It has been a while now since Star Wars was originally released in 1977. Several generations have grown up pretending to have the Force, and playing with Lightsabers. I can’t even walk through an automatic door at a grocery store without subtly moving my hand to pretend that I opened it (seriously, just ask my wife). Few movies have affected American pop culture more than Star Wars, even after thirty-five years the franchise is still going strong.
Unless you have been on sabbatical from the internet for the past few months you have probably heard that Disney now owns the rights to the Star Wars franchise, and that they are gearing up to release several new movies, TV shows, and video games.
What this means for Disney? They paid quite a bit up front ($4.5 billion), but they have laid the foundation for their money-printing factory, and it’s about to be open for business. What this means for us? We will have more than enough Star Wars for the foreseeable future.
Taking a page from the Star Wars playbook, this will be a trilogy of articles (I might even revisit them in a few months, edit them, and make people lose faith in me and my artistic vision). This article will cover the influences of the original film, the second article will take a look at Star Wars’ influence on American pop-culture, and in the third article we will look at the future plans for the franchise.
Star Wars was written during a time when gritty, dark, films like Dirty Harry were popular. George Lucas decided that he wanted to make a film that had its roots in myth and legend. It was 1973 and George Lucas had just made millions on his first big picture, American Graffiti. He was the hot new talent in Hollywood, and had decided that he wanted to pay respect to the old sci-fi serials from his childhood like Buck Rogers. Science fiction was really out of style during this time period, but Lucas wanted to bring back the simplicity and the adventure from this genre.
For the main storyline Lucas borrowed certain plot points from Akira Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress. Hipsters will tell you that Star Wars is a complete rip-off of Hidden Fortress, but hipsters really love generalizations and asshattery mixed with a smattering of condescension so we won’t really worry about their opinion right now. That being said, it is easy to see where certain parts influenced Lucas while creating Star Wars.
Star Wars saturation into pop culture has led many people to refer to the saga as an “American Myth,” which is appropriate since the movies are steeped in mythological archetypes and story plots. While writing the third draft of Star Wars: a New Hope (ANH), George Lucas became fascinated with Joseph Campbell’s book on myth and heroic archetypes called Hero with a Thousand Faces. This is probably one of the most obvious influences on ANH.
Joseph Campbell believed that all heroes throughout culture and history contain similar elements; he calls this the monomyth. While there are variations from story to story, each myth has similar elements such as the call to adventure, trials, supernatural aid, and in the end the hero reaches an “apotheosis.” We won’t go to in-depth into this concept, but this is one of the reasons the story resonates so well for so many people. Side note: if you would like to know more about monomyth you can read about it in Hero with a Thousand Faces, but I will warn you… it’s really dry.
Star Wars also had elements of westerns and WWII dogfights. When you look at Han Solo you get the feeling he is a cowboy; he wears his gun low on his hip like a gunslinger, struts around like John Wayne, and depending which version you are watching, is totally at ease shooting someone under the table and tipping the barkeep for his troubles.
One of the Lucas’ key visions for this film was the idea of two ships flying through space shooting at each other, which was unheard of at the time – think Star Trek: the Original Series with stationary ships firing at each other. So while Lucas was working on his script he began to watch, tape, and edit dogfight sequences to get a feel how space ships would move.
This desire to have a WWII style dogfight would eventually lead to the creation of the special effects juggernaut, Industrial Light and Magic (ILM). Next week we will take a closer look at ILM, as well as the other companies Lucas started to create his vision, and how these affected American pop-culture.