b. 14 May, 1944, Modesto, California, USA
The place to start with George Lucas, director, is at the beginning. Aged 23, the then-USC film student won a scholarship from Columbia to hang out on the set of MacKenna’s Gold in Arizona and make a short documentary. Produced by Carl Foreman, composer Dimitri Tiomkin, and directed by J. Lee Thompson, MacKenna’s Gold was one of the final gasps of the formulaic Hollywood western – “the workout for basic cinema,” as Foreman called it.1 “Christ what a lot of rubbish one reads,” Richard Burton diarised as he rejected Foreman’s overtures to join the film.2 By the time Lucas made it to set, MacKenna’s Gold boasted an overstuffed cast including Gregory Peck, Omar Sharif, Telly Savalas, Julie Newmar, Edward G. Robinson, and Eli Wallach. This was the old Hollywood model, valiantly holding on in the face of the new.
The young Lucas joined three other students (one other from USC, two from UCLA) to try and discover what being on a proper Hollywood set was like. In return, Foreman gave them $150 a week and all the equipment the young filmmakers needed. Lucas sensed a trap: “I thought the whole thing was a ruse to get a bunch of cheap, behind-the-scenes documentary films made, and they were doing it under the guise of a scholarship,” he said. “I wasn’t going to do some promo film to advertise the picture.”3 Indeed he did not. While the other students profiled the director or the film’s stars, Lucas went off into the desert, eventually producing the four-and-a-half minute 6-18-67, a beautiful, swift summation of the Arizonan landscape, and a film utterly indifferent to MacKenna’s Gold and its crew. 6-18-67 (literally named after the day filming was completed) is a panorama film, a portrait of its environment and the spectacle of the world. Lucas is interested in rocks, grass, animals, the hum of electricity towers, the burr of a passing car, the clanks of windmills, and time-lapse photography of clouds and an approaching storm. The crew of MacKenna’s Gold appear only after around two-and-a-half minutes, and rapidly leave again after thirty seconds: they are shot from afar by Lucas through long lenses, just another unfamiliar aspect of this landscape.
Some have described 6-18-67 as Terrence Malick-like in its observation of nature (as though Malick holds a monopoly on landscape photography), but to do so is to miss what makes it so utterly George Lucas. The landscape holds Lucas’ attention here, certainly, but it does so not because of he sees it as “something to be faced with reverence” as Malick might.4 Indeed, Lucas seems wholly undisturbed by the occasional loud passing car or the relationship between the desert and the humans who live there. This is also a quickly cut film that rarely lingers (and it could have: Lucas delivered a film around half the length Foreman asked for). Instead, 6-18-67 is a film about the spectacle of scale. Lucas is impressed by the sheer size of his environment, its magnitude, the scope at work. “Life went on before us, and life went on after us, and that’s what George’s film was all about,” later remarked Foreman.5 All the better that by focussing on the Arizonan desert, the 23-year-old Lucas was also able to dismiss the Hollywood studios working within it, the ostensible subjects of his documentary, as unworthy of his attention. “It was mind-boggling to us because we had been making films for three hundred dollars, and seeing this incredible waste – that was the worst of Hollywood,” Lucas said.6 In 6-18-67, Lucas thumbed his nose at Hollywood, at industry, and at convention. There’s style and spectacle here, perhaps even a disinterestedness in people, but also a stubbornness.
George Lucas would of course go on to change Hollywood more than most. Indeed, for many, Lucas changed Hollywood, and even filmmaking, for the worse, and made it more industrial, more wasteful, more focussed on big productions and money, all the opposite of what the young filmmaker behind 6-18-67 might have hoped for. If Stephen Rowley felt compelled to begin his Steven Spielberg ‘Great Directors’ entry here at Senses of Cinema with a “quick shot of anti-elitism,” as “a necessary prelude to a serious critical appreciation” of the director,7 then rather more is required for Spielberg’s occasional collaborator, and for many, his fellow architect of the conglomerised takeover of American filmmaking. Like Spielberg, Lucas played a major role in accelerating the shift away from the small and socially engaged films of New Hollywood towards the high-concept blockbuster era. In 1996, critic David Thompson lamented that “the medium has sunk beyond anything we dreamed of, leaving us stranded, a race of dreamers,” he wrote, “and I blame Spielberg and Lucas.”8 When Wheeler Winston Dixon gave “Twenty-Five Reasons Why It’s All Over” in 2001, at number fifteen was “the malign influence of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.”9 For Peter Biskind in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Lucas’ Star Wars was “infantilizing the audience, reconstituting the spectator as child, then overwhelming him and her with sound and spectacle, obliterating irony, aesthetic self-consciousness, and critical reflection.”10
Unlike Spielberg, however, you will find less praise – even grudging, as is sometimes the case for Spielberg – for Lucas’ mastery of the craft of filmmaking. Lucas has hardly been prolific, and is credited as director of only six feature films. Four of these are in the Star Wars franchise, and three of those four are the openly and widely maligned prequels, disliked even by many self-professed Star Wars fans and obsessives. Lucas has been nominated for more Razzies than Oscars, and unlike the Academy Awards, he’s actually been bestowed with a Golden Raspberry (Worst Screenplay, Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones in 2002).
