Where did Star Wars come from?
With Star Wars: The Force Awakens out in theaters, Newsarama decided to take a look back at some of the most unusual pieces of media that influenced the original trilogy. We did not include the prequels or “Expanded Universe” because seriously, that’s a book.
But whether it’s the classic “hero’s journey” structure popularized by Joseph Campbell or a few suspiciously familiar shots, Star Wars has its roots in many media across many genres. And it’s worth seeing just how many distinct ideas were synthesized into one of the most influential pieces of popular culture of all time.
Yes, this list is massively incomplete and likely leaves a number of important things out. But that’s why we have comments!
The one that everyone knows – George Lucas himself has been blunt about this – is The Hidden Fortress, an Akira Kurosawa classic from which the first Star Wars film borrows many characters and elements. You can see Kurosawa’s influence throughout the entire series – here’s a thorough comparison with video links.
Another obvious influence is the films of David Lean and John Ford, particularly Lawrence of Arabia and The Searchers, respectively.
The epic visuals of those films, emphasizing the massive landscapes that dwarf the main characters, remain impressive to this day – and helped inspire the overwhelming alien environments of the Star Wars universe.
One unlikely influence on Star Wars’ biggest villain, Darth Vader, is the 1940s film version of Hamlet. This is something I’ve insisted upon for years.
Sir Laurence Olivier’s 1948 take on Shakespeare’s classic tragedy is considered one of the definitive films of the Bard's work, even with large parts of the text scuttled to keep the running time shorter.
But here’s something of interest: The ghost of Hamlet’s father is depicted as an armored figure, face obscured, with a heavily-filtered voice. And one of his first lines? “I am thy father’s spirit.”
Watch for yourself. See the roots of anything?
But a more definite influence was The Fighting Devil Dogs, a 1938 film serial about Marines battling a mysterious masked terrorist called “The Lightning.” That character’s all-black outfit and cape-plus-helmet makes a strong case as a visual influence for the Sith Lord.
Another – and completely bizarre – influence on the original trilogy was the 1935 serial The Phantom Empire. You can see where the title alone influenced Star Wars – but there’s other examples to be found in this musical Western that pits singing cowboy Gene Autry – playing himself, mind you – against the underground scientists of “The Scientific City of Murania.”
Despite – or perhaps because of – its absolute strangeness, The Phantom Empire proved surprisingly enduring, spawning not only two feature remakes but even an updated homage as “The Secret Empire” in the 1979 TV series Cliffhangers. Of note: The Muranians require oxygen masks to breathe on the surface, which gives them quite a respirator sound…
But the movie serials that had the biggest influence on Star Wars were the Flash Gordon serials of the 1930s and 1940s. You can see Luke Skywalker in Flash, Emperor Palpatine in Ming the Merciless, not to mention many of the trilogy’s locations…and also a certain title scroll used to introduce each new episode. Let’s give as an example, oh, say, the fourth episode…
The success of the original Star Wars movie helped pave the way for the 1980 Flash Gordon film and its Queen soundtrack. Yet another reason to be thankful for it.
Plenty of other classic SF in different media inspired the original Star Wars. Those who admonished the recent John Carter of Mars film for as “ripping off” Star Wars might not have known that the original novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs included such creatures as “Banths” and “Sith,” and flying platforms that zoomed over desert landscapes. Not to mention a princess who could handle a laser pistol pretty well.
Or, you could take the desert planet of Tatooine, with its “moisture farms” and see a clear line from Frank Herbert’s novel, Dune. The Sarlacc in Return of the Jedi owes more than a small debt to the giant Shai-Hulud Sandworms of Arrakis…along with some concepts of the Jedi resembling the psychic witches, the Bene Gesserit, and a whole galactic empire.
