Surprising perhaps to some is the fact that the original Star Wars was considered so different at the time that some movie industry insiders believed it would probably lag behind other box office films. Steven Spielberg was actually one such individual. The way the initial movie was done was so different than other films that preceded it that Spielberg was convinced A New Hope wasn’t going to make it big. Years later, after the films have soared to luminous heights at the box offices and became a well-established institution unto itself, Spielberg often wryly chuckles about his bad prediction.
“The cultural event of the first Star Wars was something that was like a seismic shock wave that went all over the world before social media, before instant information,” Spielberg told a reporter at the opening of Force Awakens last year. “It was a slow burn, but I knew it wouldn’t ever go away.”
The fact of the matter is that the movie evoked a visceral, almost addictive response in the legion of fans who came to follow its legacy. This was perhaps due to the right blend it had of various thematic elements, including myth, magic (The Force), and technological adventure, set in a well-conceived futuristic atmosphere.
And yet despite its highly innovative, out-of-the box approach, Star Wars does have its share of precedents and influences, as does any creative project. To say the films are totally out of the ordinary isn’t quite right when you examine them more closely. Albeit these influences are thinly veiled at times, we can see shades and hints of mythology, legendary sci-fi books, ancient names, and old drama flicks.
While there’s some doubt as to whether the 1965 science fiction novel Dune had a major impact on Star Wars, there are some striking similarities between the two. First off, both occur on a desert planet. Star Wars initially begins with Luke’s mundane existence on Tattooine with his Uncle Owen, while Dune involves Paul Atreides’ intense political intrigues on the desert planet Arrakis.
Both are considered a type of savior of their worlds by the end, and both are involved in metaphysical combat practices (Luke is a Jedi, while Paul is a Mentat, skilled in fighting and has different varieties of mind control and sixth-sense capabilities).
On a different note, there’s a mention of Han Solo being a spice smuggler in the first Star Wars. In Dune, the ‘spice mélange’ is a coveted drug that enables one to see into the future. So it seems likely that Lucas did pull some of his material from this source.
14. Sanskrit Names
Lucas has not disguised the fact that he derived many of his names and ideas for Star Wars from the writings of Hinduism and Buddhism. For example, the name Yoda is the word for warrior (usually spelled yodha) in Sanskrit. It also is just one letter off from the word Yoga, which is another etymological connection. The name Padme is also said often by Buddhist practitioners every day when they say the mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum.” The word padme means “lotus flower” in Sanskrit. A less known fact is that the name Skywalker comes from Vedas, the scriptures of India. Some translations of Vedic verses translate the word khechara, an initiate into sacred powers and mysteries, as a “wanderer of the heavens” or “sky-walker.” Such “sky-walkers” were endowed with the special abilities, such as psychic powers and the ability to project one’s mind anywhere in the cosmos.
13. Ancient Tragedy
While the storyline of Star Wars does not seem to relate directly to any Greek myths, the story certainly has some elements of Greek tragedy in it. The idea of patricide, killing one’s father, is not uncommon in old myths, and as disturbing as it is, the sheer craziness of the idea actually sometimes eludes fun-seeking viewers of the movie. But this is actually what Luke is tasked with by Yoda—to at least confront, and maybe even kill, his own father, who has turned to evil. At least in part, the disturbing plot reminds one of Oedipus, the heir to the throne of Thebes, who is fated to kill his own father and marry his mother to become king. While Luke is obviously much more of a benign good guy in this case and is not motivated by power or by incest, the resonance between the stories seems to suggest a faint relationship between the two.
On a different level, Luke’s tragic story might also relate to the dilemma Arjuna faces in the Bhagavad Gita (a 700-verse Hindu scripture in Sanskrit) when he must kill many of his old friends who have turned to evil. Here Luke must choose between ridding the universe of his own father, avoiding the battle altogether, or converting Vader back to the good in the end.
12. The Hero’s Changing Faces
Lucas has made it clear that Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero With a Thousand Faces had a huge influence on the way he set up the plot of Star Wars. That is, the plot follows a sort of stock formula that is often found in many stories and tales about heroes. According to Campbell, there are 17 stages of such stories, and Lucas was careful to follow every one of them to the T to align the first movie with the scholar’s views. These stages start with an initial “Call to Adventure,” occurring when Princess Leia dispatches a distress signal to Obi Wan Kenobi, to the “Freedom to Live” stage, when Luke is instrumental in destroying the Death Star and temporarily overthrowing the Empire. All 17 stages are organized into larger groups of three stages—“The Departure,” “Initiation,” and “The Return,” when the hero’s quest is completed.