For his own part, Lucas is himself open about his distaste for directing. “Directing is emotional frustration, anger, and tremendously hard work,” Lucas said in 1983. “Eventually, I realised that directing wasn’t healthy for me.”11 After the first Star Wars film in 1977, Lucas was so traumatised by the experience as director that he farmed out the role entirely for the sequels, first to his USC teacher and sometime mentor Irvin Kershner for The Empire Strikes Back in 1980, and then to little-known Welsh filmmaker Richard Marquand for Return of the Jedi in 1983. Lucas himself would not return to the director’s chair for more than twenty years until The Phantom Menace in 1999 – and even then not before offering the role to others, like his one-time mentee Ron Howard (“It was an honor, but it would’ve been too daunting”).12 Lucas has also, on multiple occasions, likened himself to Darth Vader in terms of his impact on the film industry. “Don’t suddenly find yourself making the same film you made thirty years ago,” Lucas warned Simon Pegg on the red carpet for the final Star Wars prequel, Revenge of the Sith in 2005.13
Yet there is nuance here, and irony, and questions of tremendous importance – all of which are totally missed with simplistic narratives that position Lucas as a bad filmmaker who sold out New Hollywood. Lucas has, for his entire career, obviously loved the moving image and the possibilities of storytelling as wholly as any of the more intellectual of his film school comrades. To return to 6-18-67 and MacKenna’s Gold, even as a young filmmaker Lucas clearly had ambition, taste, and even the beginnings of an auteur-like set of stylistic preoccupations. The same sense of scale that moved Lucas to make the big Hollywood crew he was supposed to be ingratiating himself with a tiny spec of dust in the lens of 6-18-67 would go on to motivate the storytelling and visual aesthetics at work in at least his first three feature films. Scale frames Lucas’ work: visually, narratively, and economically, and in his best work it is also joined by speed.
The stubbornness of 6-18-67 would also persist throughout Lucas’ filmmaking career. Despite being popularly seen as one of the biggest and most powerful of Hollywood’s movie moguls, Lucas has spent almost all his creative life trying to extricate himself from the studio system, preferring to live and work in Marin County, California, just north of San Francisco and a good seven hours drive from Hollywood. Perhaps ironically, given the charges laid against him by his detractors, Lucas has always seen his own filmmaking as personal and independent in spirit. It just so happens that unlike many of his film school contemporaries, his personal tastes have tallied to a startling degree with those of a global and enthusiastically paying audience. In 1999, on the eve of the Star Wars prequels, the Los Angeles Times proclaimed Lucas “the most successful independent filmmaker in history,” and quoted him as declaring that “the effect Steven [Spielberg] and I have had on the business is to help promote the independent art film.”14 If you squint, you can sort of see the business model of the semi-independent filmmakers of the 1980s and 1990s – the Spike Lees, the Coens, the Tarantinos – where films are independently produced and then distribution rights sold to big studios, as prefigured by Lucas’ insistence of making the two Star Wars sequels at his own cost. Of course, any semi-independent would have appreciated Lucas’ significant personal fortune as a financial buffer for production. But the provocation of thinking of Lucas, a king of Hollywood and CEO of an array of industry-defining companies, as an “indie” simply reveals his singular place in filmmaking history as well as his own quiet form of business-minded obstinacy. Indie or conglomerate machine? Bean counter or artistic visionary? Merchandiser or mythmaker?
To steal a line from Lucas’ final film as director: only a Sith deals in absolutes. So how can we begin to understand George Lucas, film director? The place to start is at the beginning – and not just with MacKenna’s Gold and 6-18-67. Indeed, returning to Lucas’ early days, as a teen in Modesto, California, and as a student filmmaker is key to understanding both his feature films as well as the impact he would have.
Faster, More Intense
Lucas has often been accused of being a nostalgist.15 In fact, when Fredric Jameson formulated the concept of the “nostalgia film” in 1983, he found its two central variants in Lucas’ works: first, in American Graffiti (a “film about the past and about specific generational moments of that past,”), and secondly, in Star Wars (a film that “by reinventing the feel and shape of characteristic art objects of an older period (the serials), [Star Wars] seeks to reawaken a sense of the past associated with those objects”16). It is certainly true that much of Lucas’ directorial output directly looks towards his youth, and that is why, like many great directors, we need to look towards his own biography in order to make sense of it.
First there was the media the Lucas consumed: not classic movies, but television. In fact, though he would go on to join Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola as high-profile Hollywood players as a champion for (and sometimes even funder of) filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa, going to the pictures was not a big part of Lucas’ childhood in Modesto, California. The small screen, on the other hand, was, and Lucas spent hours watching transfixed in front of re-runs of Golden Age film serials like Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940) and Buck Rogers (1939) on the “Adventure Theatre” anthology show, broadcast nightly at six o’clock from KRON-TV in San Francisco.17 It is in this sense that the episodic nature of Lucas’ Star Wars franchise, or the Indiana Jones films make most sense: he is building not just a financial formula of movie making, but homaging the cliffhanger form and style of the media objects of his youth. The same goes for comic books, of which Lucas was always an avid reader of Amazing Tales, Unexpected Tales, and perhaps ironically given his future business dominance, Scrooge McDuck. “I was never ashamed that I read a lot of comic books,” says Lucas.18
The second element of Lucas’ youth to have an influence on his filmmaking is speed. Specifically, the speed he could obtain driving hot rods on the streets of Modesto. Lucas was a shy kid, a loner, even, but his inhibitions apparently slipped away easily while in the driver’s seat of a fast car – something that began with learning to drive at age 15, and eventually turning into a full-blown obsession with “Racing cars, screwing around, having fun, the endless search for girls.”19 The teenaged Lucas was frequently ticketed by police for speeding and breaking traffic laws, and eventually, was involved in a terrible accident that saw his car, a Fiat Bianchina, flipped five times. On the third rotation, the seatbelt snapped and Lucas was thrown out of the open roof; he was rushed to hospital, miraculously still alive, and even more astoundingly, able to fully recover from his serious injuries. The event transformed Lucas from aimless teen, to driven adult: “The accident made me more aware of myself,” said Lucas. “I had the feeling that I should go to college, and I did.”20
