The Literary Star Wars, a History
George Lucas and His Heroes, From Flash Gordon to Francis Ford Coppola
Ok, people, it’s here. December 18th, 2015. Star Wars Day.
Nerds around the world are celebrating what has to be the most significant day in fan history since, well, May 25, 1977. The long-awaited sequel to Return of the Jedi (1983), Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens is in theaters.
To celebrate this momentous occasion, I’d like to present a brief history of George Lucas’s first Star Wars film and a literary primer for J.J. Abrams’s new one. Enjoy, dorks!
A Maybe Not So Brief History of Star Wars
In 1971, after the financial failure of THX-1138, a heady sci-fi think piece, George Lucas felt bitter that American audiences didn’t warm to his ice-cold film. His wife, Marcia, wasn’t exactly consoling. “I reminded George” she said, “that I warned him [THX-1138] hadn’t involved the audience emotionally.” She continues:
He always said, “Emotionally involving the audience is easy. Anybody can do it blindfolded, get a little kitten and have some guy wring its neck.” All he wanted to do was abstract filmmaking, tone poems, collections of images. So finally, George said to me, “I’m gonna show you how easy it is. I’ll make a film that emotionally involves the audience.”
His pretentious boast proved prophetic. His next film, American Graffiti, tapped into a nostalgia for life before the moral conundrums of the late 1960s and the early 70s and became a runaway hit. Flush with a nearly $7-million cut of $55.1 million in rentals, Lucas, convinced now that he had the right approach to filmmaking, set his sights on his next project.
Making Graffiti convinced him “that making a positive film is exhilarating,” and lead him to an insight: “I saw that kids today don’t have any fantasy life the way we had—they don’t have Westerns, they don’t have pirate movies… the real Errol Flynn, John Wayne kind of adventures.” So he wondered, “Maybe I should make a film like [American Graffiti] for even younger kids. Graffiti was for sixteen-year-olds; this [Star Wars] is for ten- and twelve-year-olds, who have lost something even more significant than the teenager.”
Actually writing the thing, however, became a jumbled, laborious chore. It took Lucas two and half years to complete the script, a lot of which was spent smoothing out the more perplexing aspects of the story. The first sentence of the original treatment stated that this was “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.” Luke Skywalker was at first named Starkiller. No one could make heads or tails of this project, but the record-breaking run of American Graffiti helped push the confounding “space opera” through to production. Another aspect nobody could figure out was Lucas’s insistence on sequel and merchandising rights for the movie. Here’s Peter Biskind in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (from which this whole history has been cribbed) explaining the significance of Lucas’s business decisions:
Until Star Wars, merchandising was a relatively trivial cash center… From [Twentieth Century] Fox’s point of view, Lucas’s demands were a joke. Everyone knew that toys took eighteen months to design, manufacture, and distribute, and by that time the movie would be history. It was axiomatic that you couldn’t make money on sequels, and the rights obviously didn’t amount to much unless the movie was a huge hit, which nobody expected.
Production on the film was a disaster. Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, a married couple who were co-writers on American Graffiti and did uncredited writing on Star Wars, found Lucas in a state of utter misery. “He had these terrible foot infections,” Katz recalled. “We would sit with him; we didn’t think he would even make it to the set. We walked him around, tried to convince him not to kill himself. He was so disappointed he couldn’t get anything he wanted, the crew was making fun of him.”
Problems with the script were just as pressing. In Harrison Ford’s immortal words, regarding Lucas’s dialogue: “George, you can type this shit, but you sure can’t say it.” Even Lucas himself recognized issues. Again, from Peter Biskind: “When Luke, Han, and Princess Leia were trapped on the Deathstar, George complained, ‘I got fifty storm troopers shooting at three people from ten feet away, and nobody gets hurt. Who’s gonna believe this?’”
