I was seven years old when I saw the first Star Wars movie and discovered that I wanted a lightsaber, the quintessential high-tech phallic symbol and power object of my generation. Later, when I was the quintessential slacker, I would study the lightsaber in great detail — getting to know the particulars of each prop hilt used in the films and the differences between them before I finally got around to channeling my geek creativity into writing books and indoctrinating my son into the galactic mythology of his people. I even collected a few replica lightsaber props along the way and eventually my interest in sword-like objects led me to study Iaido, the Japanese martial art of the samurai sword (cultural prototype of the Jedi weapon). Today my favorite lightsaber shares a stand with my katanas on the bookshelf beside my writing desk, collecting dust.
But now that I’ve seen the second teaser trailer for The Force Awakens, my interest in Star Wars has reawakened, and I’m giddy to see that they seem to have got the details right this time out.
There was a minor uproar after the first teaser trailer went online (bitch all you want about the so-called “cross-guard” saber in the hands of that villain—I personally think it represents a crude attempt to reclaim a lost craft with the side emissions serving as vents to balance an unrefined energy level) but the new trailer should give fans new hope for the film, and once again it’s a lightsaber sending the signal.
The original iconic prop from 1977 was an antique Graflex camera flash with the bulb and reflector removed and some rubber grips glued to the handle. The prop makers attached vintage calculator display bubbles to the clamp to resemble an exotic power switch and a belt-clip ring on the bottom. A quirky, yet elegant piece of gear that felt (like all Star Wars artifacts at the time) endowed with complexity, history, and functionality.
When the weapon reprised in The Empire Strikes Back, it had undergone a few changes: the calculator bubbles had been replaced with a circuit board and the grips were now studded with rivets, but it was still a 3-cell Graflex flashgun and for the fans who noticed the differences at all, it was easy to imagine that Luke had made a few upgrades or repairs.
Fans catalogued the variations, and for many years antique camera buffs hated us for driving up the auction prices on what should have been relatively affordable accessories. But hey, if Luke’s lightsaber wasn’t our holy grail, it was our Excalibur.
On screen, the saber was lost when Vader cut Luke’s hand off, and we didn’t see it again until it was shiny and new and hanging from Anakin’s belt in Revenge of the Sith.
Things got ugly for lightsaber geeks in the prequels. Now the hilts had big red buttons, as if a Jedi couldn’t find his dick without a neon sign. And George Lucas threw all regard for continuity out the window. I can point to at least two scenes in two films in which editing results in a character inexplicably holding the wrong lightsaber. But worst of all, the weapon that would pass from Anakin to Luke via Obi-wan, the object that should have been the key symbol uniting the two trilogies, was not a prop from the Lucasfilm archive but a new chrome and gold plated, machined hunk of metal in the shape of a Graflex with details suggestive of the hilt that Obi-wan hands Luke in A New Hope.
Plenty of filmmakers can let details slide, safe in the knowledge that the audience won’t notice, but Lucas let this stuff slide knowing that millions of toys were going to replicate the details and put them in people’s hands!
Now we see that saber again in the second Episode VII trailer and learn that it will once again be a symbol uniting the trilogies. As it should be, because it is the Excalibur of the Star Wars mythology. And, while we only get a glimpse in low light, it sure looks like they’re using a Graflex handle with rivets in the grips, just like the one Luke lost with his hand at Cloud City.
To me, that’s a signal that the filmmakers are geeks who grew up with a passion for the story and that they care about getting the details right. It also indicates that we are to some degree returning to the aesthetics of The Empire Strikes Back, the crowning achievement of the series. To quote Han Solo, “Chewie, we’re home.”