Home > Analyses > Star Wars: Relics – How the Star Wars Posters Reflect Their Influences

Star Wars: Relics – How the Star Wars Posters Reflect Their Influences

This article was written for a document design course. For the sake of protecting my own privacy, I am not including the original PDF until I can take out some of the more identifying pieces of information somehow, but for now, I figured I’d publish this.

Where’s my top 3 favorite films of 2011, you ask? Well, the article kind of went in a different direction than I had intended just now, and I do not feel as though I should rush it since I’m in a better place with it now than I was when I had started. The article became a lot more personal and a lot stronger, and so I would rather delay the final 2011 in Review article than to rush it and get it out for the sake of it. In the meantime, here’s the essay I wrote in my second-to-last semester in college. I think it’s a fairly decent essay that was an even more impressive-looking document design, my final project in learning Adobe InDesign CS4 that cemester, that I would love to show but cannot at the moment — however, and this is not to brag, I assure you, my professor asked for a copy of it to show to future students for his course. Hehe…

May 1, 1999

The item up for bid: a rare film poster for the third entry in the Star Wars film franchise, Return of the Jedi. What makes it such a treasure is not just that it’s connected to the wildly popular franchise, though that is undeniably a big part of the reason. This poster is a part of cinematic history – a history of a film that could have been (Bensinger). The name of the highly anticipated third entry in the space saga, code named “Blue Harvest” during production, was changed mere weeks before the film’s theatrical debut by Star Wars’ creator, George Lucas. What we know now as Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi was once known as Revenge of the Jedi, but George argued that a noble Jedi would not seek out revenge and effectively changed it to the name we know today (“Empire of Dreams”). This poster, with an already astonishing estimated value of $1000 – $1200, was a relic displaying a blood red color scheme and the looming visage of the intimidating Darth Vader in black, and below the inset image of a dueling Luke and Vader is the film’s original title, making this just one of a few pieces of memorabilia produced under this sinister name. And Tom Feldman, a 27-year-old internet consultant and Star Wars poster collector, had to have it (Bensinger).

Possibly affected by his anticipation of the first chapter in the new Star Wars prequel trilogy, Episode I: The Phantom Menace, which was less than a month away from opening, Tom spent an astounding $2070 on this rare original print. Of note is that this poster was a rarity among rarities, as the one he purchased does not bear the film’s release date. That one sold for a mere pittance: $1092! The poster, just one of thirteen that he purchased, helped boost his collection of original posters to twenty-five. “I’m only missing 10 or so” (Bensigner).

Though much has been written on the Star Wars franchise’s immense popularity and cinematic significance, little has been written about the posters that helped spread the word about these films, especially before the days of the internet. In fact, little has been written about the medium of film posters in general. Aside from theatrical trailers, film posters, being comparatively cheaper to produce, are arguably the biggest medium by which filmgoers are not only informed about upcoming films, but also one of the biggest sources of hype for the films. Film posters are the iconic imagery that come to mind when films are remembered, and, as they did with Mr. Feldman, they become an extension of the films that audiences love (Parmelee 181-82), and if there were any posters worth examination, they are the Star Wars film posters. It is the goal of this report to examine how the posters’ designs reflect the inspirations George Lucas pulled from in his creation of these modern mythologies.

A long time ago…

Though the appreciation for film posters is largely a late-20th century phenomena, the history of film posters actually goes back to the early 1890s, when the posters usually just advertised that a venue actually offered this new medium of moving pictures. By the 1910s, when these pictures were becoming more commonplace, posters displayed bright colors and large typeface in order to catch the eye of passersby. The size and styling of these early posters led many film industry observers to note that these posters resembled those used by circuses for their various acts (Rhodes 228-29). By the 1920s, film posters had become powerful images that invoked feelings of excitement and joy in movie-going audiences, as, by this time, posters began depicting more than just information about the films but also the films’ actors, characters, and all the excitement to be had in each film. Posters for other films popped up within related films, almost as if to say, “Hey, if you enjoy this one, there’s more fun to be had! Save the date!” (Parmelee 182-83)

Born near the end of World War II in 1944, George Lucas grew up in an era when space travel to exotic worlds and theatrical serials were at peak popularity, and his love of cars and vivid memories from the 1950s inspired his first major hit feature film American Graffiti. This nostalgia he had for the old fashioned ways of the 1940s and 50s came at a time when America was deep in economic crisis, and the Vietnam War, largely coming to a close in 1973, was still a raw wound to American pride. Cinema had equally become dark and depressing, with horror films like The Exorcist and violent films like The French Connection becoming critical and box office successes. Luckily, Lucas was a rising star at the time who sought to relieve this depression, and Star Wars was the solution… (“Empire…”, Gordon 315).

