Monday, June 04, 2007

The real influences on Star Wars

As part of the Star Wars 30th anniversary, the History Channel has been airing a special on Star Wars. Various politicians and celebrities talk about how George Lucas went back to mythic tradition in creating a new mythic structure. This is not new - Lucas has been saying this for years. The thing is, it isn't really true.

I don't argue that many of the themes in Star Wars can be found in myth. My point is that these mythic structures are common to an entire class of literature. I think that Lucas simply drew on the literature of the day and later tried to elevate his movies by pointing out mythic elements.

Lucas himself used to point to other influences, ones that are no longer mentioned. The biggest of these was the Saturday morning serials. Lucas wanted to recreate the serials with high production values. We need look no further than the first few seconds of the original movie to see the influence. The narration scrolling past is straight from the serials. This is also where the structure of the movies comes from. Each of the six movies is divided into three "chapters".

The other acknowledged influence was Japanese culture, especially the films of Akira Kurosawa. The Droids were probably inspired by two supporting characters in The Hidden Fortress.

As for Lucas's other inspirations, most of these came from the paperback racks of any 1960s and 1970s bookstore. The most common plot in science fiction novels at the time had a young man, either through knowledge or heredity, suddenly taken from his boring life. After spending some time with a mentor, he went out to save the world. Along the way he won the love of a woman who would normally be hopelessly above him. Lucas simply gave his own spin on the details and we have the original Star Wars.

Note that there was a radical shift in the characters between the first two movies. In the original, there was clearly a mutual attraction between Luke and Leia. By the second movie Lukas and his writers had redefined the relationship between Luke, Leia, and Vader. To keep things from being creepy, Leia treated Luke as a brother (how about that) and only showed romantic affection for Han.

In the second movie we see more of the Japanese influence. In most Japanese stories, a young man would train to be a samurai by studying under a master. The master would be an old hermit. He might not even be recognized as a master at first. The training was different than we would expect. The student was taught to be a samurai through everyday activities. The movie the Karate Kid is also based on this tradition. In it, the kid learns basic moves by waxing a car and painting a fence.

Lucas made the old hermit into a shrunken muppet. In keeping with the Japanese tradition, we see Luke running through the swamp with Yoda on his back and doing other physical activities but we never see him taught to use the lightsaber.

The big twist in The Empire Strikes Back is Vader's real relationship with Luke. This one is a slight stretch, but a possible influence for that was the master of adventure, Rafael Sabatini. Sabatini wrote dozens of adventure novels, many of them best sellers. The best of these were reprinted and widely distributed in the 1970s. Sabatini pretty much invented swashbuckling adventure and some of his best novels revolved around a hero who finds out at the last chapter that his nemesis is actually his father. It is unlikely that neither Lukas nor Leigh Brackett (who wrote Empire) had never read Sabatini.

For Return of the Jedi, I can find a couple of likely influences. One is Alan Dean Foster. A prominent science fiction writer at the time, he wrote the first authorized Star Wars novel, Splinter of the Mind's Eye. Foster had a recurring theme in his novels - primitive natives overpowering high-tech invaders. The fight between the Storm Troops and the Ewoks was classic Foster.

In a bit of irony, Lucas was his inspiration for Jedi. In the novel (written by Lucas from his screenplay) it was clear that the X-Wing fighters were actually flying through the Death Star. The special effects people at ILM were unable to figure out how to do this so it was changed to an equatorial trench in the movie. By the third movie, Lucas had the budget and technology to go back and redo the fight the way he originally envisioned it. Thus, Jedi featured a battle to eliminate a second Death Star and this time they flew right through it.

So, where does this leave us? I think it is clear that Lucas was adapting genres of popular fiction rather than drawing from myth. As far as the end product goes, it doesn't matter. Prior to Star Wars, no one had done a good job of putting science fiction on the screen in an approachable form.

Just don't try to find deep insight in it.


Esho Woman said...

Very nice article. What the heck was Lucas' influence for Jar Jar Binks? I know that did not come from Japan!:)

shebuya said...

Lucus is a racist who fails to admit his "borrowing" from Japan's culture to make Star Wars, notably:

the Jedi Code is word-for-word the same as the Samarai Bushido code

the costumes of characters in Star Wars, for instance Darth Vader's armor and helmet, is an exact replica/copy of Samarai traditional armor

the white-washing that takes place in Hollywood never stops. . .

Anonymous said...


Lucas has clearly said many times that he was heavily influenced by Japanese culture and that he did indeed take things from it.

And he is not a racist you dumbass. Tell me something racist that he has done?