Timeless tale looks to its past and its future

A long time ago in a country far, far away, a struggling filmmaker looked out at the wreckage of his film set. A sandstorm the night before had torn through the Tunisian landscape, ripping to shreds many of the film’s sets. To make matters worse, the director was beginning to miss his California home and wife, the crew was becoming sick with stomach illnesses and budgetary questions were continuing to plague the production. One thing is for certain – George Lucas has certainly come a long way. As for that fateful film that was tested in the desert? On May 19, the circle is complete for the “Star Wars” film series.

With the critical panning of Lucas’s most recent chapters in the saga, “The Phantom Menace” and “Attack of the Clones,” it is easy to forget that Lucas, a graduate of the University of Southern California film program, has developed the series for his own enjoyment. The story of “Star Wars” dates back to Lucas’ college days. While working on “American Graffitti” (a classic in its own right), Lucas began to develop the concept of a grand space opera with roots in the old serials of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. An avid follower of mythology guru Joseph Campbell, Lucas crafted a story of duality: the oppressed Rebellion and the evil Empire, the wise Jedi and the crafty Sith.

With the success of “American Graffiti,” Lucas was able to get just enough money to finance his dream project for a May 1977 release, hiring veteran actors like Sir Alec Guiness and Peter Cushing and rising talent like Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill. Despite confusion over the fantastic world Lucas created, the result was a modern masterpiece, hailed by many as the savior of the sci-fi genre.

Lucas pioneered usage of computer technology and blue-screen work for special effects and crafted a timeless tale that won over fans around the world. The director became an underdog’s dream when fans discovered that the multimillion dollar baby had been turned down by almost every major studio until 20th Century Fox finally offered aid. Also, at this time, Lucas began to develop a business sense, tapping into the merchandising world by releasing hot-selling “Star Wars” toys, comics, apparel and more.

In “Star Wars,” children could find characters to root for and fear. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) was the quintessential hero, the driven man who has the fate of millions on his shoulders. Harrison Ford’s Han Solo was the slick, sarcastic mercenary whose real-world counterpart would have the fastest car and the coolest attitude. Girls even had the spirited Princess Leia to look up to, as Leia not only needed rescuing but also saved the boys from time to time. And, of course, the echoing breath of Darth Vader became instantly recognizable.

Then the director walked away. After suffering physical ailments from the production’s long hours, Lucas chose not to direct the sequel to “Star Wars: A New Hope” and passed the mantel on to Irvin Kershner. Lucas watched the series and its stars go through ups and downs for the next few years. “The Empire Strikes Back” became a fan favorite and a critically-lauded success. “Return of the Jedi” wrapped the saga up, with subpar reviews. Later, Lucas revealed that his close friend Steven Spielberg would have directed “Jedi” had there not been a union-related issue.

Then “King George” disappeared, taking his millions and his characters and living a life producing and financing films from his California home. His adopted children were the focus now, he said in interviews. On the side, Lucas developed revolutionary special effects companies Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) and the THX Sound System. But the “Star Wars” dream apparently would not die, as Lucas began production on the prequels around the series’ 20th anniversary in 1997.

The original trilogy (“A New Hope,” “Empire,” “Jedi”) focused on the adventures of Luke, Han and Leia as they attempted to overthrow the tyrannical government enforced by Darth Vader and his evil Emperor. In the new trilogy, Lucas chose the bold move of showing how the Empire came to be and the fall of Anakin Skywalker, the future Darth Vader and father of the heroic Luke.

In Episode One, the eight-year-old Anakin is rescued from slavery by a young Obi Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and the young queen, Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman). In the second chapter, Anakin (Hayden Christiansen), now grown up and trained as a Jedi, forms a romantic bond with Padme. However, with the death of his mother and the cautious training of Obi-Wan, Anakin slowly becomes unhinged.

With the announcement of the completion of “Revenge of the Sith” on April 22, fans have begun to prepare for the countdown by prepurchasing tickets. “Sith” will feature the downfall of Anakin to the dark side and his eventual confrontation with his mentor in a climactic duel that fans have anticipated for over two-and-a-half decades.

From his roots as a starving filmmaker in the imperialistic Hollywood back lots to his life as the richest independent filmmaker in the world, George Lucas’ saga has come a long way from its humble origins in the Tunisian deserts.