Future Star Wars mogul George Lucas was 25 years old when his mentor Francis Ford Coppola secured him his directorial debut on a feature film. And in a pattern that would repeat itself on many occasions, the young man decided to revisit his own past work.

In 1967, Lucas won a coveted student award for his 15-minute project Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB. It was a barrage of sights and sounds, based on the premise of a man in the future, enslaved by state-administered drugs, who tries to escape. The film was light on actual story, but that wasn’t the point; Lucas was trying to demonstrate what the medium could do in terms of expressing the idea of being there – wherever “there” happened to be. He hoped that, as you watched the lead character, named THX 1138, try to set himself free, the visual and sonic ideas told you exactly what he was trying to free himself from.

Its success led to a connection with Coppola, who was ready to take advantage of the movie industry's imminent collapse. In a vacuum left by old masters – behind the camera and behind the desks – who had died, Coppola created his American Zoetrope company and persuaded Warner Bros. to financially support seven movies. The first of those was Lucas’ new version of THX 1138, extended to a full-length production.

Even that early in his career, Lucas was accused of not wanting to let an intriguing story get in the way of a visually impressive movie. “I didn’t want to alter things for the convenience of drama,” he agreed in an archive article collected in Sally Kline’s book George Lucas: Interviews in 1999. There was just enough of a plot to suffice, although the film's roots in ’60s counterculture, laced with a vaguely Biblical Adam-and-Eve narrative meant there was plenty to ruminate over if you wanted to.

THX’s female roommate, LUH 3417, sets things in motion by replacing their drugs with placebos. They develop feelings, fall in love and have sex - in the process making themselves criminals. The insidious SEN 5241 tries to take advantage of the situation, becoming a criminal himself, but they’re all caught by the heavy-handed robot cops that keep society in line. The pregnant LUH is recycled, while a hologram that comes to life helps THX escape from prison. After a dramatic car chase, the authorities declare the budget for his pursuit has been exceeded, and he’s left to climb out of the underground city and stand in the sunshine for the first time ever. And it's all presented in a style that’s easily recognizable for its early Star Wars production values.

Watch ‘THX 1138’ Trailer

“Francis is really the arty director," Lucas said in the 2004 documentary A Legacy of Filmmakers. "He’s the one who likes psychological motivations. … I’m more drawn to Flash Gordon. I wanted to do something extremely visual that had no dialogue and no character and that sort of thing – a cross between a theatrical and a nontheatrical kind of experience. ... My vision was not to do a normal story. … I wanted to do something that was abstract. I would sit for hours thinking about how abstract I was going to be.”

After a decade of supporting roles, the movie marked Robert Duvall’s first leading part, so any objections he might have had to shaving his head to look more like a futuristic human drone were set aside. Lucas had everyone else – Maggie McOmie as LUH, Donald Pleasence as SEN and Don Pedro Colley as the hologram SRT – do the same and used the footage of their haircutting as promo material. He dealt with the issue of shaving extras’ heads by hiring members of the nearby Synanon cult who’d already cut their hair as part of a healing process.

The director wanted viewers to feel as if they were secret witnesses to what was going on, so the main events in the movie were usually shot at distances in poor light with overwhelming background sounds. The approach presented many technical issues and required night shoots in incomplete road tunnels and powered-down computer plants around San Francisco. From that viewpoint, Lucas hoped, watching the movie would be immersive, and if it worked, a side effect would be that many of his observations on modern life would become subliminal – for example, the prerecorded voice of God (OMM), who was always ready to answer any cry for help with instructions like, “Let us be thankful we have commerce. Buy more. Buy more now. Buy. And be happy.”

Watch ‘What’s Wrong?’ Scene From ‘THX 1138’

After two years of work, THX 1138 was released on March 11, 1971. It wasn’t a mainstream feature film, and it was never meant to be, but Warner Bros. didn't understand that when it gave the movie a green light. After seeing the film it had financed, the company demanded Coppola repay his advance – which nearly bankrupted him – and canceled the six additional American Zoetrope movies it agreed to distribute. Committed to releasing the film, the studio overrode Lucas’ final-cut privilege and removed five minutes. If he was uncertain about getting involved with a major studio before all this, he was pretty sure how he felt after this experience.

“There was no point for them to do it other than to exercise some power,” Lucas said of the cuts in Brian Jay Jones' George Lucas: A Life by Brian. “‘We can screw around with your movie, so we’re going to. We don’t understand it; we don’t want to understand it. But we know that if we cut five minutes out of it, it’ll make it shorter.’ And we fought it, and they did it, and I was angry about it.”

In another interview, he argued that "there was no reason for the cutting. It was just arbitrary. You do a film … like THX – it takes two years of your life, you’re paid hardly anything at all, and you sweat blood.” He compared the experience to “raising a kid ... then somebody comes along and says, ‘Well, it’s a very nice kid, but I think we ought to cut off one of its fingers.’ … They say, ‘Don’t worry. Nobody will notice. She’ll live, everything will be all right.’ But I mean, it hurts a great deal.”

Still, the movie was an art-house victory. It's difficult to fully enjoy, but at the same time it's difficult to fully reject. Critics and audiences agreed that the movie felt more like it was from the future rather than being about the future. The cinematography was hailed; the lack of narrative noted. And most fans would probably admit it’s not the kind of film one trots out often – every few years is likely enough.

That’s partly because if you allow yourself to become immersed in Lucas’ dystopian future, it offers a stark perspective on the present day. That's entirely intentional, although the director later concluded he wasted his time. “I realized after THX that people don’t care about how the country’s being ruined,” he said. “All that movie did was to make people more pessimistic, more depressed and less willing to get involved in trying to make the world better.” His real point was: You can stop things going this way; you can be part of the solution. He just didn't say it in a direct and easily chewable way.

Watch Autojet Chase Scene From ‘THX 1138’ 

With all the talent involved, THX 1138 became a cult classic over time. And when Lucas revisited the movie in 2003, he wasn’t as heavy-handed with additions as he was with some of his other movies (see the original Star Wars trilogy).

Watching the movie in the light of those later successes, it's easy to note that a great deal of the work can be seen as a prototype for Lucas' later visual achievements. (The movie’s name is also preserved in his THX audiovisual-reproduction company.) “No film ever ends up exactly as you would like it to,” he reflected. "But with minor exceptions, THX came out pretty much as I had visualized it, thanks to some excellent assistance – and a whole lot of luck.”

There’s little doubt that the experience of being burned and hurt by traveling into the future, while staying too close to home, was a key moment in Lucas' later decisions. Especially the one set a time long time ago and in a galaxy far, far away.

 

See 'THX 1138' Among 1971's Essential Movies