This is part seven of an ongoing series about why Hollywood and American cinema in general is awful trash.
READ HERE: PART 1-AMAZON AND NETFLIX
READ HERE: PART 2-THE DAYS BEFORE THE HOLLYWOOD BLACKLIST
READ HERE: PART 3-WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN IF NOT FOR JOE MCCARTHY
READ HERE: PART 4-FRENCH FILM
READ HERE: PART 5-SIX QUESTIONS WITH FILM PROFESSOR VINCENT BOHLINGER
READ HERE: PART 6-TINSELTOWN GET GOOD, FOR ABOUT FIFTEEN YEARS
If you had not heard, there’s a new Star Wars movie coming out this Friday and, as per my pedigree as the in-house geek, I am a bit excited for this. Furthermore, because I know the production history of all these films extremely well, including the true stories that run counter to the official narrative issued by the studios as part of the press kits, I figured I would capitalize on this while simultaneously dismantling a little sexism in the process that has been irking me for some time.
So let’s start with that official court history of Star Wars, which says that George Lucas came up with the story all on his own and envisioned a 6 film epic about a father who falls from grace and is redeemed by his son. In this version of reality, Lucas is a genius, the cinematic equivalent of Da Vinci in terms of both artistic prowess and technological innovation. Just look at Mark Hamill (who is not a total ass) kissing the ring of His Eminence back in 2005 when they gave him a Lifetime Achievement award for…something:
That’s all a load of bullshit and George Lucas is in fact a nasty, narcissistic prick who processed through the hurt of his divorce in the most mean-spirited fashion possible, and whats more, he did it in front of all of humanity.
There are three sources for this insight that I highly recommend. The first is a 1983 biography titled Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas by Dale Pollock, the second is 2016’s George Lucas: A Life by Brian Jay Jones, and the third is the producer of the original two Star Wars pictures, Gary Kurtz, who was intimately involved in the creation of those pictures and walked away from Return of the Jedi, the final in the series, when “The toy business began to drive the [Lucasfilm] empire. It’s a shame. They make three times as much on toys as they do on films. It’s natural to make decisions that protect the toy business but that’s not the best thing for making quality films.”
But let’s start at the beginning.
First, George Lucas went to the University of Southern California because his dad had a stationary business that could pay the tuition. The campus is located in Los Angeles and the Film Department had a friendly rivalry with the one at UCLA. In 1967, he met a girl named Marcia Griffin and began a relationship with her. Marcia was an editor in her own right and had tremendous talent, as we shall see shortly.
Pollock writes: “At first, they were an unlikely couple. She was a street-smart, industry-wise career woman who had emerged from a tough single-parent childhood determined to obtain financial success on her own. He was a shy, somewhat awkward student, lost in a private world of movie making… [I]t was months before they had a serious conversation and weeks after that before Lucas asked her for a date. The date in itself was unusual. ‘Once I got into film school, I stopped a lot of my living,’ explains Lucas. ‘I didn’t have time to deal with the social graces because I hardly had contact with anyone-I was always working.’ Lucas had never had steady girlfriends in college, contenting himself with occasional one-night stands.”
Pollock is being overly-generous here because, in hindsight, it seems pretty obvious, Marcia was assertive and George was mousy. Furthermore, as we shall see, it also seems like she had the talent and Lucas only knew how to take credit for other people saving his ass.
Lucas met and became an intern for UCLA alum Francis Ford Coppola. The latter was a few years older, seen as a kind of hero for having made it in Hollywood, and was directing a movie at Warner Brothers called Finian’s Rainbow, released in October 1968.
In December 1969 Lucas would go on to shoot footage for Gimme Shelter, the documentary about the catastrophic Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Speedway, before cofounding American Zoetrope with Coppola. Located on Folsom Street in San Francisco, it was intended to be the complete opposite of Hollywood, a bohemian salon-cum-studio where directors would carry on like Beat poets (particularly in terms of libido given how much grab-ass Francis could play in a given day). That was the year he also married Marcia, settling into a Mill Valley cottage in Marin County.
Zoetrope’s first two movies, The Rain People and THX-1138, were not big hits. Indeed, Marcia thought George’s offering, THX, was complete crap, which is not incorrect. Then Lucas came up with a pretty decent idea, make a movie about a bunch of teens in 1962 roaring around a southern California town one night before they all go their separate ways for things like college or the military.
Lucas slapped on top of this a soundtrack of rock ‘n roll classics and got a great vocal performance/on-screen cameo from Wolfman Jack, a legendary DJ, while also showcasing the talent of a young Ron Howard. But for my money, I am betting everything that American Graffiti was a good film because, unlike THX, Marcia was the film cutter who made it beat and throb with a liveliness unseen in other movies.
What came next changed cinema forever. And it is nothing like Lucas tells it.
In a 2010 story by Jeff Boucher for the Los Angeles Times, Kurtz explains that he and Lucas started out wanting to do a remake of the old Saturday movie matinee serials from the pre-television era. “We tried to buy the rights to Flash Gordon from King Features but the deal would have been prohibitive… They wanted too much money, too much control, so starting over and creating from scratch was the answer.”
Lucas wrote a sprawling five hour behemoth of a screenplay that no one in their right mind would think was remotely worthy of production, or for that matter even good. “Our plan was to do Star Wars and then make Apocalypse Now and do a black comedy in the vein of MASH,” Kurtz told Boucher.
Fusing together elements lifted from Frank Herbert, E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith, King Arthur, Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s 1960 samurai epic The Hidden Fortress, and the more esoteric elements of Buddhist theology, it was going to be big. It was going to be groundbreaking. It was going to have new film technologies that would break every rule of special effects.
And Lucas ended up delivering a complete turd that made all his friends shriek in horror and disgust.