6 Before VIII: The Films Rian Johnson Had the ‘STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII’ CAST WATCH

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Influence is inescapable, and often the best way to relate the general feeling of a film to an actor is to show them another film with a similar feel. For example, during the shooting of THERE WILL BE BLOOD, it’s said that Paul Thomas Anderson frequently showed John Huston’s TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE to his cast and crew because it had the tone Anderson was striving for with his own film.

Rian Johnson would seem to be another director who believes in the power of influence, because it’s been reported that he had the cast of STAR WARS EPISODE VIII watch six specific films that he thought would inform their understanding of their present undertaking. Are there clues to EPISODE VIII in his selections? Quite possibly…

TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH (1949) dir. Henry King
The long and the short of this war film set during World War 2 is Gregory Peck is a tough-as-steel general who assumes command of a beleaguered bomber unit and forces their noses to the grindstone, for their own and the good of the Allied Forces. One of the big selling points of TWELVE O’ CLOCK HIGH was its use of real combat footage, resulting in spectacular action sequences unparalleled at the time. What the film could say about EPISODE VIII is that perhaps like ROGUE ONE is purported to be, EPISODE VIII is going to be less the character study EPISODE VII was, and more balls-to-the-wall action.

THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (1957) dir. David Lean
Lean’s Oscar-winning masterpiece is, among many other things, gorgeously shot, so I for one am hoping this means great things for EPISODE VIII’s cinematographical inspiration, but like the film above this is another war film, and another focused on a tight-knit group of comrades – here POWs – having to keep up their spirits in the face of perpetual aggression. Could there be dark, underdoggish times ahead for our EPISODE VIII heroes? Most certainly, but these particular movies together suggest there might be a point at which our heroes find themselves captured or otherwise under enemy rule, and have to boot and rally to survive.

THREE OUTLAW SAMURAI (1964) dir. Hideo Gosha
Now this is where it gets really interesting. Dig the synopsis from IMDB: “Shiba, a wandering ronin, encounters a band of peasants who have kidnapped the daughter of their dictatorial magistrate, in hopes of coercing from him a reduction in taxes. Shiba takes up their fight, joined by two renegades from the magistrate’s guard, Sakura and Kikyo. The three outlaws find themselves in a battle to the death.” Okay, helps to know that a “ronin” is a samurai warrior with no master, a lone wolf, so to speak, which sounds to me a similar condition to being the last Jedi in the galaxy living in isolation on a gorgeous rock. There are a couple of other words that leap out here, too, specifically “daughter” – you know why – “renegades” – a.k.a. “rebels” – “dictatorial magistrate” – which sounds like a nicer version of Kylo Ren – and “death.” Could it be Johnson was showing this particular film as an example of how to kill off a bold, heroic warrior? Hear that squeak? It’s the rumor mill churning…

LETTER NEVER SENT (1960) dir. Mikhail Kalatozov
Another interesting film about a band of comrades in peril, Kalatozov’s film tells of a group of miners seeking a diamond mine in the vast wasteland of Siberia. The good news: they find the mine and map it out. The bad news: the day they set out to return this map to Moscow, a massive forest fire breaks out, trapping them where they are. More of an elemental battle, this one, which could suggest that there’s a natural enemy that plays a key role in EPISODE VIII, maybe like Hoth did in EMPIRE. Regardless, there is once again the theme of individuals working as one to overcome seeming insurmountable adversity. And Johnson wouldn’t be out of place borrowing the film’s opening shot, it’s a great one, full of exposition without uttering a word. Watch it, and picture EPISODE VIII starting with Rey waving off the others as she remains on the island alone to train with Luke…

GUNGA DIN (1939) dir. George Stevens
Tonally, this film most resembles a STAR WARS film, that kind of happy-go-lucky conflict-oriented narrative in which our heroes – notably Han Solo – go about the dangerous ardors of their profession with a degree of comical flippancy. In GUNGA DIN, a trio of British soldiers stationed in India find themselves through a series of mishaps attempting to save the entire Army from an ambush by the Thuggee cult. I can see a few parallels to older SW films just from the synopsis. And once again, the notion of a trio going up against a greater horde is invoked. In EPISODE VIII terms, could that trio be Rey, Finn, and Luke?

SAHARA (1943) dir. Zoltan Korda
Originally envisioned as a US Armed Forces propaganda film starring Humphrey Bogart, SAHARA was actually shot during WW2 and serves as a statement of solidarity among the Allied Forces. Following the fall of Tobruk in North Africa, a US sergeant (Bogie) leads his tank crew around collecting stranded soldiers from other friendly nations: Britain, France, South Africa, and the Sudan. Once collected, the ragtag band of disparate heroes (sound familiar?) sets off for the only water well for hundreds of miles, only to find a much larger force, the Nazis, gunning for it as well. Once more a giant evil (and once more the Nazis, a clear parallel for the First Order) must be defeated by a small group of people brought together by chance, or perhaps by something greater.

Whatever else EPISODE VIII is going to be, these films would seem to suggest it’s going to be a war-based film with particular attention paid to a small group of our heroes, perhaps a trio, who find themselves in a seriously outnumbered situation and possibly further imperiled by natural conditions, whose fight to eventual victory may just result in the falling of an esteemed warrior. Yeah. That sounds like a STAR WARS movie to me.
And I don’t want to freak anybody out, but that fallen warrior: is Luke next on the chopping block? Find out for certain December 15th, 2017, when Rian Johnson’s still-vaguely-titled STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII hits screens.

Novelist, Screenwriter, Video Essayist