What do you think of when you think of George Lucas? Probably the Star Wars series, right? Maybe his involvement with the classic Indiana Jones series? Or his production work on films like Labyrinth and The Land Before Time? To this day, Lucas’ impact on the film industry is enormous and evident. But, over the course of a forty-year career, he’s only directed six movies. Six. So how exactly did a man with a half-dozen films under his belt come to define decades of blockbuster cinema?
Lucas’ directorial career started in 1971 with THX 1138, a high-concept dystopian sci-fi flick that sprang from a fifteen-minute student film of the same name. A 1984-esque nightmare vision of the future with heavy religious overtones, we’ll generously describe the critical reactions as “mixed”: it was a massive commercial flop, earning less than a million for Warner Bros, despite their attempts (against Lucas’ wishes) to trim the film into something more serviceable for wider audiences.
So, he’d worked with a major studio, and had turned out a movie that nobody saw and even less people liked. Where next? Lucas formed LucasFilm, an independent production company, the same year that THX 1138 was released, and started work on his sophomore feature. In 1973, with THX 1138 having faded into virtual obscurity, Lucas released American Graffiti, a coming-of-age comedy drawn from his own experiences as a teenager in California. And suddenly, he was one of the biggest players in the film industry, nearly overnight.
It’s strange to think that George Lucas was, at one time, a shorthand was visionary directorial skills given his status as “you know, the guy who takes shits all over his own universe”: American Graffiti was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director, amongst a slew of other awards, at the Oscars that year, while it quickly became one of the highest-grossing films of all time. Sparking a cultural trend in nostalgic looks back at the fifties and sixties, only three years into the decade, George Lucas had created one of the most instantly influential movies of the 1970s, as well as helping to create the very notion of the Summer blockbuster.
So, what comes next? You make a high-concept sci-fi movie that nobody likes and nobody sees, and then you release a more relatable tale based in reality that receives acclaim from audiences and critics alike. Surely, anyone in their right mind would have tried to keep riding that train – but, lucky for us, George Lucas didn’t.
Before American Graffiti had so much as hit screens, Lucas had started work on the treatment for the first Star Wars movie, drawing on myths and fairytales, intent on creating a movie that would sell to a younger audience as the kind of morality tale he felt was lacking from popular culture at the time. By 1973, as Peter Biskind noted in his fantastic look at the birth of the modern film industry Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, “all he had to show for it were thirteen pages of virtual gobbledeygook”. The opening sentence of this treatment declared it ““the story of Mace Windu, a revered Jedi-bendu of Opuchi who was related to Usby C. J. Thorpe, padawaan learner of the famed Jedi.” After being rejected by a number of major studios, many of whom wanted Lucas to pick up where he’d left off with the accessible American Graffiti, Lucas eventually received backing to make Star Wars from Alan Ladd Junior, then-head of 20th Century Fox.
And, of course, what followed was what we know now as Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. Featuring a cast of relative newcomers – Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison ford – next to seasoned thesps like Alec Guiness, Star Wars turned the cowboy movie into a space opera, packed it full of innovative and still-striking special effects, and built an instantly-immersive world that earned it insta-cult status. In an era of edgy, gory, boundary-pushing films, as Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the movie, Star Wars was “entertainment so direct and simple that all of the complications of the modern movie seem to vaporize.” It received critical acclaim and enormous box office success, while scooping an armful of Oscars (including one for Best Editing for George’s then-wife Marcia Lucas, whose work on the franchise is a whole fascinating rabbithole in and of itself that I thoroughly recommend you dive down)
And, you know, if I was being fair, and only talking about the films that he directed, I would take a break right here and skip forward to 1999, when Lucas directed A Phantom Menace. But that would of course be ignoring the enormous non-directorial impact Lucas had on the film industry in the meantime. As well as producing two more Star Wars movies, both of which would go on to be ground-breaking commercial hits and establish the franchise as one of the most singularly important and recognizable in all of pop culture history, he worked with Steven Spielberg on the production of the original Indiana Jones trilogy, cementing Harrison Ford’s place as the ultimate leading man of the era as well as his own as one of the finest blockbuster mavens in the business.
Through the eighties and nineties, Lucas was working away from the camera on some of the most recognizable hits of that era – The Land Before Time, Labyrinth, Willow, Body Heat, to name but a few. His first movie, THX 1138, earned a critical re-evaluation and a cult following. The final part of the original Star Wars trilogy, Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, was released in 1983, but the question remained – what about the story that came before?
And, in 1999, George Lucas answered that question. And how. After handing over the directorial reigns of the Star Wars franchise for the previous two movies, he was on-board as writer, director, and producer of the prequels, The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith. And, well…they suck.
To be fair, that’s not my opinion of them – I saw them when I was really young (The Phantom Menace is the first film I ever remember seeing the cinema), and they hold a warm nostalgic value for me that reminds me of curling up on the couch and sleepily watching my big brother play the demo version of the Pod Racing tie-in video game to Episode One. But I can also see, objectively, that these are films that lack hugely in so many ways: the real-effects charm of the originals has been steamrollered over by dodgy CGI, the performances wring most of the talent out of even the good actors, let alone Hayden Christensen, and Lucas struggles to bring the depth and weight that’s almost in-built into Anakin Skywalker’s story to the screen. If these films had started the franchise, there would be no franchise to speak of.
Since then, Lucas has returned to mostly behind-the-scenes work on a series of films you’ve never heard – Strange Magic, Red Tails – of or wish you hadn’t – the fourth Indiana Jones film – and the Star Wars franchise has moved forward without him (for better or for worse). What we have left in his career is a curious mix – he’s made only six films as a director, and half of them are widely considered truly awful examples of how to take a massive shit on your own legacy.
And yet, there’s no denying that his influence on the movie industry is one of the biggest and most instantly recognizable in history (and that’s not to mention the wider LucasArts creations in the video game world, either – long live the Monkey Island series). And I find that fascinating; when we think of huge directors, we might go to Spielberg (with more than thirty feature films under his belt) or Scorcese (a nice, round twenty-five), and yet Lucas’ impact on the industry is easily comparable to theirs. Though the few films he has directed have been undoubtedly influential – for better or for worse – it’s what he’s done away from the director’s chair that have made him the cinematic icon he is today. As long as we’re not going to talk about the sheer horror of the remastered original trilogy. Because that might be enough to get me repress his whole career for good.
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By Louise MacGregor
(header image via The Telegraph)