The man behind great cinema

The man behind great cinema


Today marks the launch of yet another George Lucas Star Wars film, this time an animated feature called Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and I’m disappointed to say that most of the reviews I’ve seen, from both professional film critics and average Joes, report that the Star Wars dynasty has sunk yet another step. One such negative review comes from TJ who recounts the decline of the Star Wars brand over time. (Warning: Strong language and a minor spoiler. And I don’t buy into everything he writes, but then I haven’t see the latest movie yet.)

TJ points out what was so good about Star Wars: A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back, compared to the other four (and now, five) movies in the saga. What was wrong with the Prequels, he posits, is that they were written for six-year-olds, as witnessed by the silly droid army which was given lines like “Roger, roger,” not to mention, Jar-Jar Binks, the most hated sci-fi character since Wesley Crusher strode the bridge of the Enterprise.

And what did Lucas did well in his movies? Battle scenes.

The good parts of the second-trilogy is quite simply the battle scenes. Lucas does them well. It’s why the Death Star invasion at the end of the 1977 movie was so good, why the Hoth battle and Luke-vs-Vader in Empire was so good, and why the best parts of ROTJ were the battle scenes.

In the second-trilogy, we get a multitude of light-saber battles, including Darth Maul, whose lightsaber battle with Qui Gon and Obi-Wan is by far the best part of The Phantom Menace, and why the Jedi battles are the best parts of the next two.


And yet, I think there’s something more that made Star Wars so good. Something that made that aforementioned lightsaber duel in The Phantom Menace so thrilling: John Williams’ score. In fact, it’s hard to imagine Star Wars without the rising crescendo. Go to the site and listen to it and tell me it doesn’t bring it all back. When I first saw Star Wars in 1977 as a 9-year-old boy, all I could articulate as we drove away from theater and I tried to process what I’d just experienced was the (inaccurate) statement: “I love classical music,” (by which I meant, orchestral music, of course. Cut me some slack; I was nine.)

It was the music that defined the sensory experience more than anything. What was the defining emotional moment in The Phantom Menace? That battle between Darth Maul and the Jedi, but it was Williams’ “Duel of the Fates” that got your heart pumping and brought all your senses to bear.

And if you think about it, John Williams’ music has probably done more to define the great cinematic experiences of the past forty years than any one individual. When you look at the the most popular and the highest-grossing movies in that time period, you consistently see one name attached to all of them: Jaws, E.T., Close Encounters, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, Harry Potter.

When he wasn’t composing the scores, Williams was there as the unseen influence on the composers’ shoulder. You can hear echoes of Williams’ work in movies like The Lord of the Rings (James Horner Howard Shore), Titanic (James Horner), the Pirates of the Caribbean, and so on.

I wonder if, hundreds of years from now as historians look back, they will see this as the John Williams era as far as the performing arts go: movies and TV. Perhaps he and Steven Spielberg will be held up as the exemplars of the coming of age of the motion picture arts. I hope so.

But I also wish there was more appreciation of the man and his influence on the cinema today. I’m surprised I don’t see this discussed more often in fact.

Photo of John Williams used under Creative Commons license via Wikimedia. Poster art from


  • I suspect that John Williams does not get the recognition that is his due because those who write about such music are those who wish they could write as well as he does, or who do write as well but do not enjoy nearly the same success because their music is performed in concerts and not attached to something “popular.”  (Historians are not fond of David McCullough because his work is “popular,” not directed at a narrow scholastic audience.) If a schmuck like me, who doesn’t know beans from bovine defecation about music, likes Williams it’s a decent bet that the musical establishment will not.

  • I think that my generation realizes that John Williams is the man.  He came to BC last year to play with the Pops for their annual visit and students were so excited.

  • What made you settle on a “review” by this TJ, Dom?

    You might as well have taken any other review from an arrested 40-year-old who spends half his day on Star Wars messgae boards and the other half viewing online porn.

    George Lucas made these movies for, gulp, KIDS?!?!?!  Oh, my God!

    There isn’t a complaint I’ve ever heard about the prequels that couldn’t be equally applied to the originals.  But as the case is with most things, we love our near-sighted nostalgia and nitpick to the absurd what’s new.

  • Unfortunately, I ruined the climactic fight scene in Episode I for myself.  I just kept humming to myself during the score, “Jar Jarrrr.. Jar Jarrr… JAR JAR JAR JAR JAR JAR!”

  • Thomas: I know you won’t receive an email notification since you used a fake email address but briefly:
    1. TJ is an acquaintance and his comments sparked the John Williams thought. Your insults are unnecessary and ad hominem. This is just a conversation about movies. There’s no need to get all worked up.

    (I don’t understand what it is about blog comments that make people think they can act like jerks.)

    2. I enjoyed the prequels myself but it’s telling that I’ve never watched them more than once. They are not up to the quality of the originals. Great movies can be enjoyed equally by both adults and kids, but I don’t think the prequels pass the test.

  • Phantom Menace so infuriated me that I have refused to watch the next two.  Jar-Jar Binks (and some other elements) was deliberately childish, not merely fantastic.

    IV, V and VI had their ups and downs, but you could watch them as an adult, without one’s own small children, and enjoy them.  Most of the adults who’ll be able to enjoy PM without bringing their kids will be the ones who had been brought as kids.  Nineteen-year-olds who really enjoyed PM in the first run are statistically out at around 2.5 sigma, in my opinion.

  • There is definitely a weakness in the prequel trilogy, but I don’t see it as quite as bad as others do. 

    As for the Williams bit, though, yes, exactly.  _Star Wars_, later retitled “Episode IV: A New Hope”, was basically a B-movie with a cool villain that lucked out with a stellar score. 

    I waited through two movies of the prequel trilogy to hear an updated “Imperial March.”  I thrilled, however, at the faint echoes that Williams worked into “Anakin’s Theme” in _Episode I_.  My high school best friend went to Clemson. We’re both _Star Wars_ fans, and “The Imperial March” is a specialty of Clemson’s band, so when we saw Episode I together, (I had already memorized the soundtrack CD), I said, “listen carefully” when it got near the end of “Anakin’s Theme.”  He whispered, “Wow.”

    Then there was the grandiose version of Jabba’s theme and the reuse of the Sith theme from ROTJ.

    But the Episode II soundtrack left me largely disappointed, until that last scene, when I practically stood in homage at the crescendo Williams builds there.

    I honestly don’t remember any significant musical moments in _Episode III_.