Always game for a dive into cinematic threads (also, Star Wars), I couldn’t help but offer my two cents when I came across this tweet from Logan,
This is a great list, though I would swap Hidden Fortress and American Graffiti. The characters, Tahei and Matashichi, from Kurosawa's film were an inspiration for R2 and C-3PO setting off the whole Star Wars universe, while podracing was a return to the street racing Lucas loved— Joshua Bradley (@airjoshb) April 16, 2019
A few days later, with a post-Disneyland flu, I decided to dig into Logan’s list, bake in my own thoughts on cinema and Star Wars canon, and watch some films I rarely make time for these days.
*If you like movies, you might want to sign up for the newest (and best) streaming service, Criterion Channel.
Star Wars Episode III - Revenge of the Sith
Episode III was the most well received of the prequels, which is interesting, as in some ways it is the least like the other Star Wars films. Audiences came around to Hayden Christensen’s decline into the darkness of Darth Vader and the movie is bolstered by the strong performance of Ian McDiarmid’s Palpatine and Ewan McGregor’s continued embodiment of Obi-Wan. At the time, some critics hailed it as the best Star Wars film since Empire and a few named it the best of all of them.
As fans, we knew that things were going to go dark and the only light would be the bridge to A New Hope with the birth of the Skywalker twins. As in Attack of the Clones, Lucas gives us a full view of the galaxy descending into the Empire with an opening battle sequence that is unrivaled in its scale. Dooku gets his comeuppance at the direction of Palpatine and the saber of Anakin. We got a fascinating, and somewhat polarizing character, in General Grievous along with the turning of the Clone Army against the Republic with Order 66. Finally, the battle on Mustafar and Vader’s origin story is something fans had waited decades to see realized.
Battleship Potemkin Eisenstein’s silent film masterpiece was regarded as the best film of all time before being dethroned by Citizen Kane. So many films have pulled inspiration from the movie from The Untouchables to Brazil, The Godfather, and of course Star Wars. The film centers on a true mutiny aboard the Potemkin as the sailors got fed up with their treatment and poor living conditions, finally revolting when the Officers moved to execute the dissenters. The men took control of the boat, but not before their leader was killed. They carried his body to Odessa who became increasingly enraged by the treatment of a hard working citizen. The city’s rebellion is stamped out by the violent appearance of the Cossack army, but the Potemkin would ultimately prevail, inspiring the rest of the navy to join their cause.
The massacre in Odessa was fabricated to add dramatic effect to the film (though the violence was not uncommon at the time). Eisenstein’s montage style made for one of the most suspenseful sequences in film history and was remixed or even reshot for many films, including the Clone Army march on the Jedi Temple in Revenge of the Sith.
Throne of Blood Kurosawa’s films loom large over the entire Star Wars universe and is never more apparent than in Throne of Blood, Kurosawa’s retelling of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Reimagined as a Japanese Noh play, Throne of Blood follows General Washizu, who receives a prophesy telling him he is destined to become Lord of the castle.
The mythology of the SIth owes much to Throne of Blood —Lord Tsuzuki took the throne from his previous master, setting up his own fate at the hands of his closest general. Washizu is faced with the choice of remaining loyal to his lord and risk having the prophecy leaked by Miki, or take the throne by murder, fulfilling the prophecy.
Washizu and Miki, once best friends and the two most trusted generals, find themselves at odds. The outcomes are different between the films, but you can almost hear Miki plead with Washizu as Obi-Wan does, “You were my brother, Anakin! I loved you.” Ultimately, being spurred on by his wife, Washizu chooses what he secretly desires instead of maintaining his loyalty, much like Anakin’s decision to betray Mace Windu and the Jedi Order. Like Anakin, Washizu descends into evil before finding a violent end (the end for Anakin Skywalker, that is).
If you ever wondered where Yoda and his home planet came from, look no further than the mystical spirit in a forest of dense fog that provides Washizu with guidance in wrapped nonsensical riddles.
The Godfather For a bonus, check out Michael Corleone’s slide to the dark side. The son of Vito Corleone, Michael’s arc isn’t as simple as deciding to join his family and become a gangster. Sure, he had murdered a few people, but he didn’t make the turn to the dark side until the people closest to him, those that he loved, were taken from him.
Star Wars Episode II - Attack of the Clones
The group of fans that think Attack of the Clones is the best prequel film is short on membership. I may, in fact, be the only one. There is a lot to dislike about the second prequel, not the least of which is how much of the battle that bears the title looks like a video game. Then there is the poorly executed budding relationship between Anakin and Padme. If you loosen up your cringe, Episode II opens the aperture of Lucas’s vision while returning to the successful formula of splitting the story in two adventures that converge at the climax. We also get much more of Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan on his own as he tries to discover the mysteries of a missing planet, the clone army, and the person behind it. McGregor was the best part of the prequels, consistently delivering both the humor and humanity we project on to the memory of Old Ben.
The Third Man The Third Man (1949) is the best noir thriller the genre ever produced. Directed by Carol Reed and based on a novel Graham Greene, The Third Man is known for its brilliant dialogue, stunning cinematography, perhaps the best McGuffin in film and a disarmingly peppy score. This probably sounds nothing like Attack of the Clones, but stay with me.
In The Third Man, novelist Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) travels to post-war Vienna with the promise of a job from his old friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles). When Martins arrives, he learns that Lime has been killed and he begins to obsessively dig into a mystery no one appears motivated to solve. Eventually, Martin discovers that his esteemed friend is really a dark opportunist, profiting illegally on selling overpriced medication to ill children.
