The Force Is Strong With… Star Wars: Episode IV’s nostalgic influences
Mark Harrison | On 06, Dec 2015
We take a look back at each episode in the Star Wars saga – and where you can watch them online.
If you move in or around geek circles, you may have heard Joseph Campbell referenced a lot when it comes to the story of Star Wars. His writings on the structure of mythology were one of the influences on George Lucas when he created the saga; he was hardly the first to run with the hero’s journey on film, but the popularity and success of 1977’s Star Wars ensured that he was far from the last.
Having tried and failed to get the rights to make a Flash Gordon movie, Lucas created a sprawling faraway galaxy and structured a screen story around the outline described in Campbell’s book, The Hero With A Thousand Faces. Campbell has thus become synonymous with pat blockbuster storytelling for some commentators, even though that’s an unfair representation of both his and Lucas’ writing.
Certainly, Lucas is a part of the first generation of truly nostalgic filmmakers, but any lack of originality has been grossly overstated. Rather than give up on Flash, Lucas made up his own version, taking in other influences of which he was fond. He would later do it again with Steven Spielberg, who wanted to direct a James Bond movie and instead created Indiana Jones.
Star Wars was soon re-branded as Episode IV, A New Hope, as Lucas proceeded to elucidate upon his own myth over the course of 27 years. By that point it had become its own thing, but the references to other texts is most apparent in that first film, which is at once a Western, a samurai movie and a World War II adventure, all wrapped up in some Flash-style space opera.
The original trilogy of films follows Luke Skywalker as he develops from farm boy and amateur pilot to Jedi knight and hero of the Rebel Alliance, when he’s whisked away on a quest to rescue Princess Leia from the clutches of the Empire. His uncle Owen tries his best to keep him away from all that galactic derring-do with farm work and Luke’s desert home planet of Tatooine is rich in Western influences.
For starters, the Tatooine scenes were shot in California’s Death Valley, a long-standing location for Westerns, after a planned Tunisia shoot fell through for budget reasons, and there are a number of shots that recall key movies of the genre. Notably, the scene with Luke’s burnt homestead recalls John Ford’s The Searchers, just as his overall arc from farm boy to hero mirrors that of Jeffrey Hunter’s Martin Pawley, the reluctant sidekick to John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards.
Although their characters are entirely dissimilar in practice, Obi Wan “Ben” Kenobi would be the Ethan in the equation, acting as mentor and also appearing in a similar silhouette to an iconic Ford shot in the sequence where he rescues Luke from the Tusken raiders. Incidentally, this race is Tatooine’s answer to Native Americans in Western movies, more directly linked to that representation than to any real people.
There are clearly layers upon layers of intertextuality to this desert world, but for a clear sign of how Star Wars’ genre influences help to decode the new-ness of it all, there’s no better sequence than when Luke and Obi Wan arrive in that most wretched hive of scum and villainy, Mos Eisley. It’s essentially a frontier town, but all of Western representation is in the cantina scene, which brings together a vast assortment of alien races in an old-timey saloon.
John Williams’ endlessly hummable score tootles over a number of confrontations, stopping only for the brief and shocking burst of violence when Obi Wan lops off a punter’s arm with his lightsaber, and then resuming almost immediately. It’s a scene right out of a Western, except that it’s populated by all manner of bizarre aliens – the art and costume departments really excel themselves.
Another moment that could come straight out of a Western is the much-discussed stand-off between Han Solo and Greedo. Irrespective of all later edits, Han shoots Greedo, in a direct reference to a similar tactic deployed by Lee Van Cleef’s Angel Eyes in The Good, The Bad & The Ugly. Angel Eyes is the villain of that piece and while many contend that the scene perfectly establishes Han as a rogue, that’s possibly the reason why Lucas had a change of heart about the reference in later years.
Although the action moves off Tatooine into more of a space opera, the idea of the crooked authority as antagonist is another trope of Westerns that plays out across the Star Wars movies. Here, the Empire completes a journey that we would later see spread out across the prequels, of dissolving the Old Republic and assuming control over the galaxy. In visual and narrative terms, Lucas was also influenced by the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa, particularly The Hidden Fortress. The Jedi are positioned as an honourable order of noble warriors, made into ronin by the destruction of the Republic, while Darth Vader’s design and character are based on both samurai and evil general archetypes.
Then, in the climactic set piece, Episode IV draws from The Dambusters, with squadrons of intrepid fighter pilots entering into a dogfight with the enemy as they go on a dangerous mission to destroy a strategically important target. This is perhaps the least of Star Wars’ myriad creative debts, but it’s unmistakably part of the same nostalgic reinvention that soaks the rest of the movie.
The genre tropes enacted here recur throughout the rest of the saga, even as it becomes its own entity, but where Star Wars really soared is in how it moulded all of these disparate parts into a unified whole. In doubling down, it became a phenomenal Hollywood precedent: it borrowed the vocabulary of Flash Gordon, but also constantly innovated with special effects and production design to create the icons that the next generation of kids would go onto treasure and imitate.
All of this is about to come back to our screens with The Force Awakens, but realistically speaking, projects like Star Wars don’t happen these days. If a filmmaker has a hot take on a property, it’s only a matter of adjudication by the rights holders to remount the whole franchise with either a reboot or, in the imminent case of Episode VII, a belated sequel. As excited as we are about a new Star Wars film, there’s a niggling feeling that we might otherwise have seen the likes of JJ Abrams, Gareth Edwards or Rian Johnson go off and make their own Star Wars, just as Lucas went off and made his own Flash Gordon. Now, those filmmakers are all set to direct new Star Wars movies.
Most tentpole films are based on a pre-established IP and for all the complaints of a lack of originality in Hollywood, it’s mostly by comparison to the Herculean labour of galaxy-building that looks so effortless in Star Wars. In recent years, we’ve had Avatar, Pacific Rim and Jupiter Ascending build their own worlds to vastly different degrees of success, but not one of them has escaped snarky comments about how derivative they are of previous works. Branded throwbacks, meanwhile, seldom come in for the same criticism.
But the ongoing excitement over every morsel of The Force Awakens ahead of its release is testament to the endurance of Episode IV. The sci-fi blockbuster’s influence on every film of its kind is inestimable. Its original and unique production design echo across generations, but its use of existing genre tropes is what made it iconic.
Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope is available on Disney+, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription or a £79.99 yearly subscription. It is also available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW, as part of an £11.99 NOW Cinema Membership subscription.
Where can I buy or rent Star Wars online in the UK?
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