The Italian Star Wars
Deja View is a Telly Award-winning series that explores foreign remakes of popular American films.
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A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, the heavens played host to awesome space battles, luminescent laser swords, a sinister tyrant, endearingly quirky robots… and Baywatch star David Hasselhoff.
A strange feeling I am getting… of Deja View.
It’s probably impossible to overstate the impact of “Star Wars” on popular culture, let alone the box office. So when producer Nat Wachsberger called up Italian writer/director Luigi Cozzi in the summer of 1977 and asked him if he could make a space opera just like “Star Wars,” well, how could he refuse? Wachsberger said I’ll be in Rome in 10 days. Have a script ready by then. Cozzi agreed, but there was just one problem he failed to mention. He had never seen “Star Wars.”
That’s hardly surprising, because “Star Wars” wouldn’t be released in Italy for another six months. But as luck would have it, Cozzi, a sci-fi buff, just happened to have in his library the novelization of “Star Wars,” which had been published the previous year. That became his key to experiencing the story of the film, and from there he began work on his own version: “Starcrash.”
“Starcrash” follows buxom space heroine Stella Star on a mission to rescue the benevolent Emperor’s son from the sinister, scenery-chewing Count Zarth Arn. During the film she teams up with Elle, a police robot with the looks of Darth Vader but filling the sidekick role of C3P0; and the handsome but mysterious Simon, played by a young David Hasselhoff.
All the “Star Wars” hallmarks are present, from massive spaceships and laser battles, to lightsabers and mysterious spiritual superpowers. It even has, in a sense, two Death Stars. One is Count Zarth Arn’s ultimate weapon, so large it takes an entire planet to conceal it; and the other is the Count’s space station, an enormous claw, where the final battle takes place in a sequence echoing the climax of “A New Hope.”
Although the “Star Wars” aesthetic is unmistakable, “Starcrash” was no mere clone. Because Luigi Cozzi was a huge fan of all things science fiction, the film is a love letter to the entire genre. The first spaceship we see is named after favorite sci-fi author Murray Leinster. Scenes are shot on the same beaches as those used in Ray Harryhausen’s “The Golden Voyage of Sinbad.” And Stella Star battles a giant robotic Guardian in a sequence virtually duplicated from Harryhausen’s “Jason and the Argonauts.” Indeed, despite the producers’ mandate for a “Star Wars” knock-off, Cozzi conceived his movie as “Sinbad on Mars.”
And distinctly un-”Star Wars”-like was the producers’ insistence on the inclusion of dinosaurs and cavemen. This was because one of the film’s backers was American International Pictures, who had just done very well at the box office with their film “The Land that Time Forgot,” which featured both of those elements. Thus, our heroes do face off against a horde of cavemen, but although a dinosaur sequence was filmed, it was not included in the final cut.
Unfortunately as one might expect for a ‘70s Italian genre picture, the budget for “Starcrash” was very low, and less than $30,000 was allotted for special effects.This placed an enormous burden on effects artist Armando Valcauda, who had simply been shown a bootleg videotape of “Star Wars” and instructed to make his models look like that. He had his work cut out for him.
The splashy outer space vistas were created with little more than black construction paper and colored lights. The ships were lovingly built and textured using not just pieces from model kits, but also, to save money, the plastic “mold runners” that hold those pieces together in the box. And everything from the dogfights in space to the battle with the giant golems were achieved using classic in-camera techniques.
The production of the film was a study in adversity. The cast and and crew wrestled with extreme temperatures, union strikes, and constant money troubles. During the most difficult days, wages and per diems might be paid out of the producers’ own pockets, from shady suitcases of cash, or occasionally not at all. But nearly everyone stuck with the film out of passion and faith in the project, and their perseverance was rewarded with terrific box office success.
“Starcrash” is nothing short of a marvel. Exciting, silly, beautifully shot, and filled with a joy for the genre that is positively infectious.
After it was completed, legendary B movie producer Roger Corman picked up “Starcrash” for U.S. distribution as an inexpensive way to test the waters for making his own “Star Wars” inspired epic. The fruit of his labors was “Battle Beyond the Stars,” which was itself a remake… of Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai.”
Thanks so much for watching, and may the Force be, uh, mass times acceleration.