It’s always fun to pick on George Lucas. God knows, he deserves it. For about three decades now, Lucas has traded anything resembling artistic integrity for the ability to micro-manage and monetize every aspect of his vast empire. I’m not one of those who would stoop to claiming any raping of my childhood, but it does make me sad that a film as brilliant as Star Wars has now had its good name sullied by a spat of prequels that range from awful to god-awful. Lucas also played a big part in the completely mediocre attempted revival of the Indiana Jones series. And let us not forget the evil torment he unleashed with Howard the Duck. These days he continues to anger fans by pretending the original versions of the Original Trilogy cannot be released, and there’s even some scary talk of a fifth Indy flick.
Lost in all the hubbub over Lucas’ many follies, though, is one fact. One simple fact that I don’t think most film lovers and fanboys have come to fully appreciate. Discounting the “direction” of the Star Wars prequels, George Lucas only ever directed three films. Three masterpieces. Three films that, in my mind, set him apart as the greatest visionary filmmaker of the 70s, and certainly the most promising.
The three films in question are THX 1138 (1971), American Graffiti (1973) and Star Wars (1977). Look at that line-up of films. Soak it in. Think about the fact that a man we now consider the epitome of Hollywood money-grubbing gone awry once directed films of such brilliant quality, staggering scope and varied intent as those three films from the 70s. It’s absolutely astounding, and in retrospect almost unbelievable. And when you look at that string of films, you can see how Lucas’ vision expanded and grew to define everything a Hollywood film could be.
One of the things that’s important to understand about the George Lucas of old is that he had a true independent spirit. None of his films from that period were technically independent films, but they might as well have been. Lucas had been working with his good friend, Francis Ford Coppola, to build a new studio, independent of the Hollywood system, and based in lovely Northern California. The studio was called American Zoetrope and the first film out of the gate was THX 1138.
THX 1138 was a film so experimental, so completely the opposite of the mainstream, it’s a wonder that Warner Bros. ever gave Zoetrope the money to make it in the first place. Warner Bros. thought so, too. When they saw the film they forced Coppola to repay the $300,000 loan they had given to Zoetrope for the film’s production, placing an unbearable load on the indie studio, and forcing it nearly into oblivion. There were two silver linings to this, though. First of all, the reaction to THX 1138 forced Lucas to prove he could make something for mainstream audiences, resulting in American Graffiti. Coppola, on the other hand, came into so much debt that he was forced to take on a studio project. That film? The Godfather. So yeah, you can thank George Lucas and his crazy-weird film for The Godfather.
THX 1138 is a film nobody seems to talk about, not even the supposed Lucas fans. That hasn’t hampered the film’s influence, though. Not only did the conceptual notion of a “used future” come to influence Star Wars and countless other science fiction films, THX 1138 was a clear influence on everything from Daft Punk to Gattaca to The Island. That’s a testament to Lucas’ vision with the film. In it, he created a whole new world. Though the plot is nothing to write home about, the vision of an underground future, populated by depressed individuals, little more than working drones, and a coolly oppressive, white architecture, is a special achievement. While not as popular, it easily stands alongside Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner as a brilliant film more interested in building a future than telling a story, and like Blade Runner it was so ahead of its time that it feels fresh and experimental even today.
Right off the bat, George Lucas was pushing the boundaries of what could be shown on film. THX 1138 is science fiction filmmaking at its finest. Even Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, released the same year, does not have the scope of world-building and the truly experimental vibe that Lucas brought with his first feature.
The next film in the Lucas trifecta was American Graffiti. It’s easy to forget it, but Star Wars was not Lucas’ first big hit. American Graffiti was huge and it was exactly what Lucas needed to cement his place as the most promising director of the decade. The film, while simple enough in concept, was deftly written and directed, and uniquely focused in its sad/nostalgic reminiscence of an America gone by. It struck a nerve in the moviegoing public so powerful that on its re-release in 1978 the film actually made more money than in its original run.
