What Are the Key Movie Influences on Star Wars?

If you think George Lucas simply sat down at his desk with a pencil and a yellow legal pad and wrote down the script for Star Wars, you'll also believe they've recently added an extra letter to the word gullible in the dictionary.

No, George was inspired by many things as he went about making his iconic movie. From Gandalf to Japanese cinema, he cribbed and borrowed ideas from everywhere.

Here are some of the key influences that went into the original Star Wars film and the ones that followed. 

Please note, this is not an exhaustive investigation, but rather a summary of the more obvious things that Lucas has discussed in the past or are so obvious, that they should be mentioned!
Let's start with the movies and the big one that everyone tends to talk about first:

The Hidden Fortress – Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Japanese movie The Hidden Fortress was released in 1958 and became popular in the United States with the film crowd.

The movie features the plot of a general and a princess fighting their way home through enemy lines in feudal Japan with the help of a pair of bumbling peasants. Does that sound similar? What if you replaced the pair of peasants with R2-D2 and C-3PO? 

Yep, George Lucas took the two bickering peasants and swapped them out for what became one of the most famous cinematic pairings in history.

Lucas has said “I remember the one thing that really struck me about The Hidden Fortress, the one thing I was really intrigued by, was the fact that the story was told from the two lowest characters. I decided that would be a nice way to tell the Star Wars story. Take the two lowliest characters, as Kurosawa did, and tell the story from their point of view. Which, in the Star Wars case is the two droids, and that was the strongest influence.”

Keen-eyed fans may also notice the way the movie “swipes” from one shot to another. This was another idea that Lucas borrowed directly from the film.

Several other movies are said to have served as inspiration for Lucas as well. We'll touch on these very lightly.

The Searchers

Recall the scene in which Luke approaches the burned-out farm and finds Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen left murdered and burned by the Storm Troopers. This scene is shot in such a way that it echoes a similar scene in The Searchers, in which the young hero (not the Wayne character) also returns to his family's farm to find the buildings burned and his own aunt and uncle murdered.  The lift is direct and obvious.

The Searchers also features a young man drawn into a relationship with a relentless father figure, who seems made of evil as he hates the Comanche (but he's really just after revenge for they murdered his mother). Does this sound familiar to Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader's travails? 

Ben Hur

That pod race in The Phantom Menace? It was bigger than the one in Ben Hur, but the 1959 movie definitely inspired it.

The fateful moment when Sebulba's own pod racer connects with young Anakin's pod is nearly a shot-for-shot remake of Ben Hur's climactic moment when Messala accidentally locks wheels with the Ben Hur character.

podrace doug chiang artwork design
Image Courtesy of Lucasfilm

The Dambusters

The short version is that this movie's famous attack on the dam is the last twenty minutes of A New Hope. The fact that the torpedoes need to hit the exact spot on the Death Star is taken directly from the need for the Dambusters to bounce the bomb to the exact part of the Dam.  

That said, the famous trench run on the Death Star was actually a lift from 633 Squadron, and the timing of the Death Star's positioning to attack the Rebel base was a point taken from the Gregory Peck vessel, The Guns of Navarone.

Lawrence of Arabia

If you have seen this film, you'll remember it features a lot of sand. As does a planet called Tatooine. As does an angry young man called Anakin.

Stars Wars blog notes:

“Many moves from David Lean's epic were cribbed for sequences on Tatooine. The shot of Mos Eisley from the distance as Luke and Obi-Wan look from on high reminds one instantly of shots looking down at Damascus.”

Shots of Tusken snipers looking down at speeders moving below echo the same sorts of shots in Lawrence of Arabia.

Sir Alec Guinness also has a role in that movie.

Attack of the Clones makes a very deliberate nod to the movie. Remember the scene below in which Padmé and Anakin have a chat about politics? 

lawrence arabia reference attack clones starwars
Image Courtesy of Lucasfilm

It's shot in the exact same location and mimics a conversation the characters Dryden, Brighton, and Allenby have in Spain Square (see below): 

Dryden, Brighton and Allenby
Image Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Flash Gordon

Legend has it that George Lucas sought to make a film version of Flash Gordon following American Graffiti. He had no way of getting the rights to do so and ultimately set upon writing his own film, Star Wars.

Flash Gordon was an epic sci-fi adventure in which the hero traveled to space with a laser holstered to his side on a mission to rescue a princess from a very very bad man – and Star Wars has plenty of that indeed. But what Star Wars really borrows from Flash Gordon is the concept of a fairytale in which futuristic technology stands in for the traditional role of magic (think Merlin's role in many stories), which, in a sense, may be true. But what about the Force?

