Wanted in 12 Systems: Star Wars Around the World
As The Last Jedi hits theatres, we revisit some of the greatest (and strangest) posters from the original trilogy
The Dominion Cinema, Tottenham Court Road, London, UK
Some of the most enduring images in film history never ran through a projector, but began life as elements of promotional campaigns, and — thanks to nostalgia, notoriety, or sometimes just pure ubiquity — became iconic in their own right. Our ongoing series FilmArt looks at the advertising, posters, lobby cards and other ephemera that complement and enrich the filmgoing experience.
For 40 years, Star Wars has been such a fundamental element in the periodic table of pop culture that it’s easy to forget that, at one point, it was an unknown quantity. For countless early fans of the series, movie posters were the sites of their first encounters with Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and Darth Vader. While many of these original posters are now as familiar to fans as the Force, even the most instantly recognizable pieces of Star Wars artwork began with an artist trying to sum up this uncharted galaxy in a single, evocative image. And as the original 1977 film and its first two sequels traversed the globe throughout the 1970s and 1980s, artists from many countries would put their own unique stamp on this enduring saga.
North America and the Building of a (Non-Galactic) Empire
“Ralph McQuarrie was the first person I hired to help me envision Star Wars,” recalled the franchise’s equally revered and reviled creator George Lucas. Through storyboards and concept art, McQuarrie and Lucas developed the visuals for what was then called The Star Wars (note definite article), and in 1975 McQuarrie delivered this first identity for the series.
Interviewed in 1978 for the Official Star Wars Fan Club Newsletter, McQuarrie explained “[The decal] was done as a symbol for the film — to go on film cans and letters. George had had one for American Graffiti, and wanted one for Star Wars."
Though the usual narrative is that Star Wars appeared out of nowhere and became a surprise hit, the path to global domination was paved throughout 1976 and '77 by marketing visionary Charles Lippincott. "To get me on board, George made a deal with 20th Century Fox to bring me on as a publicist, which would pay my salary, but my job was vice-president of advertising, publicity, promotion and merchandising," Lippincott later recalled.“Star Wars merchandise created new ways for us to engage the audience, which resulted in more fan fervour," said Lippincott. "Before the film opened we had Alan Dean Foster’s novelization and the Marvel Star Wars comics. After it opened, we had posters, costumes and clothing.”
The movie’s first official poster was born out of Lippincott’s merchandising endeavours. Looking to develop a comic-book companion to the film, Lippincott approached Marvel Comics, who initially gave Star Wars a hard pass. Lippincott persisted, and persuaded the company to produce a six-issue adaptation of the forthcoming film (thanks in no small part to a lopsided deal wherein Marvel alone profited from the first five issues). When the film became a phenomenon, Marvel sold close to two million issues within the first year of its Star Wars comic run; indeed, the series is often credited with keeping the company afloat during a period when the comics industry was in a steep decline.
Howard Chaykin, the Marvel illustrator assigned to Star Wars, was tasked with producing a poster to be sold at the 1976 San Diego Comic-Con and the Kansas City sci-fi convention Worldcon to drum up excitement for the movie and comic. One thousand copies were printed of the poster that’s now simply known as “The Chaykin” in collecting circles; originally priced at $1.75, it now sells for anywhere from $2,000 to $3,000 USD.
Well-versed as he was in the fan culture of the era, Lippincott wanted illustrator Frank Frazetta, a titan in the realm of fantasy artwork, to design the film’s poster, but any collaboration between him and Lucasfilm proved impossible: Frazetta insisted he keep the rights to his original artwork, but it was equally important to Lucasfilm to own those rights for merchandising purposes. Subsequently, art director Tom Jung, who at the time was a go-to for movie-studio advertising, was brought in and seemingly asked to mimic Frazetta’s style.
Popular lore tells has it that the iconic triangular Luke-and-Leia pose began life as a peripheral part of the half-sheet poster, until the studio took a shine to it and wanted it adapted into the one-sheet — though this seems to be undermined by the fact that the Leia in Jung’s concept art for the half-sheet is a lot more evolved than the long-haired, bikini-clad Leia in the one-sheet concept art above.
