The medieval mind of George Lucas

Though he draws on our century's pop culture for his raw material, his vision arises from the Middle Ages.

Topics: Star Wars,

In August 1976, George Lucas was exhausted and desperate. He had been in London, directing the actors in “Star Wars,” a film he had every reason to believe would fail. The usual turmoil and sheer labor of the set had been made worse by the lordly British studio unions, who quit promptly
at 5:30 for tea, and by the money people back in Burbank, Calif., who in the end pulled the fiscal plug on the filming. At the end of 16 weeks of shooting, Fox gave Lucas three days to finish two weeks of work, a cost-saving move that appears at least ironic now that “Star Wars” and its succeeding
films have gone on to gross billions. At the time Lucas had to hire triple crews and divide the stage into three sets, on each of which he directed the action for the final three days. “I cared about every single detail,” he recalled (including the duct-taping of Princess Leia’s breasts — “No jiggling in the Empire,” noted Carrie Fisher). By the end of shooting
Lucas was pale, ill, ready to drop.

At that point he flew from London to Los Angeles, where Lucasfilm was headquartered in those days, and found that his special effects unit, having spent more than $1 million of its $2 million budget, had completed only three shots. Lucas was outraged. He made arrangements to assume control of the unit, then flew home to San Francisco, where he began having chest pains. He was taken to Marin General Hospital, diagnosed with exhaustion and held overnight. The next morning he took a vow. “That’s when I really confirmed to myself that I was going to change,” he told biographer Dale Pollock. “I wasn’t going to make more films, I wasn’t going to direct anymore. I was going to get my life a bit more under control.”

George Lucas has more or less stuck to his vow. He has made more films, but at a distance, as a producer. The release
of “The Phantom Menace” will show us George Lucas the director for the first time since the original “Star Wars.” Indeed, Lucas also seems to have gotten his life “a bit more under control.” In interviews of late he has described the last 20 years as being taken up with parenting his children and recovering from his divorce. But this puts a homey gloss on an
astoundingly successful and labor-intensive enterprise.

Much that eluded him in the beginning is now within Lucas’ grasp. He has amassed and consolidated his fortune (in the last 10 years his net worth has gone from about $25 million to somewhere near $2 billion) and made solid investments, so that now he can finance his films entirely. Never again will someone give George Lucas three days to do what should take two weeks.

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George Lucas’ gifts are difficult to categorize in conventional film-industry terms; he has defied Hollywood’s expectations all along. In his early days as a rebel filmmaker, he made a student film called “1:42:08: A Man and His Car,” which mostly consisted of a yellow race car doing laps at speed. Escape from and defiance of authority have always been a central theme for Lucas, both in his films and in his career as a whole. In his first feature, “THX-1138,” the hero flees an oppressive, sexless, bureaucratic society, where robotic police give up the chase only when they exceed their budget for the operation. In perhaps his farthest-out moment, in 1969, Lucas was hired by David Maysles to shoot the Rolling Stones in concert at Altamont. (Pollock reports that Lucas “can’t remember” whether he filmed a young black man, Meredith Hunter, being stabbed to death by Hell’s Angels, as Mick Jagger sang “Under my Thumb.”) In any case, Lucas continued to challenge the industry through the 1970s and ’80s, when it represented the Evil Empire, and does so even more profoundly now, as lord of the manor on Skywalker Ranch in Northern California’s Marin County.

Though he has said of directing “The Phantom Menace” that it was “much more fun than it used to be,” his dislike of directing live actors has been evident since his first days as a filmmaker. Lucas is said to be standoffish and quiet, a man who prefers
working with special effects to working with human beings. In the past he has chosen to work with unknown actors, whom he can then fill with his own ideas. Said Anthony Daniels, the actor who portrayed C-3PO, “I think George would like to freeze a lot of people and bring them out only occasionally.”

