People across the world can identify the iconic characters at the center of the Star Wars franchise. Even if you have never seen the films (in which case, what are you waiting for?), you can probably identify Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker, and, of course, Chewbacca. These characters may have never existed if it weren’t for one horrific major event in the film creator’s life.
A major accident nearly ended his life, but fortunately George Lucas came out stronger on the other side. He made the best of a bad situation and channeled his creative juices to make the iconic film we know today. This is the story of how Hollywood legend George Lucas went from tragedy to triumph.
George Lucas did not come from a strong academic background, but, to be fair, neither did many of his colleagues in the field of filmmaking. He did not care much for school and was not motivated to do more in the classroom than just get by. He inched through his coursework, but his head was in the clouds.
If he had not liked school before, getting into an accident on his way home from the library just days before his high school graduation did not help the matter. He spent his class time imagining himself as a racecar driver, and his failure to perform well in school caused tensions at home.
Passion for the Road
George Lucas spent his early years obsessed with car racing. Obsessed might even be an understatement, actually. The future film legend was a budding racer, and his dream was brought to fruition when he got his hands on his first motorcycle. He spent all his time zipping around on it across his family’s property.
Though he did not excel academically, he did excel in the field of racing. He pleaded with his father for his own set of wheels, and finally George Sr. gave in. His father came back with a tiny, yellow Autobianchi Bianchina with a two-cylinder engine that would help transport his son safely. He had no clue what would happen.
The Tiny Racing Car
Day in and day out, George Lucas worked on his car at a local garage, upgrading the engine and installing a racing belt. The small Bianchina would soon become his personal rocket, transporting him around his hometown of Modesto, California. His speed would frequently grab the attention of local police.
His work on cars would pay off soon, as he put his beat-up little old car and his driving skills to be tested in regional racing events. He reportedly won his fair share of events. He counted down the days until he could make a living from this sport. Good job, George!
Just three days before he was set to walk down the aisle with his classmates at his high school graduation, the future star’s life changed forever. After a night at the library finishing up his final papers, Lucas headed home. He made a left turn to enter his family’s ranch, and that turn would cause him to be hospitalized.
When he made the left turn, a Chevy Impala came flying in from the opposite direction. The car hit his Bianchina, which sent the car tumbling like a toy. The racing belt he installed snapped, and Lucas was flung to the pavement. His car slammed into a giant walnut tree.
Fighting to Survive
George Lucas fell unconscious. He turned blue and began to vomit blood and was soon rushed off to the hospital. He had sustained intense injuries; he had several broken bones and bruised his lungs. Though he was in bad shape, he appeared better than he felt. He regained consciousness within a few hours, fortunately.
Lucas spent the next four months in the hospital recovering from the trauma he had endured, both physically and mentally. He considered everything that could have gone differently: how his racing belt had failed, yet still kept him from being crushed against a walnut tree, the high-speed crashes he had hoped to one day join but could no longer. He thought about how participants in those races did not always walk away with their lives, yet in that moment, he miraculously had.
The accident was caused when Lucas was hit by his classmate, Frank Ferreira, who tried to pass him at an incredibly high speed. Ferreira walked away with barely a scratch. Luckily, a bystander witnessed the accident by simply being in the right place at the right time. They pulled Lucas from the wreckage and called an ambulance.
Upon the paramedics’ arrival, Lucas was not breathing, nor did he have a heartbeat. He was rushed to the hospital in critical condition. His lungs had been crushed and he hovered close to death for two weeks in the intensive care unit. Luckily, he pulled through and came out alive on the other side. A photo of the wreck was featured on the front page of his local newspaper, The Modesto Bee, the very next morning.
What’s Next, George?
Lucas spent his time in the hospital questioning his next move. He realized that it would not be the best move for him to pursue a career in racing, especially after the accident. “Before that first accident you are very oblivious to the danger because you don’t realize how close to the edge you are. But once you’ve gone over the edge and you realise what’s on the other side, it changes your perspective,” he told Starlog in 1981.
He thought about his friends who had gone on to race in iconic places, like Le Mans in France. He recalled that his peers also quit racing because they knew that if they continued, they may end up losing their life. He stated that if you stay with the sport for long enough, that’s likely what will end up happening. We are glad he came to this realization, both for his safety and for what he would become later.
