Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: STAR WARS (1977)

Some people might be surprised to find Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) categorized as a classic movie. Certainly it can be difficult to look back at the original film now with a clear picture of it, especially with the clutter of the later trilogy and the commercial juggernaut Lucas built from the whole series crowding one's view. Nonetheless, the Star Wars that debuted in 1977 is very much a film whose roots are deep in the classic movie tradition, and that tradition accounts in large part for its enduring appeal.

George Lucas borrowed heavily from one particular classic movie for his plots and characters. Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress (1958) has been widely cited as a major source, and, when one sees the film, one can see the similarities quite clearly. Nobody can fault an American director for stealing from Kurosawa, since it only shows the good sense of the borrower in recognizing the work of a superior creative mind. John Sturges stole from Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai (1954) for The Magnificent Seven (1960), and Sergio Leone stole from Yojimbo (1961) for A Fistful of Dollars (1964). This busy borrowing was all fine because Kurosawa himself had been pilfering Shakespeare and Dashiell Hammett, as well as the American Western film tradition at large, for his own pictures. Lucas took the comical, scene-stealing peasants of The Hidden Fortress as the models for C-3PO and R2-D2, and the plot involving the imperiled but feisty princess gave rise to the story of Princess Leia. The Japanese film is over two hours long, and it lacks the vehicle sequences that Lucas delights in creating, but any serious Star Wars devotee or Kurosawa fan ought to take the time to watch The Hidden Fortress in its entirety. It clarifies so much of what A New Hope is all about and where its loyalties to its characters really lie (think about the fact that the droids manage to be major players in all six movies!).

The discussion above hints at the complex relationships between different cinematic traditions, and Star Wars is one of those films that form a kind of nexus where many different influences reveal their ties to one another. Directors who made Westerns borrowed from Kurosawa, who was himself borrowing from the older Westerns, and Lucas borrowed from both of them. Samurai movies and cowboy pictures have a lot in common, and Star Wars functions as both simultaneously. The Jedi are more like samurai in their strict codes and rejection of blasters in favor of lightsabers, but they also have a strong gunslinger aspect in their larger-than-life abilities and engagement of danger. Obi-Wan Kenobi's name sounds more sensei than sheriff, but he's also a lot like an older John Wayne hero, who shows the kid the ropes and goes down to make way for a new generation. Think about Wayne in a film like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), for example, or The Shootist (1976). The dusty scenes of Tatooine are as much Tombstone as Tunesia (where they were actually shot), with the bar fight simply a more exotic saloon where the new cowboy in town inevitably gets into a fight. Certainly one can see the Western influence in the character of Han Solo; he's almost a space version of Hondo (1953) with a Wookie instead of a dog. He's the classic drifter whose better nature eventually gets the upper hand, in spite of his intention to remain detached, just like so many of the gamblers, gunslingers, and rough riders who populate the classic Western landscape.

Star Wars is nominally science fiction, although some might counter that real science fiction has to speculate about the future and the changes brought by technology and events (I would agree with them, and I think it is more appropriate to call Star Wars a fantasy). However, the science fiction vibe of Star Wars also comes from its classic movie roots, this time in the form of matinee serials from the 1930s and 1940s. Flash Gordon (1936) comes immediately to mind, but one also has to look at Gene Autry's 1935 Phantom Empire serial, which obviously connects with the name of the later Star Wars installment, The Phantom Menace (1999). Autry was making a cowboy sci-fi series forty years before Lucas made his picture, and again the genres reveal their connections to one another in terms of plots, themes, and characters. 

Finally, add in performances from classic movie stalwarts like Sir Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing to leaven the energy of the largely newcomer cast. They give a certain gravitas to the film; Guinness lends class and a touch of dry English humor, while Cushing brings classic horror menace and serpentine intelligence. Guinness might not have liked the resulting fervor for Star Wars, but he helped to create it with his brilliant work, and nobody could project urbane evil better than Peter Cushing, except perhaps Christopher Lee, who would get his own turn as a Star Wars villain some twenty years after his longtime horror costar. These kinds of casting choices indicate Lucas's deep affection for and awareness of classic films and their stars. Even Carrie Fisher brought ties to that world into Star Wars; the daughter of Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds was a Hollywood princess, indeed.

I realize that some classic movie lovers might scratch their heads over the appeal of a picture like Star Wars, but there's a lot here for a classic film fan to love. Lucas' original movie was a love letter to the films that he himself loved, classic films and forgotten gems from another era. Mix all of those elements up with a hefty dose of Joseph Campbell and you get a film that is at once startlingly new and deeply familiar. It is so many things at once, but all of its parts were forged from the fine materials of classic movies. Go watch the original 1977 version again, and, this time, do it with the classics in mind.

This review was originally published on Examiner.com. The author retains all rights to this content.

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