The Gospel of Lucas: in defense of George’s Star Wars
Ah, the art of apologetics.
“A long time ago in Modesto, California”
To begin with the beginning: in the post-war American optimism of the 1950s George Lucas grew up in Modesto. A somewhat shy, geeky kid he liked the solitude in the manual labour of the handicraft of woodworking. Later on in his teenage years he also liked to tinker with cars and dreamt of becoming a racecar driver.
In his highschool senior year however, his dreams and his car fatefully smashed into a tree. Luckily and miraculously surviving the crash (which doctors deemed should have been fatal) Lucas – who was a bit of a slacker in school – spent the summer in a hospital bed. Recovering, he re-evaluated his life. Perhaps inspired by fate’s sudden interest in him, he took up an interest in anthropology and social studies. He read the works of mythologist Joseph Campbell, in particular devouring his classic book “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”.
Lucas’ interest in mechanics transformed into an idea of attending art school. He’d like to be a photographer, catching the perfect shape of a moment in time. He was accepted into University of Southern California, however its School of Cinematic Arts proved to something a bit different than imagined.
His pictures would turn out to be of the moving type, and the sense of speed from his car-racing youth found its way into his highly kinetic style of filmmaking.
Having won several awards for his student films, Lucas’ first feature film THX 1138 (1971, a dystopian sci-fi adapted from one of his USC shorts) was produced by Francis Ford Coppola for their company, the ‘filmmakers’ retreat’ of American Zoetrope. They wanted to make something new outside the old system of Hollywood.
The critics were confused. The audience was limited. The film flopped. It has since become something of a cult classic, and rightfully so. Its use of sparse dialogue coupled with an innovative use of ambient soundtrack and altered soundscapes to set the tone and mood, made what on the surface looks alienating and bleak into a highly sensual film.
After the box-office failure Coppola, still putting trust in his protégé, challenged Lucas to make “something warm and fuzzy”. And so, American Graffiti followed in 1973.
That film, with its slightly Fellini-esque sentimentality and with its pastel nostalgia of Lucas ’60s days of youth spent driving up and down Modesto streets in caravans of what was essentially the night-time cruising “mating rituals” of the teenagers of the post-war generation resonated with the crowd. The film, all-encompassed by a soundtrack of the rock’n’roll hits of the era, proved to be a hit. It was just what a Vietnam War-weary public needed – the look back on its ‘Sweet Sixteen’ recent past.
Curiously, each of the four main characters (three shown in the scene below) contain elements and characteristics of how Lucas saw back on his younger self.
Building on Graffiti‘s success, and also partly on the failure to obtain the filming rights for Flash Gordon, Lucas set out to do something else. A space adventure modelled on the mythology distilled by Campbell. Star Wars premiered in 1977 (and was some years later, when sequels were announced, amended with the title of Episode IV: A New Hope).
Star Wars (I differentiate, using the non-italic as the name for the entire saga), as everybody should probably know, connected with young and old (the young-at-hearts?), was hugely popular and more or less turned into a modern myth over-night.
Due to a clever strategy and filmmaking deal with the distribution studio of 20th Century Fox Lucas was given the rights to merchandizing and future installments in the franchise in exchange for settling at a low director’s fee. This bought Lucas his artistic freedom and total independence outside the rigid Hollywood studio system.
This is an important point; Star Wars is Lucas, and Lucas is Star Wars.
The irony is that even though the film made Lucas rich, it also made him self-sufficient and able to fund his own production company. He fought for, won and maintained total creative control.
The vision of his work on Star Wars, whether you find it good or bad, was fully his own and this makes Lucas an auteur.
What does that mean? Read more here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auteur_theory
“OT” vs. “PT”
Some fans prefer what is generally known as the original trilogy (episodes IV-VI released between 1977 and 1983) to the prequel trilogy (episodes I-III, 1999-2005). Some even claim it is the only “true” Star Wars. Taste is subjective, but it is just that – taste. And an element of nostalgia is probably an important factor in this fan dispute.
You might not like the PT, but it is still Star Wars; it came from George Lucas.
There are obvious differences between the two trilogies. Besides being filmed so many years apart that film styles and filmmaking techniques inevitably changed, the mythos spanning the sage is also diverse.
In IV-VI the story starts out almost fairytale-like with a clear, simplistic (not simple!) black/white conflict between evil and good, wrong and right. The story then evolves in the next two episodes, moving the plot into a morally more grey area.
The PT expands upon this basic framework. Where the OT is simplistic (not necessarily a bad thing – there’s a beautiful and distinctive depth in that) the PT is more wilfully diffuse in nature, taking on a more soap-operatic form based upon its almost Shakespearean tone of narrative.
You might disapprove of these stylistic choices, but it is Star Wars, it is what Lucas wanted for the back story, and it is canon.
Revisionism and (even worse) allegations
In 1997, in time for the 20th anniversary of the first film, the three “originals” were re-released theatrically. This was partly to prepare the audience for the upcoming prequels (starting out in 1999 with The Phantom Menace) and partly to “fix” certain effects and scenes Lucas felt did not truly reflect his vision or intention. This angered some critical fans who labelled the revisions as the “raping of childhoods”.
That’s harsh and polemic almost for the sake of being offensive.
Lucas is the author of Star Wars, and whether you approve of his changes (some minor, some perhaps more altering of characters and plot points) or not, the point still stands. It was his right to carry out these changes.
If a work is forever locked and unalterable after its first public airing, then taking a liking to the later edition of Tolkien’s The Hobbit (changed to better fit within a larger Lord of the Rings chronology), finding the remix of a certain song superior to the original, et cetera, et cetera is sheer hypocrisy. Heck, even some classical painters made numerous variations of their famous works.
The Return of the Blockbuster: Nostalgia Strikes Back
In 2012, after finally getting tired of fans’ constant bickering and loud voicing of their disapproval of him doing what he liked to do, Lucas sold off his production company Lucasfilm to Disney, and thus the rights of the Star Wars franchise were handed off, allowing for 2015’s hit Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Most fans were pleased, especially the older ones.
The Force Awakens is by no means a bad film, but it is only the seventh-best Star Wars film (but that’s another story and another blog post.)
In the end George Lucas absolved himself. Most of the $4 billion that Disney paid, Lucas let go to charity. Not to bad for a man accused of being a childhood molester.
(Damned, fanatic, idiotic fans.)