The third installment of the Star Wars franchise – the final part of the original trilogy – had George Lucas back in action with more creative input and control. Although he hired another director for the sequel, Lucas was pretty much on Richard Marquand’s back, like Yoda on Luke, the whole time. Therefore, it’s not surprising that Return of the Jedi is again fairly derivative, even borrowing from itself for a familiar climax involving another Death Star. Again, many of the movie’s influences are both well-known as such and quite popular on their own, so I’ve tried to balance those with some more obscure or at least less-obvious picks for this week’s Movies to Watch list.
Tarzan the Ape Man (1932)
There’s always been a good deal of Edgar Rice Burroughs residue in the Star Wars movies, mostly from his “Barsoom” series of stories of John Carter on Mars (that’s why when John Carter came out it looked like a Star Wars ripoff when it was really the other way around). Burroughs also created the Tarzan character, whose adventures are another part of the pulpy genre pot Lucas fed from for his whole franchise. We’ve seen swinging similar to Tarzan’s vine maneuvers since the first movie, and Return of the Jedi is especially inspired by the series of Tarzan films starring Johnny Weissmuller in the role. There were many other adaptations before Tarzan the Ape Man, but this is the first with the character’s signature yell, which Chewbacca seems to imitate when he swings Tarzan-style on to an Imperial AT-ST walker.
Lost Horizon (1937)
Frank Capra’s adaptation of James Hilton’s novel is one of the director’s most underrated movies, and certainly under-seen given what’s accepted as “Capra-esque” generalizing. Come for a clear inspiration for Yoda in the character of the centuries-old High Lama (Sam Jaffe), including an identical death scene to that of the ancient Jedi warrior seen in the third Star Wars movie, and stay for a gorgeously produced utopian fantasy. You’ll definitely notice how many more movies and, especially lately, TV series have additionally been influenced by this tale of a group of Westerners who find themselves in the glorious Himalayan paradise of Shangri-La.
The Sky at Night “Moon Base” aka “Bases on the Moon” (1963)
Like The Empire Strikes Back helmer Irvin Kershner, Marquand started out directing nonfiction films. And also like Kershner, Marquand directed a TV series episode about men in space. His was an installment of the British documentary series The Sky at Night about the future of bases on the Moon. It mostly consists of a rare interview with Arthur C. Clarke by host Patrick Moore, both of them members of the British Interplanetary Society. Given that the Clarke-scripted 2001: A Space Odyssey was also a major influence on the Star Wars movies, this should be of particular interest to the latter’s fans.
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
The second David Lean movie in our series of movies to watch after the Star Wars episodes (see the first list for the first Lean selection), this is one that Lucas saw and loved as a child. He would, of course, grow up to cast its star, Alec Guinness, as Obi-Wan Kenobi. The Bridge on the River Kwai also features many elements found in Return of the Jedi, including a lush green setting (forest/jungle), natives helping the good guys, a Han Solo type played by William Holden and a climactic destruction of the bad guys’ newly built structure. For more detail on the parallels and how the epic World War II movie influenced other episodes, I once again direct you to one of Bryan Young’s “Cinema Behind Star Wars” features on StarWars.com.
Swiss Family Robinson (1960)
This is my favorite live-action family film of all time, and that’s probably why I also like Return of the Jedi so much more than most fans. I love it so much that I nearly had a fit when I revisited Disneyland a couple years ago and found out the Swiss Family Treehouse was now Tarzan’s Treehouse (based on Disney’s animated version, not the Weissmuller films). I would love to see the parks now include an extensive Ewok Village treehouse attraction in their new Star Wars land. The treehouse connection is one reason Swiss Family Robinson is on this list, with another being the booby-trap-filled battle between the Robinsons and pirates likely influencing the booby-trap-filled battle between the Ewoks and Rebel heroes and their Imperial enemies.
Just as you should see everything by David Lean after watching the Star Wars movies, you should also see everything by Akira Kurosawa. This one doesn’t have a lot of specific ties to Return of the Jedi except that it’s partly based on the Dashiell Hammet novel “Red Harvest,” which inspired the Jedi production to go undercover with the name “Blue Harvest.” The movie was also remade as A Fistful of Dollars, which is part of Sergio Leone’s “Man With No Name” trilogy, which partly inspired the character Boba Fett.
It Happened Here (1965)
Sebastian Shaw is another great veteran English actor, like Guinness, Peter Cushing and later Christopher Lee, to appear in the Star Wars movies, through which they can hopefully introduce younger and more mainstream moviegoers to their classic films. Shaw plays Annakin Skywaker at the end of Return of the Jedi and unfortunately had his role cut short when Hayden Christensen replaced him as the character’s Force ghost. All the more reason to see his talent in better use in movies like Michael Powell’s World War I thriller The Spy in Black (aka U-Boat 29) and film historian Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo’s documentary-style alternate history drama It Happened Here, the latter being a different sort of sci-fi story where the Nazis had invaded and occupied England and there’s a resistance movement against the fascist government now in control.
Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970)
The Star Wars movies employed diminutive actors from the start, most notably with Kenny Baker helping to portray R2-D2, but Return of the Jedi increased the numbers by a lot, to play the many Ewoks. And reportedly they weren’t treated well and threatened to strike and wore t-shirts that said “Revenge of the Ewok” on them. Even without the performers being angry and rebellious, the Ewoks being played by dwarfs and helping to overthrow the Empire through primitive means reminds me of this Werner Herzog feature about a group of dwarfs who rebel against the authorities at the island institution where they’ve been confined. The Ewok performers also make me think of 1981’s Under the Rainbow, which is partly about dwarf actors who play Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz, some played by actors who were cast as Ewoks and also stars Carrie Fisher (reportedly causing her to exclaim, “Oh, no, not midgets again”), but that’s not nearly as good.
The Godfather (1972)
Hopefully you’ve already seen The Godfather. But it has to be on this list because while Lucas is said to have modeled Jabba the Hutt on Sydney Greenstreet’s character from Casablanca, he told reporters at the time of Return of the Jedi’s release that the massive character is “The Godfather” of the movie. Feel free to make your own jokes about Marlon Brando’s weight in his later years. One part of Jedi also directly references Francis Ford Coppola’s gangster film classic, which Lucas actually worked on as an editor. When Leia (Fisher) strangles Jabba to death with her slave chain, it’s meant to look just like when Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana) is strangled to death with a garrot in The Godfather. See more ties between The Godfather and the Star Wars franchise in another “Cinema Behind Star Wars” feature.
Electra Glide in Blue (1973)
I’ve never been able to figure out Lucas’s main inspiration for the Speeder bike chase in Return of the Jedi. Probably a motorcycle chase sequence, and the one it best reminds me of is the chopper chase from this cult classic starring Robert Blake as a motorcycle cop. There are plenty of crashes, not unlike those with the Scout troopers in the Star Wars sequel, only the one here seems more violent, especially when one guy is run over by a police car, and maybe a little less thrilling since the bikers don’t have to maneuver through a forest packed with enormous trees.
The Hindenburg (1975)
Before becoming the guy who replaced Gary Kurtz as the producer of Star Wars movies with the third installment, Howard G. Kazanjian worked as a first assistant director for such movies as Alfred Hitchcock’s Family Plot, Sam Peckinpah’s Wild Bunch, Billy Wilder’s The Front Page and this historically based disaster film helmed by Robert Wise about the Hindenburg tragedy. Winner of special Oscars for its visual effects and sound effects, The Hindenburg deals with a plot to destroy a large ship constructed and operated by the Nazis, to which the Galactic Empire is often likened. This fan art adds to the link, even though it doesn’t make more appropriate use of the Death Star.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
This may seem like a given, as it’s written and produced by Lucas and stars Harrison Ford and has a number of other shared personnel. However, it’s worth including just to highlight that this was the first movie written by Lawrence Kasdan after his debut with The Empire Strikes Back and while he had two more before writing Return of the Jedi — Continental Divide and Body Heat, which he directed – this one shares more plot beats with the third Star Wars installment. The most significant being that both begin with the hero in a cavernous place attempting to steal a prized trinket. And the desert chase, where Indiana Jones (Ford) jumps from horse to truck, is the best predecessor I can think of for when Luke jumps from one Speeder bike to another in Jedi.
This fellow Joseph Campbell-territory fantasy film has a few things that link it to Return of the Jedi. One is that it was the first non-Lucasfilm production to feature visual effects by Industrial Light & Magic. The dragons were achieved through the genius team of Phil Tippett, Dennis Muren, Brian Johnson and Ken Ralston, two of whom had just won the Oscar or The Empire Strikes Back and three of whom would later win for Jedi. They were all nominated for Dragonslayer but lost to Raiders of the Lost Ark. This is also the movie Ian McDiarmid last appeared in before being cast to take over the role of Emperor Palpatine, which he would also play in the prequels and retroactively in Empire. But he was actually chosen because of a stage performance seen by a casting director. The third, lesser link for me is the Rancor, which like the dragon in Dragonslayer is fed humans by a big bossman. Hutts other than Jabba actually prefer a sort of dragon called a kell dragon.
Eye of the Needle (1981)
I already included one prior work directed by Marquand, but this is the one that got him the Return of the Jedi job. Lucas praised it for being “a very tight, very clean, strong movie” and liked the director for things not seen on screen, as well, namely his efficiency. It’s another Brit-focused World War II-set entry on this list, in fact one with Nazis (or a Nazi, played by Donald Sutherland) in England. Maybe Marquand and Shaw discussed that connection.
Like the first two Star Wars installments at some point and in some places, Return of the Jedi was shown with a short film attached before the feature. Dilemma, an experimental computer-animated work by Eric Brown and Oscar nominee John Halas (Automania 2000) accompanied prints in the UK. There’s not much more to say about it other than it probably should have been watched before you saw Jedi. Well, you can watch it now in full right here:
Bonus: Buried Voices (2012)
Here’s an extra pick that wasn’t made let alone released prior to Return of the Jedi, which is why it’s not an official part of the list. It’s also not even a great film by any means worthy of my recommendation. But it might be of interest to anyone curious about the Miwok tribe of Native Americans, based in Northern California, who apparently are one of the inspirations for the Ewoks, at least in name. The short documentary is kind of related to the plot of Jedi, as it has the Miwok people fighting to save their sacred land from takeover, just like the Ewoks were agains the Empire.
Related Topics: Movie DNA