Molding His Mind
George Lucas enrolled in Modesto Junior College not long after his release from the hospital. He improved his grades from high school and began working as a photographer. He soon met Haskell Wexler, who was later voted one of the ten most influential cinematographers in history by the International Cinematographers Guild.
Haskell Wexler was a fellow racing enthusiast. He even had a car that was built by a mechanic that Lucas was working for at the time! The two became fast friends, and with Wexler’s encouragement (and possibly with his help), Lucas enrolled at the University of Southern California’s film school. This would set him on the path we all know and love him for.
Though his love of cars remained strong, Lucas revisited an old hobby and took up photography. He began photographing racing events, which also helped him develop his relationship with Haskell Wexler. His passion for photography opened his eyes to the world of film, and from then, he would never be the same.
One of the first short films he made at USC was an ode to cars. His later film American Graffiti was Lucas’ love letter to his street-racing youth. Naturally, he incorporated racing into his masterpiece Star Wars, which was released in 1977. Though it took place in space, they stuck with a racing theme with some high-adrenaline aerial dog fights!
George Lucas was not living the high life before the iconic Star Wars franchise. However, he did direct a low-budget film that would give him recognition for his work. He directed American Graffiti, which was loosely based on his youth as he searched the streets of his hometown for love and adventure. The film embraced his obsession with “hot-rod” culture.
The film became a staple in teen culture at the time. He produced it with under $1 million, which is impressive in itself. This would give him recognition for his talents, as it earned five Oscar nods. It also earned his first Best Director nomination!
The Space Opera
Following the success of American Graffiti, Lucas and his creative partner Gary Kurtz began working on some type of space-themed project. They wanted to follow through with an idea for a “space opera” which would be loosely based on the outer-space adventures of his childhood heroes, Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers.
Lucas and his partner were determined to do what no one else had done before. Hollywood certainly was not lacking in the department of sci-fi, however many of those films were relatively dark. He wanted to make something that would be more kid friendly.
Star Wars was not the directors’ feature film debut. It all started with his 1971 debut, THX 1138. He wanted to reach a younger audience, those between fourteen to fifteen years old. He stated in an interview that he wanted to encourage young people to expand their imaginations to consider what another universe could look like.
“I have a strong feeling about interesting kids in space exploration. I want them to want it. I want them to get beyond the basic stupidities of the moment and think about colonizing Venus and Mars. And the only way it’s going to happen is to have some dumb kid fantasize about it — to get his ray gun, jump in his ship and run off with this wookie into outer space. It’s our only hope in a way.”
Historical Inspiration Behind Star Wars
So much of the storyline for the legendary film series was based on true historical events. George Lucas used theology, mythology, and mysticism to create a story set generally, “a long time ago.”
So many of the events that inspired this “space opera” came from recent history. In 2013, a book called “Star Wars and History” was released, edited by history professors Nancy R. Reagin and Janice Liedl.
Germany in World War II
Whether you see it as subtle or not, so many of the leading forces in the film are based on the political party that controlled Germany and much of Europe in World War II. The elite forces that were unequivocally dedicated to the Galactic Empire mimic the fighters that really existed in the region during the war.
Many details, such as the Palpatine rise to power, mimic historical events. The military that defended the political party was also given the same name – stormtroopers. Darth Vader and the imperial officers’ uniforms and helmets were based on what they wore in the war.
Emperor Palpatine was loosely based on former United States President Richard Nixon. Politics aside, Lucas admitted in an interview with The Chicago Tribune that the former President had inspired many of the events that occurred in the movie.
Though Lucas said that much of the film was based on Nixon’s presidency, he also conceived many of the ideas from events of the Vietnam War. This would inspire him to look at how democracies change into dictatorships – “they aren’t overthrown, they are given away.”
The Rebel Alliance waged war against the Galactic Empire in these iconic films in a style that was consistently used during the Vietnam War: guerilla warfare, a method of fighting that relies heavily on sneaking around, blending into surroundings, and popping out to attack the opposition.
