Although Star Wars today has become much more than just a movie, there was a time when it was nothing more than a risky business proposition. This is a look at how classic film and cultural changes helped that original film blossom into the most popular and profitable film-based franchise in history.
Let me take you back to a time before midichlorians and Gungans. Before lightsabers and tie fighters. This is a time when Death Star could have referred to a Shuriken, and Skywalker was the nickname for future NBA Hall of famer David Thompson. It was 1973 and George Lucas began writing the script for what would become Star Wars, later Episode IV: A New Hope. At this time, Lucas had completed filming his second feature film, American Graffiti, which would become a hit. His first feature film was 1971’s THX-1138, a dystopian sci-fi, and a flop in theaters. However, United Artists was so impressed by George Lucas that they granted him a two-film deal. American Graffiti was the first film completed as part of this deal, and Star Wars would become the second.
The experience Lucas gained working on both of these films would significantly impact his work (and his ability to work) on Star Wars. THX-1138’s lack of mainstream success was disappointing to him, but it was also a learning opportunity. Lucas had always been fascinated in science fiction and fantasy, and he wasn’t ready to give it up as a filmmaker just because it didn’t resonate with mainstream audiences at the time. On the other hand, American Graffiti was exactly the type of entertainment that audiences of the time were looking for. Lucas combined his filmmaking prowess with his love of cars and racing to make a film that would go on to become one of the most profitable movies ever made. Now with the opportunity granted to him from that success, he wanted to make a movie that reflected his other passion.
Lucas grew up watching sci-fi and fantasy serials and reading comic books. His college roomate has even claimed that Lucas preferred to stay in and sketch ideas rather than go out. For his next film, Lucas knew that he needed to translate this excitement to the audience. THX-1138 was too constricting to be the type of effortless entertainment he was looking for. He wanted audiences to feel the same thrill he remembered from watching serials like Flash Gordon as a kid. Flash Gordon was pure escapist adventure. It began as a comic strip during the Great Depression, an attempt to reach towards something exciting and inspiring in an otherwise difficult time period. In a 1979 interview, he said "I especially loved the Flash Gordon serials... Of course I realize now how crude and badly done they were... loving them that much when they were so awful, I began to wonder what would happen if they were done really well."
His first effort towards recapturing his childhood memories was to buy the rights to Flash Gordon and make a feature film version. When that didn’t work due to the rights being unavailable at the time, he decided just to make his own. Yet Lucas knew he couldn’t just copy those plots and ideas. He had to come up with something original if his film was going to stand up on its own. To help him in this regard, Lucas went back and researched what had inspired the creators of Flash Gordon.
After Flash Gordon went off of syndication, it was replaced by a serial adaptation of Buck Rogers, another science fiction comic. Buck Rogers was actually the first science fiction comic from 1928, and it heavily inspired Flash Gordon a few years later. Buck Rogers introduced many of the standards we associate with science fiction before the 1950’s. Its characters explored space the same way a diver would explore the ocean, and from this perspective many nautical terms and ideas were repurposed for outer space. It was about exploring alien worlds, fighting off enemies with laser guns, and rebelling against evil dictators - all ideas that would find their place in Star Wars. Yet both of these comics/serials owed a lot to Edgar Rice Burroughs 1912 debut novel, A Princess of Mars. Burroughs would go on to write Tarzan, and at least partially because of this his first novel often gets overlooked, but its impact on the genre, and later on Lucas, was huge.
A Princess of Mars was an important moment in science fiction because it was the first time someone had combined fantasy with scientific elements. It invented a subgenre called planetary romance, which would come to describe stories that took place on dangerous alien planets with primitive societies and a swashbuckling main character. Although science fiction up to that point had always been escapist in nature, Burroughs took that idea further, bringing in the romance, grit, and violence from westerns to ramp up the entertainment. All of this resonated well with Lucas, who didn’t hide his love for Burrough’s novel, especially in the later films. “Jed” for example, is Burrough’s Martian word for king, and the escape from Jabba’s Palace in Return of the Jedi is similar to the way that planetary romance protagonists would find a way out of seemingly impossible situations.
Burrough’s influences, in turn, included H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Wells in particular is notable because of the way he used a scientific perspective to accent fantastical adventures. Wells was also a futurist, using scientific principles to predict what may or may not be possible to achieve. Together, he basically invented the idea of “suspension of disbelief”. That is, despite the far-reaching intents of his stories, he found a way to make them believable. This technique influenced Lucas to utilize the concept of “dirty space” for his sci-fi tale. Star Wars is set in a universe that isn’t shiny, new, and flawless. This makes it seem more believable and realistic, and in a way helps the audience overlook some of the film’s more outrageous fetes.
