Friday, 30 September 2016

Why the Rogue One re-shoots? Star Wars always was a war movie.

The X-wings attack, World War II-style, in Star Wars

It has been reported that Disney executives, who ordered re-shoots on the forthcoming Rogue One: a Star Wars Story, didn’t like the rough cut of the film because it "had the feel of a war movie”. 

Episode Nothing looks at how odd that quote is, in view of the fact that war movies are a major influence on the original film.

Those Rogue One re-shoot reports: Too much like a war film?

A dogfight in Star Wars

It was reported not so long ago that re-shoots were taking place on Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the spin-off which will tell the story of how the Rebel Alliance stole the Death Star plans. 

The Hollywood Reporter said : "The move is happening after execs screened the film and felt it was tonally off with what a 'classic' Star Wars movie should feel like. The pic has not yet been tested before audiences, but one source describes the cut as having the feel of a war movie."

I don’t think reports like this tell us much about whether the final film will be good or bad. Studio interference can destroy a film or improve it. But I’m surprised by the suggestion that the feel of a war movie would be the wrong feel for Star Wars. Maybe if the war movie was Saving Private Ryan or Apocalypse Now, that might be a valid concern. Buy if we mean World War II films, Star Wars always owed a lot to those.

Star Wars and World War II

The Bridges at Toko-Ri, whose aerial
sequences influenced Star Wars

If you grew up in the 1970s, movies about World War II were constantly around you. The Hollywood and British film industries had been making them since the 1940s, so the war films of the 1950s and 60s were a staple of television schedules. Fewer World War II stories were being told on the big screen, but even in 1977, one of Star Wars' big competitors was Richard Attenborough's epic account of Operation Market Garden, A Bridge Too Far.

George Lucas had also grown up with World War II films on television and they had been a key influence on Star Wars. In fact, the World War II influence was there even before he had the story.

JW Rinzler's book The Making of Star Wars says Lucas had been begun collecting footage of aerial action from war movies in 1975, while still working out his story.

He said: "Every time there was a war movie on television, like The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954), I would watch it – and if there was a dogfight sequence, I would videotape it. Then we would transfer that to 16mm film, and I'd just edit it according to my story of Star Wars. It was really a way of getting a sense of the  
movement of the spaceships. 

"Because one of the key visions I had of the film when I started was of a dogfight in outer space with spaceships – two ships flying through space shooting each other. That was my original idea. I said, 'I want to make that movie. I want to see that.' In Star Trek it was always one ship sitting here and another ship sitting there, and they shot these little lasers and one of them disappeared. It wasn't really a dogfight where they were racing around in space firing." 

The Dam Busters: another Star Wars influence

Lucas claimed to have accumulated 20 or 25 hours of videotaped plane sequences, which he condensed to an hour, then transferred to 16mm film and cut to eight minutes. "I would have the plane going from right to left, and a plane coming toward us and flying away from us, to see if the movement would generate excitement."

Lucas doesn't say whether he ever stopped to consider that ships in space would not move like World War aircraft. That would have been pretty much irrelevant to him. He wanted to deliver dogfights in space, and if the laws of physics couldn't handle that, they would have to be dispensed with. Didn't we all feel the same about the laws of physics when we were kids?

This desire to recreate fighter plane movements in space was one of the reasons John Dykstra's effects team had to innovate so much, creating the Dykstraflex camera which could keep repeating the same moves accurately. "Before we developed the equipment for Star Wars, those moves could be made. But it was a very complex problem to get them combined into one shot," he says in Rinzler's book.

The war movie footage remained in the film until a fairly late stage while Industrial Light and Magic worked on the effects, which might partly explain why studio executives and Lucas's friends were so nonplussed by the rough cut of the film.

So you can see a lot of war movies in Star Wars: The Bridges at Toko-Ri, 633 Squadron (1963) Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) and The Dam Busters (1955) among them. The film shares its director of photography, Gilbert Taylor, with the latter film. 

In fact, the similarities are so noteworthy that some YouTubers have amusingly combined Star Wars with some of the films that inspired it.

Here's 633 Squadron with the soundtrack of Star Wars:

Here's The Dam Busters with the soundtrack of Star Wars:

And here's my favourite, Star Wars with the soundtrack of The Dam Busters:

The other World War II references in Star Wars

The TIE pilot helmets in Star Wars recall
World War II gas masks

But it's not just the space battles in Star Wars that reflect the influence of World War II films. It's frequently there in the costume design, the set design and the whole atmosphere of the film.

The Rebel pilots dress more like fighter pilots than space men. The Imperials wear militaristic uniforms. The Death Star design has something of Nazi architecture about it, while the Rebel base has the look of a hastily constructed battlefield hideaway. (Critics have accused Lucas of replicating the look of the Nazi film Triumph of the Will in the Throne Room scene, as I discussed here, but I won't reopen that subject right now.)

World War II historian Cole Horton has written a series of posts at titled From World War to Star Wars, highlighting some of these parallels.

Chris Taylor in How Star Wars Conquers the Universe sums things up nicely: "If you look closely enough, you can see that wartime influence throughout the franchise. It's in the one-man fighters, the rebels' helmets and boots, the Stormtroopers modified UK Sterling submachine guns, Han Solo's German Mauser C96 semiautomatic, the fall fascists in the black gas mask."

Many children in the 1970s had seen a lot of war movies, read a lot of war comics, and in many cases assembled a few Airfix war planes or aircraft carriers. So all these World War II references would have resonated with them as surely as they would with slightly older audiences.

Lucas was appropriating elements from all kinds of films and stories when he made Star Wars. You could no more take World War II out of the mix than you could remove the influence of westerns, Errol Flynn, or Flash Gordon.

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