As the Tantive IV raced across the screen with an Imperial Star Destroyer hot on its tail during the opening moments of A New Hope, audiences knew Star Wars was going to be different.
Alien creatures and titanic spaceships clashed with old world mythology in an epic about good vs. evil and father against son. However, for as much new as George Lucas brought to cinema in 1977, he was influenced just as much by the past — especially when it comes to the history of film.
From the villages of feudal Japan, to otherworldly metropolises, alien planets and the Western frontier, Lucas found inspiration for both the original and prequel trilogies in every corner of cinema history. As a student of film, he incorporated these ideas into his own, and on the way, he crafted a pop culture phenomenon that wouldn't have been possible without them.
As a new era begins this December with the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, we're looking back at the classic cinema that helped shape the Star Wars universe into what it is today.
The Films Of Akira Kurosawa
There's no way you can talk about the basis for Star Wars without mentioning Akira Kurosawa; in fact, we probably wouldn't be talking about Star Wars at all if it wasn't for him.
The legendary Japanese filmmaker is easily the most important cinematic influence on the Star Wars movies, with many elements from A New Hope and The Phantom Menace being taken from one of the director's most famous films, The Hidden Fortress. To his credit, Lucas is more than open about the various inspirations for Star Wars over the years, especially when he can give credit to Kurosawa:
In The Hidden Fortress, a war is seen through the eyes of two lowly peasants as they are roped into a larger battle and a more important mission to help aid a princess to safety from behind enemy lines. This idea was revisited by Lucas in A New Hope, when the Galactic Civil War is shown from the perspective of two of the lowliest characters in the Star Wars universe, the droids R2-D2 and C-3PO. Both the peasants and the droids work as a way for the audience to connect with the impersonal horrors of war, while also serving as much-needed comic relief among the carnage.
Aside from the overall plot of The Hidden Fortress, Lucas also took inspiration from the director's larger body of work. This can be seen in everything from Lucas' portrayal of war (especially in Attack of the Clones), to the way the lightsaber duels were choreographed and how reaction shots were caught mid-battle:
The Kurosawa style even helped shape one of the franchise's most memorable scenes: the binary sunset. In 1975's Dersu Uzala, there is a shot of Dersu looking over the horizon at both the sun setting and the moon rising simultaneously. This scene is echoed when Luke watches the twin sunsets on Tatooine in the original.
Here, one fan decided to take it upon himself to set Kurosawa's version to the famous John Williams score, as if the point needed to be driven home any further:
While it's easy to see the direct shots and plots that Lucas borrowed from Kurosawa, what's just as important is how aspects of the Star Wars world were shaped by Eastern filmmakers as a whole. The Jedi culture is heavily influenced by the samurai lifestyle, and the name "Jedi" itself seems to be taken from the Japanese film genre Jidaigeki, or, "period dramas" often involving samurai.
The Sci-Fi Vocabulary
At its core, Star Wars isn't a sci-fi movie; it's a space opera. However, while Lucas never set out to make a straight science fiction film, it's impossible not to see the inspiration from the genre's history — and for starters, you have to look no further than the robot from Fritz Lang's Metropolis, which Lucas' concept artist, Ralph McQuarrie, used as the inspiration for C-3PO:
Decades after Metropolis, Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey took the crown of the preeminent sci-fi movie of the day. Not only did the success of 2001 prove that sophisticated spacebound films can be profitable, it also showed that the advancements in special effects could make Lucas' vision possible.
Though there's not much that Star Wars could learn from the cerebral 2001 in terms of story or themes, Kubrick and his team did lay the groundwork for the special effects in the original trilogy. Without 2001's Odyssey 1 shuttle, there's no way you see the Tantive IV, or the Star Destroyers or anything else that Lucas had in his head. One of the most obvious examples came in the form of the lunar lander in 2001, which is nearly identical to the escape pod C-3PO and R2-D2 travel to Tatooine in:
The inspiration Star Wars took from other films has come full circle over the decades, as countless other sci-fi movies took cues from Lucas' mega-franchise in the years since. Ridley Scott's 1979 film Alien shares many similarities with the designs seen in Star Wars two years before, like ship models and sets that championed functionality over beauty, and dirt and grime over glamour.
However, while Scott was clearly influenced by the original Star Wars, it was his own sci-fi masterpiece, Blade Runner, that wound up inspiring part of the look of the prequel trilogy. All you need to do is look at the cyberpunk resemblance between Scott's dystopian version of Los Angeles in Blade Runner and the city planet of Coruscant from Episodes I-III.
From the holographic sheen of the cosmopolitan district, to the more utilitarian design of the industrial areas, Coruscant owes a huge debt to Scott and Blade Runner special effects director Douglas Trumbull, who also worked on 2001. For a trilogy marked with so much disappointment, the look, feel and flavor of Coruscant stood out as a rare bright spot in Lucas' latter movies.
The Flash Gordon Serials
Hard science fiction tends to be philosophical in nature, as writers and directors ask bigger questions about the moral, political and societal impact that advancing technology has on the world; however, that tone was never going to fit Lucas' vision. In order to capture the right feel for his movies, the director looked elsewhere for pointers, and the most important launching pad for his universe actually came in the form of the old Flash Gordon serials.
The Gordon serials were trailblazing for the fact that they managed to capture the bombastic, cartoonish world of a comic book and successfully translated it to the screen. This popcorn sensation attempted to appeal to even the most cynical viewer, and that's what Star Wars emulated so well — any gender, race or age group could latch on to something from these movies.
