The Origin of the Crawl

The Origin of the Crawl

There's more to the opening crawl of Star Wars than just Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. This is the true story of the most iconic text in film...

It is a period of civil war. Star Wars fans, striking from social media accounts, are engaged in battle over the question that divides the galaxy — can a Star Wars film work without an opening crawl?

The discussion about Rogue One always comes back to opening crawls. Of course, the idea for the film originated with an opening crawl — it's literally the story of the Rebel spies mentioned in the first paragraph of the first Star Wars film’s opening crawl — and Lucasfilm has confirmed that it will be the first live-action Star Wars feature film not to have a crawl of its own.

The absence of a crawl in Rogue One has been a controversial topic, to say the least. For Lucasfilm, it’s simply a way to distinguish this first spin-off movie from the “saga films”, but for some fans, it’s tantamount to a betrayal — a break from tradition for which there can be no justification.

It’s as good a time as any, then, to take a look back at where the opening crawl actually comes from, and how essential it really is for telling a Star Wars story.

First, let’s get the part that everyone already knows out of the way — the crawl is, of course, a nod to the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials of the 1930s that George Lucas grew up with.

Starring Buster Crabbe and based on the Alex Raymond comic strip, Flash Gordon made its way to the silver screen as a 12-part serial from Universal in 1936.

Two more Flash Gordon serials followed, as well as Universal’s Buck Rogers serial in 1939 (based on Philip Francis Nowlan’s comic strip), which also starred Buster Crabbe, making the two space adventurers more or less indistinguishable in the minds of young fans.  

All these serials used text to catch audiences up on the events of previous chapters.

The Flash Gordon recap text was static…

The second Flash Gordon serial, Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars, actually used comic strip-style panels for its recaps…

Buck Rogers had the scrolling, tilted text that will be so familiar to Star Wars fans…

And so did the final serial in the Flash Gordon trilogy, Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe.

Lucas didn’t see these serials at the movies, but on television. Adventure Theatre, which debuted in 1956 (when Lucas was 12 years old), re-broadcast vintage movie serials on TV.

“One of my favourite things were Republic serials and things like Flash Gordon,” Lucas told Starlog in 1981. “I’d watch them and say, ‘This is fantastic!’ There was a television program called Adventure Theatre at 6 o’clock every night. We didn’t have a TV set, so I used to go over to a friend’s house, and we watched it religiously every night.”

Lucas didn’t necessarily look at these old serials with rose-coloured glasses. He could see the flaws in them — but he could also see the potential.

“Of course I realise how crude and badly done they were,” Lucas told interviewer Alan Arnold for his book, Once Upon a Galaxy: A Journal of the Making of The Empire Strikes Back. “Loving them that much when they were so awful, I began to wonder what would happen if they were done really well. Surely, kids would love them even more.”

In fact, it was a failed attempt to make a Flash Gordon film that led Lucas to create Star Wars.

“I tried to buy the rights to Flash Gordon,” Lucas said in JW Rinzler’s The Making of Star Wars. “I’d been toying with the idea, and that’s when I went, on a whim, to King Features. But I couldn’t get the rights to it. They said they wanted Federico Fellini to direct it, and they wanted 80 per cent of the gross, so I said forget it. I could never make any kind of studio deal with that.

“I realised that Flash Gordon is like anything you do that is established. That is, you start out being faithful to the original material, but eventually it gets in the way of the creativity.

“I realised that Flash Gordon wasn’t the movie I wanted to do; if I had done it, I would’ve had to have Ming the Merciless in it — and I didn’t want to have Ming the Merciless. I decided at that point to do something more original. I knew I could do something totally new. I wanted to take ancient mythological motifs and update them – I wanted to have something totally free and fun, the way I remembered space fantasy.”

But Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers weren’t the only space fantasies to leave an impression on Lucas.

