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
"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
"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.
"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
"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.