While editing the film, Lucas became unhappy with his initial editor and asked Marcia, who had previously edited American Graffiti, as well as Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Taxi Driver for Martin Scorsese, to take over. Shortly after Christmas in 1976, Scorsese called Marcia in a state of panic: his editor on his latest project New York, New York, a big-budget musical starring Liza Manelli and Robert De Niro, had quit and he needed her to come complete the film immediately. Marcia, who didn’t believe in her husband’s film, abandoned the family-friendly world of Star Wars for the coke-addled frenzy of 70s Scorsese.
Things looked even bleaker when, in March of 1977, Lucas finally screened a rough cut—with no special effects and old black-and-white WWII dogfight footage standing in for some action sequences—for Marcia, Huyck, Katz, and fellow filmmakers Jay Cocks, Steven Spielberg, and Brian De Palma. “The screening ended,” Biskind writes, “there was no applause, just an embarrassed silence.” Marcia thought it was “awful” and cried, while De Palma basically yelled at Lucas like “a crazed dog.” Lucas fretted over the film’s ability to crossover to adults. “Only kids,” he repeated after the screening, “I’ve made a Walt Disney movie, a cross between Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. It’s gonna do eight, maybe ten million.”
Only Spielberg saw potential. “George, it’s great,” he said. “It’s gonna make $100 million.” George was dubious, so Spielberg bet that Lucas’s sci-fi film would make more than the one he was currently making, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Spielberg told Alan Ladd, the president of Fox, that he thought Star Wars would make “at least $35 million rentals. Maybe more.”
Star Wars—which didn’t officially adopt the Episode IV: A New Hope sub- and sub-subtitles until the re-release in 1981—opened on May 25, 1977 and was, of course, a huge fucking hit. Its total cost was $9.5 million, “with an additional couple of million for prints, ads, and publicity,” according to Biskind, but “took in over $100 million in only three months. The novelization, released quietly by Bantam, reached number four on the paperback best-seller list, selling two million copies by August 25. In November, Star Wars bested Jaws to become the biggest money-maker of all time, racking up an astounding $193.5 million in rentals.”
More than money, though, Star Wars shifted the culture. Within a few years, the ambitious young artists who made up the New Hollywood of the 70s—Robert Altman, Paul Schrader, Hal Ashby, William Friedkin, Peter Bogdanovich, Michael Cimino, Bob Rafelson, Robert Towne, and even Scorsese and Coppola—couldn’t fund their personal, idiosyncratic films. “Star Wars was in,” as Scorsese put it, “Spielberg was in. We were finished.” The studios, who had stumbled so colossally in the tumult of the early to mid-60s and were forced to temporarily cede control to a bunch of bearded, drug-taking auteurs, were back on their feet, in a territory they understood: big extravaganzas peopled with heroic archetypes. Gone was the nuance of The Last Detail and The Last Picture Show, replaced by the storming spectacles of Spielberg, Lucas and their progeny. Lucas, though, envisioned a Reaganomic effect for the film industry in which tent-pole pictures would fund smaller, more artful projects. One look at our current multiplexes—strewn as they are with multiple Batmans and Spidermans, sequels upon sequels upon sequels, and now, to make things even bigger, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which all but requires you to see sit through (and, thus, spend money on) a dozen previous movies to understand the new one—shows the legitimacy of that claim.
And yet Star Wars is an indelible part of American mythology, foundational to the childhoods of millions and millions around the world. Its formula—taken, as we shall see, from Greek myth—has been permanently stamped upon our movies, yes, but also most aspects of our culture at large. Star Wars is as American as baseball, as hotdogs, as apple pie. The blame for the opening-weekend-fixated, superhero-saturated industry it spawned cannot, of course, be completely placed on Star Wars’s shoulders alone, and, in all likelihood, if asked whether they’d prefer to watch Star Wars or something like Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, most Americans—hell, most people—would probably choose the movie with the naïve hero, the masculine hero, the beautiful princess, and the adventures in space… a galaxy far, far away…
As to why that is, it is perhaps best to look at the influences on this piece of great American mythology set in a galaxy far, far away… What follows is a list of books, comics, and movies that influenced George Lucas, directly or indirectly, in the creation of his Star Wars universe.
