Posted by: kshayes513 | November 27, 2016

On Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, and the Movie House Experience

The moment when spectacle turns to story in Star Wars. (image: Lucasfilms)

The moment when spectacle turns to story in Star Wars. (image: Lucasfilms)

When I was a college senior, my friends and I walked into a movie theater near campus and sat down and had our brains blown open by the first 3 minutes of Star Wars. I will never forget the impact of that genius opening: first, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, then, in silence, those now iconic words, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” As a reader of fairy and folktales, those words alone were enough to arrest my attention. But next – you know what comes next  – the title card and John Williams’ triumphant opening chords over the long crawl sliding into the distance. Then finally, gloriously, the slow pan down the star field to a moon, another moon, and a planet’s vast limb filling the bottom of the screen. Then a small ship shoots overhead, pursued by a larger ship that keeps growing large and larger and impossibly larger – until it fills the screen. And the story begins.

Seeing those astonishing 3 minutes on a big screen is still unique in my movie-going experience, even after 40 years. Because in 1977, no one had seen anything like that before. Ever. It was not just exciting; for a serious movie lover, it was breathtaking. It was a new universe of possibility. Of course, the opening would have been far less memorable if the rest of the movie had failed to live up to that opening. But it didn’t fail, it soared.  I remember how the whole audience laughed together and gasped together, and sat on the edge of our seats together through the battle over the Death Star, until suddenly the Falcon showed up and we all burst out in cheers and whoops.

I’ve had only one other experience that really equals that one, though in a different way and for different reasons It was my first viewing of The Fellowship of the Ring. When my friends and I sat down, I was dismayed to see that 2 rows in front of me was a family with a small child, no more than 3 years old. I braced myself to have childish chatter ruin my first viewing of a movie I’d been waiting for most of my life. But Fellowship was such an amazing visual and dramatic experience that this child spoke up only 3 times in the entire 2 1/2 hours. He was as spellbound as the rest of us.

In that packed opening night audience, several hundred people went on the Quest of the Ring together for the first time. And together, we grew ever more intent and quiet and focused as the drama narrowed down to that final, flawless, heartrending half-hour that is the Breaking of the Fellowship. I remember still how the entire audience groaned when the first arrow hit Boromir and signaled his doom. And I remember the tears running down my cheeks as the tears ran down Frodo’s under that heartbreaking music. As he pushed the Ring into his pocket and strode down to the boats, I had a moment to notice that other people near me, men and women, were surreptitiously wiping their eyes too.

The movie holds us until these 2 turn away into the dusk.

The movie holds us until these 2 turn away into the dusk.

And finally, as Frodo and Sam turned away from the West to start their journey to Mordor, and the screen faded to black, the entire theater sat absolutely still, holding its breath for another moment. Then Peter Jackson’s name appeared against the black, and a huge sigh went up from the entire audience: “It’s over. Wow!”

You cannot have moments like that in your living room.

Now that we can stream just about anything at all on a device with a 5″ screen, it’s easy to say, “I’ll wait for On Demand or Netflix or the blu-ray.” And there are certainly plenty of movies which are just fine to watch by yourself on a small or even a tiny screen. All you want is the story, and a little entertainment to occupy you on the plane or at the doctor’s office or waiting to pick up the kids at practice.

But with the holiday blockbuster movie season here again, it’s worth remembering that some movies demand the kind of experiences that can only be had in a movie theater, when you’re part of an audience that is swept up together in the comedy or spectacle or drama that called you out of your house to drive to the theater and put down money.

Movies can still be an event, when we’re lucky. And when they are, it’s unforgettable.



  1. Images fried into my brain — most of 2001 Space Odyssey and the Korova Milk Bar scene from A Clockwork Orange and that close up of Malcolm Mc Dowell and the creepy music.

  2. I’ve felt for a while now that the only movie that needs to be 3D is Avatar. This weekend I saw Dr. Strange, and was actually sad that I couldn’t see it in 3D (the 3D version had already left my theater). And that surprised me, because I usually think that 3D isn’t worth the extra money (and it messes with my eyes). But nothing, NOTHING has ever exceeded for me the incredible feeling in May 1997 of sitting in that theater and watching the nose of the Star Destroyer getting bigger — and bigger — and BIGGER — and John William’s incredible music moving beyond Holst’s _The Planets_ (particularly “Mars, Bringer of War”) into new interstellar realms…

  3. The Star Wars movies had a tremendous impact on my daughters, but reading Tolkien’s Trilogy, which I ordered from London in the mid-1950s in the original hardcover with big maps folding out of the back, marked my life forever. I have a daughter named Lorien, a granddaughter named Arwen, and the only way I have coped with our recent election is by Tolkien analogies. (see blogs in

  4. Annis, I, too, posted the “I wish it need not have happened in my lifetime” quote and Gandalf’s response on my FB page the day after the election…

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