This kind of car driving culture made it into Lucas’ first major commercial success, American Graffiti (1973), in quite literal ways – the film is even set in Modesto, the Californian town Lucas grew up in, cruised in, and the location of his life-changing accident. Car culture is clearly apparent in Lucas’ other films, too, whether it’s the high-speed climactic chase at the end of THX 1138 (1971, a film that featured modified Lola T70 Mk III race cars), or his student film 1:42.08 (1966), named for the lap time of the Lotus 23 race car that was the film’s subject. Racing is featured in many of Lucas’ Star Wars films, of course, but speed in general is one of the most defining elements of Star Wars. “Every frame of the film celebrates machines and the speed and power they seem to promise,” wrote Dan Rubey in Jump Cut in 1978, in what is still one of the most perceptive critiques of the original film.21
Indeed, the emphasis on acceleration and pace in Star Wars might be missed by contemporary eyes, who can only return to the original film through the shadow of its influence, but speed is nonetheless there both in special effects and the film’s tempo. In 1977, Star Wars was quick. “I wanted something that was fast, kinetic, so I had very short cuts,” said Lucas in 2015. In contrast to 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, where Stanley Kubrick “had cuts that are 643 frames, I wanted cuts that were 12 frames.” Chris Taylor in his book How Star Wars Conquered the Universe points out how much information is conveyed, how much drama and set-up and framing is done in just Star Wars’ swift-moving opening reel: “Cinemagoers would want to go back to the theatres and watch it again not just because it was a fun, action-packed story, but because there was so much stuff packed into each scene that you could watch it four times and still not catch every odd robot or strange creature in the background,” writes Taylor.22 Even just the opening shot of the film, after the crawl and John Williams’ fanfare, is a lesson in special effect-driven narrative simplicity. An enormous starship bursts out of the screen in pursuit of a tiny cruiser, laser fire and soundtrack crackling. We in the audience naturally root for the underdog: we know whose side we’re on, even if we don’t yet even know either side’s name. “The whole thrust of the film was movement,” said Alan Ladd Jr., President of Twentieth Century Fox at the time. “That’s what he was going for – to not give anybody a chance to say, ‘My God, what a wonderful set.’”23
As far as the special effects go, speed is key too. Although Lucas would become enormously frustrated by John Dykstra and his team at the newly formed Industrial Light and Magic – culminating in one of the director’s few screaming matches after discovering that ILM had spent $1 million and made just three shots24 – the aesthetic of the space combat sequences set a tone of hyperspeed for special effects movies that continues even today. This was achieved partly through Lucas’ determination and his dreams, as the basis for the climactic Death Star trench sequence was a demo sequence he edited together out of aerial combat scenes from movies like The Battle of Britain (Guy Hamilton, 1969) and The Bridges at Toko-Ri (Mark Robson, 1954). Partly, the aesthetic was also enabled by ILM’s development of Dykstraflex (which won Dykstra, Al Miller, and Jerry Jeffress an Academy Award), a computer-controlled camera movement system that meant that these special effects sequences could be created and composited together through exact, repeatable camera movements, rather than having to move models or props. Two decades later, ILM’s success with creating Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs – driven partly by Dennis Muren, an original ILM-er who had worked with Dykstra back in 1976 – would persuade Lucas that the time was right to make more Star Wars films. One of the keys to Jurassic Park’s CGI believability, as Stephen Prince points out, was motion blur and “intelligent extrapolations” from the movements of rhinos, komodo dragons and so on.25 Lucas’ interest in speed, velocity, and movement had become the special effects industry’s own.
Film editing is the final piece of the Lucas puzzle. At USC, before even taking a camera out on location, his first film was Look at Life (1965), a one-minute montage of still photographs from Life and Look magazines, edited together frenetically to percussion borrowed from Black Orpheus (Marcel Camus, 1959).26 When he did get his hands on a camera, Lucas made Herbie (1966) with fellow student Paul Golding, an abstract montage short featuring light reflected from a moving car, cut together to a piece of music by Herbie Hancock. Lucas felt he made his movies in the editing suite, not on location. He was particularly enamoured with the work of Canadian montagist Arthur Lipsett, whose 21-87 had a profound influence on Lucas and his most well-known student film, Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB (1967), which he later developed into his first feature in 1971.27
Indeed, although Lucas is only credited as editor on one feature film – THX 1138 – much of his interest in film stems from editing, and it seems to have been his creative practice, his way of staying in touch with filmmaking craft in the years when he wasn’t directing his own movies. “My first love is editing,” he told American Cinematographer in 1991. “It’s what I came out of, and it’s still what I enjoy most.”28 Even on the set of American Graffiti, which many would consider Lucas’ best directed film – or at least perhaps best performed by his cast of actors who he encouraged to improvise – Lucas was always sure to shoot master takes and often used multiple cameras.29 “I’m really going to direct this in the editing room,” Lucas told the young Ron Howard, just one of many stars who broke out from Graffiti.30 Lucas, as a director of actors, was notoriously disinterested in giving feedback on the set of either Graffiti or Star Wars. In fact, by the time of Star Wars, his assembled trio of leads – Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford – took to teasing Lucas for the two single pieces of feedback that he’d repeatedly give them regarding their performances. The first was maddeningly opaque: “Same thing, only better.” The second seems to aptly summarise Lucas’ entire approach to filmmaking: “Faster, more intense.”31
George Lucas: Non-Director
Speed, scale, and cutting-edge special effects might have been the headlines for Star Wars, but there was also a clear sense of comradery among the main cast, an old-fashioned chemistry of the gang. This was in part due to a late rewrite of the script from Lucas’ friends William Hyuck and Gloria Katz, and partly due to casting. Lucas had cast unknowns – much to the irritation of his friends like Coppola, who thought he should’ve opted for name actors – and each was playing a variant of themselves: Hamill, the wide-eyed dreamer, Fisher, the smart and defiant leader, and Ford, the older cynic. Lucas hand-picked the trio, and allowed the chemistry to play out on set much in the way he had for American Graffiti – shooting with a master and multiple cameras, “documentary style” as he’d call it, so the film could be pulled together in editing. Not that this translated to on-set direction from Lucas, or indeed a good experience. “A personal hell,” would be how Lucas biographer Dale Pollock would describe Lucas’ on-set Star Wars ordeal.32 Lucas hated conflict, and found the personal demands of leading a cast and crew upsetting. All this is not to mention the constant conflict Lucas had with his British crew at Elstree while filming Star Wars, who neither trusted nor respected him. For his own part, the American Lucas quickly grew frustrated at the crew’s union-mandated breaks and hard ends to the workday, even if that meant abandoning a take in progress. Lucas was always a workaholic, to be sure, but with Star Wars it all culminated in sudden chest pains a few weeks out from the film’s release. A panicked Lucas feared he was having a heart attack, but the pains were diagnosed by a doctor to be acute stress.
