Revisiting “Hardware Wars”: “May The Farce Be With You”!

By on November 12, 2015

We thought since the new Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens film is just about all we’re hearing about on the interwebs lately, becoming watercooler-ish fodder for web chatrooms, film geek forums and what-not, that we’d take a fond look back at one of our favorite low-budget Star Wars parodies, the short film Hardware Wars, written and directed by a 22-year old San Francisco-based filmmaker named Ernie Fosselius.

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Let’s imagine… a long time ago — it’s 1977 — in a galaxy far, far, far away — actually, let’s imagine an abandoned French laundry in San Francisco, and other locations in and around San Francisco — and you will have imagined the locale where Hardware Wars came to life.

Fosselius had made a few short subject satirical films before, including one called The Hindenberger, which depicted a flying Big Mac bursting into flames over a cardboard New Jersey while Fosselius (voicing the radio announcer) cries out “the humanity of it all!,” but he really stepped it up for this one.

Actually, for Hardware Wars, it was producer Michael Wiese, a documentary filmmaker and author, who stepped forward to help Fosselius secure a budget of $8000, from the film’s costumer designer Laurel Polanick, which enabled Fosselius to make his film shortly after Star Wars was itself released to theatres (and still breaking box-office records).

Fosselius had a uncanny knack for knowing that George Lucas’s film was going to be ripe for parody, and he skipped all the in-between steps that usually happen once a film enters the popular zeitgeist; his film ignored both the primitive and classical stages, and moved directly past the revisionist stage — which scrutinizes and reevaluates, often in critical way, the conventions that typify the genre — and went straight directly to parody.

The funny thing is, very few of his actors picked up on the fact that Star Wars was going to be one of the 70s top films, and they agreed to appear in these ridiculous costumes for this mock trailer without really even understanding the movie they were parodying.

Cindy Freeling, who played Princess Anne-Droid with cinnamon rolls attached to her head, told a writer from Salon: “I was in an altered state when I saw ‘Star Wars’ for the first time… It was the ’70s, you know. When I went back and saw ‘Star Wars Special Edition,’ it dawned on me why we had all of this stuff in ‘Hardware Wars.‘”

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Scott Matthews, who played Fluke while donning a lopsided blonde wig, never acted again after this short film, saying, “I’m goin’ out on top, baby!” Today he is a platinum-selling record producer who has produced artists as varied as Elvis Costello, Roy Orbison, Rosanne Cash, Jerry Garcia, Huey Lewis, John Hiatt, Nick Lowe, Dick Dale, Sammy Hagar, Van Dyke Parks and many more, and written songs and/or recorded with …Barbra Streisand to John Lee Hooker, including Keith Richards, George Harrison, Mick Jagger, The Beach Boys, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Bonnie Raitt, David Bowie, Steve Perry, Johnny Cash, Todd Rundgren, Robert Cray, Ry Cooder, The Tubes, Sammy Hagar, Jefferson Starship and Raphael Saadiq.

Despite this impressive résumé, Matthews never forgot his role in Hardware Wars and he has even worked with an Oakland-based indie band named for the character he portrayed.

As most people remember from seeing the film the first time, Fosselius had the wonderfully cheeky idea to poke fun at the technological aspects of the Star Wars fantasy world by having, for his film’s spaceships, regular old household items like steam irons, egg beaters, toasters and cassette recorders.

One of our favorite scenes, however, is the parody of the original cantina sequence; only, in Hardware Wars, the freaks in the bar look like the typical freaks you might have seen at any Mission District watering hole. Genius.

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Lucas’s characters were parodied in both name and appearance too, years before Mel Brooks did the same with his 1987 film Spaceballs.

For instance, the dark lord Darph Nader, wore a welding helmet that distorted his voice so much that no one could understand anything he said. Fluke Starbucker’s lightsabre, meanwhile, was an ordinary flashlight.

Chewbacca the Wookiee was replaced by Chewchilla the Wookiee Monster, and appeared to be an obvious Cookie Monster puppet, dyed brown.

Hans Solo makes an appearance too, as Ham Salad, while other Star Wars characters get their own representation. Let’s see, there’s also Augie Ben Doggie and Fluke’s pals, the robotic drones, 4-Q-2 (a C-3PO-ish ‘bot who more closely resembles the Tin Woodman from The Wizard of Oz), and Arty Decko (the R2-D2-ish ‘bot, which is actually an antique canister vacuum cleaner).

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To give it an even more professional feel, Fosselius even secured the “coming attractions”-style narration from veteran Hollywood voiceover artist Paul Frees, known as the “Man of a Thousand Voices,” who had provided the deep resonating voiceovers for the original Star Wars trailers in addition to dozens of trailers for other films, and had been voicing cartoon characters by then too, including Boris Badenov from The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, and various other Jay Ward Productions.

Frees is probably best known from the Haunted Mansion attraction at Disneyland, but honestly, his credits are so impressive and vast it would be virtually impossible to list them all here. Wiese later remarked about Frees: “His voice is so rich that you actually think you are seeing ‘incredible space battles’ when in fact it’s only a Fourth of July sparkler.”

