Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The "Star Wars" Premiere, Spaso House, 1977

Most recently, the Russian Ministry of Culture designated "Star Wars" as a classic film recommended to Russian viewers .  At the initial showing of "Star Wars" at Spaso House in 1977, however, this was definitely not the prevailing attitude of Soviet officials invited to view the film.  Glad to see that times have changed, at least in this small respect.

The Star Wars Premiere.

In mid-1977, our PAO Ray Benson received an offer from Jack Valenti, who at the time ran the MPAA, to show a great new first-run movie at Spaso House: "Star Wars."  Neither Ray nor Ambassador Toon were fans of Science Fiction, but they took Valenti's recommendation, and a few weeks later, the movie arrived in Moscow.  In those days, it was very difficult to get Soviet officials to come to Spaso House, but a first-run movie was a sure draw, and so on movie night quite a few members of the Soviet Government, including relatively high-ranking officials in the MFA such as USA Desk Director Komplektov and Deputy Foreign Minister Korniyenko, were in the Spaso Ballroom awaiting Moscow's first view of the George Lucas hit.  The movie played without intermission, and I was enthralled.  I thought it was great!  Looking around me, however, I noted growing looks of disapproval appearing on Soviet faces, and looks of horror on the faces of Ambassador Toon, and, especially of course, poor Ray Benson.  The problem was not with the production values of the film, which were good for the time, or with the plotline, which was intentionally scripted like a comic book.  The problem was with the villains of the piece.  It seemed like all the bad guys, who eventually wound up getting blown away by their own wonder weapon, wore costumes alarmingly similar to Soviet Army Commissars, or Nazis, or a combination of both.  It was clear to the Soviets in the audience (no doubt suffering from a guilty conscience) who the bad guys were meant to be.  Ambassador Toon apologized for the "quality" of the film, saying he had no knowledge of its content before it was shown, but the Soviets were not mollified, and many walked out.  I wonder if this was where the Soviets originally developed their visceral animus towards Reagan's "Star Wars" policy (knowing them, I'm sure they would have hated it anyway).  The one hopeful sign was that the younger Soviet diplomats in the crowd, and of course our human rights contacts, just loved the film.  Be that as it may, it was a long time before Ambassador Toon had another "movie night" at Spaso House.

1 comment:

  1. James, As part of the history of U.S. cultural diplomacy, your entry is (in my modest opinion) an important contribution to our understanding of Soviet-U.S. relations (if not of Russian-U.S. relations). May I post your entry on my blog "Notes and Essays"?

    P.S. May I suggest, in addition to your perceptive comments, that Lucas's film -- essentially an "entertaining" comic book on the screen as you suggest -- was overly "mechanical," lacking the often tragic elements of the human condition that characterizes much of Russian "high" culture? Perhaps the Russians at Spaso (granted, many of them perhaps not overly cultivated apparatchiki) were culturally offended by being shown such a superficial (but granted slick) Hollywood production that did not deal in depth with the "vechniye voprosy." In other words, Russian guests at Spaso may have resented that they were being subjugated to a film for children, not adults.

    P.P.S. Interesting that the Lucas film has now become "acceptable" by the Russian Ministry of Culture. Much food for thought in this.