George Lucas’ Long History Of Using His ‘Star Wars’ Money To Save Film History

Not everyone is a fan of George Lucas. Some feel he destroyed the original Star Wars trilogy with the Special Editions and don’t like that he wrote and directed those critically panned prequels. Some also take issue that he executive produced a bad film version of an excellent comic (Howard the Duck). Some have issues with his embrace of digital cameras, which helped to lead Hollywood to mostly abandon celluloid film, and that he also helped turn mainstream cinema into largely blockbuster-only terrain. Some also take issue with him having sold his company, Lucasfilm, and its Star Wars content to Disney.

That all said, here are some other things George Lucas has done. He’s donated untold millions to charity, including, reportedly, a good chunk of the $4.05 billion he made in that Disney sale. He’s given a ton to Barack Obama’s campaigns and foundations. He’s sent hundreds of millions to his alma mater, the University of Southern California, and established an educational foundation that tries to make teaching more delectable to students. His last Hollywood venture, before his soft retirement in 2012, was the Tuskegee Airmen movie Red Tails — a blockbuster about African-American soldiers, targeted at African-American teenagers, at a time when the industry ignored that demo (and, for the most part, still do).

And let’s not forget, Lucas created the original Star Wars trilogy and co-created Indiana Jones. That’s why he has all this money to throw around. And throw it around he has, often quietly, without making a big show. It’s true that Lucas has done some wrong by his original Star Wars trifecta, truculently waging war with those who’d like to see movies from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s without instantly dated late ‘90s digital graffiti. And yet he’s still one of film preservation’s mightiest heroes, regularly using his clout and his cash to ensure that we all have access to some of cinema’s greatest accomplishments.

This piece is about the George Lucas that not everyone knows — not the questionable guy who had Han Solo shoot first, but the champion who helped save Citizen Kane from colorization. This is about the George Lucas who ensured that everything from Night of the Living Dead to the Björk-starring drama The Juniper Tree to experimental shorts by the great Shirley Clarke are easy to find and look beautiful. It’s about the guy who took his Star Wars riches and helped save film history.

In fact, one of the architects of our modern blockbuster industrial complex first got really into movies with a type of cinema almost always ignored by mainstream audiences: the avant-garde. Lucas grew up in Modesto, California, hardly a cultural utopia. Luckily it was a hop, skip, and a jump from San Francisco. The young George Lucas would trek there to check out its bohemian art scene. But his favorite stop was Canyon Cinema, a “traveling cinematheque” launched by Bay Area experimental filmmakers to show off (and later distribute) experimental films.

It was at these screenings — so DIY that they sometimes took place in co-founder Bruce Baillie’s backyard, cinema screened on a strung-up bedsheet — that the future creator of Ewoks and Jar Jar Binks had his mind blown by the films of Stan Brakhage, Bruce Conner, Jordan Belson, and Arthur Lipsett. (The latter’s mordant 21-87 was his favorite, and he would later pay homage to it with numerous Easter Eggs.) Experimental films helped Lucas think about movies not in terms of story but in terms of sound and image. His student films were heavily indebted to the avant-garde, as was his feature Hollywood debut, 1971’s THX 1138.

Lucas soon went mainstream, and how. But even as he made the most money-gobbling movies, he never forgot his past. At heart, Lucas is an outsider who’s gotten lucky, more than once. In fact, for nearly a decade he’s threatened to return to avant-garde filmmaking. Those arty Lucas films have yet to materialize — and it’s worth noting he’s 76 — but he’s made sure to keep paying it forward. Lucas has made generous donations to his first love, Canyon Cinema. And he’s been a major force in film preservation. In 1990, he joined The Film Foundation, a non-profit founded by Martin Scorsese that has overseen the restoration of hundreds of movies, from Hollywood classics to international greats to experimental shorts to diamonds in the rough that would have been lost to history without them.

Lucas has also used his name to help other filmmakers. He and Francis Ford Coppola were appalled when Akira Kurosawa — whose samurai epic The Hidden Fortress was a major inspiration on the first Star Wars — was having trouble getting money for his 1980 film Kagemusha. So they put up the needed cash and helped get it released in America. When Lawrence Kasdan, who’d co-written The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, needed help making his directorial debut, the steamy neo-noir Body Heat, Lucas was there. And Lucas was there for Paul Schrader when he wanted to make the most non-commercial movie possible: Mishima, a fragmented look at the Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima, who, after a failed military coup, took his life via seppuku.

Lucas’ name helped attract attention to these films, but some of his other gregarious efforts have been quiet, under the radar. Since selling Lucasfilm to Disney in 2012, he’s shifted his focus to the George Lucas Family Foundation, which has supplied money to a treasure trove of restorations. You can see his name among the benefactors for such scrubbed-up titans as Charles Chaplin’s 1916 short The Count, the early color horror film Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), the 1945 noir Detour, the post-Cuban Revolution portrait Memories of Underdevelopment, the 1968 documentary Salesman, Robert Downey Sr.’s savage 1970 satire Putney Swope, and many more.

Lucas was also one of a number of filmmakers and classic movie stars who testified to the Senate in 1988 against the thankfully short-lived trend, most notoriously wielded by Ted Turner, of colorizing black-and-white films.

“The destruction of our film heritage, which is the focus of concern today, is only the tip of the iceberg. American law does not protect our painters, sculptors, recording artists, authors, or filmmakers from having their lifework distorted, and their reputation ruined,” Lucas argued. “Our cultural history must not be allowed to be rewritten.”

Lucas’ fiery words helped sway legislators to his side. And it led to the formation of the National Film Registry, which for over three decades has adopted 25 new films per year for preservation. (Star Wars was inducted in 1989 and Empire in 1995. Jedi, alas, has yet to make the cut.)

Does all this preservationist do-goodery clash with Lucas’ refusal to make the original versions of the first Star Wars trilogy more widely available? Yes and no. Lucas was advocating for the rights of artists over the works they’ve created, and Lucas created Star Wars, so technically he can do with them what he wishes. Still, maybe one day its current owners will be the ones to drop the original 1977 version, with its Carter-era effects and lack of Jabba or “McClunkey,” onto Disney+.

Until then, there’s plenty of other movies to watch. And a number of them you can watch in part thanks to George Lucas.