It would be easy to dismiss American Graffiti as nothing more than a simple mainstream film, but that’s not true at all. Lucas was not interested in diluting his vision to suit mass audiences. Instead, he made an intensely personal film, one that did not quite fit into any box. It’s not really one with the American New Wave; it’s far too stylistic for that. But it’s also not a piece of genre fluff. There is a realism underneath American Graffiti‘s neon and chrome-baked nostalgia, a kind of emotional naturalism far more evocative than colder, grittier films like Bonnie and Clyde. Lucas also did some truly unique things from a filmmaking perspective.
There had obviously been films with no scores before American Graffiti, but never had there been a film that was practically wall-to-wall soundtrack. It was unheard of, but Lucas fought for it. The songs created the mood of the film in each and every scene, and the connection the music brought to the audience helped to spawn the extremely popular soundtrack to the film, “41 Original Hits from American Graffiti”. The use of so many songs in a film was simply revolutionary, and the effects of that can still be felt today. It may seem like a crazy thought, but without George Lucas and American Graffiti, there would be no “Tarantino soundtracks”.
American Graffiti was also unique for such a big mainstream hit in that it didn’t really feature any plot or major hooks. It told the meandering stories of several high school seniors and graduates over the course of one long night, and it didn’t bother creating needless melodrama. The characters were enough, and Lucas made sure to deliver. I’m not sure if Lucas really knew whether the film could connect with a mass audience, but clearly his vision was not limited in scope to the purely experimental soul of THX 1138. Lucas had a kind of vision that was eminently consumable by the mainstream, even though no studio really believed that was possible. Don’t believe me? Just take a look at Star Wars.
Once again, George Lucas proved he his vision could not be contained. The success of American Graffiti allowed George Lucas to set up his next project, a pulpy space opera called Star Wars, at 20th Century Fox. Even on the very reasonable budget of $11 million, Fox was worried about their investment. There were delays, shooting in the desert was about as close to a disaster as possible and the finished product was something straight out of Lucas’ mind, weird and fantastical to the extreme. Lucas put everything he had into the film, and the fear from the studio was that nobody in America would want to see that. In fact, Fox barely put any money into marketing the film, so sure it would be a flop.
The executives at Fox were proven wrong and the rest is history. But it’s important to look at Star Wars as not just a fun adventure movie that made a lot of money. The film was completely groundbreaking in every sense of the word. Decry its influence all you want, but more than any other film ever, Star Wars has become the standard-bearer, the basic template for every Summer action/adventure film for the last 35 years. That is truly astonishing. Lucas latched the genre of pulpy science fiction onto the iconography of classical mythology. He integrated action and effects sequences unlike anything the world had seen before, using technology that had to be custom-built especially for the film. He crafted an entire, tangible universe for his story and its characters, incorporating the concept of the “used future” from THX 1138, but making it even more “used”, more real, more palpable.
Star Wars was in so many ways the film that started it all, and it came directly out of the mind of George Lucas, just like THX 1138 and American Graffiti before it. In fact, when looking at those three films, in order, we can see that in some ways Star Wars was a true synthesis of the previous two films. It had the boundary-pushing, science fiction experimentalism of THX 1138, studiously combined with the sharp sense of character and grounded emotion of American Graffiti. But even then, Lucas brought more to the table with the mythical iconography and groundbreaking special effects.
Three three very different films, over the course of only one decade, George Lucas took audiences to new and familiar worlds, with a scope of vision almost entirely unheard of in the industry. His vision was not simply one of artistic expression, but of what the medium of film could actually do, what it could be. What he did was show that film truly could be anything, and more than that, he actually changed our understanding of what popular film can be and should be. Few directors can claim to have so directly played with the potential of film and so expertly taken it to new and eternally influential heights as Lucas did, and certainly not in such a short period of time. Of all the amazing American directors who changed the face of film in the 70s, no other can quite match what Lucas accomplished with sheer force of vision. It’s for that reason that I have no problem claiming George Lucas as the greatest visionary filmmaker of the 1970s.