11. Hiding Like Greeks In Troy
We might remember from reading mythology how the Greeks ultimately sacked Troy by hiding inside a large wooden horse. While the Trojans were sleeping, the Greeks suddenly jumped out of the horse and, after letting their fellow troops in through the gate, took over the city. The same clever tactic might be quasi-true for the first Star Wars, where Han Solo, Luke, and Chewie hide below the decks of the Millennium Falcon. This might be a tenuous connection, and it is speculative whether Lucas actually adapted this myth to the famous Death Star scene in the first movie, but it’s an interesting connection to make. At least, we can suppose such an idea, since it’s probably the most famous one in all of Greek myth, was twirling around in Lucas’ mind when he was thinking up the plot for Star Wars.
Is Chewie inspired by the stories of the yeti, or Sasquatch? It seems like it’s a possibility, maybe even a probability. Like the mysterious sightings across the globe of a tall hairy ape-like figure (known variously as Sasquatch, yeti, bigfoot, or the abominable snowman), Wookies are a towering and intimidating sight to behold in Star Wars. Wookies are often tempestuous in their ire when they are crossed, and the Star Wars characters, especially Han, are sometimes jokingly warning the other characters to beware of both their wrath and physical prowess. We don’t hear many reports that Sasquatch is that violent or wrathful, but the similarity in the appearance between Wookie and Sasquatch is striking and probably not a coincidence. One difference may be that Wookies have fangs, but then again, we’re not sure if Sasquatch have teeth like a Wookie.
9. Nazi Germany
The stiff totalitarian attire of a Nazi commander is very similar to that of Vader’s expendable commanders and captains, like Lorth Needa, who oversee the Star Destroyers in all the Star Wars movies. Like Nazi Germany, the Empire resembles a totalitarian state, hell-bent on exploiting and destroying everyone who stands against them. In some ways, we might see the chess board on which Star Wars plays as the dual forces of democracy and dictatorship, the same as we see today in certain areas of the world. In the first Star Wars, we see probably the worst the scenario possible— the total conquest of republic-oriented, or democratic, states in servitude to a terrible and pitiless slave state. It’s as if we are seeing what would have happened if Hitler had defeated Allied forces. This was a decades-old issue by the 70s, but still close enough to be relevant at the time. The influence is clear by the fact that Lucas uses the term stormtrooper for the Empire’s army; it is the same word the Nazis used for some of their troops.
8. The New Age Philosophy
Perhaps the biggest teaching behind Jediism is the use of one’s personal intuitions and intentions to receive answers and shape the reality around us. In a Jedi’s terms, the use of extra-sensory mind force is quite literal: it allows the Jedi to levitate and move objects at will. This is all a central tenet of the modern New Age movement, which espouses belief in personal experience, affirmation, and intuition to arrive at the answers we seek. The philosophy also asks us to radically alter our perception of what we can achieve, embodied by Yoda’s teaching, “Do or do not. There is no try.” To an extent, this is a Christian teaching, arrived at by Jesus, but the New Age movement seeks answers within, not so much within the pages of a holy book.
While Lucas’ leanings are mainly eastern or New Age in character, he also highlights one Christian ideal in his films: the concept of redemption. This ideal takes place in The Return of the Jedi at the end of the movie, as Vader destroys the Emperor and repents of his past misdeeds, which were too many to count. In actuality, this is the sort of thing you might hear at church. It’s the notion that even the worst of actions can ultimately be forgiven and absolved in the end. Ultimately, Vader is unable to save his own life, but his decision to renege on his past actions results in him joining Obi-Wan and Yoda at the end of the movie in ghost form, as if indicating that he has joined the two other Jedis in some sort of better afterlife. Most people wouldn’t be this nice to him after what he did, but this is one idea present in the films.