As David Lynch and Universal Studios learned in 1984, though, Dune’s complex, philosophical, politically-charged universe did not hold the same appeal as Star Wars for a mass audience, particularly when a glossary of terms had to be handed out at some screenings. But while kids might not have gone for such tie-in merchandise as a coloring book with a recipe for “Baron Harkonnen’s No-Bake Spice Cookies," what’s really important is that we got a Sandworm toy out of that film. Plus a kickass soundtrack by Toto.
You can look at any number of classic science fiction works, from Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series to E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series (which also helped inspire the Green Lantern Corps) and find seeds of ideas found in Star Wars. But some of its biggest influences had nothing to do with science fiction..
Take, for example, Frank Capra’s classic 1937 adaptation of James Hilton’s Lost Horizon. The idealistic hidden city of Shangri-La has influenced generations of stories – and the Grand High Lama of the city is considered by many to have influenced the character of Yoda – in fact, their death scenes are almost identical.
Or, you can see the influence of the aerial combat sequences in the 1954 British war movie The Dam Busters. Rather than explain…just check out this side-by-side comparison.
In one biography of George Lucas, it’s claimed he listened to the soundtrack to the 1969 Sergio Leone film Once Upon a Time in the West during the writing of The Empire Strikes Back. More than one critic has noted that Darth Vader’s entrance in the first film resembles the introduction of Frank, the demonic killer played-against-type by cinema icon Henry Fonda.
See for yourself. Here’s Vader’s entrance:
And here’s Frank’s, about 1:50 into this clip:
And now for a slightly queasy influence.
Leni Riefenstahl's 1935 documentary about Adolf Hitler, Triumph of the Will. It made Der Fuhrer look like, well, a savior. Elements of the fascist Empire – from crowd scenes to names like “Stormtroopers” – echo the Nazis and certain shots in Triumph of the Will.
But you can also see its resonance in one of the trilogy’s most famous scenes – the medals given to our heroes at the end of the first film. If you need proof – here’s the score from that scene played over Triumph of the Will footage.
And getting back to Newsarama's roots, many comic book fans are well aware of one of the biggest influences on Star Wars – Jack Kirby’s comic books, particularly the "Fourth World" books with the New Gods.
Let’s see – you have a group of characters who worship a mysterious, mystical energy called “The Source,” a villain whose name is pronounced “Dark Side,” and oh yes – the hero finds out that the bad guy is his father. And that’s just for starters.
The overall influence of the New Gods on Star Wars has long been debated – but it’s worth noting that Darkseid and company mostly vanished after the first run of those comic books, only to get a revival in the late 1970s after Star Wars became a huge hit. If nothing else, it’s possible that Star Wars is why Darkseid continues to menace the universe to this day. Huzzah!
And finally, there’s a film that did not directly influence the plot of Star Wars…but we owe a great deal of the series’ pop-cultural impact to it.
The 1967 musical Doctor Dolittle, based on the children’s books by Hugh Lofting, was a mega flop. For some recommended reading, check out Mark Harris’ book Pictures at a Revolution, which details the disastrous making of the film (complete with disease, animal cruelty, a giraffe stepping on its own genitals and more!) and how it somehow got five Oscar nominations, no doubt helped by the screenings for Academy voters with free prime rib and champagne.
But here’s the thing – Doctor Dolittle was one of the first films to feature a great deal of branded tie-in merchandise; literally hundreds of licensees. And it’s said unsold merchandise can still be found in warehouses to this day.
20th Century Fox took a bath on that merchandise. So when George Lucas said he thought it might be fun to make toys of Star Wars, he got a deal that granted him greater control and cut him in for a much bigger share of the tie-in profits than any filmmaker would get today.
So all those fine Star Wars toys you enjoy? You might just owe them to Doctor Dolittle. Not to mention all that Lucas was able to do with the profits he enjoyed from said toys.
And those are just a few of the many influences on the original trilogy – and as we said, we’re sure there’s still more you’ll be happy to share with us in the comments. And who knows what influences people might find in the new film?
May the Source be with…wait, that’s not right.