The Big Picture
- George Lucas’ attempts to acquire the rights to Flash Gordon were unsuccessful, leading him to create his own space opera, Star Wars.
- The rejection of Flash Gordon allowed Lucas to infuse Star Wars with his personal life experiences and create a universal story that resonated with audiences.
- Lucas’ risk on originality paid off, highlighting the importance of allowing filmmakers the opportunity to develop original art instead of relying solely on pre-existing franchises.
In the mid-1970s, George Lucas was coming off a huge hit. After the appreciated but not financially successful THX-1138, Lucas made a film that was a huge critical and commercial hit, that also garnered him two Academy Award nominations for writing and directing. American Graffiti may not have taken home a single Oscar, but more importantly, it afforded Lucas the opportunity to take a big swing on a project he had had in his mind for years. It’s obvious what happened next, four years after American Graffiti, Lucas made a film that launched a legacy that goes on until this day. Making Star Wars was not Lucas’ original plan post-American Graffiti, though, and only came about when his attempts to acquire the rights to another franchise proved to be impossible – Flash Gordon. With the rights to the beloved serial of his youth out of reach, Lucas pivoted, and for that, the world got to see Star Wars.
George Lucas Would Have Been Happy to Make Flash Gordon
Flash Gordon was a 1930s series of episodic films (serials) based on the comic strips of Alex Raymond. George Lucas was inspired by these serials and after his first sci-fi film, sought to acquire the rights. In Michael Kaminski’s book The Secret History of Star Wars, Lucas was quoted as having said, “I especially loved the ‘Flash Gordon’ serials… Of course, I realize now how crude and badly done they were… loving them that much when they were so awful, I began to wonder what would happen if they were done really well.” Unfortunately for Lucas, there was one producer that stood in his way.
Dino De Laurentiis, the Italian producer who had worked with Federico Fellini on La Strada and Nights of Cabira before attuning to more genre fare like Serpico, Blue Velvet, and Manhunter, had held the rights to Flash Gordon since the 1980s (per The Hollywood Reporter.) While attempting to secure funding with Francis Ford Coppola for American Graffiti, Lucas also took a meeting in regards to optioning Flash Gordon. At this meeting, Lucas was denied, partly due to a desire for De Laurentiis’s former collaborator Fellini to direct the film. But Lucas knew it wouldn’t be right when the rights holders demanded eighty percent of the profits. Coppola recalls Lucas being very depressed (per Kaminski) with the results, but this would not stop Lucas from pursuing a space opera.
‘Flash Gordon’ Rejection Bred ‘Star Wars’ Innovation
“I’ll invent my own,” George Lucas told Francis Ford Coppola and began to develop something original, soon registering the title The Star Wars at United Artists on August 1st, 1971 (per Kaminski.) The idea was developing alongside Lucas’s work on American Graffiti. In an article from The ASC, once rejected Lucas began to study the works that influenced Flash Gordon creator Alex Raymond. This included Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars and the inspiration for that Edwin Arnold’s Gulliver on Mars. After the completion of American Graffiti in 1973, Lucas dedicated all of his time to developing The Star Wars. He reportedly spent eight hours a day five days a week trying to break the story and find the characters. He is said to have written four different screenplays completely unlike one another before cracking what would be the script (though he also was rewriting during production.) The creative process is far from straightforward, as Lucas put it, “It’s always been what you might call a good idea in search of a story.”
After constant work, and the framing inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, Lucas had the script he wanted. As he told The ASC, “I’m trying to make a classic sort of genre picture, a classic space fantasy in which all the influences are working together.” The influences were vast and clear, including the infamous opening title crawl coming directly from Flash Gordon (per Kaminski.) But Lucas transformed all of these influences into his own story and in May 1997, Star Wars was released and became of the biggest films of all time. The film became so big in fact, that two years later De Laurentiis pushed Flash Gordon forward to capitalize on the space opera trend (per The Hollywood Reporter.) The film, which was not directed by Fellini but rather by Mike Hodges, was not well received and fared poorly at the box office. The lasting legacy remains its soundtrack, composed by Queen, and a cameo by star Sam L. Jones in Ted. The film has developed a cult following and a reboot is in development with Taika Waiti at the helm.
George Lucas Not Making ‘Flash Gordon’ Was Probably for the Best
It is impossible to say what would have become of George Lucas’s Flash Gordon. There’s a chance he still would have pushed the same boundaries so far as visuals go. He also may have simply used the source material to explore his own ideas, similar to Greta Gerwig’s work on Barbie. It’s impossible to say whether it would have caught on with audiences and resonated so deeply that a rapid fandom would develop that lives to this day. But with having to invent his own story, Lucas was able to infuse the space opera not just with the sci-fi adventures and classic hero’s mythology, but also something more personal.
When taking over Lucasfilm, Kathleen Kennedy spoke to Lucas about where Star Wars came from. While he cited his inspirations so far as storytelling goes, what stood out was the life experience he had brought to the film. Lucas’ father had developed a chain of office supply stores in the Bay Area and had long hoped his son would take over, but that was not his calling. The young Lucas wanted to race cars and eventually found filmmaking, rejecting what his father wanted. Whether it was conscious or not, this struggle is at the center of Star Wars. There is no scene more fitting than Luke, after being told he can’t join the academy because his Uncle Owen needs him on the farm, looks off into the horizon and watches the binary sunset as the John Williams score picks up and wordlessly resolves that this won’t be the life for him. It’s possible a version of this may have made it into his version of Flash Gordon, but if it hadn’t, it would lack the universal feeling that drew audiences in past the flash of special effects.
Losing Out on the ‘Flash Gordon’ Adaptation Gave George Lucas the Bandwidth To Focus on ‘Star Wars’
Without the rights to Flash Gordon, George Lucas had to create his own story. He had to dig deep and be creative. Additionally, because his vision hadn’t been done before, Lucas and company had to work within a limited budget and use plenty of creative problem-solving to make Star Wars what it was. Nowadays, filmmakers are often recruited after an early success to tackle a pre-existing work. Lee Isaac Chung, the Academy Award-nominated writer-director behind Minari, is following up his deeply personal film with Twisters, a sequel to the 1996 storm chaser movie. With so many filmmakers being recruited to work within the framework of pre-existing franchises and characters, few are even allowed the opportunity to develop original art. But if there are no studios taking calculated chances, preferring to rely on safe established audiences, will there ever be something as new as Star Wars was in 1977?
George Lucas’s big risk on originality paid off. To this day filmmakers have risked originality and been rewarded for it. The Daniels, were in meetings to shoot Marvel’s Loki, but turned it down in order to pursue the not Best Picture winner Everything, Everywhere, All at Once. Audiences were able to get both, but imagine if The Daniels couldn’t have made their film due to Loki? What a loss that would be.
Lucas even repeated the lesson he learned a few years later. When his friend Steven Spielberg opined about his desire to make a James Bond movie, Lucas suggested an idea that would have elements of Bond but be its own thing. A few years later Raiders of the Lost Ark was released, launching a franchise that continues to this day.