It was time, Lucas surmised, to stop directing. It seems strange to say it in a ‘Great Directors’ essay, but Lucas only ever found actually on-set directing to be a frustrating part of the creative filmmaking process, a process he could shape and control through other means like screenwriting, editing, and producing. Perhaps Lucas’ love of editing was why he took it so personally when Warner Bros. recut THX 1138 against his will, or when Universal cut four minutes from American Graffiti.33 But Lucas has himself likely had considerably more artistic influence over many of the films he has worked on as producer, guiding postproduction and sitting in on the editing suite, than many of their directors. This is the model Lucas established with the two Star Wars sequels which he had others direct: he was furious with Irvin Kershner when the director refused to shoot a master for Empire Strikes Back, limiting Lucas to his director’s vision. No such mistake would be repeated with Return of the Jedi, where director Richard Marquand’s list of camera setups would be reviewed by Lucas before each day’s shooting began.34
By 1991, having not “directed” a film in 14 years, Lucas the producer nonetheless told American Cinematographer about his frequent sojourns to the editing suite: “The director makes a black and white of his cut, and then I do my version… I have the director’s permission to throw out his vision.”35 The list of films that Lucas worked closely on during this period is remarkable, though some feel more like Lucas creations than others: the Indiana Jones movies, Labyrinth (Jim Henson, 1986), Howard the Duck (Willard Huyck, 1986), Willow (Ron Howard, 1988), and Radioland Murders (Mel Smith, 1994), among others. This model of moviemaking was revived one last time for Red Tails (Anthony Hemingway, 2012), a film about the Tuskegee airmen that Lucas had been developing since 1988 and that still feels inimitably Lucas-like.
Then there was Lucas the film executive, and the business career. “It would be the ultimate irony,” wrote Aljean Harmetz in American Film in 1983, “if George Lucas, who argues fiercely for Hollywood’s obsolescence, should be the mogul to replace it.”36 When he ascended the Hollywood ranks, he hardly fit the mould, and even today he remains singular in his obvious distaste for interviews and big industry gatherings. Even at events well and truly in the Lucas brand, like Lucasfilm’s official Star Wars Celebration convention, or at the launch of the revamped Star Tours ride at Disneyland in 2012, Lucas still looks like a deer in headlights. In 1971, at the age of twenty-six, Lucas was described by The San Francisco Chronicle as having “the temperament of an artist who works alone in an attic,” and that never really changed.37 Throughout his career, Lucas has been described as a loner, as isolated, as quiet, even withdrawn. His personality was not that of the cigar-chewing Hollywood mogul of old that he reviled, but nor was it that of the more contemporary, bratty and brash film nerd, the Comic-con “fanboy auteur”38 of the likes he inspired.
Outside of the director’s chair, Lucas changed the business more than anyone. “Merchandising, merchandising,” declares Mel Brookes’ sagely Yogurt, in his Star Wars parody Spaceballs, “where the real money from the movie is made.” Lucas’ Star Wars deal with Twentieth Century Fox, which saw him hold on to rights previously considered “junk,” like merchandising and sequels, has long been mythologised as one that changed Hollywood. Along with the success of Star Wars as a film, the ubiquity of Star Wars branded action figures, playsets, soundtrack vinyls, lunchboxes, cereal, videogames, novelisations, comic books, theme park rides, posters, t-shirts, bed linen, and even underwear meant that the entire American entertainment industry reorganised itself in Star Wars’ wake. By the time that Lucas’ friend Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park was being roasted by critics in 1993 for actually including its own merchandise within the film itself, the coup was complete. “Among George’s many possessions, he owns my likeness,” wrote Carrie Fisher in her 2008 memoir, Wishful Drinking, “so that every time I look in the mirror I have to send him a couple of bucks.”39
Lucas’ business acumen was partly born of circumstance, but also his desire to forge his own creative independence. When Lucas arrived in Hollywood and made fast friends with Francis Ford Coppola, one of the drivers of their alliance was their shared dream of escaping the studios, which led to their cofounding of American Zoetrope in 1969. The idea was to create a kind of “counterculture MGM,” to use Peter Biskind’s phrase.40 However, Warners’ dissatisfaction with Lucas’ THX 1138 as well as its subsequent lukewarm box office returns put a swift end to the Zoetrope dream: Warner Brothers cancelled their deal with the two filmmakers (which would have included The Conversation and Apocalypse Now) and a near-bankrupt Coppola went off to Paramount to accept overtures he’d previously rejected to adapt Mario Puzo’s The Godfather (1972).41 But independence remained a driving factor for Lucas’ business interests, be it in the form of the geographically isolated Lucas Ranch, where he worked, or the management of his companies, which at various stages included ILM, THX, Pixar (founded as The Graphics Group), games studio LucasArts, and the company central to all of this, Lucasfilm. In How Star Wars Conquered the Galaxy, Chris Taylor convincingly argues that Lucas continued to allow himself to be creatively tied down by the Star Wars franchise because it allowed him to fund Lucasfilm, the company that he loved, and the emblem of making films outside of the Hollywood corporate machine.42 Up until Lucas’ retirement and the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney in 2012, the battle to keep Hollywood out of his business except on his terms was one that he largely won convincingly.
