Exploring: Before Star Wars – débuter

A long time ago . . . on a theatre screen far, far away . . . long before Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker . . .

It was all George Lucas’s fault. Well, not really. For, in the beginning, the celluloid gods created the Luke Skywalker precursors of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon.

Enamored with a childhood exuberance for Universal’s twelve-chapter Buck Rogers movie-serial (edited into the 1939 theatrical feature Buck Rogers Conquers the Universe) and Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon books turned into three mini-serials (in 1936, 1938, and 1940; edited into the features Rocketship, Mars Attacks the World, and Conquers the Universe), George Lucas, flush with success from the film homage to his 1950s hot-rod youth, American Graffiti, had a dream: creating a big-budgeted, 2001: A Space Odyssey-inspired tribute to the beloved sci-fi hero of his childhood: Flash Gordon.

To a lesser extent: Lucas was also inspired by the early Rocky Jones U.S TV serials, which were edited into features: 1953’s Forbidden Moon, Crash of the Moons, and Manhunt in Space, along with the Commander Cody movie serials, which were edited into 1949’s Lost Planet Airmen and 1952’s Radar Men from the Moon. Another Star Wars antecedent (never turned into feature films) was the 1951 to 1955 TV series Space Patrol with Commander Buzz Corey.

Today’s science fiction (and all) film critics regard 2001 as a classic; however, at the time of its release, Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clark’s homage to the Russian space epics of the late ’50s and early ’60s (see Pavel Klushantsev’s and Mikhail Karzhukov’s films), while technically stunning, both entranced and frustrated film critics and filmgoers—most whom derided the film. (American actor Rock Hudson infamously stormed out of the film’s premiere and exclaimed, “What the hell is going on?”.)

Despite 2001’s ability to transcend its spiritual-and-psychological-confusing themes about a man’s journey through his “inner space” and find box-office success, the major studios held steadfast to their belief: science fiction was a low-budget genre lacking an analogues audience appeal to the westerns and war movies churned out by the majors. And it’s true: There were more inept Missile to the Moon’s (1958) and Mission Mars’s (1968) than there were Forbidden Planet’s (1956) and It! The Terror from Beyond Space’s (1958) on the big screen in the ’50s and ’60s. Then there were the Earth-bound ones, such as Beginning of the End (1957) . . . starring a giant back-projected grasshoppers’ invasion over photographs of Chicago.

Despite George Lucas’s massive critical and financial success with his second movie, American Graffiti, and exhibiting ingenuity in the science fiction genre with his debut feature, THX 1138 (1971), the studios passed on his Flash Gordon-pitch remake. Also impeding Lucas’s dream: he couldn’t secure the rights to the source materials.

Undeterred, Lucas jumped into the kitchen and broke out the pasta pots to cook up his unique version of the beloved space heroes of his childhood in the form of Luke Skywalker; Lucas’s Emperor Ming was a black-cloaked samurai-inspired Darth Vader; his “Errol Flynn” was a smart-ass space jockey named Han Solo; his Dale Arden-inspired damsel: Princess Leia Organa.

And the studios still balked at the idea of Star Wars: The Adventures of Luke Skywalker. Lucas’s idea of Flash Gordon crossed with 2001: A Space Odyssey (and its 1972 cinematic cousin, Silent Running) wasn’t going to happen — at least not within the Hollywood studio system.

So, flush with cash from the success of American Graffiti (and from his later innovations in film special effects and sound), he financed the 20 million dollar budget himself; Star Wars became the most expensively-produced independent movie of all time.

Meanwhile, as George Lucas developed his space opera, another young filmmaker, later to become one of the most successful American television producers in the ’80s, Glenn A. Larson, devised his biblically-influenced space opera: Adam’s Ark. And, as with Lucas, the studios balked at the idea. “Egyptian-influenced ancient astronauts?” exclaimed the cigar-chompin’ studio executive as he relaxed his shiny-wingtips on the edge of his desk. “Get your ‘Erich von Daniken’ the hell out of here, kid.”

In March of 1977, if Star Wars had been the expensive flop that the studio bean counters predicted, Glenn A. Larson’s vision—which became Universal Studios’ 20th Century Fox-counterprogramming Battlestar Galactica (1978)—wouldn’t have been made. And neither would have the beloved Italian space operas permeating the shelves of this writer’s teenaged, video-store n’ drive-in youth.

