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Put The Freaks Up Front

It is really quite a miracle that Francis Ford Coppola managed to sneak THX 1138 into the seven-picture deal with Warner Brothers that launched American Zoetrope (a deal that also included Apocalypse Now and The Conversation). Even if the screenplay is slightly less abstract and dense than the film, it isn’t exactly light reading.

And sure enough, when the film was nearing completion, Warners panicked out, thinking the film was neigh un-releasable.

“They said it didn’t have the kind of forward momentum they wanted,” says Lucas, who recalls with horror that one executive told him to “put the freaks up front”—that is, the “shell people,” who appear at the end-and tell the rest of the events in the film as a flashback. “Francis got them away from most of that stuff to just simply taking some of the white limbo scenes out.”

Page 43, The Cinema of George Lucas by Marcus Hearn

Eventually the film was taken away from him and the studio cut from it five minutes, which in turn—with the same happening on American Grafitti—probably turned Lucas into the one-man empire he is today, swearing to never again let anyone touch his films.

Now I may be a Star Wars fan first and foremost, but in many ways I think THX 1138 is a better and more interesting film than Star Wars ever was. It is stunningly shot, phenomenally edited and has a soundtrack the likes of which I don’t think any film has had before or since (Murch at his very best). It is timeless in ways Star Wars certainly hasn’t been, and it makes no compromises to get the audience on-board. This is what science fiction films are all about; dissection of the known and unknown through abstraction.

Now I’m not sure where, when, why or how this was put together, but as it turns out, in Italy the film has been shown with the end-chase sequence up front. I wouldn’t trade the real THX 1138 for it, but as a hook for more mainstream audiences, I can see how it would work well; the chase sequence being after all the most easily digestible part of the film.

Either way, have a look at it, and remember to click and read the ‘more info’.

If you don’t already own it, I highly recommend the DVD as well as the book, The Cinema of George Lucas, which has a good section on the film.