We’re only a matter of days from a new Star Wars movie, and it’s quite frankly mind-boggling that Disney has pushed this once long dormant franchise into producing one film a year. And yet, not so long ago, Star Wars was equated with one name: George Lucas. Love him and/or hate him, George Lucas was the face of Star Wars since its inception in 1977, and while most people love to build him up for creating one of the biggest fictional universes ever conceived, then tear him down again for his mismanagement of the Star Wars prequel trilogy, not much attention is paid in popular discourse to the films the allowed Lucas to make Star Wars in the first place. And there is a running theme to his work up until and including the original Star Wars that might just make you take a look at the struggle between the Rebellion and the Empire in a whole new light.
George Lucas’s first film as a writer and director was THX 1138, a dystopian science fiction film set under the control of a totalitarian government. Unlike Star Wars, the mood of THX 1138 was constantly oppressive, with the main character, known only as THX 1138, one man among many under the thumb of a system that insists that all citizens have shaved heads and wear similar clothes. Government, religion, and capitalism all exist in the same entity, and people are confined to comfortable cells under the constant guard of cameras and robotic sentries dressed as friendly police officers. It’s a culture of subjugation, where a refusal to take one’s mind-altering medication is an imprisonable offense. THX 1138 partakes in a much simpler transgression: He pursues a sexual relationship with his roommate, even though love is forbidden.
THX 1138 came out in 1971, which should give a big clue as to the cultural influences at play in George Lucas’s world. Richard Nixon was in the White House, the Vietnam War was continuing to escalate, and the battle for African American Civil Rights was still raging strong in the public eye. At the time, many felt they were living in the clutches of an increasingly totalitarian state, and the art of the time clearly reflected that through color and vibrancy. In depicting a stark, bleak world shrouded in puritanical whites, THX 1138 is the battle cry of a young filmmaker who wants to put a mark on the world with harsh and stinging allegory. George Lucas is an unrepentant fan of the science fiction serials of the early 20th century, but he uses those influences and channels them in a way that people like Kurt Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury were in literature, in order to show how the government of the day wasn’t all that different from the fantastical villains of his youth. It’s a dark start for an aspiring director, and though Lucas’s next film may seem like a radical departure, it shows a clear thematic progression to his work.
Released in 1973, American Graffiti actually takes place in 1962 small town California and follows the exploits of a group of teenagers at the cusp of adulthood. This is their last night before going off to college, and the friends drive around town in a series of interlocking adventures that include one of them chasing down an attractive woman and getting caught up with a gang in the process; a nerdy cohort borrowing a friend’s impressive car and spending a wild night with a girl ordinarily out of his league; and a drag racer spending the evening with an annoying younger teenage girl while trying to track down a rival to race outside of town.
This is seemingly a much more lighthearted story than THX 1138, as almost the entire film is a fun-and-games display that lets us enjoy a wild night through the wide eyes of youth. However, the film’s final moments change all that. In the climactic car race, the rival racer crashes and his car burns spectacularly. The film’s main romantic couple, who have been fighting all night, finally call it quits. And most damningly, the epilogue title card shows how the male cast went on to either live banal existences as career men, be killed by a drunk driver, or, most pointedly, killed in Vietnam. 1962 was a year before JFK’s assassination, and Johnson is the president who ratcheted up the conflict in Vietnam, essentially creating the America that inspired THX 1138. American Graffiti is a pining for times lost, a nostalgia for a time of youthful innocence that can never be reclaimed, either because the world has become too dark and scary or because you run the risk of dying just by living in this country.
Fast forward to 1977. The Vietnam War is officially over. The United States is still scarred from conflicts both abroad and at home. The cinema of the time is tonally depressing, a remnant of a period that called for social commentary to be the check against the ills of the time. George Lucas decided that the remedy the world needed was an escape. Star Wars. A clear homage to the adventure serials of the 1940s and 1950s, Star Wars is the epitome of the Joseph Campbell monomyth, where a young hero and a group of colorful cohorts embark on a quest to save a princess. This is about as big a departure in tone as one could imagine a filmmaker making, but there’s a good reason.
See, in a world where the social turmoil of the Nixon years was seemingly over, just about everyone felt they needed a breather. What Star Wars so brilliantly realizes is that people were nostalgic for times past, just as Lucas was in making American Graffiti. So Star Wars takes a relatable ragtag group of characters and pits them against a monolithic evil Empire, not only evoking their cinematic serial inspiration, but also bringing to mind a conflict that America could feel good about having been a part of. Here’s a hint: There’s a reason that the Empire’s foot soldiers are called “Stormtroopers.” Yes, Star Wars purposely evokes World War II as a good-versus-evil paradigm in which America was clearly on the side of good. You see it in the design of the gunner cockpits on the Millennium Falcon, in the military dress of Imperial officers, and in the flying formations of the X-Wings on the Death Star run. The truly ironic thing is that in evoking the mythos of what American psychology perceived as a better time, George Lucas created a new mythos that became a cornerstone of American popular culture.
From there, the story is fairly well-known. George Lucas stepped down from the director’s chair after Star Wars, completing the original trilogy as a writer and producer, which is a role he would stick to for decades. He would produce such hits as the Indiana Jones trilogy and Labyrinth, and his company Lucasarts would redefine the standards for film audio clarity and visual special effects. Lucas would continue to pull in money from Star Wars merchandising in order to build an empire of his own, and he would not return to the director’s chair until 1999’s Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. The prequels have been covered in detail by many people across the Internet, so I won’t beat a dead horse, but the laziness of the direction and writing in those films is a far cry from the vision of the director who once used cynicism to fuel his art.
So what happened exactly? Well, I would postulate that the end of the Vietnam Era in the United States coincided with George Lucas’s meteoric success to such a degree that it was difficult for him to hold on to the cynical edge that made his early work so cutting. You see a little bit of this creep into Return Of The Jedi in the form of what Lucas thought were the very marketable Ewoks. He stopped being an artist and became a businessman, and he found that to be something he was much more talented at. And yet, I would argue that some of his best work, despite not being as financially successful, was from the days when he was willing to put in the hours in the director’s chair, and when he was angry about the injustices perpetrated by his nation against its own people. The Vietnam War shaped his early films, and that vision is what spawned the Star Wars universe as the juggernaut that has been so emotionally resonant for nearly 40 years. S