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AMERICAN POMPEII


It’s wonderful how one idea can lead to another even greater idea. The human brain is remarkable in its ability to shift gears without actually stripping the original intention.

The young George Lucas, had lost the confidence of the movie studio after the cool reception of his first movie. For inspiration he looked to an Italian movie about four teenagers from a small town who talk about leaving for Rome but never do.

Tempting as this might be, the 29 year old was also dreaming about making a new Flash Gordon” movie. He thought about how great it would be to see Flash Gordon on the big screen in full living color. It had been filmed in black and white several times.

As a young child the Flash Gordon game was a favorite. Since I was the only girl in my neighborhood, I was relegated to being Dale Arden with the ice-cream cone chest, when I really wanted to be Flash Gordon.

One night Lucas and his friend producer Gary Kurtz were at a diner and talking randomly about how the science fiction movies hadn’t really been enjoyable since Forbidden Planet” in 1955. They all seemed to have gone to genre horror movies like Creature From the Black Lagoon” or alien invasions. They both decided that none of that was fun any more the way “Flash Gordon” and Buck Rogers” had been.

Lucas made a trip to New York in 1971 to visit King Features to inquire about the film right to “Flash Gordon”. The King executives were thinking about the film rights too and mentioned the Italian director Frederico Fellini who was also a known Flash Gordon fan. Lucas knew he could not compete with Fellini at this point in his career.

As in so many creative right turns, this set off a lightbulb in Lucas’s brain, and he began dwelling on the vague notion he had had for years of making something even better than Flash Gordon. If he couldn’t do Flash Gordon he would just invent his own.

American Graffiti
George Lucas on set of American Graffiti in 1973

In the meantime though, Lucas needed a way to make a more bankable movie in order to pay for a movie about space flight. If Fellini was to take Flash Gordon” maybe he could take something from Fellini—for instance, the idea behind the movie I Vitelloni, about the four teenagers in the small town who talk about leaving for Rome but never do. What if you followed a bunch of guys on the cusp of leaving a small town, and follow them through one night of cruising—a ritual that had died out in the last decade?

Lucas would set his version in the summer of 1962, the moment everything changed for him at the ago of 18, and end it with a car crash. Set in a small town much like his own boyhood Modesto, California, it had flavors of autobiography.

He came up with a semi-Italian title: American Graffiti. It sounded odd to contemporary ears. The Italian word had not yet gained common currency. New York subway trains were about a year away from spray-painted signatures. Lucas hadn’t intended that debased usage of the word in any case; he meant the word invented at Pompeii in 1851 that means nostalgic etchings. He wanted to record the legacy of a lost decade: an American Pompeii, frozen in time forever.

Lucas’s encapsulation of space journeys were still to come.

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6 comments on “AMERICAN POMPEII

  1. This is just fascinating. Can you believe I’ve never seen “American Graffiti”? I think I’ll have to do that now. You’ve made it sound more interesting than it has before. On the other hand, I’ve never seen “Flash Gordon,” either. BUT! I have seen “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.” Does that count?

    I just found out this week that, at one time, “nostalgia” was considered a medical diagnosis, much like “neuralgia.” You can read about that here.

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    • I’m glad you like it Linda. I got excited while I was writing it, and ordered the DVD from Amazon to see it again! If you DO see it, you will recognize so many actors who got pretty famous afterward. Ron Howard, Harrison Ford for two. Then when Lucas made Star Wars which he really wanted to do instead of Graffiti, there was Ford sitting t the wheel of the Millenium Falcon!

      The nostalgia article is interesting. Sort of like the medical diagnosis about women’s “hysteria”.

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  2. Having seen American Graffiti three times many, many, years ago and having done a lot of cruising in my day, I thoroughly enjoyed this post, which provided the interesting background for a movie I found so compelling. Thank you.

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    • In Southern California where I lived as a young teenager, I was never allowed to go to the drive in with the older kids for hamburgers etc. When I moved to Northern California as an older teenager, they didn’t have that iconic drive in so I missed out all around. The movie told me all I needed to know.

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  3. I experienced a bit of synchronicity with this post last night! I watched “THX 1138”, George Lucas’ first film. This “Director’s Cut” was released on DVD in 2004 and apparently he made a few changes. You could tell it was an old film because all the computer equipment and office furniture in this future world was clunky and square. The film opened with a short Buck Rogers prologue. I enjoyed the film, though it took concentration.

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  4. As I mentioned earlier I did order the new DVD intending to watch immediately. It is still residing on the TV stand! Life gets busy doesn’t it? Buck Rogers must have been interesting to see how many of those inventions have come into common usage.

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