WWII was an enormous influence on all kids of the 50s and 60s, and Lucas was no exception. From the good vs. evil nature of the conflict to the specifics of war epics like The Guns of Navarone and air-heroics of The Dam Busters and 633 Squadron, it seems entirely possible that Star Wars would never have existed if not for the war.
Few movies manage as spectacular and just down-right well constructed an action finale as the one that finishes Star Wars. It’s all the principles the film was based upon out in full force and at maximum speed. It's is perhaps the most quintessential Lucasian sequence ever put to film.
Lucas's love of speed and his use of it to amp up his finales runs throughout his career, all the way back to his student film 1:42.08. And while American Graffiti ends in a climactic drag race, it's in the earlier THX 1138's tunnel chase finale that we find the prototype for the Death Star trench run.
Both the Death Star battle and THX's pursuit are thematically about gaining freedom (one for the individual, another for the masses), and they both feature single-seater vehicles in the super car and X-Wings, and pursuing robot police/imperial pilots on sleek motorcycles/TIE Fighters, all being overseen from remote operations room where every move is tracked through computer displays and blinking lights.
Whether the trench-run idea was brought over from THX 1138’s tunnel chase, or directly inspired by The Dam Busters or 633 Squadron is impossible to say. In fact it's possible that the close-up cockpit shots in THX were inspired by self-same. Regardlessly they were certainly brought over into Star Wars, as was the detached, determined way in which the motorcycles were portrayed, used for the menacing Tie Fighters. Similarly, the POV shots of the road as the car barrels down the tunnel clearly inspired similar POV shots of the X-Wings zooming down the Deathstar trench.
Lucas and his crew brought every trick in the proverbial book to bear on this sequence, stealing hand over fist from everything at hand, and the result is one of the finest pieces of film making ever.
The shadow cast by World War II loomed large in the generations that grew up in its wake. Not only had the war itself shifted the political landscape of the world, but everyone knew someone who had stories to tell about the conflict, or indeed people who had participated in combat action. Even while the war was still on-going, the entertainment industry descended on it, sometimes as a way to tell stories of valor and honor, sometimes for propaganda purposes, often simply because war makes for great conflict.
“I loved the war,” says Lucas. “It was a big deal when I was growing up. It was on all the coffee tables in the form of books, and on TV with things like ‘Victory at Sea.’ I was inundated with these war things.”[k331, 1]
The US had been involved in a slurry of conflicts, including World War I, but until World War II, much of it had been obscure, or the fighting had been against fellow country man, which despite the slavery issue dividing the two parts, made for a less than clean good/evil image. With World War II, the war against fascism, the soldier took on a new character as hero, and the entertainment industry was quick to back it up with countless movies, serials, books, comics and everything in-between, an image which was held in place largely until the arrival of the Vietnam war. For kids growing up in the 50s, the war became the backdrop for a day in the forest, sticks in hand, a role Star Wars would take over a few decades later. Between an endless array of John Wayne war movies, and serials like Tommy Tailspin, Adventures of the Flying Cadets, Don Winslow of the Navy and countless more, many of which were rerun on TV, war as entertainment had exploded in popularity following the end of WWII. Despite being mercifully long gone, it was now everywhere.
Not long after the end of WWII, notes Dale Pollock in Skywalking, “The Korean War brought home another side of combat to the young George. Ann, his oldest sister, lost her fiancé in Korea. George had known the young man for years and thought of him as a surrogate big brother. It was a painful loss for a lonely nine-year-old who desperately sought out big-brother figures, role models more sympathetic than his hardworking, success-driven father.”[k331, 1]
War would play a huge role in the 60s, while Lucas was at USC, as Vietnam heated up and turned the stalwart image of the hero-soldier on its head, bringing the horror of war into homes and campuses across the US. This time however, it was personal to Lucas, who in an effort to avoid the random assignment of the draft, attempted to join the Air Force’s photography unit. His past speeding tickets, however, saw to his rejection, and he ultimately ended up rejected from the draft entirely due to his diabetes.