From the Earth to the Moon (1856); All Around the Moon (1870), Jules Verne
Jules Verne’s seminal novel, From the Earth to the Moon, was not only an early example of science fiction but one of the first stories to explore the notion of space travel. Though the book ends with the three men launching toward the stars in their projectile, and you don’t find out what happens to the characters when they’re actually in space. It wasn’t until Around the Moon, the long-awaited sequel, that Verne finally took readers out of the atmosphere and into the unknown.
Lieut. Gullivar Jones: His Vacation, Edwin Lester Arnold (1905); A Princess of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs (1917)
Now we’re past the moon and on to Mars. Edwin Lester Arnold had moderate success as a novelist, though not with the book he is now known for, Lieut. Gullivar Jones: His Vacation (a horribly clunky title that, little wonder, is replaced with the erroneous Gulliver of Mars). In fact, the failure of Gullivar led him to quit the vocation altogether; he never wrote another book. Although he didn’t know it, Arnold had a hand in creating the sword and planet genre, as his last novel inspired Edgar Rice Burroughs to write The Princess of Mars not long after. Burroughs’s Barsoom series starring John Carter became incredibly popular and hugely influential, not only inspiring Lucas but also Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, and Carl Sagan—as well as the recent, poorly received Andrew Stanton-directed film version. And it’s also an early example of pulp fiction, a genre that would borrow heavily from John Carter’s Western-style space heroics.
Armageddon 2419 A.D., Philip Francis Nowlan (1928)
Case in point. Originally appearing in the August 1928 issue of Amazing Stories, Armageddon 2419 A.D. featured the first appearance of Buck Rogers (named Anthony here), the hero who wakes up 500 years in the future after an accident in a mine, and who became the star of comic strips, novels, movies, and radio shows. Buck Rogers helped popularize the space exploration in stories that had begun with Verne and Burroughs and H.G. Wells. Lucas adored the comic strips as a kid in Modesto, California, and used the pulpy style as inspiration for his space opera. And Nowlan’s novella is a fascinating relic of the past as well as a harbinger, to use another sci-fi master’s phrase, of the shape of things to come.
Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon (1934-1943)
When King Features Syndicate—a real print syndication company and not a villainous organization from a superhero comic (though King Features was owned by William Randolph Hearst, who, as far as real people go, was pretty damn villainous)—wanted to create a character to compete with Buck Rogers, and when they couldn’t reach an agreement with Edgar Rice Burroughs and get the rights to his John Carter of Mars series, they turned to a staff artist named Alex Raymond. He created Flash Gordon, who was probably the most prominent influence on George Lucas when making Star Wars, at least in a storytelling sense. In fact, Lucas has said in the past that he “wanted to make a Flash Gordon movie, with all the trimmings, but I couldn’t obtain the rights to the characters,” so he mined Raymond’s Sunday comic strips for inspiration, which lead him to Burroughs and Arnold.
The Teachings of Don Juan, Carlos Castaneda (1968)
Carlos Castaneda spent five years in the Yaqui territory—what is now Sonora in Mexico and southern California, Nevada and Arizona in the States—with a self-proclaimed sorcerer named don Juan Matus, during which Castaneda tripped on some crazy-ass drugs (i.e., Psilocybe Mexicana, which, for your edification, the Aztecs referred to as “god mushroom”) which, among other things, brought about spiritual enlightenment and, even, turned Castaneda into a blackbird.
Castaneda’s experiences turned into his doctoral thesis at UCLA and was published as The Teachings of Don Juan in 1968. This, believe it or not, contains the seeds of Star Wars. “He pored over [the book],” Biskind writes, “recast Castaneda’s hero… as Obi-Wan Kenobi, and his ‘life force,’ into the Force.” Yup, part of the inspiration for the Force was a couple of dudes out tripping balls in the deserts of Mexico. And this from George Lucas, a guy who stated that he “wanted to make a kids’ film that would… introduce a kind of basic morality.”
