Published on January 10th, 2016 | by Craig Silliphant0
Star Wars: Riff Offs and Rip Offs
The movies that inspired George Lucas to create Star Wars — and the properties that were created in the wake of its massive international success.
Film lovers think of Quentin Tarantino as the guy who draws from a lot of other influences to create his movies, while George Lucas is viewed as a filmmaker that harnesses an imagination full of original ideas. The truth is, while both men have vision and imagination, Lucas mines the movies of his youth for films like Indiana Jones and Star Wars just as much as Tarantino. I mean, C3-PO sure looks like the robot from Metropolis, no?
On the flipside, when Star Wars was released in 1977, it changed not only the movie business and how people thought about blockbusters, but it also spawned a Star Destroyer hanger bay full of imitators. Both audiences and producers were clamouring for content that was full of space, aliens, lasers, and mystical mumbo jumbo. (Some critics might argue that Star Wars: The Force Awakens is also riffing too heavily on the original).
So let’s take a look at a handful of movies that inspired Lucas to make Star Wars, followed by a list of properties that were pretty much shameless rip offs of our favourite space opera.
MOVIES THAT INSPIRED STAR WARS
The Hidden Fortress
It’s worth noting that Lucas was trying to create a modern myth, so he also studied the writings of mythologist Joseph Campbell. But in terms of films, one of the major influences on Star Wars was Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 period film about a general and a princess in feudal Japan, trying to fight their way to freedom with two bumbling peasant sidekicks in tow. While it is a simplification of some of the characters we ended up with, Tahei and Matashichi are obvious prototypes for R2-D2 and C3-P0, and we see much of the action from the POV of these plebeians.
The filmed serials of his childhood were inspiration to Lucas when writing Indiana Jones, and the same was true Star Wars. In fact, he tried and failed to get the rights to the 1936 serial Flash Gordon, so he just appropriated what he needed. From locations like Cloud City to aesthetics like the opening credit crawl, Lucas borrowed heavily from Flash.
The Dam Busters
1927’s Wings was the winner of the first Best Picture Oscar, and one of a group of war films that featured warplanes in realistic dogfights. Combining aerial stunts with explosive action, these movies became the template for the X-Wing battles that thrilled us in the 70s. The Dam Busters has the distinction of having a major part of its story lifted, namely, the scenes where the pilots take turns pulling bombing runs, a la Luke and the Rebels vs. the Death Star. “Get set for your attack run,” is at least one line of dialogue that appears word for word in both movies.
While Han Solo didn’t own the Mos Eisley Cantina, it sure looks a hell of a lot like Rick’s Place from Casablanca. And Rick himself, the reluctant hero, sure seems a lot like Han Solo. Both films also feature characters trying to pay to charter a flight out of the joint (and the cost was 15,000 in both!).
The Adventures of Robin Hood
Errol Flynn’s dashing scoundrel feels like a cross between Han Solo and a sword-swinging Jedi Knight. And Carrie Fisher’ performance as Princess Leia definitely has shades of Olivia de Havilland’s Maid Marion (though Havilland’s accent doesn’t come and go like Fisher’s). But beyond that, Robin Hood is one of the most swashbuckling movies in film history, at least, until the invention of light sabers.
MOVIES / TV THAT WERE INSPIRED BY STAR WARS
It’s probably fair to mention that Glen Larson supposedly had the idea for Battlestar Galactica well before Star Wars was released, but it was only in the wake of the venerable sci-fi epic that companies started green-lighting content that cashed in on “this whole outer space thing.” So, technically, this wasn’t a Star Wars rip off, but it probably wouldn’t have existed without Skywalker and company.
The Black Hole
Most likely after seeing the toy sales from Kenner’s Star Wars line, Disney finally gave in and took a shot at their own space epic, The Black Hole. It’s a weird movie with a sloppy tone; cool, dark sci-fi in places, but a toy commercial in others. It’s worth watching if you haven’t seen it, but it won’t replace Star Wars in your heart.
Battle Beyond the Stars
B-Movie mogul Roger Corman just had to get in on the action, by lifting everything he could from both Star Wars and Kurasawa’s Seven Samurai. Though it was made on a shoestring budget, it’s actually the most expensive movie Corman ever made, and you can see it’s special effects shots used in later movies (and as a side note, they were directed by a young James Cameron).
Starchaser: The Legend of Orin
Starchaser: The Legend of Orin was one of the first animated movies to mix traditional animation with CGI (and one of the first to be released in 3D). While the animation actually looks pretty cool in a Ralph Bakshi way, this is a movie the New York Times called, “such a brazen rip-off of George Lucas’ Star Wars that you might think lawyers would have been called in.” It’s probably the worst offender, and animation aside, one of the worst movies to come from the Star Wars age.
This one leans into fantasy, and is perhaps not as swashbuckling as some of the other imitators, but it features a wise aged mentor, an evil Beast (Darth Vader), a princess that needs to be rescued from him, and Slayers (Stormtroopers) that lay waste to anything that crosses their paths. That said, it probably has the distinction of being one of the few Star Wars clones that can stand on its own power and doesn’t hold up too badly today (you know, for an 80s fantasy epic with a giant mystical throwing star).
Originally published in Punch Magazine