Nor is writing Lucas’ favorite activity. He wrote the
original script for “Star Wars” by hand, in his tiny printing, with sharp No. 2 pencils. The work gave him stomach pains and headaches; in his frustration he took to clipping off bits of his hair with a pair of scissors. Lucy Wilson, his assistant and pencil supplier, told Pollock that Lucas’ wastebasket “had tons of hair in it.” The result of this effort was dialogue like “I recognized your foul stench when I was brought
aboard, Governor Tarkin,” lines the actors often had trouble wrapping their mouths around. Playing Obi-Wan Kenobi to the rubber model of Yoda, Sir Alec Guinness complained about one speech to Irvin Kershner, the director of “The Empire Strikes Back.” Guinness’ suggestion: “Why doesn’t the little green thing do this one?”

While Hollywood’s other creative geniuses stake their success on writing and directing talents, Lucas’ brilliance is due at least in part to his wizardry as a film editor. “He knows the secret of what an editor can do to a movie, how he can enhance a film,” Steven Spielberg told Pollock. “I would trust George with any movie I ever direct to reedit in any way he sees fit.”

One reason Lucas is a great editor is that he makes each film mentally before any shooting starts, then harnesses the stubborn will to see his vision through. His is not the extemporaneous approach to filmmaking; the moments in filmmaking when this process of realizing the vision is most
apparent — in the drawing of the original storyboards, in the overall art design and in the editing suite — are Lucas’ best. On the set of “The Empire Strikes Back,” Kershner would often redo the scenes from the storyboards, attempting to find something better on the spot. “George would never do that,” said producer Gary Kurtz. “He’d stick to the storyboards
and fix it in the editing room.”

This gift — “obsession” might not be too strong a word — for realizing a vision has driven all of George Lucas’ activities. “I used to do it with cars, then I did it with film, now I do it with the ranch,” he told Pollock in the late ’70s, when Skywalker Ranch was still in the planning stages. The ranch itself is a piece of artwork, a simulacrum of the past composed of postmodern elements; Lucas planted thousands of mature trees around the ranch’s buildings, each of which has been made to look old and assigned its own fictional history.

Lucas’ visionary way of working has ancient antecedents. In the Middle Ages, the illiterate masses received and stored
their information in complex visual signs, or icons. In pictures of the saints, every detail had some prescribed meaning — the color blue for the Virgin, a dove for the Holy Ghost. The Dark Invader, Darth Vader, is an icon, too — an effective visual sign, instantly familiar from our own cultural catechism, black and caped and evil. In this way “Star Wars” proceeds iconographically, its characters straight out of stock, figures from ancient ritual and matinee melodrama, recloaked in every age. The Kid, the Girl, the Hero, the Sidekick, the Evil Counselor, the Wise One, the Ultimate Villain — we
know them in advance.

Also familiar to medievalists is the main “Star Wars” theme, the questing knights in the Evil Empire. Though Lucas draws on our century’s pop culture for his raw material, his grand vision arises from that other epoch, from the romantic, adventurous, moral, magically effective medieval world, where Malory and Spenser, the pre-Raphaelites and Tennyson and Errol Flynn have gone before. The place Lucas takes us — never mind the spaceships — is the Middle Ages.

Medieval times have provided a screen upon which each succeeding epoch projects its fantasies. For our own fantasy myth of the Middle Ages, we’ve imagined a place where we are still the center of the universe, where will — human or divine — still rules everything, often in the form of supernatural influences and inspired heroic deeds. No tree falls without significance in this cosmos, created expressly for human beings and ruled by a deity quite like them, only better and more powerful. Though it may or may not have anything to do with the actual epoch, this mythic Middle Ages has everything to do with our feeling that we are not quite at home in the current moment. And in the face of this unease, the systematic, good-over-evil “Star Wars” universe is comforting.

Like the medieval world, which rested on the collective memory of the long-gone past, the “Star Wars” universe is a recombination of old and familiar elements. “Star Wars” is Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe. It’s Fritz Lang and Walt Disney, Kurosawa and Castaneda, Oedipus and E.T. Reprised in its footage are the cliffhanger sci-fi serials of the ’30s and ’40s and the aerial sequences from “The Bridges of Toko-Ri” and the Battle of Britain. We find Tolkien’s hobbits in Lucas’ ewoks, Castaneda’s Don Juan in Lucas’ Obi-Wan.