Despite getting the blessing of Star Wars visionary George Lucas — said in a 1999 interview on the UK’s The Big Breakfast television show that Hardware Wars was his favorite Star Wars parody, and he’s also called it a “cute little film” — producer Wiese got a different reaction from a group of 20th Century Fox executives when he showed them the short film, which is only thirteen-minutes long.

They were apparently baffled by Fosselius’s idea to have Hardware Wars screened with Star Wars. They told him they’d get back to him about that, and he’s apparently still waiting to hear from them (maybe they didn’t appreciate that the the intro splash touts a studio named “20th Century FOSS”).

Lucas, meanwhile, invited Fosselius to voice the inconsolable sobs of Jabba the Hutt’s animal trainer Malakili (the Rancor Keeper) and Giran (who consoles Malakili after the Rancor’s death), as well as arranged the music for the Sy Snootles musical number “Lapti Nek,” for his Return of the Jedi movie, in 1983.

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Hardware Wars took two weeks to shoot, on borrowed 16mm film cameras, in and around San Francisco, but mostly in a garage; the desert sequences were lensed at a beach in the Marin Headlands. It took about 4-5 weeks of post-production, using a little optical printer, and finally made its own premiere in theaters only seven months after Star Wars.

However, the film was not an immediate success, despite what you may have read. When it was first screened at the American Film Institute, the audience didn’t laugh once.

Fosselius, cinematographer John V. Fante, and other involved with the film, dejected, went to a local restaurant afterwards, Teddy’s on Clement Street in the Richmond District of San Francisco, and they were talking about their film’s disastrous showing when a waiter said to them, “Well it would be great if you could show it here.”

As it happened, Fante had the projector in the trunk of his car, which they set up in the restaurant. They dimmed the lights, and showed the film to about forty or fifty unsuspecting diners who absolutely loved it. They cheered all the way through it, and at the end they gave us a round of applause (Fante, by the way, later went on to shoot the visual FX for The Right Stuff and Star Trek IV).

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They screened Hardware Wars at parties and film festivals, pretty much anywhere there was a 16mm projector, and soon word-of-mouth spread, and then Wiese hooked them up with Pyramid Films, a distributor based out of Santa Monica, who got the movie screened everywhere else: hospitals, schools, on military bases, everywhere.

By the end of 1978, Hardware Wars had been screened theatrically, up there on the same big screens where Star Wars had been screened, and it ended up grossing $500,000 in rentals and box office receipts, and it won over 15 first-place film festival awards, including the award for Most Popular Short Film at the Chicago Film Festival.

It has since grossed over $1 million, making it one of the most successful shorts of all time. Pretty great for a movie that ran with the tagline: “You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll kiss three bucks goodbye. Get in line now.”

The popularity of Hardware Wars brought more parody films to the fore, including a Close Encounters Of The Third King parody called “Closet Cases of the Nerd Kind,” another Pyramid Films success story, and Fosselius himself also made another parody film, writing and directing a send-up of Apocalypse Now titled Porklips Now, which lampoons the making-of documentary Hearts of Darkness, Coppola’s longer Apocalypse Now Redux, and DVD commentary tracks, all before any of those things actually existed.

Warner Home video included the film in its video Hardware Wars, and Other Film Farces (which also includes to Close Encounters parody and Bambi Meets Godzilla).

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Fosselius didn’t revisit his Hardware Wars parody again until he realized there might be a brand new audience for his film when Lucas began, in 1997, touting the imminent release the new Star Wars prequels with the release of a Special Edition of Star Wars.

Fosselius worked on adding new elements to his film, including Home Depot bric-a-brac being digitized into each frame, always careful to keep the same overall 1977 vibe intact despite the fact that people working at the post-production houses were a little bewildered when he told them he wanted to keep the wires in the space scenes visible.

In 2002, Hardware Wars was released on DVD, with a commentary track and other special features.

The next year, it was honored by Lucasfilm when it was given the Pioneer Award at that year’s Official Star Wars Fan Film Awards, and in 2007, it was given a 30th Anniversary re-release on DVD again.

In August 2010, Time magazine listed it as one of the Top 10 Star Wars fan films, a sub-genre which Hardware Wars had pretty much launched without even trying.


Hardware Wars outtakes!

More recently, Star Wars fans — with the advent of Youtube and digital filmmaking technology — have been improving on the quality of the parodies, like this one, called Troops, which mashes up Star Wars with the reality TV series Cops.

But for our money, nothing beats the original: Love live Hardware Wars, and may the farce be with you!

Meanwhile, if you’re hankerin’ for a hunk of the new Star Wars franchise cheese, Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens will be premiered in L.A. about a month from now, on December 14th, and then released in 2D, 3D, and IMAX 3D to theaters on December 18, 2015.

It will be followed by Rogue One: A Star Wars Story on December 16th, 2016, Star Wars: Episode VIII on May 26th, 2017, and the still untitled Han Solo Star Wars Anthology film on May 25th, 2018. Star Wars: Episode IX is expected to reach theaters in 2019, followed by the third Star Wars Anthology film in 2020.

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(h/t to Bob Calhoun’s 2002 Salon article, Wikipedia and other sources)

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.