remains as potent as ever are the various design elements and the clear sense of artistic intent that informs every frame. From the design sensibilities of people like Joe Johnston, Dan O’Bannon, and Ralph McQuarrie to the soundscapes of Ben Burtt and John Williams, the trench run is distinctive in every way imaginable.
Watching with the TV muted — minus the rich dynamics of the starfighters’ roaring engines and the sounds of blasterfire — each of the individual shots (e.g., the close-ups of the pilots) begin to seem a lot more stationary, but the overall kinetic movement of the whole becomes more obvious. Without the mounting tension of Williams’s brilliant score, your attention turns to all the small details you might otherwise overlook: the quaint user interfaces of the fighters’ onboard computers; the ragged, lived-in look of the costumes; the stickers on the pilots’ helmets; the lighting. The trench run is the only time we see Darth Vader lit in quite this way. The lenses of his mask are often cast in shadow, and the red bulbs inside the cockpit of his TIE Advanced fighter paint him with a proto-1980s menace that, in retrospect, evokes the corridor massacre at the end of Rogue One.
The scene encapsulates, in many ways, the birth of modern cinema. However, it’s also an important bit of characterization. The entire Rebellion is at stake, here, never mind the harsh realities of the movie business. If the scene turns out poorly, the whole film suffers; if Luke misses his one shot at the Death Star’s thermal-exhaust port, everyone on Yavin 4 is toast. After we’re led to believe that Han Solo has taken his reward money and run, he surprises us by swooping in out of nowhere just in time to stop Vader from killing Luke. And Luke, in the same instant, finally learns to let go of his sensory perceptions, switching off his targeting computer and trusting in the Force to guide his proton torpedo home. Other than a brief glimpse of Vader slaying Kenobi with his lightsaber, this is also the first time Luke encounters the man who was once his father.
In the context of the larger story, Vader’s got Luke beat in terms of his skills as a pilot. Obi-Wan tells Luke early in the film that his father had been “the best star pilot in the galaxy,” and by now, of course, we’ve seen it for ourselves — during the epic Battle of Coruscant in Revenge of the Sith and throughout the Clone Wars TV series. Anakin Skywalker’s exploits as a Jedi were the stuff of legend, whereas Luke’s just a farm boy who aspires to be something more. But Vader underestimates the young rebel, and the Death Star explodes into a cloud of dust and debris. As far as iconic movie scenes go, the Force is strong with this one.
The cantina scene is the best sequence in A New Hope, says Amy.
“This place can be a little rough.”
Obi-Wan Kenobi’s description of the cantina in Mos Eisley hit the nail on the head. The dimly lit gathering place appeared grimy around the edges, probably didn’t serve Instagram-worthy drinks, and the refresher situation was likely a nightmare (I don’t want to think about it), but the cantina was an ideal place to hire a certain kind of being for a certain kind of job. No one went there for a luxurious, five-star experience. As soon as we walked through the door of the cantina with Luke and Ben in A New Hope, the Star Wars universe expanded and we knew there was hope for Luke getting off his middle-of-nowhere planet.
Previous to the cantina scene in A New Hope, we’d seen humans, Darth Vader, stormtroopers, droids, and Jawas on screen; we’d witnessed enough to know this wasn’t a world like ours. But the cantina scene changed the scope as myriad aliens came into view. The sight of Hammerhead, Snaggletooth, Walrus Man, and many other unusual figures crowding the cantina’s bar and booths was nothing short of dazzling. Even after watching the film several times, I find myself craning my neck to see who and what I can notice. One of the reasons the cantina scene is the best scene is because of how it pulled you in and immersed you in a world not quite like any you’d ever seen before.
And can we talk about the music? Besides making us open our eyes to the existence such a large array of aliens, the cantina scene featured a band. Figrin D’an and the Modal Nodes brought the first example of in-universe music to Star Wars, and with their infectious tunes, they deepened the world. Their presence told us the Star Wars universe was cultured and had an entertainment scene. It’s a little piece of world building, but the inclusion of the cantina band was world building nonetheless. It made the world, wacky as things looked, relatable. How many of us have dropped into a dive bar with live music? Sometimes those watering holes aren’t so different from the cantina, though I’d wager you’ve never heard an original song in a dive bar that gets stuck in your head like “Cantina Band.”
Putting aside the sheer cool factor of the look of the cantina scene and how it stretched the galaxy, there’s also what it meant for Ben Kenobi. When a couple of prime examples of scum and villainy decided to harass Luke, Ben didn’t waste any time coming to the kid’s defense. He did try to scold the criminals and extract Luke from the threatening situation, but when those measures didn’t work, he ignited his lightsaber and removed Ponda Baba’s limb. It was a bold move, and since you got the impression Ben was trying to keep his existence a secret, maybe not the brightest idea. His actions communicated the import of getting off the planet and also that maybe one shouldn’t antagonize Ben Kenobi.
Then an excellent scene continued to get better, because Han Solo and Chewbacca entered the picture. Chewbacca’s the kind of character that makes an impression simply by existing, and Han Solo makes an impression in kind of the same way. He radiated charisma and attitude, but then tempered those traits with something scarier when he took out Greedo without blinking an eye. The dialogue Han and Ben exchanged as they negotiated for Ben and Luke’s passage to Alderaan is flawless, as is the look Ben gave Han when the smuggler/pilot bragged about the Kessel Run. So, the best scene contained maybe the best character introduction in the film.
The cantina even comes with the best behind-the-scenes stories. Rick Baker, Phil Tippett, and many others created a number of out of this world creatures and props to fill the cantina with life. The scene was shot twice, once in England and once in Los Angeles, and what you see in A New Hope is a combination of images captured at both locations. Creating such wide variety of aliens proved to be a challenge, so the making-of information is fascinating and seems endless – Pablo Hidalgo and Tom Spina have a panel about the cantina at nearly every Star Wars Celebration, and they’re constantly discovering new tidbits and photos about the people involved in making the cantina, the actors, or the cantina set itself. The fact that the cantina influences A New Hope both in front of and behind the camera goes a long way towards making it the best scene in the film.
What do you think was the best scene in Star Wars: A New Hope? Comment and let us know!
Alex Kane’s work has appeared in Glixel, Kill Screen, Upload, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter at @alexjkane.
Amy Ratcliffe is a writer obsessed with Star Wars, Disney, and coffee. Follow her on Twitter at @amy_geek.