At the time that Lucas began working on his initial draft, he had just watched Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress. He used the plot of that film as a template for his own. As his ideas developed, Star Wars became more distanced from Kurosawa’s war time drama, but initially the plot was basically the same. Similarities which survived included an undercover princess, a story set amongst a backdrop of warring factions, and most importantly, a grounded narrative. Hidden Fortress is told from the perspective of two peasants, and that inspired Lucas to begin his story following an equally lowly set of characters - the droids. Interestingly, Lucas even referred to the Rebel’s base on Yavin IV as a “hidden fortress”, although all of the references in the script were later cut except for a moment when Vader interrupts Admiral Motti who is about to say the phrase.
From Kurosawa, Lucas expanded his search for inspiration to the next logical place, westerns. Kurosawa’s films after all were influenced by westerns, and later in the 60’s two of his films would be remade as popular westerns themselves (The Magnificent Seven and A Fistfull of Dollars). Han Solo is the obvious cowboy reference, and it is fitting that he is first introduced in the Mos Eisley Cantina scene. Regardless of who shot first, Greedo and Solo’s under-the-table encounter is a nod to a similar moment in The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. Lucas even went so far as to copy several shots from famous westerns, but update them for the purposes of Star Wars. Vader’s introduction through smoke is a nod to Once Upon a Time in the West, and Luke’s appearance after the Lars family massacre is not unlike how John Wayne approaches a similar disaster in The Searchers.
When trying to determine what his film would actually look like, Lucas often referred illustrator Ralph McQuarrie to classic films which had similar tones. For the architecture in Mos Eisley, Lucas suggested Casablanca. For the windswept desert of Tatooine, Lucas pointed McQuarrie to Lawrence of Arabia. C3P0 and R2-D2 are the Machine Man from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and a gardening droid from Silent Running, respectively. The Death Star interior iis equal parts THX-1138 and Forbidden Planet. Vader’s costume was influenced by Samurai armor, the Jedi knights wear something that looks like a Kimono, and Leia’s hair style based on a character from Flash Gordon.
However, Star Wars wasn’t just a hodge podge of recycled old ideas. Lucas was also influenced by the culture and climate of the 1970’s. The Vietnam War influenced his state of mind - the Empire was supposed to be an analogy of the US Military, and the rebels at least partially an homage to the North Vietnamese. Some of the underlying ideas in Star Wars, such as a powerful Force that connects all living things, were taken from popular spiritual ideas that were circulating at the time. Carlos Castaneda was a popular figure for example, whose novels discussed shamanism. These writings sparked a popular movement towards finding magic and deeper connections in everyday life - there was a push towards simpler thinking. And so, in addition to the nostalgia, the way Star Wars reflected the general attitude of the era in which it was released certainly helped the appeal.
The impact of all of these creative sources can clearly be seen in the finished film. From Flash Gordon, Lucas’ most direct influence, not only do we have a general intergalactic swashbuckling attitude, but also the wipe scene transitions and opening text crawl were both direct cribs. From Buck Rogers, Lucas utilized similar dialogue and lingo. Where H.G. Wells invented science fiction by embracing realism to explore the unreal, Lucas creates a fantasy tale but uses technology in the place of magic. The plot follows Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, including a duo of Abbot and Costello-like peasants who would become a template for useful comic relief. Where John Wayne westerns influenced the attitude on Tatooine, WWII dogfight and naval battle films became the blueprints for epic battles in outer space. And finally, Lucas used his own fascination of racing to create a world where spaceships could travel faster than light and were easy enough to pilot that almost anyone could do so.
Taking all of this into account, you can see that Star Wars is not really a film like we’ve never seen before. In fact, nearly everything in Star Wars is very familiar, and that’s one reason it became a success. Audiences found the film to be inviting, rather than daunting. It welcomed them to join on the adventure, rather than just watch it unfold. But that doesn’t mean it is just regurgitating tired cliches and adding a new coat of paint to the ol’ heroic journey plotline. No, Lucas created something new by mining the past. He was able to seamlessly combine all of these great influences into something greater than its parts, and he did it in a way that was so effective it still resonates to this day. I think a quote by George Lucas in 1975 sums it up best, “It should look very familiar, but at the same time not be familiar at all.”
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