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The Career of George Lucas: A One (mega) hit wonder?

Is there hope for George Lucas?

It’s a phrase out of the music industry:  one-hit wonders.  Those bands that come out of nowhere, hit the top of the charts with a catchy – maybe even impressive – single, or have one chart-topping album, and then never seem to be able to hit that sweet spot again.  Does anybody remember Boston’s second album?  Another hit single after “96 Tears” from Jay and the Mysterians?

But they’re not alone.  There’s not an area of entertainment where the phenomenon doesn’t exist.  Rod Serling never topped The Twilight Zoneand Chris Carter never came up with another series as good as The X Files.  Fitzgerald wrote a lot of impressive stuff, but never matched The Great Gatsby, and drank himself to death over it (well, Zelda being crazy didn’t help).  Michael Cimino copped an Oscar for The Deer Hunter (1978)and then began a long, spectacular flameout.

It happens.  And maybe it’s time to finally recognize George Lucas as a member of that club.

Not too long ago, I’d written a compare-and-contrast piece on Steven Spielberg and Lucas (George Lucas v. Steven Spielberg: Maestros of the Blockbuster).  I acknowledged that, of the two, Lucas probably has had a greater impact on the movie industry.  Hell, Lucas has probably had the greatest impact on the industry since Griffith!

The success of the first Star Wars trilogy created the template for the big-budget blockbuster franchise which expands and cross-pollinates its brand across a host of platforms, from TV to videogames to merchandising.  Star Wars moved Hollywood from the movie business into the brand name event business.  All of the monster hits which continue to dominate the box office – from Harry Potter to Transformers and everything in between – owe more to Lucas than to Spielberg (or anybody else for that matter).  For good or for ill, love it or hate it, in the decades since Star Wars opened, mainstream Hollywood has largely remade itself in Lucas’ image.

And there may be no other single person since Melies for whom the expansion of film technology owes so much as well.  From the original Star Wars on, Lucas has been a fearless pioneer in pushing back the physical limits of filmmaking.  Not only do the kinds of movies that dominate the marketplace owe something to Lucas, but so do the way they look and sound.  It might be an oversimplification to say it, but it’s not hard to make a case that movies are the way they are because of George Lucas.

Successful, influential, powerful, no doubt, and in many ways brilliant and a pioneer, but as the release of Red Tails a few years back highlighted, as a creative force – as a filmmaker – George Lucas has also been a disappointment.  He may not quite be a true one-hit-wonder…but he’s damned close.

Lucas has had other hits.  Arguably, his best movie – certainly his most human movie — is the one whose success bought him the license to make Star Wars (1977); American Graffiti (1973).  Stung by the failure of his first feature, the visually striking but emotionally aloof and dramatically opaque sci fier TXH 1138 (1971), Lucas took mentor Francis Ford Coppola’s advice to try something more mainstream-friendly, and came up with Graffiti.  A bittersweet, warm-hearted salute to his own early 60s youth, Graffiti is easily one of the best coming of age films in the American canon.  It was also an enormous commercial hit and kicked off a ‘50s nostalgia craze that went on for years.

Lucas is also responsible for the ginormously successful Indiana Jones franchise.  Though Lucas’s friend Steven Spielberg helmed all the Indiana Jones films, and other writers penned the screenplays, Spielberg has always been open about saying that the series is Lucas’ baby, and that he directs to Lucas’ vision.

Still, say “George Lucas” and the title that comes to mind — in big, bold letters, no less — is Star Wars.  It’s the franchise that launched the Lucas empire, and it’s still the realm’s cornerstone and main product.  For decades, he’s kept the franchise alive by recycling the movies through one big screen/home video release after another, in almost every possible configuration:  boxed sets, newly added features, re-doing the special effects on the original trilogy, etc.  The film franchise has been the launchpad for toys, pricey collectibles, TV spin-offs (Cartoon Network’s animated Star Wars:  The Clone Wars; Star Wars:  Underworld currently in pre-production), and any number of videogames, like Lego Star Wars:  The Complete Saga, and Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Orderreleased late last year and proving the brand to still be unflaggingly vital.  Go into Lucas IMDB directing, writing, and producing credits, and once you take Star Wars-related projects out of the mix, the pickin’s get mighty thin.  Take out Indiana Jones, and you could make a case that Lucas is a borderline failure.

His producer’s portfolio outside of those two cash-cow franchises is a hodge-podge of art house ambition (Mishima:  A Life in Four Chapters [1985], Powaqqatsi [1988]) and utter misfires (Radioland Murders [1994], Willow [1988], Labyrinth [1986], Howard the Duck [1986]).  You can count the number of non-Star Wars/Indiana Jones feature successes on one hand – and still have fingers left over (neo-noir Body Heat [1981]; import Kagemusha [1980]; sugary animated feature The Land Before Time [1988]).

