“I think Star Wars, it’s a pity, because George Lucas was a very experimental crazy guy and he got lost in this big production and never got out of it.”
-Francis Ford Coppola
When I read about “The New Hollywood” I tend to see the certain names repeated again and again: Spielberg, Lucas, Milius, Bogdanovich, Scorsese, De Palma, Coppola, ect. As we assess and reassess that period in time, certain names gain more prominence while others tend to lose their stature. George Lucas falls into the latter category. Of course he’s has more money than all of “The New Hollywood” combined and for most that means he’s achieved ultimate success. However, fans of the cinema who care about more than dollars and cents find such from grace is a complete and utter tragedy. We weep for the man who once was.
When I think about the career of George Lucas, I’m reminded of a now defunct podcast called Watching The Directors. Each episode of the podcast would take a close look at the career of one single director. To this day, I’ve never forgotten what the host said about George Lucas when his episode came around:
“Had Star Wars have waited, what career would Lucas have had.”
Star Wars is such a huge enterprise that its hard to imagine a world without it. Some, in fact, may not want to imagine a world without it. I, thank God, am not one of those people. Taking my cue from Back To The Future 2, I’ve often imagined an alternate timeline for George Lucas the director: a timeline filled with diverse and provocative features directed by one of the most unique voices of “The New Hollywood”. If I may, please allow me to be Doc Brown to your Marty McFly and give you a brief tour this ever so promising alternate timeline.
(Believe it or not, most of my conjecture has some basis in factual accounts of projects Lucas either abandoned or gave to his friends. Still, I would hesitate before taking any of this as gospel)
Starting off, I like to imagine a young George Lucas, fresh from the success of THX-1138 with the whole world before him. He transitions from the sparse sci-fi universe of THX to the jungles of Vietnam and begins production on the film Apocalypse Now, written by his buddy and fellow writer/director John Milius. If legend proves correct, his version of Apocalyspe Now is a vastly different animal from Coppola’s
“He (Lucas) approached Apocalypse Now as a black comedy, and intended to shoot the film after making THX 1138, with principal photography to start in 1971. Lucas’ friend and producer Gary Kurtz traveled to the Philippines, scouting suitable locations. They intended to shoot the film in both the rice fields between Stockton and Sacramento, California and on-location in Vietnam, on a $2 million budget, cinéma vérité style, using 16 mm cameras, and real soldiers, while the war was still going on.”
(If you want to see what Lucas’ version of Apocalypse Now would have been like, check out this clip from More American Graffiti).
Going further down our alternate timeline we find a young George Lucas arrving home from the Philippines. He’s physically and emotionally exhausted. He wants to pursue a smaller project close to his heart that draws on his own personal history. His next film is American Graffiti. During production on Graffiti he starts fiddling around with another idea similarly steeped in Nostalgia. This time, however, it’s not nostalgia for his own personal history, but nostalgia for a culture that’s derived from the once-dominate entertainment medium of yesteryear. George Lucas’ next film is Radioland Murders. If we are to take Wikipedia as gospel, we understand that…
“Lucas conceived the story line of the film during the writing phase of American Graffiti, viewing it as a homage to the various Abbott and Costello films, primarily Who Done It (1942), in which Abbott and Costello star as two soda jerks solving a murder in a radio station. When Universal Pictures accepted American Graffiti in 1972, Lucas also allowed the studio first look deals for both Radioland Murders and an untitled science fiction film (which eventually became the basis for Star Wars).
Lucas eventually negotiated a deal to produce Radioland Murders for Universal shortly after the successful release of American Graffiti in late 1973. Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz prepared a rough draft based on Lucas’s 1974 film treatment, and Universal was confident enough to announce pre-production soon after. Lucas was set to direct with Gary Kurtz producing.”
Oh, what could have been! Can you imagine: George Lucas fresh off the success of American Graffiti directs a madcap murder mystery screwball comedy starring Steve Martin and Cindy Williams (reports at the time had them attached as leads). Talk about movie lover heaven! (I also find it interesting that the mid 70’s found Spielberg, Scorsese and Lucas all developing projects dealing with nostalgia for yesteryear; 1941, New York, New York, and Radioland Murders).
Radioland Murders is released and is a modest hit (great with critics, not so much with audiences) Lucas decides its time to direct his “untitled science fiction film”. As a result, Star Wars is released May 1977 and the rest is history. The new found popularity is a bit much for Lucas so he decides to take a Hawaiian vacation with his friend Steven Spielberg. As the oft repeated story goes;
“While building a sand castle at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, Spielberg expressed an interest in directing a James Bond film. Lucas convinced his friend Spielberg that he had conceived a character “better than James Bond” and explained the concept of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Spielberg loved it, calling it “a James Bond film without the hardware”
We know what happened next but remember, we’re not dealing with the traditional timeline. Here is where history changes: Spielberg decides to direct the first one, only if George will do the second (an unnamed director will tackle the third….perhaps Joe Johnston as a warm up for The Rocketeer). George and Steven begin pre-production on Raiders bringing in their friend Lawrence Kasdan to flesh out story ideas and write the script. Eventually, Lucas leaves pre-production on Raiders to undertake directorial duties on Empire Strikes Back. That’s right! The Irvin Kershner version of Empire is no more. We’re getting the full Lucas treatment.
After Lucas releases his version of Empire to worldwide acclaim he decides he wants a change of pace before tackling the third Star Wars film and the second Indiana Jones movie. He wants to do something completely out of the ordinary. He decides to make an animated film. More than that, he wants to make an animated film in the tradition of experimental cinema. This comes as a shock, but those familiar with Lucas know that, deep down, he’s always been an experimental filmmaker. He directs his animated experiment, titled Twice Upon A Time, with co-director John Korty. We’re dealing in alternate timeline mechanics so we don’t know how it would have worked out, but this clip should give us a pretty good idea:
Now, with his experimental feature completed, its time to fulfill his part of the bargain and direct Indiana Jones And The Temple of Death (original title). Lucas begins production on Temple Of Death while Spielberg directs Revenge Of The Jedi (soon to be re-titled Return Of The Jedi) in Lucas’ stead……..and so on and so forth. Advancing the timeline to different logical conclusions, we’re able to foresee such Lucas directed features as….
- The George Lucas directed version of Howard The Duck (I think it would be an improvement)
- An alternate version of Willow directed by George Lucas as an epic fantasy-adventure yarn instead of a special effects debacle.
- The 1992 version of Red Tails directed by George Lucas starring Louis Gosset Jr, Lawrence Fishbourne, Denzel Washington, Gregory Hines, ect.
A glimpse at such a future is enough to make a grown man cry. George Lucas could have been one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation, but he traded it all away for the glory of the Empire. By the time he resumed directing with The Phantom Menace, his keen film-making instincts were all but gone (although, I believe Phantom Menace is underrated). He became a paint by numbers fantasy director, expanding the canvas of his created universe for no other reason than fan appeasement. He no longer cared about the art form of film or the possibilities of what cinema can do. It became all about the expansion of his never ending space opera.
Maybe one day, before it’s too late, he’ll start making personal films again. He’s said for years he wants to get back to that kind of film-making. If he ever does, I hope it’s a grand return to form for the once great auteur. Until then, I find myself sighing ever so slightly when I see the latest Star Wars trailer and wonder what could have been.