Of Star Wars and its Influences

Kitbashed has a great essay tracing Akira Kurosawa’s influence on George Lucas and Star Wars.

As a huge Star Wars fan and budding cineast in my teens (for more on my teenage cineasm, go here), I made a point of tracking down and watching every film I’d seen listed as an influence on Star Wars as well as any film George Lucas was ever involved in. Mostly, it was a cinematic journey of disappointment. Okay, so I genuinely liked American Graffiti and Apocalypse Now was probably as close to a psychedelic drug experience my thoroughly straight and clean anti-drug teenaged self would ever get (so close, in fact, that I wondered whether watching the film might be morally wrong*). But as for the rest… My Mom still hasn’t forgiven me for being forced to sit through THX 1138. The vintage Flash Gordon serials from the 1930s were unwatchable by the late 1980s, particularly if you tried to watch them straight instead of as high camp (cause SF was serious business and not supposed to be funny, damn it). The Searchers? Endless and boring and contained everything I always hated about westerns up to and including John Wayne. The Dam Busters was even worse, a nasty anti-German piece of propaganda trash glorifying bomber pilots that even I couldn’t bring myself to sit through (and I had forced myself through THX 1138, all episodes of Flash Gordon and The Searchers), though I gleefully imagined all of the protagonists dying in various brutal ways.

By that time, I was convinced that Star Wars was an even greater miracle than it already was, something wonderful created from some of the worst trash imaginable. Or maybe – though the thought was too horrible to imagine – I was mistaken and Star Wars really was the nasty, dirty trash that my teachers claimed it was. Since we didn’t have a VCR (my parents felt paying for extra entertainment was a waste of money, when TV was free) and Star Wars was never on TV in Germany and at the time it seemed it never would be (in truth it took barely two years until Star Wars was finally broadcast on TV in Germany), I couldn’t just go back and check to be sure either.

The Hidden Fortress was the one acknowledged Star Wars influence that eluded me, since the film simply never showed up on TV anywhere**. And anyway, it was a Japanese live action film from the 1950s, so chances of it being any good were low***. But then a German TV station started running an Akira Kurosawa retrospective on late night TV. That retrospective included The Hidden Fortress (which has never been broadcast on German TV since, though The Seven Samurai and Rashomon occasionally show up on arty channels). Since it was broadcast in such a graveyard slot on a school night, I promised myself I’d only watch a little bit, since it was likely crap anyway. In the end, I watched the whole movie, because lo and behold, it was good. It was really, really good. Finally, here was an influence that was worthy of Star Wars, so good that I decided that all of the crappy films I had watched weren’t really Star Wars influences, cause I for one couldn’t see it (I still can’t for The Searchers).

Subsequently, I watched every single Akira Kurosawa film I could find, much to the consternation of my Mom who couldn’t see the point in watching Ran****. After bouncing hard of a Kurosawa film about Hiroshima (“I can understand why he made it, cause Hiroshima is really important, but I still don’t want to watch it”, I said at the time), I confined myself to his historical samurai epics. Still, I discovered Rashomon and Yojimbo and The Seven Samurai that way and eventually, I even learned to appreciate the western, a genre I disliked (though I still only like Italian and other European westerns, not Hollywood westerns). And all that only because I had made a point of tracking down and watching everything that had supposedly influenced Star Wars.

BTW, that moment when George Lucas and Steven Spielberg handed Akira Kurosawa his honorary lifetime achievement Oscar in 1989 that is mentioned in the article? I remember sitting in my Dad’s flat in Rotterdam and watching the Oscar ceremony on TV (with slightly bemused parents who couldn’t understand why I needed to watch that and why they weren’t allowed to talk over any of it) like it was yesterday. I had to look up who won the major awards that year (Rain Man mostly as well as Jodi Foster for The Accused, both of which I supported mainly because they were not Working Girl). But I still remember that moment, watching with bated breath as the three men I admired most at the time (okay, two plus Spielberg as a distant third) stood on stage together holding an Oscar. And it was magic.

*The strict zero-tolerance anti-drug education of the 1980s coupled with seeing the misery of heroin addicts lying and dying in doorways, parks and gutters in the seedier parts of town led to serious philosophical discussions among me and my pals whether consuming media created by drug users under the influence of drugs was acceptable or actively dangerous. When I saw a documentary about Hollywood on TV (budding cineast, remember?), wherein some producer guy held a bag full of what he claimed was cocaine into the camera and said that “Everything made in this damned town was made by mediocre people high on drugs”, I was devastated, because if it was true everyone in Hollywood used drugs, it would mean no more Hollywood films again ever. Luckily, neither I nor my friends knew of Stephen King’s well-publicized drug and alcohol problems at the time or we would have had another dilemma, cause everybody at school read King in those days.

**I was already something of an anime fan before it was a thing in the West, having discovered anime on TV in Singapore and later the occasional anime show, most notably Candy Candy and Miyuki (later pulled, once someone at the TV station actually watched it and realised just what they had been broadcasting), that made it into the cartoon programming of western TV stations. However, I had hardly any experience with Japanese live action film.

***Coincidentally, I never came across any mention of Joseph Campbell and The Hero with a Thousand Faces during this time, which makes me wonder how big an influence on Lucas it really was in the 1970s. The problem with George Lucas is of course that he keeps changing his story about as often as he changes his movies.

****Come to think of it, I guess she was just troubled that I had gone from watching Disney movies to budding cineast watching all sorts of seriously strange films in the span of a few years, especially since she didn’t understand my intense engagement with a medium that to her was just entertainment.

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