Fox may have been pleased with the poster, but some at Lucasfilm felt it was “too dark,” so brothers Tim and Greg Hildebrandt were brought in to provide a poppier version of the same layout, which was used in some markets.
Interestingly, the series’ famous, Suzy Rice-designed logo is barely used on many of these posters. The logo that most commonly appears is one designed by Dan Perri for the opening crawl of the film, though it ultimately wasn’t used for that purpose.
After the film’s release and spectacularly successful reception, Fox ordered a third poster which emphasized the suddenly recognizable stars of the film. Arguably, this might be the original Star Wars’ most iconic poster (it’s certainly the one this author had thumbtacked beside his childhood bed).
Tom Jung also worked on the subsequent films, creating two much-used posters for The Empire Strikes Back and a somewhat goofy poster for the 1985 Return of the Jedi re-release.
Despite how ubiquitous Jung’s Empire designs were in the early 1980s, both have been eclipsed by the US poster for the film by Roger Kastel — a poster that, ironically, couldn’t have existed without Jung. Kastel, whose Jaws one-sheet was already one of the most instantly recognizable posters of all time, cemented his legacy with his Empire Strikes Back artwork, which deliberately evoked the indelible Gone With the Wind poster image of Rhett Butler clutching a bare-shouldered Scarlett O’Hara — a design that Jung and illustrator Howard Terpning had created in 1967 for a 70mm re-release of GWTW.
The finale of the (first) Star Wars trilogy generated three key pieces of art, including the infamously recalled Revenge of the Jedi (the film’s original title) poster by Drew Struzan, and a one-sheet by Tim Reamer featuring a blue lightsaber valiantly thrust skyward, harking back to Jung’s poster from the first film.
However, foreign markets showed a clear preference for a third poster by Tokyo-born Kazuhiko Sano. Following the pattern set by Chantrell and Kastel, Sano collected the film’s heroes and villains in a single design.
But while many regions happily used the works designed by Sano, Jung and Kastel, just as many developed distinct designs of their own, oftentimes reimagining Star Wars through unique cultural lenses.
Italy’s first poster for Guerre stellari feels like it could have been lifted from the pages of a comic book. Though artist Michelangelo Papuzza’s straightforward style and simple colours can initially feel a little jarring to those of us familiar with the more realistic illustrations favoured by the North American posters, it’s just as true to the spirit of the film. It’s also more in line with the way the film was talked about in contemporary reviews, where it was regarded less as a science-fiction epic than as a live-action comic strip. (Admittedly, in the case of the critics this was intended as a disparaging comparison.)
Italy is also responsible for perhaps the least heroic photo of Luke Skywalker ever to grace a poster, on the first of two 1978 photobustas (also note the gender-coded colourization of Leia and Luke's decidedly white space garb).
Japan produced a number of extraordinary alternate Star Wars posters, such as this riff on the Jung/Hildebrandt posters (above), and (below) this trio of advance posters (an advance poster typically announces the film with a simple title graphic, as it’s typical that few other visuals are available at the time).
From left: *Star Wars* Japanese B1 advance poster (1978), 20th Century Fox, 28.5" x 40"; *The Empire Strikes Back* Japanese B1 advance poster (1980), 20th Century Fox, 28.5" x 40"; *Revenge of the Jedi* Japanese B1 advance poster (1980), 20th Century Fox, 28.5" x 40" (Heritage Auctions)
One of Japan’s biggest contributions to Star Wars was artist Noriyoshi Ohrai. Though he would go on to become a prolific illustrator for various Star Wars properties and products, in 1980 Ohrai was toiling in obscurity illustrating newspaper advertisements. When a piece of his Star Wars fan art caught the attention of George Lucas, Ohrai was commissioned to create this fan-favourite international poster for The Empire Strikes Back.
Though France utilized the Jung artwork for the first two installments of La guerre des étoiles, for the trilogy’s finale they were among a handful of nations to use artwork by Parisian painter Michel Jouin. Like Ohrai, Jouin was approached in the lead-up to Return of the Jedi to develop that film’s international art, but unlike his Japanese counterpart his concept wasn’t used very much outside of his own country. Nevertheless, Jouin’s work is noteworthy for how colourful it is compared to the bleak palettes of most of the Jedi posters.