6. Martial Arts
Lucas has stated that martial arts, especially samurai training, played a major role in shaping his understanding of how the Jedi engages in battles. While no martial arts employ a lightsaber, an interesting feature of samurai training is that it often used Zen meditation processes to still the mind prior to engaging in battle. This really reminds us of how Luke would close his eyes sometimes during battle with Vader in an attempt to still his mind and quell the fear and anger rising within him. We might also conjecture that the concept of the Force developed out of kung fu and the idea of chi, the mystical force kung fu experts claim they draw on to break bricks or a stack boards. Lucas has said the Order of the Jedi was also developed out of other chivalric traditions in the west, including the Orders of Knighthood, and Paladinism in Europe.
5. The Lord of the Rings
It seems very rarely that Lucas actually pulls on fantasy works, but there seems to be one major theme in his films that suggests a connection to The Lord of the Rings. This is mainly the turning of Saruman in Tolkien’s work from a white wizard to a dark wizard, who is in league with dark, self-serving powers. Few works have actually engaged this theme previously, so it seems likely that Anakin’s fall into the grips of the Dark Side of the Force is reference to this part of The Lord of the Rings. In Lucas’ films, this pull on Jedis to turn to the dark side is particularly fierce and is the central problem of the characters. In Tolkien’s work, it’s more of a background issue, but it plays out in Frodo’s struggle with the Ring of Power. The message here is simple in both cases: don’t dabble in dark things until you’re a full-fledged Jedi or wizard.
4. Nuclear Weapons And The Death Star
Like nuclear weapons of our present day, the Death Star is equipped with the ability to destroy whole planets in the blink of an eye. And so it is that all the way through the original Star Wars trilogies, this devastating, moon-like object is the center of the Republic’s ongoing fears about the Empire. The looming cataclysm that the Death Star presents us is an ever-present background in the original trilogy and is one which seems almost identical, although probably not as bad, as the current threat of nuclear weapons. Like the Republic, world leaders are constantly fretting the potential devastation of nukes, and it remains a major headline in newspapers across the country on a daily basis. It’s very probable that the Death Star is a symbol of this abiding threat on our own planet. And like many science fiction tales, it might be a cautionary tale about the ultimate hazards advanced technology can cause if it’s in the wrong hands.
3. The Bible
Although Lucas draws more heavily on oriental ideas and culture throughout his films, he occasionally includes concepts from the occident, or western world. One such rarity is Endor, the name of the moon where Han Solo, Chewie, Leia, and the rest land for the final battle in Return of the Jedi. This name is the same as one that appears in the Bible, where Saul in the First Book of Samuel goes to consult a witch, the witch of Endor. It is here that Saul asks the witch to summon the spirit of the prophet Samuel. The summoned spirit of Samuel then criticizes Saul for disobeying God and predicts his own downfall and death as King of Israel. Although, Lucas’ use of the name seems arbitrary. In other words, it does not seem to be of much significance to the theme and plot, except that maybe Lucas liked the name. Overall, the moon of Endor seems like a pleasant place, with many forests and plants, although the Ewoks, almost like the witch of Endor, are a pretty suspicious and superstitious lot (i.e., they think C-3PO is some sort of god).
2. The Roman Republic
The Republic meeting area, especially the one that appears in the prequel movies coming much later, bears a very close resemblance to the Roman Senate, as described in Roman history annals. Although the design of the film’s assembly hall is much higher, wider, and more elaborate (the seats also float up and down with some sort of technology), the arc of the seating, which moves in a concentric circle around a central speaking area, remains virtually the same to the Roman assembly forum, or at least to artists’ depictions of it. The Roman Senate was, of course, also a republic, which meant that it was community of democratically elected representatives who act on the behalf of the people they represent. Lucas has said that, while the “psychological basis” for his films is mythology, the political parts are based on earth’s history.
1. Jedi: Japanese Or Sci-fi?
The origin the word Jedi itself seems unclear, but the term appears to have emerged from either one of two or from both sources taken together. The first source is Edgar Rice Burrough’s sci-fi book called Barsoom, a novel about a dying world on Mars where the lords are referred to as Jedda or Jeddak. Another possibility is that the word came from the term jidaigeki, a genre of Japanese film and television shows set between the 1600s and the 1800s. The Hidden Fortress was a film that came out of this genre, and Lucas drew heavily on it to develop the comical robot characters of C-3PO and R2-D2, which are believed to be based on two peasants in the film. At any rate, it seems the term Jedda is the most similar to the sound of Lucas’ created word. And at least we can say that the word Jedi is mostly Lucas’ original creation.