In the summer of 1967, 23-year-old George Lucas was one of four film students selected for a “scholarship” to film promotional behind-the-scenes documentaries for Mackenna’s Gold (J. Lee Thompson, 1969), a studio Western being shot on location in Utah and Arizona. Unlike the three other students — who focused their films on the director, producer, and wranglers — Lucas showed little interest in depicting the studio filmmaking process. Instead, he wandered into the desert to create an experimental film that only tangentially fulfilled the original assignment.
The finished short is an avant-garde tone poem of desert sights and sounds from sunrise to sunset, punctuated only briefly by a distant glimpse of the film crew and an actor on horseback. That telephoto view, warped by the desert heat, is accompanied by an indecipherable, repetitive sound montage of crew chatter — a vision of mechanistic film laborers alienated from the wonders of their natural surroundings.
6-18-67 was Lucas’s last film as a USC student: the culmination of his early interest in pure experimental filmmaking. Lucas credits inspiration for its editing aesthetic (and its title) to the 1964 short 21-87 by experimental NFB filmmaker Arthur Lipsett. Although 6-18-67 is radically different in form and concept from the conventional blockbusters that became synonymous with George Lucas, the film’s heightened sense of authorial self-reflexivity marks a clear origin for Lucas’s life-long self-branding enterprise.
In retrospective interviews, Lucas has framed 6-18-67 as a statement rejecting Hollywood filmmaking — a giant avant-garde middle finger to a studio exploiting cheap student labor to produce marketing promos. But in contemporary statements from a 1967 TV special on the MacKenna’s Gold “scholarship” program, Lucas’s rhetoric was far from iconoclastic. Instead he voiced ambitions to break into the Hollywood establishment and become a director of conventional entertainment films. 6-18-67 was thus positioned as an artistic embrace of commercial filmmaking, a demonstration that even a vulgar marketing endeavor could be elevated to the level of cinematic poetry.