2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick (1968)
No science fiction film would look the way it looks or feel the way it feels without Stanley Kubrick’s illusive masterpiece. Based loosely on Arthur C. Clarke’s story “The Sentinel,” Kubrick created a visionary work of art, and the remarkable visual effects (Dave jogging in the bridge, the infamous jump-cut to the floating space craft) still hold up today. Lucas initially pitched Star Wars as “a combination of 2001 and James Bond.”
THX-1138, George Lucas (1971)
If only to see the first film Lucas tried to make in the vein of 2001, but also because THX-1138 is so starkly different from Star Wars it’s hard to believe they were made by the same person. Starring Robert Duvall and Donald Pleasence and set in a dystopian future where everyone dresses identically, sex is outlawed, emotion-killing drugs are mandated and people are given license-plate-like names, like Duvall’s eponymous moniker. It is a cold, slow and ponderous movie (not to mention pretentious). But it also the kind of film Lucas has long stated he’d like to go back to making. Now that he’s relinquished control over the Star Wars empire, maybe now he will? Would anyone care?
The Hidden Fortress, Akira Kurosawa (1958)
Set during the civil wars in Japan’s Edo period, Akira Kurosawa’s acclaimed jidaigeki film The Hidden Fortress has loads of epic battle scenes and warring factions and sword fighting, but it is all told from the point of view of two peasants, Tahei and Matashichi, who through myriad circumstances find their way through the many complexities of the war between the Yamana and the Azikuzi clans. Rewatch the original Star Wars and see how Lucas straight up stole this from Kurosawa in the form of R2-D2 and C-3PO, who are truly the protagonists of that film. (Lucas would later rely on The Hidden Fortress again when he wrote The Phantom Menace but let’s not talk about that right now.)
The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell (1949)
Mythologist Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces laid out the “monomyth” (a phrase Campbell borrowed from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake), otherwise known as the Hero’s journey. Campbell broke down the story structures of well-known ancient myths and found the same basic narrative in every one. His accomplishment lies not in recognizing the pattern but in explicating that pattern for human life. This monomyth can represent the struggle to “find your bliss,” as Campbell put it, as for him “a good life is one hero journey after another.” It is also, of course, the narrative structure Lucas used for his young Jedi.
A Decade Under the Influence, Ted Demme and Richard LaGravenes (2003)
This wonderful 2003 documentary by Ted Demme (who died before it was finished) and Richard LaGravenese is an excellent primer for Star Wars, for two reasons. The first is that you get a real sense of the era from which Lucas’s saga emerged, and the circumstances that allowed for its creation. With interviews with all the usual suspects of the time, A Decade Under the Influence is a fascinating portrait of what is probably the best decade of American movies ever.
The second reason to watch it is so that you can see Han Solo in action. Lucas, in part, based his misanthropic anti-hero on young Francis Ford Coppola, a cool, charming and enterprising figure who inevitably gets the girl over a Luke-like Lucas. There is one particular moment when Coppola’s being interviewed about his 1969 film The Rain People, on the set of which Coppola first met Lucas, who was a production assistant. As Coppola pontificates on the merits of his film and his technique, you can see Lucas in the background, behind Coppola, looking at him with naïve, admiring eyes.
Much like Han Solo, Coppola wasn’t too impressed by anyone other than himself. When Star Wars opened in ’77 and smashed all previous box office records, Coppola, who was waist-deep in the brilliant debacle of Apocalypse Now!, and who didn’t care for Star Wars much anyway, sent Lucas a telegram: “Send Money. Francis.”
Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Peter Biskind (1998)
Because it’s a page-turning rollick of a book, because Peter Biskind’s a helluva writer (see also his account of the independent filmmaking of the 90s, Down and Dirty Pictures for more evidence), and also because I leaned heavily on it for this piece. Thanks, Mr. Biskind. (And thanks Jason Christopher, too, who introduced me to that book.)