However, before the term “Italian Star Wars” entered into film journalism lexicon to describe the Lucas-inspired rip-offs of Luigi Cozzi’s Starcrash and Alfonso Brescia’s Star Odyssey (both 1979), there were the pre-Lucas visions of Antonio Margheriti — themselves inspired by the very same inventive and visually stunning Russian space epics that begat 2001: A Space Odyssey.

An Italian journeyman director (known under his Americanized pseudonym of Anthony M. Dawson) known for creating a unique, visual flair in cheaply knocked out horror films, also made numerous Biblical-Historical “peplum” flicks. Then, when James Bond was all the rage, Margheriti created Eurospy knock-offs. Then he made his contributions to Italy’s Spaghetti Westerns cycle. As did any Italian director, Margheriti created his share of Giallo horror films that served as precursors to the American rip-off genre of “Slasher Films” in the 1980s.

When it comes to Italian sci-fi, Margheriti is noted as an innovator in his creation of Italian cinema’s first two outer space movies: 1960’s Space-Men (known as Assignment: Outer Space in American theatres) and 1961’s Il Pianeta degli uomini spenti, aka Planet of Extinct Men (known as Battle of the Worlds in English-speaking countries).

Since Margheriti exhibited Russian-styled innovations with those two films, despite their restrictive budgets (they were no 2001: A Space Odyssey by any means, but they weren’t a Plan 9 From Outer Space either), he was hired by the Great Lion of America, MGM Studios (ironically the “backers” of 2001), to create a series of four “Italian Space Movies” for direct syndication on American UHF television stations. In a shooting schedule that a major American film studio could never pull off today, Margheriti churned out all four films — back-to-back in three months.

Italy’s first “Star Wars” began in 1965. Known as the Gamma One series, Margheriti presented I Criminali della Galassia, aka Criminals of the Galaxy (Wild, Wild Planet in America), I Diafanoidi Vengono da Marte, aka The Diaphanoids Come from Mars (War of the Planets in America), l Pianeta Errante, aka Planet on the Prowl (War Between the Planets), and La Morte Viene dal Pianeta Aytin, aka Death Comes from the Planet Aytin (Snow Devils in America).

As with Space-Men and Planet of Extinct Men experiencing box-office success, the Gamma One series was a syndicated-ratings success on American television — MGM decided they wanted one more. So, upping the ante with a bigger budget, Margheriti teamed with revered Japanese director Kinji Fukasaku (Tora! Tora! Tora!) to create a fifth film for the Gamma One series: The Green Slime (1968; aka Gamma One: Operation Outer Space).

Then Italian director Primo Zeglio decided: Why should Margheriti hog the kitchen? There’s room for one more cook! So, inspired by the old Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials, he produced an adaptation of a book from the Euro-popular Perry Rhodan space adventure series with Mission Stardust (1968).

And somewhere in the Mos Eisley Spaceport’s kitchen, between Margheriti’s and Zeglio’s boiling pots of space pasta, the French elbowed their way to the stove with their pre-Star Wars contribution, Barbarella (1968; starring a young Jane Fonda), and Le Monstre Aux Yeux Verts, aka The Monster with Green Eyes (Planet Against Us in English-speaking countries (1961). Even the Italian director of several Hercules flicks, Pietro Francisci, jumped into the black hole with Missione Hydra, aka Mission Hydra (1968; Star Pilot).

It was after all of these mid-to-late ’60s Italian excursions into space that along came the vastly superior vision of Stanley Kubrick, which made The Green Slime look like . . . well, you know the putrid color and biological goo this writer is about to describe. If The Green Slime, with a budget that rivaled Margheriti’s first four Gamma One films looked like this . . . then how can the perpetually, financially strapped Italian film industry compete with Stanley Kubrick — with its literally Mattel-cum-Hasbro “toys in space” production design?

And that was the end of Italian Space Films on a theatre screen far, far away . . .

. . . At least until the kitchen duties fell to Alfonso Brescia to create the first-out-of-the-gate “Spaghetti Wars.”

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Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker is scheduled to have its world premiere in Los Angeles on December 16, 2019, and will be released theatrically on December 20 in the United States.

Be sure to visit with us on December 28 as we explore the Italian post-Star Wars movies of the ‘80s and wrap up our two-week Star Wars celebration with “Exploring: After Star Wars,” right here, on B&S Movies.

Poster images widely available on the web. Typeface overlay by PicFont.

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About the Author: You can read the music and film criticisms of R.D Francis on Medium and learn more about his work on Facebook. He also writes for B&S Movies.

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