MYTHMAKER

The Life and Work of George Lucas

By John Baxter

Spike. 450 pp. $27.50

It is often (probably too often) said of filmmakers that their greatest creations are themselves. But there is no filmmaker to whom this assessment applies more aptly than George Lucas. One of the pleasures of reading John Baxter's sharp and comprehensive biography of the man behind, among other films, "Star Wars," "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and, unfortunately, "Howard the Duck," is watching Baxter turn somersaults trying to discern the (relative) truth from self-aggrandizement and reconstructive histories. He has his work cut out for him: His tale is peopled with (mostly) men possessed of outsize egos and penchants for fiction--the men of "New Hollywood," including Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, John Milius, Lawrence Kasdan, Martin Scorsese, a host of studio executives and, trickiest of all, Lucas himself.

George Walton Lucas Jr. was born in Modesto, Calif., the son of successful, hard-working Methodist parents. Baxter sets the tone of Lucas's youth from the get-go: "There is no easy way into Modesto--nor for that matter, any easy way out." It was a way out that young George, a slight kid with big ears, a D-plus average and a love of cars, sought. By making several seemingly inconsequential choices--hanging around racetracks, heading off to junior college, transferring to the University of Southern California--Lucas soon found himself studying film on his reluctant father's dime. (As is the case with many self-made American fathers, Lucas Sr. hoped his son would take over the family business--in this case, stationery.) Once the elder Lucas saw one of his son's early student films, he was inspired to remark to his wife, "I think we may have put our money on the right horse."

After graduating, Lucas set himself to getting films made. To accomplish this he relied on his network of friends and teachers and his vast reserves of ingenuity, self-confidence and sheer salesmanship. His first project, the dystopian, futuristic "THX 1138," was an expanded version of a short he'd made during his USC days. It was produced by Coppola's nascent indie studio, American Zoetrope, which also helped secure financing for Lucas's next film and first commercial success, "American Graffiti." The story of that film, with its multiple plot lines and tricked-out cars, seemed at once a tribute to and an exorcism of Lucas's Modesto roots.

Flush from the "Graffiti" receipts, Lucas began fiddling with ideas for his next project. The first was a "space opera" set in a "used universe" starring a Laurel and Hardy-like pair of robots in a world of Kurosawa-inspired sword fights and political intrigue--"The Magnificent Seven" meets "The Seven Samurai" meets "Star Trek." The second was an update of the swashbucklers of Golden Age comic books starring a certain Indiana Smith. Another was a harsh Vietnam piece to be based on Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" and shot in documentary style by Lucas (with Milius writing and Coppola producing). Of course, he opted for the first idea, and it became The Big One: "Star Wars." Milius and Coppola went off to make "Apocalypse Now," and Lucas shelved his archaeologist idea for four years, until he'd met up with an old acquaintance and fellow box office darling, Steven Spielberg.

"Star Wars" was and remains massive: one of the most widely recognized, referenced and enjoyed pieces of popular art in the history of the world. What started out as a chance for Lucas to explore another universe turned the world of filmmaking upside down and in the process made him and those who collaborated with him very, very rich.

Add to that pot the lucrative merchandising rights, which Lucas had taken from the studio suits in a slick bit of double-psychology dealmaking, and Lucas in particular was rolling in money. In a tip of the hat to William Randolph Hearst, Lucas built Skywalker Ranch, his Xanadu, in Marin County, ostensibly to house the many business units that make up Lucasfilm (among them famed special-effects houses Industrial Light and Magic and Skywalker Sound).

Fans should know that the trivia is all in this book: Yes, Harrison Ford was working for Lucas as a carpenter when he was cast as Han Solo; R2-D2 and C-3P0 are named after Lucas's terms for master reels in the editing room; Ford's name patch in "Apocalypse Now" identifies him as one "G. Lucas"; and so on. But Baxter spares us the gossip and interpretation, instead choosing to make sense of his enigmatic subject. (For a more sweeping insider's look at New Hollywood, turn to Peter Biskind's "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.")

But for all the detail crammed into "Mythmaker," the facts are, ultimately, not the point. The point is the elusiveness of fact or truth in Lucas's story. Depending on whom you're asking, Lucas either brought filmmaking and its profits to new heights or single-handedly dumbed down narratives and emphasized automated production procedures to the point that his films are devoid of thoughts and emotions and may very soon be devoid of actors as well. That split is amplified in the chasm between his fans' opinions of him and his peers' opinions. Lucas's vision as realized in "Star Wars" prompted director William Friedkin to note, "It was like when McDonald's got a foothold, the taste for good food just disappeared."

Baxter takes this notion and softens it a bit, comparing Lucas's sensibility to that of another great celluloid populist, Sam Goldwyn, whom director Lindsay Anderson once referred to as "one of the lucky ones whose great hearts, shallow and commonplace as bedpans, beat in instinctive tune with the great heart of the public, who laugh as it likes to laugh, weep the sweet and easy tears that it likes to weep."