t was a while before I finally realised that whatever happens I’m never going to get out. I’m always going to be George ‘Star Wars’ Lucas, no matter how hard I try to be something else” says the 70-year-old director. In this interview last year with TV host Charlie Rose – which attracted undue controversy due to Lucas’s flippant remark comparing Disney to “white slavers” – we see a candid Lucas looking back on a career filled with regret and missed opportunities. “I fell into popular movies by accident”, he admits.
Star Wars is a franchise that changed the film industry and popular culture forever. It’s difficult to overstate the mammoth impact of Lucas’s epic space opera saga, but this was not always his intention. In fact, if we look at the pre-Star Wars Lucas, it’s almost surprising that his career took this path. While the likes of Star Wars and Indiana Jones are the epitome of the blockbuster, Lucas’s career was forged by railing against the mainstream.
In 1969, moving to San Francisco to escape the oppressive grip of the Hollywood studio system, Lucas co-founded the film company American Zoetrope with fellow filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola. “I was very anti-corporation, and I was here in San Francisco, where anti-authority is even more extreme”, Lucas reflected. The 1960s saw a shift away from the classical Hollywood approach to filmmaking, with its soundstages, formulaic plots and big stars.
American Zoetrope served a new generation of filmmakers that were inspired by films like Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969), which demonstrated that a film could challenge mainstream culture, both thematically and by making money while operating outside the studio system.
|Dennis Hopper gives the finger to authority in Easy Rider.|
American Zoetrope would produce THX 1138 (1971), Lucas’s feature film directorial debut. Despite its robots and science fiction setting, the dystopian world of THX is a far cry from the colourful fantasy of Star Wars. THX 1138 envisions a future where bald-headed citizens shuffle through a concrete, subterranean nightmare world – their emotions chemically supressed to the point where love has become a revolutionary act. It serves as a bleak warning against mindless capitalism and organised religion. It’s hard to believe that a such a dark film – which even features an automated masturbatory machine – came from the same man who brought us Star Wars.
|George Lucas directs a robot Police Officer in THX 1138|
It goes without saying that there’s nothing blockbuster about THX 1138. Based on a short film Lucas made while he attended the University of Southern California’s School of Cinema – the snappily titled Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB – it’s experimental and bizarre, and one gets the impression that this approach to filmmaking is where Lucas’s heart truly lies.
|"Let us be thankful we have commerce. Buy more. Buy more now. Buy. And be happy" chants OMM 0910, the manufactured Christ figure in THX 1138.|
Looking back, THX can be viewed as a rejection of not just consumerism, but the money-driven, fickle nature of the Hollywood machine. “I always disliked Hollywood theatrical movies. I don’t want to have anything to do with them” Lucas admits pensively, and while he has enjoyed a tremendously successful career, he clearly views that success as having a cost – a compromise of his most deeply held beliefs:
“In the world we live in, and the system we’ve created for ourselves, in terms of, it’s a big industry, you cannot lose money. The point is that you’re forced to make a particular kind of movie.”
Obviously, THX 1138 was not a box office hit, nor was it intended to be. “They would’ve never let me make that movie if they knew what I was doing” the veteran director reflects. The young George Lucas was interested in making art for art’s sake – even if this attitude contributed to the eventual bankruptcy of American Zoetrope.
After THX, Lucas unwittingly created a smash hit with his 1972 film American Graffiti. The result of producer Ford Coppola daring Lucas to make a film that would appeal to mainstream audiences, Graffiti’s neon glowing portrayal of ‘60’s hot rod racing and rock and roll culture captivated audiences, and it is now considered an archetypal teen movie. It received five Academy Award nominations, including best picture.
The fun, coming-of-age comedy may seem like a radical departure from his first film, but the independent spirit that was foundational to American Zoetrope remained intact. American Graffiti was Lucas’s attempt to cling to the vestiges of his youth – to document a culture that was soon to be annihilated by radical societal change. The outbreak of the Vietnam War and John F. Kennedy’s assassination loom over the film – It concludes with a series of rather morbid title cards, disclosing the fate of the principle characters, one of which is revealed to have disappeared in Vietnam.
|Lucas on the set of American Graffiti.|
Lucas belonged to a clique of radical filmmakers producing works which challenged the establishment. American Zoetrope produced Ford Coppola’s surveillance thriller The Conversation and his brutal depiction of the Vietnam war, Apocalypse Now. Avant-garde giants such as Jean-Luc Godard and Akira Kurosawa joined their ranks, establishing the studio as pioneers of independent cinema. Lucas – who grew up in the 1960s – was a member of a generational cohort defined by its scepticism of authority.
|Members of American Zoetrope at their offices in San Francisco.|
Star Wars can be seen as the demise of George Lucas the independent filmmaker. Indeed, the subsequent franchise would inescapably tie Lucas to the populist studio system which he despised. But the counterculture spirit which drove THX 1138 and American Graffiti was integral to the conception of the original film. Star Wars was born out of a mixture of back-to-basics mythology and the Saturday matinee serials of Lucas’s youth. Drawing inspiration from Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958), Lucas would begin by exploring a galaxy through the eyes of the lowliest of characters (C-3PO and R2-D2). Interestingly, the success of J.J. Abrams’s The Force Awakens (2015) owes much to a return to this approach.
|A return to The Hidden Fortress: Desert scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) in The Force Awakens.|
The revolution sparked by Star Wars was both a blessing and a curse. While there was much more to Star Wars than its special effects, Lucas’s mantle as a technological innovator would eclipse his narrative imagination. He claims that the impact of Star Wars fostered an attitude of risk-free filmmaking – endless “horrible” space ship films, sequels and reboots. He claims the post-Star Wars film industry started to show “an enormous lack of imagination and fear of creativity”. Lucas would eventually fall prey to this trend himself, allowing story to take a backseat in his notoriously lacklustre, effects-driven prequel trilogy.
Now that the franchise is so firmly embedded in our culture, it’s easy to lose sight of just how odd the original Star Wars was. It’s quasi-science-fiction fusion of mythological fantasy and Buck Rogers swashbuckling made it every bit as experimental as THX 1138. In 1977, Star Wars transformed Lucas from a young filmmaker merely aspiring to create arthouse movies and cinéma-vérité documentaries, to the highest-grossing Hollywood director of all time.
After selling Star Wars to the Disney for $4.05 billion in 2012, Lucas showed that he never forgot his roots, vowing to donate the majority of the proceeds to charity, and expressing a wish to return to experimental filmmaking.
While we should be thankful for Star Wars, perhaps we should also mourn the George Lucas films that never were.