Consider Forbidden Planet, the sci-fi classic (starring a pre-Airplane Leslie Nielsen) that Lucas saw on his twelfth birthday. The film has a few connections to Star Wars that are worth exploring, but for the purposes of the opening crawl, let’s just look at its trailer.

Because, while Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe and Buck Rogers certainly have familiar-looking opening crawls, the Forbidden Planet trailer — with its yellow, scrolling, tilted text on a starfield background — is even more striking.

Make sure you watch until the end, when the yellow text on the starfield background returns to inform viewers that Forbidden Planet is ‘FAR AND AWAY THE MOST PROVOCATIVE AND UNUSUAL ADVENTURE FILM YOU’VE EVER SEEN’.

Of course, Lucas didn’t create the opening crawl single-handedly — he worked with a collaborator who brought his own influences to the table.

Lucas invited film title designer Dan Perri, who had worked on Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Exorcist, to come out to Industrial Light & Magic’s facility in Van Nuys, California, to work with him on the crawl.

“We started talking about some of his ideas and he wanted me to see a lot of the old serials from the ’30s and ‘40s, the Buck Rogers films and other space characters and adventures,” Perri told Art of the Title last year

“He hired me and then I started going out there every few days whenever I had something new to show him, which he usually hated! He didn’t like anything I was doing…

“He was under enormous pressure. I would bring what I was working on to George and I’d sit and wait for him for hours to show it to him. I’d sit and watch dailies with him or go to meetings with his guys. He had a lot of old films, 16mm, he had a projector in there. We’d watch Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon and glean things from that.

“Finally, he would have a few minutes for me, he’d look at it and wouldn’t like it, then he’d get pulled away by something else and come back a few days later. This went on for two or three months until finally I hit on something he liked.

“I came across this film called Union Pacific, which is just a basic film about the railway and people fighting over land and so on. A regular cowboy Western. But the main titles were looking down the tracks and these titles rolled towards you along the tracks, as if there was a train, or rolled away from you, I forget which it was. But I got an idea. I saw this motion of the titles rolling away from you into space towards a horizon line. So George liked that.”

Directed by Cecil B. DeMille and adapted from the novel Trouble Shooter by Ernest Haycox, Union Pacific is about the building of the railroad across the American West.

It was released in 1939, the same year another Ernest Haycox story, The Stage to Lordsburg, was adapted for the screen as Stagecoach, directed by John Ford.  

Funnily enough, Ernest Haycox also wrote a series of short stories known as the New Hope stories, set in the real-life trading town of New Hope on the Missouri River in the 1880s.

It’s unlikely that Lucas knew about the New Hope stories — they were published in Collier’s, a rival to Lucas’ preferred Saturday Evening Post, before Lucas was even born.

It’s even more unlikely that he was aware of the connection between his opening crawl and the author of these stories.

But I’m not willing to put anything past him…

Speaking of things that George Lucas may or may not be aware of, here’s an ad for Quathra, a “luxury fabric”, that ran in Vogue three years before the release of Star Wars.

It’s reasonable to be sceptical that George Lucas — a man whose fashion sense can roughly be boiled down to ‘all checked shirts, all the time’ — would have been casually flicking through Vogue at some point in the ‘70s.

But Virginia Postrel, who discovered the ad in 2012, points out that it’s from the August 1974 issue — the one that featured Beverly Johnson on the cover.

This was the first issue of Vogue ever to feature a woman of colour on the cover, a milestone that attracted its fair share of attention. It’s possible this appealed to Lucas, with his keen sense of social justice, compelling him to take a look at the issue.

Perhaps somebody, aware of Lucas’ love of sci-fi serials, showed it to him; perhaps a friend of his was featured in the issue; perhaps he needed ‘urgent advice on lifetime health care’.

Perhaps the ad — for a brand trademarked by designer Robert David Morton that has otherwise vanished from the internet — appeared somewhere else, and Lucas saw it there. Perhaps Lucas — or one of his friends — was one of the “famous individuals” that frequented Morton’s shop in New York City.