Friends and acquaintances would ship out, and some wouldn’t return. It was a harsh reality check for the generation that had grown up enamored with the ‘good war’, to suddenly be faced with the insanity of Vietnam, and in Lucas’s circle of friends it manifested itself in the idea for Apocalypse Now, which Lucas himself was set to direct for some time, until it eventually passed to Francis Ford Coppola. But his work on that film, as well as his experience of the war, would in time end up influencing Star Wars in their own way.
One of many strokes of genius during the course of the making of Star Wars, was the use of existing WWII dog fight footage cut together to form moving storyboards — what is today referred to as an animatic — to properly choreograph and pace the space battle sequences.
“We used a lot of documentary footage,” Kurtz says, “and some feature film footage. We looked at every war movie ever made that had air-to-air combat, from The Blue Max to The Battle of Britain. We even looked at film from Vietnam. We were looking for the reason each shot worked, the slight roll of the wings that made it look real.”[p82, 2]
Before the storyboards were done, we recorded on videotape any war movie including aircraft that came up on television, so we had this massive library of parts of old war movies – The Dam Busters, Tora! Tora! Tora!, The Battle of Britain, Jet Pilot, The Bridges of Toko-Ri, 633 Squadron and about forty-five other movies. We went through them all and picked out scenes to transfer to film to use as guidelines in the battle. [Kurtz, p52, 2]
In the splendid Star Wars-phenomenon documentary Empire of Dreams, there’s a short segment talking about this specific situation, where the escape from the Deathstar, with Luke and Han in the gun turrets, is playing next to black and white footage from Howard Hawks’s 1943 film Air Force. Though there is no mention of whether this is supposed to represent an actual snippet of the animatic, stored in the Lucasfilm archives, or if it’s simply a demonstration of the technique. If indeed these animatic sequences are still alive and well in the Lucasfilm archives, they would make for a very distinct example of the visual pilfering Star Wars is so known for.
But while it may be impossible to fully reconstruct these animatics in the original form, it is very much possible to take a look at the largest sources of inspiration amongst the WWII aerial combat films, as they didn’t merely inspire single shots or a ‘slight roll of the wings’, but provided the basis for entire sequences in the final film, starting of course with the aforementioned Air Force.
Air Force (1943)
The Howard Hawks directed Air Force tells the story of a B–17 and its crew on their way to Pearl Harbor on the eve of the Japanese attack. In the chaotic aftermath, the bomber and its crew tries to make sense of the attack and themselves useful, dodging not only Japanese zeroes, but ground incursions and a naval battle.
An obvious reaction to the attack on December 7th, 1941, the film had initially been rushed into production for a December 7th, 1942 release date, though it ended up not seeing release until well into 1943. For what essentially amounts to a piece of propaganda, it’s not an altogether poor film, though by today’s standards it at times seems more than a bit heavy-handed and patriotic.
While it is immediately obvious, as shown in the side-by-side scenes in the Empire of Dreams documentary, that the movie inspired the gun turret scenes on the Millennium Falcon. What may not be as obvious is that the underlying structure of several sequences are quite similar to scenes from Star Wars. One scene in Air Force has the crew of the Mary Ann, as the B–17 is called, scrambling to get onboard and take off as japanese soldiers appear in force from a tree line, much in the same way that the Falcon blasts its way out of Mos Eisley with stormtroopers hot on its heels. And though the ordering is different, it’s hard not to draw direct parallels between the attack on Pearl Harbor and the destruction of Alderaan, both of which happen as the respective flights are on their way to it as a destination, catching their crews by utter surprise.
As the B–17 arrives in the Philippines, the crew chief learns that his son died just as the the first attack began, but has no time to grieve as another Japanese attack forces the Mary Ann into the air, where the crew man the gun turrets in almost identical fashion to the scenes following the death of Obi-Wan on the Deathstar, complete with the donning of headsets and a “Here they come!” opening from the cockpit as the zeroes dive into the B–17. The hexagonal designs of the Falcon gun ports and cockpit, including the exact framing and angles they’re shot at are straight out of Air Force.
Unfortunately, while the Falcon survives, the Mary Ann makes a belly landing, and the similarities come to an abrupt end. That said, there are other similarities throughout, including many echoing smaller scenes in The Empire Strikes Back (huddles of pilots and mechanics scurrying around, working on the planes).