But what of the films themselves? Lucas’ student work in particular displays a reoccurring preoccupation with modern society, governments, and technology snuffing out individualism and a sense of humanity. One of his early experiments, Freiheit (1966), follows a student’s failed attempt to run across the Berlin wall, and contains blunt political imagery. “Freedom is worth dying for,” intones an announcer, as a soldier stands over the student’s body. Lucas fondly recalls his political involvements at college, but others disagree: Biskind describes Lucas as “essentially apolitical.”43 Lucas’ films have in particular been criticised by scholars like Andrew Britton and Robin Wood as presaging the politics of Reaganism, and that Star Wars told audiences “over and over again, that there is nothing here to think about.”44
Yet all of Lucas’ films do contain political elements and subtexts, Star Wars included. Indeed, Chris Taylor argues that at the start of the 1970s, Lucas was set to make a trilogy of films about Vietnam and its effect on the American psyche.45 There was the past: American Graffiti and its nostalgic embrace of a time before the violence of Vietnam and its wrecking of American unity. Graffiti ends, quite strikingly for an upbeat teen film, with an abrupt title card that reveals the fate of the film’s four young men, one of whom is killed in a car accident and another missing in Vietnam. There was the present: Lucas had been planning to make Apocalypse Now for American Zoetrope and had worked with writer John Milius to develop a story directly about the war in Vietnam. Finally, there was the future: Lucas would draw on the Vietnam conflict in an allegorical mode for Star Wars. Indeed, early drafts of the Star Wars script elaborate on the similarities between the Empire, Nixon, and fascism.
Overall, the Lucas filmmaking world is one of mood and tone and affect, of a certain “effervescent giddiness,” as Lucas himself put it,46 rather than political or thematic concerns. Much has been made elsewhere of the mythologist Joseph Campbell’s influence on Lucas, and in turn the wider film industry, but this is overstated at least in Lucas’ case, as the director only discovered Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces late in his redrafting of Star Wars.47 More broadly, Campbell sheds little light on Lucas’ own myth, which, like those Campbell analysed, was cobbled together from a multitude of sources: Taoism and Buddhism, John Ford and Akira Kurosawa. If there is a central theme to Lucas’ films, it is perhaps one of a protagonist growing up and discovering that a larger world than they know exists. THX escapes his dystopian prison to freedom; Curt Henderson gets on a plane and leaves Modesto; Luke Skywalker leaves Tatooine and saves the galaxy. A quiet and skinny boy from nowhere, USA, grows up and transforms Hollywood.
I Hate Sand
For all that they have been derided, the Star Wars prequels – The Phantom Menace (1999), Attack of the Clones (2002), and Revenge of the Sith (2005) – are worth taking seriously on several fronts. Chief among these are their technical achievements: like the first major motion captured CGI character (Jar Jar Binks was well ahead of Lord of the Rings and Gollum), their rapid and bold advances in chroma key technology, shooting on digital, as well as digital distribution and projection. The list is nearly endless, and in one way or another Lucas’ prequels paved the way for much of today’s digitally-assisted blockbuster filmmaking.
Despite Lucas’ reticence to direct, the prequels are also among a very small selection of films where a director’s vision seems to have been fairly unencumbered by budget (Lucas funded the films himself), studio oversight (Twentieth Century Fox was strictly a distribution partner), or indeed, unwanted creative input from anyone who wasn’t the director. Lucas exclusively hired those he liked to work with, and by the time of the prequels, had long since ceased working directly with people who would push back on his creative decisions, such as Coppola, his first wife Marcia, or the producer of American Graffiti and the first two Star Wars films, Gary Kurtz. For better or worse, the prequels are Lucas’ films. He wrote them, he executive produced them, and he directed blissfully free of interference or creative dissention. Perhaps more so than any other film Lucas ever made, and more than most others made by even the most auteurist director, the prequels are large-scale cultural products led and commanded by one person.
So what is there to say about these three films? Much has been said by now, and much of it is not good. Where the original Star Wars trilogy is quickly paced and fizz with life, the prequels are solemn and often ponderous. The “used universe” of the originals, with its grit and dirt, has also been replaced by the baroque opulence of a chrome and shiny galaxy at its peak. Content to see Star Wars as “a boy movie,”48 the women of Lucas’ galaxy also grate in the era of the prequels. Natalie Portman’s Padmé is the only woman with dialogue in the entire third film, and is reduced almost entirely to worrying about her man, before being killed off in an act of deus ex machina. In Revenge of the Sith Padmé observes everything and does nothing: she barely even walks, so static has her character become. Then there are the racial stereotypes that pervade the prequels. Nemoidians, the frog-like aliens who run the nefarious Trade Federation, speak with strong accents, have greenish-yellow skin, and have slanted pupils.49 Watto, the Toydarian junkyard slave-owner has a hooked nose, pot belly, obsession with profit and gambling, and a gravelly accent, something that Patricia Williams describes as “comprehensively anti-Semitic – both anti-Arab and anti-Jew.”50 Finally, and perhaps most infamously, Jar Jar Binks has long been held by many to be a racist amalgamation of Jamaican and Caribbean stereotypes. As a lanky, dim-witted alien with long ears that some identified as dreadlock-like, Jar Jar’s accent and speaking voice have commonly been criticized as ‘pidgin’ or ‘patois’-like. Jar Jar’s role is as the comic relief in the film: he pratfalls his way to victory, a Stepin Fetchit alien for the digital age. An irritated Lucas pled innocent to these charges, entirely unconvincingly. “It really reflects more the racism of the people who are making the comments than it does the movie,” he told the BBC.51
Then there’s that dialogue. Lucas has a singular ability to coax the uncanny valley out of his actors, both in terms of the lines he gives them (“You can write this shit, George, but you can’t say it,” famously complained Harrison Ford on the set of the first Star Wars), and a seemingly total lack of directorial guidance. As the prequels went on, this dramatic vacuum was surely amplified by the near-total use of chroma key technology in the place of sets, location shooting, props, and sometimes, actors – in other words, the other main prompts for a performance aside from directorial coaching. The result is that each of the prequels contains one or two of the worst line readings known to humanity so far, and most often, they centre on Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd and Hayden Christiansen) and his laboured romance with Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman). “Are you an angel?” “I don’t like sand.” “Hold me, like you did by the lake on Naboo. So long ago when there was nothing but our love.” Each one of these performances is truly remarkable in its lack of connection to how humans say words and move their faces. They provide unfeelingness just when feeling is required most.