Lucas enjoyed Flash Gordon so much that it was inevitable that elements of it crept into the movie. 

While the swipe scene transitions were stolen from The Hidden Fortress, that famous Star Wars title amble marching up the screen in yellow was taken directly from the Flash Gordon serials. Lucas also borrowed the concept of a Cloud City

Edgar Rice Burroughs and his Princess of Mars novels

Burrough's series of novels about Princess Dejah from Mars and a soldier from Earth called John Carter were written over one hundred years ago. 

But they resonated so long and strongly with their influence on other writers that Lucas eventually found out about them when he learned they were the inspiration for Flash Gordon

Lucas lifted all kinds of elements from Burrough's works.

Ralph McQuarrie

Ralph is the man that turned George Lucas' ideas and conceptions into the pictures that would serve as the basis for the production design and look of the original Star Wars trilogy.

If Lucas said he had an idea that there would be two robots, it would be McQuarrie who gave them their look
Without McQuarrie someone else's drawings and designs, Star Wars would have been a completely different movie. In fact, it's not an exaggeration to say that, without McQuarrie, there would never have been the Star Wars we all know and love. 

Spock from Star Trek

Spock million voices
Image Courtesy of NBC

You know when Alderaan gets smashed to a million tiny pieces by the Death Star and Obi-Wan Kenobi gets some really tough feels and says I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.” Yeah, Spock from Star Trek did that first.

Gandalf from Lord of the Rings

J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings has influenced just about a million book writers and even Led Zeppelin, so why not George Lucas? 

At one point, the third draft of Stars Wars featured Obi-Wan Kenobi paraphrasing direct passages from Tolkien's writings.

While that was cut from the final movie, it served to show that Lucas had been thinking about the white wizard, so it can be argued that there is a bit of Gandalf in the foundations of the character of Ben Kenobi.

Fan Boys and Fan Girls and Moms and Dads with Fat Wallets

There is no doubt that fans influenced the series. Some are obvious, some not so much. 

Let's start with Boba Fett. He had very minor parts in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, but he built up a massive fan base – so much so that Jeremy Bulloch is a cult star of the Star Wars universe.

This love for Boba meant that Lucas put the character into Attack of the Clones, which gave an origin for Fett.  Some loved it, some hated it.

Either way, it was pretty cool to see Mace Windu cut off Jango's head with his saber.

And then we got the Mandalorian.

Now let's come to Jar Jar Binks. By and large, most adults hate Jar Jar. Kids love him, but that is not the point. Fan venom feedback meant Jar Jar's role was significantly reduced in Attack of the Clones and he barely made an appearance in Revenge of the Sith, uttering only a single line.

Fans also spend money. And there was a lot of money to be made from Star Wars merchandise – so much so that by the time Return of the Jedi rolled around, it was said to be funded by sales of merchandise from The Empire Strikes Back

The cynics have suggested that to make even more money, the intended presence of Wookie was changed to the Ewoks so toys and the like would be more marketable to children.

And let's not get started on the Porgs in The Last Jedi

Timothy Zahn's Coruscant

In the last 20 years, there has been a massive written word extension of the Star Wars universe. Lots of stories about new and classic characters have been lapped up by the fans. 

Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Throne novels created the world of Coruscant – you may know this planet as it's where a huge amount of the action in the prequel trilogies occur.

Zahn's novels are credited with making Star Wars popular again in the early 1990s and may have had an influence on George Lucas' decision to make the prequel movies.

A key takeaway from Zahn's work is the creation of the character Grand Admiral Thrawn – he now has entered the new Star Wars canon by virtue of having a key role in season three of Star Wars Rebels

 Thrawn was mentioned in Canon by Ashoka Tano in the fifth episode of season two of The Mandalorian – we expect to see more of Thrawn in the Ashoka series, where we anticipate him making his live-action debut.

These were just some of the major influences on Star Wars movies. There are probably a hundred other things that inspired Lucas as the six films were made. 

Certainly, we haven't yet mentioned Frank Capra and Yoda's death in Return of the Jedi, for example…

This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.

Editor in Chief at Wealth of Geeks | + posts

Paul Rose Jr is the Editor in Chief of Wealth of Geeks & manages the Associated Press program for The Insiders network. He has worked as TV News Producer, Forensic Analyst, and Train Conductor, among many other things. He’s the former TV Editor for InfuzeMag and owns more books, DVDs, and comics than most people have seen in their lifetimes. When he’s not writing or editing on Wealth of Geeks, he exercises his creative muscle writing screenplays and acting in film and television in Los Angeles, CA.