The Vietnamese soldiers, who were well-versed in this form of attacking enemies, actually served as the inspiration for everyone’s favorite forest dwellers. That’s right – the furry warriors, the Ewoks, were based on these soldiers! Both the soldiers in real life and Ewoks were at an advantage, due to their “superior knowledge of the local terrain and an ability to blend into that terrain.”
The Cold War
The rising tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union was palpable during the time that Star Wars was created. Many of the looming threats to society posed during the Cold War were depicted in Star Wars, to show the power and true threat that weapons of mass destruction could cause.
The threats posed by nuclear weapons were brought to life in the form of the Death Star. This is what ended up destroying Princess Leia’s home planet of Alderaan, a blue orb which resembled Earth in many ways.
Names, places, and institutions from Ancient Rome flood the world of Star Wars. Terms like Senate, Republic, and Empire all originated in this ancient society – even if they carry other forms across the world. Even some of the names of chancellors from the film, like Palpatine and Valorum, echo ancient Roman society.
As noted in the book “Star Wars and History,” much of the architecture found on some of the planets in the film resembles what you would have found in the days of ancient Rome. The pod race from The Phantom Menace resembled ancient Roman chariot races.
Many may argue that the Jedi knights resemble Japanese Samurai. They also believed that the Jedi were based on Shaolin monks. The Jedi also strongly resemble the medieval monastic military order of the Knights Templar. Both the Jedi and the Templars were governed by a Grand Master as well as a 12-member Council of Elders.
These Christian warrior-monks were even inspired their style of dress. They, too, were decked out in white and took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Chancellor Palpatine ordered the Great Jedi Purge, which closely resembled King Philip IV of France’s harsh actions against the Knights Templar. He arrested hundreds of them on October 13th, 1307 and tortured and executed them for heresy.
Advancing Modern Film
The special effects used in Star Wars were unheard of before George Lucas made them into reality. The Star Wars films advanced the field of motion picture special effects. The film was also among the first to develop an enormously lucrative merchandising industry for any movie.
The successes of the iconic film series ignited a special effects boom in Hollywood. The production team consisted of artists, engineers, technicians, and producers. Naturally, the crew consisted of the best of the best – otherwise, Star Wars might have ended up as a completely different film!
Industrial Light & Magic
Industrial Light & Magic was founded by George Lucas in 1975 to help advance the field of motion picture visual effects. The company is a subdivision of Lucasfilm, which the director founded when he was working on production for the Star Wars franchise. The company, often referred to as ILM, was instrumental in the creation of another iconic company…
The legendary Pixar animation company originated out of the computer graphics department at ILM in the late 1970s. Had George Lucas just wanted to create any old movie, we might have never seen the amazing films that came from Pixar. We would be living in a world without Toy Story or Finding Nemo – no one wants to be without those!
Advancing Film Technology
Prior to the creation of Star Wars, anything that took place “in space” such as a spaceship would be filmed with large- and small-scale models, allowing for slow, concise movements. When Star Wars visual effects mastermind John Dykstra created a new computer-controlled motion camera system, the whole game changed.
Obviously, a movie that takes place in space cannot actually be filmed in space. Too many logistics, you know? Thanks to Dykstraflex, a new computer-controlled motion camera system, and John Dykstra’s creative baby, a spaceship model could be filmed in front of a blue screen and the camera could move around it.
The Dykstraflex Changed the Game
The Dykstraflex did more than just help Star Wars become what we know it as. Thanks to this newly developed technology, AT-ATs, the All-Terrain Armored Transport units were able to be placed into a new environment. These giant four-legged combat walkers used by ground forces of the Galactic Empire were not limited in where they could travel, thanks to this technology.
Tauntauns, the reptile-mammals native to the snowy hills of Hoth, were also made possible by the Dykstraflex. Like the AT-ATs, Tauntauns were stop-motion-animated. Thanks to this new creation, they were able to be placed wherever they needed to be; in this case, it was in the snow!
Banished From the Star Wars Universe
When you think of Darth Vader, what comes to mind? Sure – you’re probably thinking of him as just an on-screen villain. Well, it turns out that George Lucas sees the original actor who played the iconic role as a villain in real life! He is not the biggest fan and took drastic measures against the original actor.