Like their neighbours across the Channel, the British also generated a unique poster for Return of the Jedi.
West Germany deserves special attention for a few Krieg der Sterne curiosities, including a pull-quote-laden variant from a 1985 Star Wars re-release, and an Empire Strikes Back poster featuring Yoda at his most Muppet-like. (The latter is one of the rare posters of the era to feature the Jedi Master, as the character’s appearance in the film was intended to be a surprise.)
Though they’re a good deal more eccentric than many of the studio-influenced posters above, when placed in the grand tradition of out-there Polish movie artwork, these Gwiezdne wojny posters are fairly conservative.
For the first film, artist Wojciech Siudmak turned out this garish beauty that seems to offer an alternate-universe Star Wars starring a gaunt Andy Gibb. Siudmak had produced artwork for the Polish release of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novel Dune, but his fanciful style here is somewhat at odds with the lived-in feel that differentiated Star Wars from its slick, ultra-futurist contemporaries.
A second poster designed by Jakub Erol (below left) feels more appropriately rundown, but is slightly disappointing given the artist’s legendarily bizarro, alien takes on films that were distinctly more Earth-set. (To be fair, both this and his later Empire Strikes Back poster to the right pre-date his best-known work.)
A second Empire poster by Miroslaw Lakomski appeared one year after Erol's, and like the German poster above it sports a rare appearance from Yoda.
Witold Dybowski closed out the trilogy with this pair of posters featuring the film’s heroes (including an especially Klaus Kinski-like Luke) and the exploding head of Darth Vader.
The rarest of the Polish posters comes from the northwestern province of West Pomeranian Voivodeship, where artist Marcin Chudzik was brought in to help speedily (and cheaply) promote the local release of Gwiezdne wojny (which explains the black-and-white artwork).
When it comes to oddball Star Wars posters, the crème de la crème is this surrealist trio by Hungarian painted Tibor Helényi. According to Helényi, he was given an opportunity to view the films, but had no ongoing visual references and tried to capture the atmosphere of the series using his memories. The Dark Side evidently exerted its power over the artist, as each of the three posters centres on a samurai-esque Darth Vader and other villains from each respective film.
Less seen than Helényi’s triptych is this slightly more representative Csillagok háborúja two-sheet from Helényi’s close friend Andras Felvideki.
The (Soviet) Republic
Though bootleg versions had circulated in the USSR since the mid-1980s, the Star Wars trilogy wasn’t released in the USSR until the summer of 1990, at a time when the films were probably at their lowest point of popularity in the West. It was one of the first major pieces of Western pop culture to officially premiere in the Soviet Union, and for the premiere four official posters were unveiled, created by Alexander Chantsev, Igor Majstrovsky, Yuri Boksyo, and Alexander Kulov. Kulov’s three-sheet literalizes the idea of Star Wars being a space western with its collage of technological images shaped to look like a laser-firing cowboy on a horse. (The poster even adds a subtitle to the film, to make the full title read Star Wars: A Galactic Western).
BONUS! Fast Food Nation
A key element of Charles Lippincott’s merchandising master plan was partnerships with Burger King and Burger Chef (a BK competitor that closed its doors in 1982). While each chain offered a variety of promotions to Star Wars fans, a particularly memorable add-on was a set of four posters available exclusively at Burger Chef. Painted by artist Del Nichols, the complete set featured all of the first film’s heroes and villains, many of whom turned out for the commercial shoot.
Perhaps compensating for losing Frank Frazetta on the campaign for the first film, for The Empire Strikes Back's Burger King/Burger Chef promotion Lippincott brought in an equally legendary fantasy-art icon: Boris Vallejo, best-known for his countless covers for Conan books and comics, the posters for Roger Vadim’s Barbarella and the National Lampoon Vacation series, and, perhaps most importantly, party rocker Andrew W.K.’s upcoming album. Evidently, by the time of the Empire promotion, times were a little lean at Burger Chef: the poster set was slimmed down to three, and fans now had to buy a medium drink and a burger.
Sadly, by the time of Return of the Jedi Burger Chef had already flipped its last “Big Shef,” and fans had to wait until 1999 before they could once again do their Star Wars poster shopping at a fast-food chain.