That ru­mor about a Post critic be­ing fired over a re­view? Just a Jedi mind trick.

The Washington Post Sunday - - COMMUTER - John Kelly's Wash­ing­ton Send your ques­tions about the Wash­ing­ton area to an­swer­man@wash­post.com. Twit­ter: @johnkelly For pre­vi­ous col­umns, visit wash­ing­ton­post.com/johnkelly.

With the con­tin­ued re­vival of the “Star Wars” movies, I’m won­der­ing if a par­tic­u­lar “fact” I heard is true. Was a Wash­ing­ton Post film critic fired af­ter pan­ning the first “Star Wars” movie? — Tom Martin, Dum­fries, Va. “That’s the first time I’ve heard that par­tic­u­lar whop­per,” said Gary Arnold, who re­viewed movies for The Post from 1969 to 1984. “No, it’s pretty clear from the out­set that that was a movie I was crazy about.”

In­deed. When “Star Wars” pre­miered in May 1977, Arnold gave it a rave, call­ing it a “de­light­ful sci­ence-fic­tion ad­ven­ture fan­tasy” and “a new clas­sic in a rous­ing movie tra­di­tion: a space swash­buck­ler.” He wrote: “The movie’s ir­re­sistible stylis­tic charm de­rives from the fact that [Ge­orge] Lu­cas can draw upon a va­ri­ety of ac­tion-movie sources with un­fail­ing deft­ness and hu­mor. He is in su­perla­tive com­mand of his own movie-nur­tured fan­tasy life.”

Arnold was quite pre­scient when it came to how “Star Wars” would be re­mem­bered, pre­dict­ing that the film was “vir­tu­ally cer­tain of over­whelm­ing pop­u­lar and crit­i­cal suc­cess. It has a real shot at ap­proach­ing the phe­nom­e­nal pop­u­lar­ity of ‘Jaws.’ ”

Although Arnold never heard the ru­mor that his “Star Wars” re­view cost him his job, he has heard an­other ur­ban myth: that a top Post ed­i­tor or­dered his dis­missal af­ter his neg­a­tive re­view of Robert Du­vall’s “Ten­der Mer­cies.”

That’s not true, ei­ther. Well, it is true that Arnold didn’t like 1983’s “Ten­der Mer­cies.” Du­vall played a glum coun­try-western singer by the name of Mac Sledge — “more like Mac Sludge,” Gary wrote.

Du­vall went on to win a best ac­tor Os­car for “Ten­der Mer­cies,” but Arnold pre­ferred the per­for­mance of co-star Betty Buck­ley, who, he wrote, “keeps threat­en­ing to sup­ply this in­cor­ri­gi­bly slug­gish, an­ti­cli­mac­tic sce­nario with a re­li­able and elec­tri­fy­ing en­ergy source.”

Arnold can’t re­mem­ber when he first heard the ru­mor that his tough take on “Ten­der Mer­cies” had got­ten him canned, sup­pos­edly for ir­ri­tat­ing ex­ec­u­tive ed­i­tor Ben Bradlee, who — in the apoc­ryphal tale — loved the movie. But it’s not true. And Arnold doesn’t think it had any in­ter­nal logic, any­way.

“It never seemed to me a good fit with Bradlee, who cul­ti­vated a steely and tough-minded sort of per­son­al­ity,” he said. “I don’t know how it would flat­ter him par­tic­u­larly to say he was a softy for any par­tic­u­larly sen­ti­men­tal movie.”

Arnold was let go by the pa­per not for a neg­a­tive re­view, but in one of those “we’re go­ing in an­other di­rec­tion” moves. He stopped re­view­ing movies, then wrote book re­views and ad­vance obituaries for a year be­fore leav­ing The Post and mov­ing to the Wash­ing­ton Times. He is re­tired and lives in Ar­ling­ton.

The “Ten­der Mer­cies” ru­mor cropped up again in 2014 in an on­line com­ment that for­mer Post TV critic Tom Shales left on a blog post by Jack Lim­pert, for­mer ed­i­tor of Wash­ing­to­nian mag­a­zine. Iron­i­cally, Lim­pert’s blog was about a critic who had been fired — or de­cided to re­sign — but over a pos­i­tive re­view, not a neg­a­tive one.

In 1991, Wash­ing­to­nian’s Pat Dowell turned in a brief re­view laud­ing Oliver Stone’s “JFK” as “a bril­liantly crafted in­dict­ment of his­tory as an of­fi­cial story.”

Lim­pert dis­agreed, telling the Associated Press — af­ter he’d shown Dowell the door (or she’d found it on her own) — that he con­sid­ered the film “the dumb­est movie about Wash­ing­ton ever made.”

An­swer Man asked Arnold whether crit­ics ever write with their boss’s tastes in mind. “You couldn’t re­ally do it,” he said. It would un­der­mine the whole no­tion of a critic, who, af­ter all, is paid to have an opin­ion.

“You are in a priv­i­leged po­si­tion in that your opin­ions have a pub­lic fo­rum and they get out and about,” he said. “I think al­most all the peo­ple I’ve ever known who have been crit­ics never thought there was any rea­son not to ex­press them­selves as force­fully and amus­ingly as they could.”

Still, it can get a bit awk­ward when re­view­ing a film con­nected to a friend or col­league. Arnold re­mem­bers that around the spring of 1976 he de­tected anx­i­ety over what he might write about a cer­tain highly an­tic­i­pated up­com­ing film.

“I wrote a mixed re­view, which was quite ju­di­cious in ev­ery re­spect,” he said. “It’s not a movie I was crazy about. It was well made and had good se­quences and stuff in it. I think there were cer­tainly pa­pers that went for it more than I did . . . . No­body from man­age­ment said any­thing about what line should be taken. I never had the feel­ing it had to be treated more ten­derly than any other ma­jor re­lease.”

That movie that left Arnold feel­ing a bit meh? It was “All the Pres­i­dent’s Men.”

GE­ORGE BRICH/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Ac­tors on the set of the “Star Wars Hol­i­day Spe­cial.” A for­mer Post film critic says he was not fired for pan­ning the orig­i­nal film.

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