No creative work is born in a vacuum, and Star Wars is no different. And while Lucas’s debt to the early 20th century serials and Flash Gordon is obvious; he also mined other, more obscure territory for inspiration.
The Hero of One Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
If Lucas’s fondness for Howard the Duck didn’t already prove his nerd bona fides, his use of a work of comparative mythology written by a professor from Sarah Lawrence College as the bones of the original Star Wars trilogy would clinch it.
In 1949, Joseph Campbell published The Hero of One Thousand Faces, which synthesized world literature, the psychological theories of Freud and Jung, and added a dash of James Joyce to create the monomyth.
The monomyth theorizes that beneath the tales, myths, and legends of every culture, there is a single story to be told, in which a hero (“My name is Luke Skywalker…”) leaves home (Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru’s quaint moisture farm). He must endure trials (like garbage compacters, galactic felons fleeing the death penalty, and stormtroopers who were sick they day they were supposed to learn how to shoot) and often receives magical aid from a wise old wizard (“Obi-Wan Kenobi? Wonder if he means ol’ Ben?”) The hero is transformed by the journey, often acquiring supernatural power or intelligence, (“I’ve become a Jedi, like my father.”) and returns home with hard won wisdom.
Lucas himself acknowledged his debt to Campbell, saying in a 1999 interview with Bill Moyers that Joseph Campbell was his last mentor.
Dune by Frank Herbert
Dune by Frank Herbert, may very well be the greatest science fiction novel of all time. In the 1960s, most sci-fi saw the future as an unstoppable march to utopia, though there may be some aliens to slaughter on the way there.
Dune takes a different view.
Dune imagines a time 10,000 years in the future when yes, fantastic technologies allow humanity to sling from planet to planet as easily as commuters make it home to Poughkeepsie, but lots of other technological innovation has been stymied. Artificial intelligence attempted to wipe out humanity, and as a consequence computer science is outlawed to the trembling horror of geeks across the galaxy. The human mind is forced to evolve to supplant machines.
Herbert does not paint the politics of the future as a socialist paradise. Rather, he gives us a right wing future, so right wing that the government is a monarchy. The galaxy is ruled by an emperor who inherited the known universe from his dad like a watch. Religion, which is relegated to the InSinkErator of history in most sci-fi, is front and center in Dune.
The plot of the novel concerns a young hero, Paul Atreides, who must master super-normal powers to defeat a nefarious villain who turns out to be his grandfather. Also, there is a Machiavellian galactic emperor, most of the novel takes place on a desert planet where moisture is so valuable people set up farms to catch it, and there are spice smugglers. (Oh hi Han!)
Frank Herbert himself counted 37 points of commonality between Dune and Star Wars. Herbert even organized a “We’re Too Big to Sue George Lucas Society” with other sci-fi luminaries who felt, shall we say, excessively borrowed from?
Akira Kurosawa was an internationally acclaimed Japanese director, but even if you’ve never seen a Japanese movie in your life, you’ve likely seen a Kurosawa flick. Directors have been making authorized (and unauthorized) remakes of his work for decades. If you’ve seen The Magnificent Seven, Fistful of Dollars, or Last Man Standing you know Akira Kurosawa’s work.
George Lucas was first introduced to Kurosawa in film school by John Milius, who would go on to write a little movie called Apocalypse Now, and reportedly inspire the character of Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski. Lucas was blown away by Kurosawa’s cutting and use of the camera. He said in an interview for the Criterion Collection, “A lot of things happen within a frame… He uses long lenses, which I happen to like a lot, and he isolates the characters from the background in a lot of cases… You can’t help but be influenced by his use of camera in, you know, in say, Hidden Fortress.”
A comparison of shots between Star Wars and The Hidden Fortress illuminates the debt the film owes Kurosawa, as this comparison demonstrates:
George Lucas was also deeply influenced by the plot and character in Kurosawa’s films, and while Star Wars does not rise to the level of a remake of any single Kurosawa production, it took a number of inspirations from Kurosawa’s corpus. The Hidden Fortress, for example, features a bickering pair of peasants as comedic relief, one of whom was tall and thin, and the other short and chubby which brought the world C-3P0 and R2-D2. Furthermore, the film is actually about a general and a princess, but the movie is told through the peasants’ eyes, much like the first act of Star Wars places the droids front and center though later Luke will clearly be the main character.
Even the word “Jedi” may have its roots in Kurosawa. Kurosawa is most known for his historical adventure films, which in Japanese are called JIDAI-geki. (Although it is worth noting that the word may also come from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter novels, in which Jeddak means emperor.)
What do you think was influenced by Star Wars? Do any of these influences manage to live on? Let us know in the comment section below.
Feature Image Credit: Deviantart/Jamga