I sense something. A presence I’ve not felt since…

After NASA’s success in reaching the moon, it seemed as though there was nowhere left to go, and interest in the space race waned by the Seventies. Lucas, however, sought to jump start it with his space saga. Pulling from serials he watched as a child, especially Flash Gordon, proved to be one of the key elements of his success (“Empire…”), and the posters for the Star Wars films reflect this. “I wanted to make an action movie – a movie in outer space like Flash Gordon used to be….” (qtd. In Gordon 315).

The poster for Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe is a perfect example of this borrowing. Each of the Star Wars posters features exotically designed vehicles, with The Phantom Menace seemingly lifting its chromed Naboo spacecraft from Flash Gordon’s own design. The use of the main characters’ faces hovering above the various action shots from the film is utilized for the 1997 Special Edition posters and the stylistically similar prequel posters that followed, while the looming presence of evil in the background is also echoed in many of the posters, with Darth Vader being replaced by Darth Maul for Episode I. Curiously, Episode II breaks this trend and places its featured adversary, Jango Fett, in the foreground, but the threat is nonetheless there. The Star Wars films also feature bombastic, exclamatory subtitles that grab the attention with their directness, with the distinctive “Conquers the Universe” portion of the Flash Gordon film being analogous to the Star Wars series’ many pulp-y subtitles: A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith.

Romance is rife throughout the saga, with the middle film of each trilogy being the starting point of key romances: the antagonistic relationship between Han and Leia in the original trilogy and the forbidden love between Anakin and Padme in the prequel trilogy. While the Style A poster for the original Star Wars hinted that Leia was Luke’s main love interest by placing her provocative pose at a lower elevation to him, the Style A poster for The Empire Strikes Back recasts Luke’s part (thankfully, considering later revelations) with the suave and debonair Han Solo, harkening back to sweeping, romantic epics, more specifically referencing the similarly iconic poster of 1939’s Gone with the Wind. Mimicking Rhett Butler tilting back the naïve and spoiled Scarlet O’Hara amongst the burning wreckage of Atlanta, Han tilts back Leia, the otherwise strong-willed and brave rebel princess, as the icy aura of the Darth Vader’s dark side aura seemingly envelops them; it’s a passion that resonates even in times of darkness. Luke on his tauntaun now replaces the man on horseback from the originating poster.

Episode II echoes yet another cinematic classic, Casablanca, with Padme Amidala, Leia’s mother, playing the headstrong damsel role in the prequel trilogy, leaning back against a stern and protective Anakin. The dramatic staging of characters invokes the characters of Ilsa and Rick, who are similarly positioned amongst a crowd of other characters in the 1942 Style A poster for their film. Episode II even uses black negative space to further emphasize the rectangular background used in the Star Wars posters since the 1997 Special Editions, tying it even more to Casablanca’s distinctive design with its own rectangular backdrop.

Apart from The Empire Strikes Back, each features a character brandishing some sort of weapon. As mentioned before, Episode II breaks the looming menace motif used in the originals’ posters by placing Jango Fett in the foreground; however, the designers chose to recall yet another cinematic classic that had influenced Lucas for their design. As an enigmatic gunslinger amongst sword-brandishing knights, Jango’s pose is set against a backdrop of the beginning Clone Wars. In the poster for the Spaghetti Western classic A Fistful of Dollars, a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, the mysterious gunslinger played by Clint Eastwood is similarly positioned against a violent backdrop. Much like Sergio Leone, Lucas himself was also a big fan of films by Kurosawa (“Empire…”), and the noble samurai featured in his films served as inspirations for the noble Jedi. It is only appropriate, then, that the Jedi knights are often seen brandishing their lightsabers in preparation for battle in much the same style as the samurai in their respective posters.

When nine-hundred-years-old you reach, look as good you will not. Hmm?