The knock on Lucas – as both a producer and a writer/director – goes back to the beginning of his career and even includes his biggest successes.  He’s either been dismissive of the human element in his films, and/or considers it secondary to the visual possibilities, and has been quoted as saying, “actors are irrelevant.”  Even on his most flesh-and-blood feature – American Graffiti – Lucas left direction of the actors to his dialogue coach, and on Star Wars the cast joked his idea of directing was simply to say, “Faster and more intense!”

After Star Wars, Lucas threw his DGA card away, but came back after 21 years to direct the franchise’s second trilogy.  After the childlike exuberance of Star Wars, Star Wars:  Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999), Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002), and Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005) – despite being box office monsters – were emotionally disappointing.  The application of CGI technology was awe-inspiring, but the heart of the films, well, it’s like the old Gertrude Stein line about Oakland:  “There’s no ‘there’ there.”

And sadly, Red Tails fits all-too-well into the Lucas canon.

Does Anyone Remember Red Tails?

Twenty-three years ago, an aviator friend of Lucas’ told him the story of the Tuskegee Airmen; an all-black Air Corps unit fighting in the segregated military during WW II.  Their feats of valor were legendary in quality, but criminally ignored for decades.  Telling their story became a passion project for Lucas, and when he could find no studio backer for Red Tails, he cracked open his own checkbook and forked out $58 million for the production, and another $35 million for marketing.

If only the end product matched his obviously heartfelt commitment.  Reviews are almost unanimously negative and in agreement.  Mark Jenkins of The Washington Post used words similar to so many of the major appraisals when he wrote, “The African American fliers’ great achievement merits a great movie.  Red Tails isn’t it.”

In many ways, Red Tails is typical Lucas.  Unsurprisingly, the man who exhilarated the first generation of fanboys with the outer space dogfights of Star Wars provides an aerial spectacle second to none thanks to CGI.  As he recently told Charlie Rose, “…this is one of the first films where we actually were able to create the dogfight the way it really would be, and get you right into the seat and get you right into the action…”

But on the ground, the film has all the grace of a concrete ping-pong ball.  Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman caught the critical consensus in his review writing, “As long as it stays in the air, Red Tails…is a compelling sky-war pageant of a movie.  On the ground, it’s a far shakier experience:  dutiful and prosaic, with thinly scripted episodes that don’t add up to a satisfying story.”  The film’s Rotten Tomatoes rating is an abysmal 40% positives among all critics; just 58% among major reviewers.

You would expect more after 23 years of development.  On the other hand, as The Star-Ledger’s Stephen Whitty pointed out in his write-up, “How many scriptwriters’ hands has this project passed through?  How many drafts have been written, rewritten, thrown out, resurrected and then thrown out all over again?…whatever the original inspiration was, it’s been lost under layers, like a house’s once-nice, now painted-over paneling.”

Ironically, Red Tails was released the same week as another airwar epic, the Blu-ray refurbishment of the silent 1927 WW I classic – and first Best Picture Oscar-winner – Wings, and looks even more dramatically anemic in comparison.  Whereas Red Tails deflates every time it hits the ground, William Wellman’s 85-year-old flicker still packs an emotional punch.  According to one DVD reviewer, “Wings has it all – romance, drama, humor, action.  And what action.”Even the dogfight scenes have a dramatic heft missing from the admittedly spectacular combat sequences in Red Tails, because, in Wellman’s movie, they were about as close to being real as possible without using live ammo.  No CGI, no green screen: that actually stars Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen at the controls of their biplanes, putting their aircraft through such violent maneuvers that Rogers – who learned to fly for the film – sometimes vomited as soon as he climbed out of his plane. In the end, what comes through in Wings, even after eighty-odd years, is what’s missing not only in Red Tails, but so many Lucas projects:   fleshed-out, three-dimensional human drama.

Red Tails was Lucas’ first big-screen project outside of his two big-dollar franchises since the 1994 flop Radioland Murders, but he’s long been taking flak for his faulty storytelling even within his signature work.  His Star Wars installments were all rapped for what seemed an obsession with creating alien civilizations, grand-scale action sequences, and even entire characters through the magic of CGI, but a consistent inability to make us care about any of it.  Even Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) was considered a let-down, an emotionally hollow exercise after the rich storytelling of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989).

Every filmmaker has his bad day, but Lucas has had an awful lot of them, and usually for the same reasons.  And it may be that even his fanboy base is growing tired of his constant re-tweaking/recycling of the six Star Wars films that are the fuel rods for the whole Lucas enterprise.  Even the Blu-ray release of the original trilogy included changes die-hard fans furiously claimed changed entire relationships and meanings in the films.

Lucas, who has always tended to be a bit prickly over criticism, reacted by essentially saying he was taking his marbles and going home.  “Why would I make any more (Star Wars movies) when everybody yells at you all the time and says what a terrible person you are?” he told The New York Times, and then went on to make noises about backing away from the business.

But Lucas has said that before.  He said it when he gave up directing after the first Star Wars.  He has also several times said – as he told Charlie Rose recently while promoting Red Tails – “…there’s the intellectual side of me that wants to do more experimental films which I haven’t done since I did my first film, THX, and my student films.  And I – that’s now where I’m going is to try to get back to that.”

