We all knew that annoying kid who would blurt out something like, “The Death Star wouldn’t have exploded like that. There’s no fire in space! There’s no oxygen!” Everyone at the sleepover would shush them and you would get back to experiencing the wonder of childhood. What that kid didn’t get was that George Lucas wasn’t making a documentary. He was making the greatest mixtape known to man. Star Wars blended Japanese film, western narrative theory, Saturday morning sci-fi, and world history to create a universe that has dominated popular culture for forty years.
In honor of Star Wars: The Last Jedi coming out this week, I compiled a list of films to watch if you enjoy one of my favorite aspects of the Star Wars saga: space battles. The X-wing Starfighter/TIE Fighter dogfights were present in Lucas’s initial concept of Star Wars: A New Hope. His inspiration stemmed from watching aviation films and archived footage from WWII missions. Empire of Dreams, the Star Wars documentary, even included shot for shot comparisons between a sequence from A New Hope and archive WWII dogfight footage. So, here are some films to watch if you can’t get enough of one of the best parts of the Star Wars saga.
A Yank in the RAF (1941) & The War Lover (1962)
If you want more Han Solo, these films are for you. A Yank in the RAF centers on American Tim Baker who, after smuggling a bomber plane to England decides to enlist in the Royal Air Force before the US has entered WWII. While the film has plenty of action, the interpersonal storylines between Baker and his love interest Carol Brown echo that of Han Solo and Princess Leia.
The most striking comparison to the Star Wars Saga is the sequence in which the group of Spitfire fighter planes sound-off. “All set, sir,” stands in for Luke Skywalker’s, “Red Five, standing by,” before the trench run in A New Hope.
The War Lover could be seen as the dark side of Solo. The 1962 film starring Steve McQueen paints a portrait of a brilliant but ultimately selfish pilot in command of a Flying Fortress, which has a cockpit reminiscent of the Millennium Falcon’s. On top of the aesthetic similarities, you can definitely see the parallels between McQueen’s characterization of a cocky wartime pilot and Ford’s scruffy-looking nerf herder.
First Light (2010)
If you want more Luke Skywalker in your life, you should watch this film. Set around the same time as A Yank in the RAF, First Light follows an analog for Skywalker in Geoffrey Wellum. The 18-year-old joins the RAF with no practical experience of flying fighter planes but quickly grows in stature as a pilot. Throughout his time in the RAF, he sees many of his friends fall, leading to a breakdown.
Since the Star Wars Saga is focused on the Skywalker family and only a few other characters, Luke is not shown to be shaken by the loss of much of his X-wing squadron in both A New Hope and Return of the Jedi. However, he must feel something for his childhood friend Biggs Darklighter who was bested by Darth Vader in the Battle of Yavin 4. I’m hoping the massive loss of life during the war against the Empire is part of the reason Luke has been in hiding in the events leading up to The Last Jedi.
Porco Rosso (1992)
If bounty hunters are what you live for, check out this anime classic. The protagonist Porco Rosso is a WWI flying ace who has mysteriously been transformed into an anthropomorphic pig because why not. Porco makes his living by hunting airborne pirates. To get rid of Porco, the pirates hire a bounty hunter of their own to shoot down the pig-man, and the action proceeds from there.
This is a fun pick for anyone who enjoyed the Obi-Wan/Jango Fett dogfight in Attack of the Clones. Sorry, there are no electric guitar power-chord-sounding seismic charges, but there are some pretty great dogfights.
The Home Front (2017)
Ok, we’ve come to the point where we diverge from this being purely a film list. The Home Front is an audio documentary produced by audible about female pilots in WWII. One of my big complaints about the Star Wars saga is that women are only rarely shown in the pilot’s seat. I love that the new trilogy has Rey in the center of the action, and I hope she continues to pilot the Millennium Falcon, but really guys—let’s put more women behind the controls.
In this documentary, women who felt male pilots were sabotaging them during WWII voice their frustration about being marginalized. The female pilots would find sugar in their fuel lines, acid in their parachutes, and small holes in their tires throughout the war. It’s crazy to think that even in a galaxy far, far away (and within a small rebellion where every individual was needed) most women still are not represented in the dogfights that would decide the fate of the galaxy. Chock it up to art imitating life, I guess. Here’s hoping that changes in The Last Jedi.
The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954) and The Dam Busters (1955)
These final two films have the most direct link to Star Wars. George Lucas used both of these movies as inspiration for different parts of A New Hope. Lucas specifically cites The Bridges at Toko-Ri as one of the films he used to create the cinematic mockup for his visual effects team to copy—ultimately creating the space battle at the end of A New Hope. Industrial Light & Magic cameraman Richard Edlund cites such clips as giving the team a template for, “the dynamics, the cutting sequence, and the way the ships would move.” By the time production started on A New Hope, Lucas had amassed a twenty-hour long reel of dogfight footage to pull from.
The Dam Busters contributed more than just rhythm to the final battle in A New Hope. A shot for shot comparison shows that Lucas took technology, framing, and even bits of dialogue from the film. On top of all of that, the Superfortresses featured in the film directly inspired the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon. You should watch the film for the busting of the titular dam. 10/10 would bust again.