The origins of Star Wars: 12 things you should watch/read

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Dec 17, 2018, 9:00 PM EST (Updated)

It's been 32 long years since we last saw our heroes on the big screen in Return of The Jedi. But on Dec. 18, one of the most -- if not THE most --famous franchises in movie history is returning to theaters in the much-anticipated next chapter of their story with Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Over the next 20 weeks, we will celebrate the franchise by looking back and ranking the best of the best moments in Star Wars history

The original Star Wars (1977) wasn't just dreamed up in a vacuum by George Lucas. As he began writing The Star Wars (original title) in the early '70s, he incorporated a number of literary and cinematic influences, particularly the latter: Lucas drew from all the movies he had watched since he was a child, including light-hearted historical adventures and black-and-white sci-fi serials. 

You can find evidence of all those inspirations in what eventually became known as Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope, not to mention its two sequels and three prequels. Some of the cultural ingredients that Lucas stirred into his space fantasy stew are nearly forgotten today, while others remain very much a part of the entertainment landscape. Before you dive into multiple screenings of Star Wars: The Force Awakens next month, now might be a good time to look back at what shaped the Star Wars mythology -- not such a long time ago, right here in this galaxy...

A Princess of Mars (1912):

The first book by Edgar Rice Burroughs to feature the character of Confederate soldier John Carter and his adventures on the red planet, A Princess of Mars was basically fantasy disguised as space opera -- a form later known as the planetary romance. But the swashbuckling hero, the beautiful princess, the harsh setting and the exotic alien races all had an undeniable impact on the genre and especially on the basic elements of Star Wars. Leia's "slave" costume in Return of the Jedi could even be seen as a Princess of Mars throwback -- the Martian women in the stories were nude except for some strategically placed jewelry.


Metropolis (1927):

Fritz Lang's pioneering silent masterpiece was not only one of the first great science fiction film epics, but it also contained the very first portrayal of a robot in a movie: the Maschinenmensch (German for "machine-human") that impersonates the saintly Maria (both played by Brigitte Helm) and is used by the evil scientist Rotwang to stir up a revolution among the workers who toil below the city. In its robotic form, the gynoid's gleaming metallic shell is a very clear and direct predecessor to C-3PO -- and, in fact, many humanoid robots to come.


Buck Rogers (1928):

Buck Rogers first appeared in a novella published in a 1928 issue of Amazing Stories, going on to grace comic strips, radio shows, movie serials and TV series. Accidentally sent into suspended animation and waking up nearly 500 years in the future, Buck Rogers was the first science fiction character and property to penetrate mass culture since the glory days of Burroughs and Wells. While not a direct inspiration for Star Wars, Buck paved the way for the character who was ...

Flash Gordon (1934):

Impressed by the success of Buck Rogers, King Features Syndicate created its own comic strip based around athlete Flash Gordon and his adventures on the planet Mongo, where he battles hawk men, shark men, ice queens, jungle kingdoms and the planet's evil despot, Ming the Merciless. Flash went on further adventures, both on Mongo and other planets, in three classic serials -- starring Larry "Buster" Crabbe (who also played Buck Rogers!) -- as well as radio plays, live-action and animated TV shows, a cult 1980 film and even a porn parody called Flesh Gordon. It was only because George Lucas couldn't obtain the remake rights that he began working on his own original story -- but Flash Gordon is deeply embedded in the DNA of Star Wars

Galactic Patrol (1937):

First appearing in the pages of Astounding, this was the kick-off of the famous Lensman series by E.E. "Doc" Smith, a string of tales about the formation and adventures of an intergalactic police force tasked with keeping order across the cosmos with the help of a powerful psychic tool known as a Lens. Although the details have more in common with Green Lantern than anything else, Smith's series was hugely influential on the space opera genre (it was voted second-best sci-fi series of all time after Foundation) and a copy of Galactic Patrol was reportedly not far from Lucas' desk while he was writing the first Star Wars.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938):

It wasn't just sci-fi and space opera that influenced Lucas in the creation of Star Wars. Film buff that he was, he watched everything and was especially taken by swashbuckling period or historical epics, such as this classic, definitive telling of the Robin Hood legend starring Errol Flynn. Considered one of the greatest films ever made and a cultural landmark, The Adventures of Robin Hood was a protoype for modern tentpole filmmaking -- a robust, big-budget, full-color affair that was aimed at families and guaranteed to give them a fun, exhilirating experience at the movies. Sound familiar?


The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949):

Author Joseph Campbell's seminal work of comparative mythology -- the study of myths from different cultures to detect similarities between them -- provided the philosophical and mythological underpinning for Star Wars in the form of the monomyth, also known as the "hero's journey," which Campbell summed up this way: "A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man." 


The Crimson Pirate (1952):

Not as widely remembered now as it was 40 or 50 years ago, this was another swashbuckling adventure story, this time starring Burt Lancaster in the title role, that influenced Lucas in terms of tone more than anything else. The Crimson Pirate, while telling a relatively melodramatic story, adds a light comedy touch and fast pace that one can clearly see echoes of in the first Star Wars film. And the hero is a pirate with a heart of gold -- arguably a template for our beloved, cynical Han Solo.


The Dam Busters (1955):

Lucas famously edited together footage from several World War II films to create a template for the climactic assault on the Death Star in A New Hope, and this was one of the two primary sources for that footage. This film's finale focused on a low-flying squad of British bombers that skim close to the surface of the water in order to blow up two German dams, while 1964's 633 Squadron featured aircraft traversing a narrow valley and battling TIE fighters German fighter planes so that they can reach a German factory, similar to the trench runs on the surface of the Death Star. 


The Hidden Fortress (1958):

This classic film from legendary director Akira Kurosawa is set in feudal Japan and told through the eyes of two endlessly bickering peasants, Tahei and Matashichi (Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara), who are drawn into a struggle involving a princess, stolen gold and warring family clans. Lucas modeled the droids, C-3PO and R2D2, on Kurosawa's peasant pair, while borrowing aspects of the plots for both A New Hope and, later, The Phantom Menace.


Dune (1985): 

The desert planet Arrakis, chief setting for author Frank Herbert's landmark sci-fi series, bore more than a passing resemblance to Tatooine, the arid world that is the center of so much action in the Star Wars movies. The cosmic spice known as melange is a crucial component of Dune, while references to spice are also present in Star Wars and Han Solo is introduced as a spice smuggler. There are also similarities between the mental powers of the Jedi Knights and those of the Bene Gesserit, a sisterhood of women with immense physical and psychic abilities. Frank Herbert and David Lynch, director of the 1984 film version of Dune, reportedly found 16 points of comparison between Dune and Star Wars, indicating that Lucas must have at the very least read and assimilated Herbert's masterwork.


2001: A Space Odyssey (1968):

The opening shot of Star Wars -- that Imperial destroyer passing forever over the camera -- was said to have been influenced by similar shots of spacecraft in Stanley Kubrick's pioneering sci-fi touchstone, which also broke new ground in visual effects that Lucas and company would push even further in their space opera. Other design aspects of 2001, such as hexagonal corridors, oblong docking bays and massive space stations, also had an influence on the look of Star Wars -- although the two movies could not be further apart in terms of pacing, tone and theme.

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