But most fascinating perhaps, is how Hawks used the same aircraft throughout the film, having it serve almost as a character in its own right, complete with a name. Something which might very well have informed Lucas in the use of the Millennium Falcon; not merely in terms of it providing the stage for the same kinds of scenes, but in it providing a character of its own throughout the trilogy.
The Guns of Navarone (1961)
A massive success upon its release in 1961, The Guns of Navarone — based on the (fictional) Alistair MacLean novel of the same name — is the archetypical men-on-a-mission film. It follows the efforts of an ensemble of specialized soldiers to infiltrate the island of Navarone and disable, at all costs, the massive guns overlooking the Gibraltar Strait, so as to the allow for a convoy of navy ships to evacuate British soldiers stranded on Kheros.
Epic is a word often thrown around in today’s cinema, where superheroes dominate, but The Guns of Navarone is truly an epic war film in the traditional sense. Something it achieves by playing off of the fantastic natural landscapes of Rhodes (location shooting was just starting to take off in the 60s) and in particular through its use of mythic imagery to fuel its story, starting with the opening narration:
Greece and the islands of the Aegean Sea have given birth to many myths and legends of war and adventure. And these once-proud stones, these ruined and shattered temples bear witness to the civilization that flourished and then died here and to the demigods and heroes who inspired those legends on this sea and these islands. But, though the stage is the same, ours is a legend of our own times, and its heroes are not demigods, but ordinary people. In 1943, so the story goes, 2000 British soldiers lay marooned on the tiny island of Kheros, exhausted and helpless. […]
Spoken over images of ancient temples, set upon tall barren cliff faces on a backdrop of the blue Aegean Sea, there can be little doubt that what you’re about to see is a tale worthy of the ancient Greece framing it. It’s a wonderful storytelling mechanic which elevates the radar controlled guns of Navarone from nazi weaponry to mythic monsters. A minotaur perhaps, which would make Navarone the labyrinth to be navigated. It even uses the same kind of fairytale device that Star Wars uses by framing it with, ‘so the story goes’. And indeed it does, though Alistair MacLean drew inspiration from the 50-day battle of Leros, and the exterior sequences were filmed on Rhodes. Navarone never actually existed.
There are several parallels to Star Wars, though most obvious are of course the guns themselves, the ancestor of the Deathstar’s super laser, the lynchpin of the plot of Star Wars. Similar in the way they’re used in their respective stories, there is something comical about the reversal of guns that sit still and hit moving targets to guns that move to hit still-sitting targets. And where the guns of Navarone pose an obstacle to evacuation, letting off a few shots over the course of the film, it never actually sinks a single ship apart from archival footage overlaid footage of the guns firing. The Deathstar on the other hand is an active threat to planets everywhere, as demonstrated when it obliterates Alderaan. Contrary to the guns on Navarone which fire (and miss) several shots at the convoy before the planted bomb finally detonates, it’s never shown to miss or fail, making the final moment just before Luke lands the proton torpedo a true all-or-nothing moment.
Though Casablanca seems to have provided most of the inspiration for Mos Eisley, the village of Mandrakos on Navarone shares the earth-tone mediterranean/north African look and feel, as well as the misfortune of being occupied by nazi’s eagerly searching for each of the films’s respective fugitives. There is to boot a scene in The Guns of Navarone in which the small band of fugitives hide in a cantina-like place during a wedding party is under way, interrupted by a german search party. Parts of it almost feel like a precursor of sorts to Sergio Leone’s later spaghetti westerns, which shared with it some of the mythic figures and tense scenes, albeit taken to an extreme.
In a scene that would come to be a staple of WWII movies, including of course MacLean’s 1968 movie Where Eagles Dare, the operatives disguise themselves as enemy troops to gain entry to the fortress, much in the manner in which Luke and Han disguise themselves as stormtroopers while parading around the Deathstar. Though in the case of Star Wars, the rescue-the-princess angle lies closer to Where Eagles Dare than it does to the demolition mission of The Guns of Navarone.
