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Released June 7, 2005



HATTIESBURG – Like many people, Dr. Andrew Wiest grew up admiring the work of legendary filmmaker George Lucas. Now, thanks to Wiest's historical expertise, he's a part of it.

Wiest, a professor of history at The University of Southern Mississippi, traveled to California last month to tape portions of a documentary that will accompany a DVD collection of Lucas' television series The Young Indy Chronicles.

Lucasfilm, the company that spawned the Star Wars and Indiana Jones film series, invited Wiest to its company's headquarters in May. At Skywalker Ranch, named after the lead characters in Lucas' wildly popular Star Wars movies, Wiest worked with documentary film producer Adam Sternberg on a piece about the Battle of the Somme, one of the fiercest and most futile battles fought in World War I.

"In the TV series, Young Indiana Jones is an archeologist who bounces around from one big historical event to the next, witnessing them all. Now they're putting all the episodes on one DVD collection," Wiest said.

Lucasfilm is currently creating 100 companion documentaries that profile the historical figures, events, and subjects that surface in each episode. Sternberg said though packaged along with the Young Indy episodes, the documentaries are intended to stand on their own and, as such, do not directly reference the series itself.

"At heart, this is an educational project. Mr. Lucas' intended goal is to spark young minds to become interested in history and culture," Sternberg said. The DVD collections will be available for purchase and are being donated by Lucasfilm to high schools across the country.

Lucasfilm hired Wiest for the project after seeing his previous film work on the History Channel TV show Battlefield Detectives. A respected authority on military conflicts, Wiest has authored numerous books on the first two world wars, including his latest, Atlas of World War II, published by Barnes and Noble last year. Wiest also teaches a popular class on Vietnam, in which he takes students to the important historical sites of that conflict.

For his work with Lucasfilm, Wiest adds insight to the 1916 British attack on Germans that lasted six months and resulted in at least a million casualties.

"This battle was the poster child for futility in war," Wiest said. "During the first two hours there were 57,000 casualties and 20,000 dead. The first day of the battle was one of the worst days of suffering in human history."

The novelty of taping documentaries has worn off for Wiest, who has appeared on two Battlefield Detectives episodes about Vietnam that were shown around the world. But doing it for his boyhood hero was something else entirely, Wiest said.

"This is a place that fans and even people inside the film business would give their teeth to get into," said Wiest, referring to the Shangri-la-like Skywalker Ranch, the creative stronghold of Lucas and his team of movie-making magicians. "That's why the people who work there wear T-shirts to prove it. It's almost unheard of to be invited."

But once you are invited, you're treated like royalty. After Wiest was whisked away by limousine to the posh and ultra-private confines of Skywalker Ranch, nestled in the rolling hills near San Francisco, he was taken on a tour of Lucas' palatial estate. Modeled after an old English countryside estate, Skywalker Ranch and its picturesque surroundings look like the Hobbits' Shire as developed by Donald Trump.

"They took me on a tour of the sound room and George Lucas' private screening room, which is as big as a house. I saw the orchestra pit where conductor John Williams scores the music to the Star Wars films," he said.

Built in the '80s after the success of the original Star Wars trilogy, Skywalker Ranch employs about 300 people and houses office space, editing and film equipment, a commissary and posh guest rooms. Resembling a hotel with postcard-perfect environs, the secured compound is self-sufficient, equipped with an organic farm, vineyards, lakes and even its own fire station.

During his stay there, Wiest spent a large portion taping segments of the documentary with Sternberg. During his free time, he had a chance to kick back and watch a movie in the Robert Flaherty room, named after the founder of documentary filmmaking. His choice?

"I watched Star Wars, of course," Wiest said with a laugh. "It was actually very surreal. Here I am eating a steak and watching Star Wars at Skywalker Ranch when this guy comes through the room. He stops and says matter-of-factly, 'Star Wars. I edited that movie.'"

Set in space and featuring dogfights taken straight from the Pacific and European Theaters, the Star Wars movies draw heavily from the themes of the last major world war.

"Star Wars is a World War II movie," Wiest said, noting "storm troopers" and other similarities between the movie's Galactic Empire and Hitler's Nazi regime. "At the heart of it, it's about good versus evil. George Lucas, who's 61, didn't fight in World War II, but he has said that it was a formative event in his life."

Because Lucas was busy with preparations for the release of Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith, now in theaters, he was not at Skywalker Ranch during Wiest's one-and-a-half day trip.

"I was disappointed that I didn't get to meet George, but I can understand since the movie was opening. Hopefully, I'll be invited back one day," Wiest said.

May the force be with him.


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July 22, 2005 2:53 PM