The unrestrained gormlessness of Lucas’ dialogue does, however, also yield gems. Like a badly written pop song that sticks in your ear, plenty of Lucas’ peerlessly vacant dialogue has also reached a level of pop culture cut-through denied to many more talented scribes. This has in no small part been aided by the proliferation of prequel memes on social media over the last five years or so, where Lucas’ inert performances have found new life (or perhaps simply, life). “Hello there,” “So this is how liberty dies, with thunderous applause,” “Did you ever hear the tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise?” – all of these lines and many more have reached a level of semi-ironic joy with certain fans, who quote and meme them to the point where they now exist somewhere between a midnight screening of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room (2003) and the absurd chaos of Monty Python.
This is also hardly an accident. Lucas has even described himself as “the king of wooden dialogue.”52 Armond White, on the other hand, described Lucas as “a director who achieves the impossible while botching the basics,”53 while back in 1977 Pauline Kael bemoaned that if only Lucas “weren’t hooked on the crap of his childhood – if he brought his resources to bear on some projects with human beings in them… There might be miracles.”54 At his best, Lucas has created a kind of pop culture poetry with his singularly flat writing. “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope.” “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.” “Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?” “May the force be with you.” These lines are the inverse, the bounty won by his other howlers.
Key to this is the way that Lucas approaches dialogue as just one element of the broader soundtrack. It is no coincidence that Lucas’ films – especially the ones with the appalling dialogue and performances – also have the time and space and imagination for industry-changing sound. Both Ewan McGregor and Laura Dern reflexively imitated Ben Burtt’s blaster bolts and lightsaber hum while making later Star Wars films, such is the power of Lucas’ soundscapes.55 Wooden dialogue is from the same George Lucas who invented the jukebox soundtrack with American Graffiti, the same George Lucas who enabled composer John Williams to write music that was voted by the American Film Institute as the greatest soundtrack in history.56 For every spoken word clanger, even in the prequels, there’s the scream of a TIE Fighter, a body-vibrating chunk of a podracer, or a John Williams melody that speaks to, as the composer put it, “something earlier in the cultural salts of our brains.”57
Lucas is, arguably, the most significant director of the soundtrack in at least post-Golden Age Hollywood history, and he has achieved this not because he thinks of dialogue as inconsequential, but because he thinks of dialogue’s importance as relational. “Half a movie is the sound,” Lucas told Stephen Colbert in 2015. “The sound is extremely important, but the dialogue is not.”58 As has been observed by many, you can watch any Star Wars film without paying attention to what’s being said and still get the picture. The artistry is communicated through images and music and sound effects, and with the simple tones of actors’ voices punctuating it all, like surtitles at an opera where plot is not really the point.
What also cannot be said about the Star Wars prequels is that they lack ideas. Each film is teeming with new locations, characters, and some of the most striking costume, set, and character design ever put to film. There is more than imagination here, there is belief: belief in these worlds, and belief in these films. That extends beyond Lucas himself, too. To watch The Beginning, Jon Shenk’s official making-of documentary for the first prequel, The Phantom Menace, is to be struck by how genuinely enthusiastic the team Lucas has assembled is, and how reverent these top-of-class creatives are about the whole project. “It’s gonna be great,” Lucas says in the documentary, showing a set to a clearly impressed Steven Spielberg. “That’s gonna be great,” Spielberg replies.
Each Star Wars film is, in its own way, a reaction to the last, and the same can be said for the three trilogies in the series. For his part, Lucas can be credited with responding clear eyed to the critics who accused him of dumbing down morality to simplistic questions of good versus evil in his original Star Wars films. The prequels have been derided for dropping the adventurous spirit of the originals in favour of dry disputes over the taxation of trade routes and procedural matters in the Galactic Senate. But Lucas had a point to make, and in these films he wanted to tell audiences about how democracy can be given up to dictatorship, not through the violent seizure of power, but through all-too-willing cooperation. “The issue was: how does a democracy turn itself over to a dictator?” said Lucas. “Not how does a dictator take over but how does a democracy and Senate give it away?”59 This necessitated a dramatic change not just in storytelling but in the political and moral setting of the Star Wars universe. Perhaps most shocking of all is the way Lucas dismantles the myth of the Jedi, who by the conclusion of the prequels are shown to ultimately have led to their own destruction. This was a bold move for a filmmaker who had, in the original trilogy, virtually created a real-world religion of the Jedi, so stirring was their mythology. Instead, with the prequels, Lucas deliberately chose to show the Jedi at their peak as arrogant, dogmatic, and fatally short-sighted to a seriously impressive degree: they not only ignore their arch nemesis right under their noses, but authorise the creation of an army that later massacres them.
