American Graffiti: George Lucas Before Star Wars

Written and directed by legendary filmmaker George Lucas in 1973, American Graffiti paints a vivid picture of 1960s nostalgia and the mischief that a group of friends gets into on their last night together before going away to college. A story chock-full of classic diners, street-racing, Beach Boys Music, and teenage angst, Lucas drew inspiration from his own youth to create this tale that many audience members may find incredibly relatable.


The four friends are Steve Bolander (Ron Howard), Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss), John Milner (Paul Le Mat), and Terry Fields (Charles Martin Smith). Steve is the popular guy, who has been with his girlfriend (also Curt’s sister), Laurie Henderson (Cindy Williams), for many years, but as he is about to go off to school, he has trouble definitively committing to her for a long-distance relationship. These characteristics place Steve in the “Hemingway Hero” category. Curt, a very intelligent student who has received a college scholarship, also struggles with commitment, trying to decide if he wants to indeed go off to school, or stick around and enjoy some freedom and lack of responsibilities. Curt also displays some traits of a “Romantic Hero.” A beautiful woman drives by him in a white Thunderbird car, mouthing, “I love you,” and for the rest of the film, his objective is to find this mystery woman (although he encounters his fair share of obstacles along the way, including a gang that effectively takes him captive). In addition to Steve and Curt, there is also John Milner, the tough guy, street-racing, bad boy type, who flirts with every woman he sees. John is a combination of the “Romantic” and “Hemingway” hero types, similarly to Curt. Finally, Terry is portrayed as the nerdy, wimpy guy who tries to act like someone he is not. However, this act he puts on actually wins him a girl named Debbie Dunham (Candy Clark). One could make the argument to place Terry in various literary hero categories, but I would describe him as a conglomeration of a “Romantic” and “Modern” hero.


There are a number of questions that progress the story. Each of the four friends go out on their separate adventurous paths throughout the film, and the audience wonders what the final outcome will be. Basically, our thoughts are, “How will each situation play out, and how will the various results affect one another?” Each individual adventure has its own inciting incident as well, but the two main cases that are the most prominent include Steve’s statement to Laurie that it would be okay for them to see other people while he’s off at college, and Curt’s question of possibly not taking advantage of the scholarship.

In looking at the character arcs, a few examples stick out more than others. Steve’s evolution path is definitely not a straight line (Dynamic Character). As I’ve mentioned, he says to Laurie at the beginning of the film that they should see other people while he is away, and she is not very happy with this idea. However, throughout the film (or the one night), their relationship goes through a series of ebbs and flows. When things finally seem to be settling down between the two, Steve and Laurie get into a huge argument (Character vs. Character Conflict). They agree to break up completely, which is a momentous event for these high school sweethearts. Steve is now lonely and depressed, and Laurie is feeling the same way. Yet, by the end of the film, they are brought back together by certain events that I will not elaborate on in order to avoid spoilers. They recognize their true appreciation and feelings for one another.

As far as the development of Curt Henderson, he is also unsure about his future at the beginning of the film. Does he want to take advantage of the scholarship, or give up his college opportunity and stick around town? Through a wild series of escapades that Henderson finds himself involved in, he finds some personality traits within himself that he did not even know he possessed (Round Character). In the midst of these exploits, his mind is also on the gorgeous woman in the white Thunderbird. There are many decisions he is constantly wrestling with, including what is morally right, whether it’s worth his time to track down a woman he does not even know, and what he wants to do with his future (Character vs. Himself, Character vs. Society Conflicts). Through all these obstacles and hurdles, Curt does indeed come to his senses by the end of the film and realize where his best path in life lies.

Considering the character of John Milner, his arc might be the most prominent of the story. This character is somewhat of a hooligan, always looking for a girl to pick up or a car to race. However, one of these attempts to get a girl backfires, and he ends up with the little sister of the girl he was after. She rides around in the car with him all night, and he is initially incredibly annoyed. This is definitely not what he had in mind for this night. Still, as the night goes on, we see him soften up, and actually develop a caring attitude toward the young girl (Dynamic Character). It is almost as if she is his little sister. Seeing the evolution of Milner’s character creates a very effective emotional connection with the audience.


The last character to evaluate, Terry Fields, does not exhibit much change over the course of the story (Static Character). In order to impress a girl, he pretends to be someone who he is not, getting into some trouble along the way. By the end of the film, he comes to the realization that he does not need to be anybody other than himself. The girl that he worked so hard to win over actually grew fond of his sensitive, almost wimpy nature. This definitely lends support to the classic proverb that people should always be themselves.

In analyzing the Freytag Experiment’s role in the story, it is intriguing to line up the outline to an actual example. In American Graffiti, there is the exposition, as the group of friends is introduced to the audience, which blends into the rising action, as they each go off on their own adventures. These individual storylines all come together at the climax, and then all the pieces fall into place with the falling action. When the dust has settled, the denouement puts a neat bow on the film.

As far as classifying American Graffiti using Blake Snyder’s story formulas, I would categorize it as an amalgamation of the “Institutionalized” and “Rites of Passage” formulas. The various characters are trying to find their ways in society, with some of them even rebelling against the norm or what is expected of them. Steve, Curt, John, and Terry are all about to go their separate ways after graduating high school a few months earlier. They are stepping into a wider world. They have overcome a number of pitfalls along the way, but the rest of their lives are only beginning. One of Lucas’ main objectives in creating American Graffiti was to pull on the heart strings of a teenage audience, or even those who have journeyed into adulthood. Whether you are a teenager going through similar turmoil to the characters in this film, or a grown-up who has already come out on the other side, we can see a reflection of ourselves in the characters and their personalities.

In examining some of the notable technical aspects of the film, the main element that stood out to me above all others was the incorporation of popular music from the 1960s, and, more specifically, the way in which it was used. The soundtrack of the film did not play over the action on the screen, but rather along with the scenes. The music heard in the film was the same music that was being listened to in the cars of the characters as they drove along. Famous radio DJ “Wolfman Jack” even brought more 1960s nostalgia and style to American Graffiti. This was probably one of the most unique methods of forming a soundtrack that I’ve ever seen in a film before.


From a perspective of judging the film based on its success as a piece of art, I would definitely say it was a success. There is no surprise that it garnered five Academy Award nominations, with its one-of-a-kind music style, strong casting and acting, and social relevance. Yet, personally, I was not a fan. Earlier this year, I analyzed the John Hughes film The Breakfast Club, a similar story in a different time period, with high school stereotypes and teens struggling to find their place in the world. I did not particularly enjoy that film either, mainly because it brought back bad memories of high school. American Graffiti gave me those same uncomfortable feelings. As far as filmmaking goes, both American Graffiti and The Breakfast Club were well-done projects. However, from my point of view, I would have to give American Graffiti a “C” grade. Still, it is all a matter of what an audience member is looking for in a film.


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