Ships cruising through space, lasers flying across the screen like hornets, an evil empire led by a menacing villain — these are all sights audiences witnessed in 1936, as Flash Gordon and his companions faced down an imperial army with the fate of the galaxy in the balance. Sound familiar?
Lucas sought to retain that Saturday morning serial style for all six Star Wars movies, and while he achieved in borrowing from the overall tone of the Flash Gordon serials, some of the franchise's most iconic aspects were ripped much more literally from these shorts, including:
The opening crawl
The lighthearted, swashbuckling tone of the original Star Wars didn't just stop at Flash Gordon, either. Movies like The Adventures of Robin Hood and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad all (unknowingly) helped lay the foundation for Lucas in countless ways, not only with their energetic action scenes, incredible special effects and humor, but also in the basic themes of the noble outlaw's quest to overthrow the tyrant (and sometimes save a princess).
The Old West
Lucas' dense knowledge of film helped him find inspiration in every genre, including one that couldn't be further from the frozen tundra of Hoth or the war-torn surface of Geonosis: the old west. In particular, John Ford's 1955 movie The Searchers lent a lot to the Star Wars movies, as evidenced in the scene when John Wayne and Jeffrey Hunter's characters return home to find the family ranch has been burned down by the Comanches. This is a turning point in the movie, and it's echoed for the same effect when the stormtroopers burn down Luke's moisture farm in A New Hope:
The Searchers gets another callback in Attack of the Clones, when an enraged Anakin goes looking for his missing mother and winds up committing small-scale genocide by wiping out a tribe of Sandpeople. Wayne's character, Ethan, spirals similarly out of control while on the hunt for his eight-year-old niece, Debbie, who is abducted by Comanche warriors during the barn burning.
Both references to The Searchers highlight themes of loss and revenge, though Luke and Anakin embark on completely opposite paths because of it. However, to see two pivotal moments for the most important characters in the Star Wars universe have their basis in a western from the '50s speaks volumes to Lucas' keen eye as a movie fan.
The Western influence is alive in countless other aspects of Star Wars: it's in the gunslinging Han Solo; the culture of Tatooine and the collection of smugglers, scoundrels and bounty hunters that populate the galaxy. For all you fans looking for a proper Boba Fett movie, you need look no further than Sergio Leone's "Dollars Trilogy."
Obviously, Star Wars wouldn't be, well, Star Wars without some large-scale battles to satisfy our need for sweet, sweet explosions, but finding a way to shoot the spacebound dogfights the script called for was no easy task. Well, it's no easy task unless you have an encyclopedic knowledge of old war movies like The Dam Busters and The Bridges at Toko-Ri. These WWII fighter plane movies hit theaters in the '50s and helped Lucas and his special effects team figure out how to photograph the X-Wing/Tie Fighter dogfights during the Battle of Yavin.
The Dam Busters was probably the strongest influence, as the big finale depicted in the film clearly helped Lucas choreograph the complex Death Star battle in A New Hope, and with ILM in its infancy, it helped to have an existing film to base their shots on. You can see the similarities for yourself in this YouTube video:
If you need any more proof of this film's impact on Lucas, Gilbert Taylor, who served as the head of special effects photography for Dam Busters, was also the cinematographer on the first Star Wars more than 20 years later.
Odds And Ends
While Lucas often used certain visual, thematic or plot elements from other movies to help add gravitas to his universe, there are also a number of movies that received a small tip of the cap from him, either with a brief homage or aesthetic callback. One that is instantly noticeable for any cinephile is how the iconic christening scene from The Godfather lines up with the bloodbath of Order 66 from Revenge of the Sith (this one even got an inspired mashup on YouTube):
Both scenes act as the rebirth of two characters: Michael Corleone, now as the head of the Corleone Crime Family, and Anakin Skywalker officially becoming Darth Vader. Obviously, when you're classmates and film bros with someone like Francis Ford Coppola, taking a few pointers from one of the great American mob films of all time is viewed as a love letter, not straight thievery.
The Godfather homages don't end there either, because in Return of the Jedi, the repulsive Jabba The Hutt meets a grisly demise, much in the same way as the equally repulsive Luca Brasi. Apparently, How To Strangle An Overweight Mobster On Film was a required course at USC:
Speaking of ol' Jabba, in an article on StarWars.com writer Bryan Young revealed that one of the main inspirations behind the infamous mobster slug was none other than actor Sydney Greenstreet, who played one of the villains in Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon. In fact, there was some talk about driving this point home by putting a fez on Jabba, just like Greenstreet's Signor Ferrari character from Casablanca. Thankfully, we never did see the Hutt pull out the stylish headwear, but the inspiration is clear.
Then, there's also the connection to be drawn from Rick's Cafe in Casablanca to the Mos Eisley Cantina on Tatooine. Not only did both watering holes play host to a roster of scum and villainy, they also helped introduce audiences to a larger and more complex world than they were accustomed to. Really, if you look close enough, you can see decades of film history in nearly every scene in Star Wars.
I can go on and on about the films that helped Star Wars become Star Wars, but that would encompass countless movies from every genre and all decades. However, for any true fan of that galaxy far, far away, here's an abridged list of the essential films to watch to understand George Lucas' grand vision:
|• Metropolis (1927)|
• Flash Gordon (1936)
• The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
• The Fighting Devil Dogs (1938)
• Hiroshi Inagaki's "Samurai Trilogy" (1954-1956)
• The Searchers (1956)
• The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)
• The Hidden Fortress (1958)
• Seven Samurai (1954)
• The Dam Busters (1955)
• Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
• Jason and the Argonauts (1963)
• Sergio Leone's "Dollar's Trilogy" (1964-1966)
• 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
• Dersu Uzala (1975)
• Blade Runner (1982)