Only Lucas knows for sure, and he’s never told. But if the resemblance is just a coincidence, it’s quite a coincidence — the design is one thing, but the use of the phrase ‘Far far away in a distant galaxy’ is particularly striking.

Whether the opening crawl was partly inspired by an ad for luxury fabric or not, it was clearly something Lucas had his heart set on including in the film from the beginning. Here’s how the crawl read in the May 1974 rough draft…

Until the recent GREAT REBELLION, the JEDI BENDU were the most feared warriors in the universe. For one hundred thousand years, generations of JEDI perfected their art as the personal bodyguards of the EMPEROR. They were the chief architects of the invincible IMPERIAL SPACE FORCE, which expanded the EMPIRE across the galaxy, from the celestial equator to the farthest reaches of the GREAT RIFT.
 
Now these legendary warriors are all but extinct. One by one, they have been hunted down and destroyed as enemies of the NEW EMPIRE by a ferocious and sinister rival warrior sect, THE KNIGHTS OF SITH.

Here’s how it appeared in the January 1975 second draft (note that it starts with a ‘quotation’ from the fictional Journal of the Whills)…

“…And in the time of greatest despair there shall come a saviour, and he shall be known as: THE SON OF THE SUNS.” – Journal of the Whills, 3:127
 
The REPUBLIC GALACTICA is dead. Ruthless trader barons, driven by greed and the lust for power, have replaced enlightenment with oppression, and “rule by the people” with the FIRST GALACTIC EMPIRE.
 
Until the tragic holy rebellion of ’06, the respected JEDI BENDU OF ASHLA were the most powerful warriors in the Universe. For a hundred thousand years, generations of Jedi Bendu knights learned the ways of the mysterious FORCE OF OTHERS, and acted as the guardians of peace and justice in the REPUBLIC. Now these legendary warriors are all but extinct. One by one they have been hunted down and destroyed by a ferocious rival sect of mercenary warriors: THE BLACK KNIGHTS OF THE SITH.
 
It is a period of civil wars. THE EMPIRE is crumbling into lawless barbarism throughout the million worlds of the galaxy. From the celestial equator to the farthest reaches of the GREAT RIFT, seventy small solar systems have united in a common war against the tyranny of the Empire. Under the command of a mighty Jedi warrior known as THE STARKILLER, the REBEL ALLIANCE has won a crushing victory over the deadly Imperial Star Fleet. The Empire knows that one more such defeat will bring a thousand more solar systems into the rebellion, and Imperial control of the Outlands could be lost forever…

The August 1975 third draft…

The REPUBLIC GALACTICA is dead. Ruthless trader barons, driven by greed and the lust for power, have replaced enlightenment with oppression, and “rule by the people” with the FIRST GALACTIC EMPIRE.
 
For over a thousand years, generations of JEDI KNIGHTS were the guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy. Now these legendary warriors are all but extinct. One by one they have been hunted down and destroyed by the sinister agents of the Emperor: the DARK LORDS OF THE SITH.
 
It is a period of civil wars. Rebel Armies, striking from fortresses hidden deep within the Great Rift, have won a crushing victory over the powerful Imperial Starfleet. The Emperor knows that one more such defeat will bring a thousand more solar systems into the rebellion, and Imperial control of the Outland systems could be lost forever. To crush the rebellion once and for all, the Emperor has sent one of his most ferocious Dark Lords to find the secret rebel strongholds and destroy them…

The January 1976 fourth draft…

It is a period of civil wars in the galaxy.  A brave alliance of underground freedom fighters has challenged the tyranny and oppression of the awesome GALACTIC EMPIRE.
 
Striking from a fortress hidden among the billion stars of the galaxy, rebel spaceships have won their first victory in a battle with the powerful Imperial Starfleet.  The EMPIRE fears that another defeat could bring a thousand more solar systems into the rebellion, and Imperial control over the galaxy would be lost forever.
 
