Books Star Wars

Book Review: Secrets of the Force

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The first movie I ever saw in a theater was Star Wars, at some point during its original, nearly year-long run (in some places, even longer). My parents took me for what might have been my fifth but what was more likely my sixth birthday, and I’ve been a fan ever since. Though my attention to the franchise has waxed and waned over the decades, mostly in concert with the franchise’s cultural footprint at any given moment, I’ve always paid attention to information about it.

So I wondered, when I picked up Secrets of the Force: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Wars at my local library, how much new information I might really glean from it.

Quite a bit, it turns out. Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman have pulled together a remarkably cohesive, compact, and compelling history of the making and impact of the nine movies in the Skywalker Saga. (Rogue One and Solo receive only cursory mention, but the book does devote modest space, in its last chapter, to the franchise’s various TV projects.) I wish I’d kept track of the number of times I read some nugget of information I’d never known before.

For example, I never knew…

  • George Lucas’ early drafts of The Star Wars featured a Leia with “goddess-like” powers (page 69). 
  • The theme John Williams used for Lex Luthor in Superman (1978), he’d originally composed for the Jawas (page 138). (Now I’ll never watch that sequence without hearing that music—will you?). 
  • Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher got themselves smuggled into movie theaters to watch the trailer for the first film (page 149).
  • Lando Calrissian was, at one point, intended to have been a clone from the Clone Wars (page 177).
  • Novelist Timothy Zahn found inspiration for a fan-favorite “Expanded Universe” villain in a classic Star Trek episode (page 282).
  • Revenge of the Sith has, per Jonathan Rinzler, “more miniature shots than all the original trilogy put together” (page 417).

While there are few if any major revelations in the book, it added a lot of texture and details to my appreciation for the Star Wars phenomenon.

Secrets of the Force is strongest, though, not in its discussion of these details, but when it’s putting the Star Wars movies in larger contexts, whether cinematic, cultural, economic, or socio-political. The discussions of George Lucas and the “New Hollywood” of the 1970s is fascinating; I’m sure I couldn’t have drawn the line from Easy Rider to Star Wars on my own (pages 11-13). The chapters on ILM’s revolutionary special effects work (Chapter 3) and the, in its own way, equally revolutionary merchandising juggernaut Star Wars became (Chapter 5) are filled with case studies in clever, creative problem-solving. And the chapters about Disney’s Sequel Trilogy are depressingly thorough critiques of the corporate, “strip-mining” mindset we see, for worse though sometimes for better, making its mark on other entertainment properties.

Secrets of the Force includes quotes, and usually quite lengthy ones, from dozens of different actors, writers, producers, craftspeople, designers, and others involved with Star Wars, onscreen and off. I found the contributions by writer and film historian Ray Morton the most consistently interesting. He is able not only to bullseye each of these movies’ strengths and weaknesses as if they were womp rats in Beggar’s Canyon, but also to lay bare the mythic underpinnings of the Skywalker Saga in ways that make them fresh and exciting again.

As did The Fifty-Year Mission, Gross and Altman’s two-volume oral history of Star Trek from 2016, Secrets of the Force lacks footnotes or an index. Ditching such scholarly apparatus no doubt saves space—the book’s already more than 500 pages long—but it does make the book less useful as a ready reference. 

Still, if you’ve been a Star Wars fan for any length of time, you’ll probably enjoy Secrets of the Force. It won’t radically change your broad understanding of Star Wars’ history, but it will bring that history to life vividly, through the words of so many of the people who actually lived it.

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