Not all of Lucas’ influences came from the cinema, however. The legend of King Arthur assuming his birthright by pulling the sword Excalibur from its stone is referenced by the positioning of Luke holding his father’s lightsaber up into the sky on the desolate world of Tatooine, where he grew up. The tag line that opens every film in the saga, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” serves as this story’s version of “Long ago, in a land far, far away…” which has been used in nearly every fairy tale ever told, and, despite the presence of aliens and space-age technology, the story of Star Wars is, in its bare essence, one that has essentially been passed down since the dawn of time. Joseph Campbell’s work on the hero’s journey, which he called the monomyth, heavily informed the story structure of the Star Wars saga. It has been said that Campbell considered Lucas to be one of his greatest students (“Empire…”). In the wake of the first film’s release, it was already being heralded as modern mythology, as in Andrew Gordon’s 1978 article “Star Wars: A Myth for Our Time,” wherein he examined how the story of the first film parallels Luke’s own journey to the ones undertaken by so many other heroes before him, using Campbell’s seminal book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces as his guide (Gordon 319-25).

There are various stages in a hero’s journey, and each of the six films in the saga makes use of several, but it is surprising how efficiently the posters condense all of this information into a single image. The journey usually begins with the hero living in poverty, longing for adventure – this is evidenced by Luke’s and young Anakin’s raggedy clothing in the first episodes in each trilogy’s poster. The hero soon hears a “Call to Adventure,” and is usually helped out of his situation by a “wise wizard.” The Merlin of these stories is the wise Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) in Episode I, Obi-Wan in the first films. A hero’s journey leads him into the “Belly of the Whale,” where he must fight and become initiated into his hero status. The depictions of the Death Stars here serve as the technological “belly.” Along the way, he is also accompanied by a few companions (the supporting cast of characters) and is aided by magic and talismans in his ordeals (the Force and lightsabers). They may fight a “dragon,” though this and other elements may not be quite so literal, as with Jabba in the Return of the Jedi.

Eventually, the hero will come into contact with a goddess or temptress. Leia ultimately serves as the powerful goddess and temptress in the original trilogy, as her antagonistic relationship with Han Solo and initial love triangle, which included her unwitting brother, served as a distraction to the two heroes, but she and Han eventually acknowledged their love, thus inspiring the original romantic poster. In the prequels, her mother, Amidala, is Anakin’s forbidden love, as the Jedi are forbidden to attach themselves to anything or anyone. Unlike Han and Leia, this relationship proves to be doomed, and the inner conflict within Anakin is reflected in Episode III’s poster, where the fight between “brothers,” Obi-Wan and the newly christened Darth Vader, cross swords at Anakin’s neck, a symbolic dismemberment, also discussed in Campbell’s work (23-28). Anakin, the one foretold to bring balance to the Force and shown in glowing light in the Episode I poster, loses himself to the Dark Side and becomes the father with whom Luke has a conflict with, and the battle between Obi-Wan and Anakin is echoed in the Special Edition poster for Return of the Jedi. Interestingly, Darth Vader’s sinister visage makes a return appearance in his classic role as the looming threat in the background of Episode III’s poster.

The third chapters of each trilogy invoke returns, one of a dark power, and the other of a force for good overcoming that dark power. The Special Edition Return of the Jedi poster makes an interesting choice in breaking with its predecessors’ traditional motif of contrasting warm, bright orange hues (possibly representing the heroes) against cold, dark blueish hues (the villains) by harkening back to the very first theatrical poster, which used similar navy blues and mustardy yellows. The poster almost foretells of the atonements, redemptions, and return of good to the galaxy after the somber losses experienced in the preceding episode. Being a re-release, it would be logical for the designers of this new poster to assume that many people knew of Darth Vader’s return from the dark side, so this diminishing of darkness could be excused.

Just for once, let me look on you with my own eyes.

As you can see, there is much going on within the posters of the Star Wars saga, even among the re-release designs. And though they may have borrowed much from already established iconography, this is ultimately what sets them apart from most other film posters. Yes, they were designed to catch the eye, as they are ultimately a means to a large sum of money for the film companies – the combined top grosses of all six films by October 31, 2005 in the U.S. alone was $2,182,223,407 (McDermott 260) – and the auction houses, as Mr. Tom Feldman proves. However, film posters are also an extension of our shared human experiences. These images encompass entire stories that are passed on because they resonate with audiences, and the Star Wars films are arguably the most well known to come out of modern society. Perhaps $2070 may seem a bit excessive for a single poster for a movie that wasn’t even released under that title, but for Mr. Feldman and countless other wannabe Jedis, it’s a rare kaiburr crystal hidden on a desert planet far, far away…

The controversial 1997 Special Edition theatrical re-releases’ posters set the style for the forthcoming prequel trilogy’s. Note that, when positioned together, they actually make up one larger poster that reconsiles the new design with the older posters’ influences.