Politically, the prequels were ultimately films of the George W. Bush era. “All democracies turn into dictatorships – but not by coup,” Lucas told Time magazine in 2002. “The people give their democracy to a dictator, whether it’s Julius Caesar or Napoleon or Adolf Hitler.”60 Anakin advocates dictatorship in conversation with Padmé in Attack of the Clones (in a scene recently exhaustively memeified as “For the Better, Right?” despite being entirely unconnected to the actual dialogue in the scene). Then, in Revenge of the Sith, Anakin directly paraphrases George W. Bush with a warning that “If you’re not with me, then you’re my enemy.” This is also almost a direct critique of the straight lines of good and bad in the original trilogy: only a Sith deals in absolutes, like Jedi/Sith and Rebels/Empire. As the New York Times critic A.O. Scott noted in his review of Revenge of the Sith, “You may applaud this editorializing, or you may find it overwrought, but give Mr. Lucas his due.”61
George Lucas is above all, a very human filmmaker, even if his movies occasionally lack that same sense of humanity. He often seemed genuinely stung at the reaction to the Star Wars prequels, and frequently complained about the impact that the internet had had on fan culture. “Now with the internet, it’s gotten very vicious and very personal. You just say, ‘Why do I need to do this?’”62 Lucas loathed studio interference in creative endeavours, and battled what he saw as artificial and self-aggrandising limitations of Hollywood’s filmmaking unions (he was so incensed by a $250,000 fine the Director’s Guild of America gave him for not including Irvin Kershner’s name in the opening credits of Empire Strikes Back that he quit the guild entirely).
More broadly, Lucas often speaks fatalistically of Star Wars as someone who had been just as caught off-guard by its success as any film commentator or moviegoer. “Star Wars obviously snuck up and grabbed me and threw me across the room and beat me against the wall,” he joked in 2010.63 As early as 1976, before the release of the first film, Lucas claimed that after Star Wars, “I’m going to retire and make small experimental films,” a declaration he continued to repeat for many decades afterwards, all the way up until his actual retirement from filmmaking in 2012.64 Star Wars was Lucas’ pet project, and he championed it in the 1970s when no-one seemed to understood what he was making. After its success, Lucas as a director became creatively locked to Star Wars, both unwilling to give up the franchise and envious of its all-encompassing demands on his creativity and time. Who among us can’t sympathise with a man who feels compelled to work, and yet resents the very work that sustains him and even brings him success?
Despite his shyness, his difficulty with the human encounters of directing, and his “temperament of an artist who works alone in an attic,” Lucas was undoubtedly at his best when surrounded by talented collaborators. His distaste for studio interference was one thing, but being around smart people who knew how to temper his eccentric impulses and overreach would always result in his strongest films. There is a long list of significant names in the history of Hollywood who also did some of their best work while working alongside Lucas, including Irvin Kershner, Lawrence Kasdan, Charlie Lippincott, John Dykstra, Marcia Lucas, Gloria Katz, Willard Huyck, Ben Burtt, Ralph McQuarrie, and yes, even Hollywood titans like John Williams, Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, Walter Murch, and Jim Henson. Without Lucas, too, companies like Industrial Light and Magic, THX, Skywalker Sound, Pixar, and LucasArts would not have had their significant cultural and industrial impact.
Perhaps on some level, the erstwhile loner Lucas realised the power of collaboration, after all. Each of his films, but particularly Star Wars, makes its own point about the power of collectives and individual sacrifice for others. Perhaps it is the ragtag Rebel Alliance, or the teddy bear-like Ewoks coming together to defeat the evil Empire – or the failure of a democratic Galactic Senate to unite to stop its rise. Perhaps it is the trio of humans who escape police androids through their combined interest in individuality in THX 1138. Or perhaps it is the way that American Graffiti valorises and memorialises the last night of togetherness for a group of high school friends before they journey on to become individuals.
Ultimately, though, it is the community formed in the theatre that is Lucas’ most enduring legacy. With Star Wars, the chaotic early screenings, where audiences hissed at Vader and cheered when the Death Star blew up, saw the refined cinephile transformed into something more populist, or more dubious, depending on who you ask. This was the birth of something like the film franchise fan. “[George Lucas] showed people it was all right to become totally involved in a movie again,” said Alan Ladd, Jr., “to yell and scream and applaud and really roll with it.”65
- Look at Life (1965) – short film (also writer and editor)
- Herbie (1966) – short film co-directed with Paul Golding (also writer, editor and cinematographer)
- Freiheit (1966) – short film (also writer, editor and cinematographer)
- 1:42.08 (1966) – short film (also writer, editor and cinematographer)
- Anyone Lived in a Pretty How Town (1967) – short film (also writer, editor, and cinematographer)
- The Emperor (1967) – short documentary (also writer)
- Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB (1967) – short film (also writer and editor)
- 6-18-67 (1967) – short film (also writer, editor and cinematographer)
- Filmmaker (1968) – short documentary (also writer, editor, cinematographer and sound)
- THX 1138 (1971) (also writer and editor)
- American Graffiti (1973) (also writer)
- Star Wars (1977) (also writer and producer)
- Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999) (also writer and producer)
- Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002) (also writer and producer)
- Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005) (also writer and producer)
