(The Town Cinema theatre, Kankakee, Illinois, June 1977)

As difficult as it is for me to acknowledge, it was 35 years ago this week that a trip to one of the local movie houses where I lived had an unexpectedly profound impact upon my imagination – and, indeed, upon my life.

The movie in question had actually opened in other cities a couple of weeks earlier; between that time and the day it finally arrived at the old Town Cinema theatre in Kankakee. Illinois, I had seen a number of news reports about how it was drawing record audiences all across the country. That it was proving so popular was for me a source of both great delight and great bewilderment – delight because it sounded exactly like the kind of movie a geeky kid like me was bound to enjoy, and bewilderment because it so often seemed to me that the kind of movies us geeky kids typically enjoyed usually went unappreciated – and quite often unseen – by the mass audience.

Something about this one was striking a nerve with the public, though, which made me all the more determined to see and made the wait for it to come to town all the more unbearable. But finally, on that first Friday of June, 1977 – just days after my 14th birthday and after I graduated from junior high school – my mom drove me and my buddy John Garduno to the Town Cinema for that first showing.

There weren't that many people there for that first showing, I guess because it was a matinee; most adults were still at work, and kids our age typically didn't go to matinees because it wasn't considered “cool.” So, having pretty much our pick of seats, we picked a couple right down in the center of the very front row and talked while we waited for the show to start – me about how much I was looking forward to seeing the movie, him (as usual) about his wild infatuation with Tammy Landry and how much he hoped he'd get the chance to see her in a bikini some time that summer. Finally the lights went down and – after a handful of coming attraction trailers and the obligatory “Visit Our Snack Bar” ad – we got our first glimpse of the phrase that would become one of the great signposts of imagination: “ A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...”

At that moment I was transported to a whole new world. And I don’t mind admitting I’ve tried to keep one foot there ever since.

Yes, I’m a member of the first generation of Star Wars fans. No, I was never the kind of übergeek that quickly became the target of spoof and ridicule; I admit that I did buy some of the toys that came out later, and was a regular reader of the Marvel comic book series and that first wave of spin-off novels that started with Alan Dean Foster's Splinter Of The Mind's Eye. But I didn’t dress up in costume or go around scaring people with overly choreographed lightsaber moves like so many of the other fans (of ALL ages) did and still do today. Heck, even I made fun of some of them.

For the most part, my love of Star Wars manifested itself in other ways. 

It made me want to learn more about the various legends and myths and religious tales that had helped inspired George Lucas to create his space fantasy in the first place. It stirred my imagination to try and create stories of my own – which contributed in no small way to my eventually becoming a professional writer. And – perhaps an unusual side effect for a movie to have had, at least back then – it served to reinvigorate my already-lifelong love of reading. The spin-off novels not only sent me back to favorite authors like Edgar Rice Burroughs, H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, but also helped me discover other literary works that I hadn’t yet had the opportunity to acquaint myself with at that point in my life.

It is no exaggeration to state that, if it hadn’t been for Star Wars, it might have been years before I ever got around to reading the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien, Isaac Asimov or countless others. Some writers I might never have bothered with at all... and it would have been my loss.

The movie also made me a fan of George Lucas, the filmmaker. Yes, I saw each new Star Wars film as it came out, and thrilled to the adventures of his other great creation, Indiana Jones. But before that I went back and found the two films Lucas made prior to Star Wars: the nostalgic comedy American Grafitti, which I fell equally in love with; and the cult science fiction classic THX-1138, which I quickly determined was worthy of a place alongside such literary works as Brave New World, 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 as a classic Dystopian work. 

And I made sure I caught Lucas’ later films: the fantasy tales Willow and Labyrinth; the docudramas Tucker: The Man And His Dream and this year’s Red Tails, about the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II; the screwball 1930s-era comedy Radioland Murders; even the much-maligned Howard The Duck, which is admittedly no classic but I maintain is much better than usually given credit for. (Or perhaps it is Howard's very badness that appeals to me. I always thought it was a stupid idea for a comic book series to begin with, and so in my mind I’ve always seen the movie as a wonderful spoof not only of the comic but of a particular sub-genre of science fiction/fantasy in general. But, hey, that's just me...)

I loved them all. Each at a different level and for different reasons, to be sure, but I loved them all. And still do.

In recent years Lucas has become the target of much criticism. Much of it stems from the fact that he keeps going back and making changes to the Star Wars films. Admittedly I haven't cared for many of those changes (I’m sorry, George, but Han shot first), but my feeling has always been, “Hey, they’re his movies, he can do what he wants.” (Besides, in my humble opinion NONE of the changes Lucas has made to his Star Wars films over the years have been anywhere as annoying and downright stupid as Steven Spielberg’s decision when putting together his special DVD edition of E.T. a few years back to remove all the guns from the agents' hands during the climatic bike chase and replace them with walkie-talkies. That removed any element of genuine danger and pretty much rendered the scene pointless. In my neighborhood we wouldn't have run away from guys armed only with walkie-talkies; we would have laughed and charged at them with our bicycles, and maybe even run over their toes.)

But so many of the so-called “fanboys” – those who seem to have no real life outside their love of science fiction and fantasy, and are the reason the rest of us who like such things but take them far less seriously are so often made sport of by the rest of the world – go around acting like they know more about Star Wars and Indiana Jones than the guy who gave them to the world in the first place and thus second-guess his every creative decision. If I had a nickel for every time I've heard or read somebody start a sentence with "What Lucas SHOULD have done..." or "It would have been better if..." or (my favorite) "George Lucas doesn't know how to make a Star Wars movie.," I'd probably have enough money to try and launch a movie franchise of my own.