The original man in costume was a British bodybuilder named David Prowse. Prowse revealed on his website (though it was later taken down) that he has actually been banned from anything and everything related to Lucasfilm! Prowse was told that he had “burnt too many bridges,” and George Lucas has not been very outspoken about it since.
One of our favorite characters, naturally, is our main man Chewbacca. This legendary Wookiee warrior and co-pilot to Han Solo was a hero, and he had a unique voice. Have you ever wondered what kind of animal makes the same sound as him? This might help you figure out what mammal family he is closest to…
Chewbacca, or “Chewie” as many know him, has a voice composed of many different animals. His voice is a mix of bears, walruses, lions, badgers, and so on. They even added the sounds of dying animals to the mix!
Star Wars Nearly Caused a Real War
The barren planet of Tatooine needed to be filmed in an environment that was at least a little bit similar. Lucas found his perfect setting in Tunisia, a dry country in North Africa. However, his search for a picture-perfect setting did not quite consider socio-political issues that were relevant in the nation at the time.
Tunisia shares a border with Libya, which was ruled at the time by dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The Tunisian government reportedly received threats from Gaddafi, warning them of what might come if they did not remove the “military vehicle” at the border. It was nothing related to the military; it was a Jawa Sandcrawler! Lucas thankfully moved the prop, because causing an international conflict might hurt movie ratings, if you think about it!
Chewy Needed Protection
Star Wars featured so many different settings. You saw desert, forest, snowy hills – the whole nine yards. Well, while filming among the Redwoods of Northern California to create the forest of Endor, the actor who played Chewbacca needed to be chaperoned by bodyguards in bright vests because there were a ton of bear hunters in the area!
Fortunately, they were able to keep him safe, but they needed to keep a look out for other reasons too. Peter Mayhew, the actor behind Chewbacca, needed to be protected while in costume because people were constantly looking for Bigfoot, the mythical, ape-like creature believed to be hanging around the Pacific Northwest, a region just above that of the Redwoods.
Yoda by a Different Name
Yoda is one of those characters who we could not imagine any other way. True fans know Yoda’s full, original name – “Minch Yoda” from the original scripts. The name was quickly shortened, because it rolls off the tongue a little easier. Here’s a fun fact: Yoda almost went by a different name.
Yoda was nearly given a different name. In the very early stages of writing The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda’s name was going to be Buffy! Even though the movie pre-dated the show about the tough and amazing teenage vampire-slayer, we could never see the small philosophical creature with any name other than Yoda!
Star Wars Currency Accepted Here
There is a small island in the South Pacific that accepts Star Wars coins as legal tender! The small Polynesian island of Niue, which is around 1,500 miles off the coast of New Zealand, is the only place on the planet where you can use collectable Star Wars coins as currency in day-to-day life.
These coins have to come from New Zealand, though. You can buy Star Wars collectable coins with a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II on the other side in the country for around $20, but they only are worth around 80 cents. It may not be worth much, but it’s still cool!
The Rise of CG Technology
So much of the film was digitally altered, as is the same with many other fantasy and sci-fi films. ILM continued to evolve CG technology through production of other films, such as Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Jurassic Park. The growth of CG technology gave Lucas the ability to embrace it in his prequel trilogy.
The first character that was fully digital was Jar Jar Binks. The creation of this character marked a milestone in motion capture. Events like the pod race were also filmed using CG, however the visual effects supervisor thought that more would be required. Along with CG, they used “projection mapping” which used miniature versions of real rock formations and “reprojected” them so the camera could move around it.
The Growth of Lucasfilm Ltd.
After Star Wars hit theatres, Lucas announced that he would retire from directing and focus his energy on running Lucasfilm. He would allow others to direct under his supervision. He used his platform to act as an executive producer for the remaining Star Wars films.
In 1986, Lucasfilm worked with National Geographic and Apple to develop CD-ROM educational and entertainment systems for the home. In 1987, the company joined forces with The Walt Disney Company, which is why many associate the film franchise with the big-eared mouse!