Lucas’ postmodern zest for appropriation may seem ironic, given that his vision itself is a complete throwback to knights errant and ladies in waiting, wizards and dragons and a universe with a personality. As a work of art, “Star Wars” shares something with the famous Watts Towers in
Los Angeles, cathedral spires of whatever — hubcaps, freeway guardrails, balcony railings, all kinds of recognizable modern stuff welded together by a single driven man and raised in Gothic tribute to the sky.

“It’s not important how you do the shots,” Lucas instructed the
special effects crew on “Star Wars.” “It’s important what they look like.” As a filmmaker, Lucas is a synthesizer, prizing effectiveness above all. He has the hot rodder’s love of blending the various rough inputs exactly and minutely to produce a smooth and singular charge. This may be part of his attraction to myths and icons, which, first and foremost, are effective. Icons are supercharged images, each bearing its own significance — there’s none of that messy, Chekhovian getting-to-know-you about meeting Han Solo, say — and thus combining efficiently and speedily in a narrative.

So helping actors embody complex emotional realities was never Lucas’ intention. Rather, it was his job to withhold the actors from their full meaning. Real live actors generally make bad icons; the ones who are great at it, like John Wayne, are almost wholly one-dimensional in their acting. Managing this restraint was Lucas’ backbreaking labor on the “Star Wars” set; he had to turn the actors into ciphers for the formula: Mark Hamill into “The Kid,” Carrie Fisher “The Girl.”

As befits a neo-medievalist, Lucas cares everything for the vision and not a whole lot for the means of expressing it. “I don’t think, as a craftsman, that my films are extremely well made,” he has said. “They’re kind of crude.” This could be false modesty, certainly, though as a visionary and a perfectionist Lucas would tend to focus on the ways in
which the product doesn’t come up to the prototype. In the medieval world view, too, the actual manifestations of a vision are always unworthy, flickering shadows that can never fully
re-create the dream. “The moving image isn’t any more truthful than the cave paintings,” Lucas said in Premiere. “The artist finds the truth behind the ‘truth.’”

That’s why, though he has been described as the avatar of high-tech filmmaking, Lucas’ attachment to technology is more evidence of his readiness to employ whatever works in the realization process — be it computer graphics or C.S. Lewis. “I’m not that keen on technology,” he said in Premiere. “I’m a storyteller, but to enable me to tell my stories, I’ve had to develop the necessary technology.”

Lucas’ reliance on classical mythology is similarly an item in his tool kit. His version of the hero’s journey may have supplanted its precursors for the generation of viewers who saw “Star Wars” in their formative years. Yet what Lucas sought from the classics was first of all a stripped-down way of telling stories, a distillation intended to reveal a narrative formula for his iconographic characters. What Lucas lost in nuance, he gained in immediacy.

What this describes is bigger than “Star Wars,” of course. In part it is the Zeitgeist at work. We are in many ways
neo-medieval. In our historical moment, visual icons have once again become the predominant means of relaying information. We too live in a present deeply referenced to the past (to 1977, say) and deeply apprehensive about an apocalyptic future. We too have spent much of our epoch recombining elements, placing the age-old icons in new, deracinated contexts. Sure, we have technology now, though postmodern culture has given us the benefits of the Enlightenment without its technical underpinnings. We illuminate things like Merlins, flipping light switches. It’s one big special effect. Once again, effortless will appears to rule. Magic seems to be everywhere.

George Lucas has shown a genius for encapsulating all of this and giving it back to us as myth. He’s been able to anticipate the popular mind of our time, and has been richly rewarded for it. George Lucas, guy from Modesto, Calif., has become Saint George, iconmaker for the era. Lucas has worked hard to achieve this, but make no mistake: George Lucas is us and we are George Lucas. Complaints that instant iconography and sound-bite mythology amount to a starvation diet might just as well be directed toward the culture as a whole.

Jim Paul is a writer who lives in the Mission District of San Francisco. His books include "Catapult" and "Medieval in L.A."

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