(Welcome to The Movies That Made Star Wars, a series where we explore the films that inspired George Lucas’ iconic universe. In this edition: George Lucas’s first two films American Graffiti and THX-1138)

George Lucas’ first two films, THX-1138 (1971) and American Graffiti (1973) couldn’t be more different. One is a bleak, dystopian science fiction film about how difficult it is for the human spirit to overcome a drug-addled world run by Christian conservatives. The other is a hot-rodding look at the rebellious youth of the ‘60s on their last night of freedom before their college years begin. Despite the wide gaps in genre and tone these films were, their DNA has been present in everything George Lucas has made and inspired.

Inspiring Star Wars

If you go back and watch A New Hope, there are flourishes in that film that could have only come from the mind behind THX-1138 and American Graffiti. All three films contain a lightning fast chase at their climax, each one getting a little more sophisticated with each iteration. In THX-1138, THX (Robert Duvall) flies through an under-construction BART tunnel chased by two motorcycle robot-cops. In American Graffiti, Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford) and John Milner (Paul LeMat) drag race at dawn in the film’s final showdown, resulting in a spectacular crash. In Star Wars Lucas takes the sci-fi elements and speed, turning them up to 11, and gives us the trench run in the battle against the Death Star.

Lucas was able to improve on the feelings he wanted to convey in each movie and these ideas are built upon in subsequent films. Return of the Jedi gives us a version of this scene on speeders in the trees. The Phantom Menace takes it a step further and gives us the podrace, with jet engines strapped to chariots blazing through slot canyons and caves at 700 miles per hour.

These moments, these chases, are in the DNA of Star Wars.

Not Just the Racing

It’s not just the racing you’ll find in Star Wars, either. You’ll see the influences all over the place, from Dex’s Diner in Attack of the Clones being an homage to American Graffiti to the scenes in the Death Star Control rooms being homages to THX-1138. 

Dave Filoni, supervising director and executive producer of Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels and creator of the upcoming Star Wars Resistance, cites both movies as a key to understanding the saga. In an interview with me, which you can listen to on the Full of Sith podcast here, Filoni explained that the oppressive regime that became the Empire was always in the mind of George Lucas:

“You have to look at the society he’s portraying in THX as the Empire. I saw a correlation there, from the shot compositions, the musical cues… It’s my [goal], as we move forward, to always appreciate the DNA that is George Lucas that was in everything he made because it’s so important to Star Wars.”

The rebellious youth of American Graffiti are the heroes of the Rebellion. Rebels with a cause, in this case, lashing out against that evil Empire, doing their best to prevent the oppressive future we see in THX-1138. 

Inspiring the Next Generation

American Graffiti did a lot to inspire the next generation. Probably none were more inspired than Ron Howard, director of Solo: A Star Wars Story, who played Steve in that film. This is where he and Lucas first encountered each other, and the two became friends over the years. Lucas would give Howard advice on filmmaking and even go on to conceive and produce Willow (1988) for Howard to direct. Ron Howard was even offered the directing gig for The Phantom Menace, but turned it down.

Howard isn’t the only one who found inspiration and experience in Graffiti. “The DNA of what Star Wars is was always in the mind of George. It isn’t just about Star Wars,” Dave Filoni said in that same interview. “If you’re solely watching Star Wars to understand Star Wars, you’re limiting yourself. You understand that the way the kids are responding to their home and authority in American Graffiti is relevant to the way the old films are, like Luke and Han and Leia.”

And Howard brought that forward in Solo: A Star Wars Story.

Solo: A Star Wars Story

In the opening scenes of Solo: A Star Wars Story, you would be forgiven for mistaking Alden Ehrenreich’s Han Solo for American Graffiti’s John Milner (or even James Dean.) He’s simply that type of character, the one who scoffs at authority. In fact, Han’s interactions with Lady Proxima drip with the same sarcasm Milner utilizes in his interactions with the police of Modesto, California. Han has an easy charm, a need for speed, and a disregard for authority that would allow him to fit perfectly into the world of American Graffiti.

Also, there’s a moment in that first chase where a stormtrooper on a speeder joins the fray, just like the cop in Graffiti, and he meets the same airborne, spinning fate as the motorcycle cop in the chase in THX-1138.

Once Han and Qi’ra pass from the streets of Corellia and into the Imperial headquarters of the Imperial checkpoint, you’re reminded instantly of the oppressive regime of the Empire. The audio announcements and aural quality of this part of the film echoes that same audio world-building that Walter Murch created for THX-1138. Disembodied voices call out announcements in monotonous tones and you wouldn’t blink if you heard “For more enjoyment and greater efficiency, consumption has been standardized” in those voice overs.

The stormtroopers are very much those faceless android cops in THX-1138 and Han wants to get away from them as badly as THX wants escape.

I’ve seen some reviews complain about the opening of Solo getting to a rocky start, but I wonder how much of that comes from a lack of understanding of the context. The opening sequences of Solo are pure Lucas. Ron Howard distilled that George Lucas DNA to its purest form to build this first act.

For anyone who wants to better understand Star Wars, I’d highly recommend both THX-1138 and American Graffiti, both are readily available in physical and streaming formats. They’re George Lucas at his best.

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