Exactly 30 years ago, a young film director started to write a movie treatment that was a hybrid of Buck Rogers movies and the novels of Carlos Castaneda. By May 1973, all he had to show were 12 pages that appeared to indicate a greater interest in Castaneda's experiments with drugs than in his New Age stories about a Yaqui Indian shaman who could manipulate the forces of time and space. It speaks volumes for the imagination of Alan Ladd Jr, head of production at 20th Century Fox, that he bought the treatment, entitled Star Wars, and paid the author, George Lucas, $50,000 to write the script. But lest anyone should think Lucas was merely lucky, it is worth remembering that he worked on the script for another two and a half years before Star Wars went into production, at Elstree Studios, on 25 March 1976.
The shoot was beset with difficulties, and there were few people involved with the making of the film who thought it was going to be anything but a turkey. Lucas apparently found it easier to relate to creatures of his own imagination than to the cast or crew, and especially his cameraman, Gil Taylor. By all accounts, Taylor drove Lucas mad, calling Chewbacca, an alien creature-character that looked and sounded like a gigantic Demis Roussos, "the dog". Later on, describing the experience of making the film to his biographer, Dale Pollock, Lucas said: "I ended up having to be nice to everybody, which is hard when you don't like a lot of the people."
Twelve months and $9.5m later, Lucas arranged a private screening for movie-brat friends such as Steven Spielberg, Brian De Palma and Martin Scorsese. Without the special effects that are the film's principal hallmark, it looked ridiculous. It is easy to see why - dialogue was never Lucas's strong suit. (Harrison Ford told Lucas: "George, you can type this shit, but you sure can't say it.") Several people left the movie theatre before the film had ended. De Palma called it "gibberish". Only Spielberg thought differently. "It's great," he said. "It's going to make a hundred million dollars."
Lucas and Spielberg were proved right. Released in May 1977, the film took $100m in just three months. Twenty-five years later, the Star Wars phenomenon - based on four movies, with a fifth, Attack of the Clones, scheduled for release this May - has generated enough money to make Lucas the 151st richest person in the world; last year, Forbes magazine estimated his personal worth to be approximately $3bn. By contrast, Steven Spielberg, with $2.1bn, ranked just 222nd.
It was always about the money. George Lucas was one of the first directors to understand the importance of merchandising. In Peter Biskind's excellent book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, the writer-director John Milius describes a conversation he had with Lucas, a great rival of Francis Ford Coppola, about this same subject: "George said to me, 'I'm going to make five times as much money as Francis on these science-fiction toys'."
Lucas was no more likely to put artistic integrity ahead of the bottom line. He told Martin Scorsese that his 1977 musical New York, New York would gross an extra $10m if only he would give it a happy ending. "When I heard him say that," Scorsese recalls, "I knew I was doomed, that I would not make it in this business."
The strain of making Star Wars, however, was enough to ensure that it was the last film George Lucas ever directed. All the films since then have been produced by Lucas, but directed by people who do what they're told. He was always more comfortable making deals and money than he was working with people. Lucas has better business instincts than almost any other artist in Hollywood. For example, he used his own company, Lucasfilm, to produce Star Wars and its sequels so he could make sure that the costs charged against each picture were genuine. And having resisted the opportunity to sell control of his creation to Fox, Lucas found that he was able to dictate his own terms when it came to making the first sequel, The Empire Strikes Back.
Retaining an almost unbelievable 75 per cent of the gross, Lucas also managed to hold on to all TV and merchandising rights. By his own account, he enjoyed his new power over the studio: "I got screwed in the beginning," he said, "and now I'm able to do it to them."
Today, Lucas lives on a 4,700-acre estate in Marin County, one of the nicest parts of northern California. Called the Skywalker Ranch, after the hero of his first three Star Wars pictures, the spread, according to the Wall Street Journal, cost $100m. From the outside, the house resembles nothing so much as the Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick's horror movie The Shining, and few people outside the Lucasfilm organisation are ever invited inside. Ronald Reagan, when president of the United States, requested a tour but was denied - Lucasfilm had taken a dim view of Reagan's decision to refer to his Strategic Defence Initiative as Star Wars.
As well as its own fire station, the Skywalker ranch has film-making facilities that would be the technological envy of most Hollywood studios. Despite all this, later on this year, Lucas's special effects company, Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), will relocate to a $250m, 1,500-employee corporate campus that is being constructed on 23 acres of prime San Francisco real estate. It won't be long before Lucasfilm is the equal of any major film studio.
In the beginning, it was easy to see the all-powerful Empire in Star Wars as Hollywood itself, and the mongrel rebels ranged against it as the new Hollywood movie-brats. Today, it is hard not to perceive Lucas as the shadowy emperor of a semi-autonomous state founded on vast sums of money and technology of unlimited power which, with cynical devotion to the force of merchandising, exploits millions of children and simple-minded adults.
The Star Wars franchise is nothing less than the sharp end of the most insidious kind of globalised marketing that exists today. Starbucks sells you nothing more than a cup of coffee; Gap sells you a pair of jeans; but movie franchises such as Star Wars only pretend to sell you a film, when what they really mean to sell you is all the crap that comes with it. Even the cheapest, lousiest light sabre still costs more than the price of a child's cinema ticket.
I wouldn't feel so strongly about this if the films were any good, but only the first one had any merit; and, rather like a Big Mac at McDonald's, all the sequels and prequels have looked and tasted like the same piece of hype-filled, mass-produced junk. I fell asleep in The Phantom Menace; I expect to fall asleep when I am obliged to take my sons to see Attack of the Clones.
By far the worst aspect of this cultural imperialism (as the great film critic of the New Yorker, the late Pauline Kael, once pointed out) is how Star Wars and its clones have infantilised the adult movie audience, transforming the spectator into a child again, overwhelming him with THX sound and ILM spectacle, and leaving no room for aesthetic self-consciousness and critical reflection. In short, George Lucas has done nothing less than dumbed down the general movie audience, and, for all the technical brilliance of his films, I would argue that the most distinctive thing about them has been that Lucas is one of the only men ever to have used two colons in a film title, viz, Star Wars: episode IV: a new hope (special edition).
Before Star Wars, audiences were more sophisticated. They went to see films with special stories, not special effects. Lucas changed all that, perhaps for ever, helping to deliver a new kind of cinema: cinema as cheap amusement-park ride. In 1999, 22 years after its original cinema release, Star Wars was voted Britain's favourite film, in what was claimed to be the biggest poll of its kind.
For people of my generation and older, it still seems almost inconceivable that such a film should be chosen in preference to Citizen Kane, Lawrence of Arabia, Les Enfants du Paradis or The Searchers. And I often think that Lucas has done more than any other man to bring into being the "feelies" - the sensation-led cinema described by Aldous Huxley in his futuristic novel Brave New World: "There's a love scene on a bearskin rug; they say it's marvellous. Every hair of the bear reproduced. The most amazing tactual effects."
At the same time as turning cinema into Huxley's "all-super-singing, synthetic-talking, coloured, stereoscopic feely", George Lucas has reduced the critical response of the typical audience to a few gormless oohs and aahs.
Philip Kerr is the New Statesman film critic