Writer-director-producer George Lucas turned 77 years old on 14 May 2021.
Nobody has influenced cinema and popular culture over the last five decades quite like Lucas. THX 1138, American Graffiti, Star Wars and Indiana Jones have inspired countless filmmakers over the years and they continue to be mined and imitated.
He wrote and directed Electronic Labyrinth: THX-1138 4EB while he was still a student at the University of Southern California’s film school. Made in 1967, the science fiction short film would form the basis of his 1971 directorial debut in THX 1138. At just 15 minutes long, this dystopian film is loaded with impressive visuals and soundscape – you can see Lucas’s unadulterated talent was there from the get-go.
Produced by Francis Ford Coppola‘s American Zoetrope, 1971’s THX-1138 was a financial disaster on its release, grossing just $2.4 million at the US box office. The sterile science fiction film wasn’t warmly embraced by critics either and Lucas revisited THX 1138 in 2004, releasing a director’s cut of the film with added special effects.
Star Wars and Indiana Jones are the films most people know, but American Graffiti is Lucas’ masterpiece. The 1973 film (written by Lucas, Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck) effectively created Hollywood’s fascination with nostalgia. Made for $700,000, the film grossed a massive $115 million at the US box office – which is more that £580 million in today’s currency. It saw then unknowns Richard Dreyfus, Ron Howard, Harrison Ford, Paul Le Mat, Charles Martin Smith (amongst others) cruising the streets of Modesto, California on one fateful night in the summer of 1962. Jammed with a stunning juke-box soundtrack (a cinematic first), the film captured the imagination of audiences and its success ultimately led to the likes of Grease, Happy Days, Back To The Future and Dirty Dancing.
George Lucas’ critics often say his films lack emotion, but American Graffiti is filled with humour and poignancy. A 1979 sequel from Bill L. Norton failed to recapture the original’s magic, but nothing takes away the genius of Lucas’ pic.
It’s a shame Lucas got sidetracked by big budget filmmaking, meaning he never again made something as intimate as American Graffiti (it was based on his own youth). In 2012 he sold Lucasfilm to Disney (along with the rights to Star Wars and Indiana Jones) and he’s pretty much retired from the movie business. His legacy is assured, but at times his real talent as a great storyteller has been forgotten in a myriad of merchandise and sequels.