The Cinema Behind Star Wars: American Graffiti

How many elements of Star Wars are in George Lucas' comedy about California teens? More than you can imagine!

During the production of THX 1138, George Lucas’ friend and fellow filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola challenged the young director to write a script that would appeal to a wider audience than the sci-fi film. Lucas turned to the settings of his youth in Modesto, California, cruising the streets and meeting girls. Set in 1962 over the course of one last night among friends in a sleepy California town, American Graffiti eventually became a sleeper hit that earned its budget back almost fifty times over at the box office in its initial release.

The film intercuts between four main groups of characters: John Milner (Paul LeMat), a kid devoted to racing and lamenting the loss of his culture, Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfus), a kid who doesn’t think he wants to leave home, Steve Bolander (Ron Howard), a jock having problems with his girlfriend, and Terry the Toad (Charlie Martin Smith), the nerd with all the problems. Over the course of the night, they buck authority, learn about themselves and, of course, get into some drag racing.

“The DNA of what Star Wars is was always in the mind of George. It isn’t just about Star Wars,” executive producer of Star Wars Rebels, Dave Filoni, tells us. “If you’re solely watching Star Wars to understand Star Wars, you’re limiting yourself. You understand that the way the kids are responding to their home and authority in American Graffiti is relevant to the way the old films are, like Luke and Han and Leia. I just saw a correlation there, from the shot composition to the musical cues…”

American Graffiti - Harrison Ford

As close as one could come to a villain in the film is the irrepressible (and probably irresponsible) Bob Falfa, played by none other than Harrison Ford. He’s a street racer from another town and all he wants is a piece of John Milner’s Deuce Coupe (license plate THX 138!), because he’s heard it’s real hot stuff.

And while Harrison Ford doesn’t play a Han Solo character in Graffiti, Paul LeMat does. LeMat plays John Milner. He has a devil-may-care exterior, but inside he really has a heart of gold and you get to see it in his dealings with Carol (Mackenzie Phillips) who is an underage girl who gets foisted upon him during the night. He tries to keep his bravado, but can’t help showing his tenderness and caring in helping her overcome being bullied and getting her home safely.

Milner’s car specifically is something that draws comparisons to Star Wars: his coupe, “a cross between piss yellow and puke green” is the same color as the speeder commandeered by Anakin just before the speeder chase in Attack of the Clones.

The Empire Strikes Back - Han and Leia on Hoth

Milner isn’t the only character that has his moments of Han Solo. In fact, Ron Howard’s Steve and Cindy Williams’s Laurie spend the film arguing just like Han Solo and Princess Leia in The Empire Strikes Back.

Hallmarks of Luke Skywalker’s journey are prevalent through the film, as well. Over the course of the film, Curt, played brilliantly by Dreyfus, spends the entire movie trying to refuse his call to adventure, wanting instead to stay home where he’s comfortable. But he meets a mentor figure (in this case it’s Wolfman Jack rather than Obi-Wan Kenobi) who helps spur him onto his adventure.

Thankfully for Curt, he doesn’t find his parents barbecued by stormtroopers.

American Graffiti and Attack of the Clones behind the scenes

One of the most notable set pieces in the film is the drive-in diner the kids hang out at. They were staples of the car culture of the 1960s, and they had a very distinctive look. It’s no wonder George Lucas was fond enough of them to bring them into the Star Wars universe with Dex’s Diner in Attack of the Clones.

The Phantom Menace - Podrace

Perhaps the single biggest influence that follows through all of George Lucas’ films is his obsession with speed. THX 1138 had the chase through the BART tunnels at its climax. The Star Wars movies all had some racing aspect to them, whether that was a trench run, speeder bike chase, or a podrace. But in American Graffiti, the final race between John Milner and Bob Falfa is the prototypical race one would see in Star Wars, with Falfa’s fate mirroring Sebulba’s more than a little bit.

This film is, for me, one that I’d probably put on my list of 10 best non-Star Wars films ever. It’s charming and funny, captures the essence of teenage years, and is just thrilling to watch. It’s also as quotable as Star Wars, or possibly even more so. The work of the cinematographers with the help of Haskell Wexler is breathtaking and Lucas’ command of the actors as director is undeniable. And it has a sense of humor that you can see wound through the Star Wars saga. The film feels, more than anything, genuine, and that’s part of why I love it.

The film is rated PG for language, brief suggestive content, and mild violence. I’d recommend you watch it with the whole family and I’d recommend you do it immediately. This is a classic film that everyone will enjoy and it’s an important piece of the cinematic history of Star Wars and its creator.

Availability: American Graffiti is widely available on DVD and Blu-ray. It is also available to purchase or rent streaming through iTunes.

Bryan Young is an author, a filmmaker, journalist, and the editor in chief of BigShinyRobot.com! He’s also the co-host of the Star Wars podcast, Full of Sith.

You can also follow him on Twitter.

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