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Thursday, 16 January 2014

From The Wizard of Oz to Hidden Fortress: the moments from other films spotted in Star Wars

Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940)


Star Wars



Read some of the original reviews and you’d think that making Star Wars was a lot like creating Frankenstein’s Monster: You just stitched together bits of other people’s films and then let it loose upon the box office. Critics of the time loved to show how clever they were by cataloguing the images and plot ideas they had caught Lucas lifting from other films.

At the same time as film critics were spotting these parallels, fans and critics of literary science fiction were spotting George Lucas's debts to the work of the genre's authors and artists, but we'll come on to that next in another post. Today, I'm just looking at the echoes of other movies that people found in Star Wars.

Naturally, everyone spotted the debts to the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials. It didn’t escape anyone’s notice that Star Wars had a lot in common with westerns, either: The scene in which Luke returns to his burning homestead was likened to The Searchers (1956) and Nevada Smith (1966), while the shootouts drew comparison with Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957).

The Searchers (1956)
Star Wars



The fighter combat reminded reviewers of World War Two films like The Dam Busters (1954) and 633 Squadron (1964) – not surprisingly, since Lucas had used clips from those films and others to show ILM the kind of moves he wanted his spaceships to make. The Tin Man of The Wizard of Oz (1939) was noted as an obvious reference point for See-Threepio, and the droids’ bickering invoked the entire oeuvre of Laurel and Hardy.


The Dam Busters (1954)

Star Wars





633 Squadron (1964) 


Star Wars



More controversially, the final medal ceremony has been repeatedly likened to Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda piece Triumph of the Will (1935). The pretty loose similarity here was eagerly seized upon by irritated intellectuals who resented the film’s success and loved the idea that the rest of us were being taken in by the kind of techniques used in the Third Reich.

Triumph of the Will (1935) 

Star Wars

One source of inspiration went practically unnoticed in 1977 but has been much commented upon since: Hidden Fortress (1958), Akira Kurosawa’s film about a medieval warrior’s quest to restore a deposed princess to her throne. The movie’s title crops up in dialogue in Star Wars (General Motti gets as far as pointing out that Darth Vader hasn’t found “the Rebels’ hidden fort-” before Vader starts throttling him) and some reviewers since have even said Hidden Fortress was the main influence on Lucas’s film.

Lucas, who was a Kurosawa fan at film school, has insisted Hidden Fortress was not his favourite of the director’s films. But, in an interview for the British Film Institute's 2001 DVD of Hidden Fortress, he recalled that “as I was beginning to write the screenplay and put it together, I remembered the one thing that had really struck me about Hidden Fortress and I was really intrigued by was the fact that the story was told from the lowest characters ...” He added: “The fact that there was a princess trying to get through enemy lines and everything, I think, was more of a coincidence than anything else.”
Hidden Fortress (1958)


Star Wars 




Hidden Fortress
Star Wars





Hidden Fortress

Star Wars


Watching Hidden Fortress today, it’s easy to see how Kurosawa’s decision to introduce his story through the tall, bossy servant Tehei and his short, insolent colleague Matashichi influenced Lucas.The pair get caught up in someone else’s battle early on, in much the same way See-Threepio and Artoo-Detoo do, and they go on to bicker their way through much of the movie. But they’re much more venal, less sympathetic characters than Lucas’s droids.

Like Star Wars, the film follows the heroes as they try to make their way through enemy-controlled territory. Yet beyond that, the similarities are not striking, other than the wipe effects which mark the scene changes, and Lucas’s decision to use some Japanese-sounding words like Jedi or Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Many critics in 1977 claimed that Star Wars cribbed from earlier movies in a self-conscious, or even downright cynical, fashion. Derek Malcolm of The Guardian called it “an incredibly knowing movie” which “plays enough games to satisfy the most sophisticated”. Russell Davies in The Observer wrote of the fun people were having playing a “hunt-the-source game”. Alan Brien of the Sunday Times complained: “These movie references, somewhere between a pun and plagiarism, exist only to be recognised and then discarded”.

Maybe we’ve become used to much higher doses of irony and post-modernism in mainstream movies since then, but I don’t think Star Wars looks like a knowing or cynical movie at all. In fact, I think it looks downright earnest. It’s worth bearing in mind Carrie Fisher’s recollection that Lucas wouldn’t let her put any irony into her delivery. Surely it’s the refusal ever to wink at the audience that gives Star Wars the freshness it undoubtedly has.

2 comments:

John I. White said...

I enjoyed your final paragraph about irony and knowing winks very much. I fear that in Ep.7 we may get lots of knowing winks and shrugs and "I'm too old for this sith" stuff from the old characters as they constantly try to refer us back to the original film.
I think one of the miracles of the original film is that despite it's many elements derived from elsewhere and the attempt to use a Campbellian formula it does, as you say, feel fresh. To me it also has a purity and a self-contained aspect to it. I feel that the prequels in particular and what I've seen of the rest of the expanded EU just seem constantly refer back to STAR WARS and nothing else in an attempt to feel Authentic and unified perhaps, and to side-step having to invent great new things.

John I. White said...

Does that Japanese guy have an Imperial insignia on his back?