Lucas said it best himself earlier this year in an interview with the New York Times, when reflecting on the fact that these same know-it-alls who criticize his every move these days are the same ones who keep begging him for new Star Wars movies: "Why would I make any more when everybody yells at you all the time and says what a terrible person you are?"

It’s a pretty lousy way to treat the guy who pretty much single-handledly provided the genre you love with some actual respect in mainstream Hollywood, as far as I'm concerned. In a secular sense it has been the pop culture equivalent of man turing his back on God: the Maker creates a wonderful universe, only to have those who choose to live in it ball up their fists and say, "I'm better off without you!"

Which is why I was so sorry to recently hear that his frustration with such fair-weather fans may be leading Lucas to bring his career to a premature end. At the same time, you really can’t blame the man. Whether you approve or disapprove of the changes he's made to the Star Wars films, the fact remains that all he's tried to do is to bring his movies - HIS movies - closer to his original vision. Those who bellyache that he has only been doing it for the money seem to forget that nobody is forcing them to spend their hard-earned (or sometimes hardly-earned) dineros on each new re-release.

And as for all the flak he and Spielberg have gotten over the refrigerator scene in Indiana Jones And The Kingdom of The Crystal Skull - geez, give me a break, will you? They call it "fiction" for a reason, people. You want a history or science lesson, go watch The History Channel or The Discovery Channel. (Oh, wait, all they ever show anymore is Deadliest Catch and American Pickers. Yawn... never mind.)

Unfortunately it is not just the fans who seem to have turned on Lucas; Hollywood has apparently also turned its collective nose on the man who has done more to keep their industry afloat than almost anyone else you can name. His experience in getting Red Tails made was apparently the last straw in that regard. He worked for years to get the movie made, reportedly because the major film studios were afraid to finance and market a film with an all-black cast (at least one that wasn't a low-brow comedy like those annoying "Madea" movies Tyler Perry keeps churning out). 

Lucas ended up covering the cost of production with his own money. e managed to work out a distribution deal with 20th Century Fox, but it wasn't really much of a deal; Fox (perhaps hoping to gaini some measure of revenge for the deal Lucas made with them regarding production of the Star Wars sequels following the success of the original film) agreed to domestic distribution but declined to pay any of the associated costs, leaving Lucas to again foot the bill for everything (including the actual prints) himself. Studio executives reportedly didn't even bother coming to a screening of the finished film - a snub somewhat akin to having your own parents refuse to come to your wedding.

So with some malcontent fans turning on him and the studios basically telling him to go @#$! himself, it's no wonder Lucas has decided that enough is enough. Well, he's earned the right. At 67 he doesn't really have to prove anything to anybody anymore. He's made his mark on his industry and the world in a way he almost surely couldn't have imagined when he was attending film school at USC. And yes, he's made a fortune, but that really was more by accident than design. People forget sometime that the "Star Wars Phenomenon" was an unexpected happenstance. Nobody expected George's goofy little sci-fi film to succeed - not even Lucas himself. 

That fact that it did succeed so marvelously remains, at least for people of my generation, one of the great inspirational tales of what hard work and determination can accomplish. But it also created something of a trap for Lucas; like Arthur Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes and Edgar Rice Burroughs with Tarzan, Lucas in a sense found himself ruled by rather than ruler of the characters and worlds he created. As with Doyle and Burroughs, it has been the fans – some of them, anyway – far more than Lucas himself who have been to blame for this. 

So now he's reached a point where he wants to go back to making the small, experimental shorter art movies that first got him noticed when he was in film school. And as much as I as a fan feel some sadness in the fact that there might still have been some really wonderful and, yes, blatantly commercial "popcorn" movie along the line of American Graffiti or Star Wars in Lucas that we are now unlikely to ever see, there is another part of me that believes he's earned the right to refocus his career in a direction that matters more to himself as an artist than to those fans who have the mistaken belief that he is somehow beholden to them.

I don't claim to be an expert on anything. but here's what I do know: George Lucas has spent a lifetime making the kind of movies he wanted to see, and the great joy of that has been the fact that they were movies so many of the rest of us wanted to see as well. If (as one critic once said) Spielberg has been the John Ford of his generation, then Lucas has been both its Cecil B. DeMille and its Walt Disney - directing and producing films of epic scope whose sole purpose has been to entertain, and in the process creating some of the most beloved characters in all of pop culture. 

Along the way he helped create great technological advances in the movie making process, and inspired an entire generation of new filmmakers to follow in his footsteps. Star Trek fans owe him a debt of gratitude, because it was the success of the original Star Wars that paved the way for the series of Trek films that ultimately led to four additional TV series as well. Fans of the Lord of The Rings trilogy should be equally thankful; Lucas has acknowledged that Tolkien’s story was an influence on him, and Lucas in turn provided similar inspiration for Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of the trilogy. For that matter, everyone who has enjoyed Toy Story, Wall-E, Up, et. al., should breath a silent word of thanks to Lucas whenever they pop their favorite Pixar film into the DVD player, as Pixar was originally one of Lucasfilm’s subsidaries before being purchased by Steve Jobs.

Frankly I’d like to see any one of those who have hurled so much of this vitriolic hatred in Lucas' direction do better. Frankly I’m not holding my breath. 

For what it’s worth, Mr. Lucas, some of us  – the majority of us, I suspect, even though our voices are so often drowned out by the loudmouth know-it-alls who have had the great nerve and audacity to anoint themselves as the arbiters of your universe – still respect and admire your talents and wish you nothing but the best. So on their behalf, let me take this opportunity to offer our heartfelt thanks for the all the great entertainment and great memories you’ve given us over the years.

And to Mustafar with what the fanboys think!

(Copyright © 2012, by John A. Small)