Yet we got an announcement of a fifth Indiana Jones on George’s plate.

The financial maintenance of Lucas’ vast empire requires this kind of constant franchise stoking.  One of Lucas’ problems is he may very well be trapped by what’s needed to keep relevant.

But another truth may sit out in plain sight in THX 1138.  It’s a hypnotic piece, unlike anything Lucas has made since.  The antiseptically white-on-white visuals and a plot and characters only hinted at, suggested more than stated, offer a cold experience for the viewer.  Lucas was, even as a student at UCLA – and remains – a technological virtuoso. But for all of his effects skill, for all his command of the medium, Lucas hasn’t been able to get that most basic requirement of memorable moviemaking onscreen since making the first Star Wars back in 1977:  heart.

– Bill Mesce

Written By

Bill Mesce, Jr.'s books include Overkill: The Rise and Fall of Thriller Cinema, the recently published The Wild Bunch: The American Classic That Changed Westerns Forever (McFarland), and The Screenwriter's Notebook: Reflections, Analyses, and Chalk Talk on the Craft and Business of Writing for the Movies (Serving House), as well as the novel Median Gray (Willow River Press) and Inside the Rise of HBO: A Personal History of the Company That Transformed Television.



  1. Izsak Barnette

    June 11, 2020 at 1:14 pm

    Warning: I’m not a film guy.
    I’ve only seen the Star Wars films (I know, I should eventually watch Indiana Jones), but I do appreciate the visionary creativity that Lucas shows in creating worlds and ideas. Throughout the Star Wars experience, it’s been shown that the concepts underlying Star Wars were fascinating, but that, oftentimes, Lucas’ direction let them down.
    For example, despite it being a mediocre film, Episode III is still my favorite Star Wars. Matthew Stover, in his novelization, showed that the underlying concepts (e.g. betrayal, loss, sacrifice, and fear) were all powerful and could work well in the story, but that Lucas had failed in executing on every other aspect of what could make it a good movie experience.
    I haven’t seen most of his other films and, from your article, I’m glad I haven’t.

  2. Youssef Kdiry

    June 11, 2020 at 7:51 pm

    Great article, as always Bill. Lucas should have NEVER sold his empire to Disney.

    • Bill Mesce

      June 11, 2020 at 10:05 pm

      I don’t know. On the one hand it frees him from the obligation of maintaining the franchise, but it also puts the onus on him about doing the things he’s said he’s always wanted to do.

  3. Just a Guy Who Usually Does Not Comment

    July 23, 2020 at 2:05 pm

    George Lucas did both the original Star Wars trilogy (3 films) and Raiders of the Lost Ark as well as redefining the movie and toy industry and the synergies between. There’s no way to compare this to a one hit wonder. American Graffiti was a very successful film as well and THX 1138 is critically regarded as good. Sure his post billionaire output might not be artistically equal to the earlier period of his artistic life, but very few artists redefine and expand their entire medium through their work. Modern blockbusters and storytelling would be unthinkable without Lucas’ pioneering work.

    • Bill Mesce

      July 23, 2020 at 3:15 pm

      Well, we may be talking degrees here, and, of course, that gets subjective. Perhaps the phrase “one hit wonder” is an overkill, but my main point being is that for decades, Lucas seems to have been creatively stuck. He only directed the first film of the original SW trilogy, wrote and co-wrote the first and third, was pretty peeved at all the huzzahs EMPIRE received in which the creative side was handled by others. He didn’t direct any of the RAIDERS films, has only one story credit and three shared story credits on the series thus far. Lucas, in my view, is more like a Gene Roddenberry: the idea guy coming up with the concept, the general guidelines, but leaving the creative heavy lifting to others (emphasizing the point, the STAR TREK film franchise doesn’t take off until Paramount sidelines Roddenberry after the first feature and turns the film series over to Harve Bennett). Even on GRAFFITI, as I pointed out, people on the film said Lucas had little to do with directing the actors. It’s true, and I heartily agree, that his impact on the industry has been nothing less than seismic (although you’ll get a good debate going about whether that’s been a good or bad thing). And there’s Lucas’ own words: he has on a number of occasions said he wants to get back to make THX kind of films. He has the money, he certainly has the wherewithal, but he doesn’t do it. Outside of finding ways to expand/exploit his two successful franchises — SW and INDIANA JONES — his output as a producer is scanty and uneven, and he hasn’t directed anything since the second SW trilogy (moneymakers but not particularly well-received). If you compare his body of work as both a director and producer to his peer, friend, and sometime collaborator, Steven Spielberg, you’ll get my point. An important part of the industry, yes! Changed the course of the industry, undoubtedly! As a filmmaker, well… It gets a bit more mixed. Trying to look at it non-subjectively, that’s a judgment based solely on the numbers.
      I would also make the point that in terms of affection and fan loyalty, Lucas is certainly at the top of the heap (again, not unlike Roddenberry).

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