To say more would spoil a brilliant third act, but Obi-Wan’s search follows a similar thread of confusion, leading to shock and betrayal. Dooku’s reveal as a Sith Lord undermining the Jedi Order, and the Republic, echoes Lime’s arc. Unfortunately, minimizing the impact of the betrayal is probably the Star Wars film’s greatest lost opportunity. Had the early work been done to strengthen the audience’s investment in Dooku’s stature in the minds of his Jedi brethren and the fact that he was Yoda’s Padawan learner, his discovery as a villain would have felt more impactful.
The Searchers John Ford’s epic westerns were part of the DNA of Lucas’s vision of the space opera—basically combining an old western with the Flash Gordon serials. Of Ford’s films, The Searchers is often mentioned specifically as a source of inspiration, but it is difficult to recommend for modern viewers. The Searchers follows a Confederate soldier, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), who refused to surrender and returns home just in time to experience an attack and kidnapping by Comanche of his two young nieces. What follows is a journey of revenge, not unlike Anakin’s return to Tatooine to find his mother captured by a savage race of nomads.
What makes The Searchers difficult in 2019 is Ethan’s rampant bigotry—he doesn’t even see his nieces as human anymore, setting off to put them out of their misery (before sparing them in the end). There is a hot debate on the Internet about whether the movie is racist, or simply exposes the racism of the time in Ethan’s character, but it is tough to get through. The Searchers is best enjoyed with the sound off, but for a similar cinematic scope without the uneasy feeling in the pit of your stomach, I recommend Lawrence of Arabia instead.
Lawrence of Arabia You will undoubtedly recognize the impact Lawrence of Arabia had on George Lucas in creating Star Wars from the moment F.A Young’s cinematography of the desert landscape fills the screen. While Tatooine is an obvious foil for the Arabian desert, Lawrence of Arabia sticks with Lucas throughout the six films he made. In Attack of the Clones, Lucas duplicates a shot filmed in the Plaza de Espana in Seville, Spain (serving as Naboo) as Anakin and Padme discuss politics while walking. The scene matches the shot and motion from Lawrence of Arabia where Dryden, General Allenby, and Colonel Brighton walk through the Headquarters of the British Army in Cairo having a similar discussion.
Star Wars Episode I - The Phantom Menace
A “new” Star Wars film was a promise few could actually believe twenty years ago and despite its decidedly small fan base,* Episode I* came with the most impressive hype machine and design craft that the world has ever seen. The teaser posters were stunning, the theatrical poster was gorgeous, the costuming was next level, and the toys launched two weeks before the film dropped are my favorite ever.
Then there was the film.
I had scoped out the best theater in the Boston area, because the theaters in the urban core of the 90s were not that great (except the Cheri), waited in line for nine hours for tickets and then waited another three hours opening night. The dislike for the film wasn’t globally apparent after it ended, many people cheered and the children in the audience were completely freaking out. The next day, things started to go south. I was far more forgiving than most die-hard Star Wars fans, finding the storyline, visuals, and scope of the film inline with everything I wanted from a modern Star Wars movie.
Revisiting The Phantom Menace, the dialog and odd character voicing never get better, but the visual effects and sound mixing still hold up as one of the biggest achievements in modern cinema. The sound design of the podrace is probably my favorite piece of film audio and remain a favorite of Ben Burtt and Gary Rydstrom who worked on the sound for three years.
Logan’s list of films originally included Ben Hur and The Hidden Fortress, but I swapped the order of the latter with American Graffiti as it is most directly represented in Episode I. I also moved THX 1138 to the prequel, because while it did seed Lucas’ work for A New Hope, the themes of oppression and the struggle for autonomy and freedom are more central to the [chronologially] first Star Wars film.
Ben Hur is one of the most beloved films of all time, made in an era where going to the cinema was an event that people would sit for over three hours with nothing to distract them. The Phantom Menace’s most obvious reference to the film is the podrace (which has nearly shot-for-shot similarities at times), but looking a bit deeper, Anakin’s story follows the arc of Judah Ben Hur as he navigates the Republic.
Judah’s story has him become a slave as punishment for his loyalty only to later win his freedom by saving a Roman Commander, just as Anakin inadvertently does by bailing out Qui-Gon Jinn. Ben Hur is all over Anakin’s story, even matching his thirst for vengeance in Episode II when Anakin returns to his desert home to find his family killed.
Also, like The Phantom Menace, after you see Ben Hur once, every other viewing is simply wading through to get to the spectacle of the chariot race.
The Phantom Menace is a return to themes that Lucas has made throughout his career about freedom, individuality, and the creative spirit inside us all that reaches for something more than our current selves. American Graffiti shares more with Episode I than a simple fascination with speed and car chases, as the Republic looms over the Outer Rim in The Phantom Menace, so did the Vietnam war pervade the atmosphere of the gang hanging around Mel’s Diner.
The tension between freedom and belonging is perhaps the most palpable aspect of American Graffiti. Each character is struggling with the next phase of their life and the fleeting moment of choice ends up punctuated as we learn each character’s fate at the end of the film. The tension between the comfort of familiar and the longing for more is something the Skywalkers will face throughout the entire Star Wars arc.
I think it is safe to say that the idea of an oppressive agent or state is at the core of everything George Lucas has written and filmed. The struggle to be recognized as an individual—a human—is explicitly explored in Lucas’s easily-overlooked first film. While Star Wars could be seen as a hopeful dystopia, the world of THX 1138 is dystopian through and through. Many of the conventions and styles of the Star Wars universe began with this film, including the numbering of drone-like humans and the use of screens and surveillance. Much like The Phantom Menace, sound plays an extra character in THX 1138, often defining the space and action in stark, colorless reality. If you only think of George Lucas as fantastical and fluffy, you should see what he did with hard science fiction in THX 1138.