One of the biggest moments in cinematic history, the release of Star Wars into movie theaters, happened 39 years ago. George Lucas’s sprawling space opera took the world by storm and changed movies, the film industry, and fandom forever. But did you know that there was a time, in the mid-1970s, that the fate of Star Wars hung in the balance? And if Lucas had listened to Francis Ford Coppola, Star Wars would never have made it into theaters on May 25, 1977? It’s true… all of it.
In 1973, George Lucas had made his first commercially successful film, American Graffiti, and began mulling what to do next — he and American Zoetrope pal Francis Ford Coppola had multiple scripts in their development hopper. Lucas had been noodling on a “Flash Gordon-y” adventure for years — he’d even tried (and failed) to work it into his American Graffiti development deal at Universal in ’71.
“Star Wars,” in these early years, primarily existed in Lucas’s mind, though he’d sketched out a short summary called “The Journal of the Whills.” After filming Graffiti, Lucas fleshed out the story into a 13-page treatment called “The Star Wars” (dated April 17, 1973), drawing heavily on themes in Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress.
Still, Lucas was frustrated, knowing that fully realizing the concept would take countless hours of research and development. And although he would continue work on the story for “The Star Wars,” for his next film, Lucas decided to go in another direction.
Coppola, fresh off his Oscar for The Godfather, was preparing to put a Vietnam war script titled Apocalypse Now into production. Zoetrope had intended to make the film as part of an earlier deal at Warner Bros., but that partnership ended after the studio’s negative reaction to Lucas’s THX 1138. Now, Coppola and Lucas had the successes of The Godfather and American Graffiti under their belts, earning them the clout, and the money, to make the movies they wanted.
Lucas, not yet willing to commit to getting his Star Wars concept into shape, told Coppola that he wanted to make Apocalypse. He signed a development deal with Columbia Pictures, and began working with John Milius on a screenplay, while producer Gary Kurtz scouted locations in the Philippines. But it was not to be.
Call it fate, the power of the Force, whatever… But no sooner had Lucas committed to Apocalypse Now than he began having second thoughts. Lucas had found the experience of making a positive film like American Graffiti exhilarating, and the gritty subject matter of Apocalypse was bringing him down. “You can learn a lot from cynicism, but you can’t build on it,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1973. And Lucas went back to developing “The Star Wars.”
By 1974, Lucas had expanded the story treatment into a rough draft screenplay, with now-familiar elements like the Sith, the Death Star, and a hero named Annikin Starkiller. The concept had come together, but Coppola pressed Lucas. He wanted to have Apocalypse Now in theaters by 1976 — the American Bicentennial. And while Lucas insisted that he still wanted to make the war picture, his mind was made up: Star Wars would be his next film.
Coppola took the reins of Apocalypse Now. But Lucas, who had invested years of his life in the project, bristled at the notion that Coppola could ignore his personal investment and make the movie without him. The pair’s friendship became strained, though Coppola granted Lucas a share of the profits when Apocalypse Now finally debuted in 1979.
What if Coppola had succeeded in pinning Lucas down on Apocalypse Now? Maybe he would’ve made Star Wars his next project. It’s more likely, however, that the experience of directing Apocalypse, which proved particularly disastrous for Coppola, would’ve been detrimental to Lucas’s psyche, altering his drive and creative vision. Who knows if he’d ever have made it? And even if he had, it’d look nothing like 1977’s A New Hope.
The story, which was ever-changing, would have further evolved. And there’s little chance that Lucas would’ve ended up with the same main cast of Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford, whose charisma are a huge part of what made Star Wars lightning in a bottle. The film’s groundbreaking special effects would look completely different — maybe not-so-groundbreaking if they’d been developed for another film by the time Lucas got around to making it.
So, as we mark the anniversary of the release of Star Wars, let’s consider how it all could’ve happened differently. We could’ve had a world without Star Wars, or at least a very different interpretation of the galaxy far, far away.
Both Apocalypse Now and Star Wars have stood the test of time, but George Lucas’s choice to make Star Wars instead of the Vietnam drama changed the world for the better, and it’ll continue to have a positive impact on generations to come. Thank the Maker for that.
Article sources: George Lucas Close Up by Chris Salewicz, Empire Building by Garry Jenkins, George Lucas Interviews by Sally Kline.
[This article was originally published on May 25, 2016]