While recently scrolling Twitter, an interesting anecdote came to my attention. In the fabled George Lucas outline for a Star Wars sequel trilogy, a treatment which the filmmaker shared with the Walt Disney Company when he sold Lucasfilm for $4 billion, Lucas apparently had a strange vision for Luke Skywalker: He wanted the older version of Skywalker to be like a character in a movie Lucas almost made before Star Wars. He wanted him to be, in essence, Marlon Brando’s Col. Kurtz from Apocalypse Now, right down to the bald head and rambling gibberish.
This detail is not new. In fact, Pablo Hidalgo first confirmed the information in Star Wars: Fascinating Facts (2020). In that book (via Total Film/GamesRadar+), Hidalgo wrote, “Although Luke Skywalker only barely appears in The Force Awakens, the concept artists had a lot to imagine based on the fragments of the story they were hearing as it developed. Rey was on a mission to seek out Luke Skywalker, who had disappeared. As described by George Lucas, Rey is like Willard going up river seeking out Colonel Kurtz, an allusion to Apocalypse Now. The story had Rey find Luke on a Jedi temple planet, but he is a recluse, withdrawn into a very dark space and needs to be drawn back from despair.”
This tracks with what Doug Chiang, a Lucasfilm executive creative director, previously revealed about the largely abandoned story treatment Lucas left behind. Originally, Lucas imagined a broken and solitary Skywalker being found in hiding in Episode VII by a female protege. He was apparently still haunted by the pull of the Dark Side after the Jedi Killer (who became Kylo Ren) slaughtered his nascent Jedi Academy. Now a young woman (initially Taryn, then Kira, and eventually Rey) forced Luke to reconnect with the Force and rediscover his vitality—before still dying in Episode VIII, as per Hidalgo’s book.
All of which is to say Lucas’ limited influence on what became Disney’s Sequel Trilogy is not news. However, the context of receiving this information is strikingly different after more than six years out from Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and the effect it had on Star Wars media and the fandom it so desperately feeds. Because it is nearly impossible to comment or write about Rian Johnson’s lone film set in the galaxy far, far away without raising the specter of recriminations and endless grievances held among those who claim the greatest devotion to the franchise with Space Wizards and laser swords.
Nonetheless, discovering the kernel of Luke Skywalker’s exile was planted by Lucas reminded me of an undeniable truth—The Last Jedi understood what Star Wars was supposed to be better than most of what came afterward.
The Kurtz allusion has an obviously special significance for Lucas. Once upon a time in his early days as a young and hungry filmmaker fresh out of USC, the director had dreams of shooting John Milius’ original screenplay for Apocalypse Now in a cinema vérité style. There were even talks of filming the Vietnam War movie during the Vietnam War outside of Saigon, although the film’s eventual director, Francis Ford Coppola, later insisted that was more Milius’ reckless fantasy.
Whatever the case may be, Coppola wound up making the movie after Lucas was seduced by the Force he created and the merchandising empire it spawned. Even so, Lucas never lost sight in the Star Wars films he produced, nor the the adjacent Indiana Jones pictures he dreamed up stories for, that he was making a pastiche of all the cinematic influences that inspired him as a youth.
You’re likely familiar with most of the obvious ones: Obi-Wan Kenobi was modeled after the Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune and the many samurai characters he played in classic Akira Kurosawa movies (the part was even offered to Mifune); Luke’s loss of his aunt and uncle and childhood innocence on the frontier of civilization is modeled right down to specific shots on Jeffrey Hunter’s plight at the beginning of John Ford’s The Searchers; you can do shot-by-shot comparisons of the World War II aerial melodramas of the 1940s and ‘50s and the Death Star run in the first Star Wars.
Lucas’ Star Wars and Indiana Jones projects were as much pop culture collages of Golden Age Hollywood as Quentin Tarantino’s career has been a reworking of the grindhouse, pulp, and international genre films he grew up on in the 1960s and ‘70s. Star Wars wasn’t an actual canon with sacred texts; it was a goofy, self-aware spectacle. It hoped you would pick up that the Mos Eisley cantina is just like Rick’s Cafe in Casablanca, right down to the jackbooted thugs trying to ruin everyone’s good time. It was also therefore a chance to reflect the real world. The idea of what a Star Wars movie could be about evolved as new elements were introduced in each installment, from the revelation that Vader is Luke’s father giving the original trilogy a suddenly operatic grandeur to the political shenanigans in the prequel trilogy deliberately echoing the historical contexts in which republics cede their liberties to strongmen.
Not all of these creative innovations worked. The prequels’ allusions to ancient Rome (by way of Ben-Hur) via podracing in fun, but trying to turn Emperor Palpatine into Julius Caesar fell flat. But the intent was to always expand this galaxy and make it richer through the reflections, allusions, and commentaries it evoked.
Ever since The Last Jedi came out, Star Wars has commented almost exclusively on Star Wars. That film’s Luke Skywalker echoing Obi-Wan Kenobi’s sense of failure and exile—never mind Col. Kurtz—enraged fans who wanted to see only what Luke teased Rey about in Rian Johnson’s script: staring down the whole might of the First Order “with a laser sword.” Mind you, Luke actually did that at the end of The Last Jedi, and it was one of the most tremendous moments in the franchise. But he did so in a way we were taught to appreciate was truly Jedi-like in behavior. He did not kill or hurt anyone, but through a trick of the Force he saved lives.
Fans who wanted to see Luke cut down hordes of enemies, however, considered it a betrayal of expectations, and Lucasfilm fecklessly took note. So when Mark Hamill was turned into a ghastly de-aged mannequin in The Mandalorian a few years later, the first thing he did was slice and dice dozens of faceless foes with his green lightsaber. Fandom was ecstatic.
The same held true when Obi-Wan Kenobi brought back Hayden Christensen, all so Obi-Wan and Darth Vader could have another fight just like the one in the original 1977 Star Wars, save this one must have no stakes. We know Vader kills Obi-Wan in Star Wars, so their confrontation in the Disney+ TV series is ultimately meaningless—a regurgitation of Star Wars content you already saw before that must end with the exact same status quo it started at.
With the exception of Tony Gilroy’s magnificent (and little watched) Andor, the streaming shows have become an ouroboros. They’re snake-shaped corporate products eating their own tails. Hence large portions of Ahsoka devoted to recreating moments from an animated TV series, only now young Ahsoka sees Christensen turn into Darth Vader for a flash of a moment before turning again to Anakin. Star Wars is stuck in a circuitous and repetitive conversation with itself, discussing the same characters, with the same talking points, on a loop ad infinitum.
As a result, the world of Star Wars has never seemed smaller or more insulated than on a litany of Disney+ shows where the entire galaxy revolves around the same five characters bumping into each other and making reverent nods to the same three movies released 40-plus years ago.
This might be the way, but not long ago The Last Jedi promised another. It was a film where the depth of the Jedi/Sith paradigm grew with newly added complexities and ambiguities; the power of the Force felt bigger and more mysterious as Luke projected himself across the stars with his last breath; and the films could freshen up the mythos by drawing on new influences and weird details—like drawing on a ‘70s Vietnam War film that was in turn based on a Joseph Conrad novel from 1899.
That was apparently what Lucas wanted all along.
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