George Lucas had a bad feeling about Star Wars.
It was summer 1976, less than a year before the movie’s debut in May ’77, and 20th Century Fox was predicting disaster. The shooting was past schedule. Lucas, ever the entrepreneur, had already hedged his bet by negotiating a toy contract and commissioning a novel and comic to be released before the film. His special effects team had filmed less than 1 percent of their assigned shots—and spent more than half their budget. When he screened the rough cut to director friends, including Brian De Palma and Francis Ford Coppola, they were nonplussed. The space battle scenes remained unfinished, with stand-in footage of World War II fighter planes. And one person asked, "What’s all this Force shit?"
But the $11 million space opera, which Lucas had purloined from ancient myths, sci-fi literature, films like Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, and TV serials like Flash Gordon, was the highest-grossing film of all time upon its release and went on to become the unlikeliest of classics. Cult was now mainstream. Even so, Lucas told the Atlantic in 1979 that Episode IV was only "about 25 percent of what I wanted it to be." The rest—eight episodes and a dozen or so spinoffs later—is Lucasfilm history.
That is the story of Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman’s Secrets of the Force: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Wars, a book as big and bold and aimless as the franchise itself.
As a fan of Lucas’s galaxy far, far away, I wanted to learn more about the origin story, the films, that ill-conceived television special, and, of course, Lucas himself. I wanted proof my childhood hero was every bit the genius I believed he once was, instead of the crank he’s become. But what I really wanted was to hear George Lucas say Jar Jar Binks was a mistake, some terrible coding error, never supposed to get off the hard drives at Skywalker Ranch.
Unfortunately, the Lucas who emerges in the book is a hopeless mess of contradictions and motivated reasoning, tight-lipped about his failures, unwilling to acknowledge the steaming piles of prequels and sequels he’s left in his wake.
He couldn’t direct. Nor did he really want to. Following the wild success of the first Star Wars movie, Lucas turned the reins over to his former teacher Irvin Kershner, who would go on to create the best film of the series, The Empire Strikes Back. According to Kershner, "George said to me, ‘Do you know why you’re making this picture?’ And he showed me all these detailed plans for Skywalker Ranch, and he said if the picture is successful, this is what he is going to build."
Neither could Lucas write. In fact, he admits a distaste for the process and despises the limits of traditional storytelling. "I do not like character-driven drama," he says. "I don’t like plots." The first Star Wars script, according to one biographer, was "unreadable" and "like a dog walking on its back legs." Most of the movie lines Star Wars fans love belong to Lawrence Kasdan and screenwriters Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck, who helped rewrite Lucas’s Oscar-winning American Graffiti. Gross and Altman reveal that even Tom Stoppard was an uncredited screenwriter for Revenge of the Sith. (Fittingly, it is the British playwright who quipped all modern art is "imagination without skill.")
As for Jar Jar, Lucas still clings to the floppy-eared freak as a "key" element of his storytelling. "His purpose plot-wise was to bring the Jedi to these two societies and bring them together," Lucas says. "He wasn’t just comic relief." Everyone interviewed in the book also denies Mr. "Meesa Your Humble Servant" Binks was a racist representation. And some even speculate the bumbling amphibian’s important diplomatic role in Episodes II and III was Lucas deliberately trolling the fanbase for having injured his pride—something I’m certainly tempted to believe after I read his initial title for Attack of the Clones: Jar Jar’s Great Adventure.
Anyone who has followed Lucas or the films already knows all this. His trouble with directing and writing has always been that he is notoriously bad at judging his own product, separating the joy of creating a vivid fictional world, with all its futuristic trimmings, from the presentation of a unified drama.
But to stop there is to fail to recognize the particular genius of Lucas. In what will come as no surprise to those who know the iconic opening shot of Star Wars, Lucas got his start in the animation department at Warner Bros. A high school gearhead turned film school wunderkind, he would always be chasing a realistic aesthetic on the border of technology and art. As he tells Gross and Altman:
The trouble with the future in most futurist movies is that it always looks new and clean and shiny. What is required for true credibility is a used future. The Apollo capsules were instructive in that regard. By the time the astronauts returned from the moon, you had the impression the capsules were littered with weightless candy wrappers and old Tang jars, no more exotic than the family station wagon.
And with the advent of computer-generated imagery, traditional vehicles for moviemaking were on an even playing field with visual effects. At the forefront of the new digital era was Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic—Lucas says he had tears in his eyes while watching the first CGI dinosaur created for Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. "It was one of those moments in history like the invention of the lightbulb or the first telephone call." Movies would never be the same.
For his part, Lucas denies his participation in the dawn of the action film juggernaut. He claims all the money he made from Star Wars trickled down to art house theaters and independent directors of the ’80s and ’90s. But the influence can’t be measured in dollars and cents alone. "Avengers: Endgame and The Force Awakens contain[ed] 2,500 VFX shots each," the editors point out, "whereas Jurassic Park in 1993 had just 63." Maybe Lucas was right to be worried about Star Wars after all.
As an oral history, Secrets lacks a certain literary quality but ultimately lives up to its promise: to shed light on the protracted history of Hollywood’s greatest franchise and its creator, George Lucas, boomer of boomers and godfather of the bloated blockbuster. His imitators are legion. And while his youthful self-indulgence has seemed at times foolish, the detail and scope of the Star Wars universe remains unmatched by anything the Marvel or DC Comics readymades can muster.
Who’s the more foolish, after all, the fool or the fool who follows him?
Secrets of the Force: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Wars
by Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman
St. Martin’s Press, 576 pp., $29.99