The Criterion Collection
With only five weeks left until the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it’s time for a series of our Movies to Watch lists to the six live-action installments that have come before. I’m beginning with the first movie, that is the fourth episode, simply titled Star Wars. Some of you also know it as A New Hope.
Many of you also likely know every bit of trivia about Star Wars including all the movies that influenced George Lucas and any other creative talent involved. You know which droid was inspired by Metropolis and which was inspired by Silent Runnings. You even know the binary sun shot is probably paying homage to Dersu Uzala.
Well, I don’t want this to be just a rehash of the same lists of Star Wars sources we’ve seen before, many titles on which StarWars.com has tackled individually quite nicely in its “Cinema Behind Star Wars” features. Yes, I’m including some of the well-known influences that I think are most significant and necessary and worth discussing. I’ve limited the obvious picks to five, however.
Hopefully the rest are surprises or at least interesting selections for you to check out or acknowledge. Regardless, these are the dozen movies I recommend to anyone who has seen Star Wars and wants to go back and become familiar with its cinematic ancestors.
The Black Pirate (1926)
Everyone knows Star Wars is highly influenced by the writings of Joseph Campbell on comparative mythology. Therefore, I wanted to include a movie that may have influenced Campbell. Although he kind of gave up on movies once they became “talkies,” during the silent era Campbell idolized action star Douglas Fairbanks. Surely he loved the heroes of more famous films like The Mark of Zorro and The Thief of Baghdad, but this thrilling pirate adventure is more relevant, especially in the way Fairbanks stumbles upon a princess aboard a ship his character attacks. The color feature is also a good start in a cycle, as Star Wars wound up heavily influencing the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.
Triumph of the Will (1935)
Leni Riefenstahl’s infamous Nazi propaganda film is despicable for many reasons, but it’s also a work of art. It also is known for inspiring the awards ceremony at the end of Star Wars, which I’ve always found kind of strange. The good guys are aligned with the Nazis through such an illusion. Yet otherwise it’s the Empire, particularly in its entire destruction of a people in blowing up Alderaan and its use of “Stormtroopers,” that is otherwise linked to Hitler’s Germany. Of course, despite the clear iconography of good and evil on display, the Empire and Rebel Alliance have always been complicated as far as the real world good and evil they represent. The Rebels are like the French Resistance, the American Patriots and the guerrilla forces of Spain and many a Latin American country and more.
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
Douglas Fairbanks also made a Robin Hood movie, and that is worth seeing, too. This is the best cinematic version of the legend, though, with Errol Flynn as the swashbuckling medieval English antihero who is Luke Skywalker and Han Solo in one and Olivia de Havilland as a spunky Leia-like Maid Marian. Darth Vader may be the most visually iconic movie villain of all time, but as far as personality is concerned he has nothing on Claude Rains’ Prince John.
Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940)
We all know the story of how George Lucas loves the old Flash Gordon serials so much he wanted to do make a Flash Gordon movie, but when he couldn’t get the rights to do so he decided to create his own Flash Gordon-like space adventure, and that became Star Wars. The serials, which began with the simply titled Flash Gordon in 1936 and followed with Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars in 1938, concluded with this third run that is arguably the most recognizable to Star Wars viewers. You’ll see similar expository opening crawls, the main heroes disguised as soldiers to infiltrate an evil Emperor’s base and rescue a prisoner and more.
Great Expectations (1946)
David Lean is one of three master filmmakers whose work can be seen all over Star Wars (I’ll get to the other two below), though normally it’s Lawrence of Arabia most easily linked to Lucas’s franchise. Let’s save it for another more relevant installment, though. For A New Hope I pick an earlier film, one of his adaptations of Charles Dickens. It’s his first collaboration with actor Alec Guinness, later to be (to his chagrin) best known as Obi-Wan Kenobi, and was inspired by a stage performance of the story Lean saw Guinness in. For the screen, the actor reprised his role as Herbert Pocket, who takes in the protagonist, Pip (John Mills) as his apprentice and teaches him how to be a gentleman. Guinness sure made a great master to a heroic disciple.
Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century (1953)
George Lucas was such a fan of this Chuck Jones-helmed sci-fi Merrie Melodies short that he attached it to the front of Star Wars when the latter was re-released in 1979. Lucas claimed at the time that as a kid, this cartoon starring the space-traveling Daffy Duck and Porky Pig encountering Marvin the Martian made him want to make movies. He even urged Jones to do a sequel that could play ahead of The Empire Strikes Back, and Jones indeed made Duck Dodgers and the Return of the 24½th Century but it wasn’t finished in time, so it went to broadcast in late 1980 instead.
The Dam Busters (1955)
Among the many war movies evoked through their inspiration on Star Wars, this one by Michael Anderson is the most noteworthy for how exactly it appears to have informed the climactic attack on the Death Star. Instead of a large fortress, the World War II pilots in this movie are on a mission to destroy German dams with torpedoes, and it’s not as easy as it sounds. Peter Diamond, the stunt coordinator for the entire original Star Wars trilogy, can also be seen in The Dam Busters in an uncredited role as a tail gunner.
The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
While most of the main cast of Star Wars were relative newcomers or unknowns, many of them behind masks, Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing are two veteran movie stars who only appear in the one installment and who provide a great gateway for fans to go back and delve into the history of British cinema. Cushing has a particularly rich filmography well-suited to genre fans, including familiar roles as Sherlock Holmes, Doctor Who, Van Helsing and the Sheriff of Nottingham. With the Hammer horror film The Curse of Frankenstein, he portrayed Mary Shelley’s monster creator the first of seven times and acted opposite future Star Wars actor Christopher Lee, who plays the creature. Given how Annakin Skywalker’s transition to Darth Vader in Revenge of the Sith evokes the 1931 Frankenstein, it’s easy to see Vader and Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin being like the creature and Baron Victor Frankenstein in their scenes together.
The Hidden Fortress (1958)
Akira Kurosawa is the second of the master filmmakers to be a major inspiration for Star Wars. In addition to the aforementioned Dersu Uzala, you can find links to Seven Samurai and Yojimbo and especially this movie that came between. Droids C-3PO and R2-D2 are based quite directly on a bickering peasant duo (Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara) who carry the plot of The Hidden Fortress along as Toshiro Mifune in the combination Luke and Han and Obi-Wan role escorts a princess (Misa Uehara) to safety, who like in The Phantom Menace is disguised with the help of a slave girl used as a decoy. The horizontal wipe effect used in the editing, though not exclusive to just this Kurosawa film, is also copied in Star Wars.
The Emperor (1967)
One of Lucas’s grad school student films from his time at USC is rather famous, because it led to the feature THX 1138. The same year as that short, Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4EB, he made this 24-minute experimental documentary on DJ Bob Hudson, who was known as “The Emperor.” I think it’s the best thing he’s ever done. As great as Star Wars is compared to the prequels, as great as American Graffiti is better than Star Wars, this is better than all of them. Note the names of classmates who were fellow future film legends in the credits, including John Milius and Walter Murch.
Malcolm X (1972)
Supposedly Lucas initially thought of Orson Welles for the voice of Darth Vader but decided against him because he’d be too recognizable. Instead the part went to James Earl Jones, who wasn’t exactly an obscure actor given that he was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor a few years earlier, for The Great White Hope. Two years after that he could be heard as the narrator of this Oscar-nominated documentary based on The Autobiography of Malcolm X co-written by Alex Haley. Jones also made an appearance in Haley’s Roots miniseries and portrayed Malcolm X in the Muhammad Ali biopic The Greatest, both the same year as Star Wars.
Barry Lyndon (1975)
Finally we get to the third master filmmaker with fingerprints on Star Wars: Stanley Kubrick. Of course, 2001: A Space Odyssey is a big deal for the sci-fi space-set aspects. And although not really influential, both Darth Vader actors, James Earl Jones and David Prowse previously appeared in a Kubrick movie – Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange, respectively. But Barry Lyndon isn’t the favorite or most exciting of Kubrick’s films for the movie geek crowd, which is unfortunate. This is after all the movie where fencing icon Bob Anderson went from being just a fight choreographer to a hand-picked “sword master.” From here he went on to work on the first three Star Wars movies, so the lightsaber duels could properly and authentically be the sci-fi equivalent of swashbuckling scenes in period-set adventures.