The Art That Inspired Star Wars

Exploring the meat and potatoes of a galaxy far, far away.
By  · Published on December 14th, 2016

Exploring the meat and potatoes of a galaxy far, far away.

Star Wars, the modern myth? Duh. For nearly forty years, high school English teachers have been desperately wrangling the enthusiasm of their students with the promise that the all-encompassing pop culture obsession that is the Star Wars saga is nothing more than a Hollywood remix of classical mythology. As a one-time English teacher myself, I can assure you that lightsabers and Hutts named Jabba are an effective gateway drug into Homeric thought, but will only get you so far before the classroom malaise rolls them back into the fog bank of apathy. You’re not going to win over every student with this cheap tactic, but the best teachers are the ones that use George Lucas’s reimagining of the wheel as a tool to nurture the creative spark buried in all of us.

In his book, The Seven Basic Plots, author Christopher Booker theorized that there are little more than a handful of stories to hang your narrative upon: Overcoming the monster, rags to riches, the quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy, and rebirth. Structural limitation is certainly not a new concept, and may plague the blank page of many writers who fail before they even start, but this concept can also act as liberation for those who strive to twist, or build upon the backs of giants. After all, everything old is new again.

For George Lucas, Star Wars starts with Joseph Campbell’s 1949 publication of The Hero of a Thousand Faces. While he was discovering and studying film at the University of Southern California, Lucas was also thoroughly obsessing over the concept of the Monomyth. Campbell wrote that the hero’s journey is the shared pattern of narrative in which “a hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” Campbell points to 17 stages in which the hero achieves this journey, and applies them to biblical figures like Moses and Christ, as well as to the classical adventures of Odysseus.

Shortly before the release of The Phantom Menace, Lucas sat down with fellow Joseph Campbell fanboy Bill Moyers to discuss his early fascination with the hero’s journey. Lucas stated that “telling an old myth in a new way…that’s how you pass down the meat and potatoes of your society to the next generation.” When he failed to acquire the rights to Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon (since the Italian maestro Federico Fellini had them wrapped up with his own frustrated never-seen production), Lucas set about to recreate his own mythology. To do so, the young filmmaker understood that “all the influences you had in life come into play.” Star Wars is a symphony composed from his preoccupations with monomyth, Kurosawa, Westerns, science-fiction serials, war films, and countless other love affairs.

The constant bombardment of fellow USC student John Milius (Dillinger, Conan The Barbarian) is what finally led Lucas to the cinema of Akira Kurosawa. Most are happy to label The Hidden Fortress as the essential progenitor to Star Wars, but Lucas insists that Seven Samurai is the film that inspired his direction the most. The infamous horizontal wipe transitions used throughout the Star Wars films certainly seem lifted from Kurosawa, but could also be attributed to the Flash Gordon movie serials.

When speaking to the Criterion Collection for their Hidden Fortress release, Lucas acknowledged that film’s lowly POV peasants to be the strongest influence on R2-D2 and C-3PO, but any connections to Toshiro Mifune’s defeated general escorting a rogue princess across enemy lines to be purely coincidental. Lucas’s admiration for Kurosawa stemmed from how the Japanese director allowed the frame to play out. Lucas aped Kurosawa’s predilection for long lens photography as well as trapping his characters in a single frame whenever he could. “Kurosawa comes from a generation of filmmakers still influenced by silent films,” he said, “The quality of the image goes a long way in telling the story.”

Filmed just two years after Seven Samurai, John Ford produced his ultimate statement in The Searchers. The revenge story of John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards on the hunt for the Comanche that kidnapped his niece, and slaughtered his family is mirrored in Anakin’s Dark Side plummet during Attack of the Clones. We can all agree that the less said about that film the better, but Tatooine and the Tusken Raiders have been stand-ins for Monument Valley and Scar’s war party since A New Hope. When Luke returned to the moisture farm only to find Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru crisped into a fiery rubble, you immediately recall Ethan discovering the raided homestead.

Han shot first. ‘nuff said. The inspiration behind one of the most notorious scenes in Star Wars could possibly have come from a number of Westerns, but the two most obvious seem to be John Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn and Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. In Cheyenne Autumn, Jimmy Stewart’s Wyatt Earp blasts a cowboy through his card table before the villain can get the drop on him. The cowboy draws first, and the bullet only penetrates his foot. That feels a wee bit Special Edition to me. In The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, Lee Van Cleef’s Angel Eyes attempts to pry the whereabouts of a missing cache of gold from a Confederate soldier. When he gains as much info as he’s going to get, Angel Eyes preemptively guns him down through the table and a bowl of fruit. That feels like true blue Han Solo scoundrel.

Lucas’s obvious passion for movie serials can be seen all over the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films. The opening text crawl is lifted straight from Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe, and the 1981 addition of the A New Hope subtitle, for what would be the first of many Special Edition theatrical retrofits, rams home that episodic adoration. Buster Crabbe’s Flash is far too gung ho to draw direct comparison to farm boy Luke Skywalker, but his partnership with the rogue Prince Barin plays out a lot like the push-and-pull bromance between Luke and Han Solo. Also, storming the castle of Emperor Ming the Merciless while disguised in the robes of his soldiers has the vibe of an Imperial jailbreak.

Some have drawn parallels between Darth Vader’s visage and that of The Lightening, the maniacal electric madman that terrorizes the Marine Corps in The Fighting Devil Dogs. However, if you read the annotations to conceptual artist Ralph McQuarrie’s portfolio, Darth Vader’s designs resulted from Lucas’s fascination with samurai body armor, and McQuarrie’s own desire to explain how Vader breathed while jumping from ship to ship in the vacuum of space. Commissioned in 1975 after the completion of the second Star Wars draft, it’s easy to imagine Toshiro Mifune behind the mask, and Vader riding into battle atop a gunpowder black stallion.

A New Hope’s climactic final assault on the Death Star owes most of it’s aerial combat to the 1954 British film, The Dam Busters. In that film a squadron of specially trained pilots must navigate low altitudes to deploy an experimental “bouncing bomb” to thoroughly destroy Germany’s fortified river dam structure. Lucas borrowed heavily from the dogfight chatter, and recreated the language for the X-Wing’s Red Leader. And when Tie Fighters were simply not enough of a threat, Lucas also added the anti-aircraft gun from 633 Squadron for good measure. The final result is an expertly crafted recreation of The Bridges of Toko-Ri in space (another bomber flick that Lucas actually spliced into pre-effects edits of Star Wars).

George Lucas soaked it all in. I could go on and on and on about the other ten thousand influences that filtered there way through his modern myth, but what I’ve highlighted above are simply my favorite bits of artistic assimilation. I’d love to drone a tad more about the lightsabers connections to Isaac Asimov, or Frank Herbert’s outrage towards the theft he believed he saw on screen. To skip over Fritz Lang’s Metropolis seems like a sin for sure. Please post in the comments anything that you feel was left out, or needs to be expounded upon.

Star Wars cannot be dismissed as simple regurgitation. Returning back to that classroom of desperate English teachers, Star Wars is absolutely that populace primer for the classroom, and us film school rejects. It’s a magical mixture of what has been, but also that great inspiration for what’s yet to be. It’s a classroom unto itself.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)