Betrayed by George Lucas
George Lucas was the first filmmaker I had ever heard of. I was six years old when Star Wars was released in 1977. The movie became a year-long quest for my young self. While every kid I knew was seeing Star Wars over and over again, I had to make due with the reflected glory of the merchandise. Everything I knew about Star Wars came from cheap packs of trading cards. The kind that used to come with pink, cardboard like “gum”. The cards included behind the scenes pictures and stories which were my introduction to the making of movies.
When I finally saw the movie at a drive-in movie theater in 1978, well, it blew my mind. Despite the fact I already knew the entire story in various other forms, finally seeing Star Wars made a huge impression on me. It was then that I became a movie fan. Without Star Wars, who knows, this blog may not even exist.
Between creating Star Wars and Indiana Jones, George Lucas had a tremendous influence on my childhood. Those characters and movies were incredibly personal to me. So I was understandably excited when Lucas decided to revisit those stories decades later. Like a lot of people my age, I saw that excitement turn to disappointment when the new offerings didn’t live up to my childhood memories.
I’m not going to say that George Lucas destroyed my childhood or anything so melodramatic. But I’m not going to lie. I have felt betrayed by George Lucas more than once.
The first betrayal came just in time for the holidays in 1978. I had just seen the movie earlier that year and I was excited to see a new Star Wars TV show that I could watch along with everyone else. It was going to be great! I could find out what happened to all my favorite characters after the Death Star was destroyed.
What I didn’t know was that the program was less of a continuation of Star Wars and more of a variety show hoping to capitalize on the movie’s success. Lucas wasn’t directly involved. Instead, he handed over notebooks full of material on Wookie culture. So the TV movie ended up focusing a lot of attention on characters who spoke only in grunts and snarls. In between, C-list celebrities from the seventies like Bea Arthur and Art Carney made appearances and sang songs. It really has to be seen to be believed, but I wouldn’t recommend watching it all at once. It’s unbearable.
Truth is, in 1978 I didn’t feel the least bit betrayed by this weird ass special. I didn’t know what to make of it, but it had Star Wars characters in it and I was seven. I didn’t actually get to watch the show all the way to the end. We had to go pick up my dad at the airport, so I reluctantly left without knowing whether or not Chewie made it home to celebrate Life Day with his family. Back in those dark days, you couldn’t just DVR a program and watch it later.
In this instance, it was Lucas who felt betrayed. In the early days of Star Wars, its creator envisioned the series as a loose anthology. Lucas planned to concentrate on telling the story of Luke Skywalker. But he also intended to allow other directors to tell stories in his universe. The mangling of his creation in the Holiday Special convinced Lucas that he needed to maintain control of his creation.
Lucas spent the next several decades covering up the existence of the holiday special. There was no internet back then and most people didn’t have recording devices. Bootleg copies would show up at conventions, but most people didn’t even know of their existence. The Holiday Special took on this weird urban legend status where a lot of kids who watched it weren’t sure if it had actually happened or not. That is, until it became widely available on YouTube. Thanks, Al Gore!
After the brief misstep of the largely forgotten Holiday Special, George Lucas and Star Wars recovered with the superior sequel, The Empire Strikes Back. Empire is generally considered to be the best movie in the series. Arguably that can be attributed at least in part to Lucas’ reduced involvement. Lucas wrote and directed the first Star Wars himself. But Empire was written by Lawrence Kasdan and directed by Irvin Kershner. Which isn’t to say Lucas wasn’t involved. He was definitely the idea man behind the sequel. But when the movie was actually being made, he had his hands full with Empire.
Reportedly, Lucas wasn’t all that pleased with the final movie. He felt like Star Wars movies should be fast-paced and superficial like the serials that inspired them. This put the producer at odds with his writer and director who felt that the story should be more character-driven. With Lucas away working on Raiders of the Lost Ark, Kasdan and Kershner had a little more leeway to make Empire into the movie they felt it should be.
Once again, Lucas felt like control of his creation had been taken away from him. He decided to be more involved in the third movie.
But you have to hand it to Lucas. As a producer, he was on a winning streak. He followed up The Empire Strikes Back with another great piece of escapist entertainment, Raiders of the Lost Ark. Once again, Lucas looked to movie serials for inspiration. He and his buddy, Steven Spielberg, ended up creating a character that rivaled James Bond.
As a kid growing up in the late seventies and early eighties, Star Wars and Indy were huge parts of my childhood. This put George Lucas in a unique position. He was in the driver’s seat of two of the most beloved elements of my youth. Most of my peers felt the same way. We would gladly pay for quality Star Wars and Indiana Jones products. But we are also very protective of our childhood memories. If Lucas abused our trust, we would feel betrayed. I dare say no other filmmaker had the potential to delight or disappoint my generation so thoroughly as George Lucas.
In 1983, George Lucas wrapped up his Star Wars saga with Return of the Jedi. Having felt like he was frozen out of Empire, Lucas made himself more present for the final chapter of his saga. According to Star Wars producer, Gary Kurtz, Lucas was being seduced by the Dark Side. Or more specifically, the big money of selling merchandise:
I could see where things were headed. The toy business began to drive the 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.
Return of the Jedi introduced the teddy bear-like Ewoks to the series. Many saw the Ewoks as a blatant attempt to appeal to kids and sell them Star Wars stuffed animals. It was a sign of things to come. But for the most part, Star Wars fans were satisfied with the conclusion of the Star Wars saga despite Lucas’ shifting priorities.
Next: The Dark Days