Birth of the Ewok
Ewoks were a staple of the film Return of the Jedi. However, initially an army of Wookiees were supposed to be helping out the land of Endor. Creator George Lucas decided to go for a smaller, furry animal, thus creating the Ewok. The word “Ewok” was never uttered in the film, so how did we learn what they were called?
We learned the term “Ewok” from the ending credits! We also learned their name through later spin-offs and promotional materials. We did end up getting the Wookiee battle we always dreamed of, though, in Revenge of the Sith! Star Wars brought us some of our favorite furry creatures!
George Lucas Won a Razzie – An Award for Terrible Films
While many people know George Lucas for his highly esteemed films and the many awards that he has won, very few people know that he won another important award – for his lesser work. In addition to his nominations for four Oscars, two Golden Globes, and three Emmy awards, he also received five nominations for the Golden Raspberry.
The Golden Raspberry, better known as the “Razzie,” is an award to celebrate the worst films of any given year. Between 1989 and 2003, Lucas earned himself five Razzie nominations. He took home the award for Worst Screenplay in 2003 for Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones.
The Star Wars universe has hundreds of notable characters, all of which were created in some way by Lucas. Many fans don’t quite understand why the film creator’s favorite character is Jar Jar Binks, widely known as the least enjoyable character among die-hard fans.
Jar Jar Binks was not only a goofy looking Gungan, but he was a military commander and a major politician. Binks was often seen as clumsy and rather annoying, which led his peers to underestimate him. He used this image to his advantage to get into tons of trouble. He was banished from his home city, primarily for being annoying.
Dog parents across the world can understand us when we say that our pets often inspire us to do the best we can in life. This is true with George Lucas as well, and his dog even influenced his work! While writing the first Star Wars film, Lucas owned an Alaskan Malamute named Indiana.
His dog inspired two iconic characters in Hollywood; the name Indiana would be used for Harrison Ford’s character in the movie series Indiana Jones, and the physical look of Chewbacca, Han Solo’s trusty sidekick, was based on his pup.
Living Among the Greats
George Lucas was close friends with a ton of people who would go onto become famous writers and directors in the entertainment industry. He was close with Ron Howard and Steven Spielberg. However, he did live with another iconic director at one point.
In college, Lucas lived with Randal Kleiser, the director of Grease. The two arrived at the University of Southern California at the same time, and Lucas had a house in Topanga Canyon. He needed a roommate, and their lives together began. They worked with each other on their films, and Kleiser was even an actor in his very first film!
Dedication to Education
In 1991, the director opened The George Lucas Educational Foundation to explore ways of using emerging technology to enhance learning. The organization aims to teach students how to find fact-based information, how to assess the quality of what they find, and how to use the information they find effectively. They call their organization “Edutopia.”
Lucas cites his lack of engagement in class as a child as a reason why he is currently so passionate about education. As a father of three kids, he is focused on the importance of education and educational resources. He understands that people learn in different ways, and that some learn more visually. His foundation wants to help students learn in the way that best suits their needs.
Testifying Before Congress
In 1988, Steven Spielberg joined George Lucas on a trip to Washington D.C. to present reasons to Congress why they needed to adopt the Berne Convention. This was a global agreement that would make it illegal for someone to alter copyrighted materials. Other filmmakers wanted to change black and white movies into color, which struck a chord for many in the industry. They were not having it.
Though he would later alter his own films, he harped on the important matter of keeping creative material as is. “People who alter or destroy works of art and our cultural heritage for profit or as an exercise of power are barbarians,” Lucas said. “If the laws of the United States continue to condone this behavior, history will surely classify us as a barbaric society.”
Giving Away His Fortune
George Lucas has managed to put a ton of money in the bank over the years through his successes in Hollywood. He created some of the highest-grossing movies of all time and sold Lucasfilm to Disney for a cool $4 billion. Now, he has an estimated net worth of around $6.1 billion. Good for you, George! What does he do with all his money?
Philanthropy, especially when it comes to educational resources, has always remained a priority for Lucas. He signed a giving pledge which promised to give away half of his lifetime’s wealth. He told The Hollywood Reporter that he wants his fortune to go toward improving education. “It is the key to the survival of the human race.” Right on, George!