We’ve talked in the past the influence of Akira Kurosawa’s films on Star Wars, but I think the one that’s had the most consistent influence has been Seven Samurai. Seven Samurai, released in 1954, tells the story of a group of peasant rice farmers terrorized by bandits. When the bandits come too early in the season, they inform the impoverished farmers of their plans to return soon to loot their food. Instead of yielding, as they had every time in the past, they decide to hire samurai to protect them and find a misfit band of masterless samurai to defend them.
Steven Spielberg’s Jaws might be one of the most influential films in history. It set the stage as one of the first, true summer blockbusters in 1975, paving the way for the cultural hysteria Star Wars would cause just two years later. Add to the fact that it stands to this day as a fantastic, well-made film, and it’s no wonder that its influence has seeped into the world of film and has devotees among the elites of the entertainment industry. Bryan Singer’s production company is called “Bad Hat Harry” from a line on the beach in Jaws. Ain’t It Cool News’ best journalist, Quint, takes his name from Robert Shaw’s salty character. I once even accidentally proposed marriage to my wife in the middle of the USS Indianapolis speech. (True story, but one for a different time.)
Jaws is no less important to those who create Star Wars: The Clone Wars. The first time I realized there was a hardcore Jaws fan on the crew of The Clone Wars was watching the thirteenth episode of the third season. “Monster” served as our introduction to the now-iconic villain Savage Opress. The homage from Jaws was subtle and CG supervisor Joel Aron later told me that he thought I might have been the only person who noticed it. But in Jaws (and in a few other Spielberg pictures) there is a lovely shot of a night sky, a quiet moment, and a falling star streaks across the frame. The moment is repeated in loving memory in “Monster” and it brought a smile across the face of the film nerd inside of me.
If you’ve watched the final arc of the fifth season of The Clone Wars, you might have noticed something interesting about each of the episode titles. (And if you haven’t watched the final arc of the fifth season of The Clone Wars, why in the world not?)
Each of the episode titles, “Sabotage,” “The Jedi Who Knew Too Much,” “To Catch a Jedi,” and “The Wrong Jedi,” correspond to a film by Alfred Hitchcock. Sabotage, The Man Who Knew To Much, To Catch a Thief, and The Wrong Man all deal with themes and situations similar to those faced by Ahsoka Tano in this series of episodes. In Sabotage, police are left to investigate a terrorist plot that blew up a crowded bus, which can relate directly to the bombing of the Jedi Temple. The Man Who Knew Too Much has a spy confess knowledge of an assassination plot moments before he’s murdered, leaving Jimmy Stewart to put the pieces together on his own to prevent more killing. To Catch a Thief follows Cary Grant as he works to clear his name of crimes he’s accused of but didn’t commit, and The Wrong Man follows Henry Fonda as he struggles to prove his innocence in a system where the circumstantial evidence holds more weight than the truth.
It was never any secret that George Lucas was a fan of Akira Kurosawa’s. In the first installment of this column, we looked at the inspiration of The Hidden Fortress on Episode IV, but that’s not where the influence between Lucas and Kurosawa ended. By the late seventies, Kurosawa was a legend, but couldn’t get the money to finish his epic film, Kagemusha.
Back at Star Wars Celebration V, I thought I was being clever when I asked Dave Filoni what films they’d been looking to draw inspiration from for episodes of The Clone Wars that had not yet aired.
We talked for a while and he gave me quite a list of films that I would expect to be inspiration for an all-ages cartoon adventure. And then he hit me with one that dropped my jaw: Predator.
The R-rated, Arnold Schwarzenegger action/sci-fi movie?
The very same.
Western films have long served as inspiration in the course of film history. Orson Welles reportedly watched John Ford’s film Stagecoach repeatedly while preparing and editing Citizen Kane. Akira Kurosawa was said to have worshiped the work of John Ford and applied the Japanese sensibilities of samurai to a uniquely western genre of storytelling. Kurosawa made epic western-like films like Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, and Sanjuro.
One of his films in particular, Yojimbo, inspired one of the most influential directors of westerns, Sergio Leone. Leone turned Yojimbo, a samurai film inspired by westerns, into an Italian-made “spaghetti western” called A Fistful of Dollars. Seriously, it’s a direct remake with many of the same shots and lines directly paying homage.
It’s easy to watch Disney films and see the similarities between so many of the motifs of classic storytelling and the hero’s journey that is ever present in the Star Wars films. It’s difficult to pin whether the films and cartoons of Walt Disney directly influenced the creation of Star Wars (with a few notable exceptions), but the style of story and method of storytelling on display is so similar it’s hard not to feel they came from the same school.
Take The Sword in the Stone, for instance. It looks at young Arthur’s journey toward becoming king — with the help of an eccentric wizard that everyone thinks is just a crazy old man. Sound a lot like A New Hope? The entire movie plays like an extended, comedic training sequence of Master and Padawan, right down to the mysticism and hard life lessons. Parallels to Luke’s time on Dagobah in the cave could very easily be drawn to Arthur’s time spent as a squirrel or a fish. He learns hard lessons in a situation he doesn’t completely understand and has to face difficult truths about himself and his life.
Back in Season Two of The Clone Wars, there was a fantastic episode named “Senate Spy.” It told a story of intrigue among Senators when the Jedi Council asks Padmé to spy on a fellow senator (and former lover) who is working with the Separatists. To spy on him, she’ll need to rekindle their relationship. And they assign Anakin as her liaison.
If the story sounds familiar, it’s because it shares the same rough story as Alfred Hitchcock’s 1946 masterpiece, Notorious, starring Cary Grant (as Devlin, the liaison) and Ingrid Bergman (as Alicia, the reluctant spy). While this movie might have some relationship themes that are over the heads of younger viewers, it is a spy film dripping in tension, and the team on The Clone Wars paid homage to all the best parts of it.
As someone who has made films and written stories, it’s almost impossible for me to completely contain the influences of the cinematic art I consume. Some might shy away of such influence and homage, worried too much about words like “originality,” but others have embraced those influences and created truly breathtaking works of art.
When I was young, I always thought Star Wars was created in a vacuum. Something so impressive had to be completely new, fresh, and original, right?
I had no idea about the long history of films that helped shape it into what it became as it formulated in the head of George Lucas. From old Flash Gordon serials to the works of Akira Kurosawa, Star Wars is a vibrant tapestry of what has come before it. Sometimes it’s not so apparent, but when you spot those influences, you can see how much the minds behind Star Wars, The Clone Wars, and everything else with a Star Wars logo, care passionately about what they do.