And finally of course, the climactic sequence of both The Guns of Navarone and Star Wars revolve around the suspense element of whether or not the super weapon will be destroyed before it’s put to use, with the resulting explosion marking the end of the story and the travails of the heroes.
The Guns of Navarone laid the groundwork for many of the war films that followed in the 60s, including The Dirty Dozen (1967), Where Eagles Dare (1968) another MacLean story, Kelly’s Heroes (1970) and many more, and set their superhero-like characters who, as producer Carl Foreman said, were meant to be thought of in the vein of Odysseus and Theseus.
The Dam Busters (1955) & 633 Squadron (1964)
In the years following the end of the war, the exploits of the various military factions became a whole new genre in motion pictures; the war movie was born in proper, and The Dam Busters soon became an oft-imitated stand-out (and the biggest box-office success in Britain in 1955), which gave birth to a sub-genre of aerial combat movies concerning themselves with an impossible bomb target, the training of a rag-tag squadron of pilots, a required briefing scene and a harrowing final act in which everything is almost lost, before the bomb finally finds its target and democracy lives to fight another day.
One of the wonderful things about older war movies, and this one in particular, is that the technology of these planes and the awe, in a sense, of the military at the time, had the films more concerned with accurately portraying the preparations and execution of the mission, rather than trying to introduce superfluous villains or indeed showing the enemy as anything but a target to be bombed. Perhaps it grew out of the unsettling reality of now finding former enemies to be next door neighbors? Regardless, it is easy to see the same kind of fascination with military procedures in the handling of the Deathstar battle as The Dam Busters shows, which makes for a much more tense, nerve-wracking experience than similar attempts in the later prequels.
The plot, based on an actual mission flown during WWII, revolves around an attempt at crippling Germany’s heavy industry by destroying two dams, protected by torpedo nets, by skipping bombs across the surface of the lake behind the dam. The first part of the film concerns itself with inventing the bombs, the second with the training and final mission to put the bombs into use, climaxing in a night raid on the two dams in which each of the lancaster bombers, under heavy anti-aircraft fire, take turns at the dams until they finally crack.
The 1964 film 633 Squadron was based on a book by the same name, which in turns was supposedly based on actual WWII missions, and while that may be the case, there’s no denying the many similarities between it and The Dam Busters. Though instead of dams and skipping bombs, the de Havilland Mosquitoes have to destroy a nazi V–2 rocket fuel plant at the end of a narrow Norwegian fjord, by bombing an overhanging cliff. Obviously a selection process, a harrowing training period and a nerve wracking climax follows, in which the bombers make several failed attempts, until finally the weak point is struck just thus, and et voilá. The film is sufficiently different from The Dam Busters that it can’t really be called a remake, but it’s different in the same way that the 1984 Chuck Norris film Missing in Action is different from Rambo: First Blood Part II; there’s little doubt as to where the inspiration came from.
There are many points of comparison, including the initial approach to the target in which all of the films have the planes reporting ready for action, with 633 Squadron’s pilots using color-coded signals in the same way that the pilots in Star Wars do (something also found in Battle of Britain (1969)). Aside from most of the scenes that take place on the Deathstar, and the inclusion of a personal adversary in the form of Darth Vader, most of the details are pretty much present in all three films. Most obviously however, are a several lines spoken by the pilots, the likes of “It’s big, isn’t it?” which in Star Wars became “Look at the size of that thing!” — “I’ll fly across the dam and try and draw the flak off you”, which became “I’ll cut across the axis and try and draw their fire” — “How many guns do you think there are Trevor?”, “I’d say there’s about ten guns, some in the fields and some in the towers,” which became “How many guns do you think Gold Five?”, “Say about twenty guns, some on the surface, some in the towers.” — “I reckon we should be able to see it by now” to “We should be able to see it by now.” — “Bomb gone!” became “It’s away!”. There are many more, but you get the point.
The Dam Busters bomber even has his very own ‘targeting computer’; a wooden contraption which when held up to the eye lines up with the towers at the right distance for the gunner to release the bomb and have it hit the dam wall. And just as the gunner in the first bombing run in Star Wars calmly asserts “Stay on target. Stay on target”, as pilots in in Dam Busters are counting off the distance to the dam and the gunner calmly says “Steady. Steady”.