Works Cited

• “A Fistful of Dollars U.S. Style A Poster.” Image. Wikipedia 1964. 16 Nov. 2009 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Fistful_of_Dollars&gt;.

• Bensinger, Ken. “Object of the Week Sweet Revenge.” Wall Street Journal – Eastern Edition 233.94 (1999): W14.

• Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Commemorative ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton, 2004.

• “Casablanca Style A Poster.” Image. 1942. Wikipedia 2009. 16 Nov. 2009 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Casablanca_%28film%29&gt;.

• “Empire of Dreams: The Story of the Star Wars Trilogy” (supplemental documentary by Edith Becker and Kevin Burns). Star Wars Trilogy. DVD. 20th Century Fox, 2004.

• “Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe Style A poster.” Image. 1940. Wikipedia 2009. 16 Nov. 2009 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flash_gordon_conquers_the_universe&gt;.

• Gordon, Andrew. “Star Wars: A Myth for our Time.” Literature Film Quarterly 6.4 (1978): 314.

• “Gone with the Wind U.S. Style A Poster.” Image. 1939. Movie Goods 2009. 16 Nov. 2009 <http://www.moviegoods.com//Assets/product_images/1020/209526.1020.A.jpg >

• McDermott, Mark. “The Menace of the Fans to the Franchise.” Finding the Force of the Star Wars Franchise: Fans, Merchandise, & Critics. Ed. Matthew Wilhelm Kapell and John Shelton Lawrence. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2006. 243-63.

• Parmelee, Stephen. “Remembrance of Films Past: Film Posters on Film.” Historical Journal of Film, Radio & Television 29.2 (2009): 181-95.

• “Return of the Jedi U.S. Style A Poster.” Image. 1983. Wookieepedia 2009. 16 Nov. 2009 <http://starwars.wikia.com/wiki/File:RotjOrig.jpg&gt;.

• “Return of the Jedi U.S. B-Style Poster.” Image. 1983. Wookieepedia 2009. 30 Oct. 2009 <http://starwars.wikia.com/wiki/Return_of_the_Jedi&gt;.

• “Revenge of the Jedi U.S. Advance Poster.” Image. 1983. Wikipedia 2009. 16. Nov. 2009 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Revenge_of_the_Jedi&gt;.

• Rhodes, Gary D. “The Origin and Development of the American Moving Picture Poster.” Film History 19.3 (2007): 228-46.

• “Star Wars U.S. Style A Poster.” Image. 1977. Wookieepedia 2009. 30 Oct. 2009 <http://starwars.wikia.com/wiki/Star_Wars_Episode_IV:_A_New_Hope&gt;.

• “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace Theatrical Poster.” Image. 1999. Wookieepedia 2009. 30 Oct. 2009 <http://starwars.wikia.com/wiki/Star_Wars_Episode_I:_The_Phantom_Menace&gt;.

• “Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones Theatrical Poster.” Image. 2002. Wookieepedia 2009. 30 Oct. 2009 <http://starwars.wikia.com/wiki/Star_Wars_Episode_II:_Attack_of_the_Clones&gt;.

• “Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith Theatrical Poster.” Image. 2005. Wookieepedia 2009. 30 Oct. 2009 <http://starwars.wikia.com/wiki/Star_Wars_Episode_III:_Revenge_of_the_Sith&gt;.

• “The Empire Strikes Back U.S. Style A Poster.” Image. 1980. Wookieepedia. 30 Oct. 2009 <http://starwars.wikia.com/wiki/Star_Wars_Episode_V:_The_Empire_Strikes_Back&gt;.

• “The Searchers U.S. Style A Poster.” Image. 1956. Movie Goods 2009. 16 Nov. 2009 <http://www.moviegoods.com//Assets/product_images/1020/259106.1020.A.jpg&gt;.

• “Yojimbo Poster.” Image. 1961. Wikipedia 2009. 18 Nov. 2009 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yojimbo_%28film%29&gt;.

  1. Katie sloman
    January 2, 2013 at 5:58 am

    I believe I have a original return of the jedi poster, the one where he is holding the light saber in the air. Im curious to know if its real, if theres a way to find out. Whats the worth?

  2. March 27, 2013 at 3:48 pm

    Vilken häftig blog! Jag har läst allihopa
    dina texter!

  1. February 13, 2012 at 8:52 pm
  2. May 2, 2014 at 12:35 am

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