Today I rewatched the original Star Wars (A New Hope) for probably the 30th time. Can you believe it turns 40 years old this year? I’ve been racking my brain all day, trying to figure out what I could possibly write about this film that hasn’t already been said. It’s a film we all know and love dearly. This is the film that started it all.
Star Wars is an interesting case study in film history because it perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the New Hollywood era, but also helped lead to its downfall. We have a young Director who had a great idea that many didn’t think would succeed. However, in New Hollywood fashion, he was given free rein to conduct his vision. Once the film succeeded, studios realized the power of the summer blockbuster (along with Spielberg’s Jaws).
It’s insane to look at this film and know it was made for around 11-13 million dollars but ended up making over 750 million. Unfortunately the massive box office returns helped to usher in the 80’s era of films, and the end of the New Hollywood style of filmmaking.
I’m not knocking Star Wars because it really is a terrific film. This is what all popcorn films should strive to be. There are many reasons that Star Wars has stuck around for as long as it has. Instead of giving this film a normal review, I want to discuss what influenced Lucas when making this classic. Some of these influences are known facts, while others are just my speculation.
There’s no doubt that the Western Genre had a huge impact on Lucas’s vision for Star Wars. The films of John Ford in particular, especially The Searchers, had a significant influence on the young filmmaker.
These two shots above are from similar scenes in both films. In Star Wars, Luke (Mark Hamill) returns home to find his aunt and uncle murdered and his home engulfed in flames. In The Searchers, Ethan (John Wayne) returns to find his brother and sister-in-law murdered and their home engulfed in flames. There is no doubt that this image sunk into Lucas and came forward when he was working on Star Wars.
One of the signature heroes, Han Solo, is basically a Western style character only in space. In fact the meeting place of Solo, the Mos Eisley Cantina (what Obi Wan labels a “wretched hive of scum and villainy”) resembles the saloons we see in many Western films. There is also a duel style moment between Han Solo and a bounty hunter, Greedo. I won’t get into who shot first because that’s an argument for another day.
Another major influence for Lucas was the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa. Kurosawa was also influenced heavily by the films of John Ford. It’s always interesting to see how different filmmakers and movements from different countries influence each other and end up coming full circle.
Two of our favorite robot characters, C-3PO and R2-D2, were influenced by the two peasant characters in Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress. This is proven by Lucas’s own admission. He has always given gratitude to Kurosawa and discussed his influence on his films.
Lucas even asked Toshiro Mifune, who was in many of Kurosawa’s pictures, to act in Star Wars. Mifune turned it down of course. Can you imagine how Mifune would have played Obi-Wan or Darth Vader?
Kurosawa often used the wipe transition between scenes, which Star Wars re-popularized. To be fair to Lucas, it’s hard to overstate Kurosawa’s influence on filmmakers and film history in general. A lot of the other New Hollywood filmmakers have admitted to being greatly influenced by Kurosawa, such as Lucas’s contemporary John Milius.
Another major influence on Star Wars were the space serials that Lucas watched as a kid such as the Flash Gordon serials, among others. These showed Lucas that film could transport audiences to new worlds and galaxies. Lucas was influenced by other science-fiction films of the time as well, such as Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Great film directors and storytellers mix genres, styles and subject matter with new ideas to create something that is wholly unique. That is exactly what Lucas achieved with this film. This article barely touches the surface of the influences Lucas poured into Star Wars.
I know we all like to give Lucas a lot of crap for the Star Wars prequel trilogy, but looking back on this film I can’t describe him as anything other than a genius. He is masterful at world building (or galaxy building I suppose) and blends his influences to great effect. I hope he starts making films again, because as much as we hate to admit it, American Cinema owes a great debt to George Lucas. He created one of our greatest franchises, and one of the best films ever made.
Written by William David Glenn IV