To crush the rebellion once and for all, the EMPIRE is constructing a sinister new battle station.  Powerful enough to destroy an entire planet, its completion spells certain doom for the champions of freedom.

The crawl from the fourth draft is actually the one that appears in the Marvel Comics series that was released ahead of the film.

In February 1977, Lucas screened a rough cut of the film for Brian De Palma, Matthew Robbins, Hal Barwood, Willard Huyck, Gloria Katz, Jay Cocks, Steven Spielberg and select members of the crew.

There is some conjecture about which version of the opening crawl they actually saw — it would seem logical that the rough cut would have included the crawl from the fourth, most recent draft of the script, but JW Rinzler’s The Making of Star Wars specifies that the crawl in the shooting script was the same as in the third draft.

Certainly, the criticisms from those who were present at the screening seem to be directed at the crawl from the third draft, with its detailed run-down of the state of the galaxy, as opposed to the crawl from the fourth draft, which is not all that different to the one we ended up getting.

“The opening prologue was still the one from the third draft, about what happens in the hundred years before the film,” said editor Paul Hirsch, who was present at the screening, “but Brian [De Palma] and Jay [Cocks] felt that it should be explaining what happened right before the film starts.”

De Palma — best known at the time as the director of Carrie and Phantom of the Paradise, and later for Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, Scarface and The Untouchables — actually helped Lucas write the final draft of the crawl, as documented in Rinzler’s The Making of Star Wars.  

“Brian kind of went over the top in terms of his honesty,” Spielberg said. “That night he and George had kind of a verbal duel in a Chinese restaurant, which was pretty amazing to have witnessed. But out of that conflict came a wonderful contribution. De Palma inspired the new crawl, which gave the audience some kind of story geography.”

“Brian was the one who actually sat down and helped me fix the roll-up, he and Jay Cocks,” Lucas said. “The next day we rewrote the roll-up; Brian dictated it to Jay. He typed it up and it got rewritten a couple of times after that.”

Finally, Lucas arrived at the crawl that appeared in the film.

It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.
 
During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire's ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.
 
Pursued by the Empire's sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy....

Following the release of The Empire Strikes Back, the original film was re-released in 1981, with the subtitle, Episode IV A New Hope, added to the opening crawl.

Since episode numbers weren’t introduced to the saga until The Empire Strikes Back in 1980, that means Kenneth Johnson’s 1979 TV series, Cliffhangers, actually beat Lucas to the punch.

Each hour-long episode of Cliffhangers was divided into three different serialised stories. To give the impression that the audience was joining each serial in media res, each one started with a different chapter number — conspiracy thriller Stop Susan Williams began at Chapter II, sci-fi western The Secret Empire began at Chapter III, and horror story The Curse of Dracula began at Chapter VI.

The series was cancelled after 10 episodes — before the release of The Empire Strikes Back, and before two of the serials (Stop Susan Williams and The Secret Empire) had even finished.

The opening crawl has, of course, been associated with Star Wars ever since the original film, and it appears in a number of books, comics and video games, but the idea that all Star Wars stories need to have one is overblown.

Dave Filoni’s Clone Wars cartoon, which was overseen by Lucas, started with a newsreel-style recap instead of a text crawl. This was presumably for the benefit of young viewers who weren’t able to read, but it also helped set the series apart from other Star Wars media. That series was replaced by Star Wars Rebels, which doesn’t feature opening crawls or recaps at all.

There are vastly more episodes of The Clone Wars and Rebels than there are Star Wars films, of course, and in many ways, Rogue One has more in common with those spin-off shows than it does with the ‘saga’ films, so it makes sense that it would also break with ‘tradition’.

Honestly, I’ll miss the opening crawl — we only get so many chances to see a Star Wars movie in the theatre in our lifetimes, after all, and the opening crawl has been part of that ritual — but I’m also excited to see what Gareth Edwards does instead.

And besides, this is Star Wars. If the film really doesn’t work without a crawl, we can always just go back and add it in later….

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