- Philip K. Scheuer, “It’s Back to the Old West for Basics in Movie Action: Old West – Film’s Home ground,” Los Angeles Times, 23 July 1967, p. c1. ↩
- Richard Burton, The Richard Burton Diaries, Chris Williams ed. (Cornwall: Swansea University Press, 2012), p. 126. ↩
- Dale Pollock, Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas, (New York: Da Capo Press, 1999), p. 69-70. ↩
- Hwanhee Lee, “Malick, Terrence,” Senses of Cinema, Issue 23 (July 2002). ↩
- Pollock, Skywalking, p. 70. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Stephen Rowley, “Spielberg, Steven,” Senses of Cinema, Issue 38 (February 2006). ↩
- David Thompson, “Who Killed the Movies?,” Esquire 6, no. 126 (December 1996), p. 56. ↩
- Wheeler Winston Dixon, “Twenty-Five Reasons Why It’s All Over,” in The End of Cinema as We Know It: American Film in the Nineties, ed. Jon Lewis (London: Pluto, 2002), p. 56–66. ↩
- Peter Biskind, Easy Riders Raging Bulls, (London: Bloomsbury, 1998), p. 344. ↩
- Aljean Harmetz, “Burden of Dreams: George Lucas,” in George Lucas: Interviews, Sally Kline ed. (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1999) p. 138. ↩
- Brian Jay Jones, George Lucas: A Life (London: Headline, 2016) p. 394. ↩
- Simon Pegg, Nerd Do Well: A Small Boy’s Journey to Becoming a Big Kid (New York: Avery, 2012), p. 330. ↩
- Jack Mathews, “Saber Rattler,” in George Lucas: Interviews, Sally Kline ed. (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1999) p. 229. ↩
- Usually, as an insult. Elsewhere, I argue that nostalgia, specifically as it relates to Lucas’ films, is far more complex. See Dan Golding, Star Wars After Lucas: A Critical Guide to the Future of the Galaxy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019). ↩
- Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” in Studies in Culture: An Introductory Reader, Ann Gray and Jim McGuigan eds. (London: Arnold, 1988), p. 197. ↩
- Pollock, Skywalking, p. 17. ↩
- Ibid p. 18. ↩
- Ibid p. 28. ↩
- Ibid p. xiv-xvi. ↩
- Dan Rubey, “Star Wars: Not so Long Ago, Not so Far Away,” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, no. 18 (August 1978), p. 10. ↩
- Chris Taylor, How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present, and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise, (New York: Basic Books, 2014) p. 178. ↩
- Ibid p. 178. ↩
- Pollock, Skywalking, p. 172-173. ↩
- Stephen Prince, “True Lies: Perceptual Realism, Digital Images, and Film Theory,” Film Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 3 (Spring, 1996), p. 33. ↩
- Brian Jay Jones, George Lucas: A Life, p. 53. ↩
- Ibid p. 73-75. ↩
- Denise Abbott, “George Lucas: His First Love Is Editing,” in George Lucas: Interviews, Sally Kline ed. (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1999) p. 166. ↩
- Pollock Skywalking, p. 111. ↩
- Taylor, How Star Wars Conquered the Universe, p. 91. ↩
- Brian Jay Jones, George Lucas: A Life, p. 222. ↩
- Pollock, Skywalking, p. 159. ↩
- Brian Jay Jones, George Lucas: A Life, p. 158. ↩
- J. W. Rinzler, The Making of Return of the Jedi (New York: Del Rey, 2013) p. 152. ↩
- Abbott, “George Lucas: His First Love Is Editing,” p. 166. ↩
- Harmetz, “Burden of Dreams: George Lucas,” p. 144. ↩
- Judy Stone, “George Lucas,” in George Lucas: Interviews, Sally Kline ed. (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1999) p. 3. ↩
- Suzanne Scott, “Who’s Steering the Mothership? The Role of the Fanboy Auteur in Transmedia Storytelling,” in The Participatory Cultures Handbook, Aaron Delwiche, Jennifer Jacobs Henderson, eds. (New York: Routledge, 2013), p. 43-52. ↩
- Carrie Fisher, Wishful Drinking (London: Simon and Schuster, 1997). ↩
- Biskind, Easy Riders Raging Bulls, p. 92. ↩
- Pollock, Skywalking, p. 97. ↩
- Taylor, How Star Wars Conquered the Universe. ↩
- Biskind, Easy Riders Raging Bulls. ↩
- Andrew Britton, “Blissing Out: The Politics of Reaganite Entertainment,” in Britton on Film: The Complete Film Criticism of Andrew Britton, ed. Barry Keith Grant, Contemporary Approaches to Film and Television Series (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2009), p. 97. See also Robin Wood, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan (New York, NY: Columbia Univ. Press, 1986). ↩
- Taylor, How Star Wars Conquered the Universe, p. 87. ↩
- John Seabrook, “Letter from Skywalker Ranch: Why is the Force Still with Us?” in George Lucas: Interviews, Sally Kline ed. (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1999), p. 199. ↩
- Taylor, How Star Wars Conquered the Universe. ↩
- Bill Hoffman, “Star Wars’ Titanic Box Office Battle,” New York Post, April 11, 1999. ↩
- Andrew Gumbel, “Star Wars Accused of Race Stereotypes,” Independent, June 2, 1999. ↩
- Patricia J. Williams, “Racial Ventriloquism,” The Nation, July 5, 1999. ↩
- BBC Staff, “Star Wars: Lucas Strikes Back,” BBC News, July 14, 1999. ↩
- Gary Susman, “George Lucas gets AFI lifetime achievement award,” Entertainment Weekly, June 10, 2005. ↩
- Armond White, “A Darth is Born,” New York Press, May 19, 2005. ↩
- Pauline Kael, “Whipped,” New Yorker, June 15, 1981. ↩
- Yohana Desta, “Charming Proof Laura Dern Kept Saying “Pew” While Shooting Her Last Jedi Blaster,” Vanity Fair, March 14, 2018. ↩
- Steven Mirkin, “The Big Picture: AFI’s 100 Years of Film Scores,” Variety, September 25, 2005. ↩
- Craig L. Byrd, ‘The Star Wars Interview: John Williams,’ Film Score Monthly 2, no. 1 (February 1997), p. 20. ↩
- Susana Polo, “Stephen Colbert and George Lucas talk Star Wars, wooden dialogue, and Howard the Duck,” Polygon, April 18, 2015. ↩
- Douglas M Kellner, Cinema Wars: Hollywood Film and Politics in the Bush-Cheney Era (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2011), p. 177. ↩
- Richard Corliss and Jess Cagle, “Dark Victory,” Time, April 29, 2002. ↩
- A.O. Scott, “Some Surprises in That Galaxy Far, Far Away,” The New York Times, May 16, 2005. ↩
- Devin Leonard, “How Disney Bought Lucasfilm – and It’s Plans for ‘Star Wars’,’” Bloomberg, March 8, 2013. ↩
- Taylor, How Star Wars Conquered the Universe. ↩
- Ibid p. 159. ↩
- Pollock, Skywalking, p. 186. ↩