Film is one of my favorite art forms and George Lucas is my favorite filmmaker of all time. I highlight the term “of all time” because of late Mr. Lucas’ efforts have been highly criticized. I attempt no defense of his recent films, but in my opinion, the recent movies do not rob the earlier ones of their brilliance or their impact on modern film making.
Mr. Lucas has been making movies for nearly 40 years. The first half of his career began with THX-1138 in 1971 and culminated with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in 1989. During those 18 years, Mr. Lucas created the original Star Wars trilogy, co-created the Indiana Jones (should have stopped at 3) trilogy, and also gave audiences lesser-known but still great fantasy delights Willow and Jim Henson’s Labyrinth. From 1977 to 1989, Mr. Lucas wrote, directed or produced the defining science fiction, adventure, and fantasy films of the era. I challenge anyone to show a stronger 13 years of film making from anyone at any time.
Star Wars and Indiana Jones are legends, and I have little to add to what is already known about them except to say that they were the defining films of my childhood. The films that really impress me in retrospect are Willow and Labyrinth. Good live-action fantasy is hard to do, especially if the movie isn’t based on the most popular fantasy book of all time. Neither Willow or Labyrinth made much money, but both are very imaginative and hold up upon repeated viewing for their vision and whimsy, even if the special effects themselves are outdated. Willow is also the only major motion picture I ever remember that gave leading roles to people with dwarfism (sometimes called little people) and acknowledged the condition without exploiting it.
Film making is a collaborative effort, and no one individual can create good films alone. George Lucas has worked with many great co-artists, both in front of and behind the camera. Steven Spielberg, Harrison Ford, Frank Oz, Jim Henson, John Williams, and the technical wizards at Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) were arguably the very best at what they did during the 1970s and 1980s. One could hold this against him, saying that he wouldn’t have been as successful without them. Perhaps, but there is something to be said for spotting talent and running with it, as he was able to do time and again.
ILM demonstrates another aspect of Mr. Lucas’ career that I respect, he sees himself as a teacher and innovator in the field who wants to pass down what he learns to other filmmakers, improving the overall quality of the art form. In the DVD extras for The Phantom Menace the ILM team is talking about how they view the work they do as pioneering for special effects and hope to teach others. In the DVD extras for Lord of the Rings, the special effects people at Weta Workshops talk about how they visited ILM and were given a clinic in the state of the art and how to get the most out of the technology (that’s twice Peter Jackson got to stand on the shoulder’s of a giant, once for adapting Tolkien’s masterpiece, and once again for being given a free clinic in digital effects).
So what to make of the second 20 years of Lucas’ career? I’ll readily admit I haven’t enjoyed his recent work as much as the past work. This doesn’t spoil the good for me, however, any more than the Beatles are spoiled because I don’t enjoy Paul McCartney as much as a solo artist. It’s hard to be great for 40 years. It’s hard to be great once. George Lucas has given us great many times, and I, for one, am grateful.