Star Wars: the original mash-up movie?

With the Star Wars saga out now on Blu-ray, Terence looks back at the original 1977 film, and examines the disparate elements George Lucas brought together…

The original 1977 Star Wars film arrived on Blu-ray this week, along with the rest of the original trilogy and its prequels. News of the release has once again brought George Lucas into the center of a fan controversy about special editions versus original editions, and the issue of yet more obsessive tinkering. At the same time, though, the Blu-ray release is also a good opportunity to look back at what Lucas’ landmark first Star Wars film did give us.

Quite simply, Star Wars was the world’s first mash-up.

Originally a technical term to describe the mixing of disparate elements in website design, the mash-up concept quickly spread to music and, with the help of YouTube, to the cutting together of different movies to make something entirely new.

Today, you can find mash-ups of anything and everything from RoboCop fighting the Terminator, to Captain Kirk lecturing President Obama, to the audio of the The Dark Knight Returns trailer set to scenes from What About Bob?, to name just a very few. 

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In 1977, there was, of course, no Internet, and certainly no home video editing software. That didn’t stop George Lucas. In the first Star Wars movie (which became the fourth in the series, but let’s not get into that), Lucas was able to combine the disparate elements of not just many different films genres, but also of many different specific movies as well, to create what was, in effect, a very early cinematic mash-up.  

Star Wars has been a massive influence on generations of filmgoers and movie makers that have followed since its original theatrical release. Yet, at the same time, the movie was itself the product of a great number of influences to begin with. Much has been written and discussed about the impact that the writings of Joseph Campbell (author of among others things, The Power Of Myth) had on Star Wars.

We have all heard of concepts like the Hero’s Journey referenced in many an analysis of Star Wars, much of it often coming from Lucas himself. To be sure, there are a great many classic literary archetypes and themes to be found in Star Wars. But Star Wars is also very much a product of a visual medium. Its cinematic influences merit consideration as well.

While just about everybody on the planet has seen Star Wars, not everybody on the planet necessarily knows where Star Wars comes from. The answer is simple: a ton and half of movies and genres that clearly had an impact on Lucas growing up. Almost the first thing that comes up on the screen in Star Wars is an element of the mash-up.

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That, of course, is the iconic opening title crawl, which sets up the back story for the film as it scrolls its way up the screen. The distinct element of this crawl is that it is shot from a low angle, causing the text to look as though it is disappearing into the upper reaches of space as it scrawls away.

It’s a visual element lifted directly out of the Flash Gordon serial of the 1930s. Because the Flash Gordon serials (like all serials of the time) were shown in theatres in weekly instalments, it was necessary to recap the story before every chapter. The producers of the Gordon serials decided they wanted to stand out from the crowd, and so shot the scrolling text crawl from a low an angle.

The technique stood out so well that it made its way into a huge hit movie 40 years later. 

Laurel and Hardy, the popular film comedy duo of the 20s, 30s and 40s, are another Star Wars mash-up element. The duo was made up of thin British comic actor Stan Laurel, and the plumper American comic actor Oliver Hardy.

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The juxtaposition of the two physical types is not unlike that of the droids C3PO and R2D2 in Star Wars. The relationship is similar, as well. In addition to their physical comedy, Laurel and Hardy were also known for their verbal sparring. They would often bicker with each other while still maintaining an unspoken bond beneath the surface of their humourous squabbles.

Hardy would often play the part of the pompous complainer, often blaming his own failures on the quieter and more intelligent Laurel. The scenes with C3PO and R2 wandering the desert of Tatooine reflect a very Laurel and Hardy type of dynamic (even if half of the droid duo never actually speaks words).

Another mash-up element in the characters of C3PO and R2D2 comes from legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s 1953 film, The Hidden Fortress. The movie has two bickering peasant characters that may remind most Star Wars fans of the two droids. The Hidden Fortress also contains many similar plot elements to Star Wars.

Some classic World War II movies bring in another mash-up to a quintessential part of Star Wars: its incredible, groundbreaking space battle scenes. Elements of Hollywood director Howard Hawks’ 1943 movie, Air Force, turn up in one of these sequences. Luke Skywalker and Han Solo take on the Imperial Tie Fighters just after escaping the Death Star. Luke and Han man two gun turrets, very much like the ones the B-17 airplane gunners man in Air Force.

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The two gunners in Air Force yell and cheer back and forth to each other across the airplane as they shoot down the enemy. The attacking Japanese Zeros make almost the exact same screeching sound that the Tie Fighters make as they whip by the Millennium Falcon. Both battle scenes begin with the line, “Here they come!” 

Star Wars’ classic attack on the Death Star sequence contains even more mash-up elements. The unforgettable climatic battle owes its influence to not one but at least two different World War II movies. Perhaps the biggest influence on the Death Star assault scenes is British director Michael Anderson’s 1954 movie, The Dam Busters. Inspired by real events, the story of The Dam Busters follows a group of RAF pilots who must blow up a strategically important German dam.

To do so, they use special bombs that bounce off the surface of the water. To blow up the dam, they must land that one extremely difficult “million to one shot” in the exact right spot. It’s an assault that takes multiple attack runs by different planes, all of whom have German fighters on their tail. Sound familiar? Even some of the X-Wing pilots’ banter is lifted verbatim from The Dam Busters.

Also figuring in the Death Star attack mash-up is director Walter Grauman’s 1964 movie 633 Squadron. Cliff Robertson plays a squadron leader who commands an attack on a German V-2 fuel factory. The factory is located deep within a fjord in Nazi-occupied Norway. The fjord is heavily armed with anti-aircraft guns.

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The shots of the anti-aircraft guns firing on the planes as they attempt to make their attack run into to the fjord are very similar to the shots of the laser cannons firing on the X-Wing Fighters as they attempt to make their attack run into the trenches of the Death Star. And these are but a few mash-ups in Star Wars. There are many others.  

Luke Skywalker’s swing between two platforms in the Death Star while Princess Leia holds on to him is right out of swashbuckling Errol Flynn movies like The Adventures Of Robin Hood. The cantina in Mos Eisley is a classic Wild West saloon transplanted to outer space. The diminutive Jawas’ physicality and movements bear a striking similarity to those of the Munchkins in The Wizard Of Oz.

The scene where Luke returns to his home to find his aunt and uncle slaughtered by stormtroopers is a lot like the aftermath of a similar attack in John Ford’s The Searchers. The medal ceremony at the end of the film is (rather creepily) reminiscent of Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film Triumph Of The Will.

Han Solo is unmistakably costumed in a cowboy style vest and holster, and the scene where Han shoots Greedo is a lot like a scene in Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. There is not, however, a special edition of The Good, The Bad And The Ugly in which Eli Wallach does not fire first. 

These mash-up elements are part of the beauty of Star Wars. Lucas managed to take all these incredible and disparate elements from many different movies and genres that did not normally belong together, and mix them up almost seamlessly. The result is a great movie that stands entirely on its own, and requires no knowledge of its sources or references on the part its audience.

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The original Star Wars is truly greater than the sum of its parts. If it isn’t cinema’s first mash-up, then it is certainly cinema’s best mash-up. 

The list of Star Wars mash-up elements could easily go on. Know of one that’s not mentioned here? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.