Other similarities include the regrouping of planes ready for another run, fiery crashes and fly-by shots, and of course on a macro level the operations room listening in on the mission, the first ‘We did it! No, we didn’t!’-botched run and finally after strenuous battle, the final victorious bullseye.
As for Star Wars’s climax, it’s actually hard to say where exactly concept for the trench run originated. Though The Dam Busters has the Lancasters navigating by following the Rhine in shots that are arguably similar to the way in which the X-Wings line up with the Deathstar trench, their bombing runs are across a lake, whereas the runs in 633 Squadron are up a Norwegian fjord, which with its walls isn’t unlike the trench. It’s possible the idea arose specifically from either of these two films, or indeed as a way of revisiting the tunnel chase in THX 1138, which in itself bears many of the hallmarks of the aerial combat movies, complete with in-cockpit and fly-by like shots.
The Dam Busters puts the audience in the cockpit with the pilots by portraying the action strictly from the view of the Lancasters, with the dam and its defenses always seen from above and at a distance. 633 Squadron on the other hand has a side plot which follows a failed attempt by a Norwegian resistance group to disable the anti-aircraft guns protecting the fjord, so as to make way for the bombers. If this sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because this exact setup was used for the ending of Return of the Jedi, in which a rebel force sets out to disable the shield protecting the Deathstar, only for them to initially be overmanned by the empire; and it all just so happens to take place in a forest setting. And as if that wasn’t enough, 633 Squadron also has to contend with Messerschmitt fighters attacking them from above, all while the action occasionally cuts to the nazi soldiers occupying the factory and the anti-aircraft guns doing their damnedest to fire wildly into the air. One particularly humorous shot shows a plump nazi soldier look wide-eyed up as the collapsing cliff buries his friends in a pile of foam rubble.
In spotting the many similarities between these films, its remarkable just how well Lucas managed to merge the procedural, almost documentarian nature of The Dam Busters with the somewhat more layered, convoluted and certainly spectacle-seeking attempt in 633 Squadron. The action in The Dam Busters is tempered by the somewhat detached, professional reactions of the crew members, intercutting only between the bombers and the tension in the situation room back in England. And the entire bombing run plays out in a straightforward manner, much in the way Star Wars does. While the choice to have the bombers attack not one dam, but two, in what amounts to a rerun of the action, slightly undermines the purity of the otherwise singular objective, it nonetheless fares considerably better overall than 633 Squadron. Which once it gets started doesn’t ease its tempo for some 30 minutes, with the theme music blaring repeatedly at top volume, and each run of the aircraft indistinguishable from the last. It’s tiring to say the least. There is a definite attempt at providing a more interesting and sophisticated structure by introducing the resistance angle and enemy fighter planes, but it ultimate doesn’t amount to much. On the one hand because the plan going awry isn’t directly correlated to any consequences, and on the other because everything is played at the same tempo, numbing the audience into indifference. Rejoicing over the final victory not so much because they won, but because it means the film is about to end.
And this is where Star Wars truly shines, in bringing together the simplicity of the gimmick objective with the staged attacks — fighter incursions first, then gold wing bombers, counter-attacked by tie fighters, then the first X-Wing run which is repelled, the loss of red leader and finally the second X-Wing run and Han’s timely return. These stages up the ante over the course of the entire sequence, until the entire mission is only one farm boy away from failure. It’s an emotional hook that arguably wouldn’t fit in well with the play-it-straight, men-on-a-mission type films like The Dam Busters or 633 Squadron without seeming as if the screenwriter was deliberately adding ‘personal drama’. But in the world of Star Wars and in the hands of the Oscar-winning editing team and ILM, it makes for one of the most sophisticated, pulse-pounding action climaxes of all time. Not to mention one of the most influential sequences, which even Lucas himself would go on to use not only in Return of the Jedi — in what can only be interpreted as an attempt to ‘cover’ and ‘remaster’ his own work — but also in The Phantom Menace, where it is played — remarkably — without any of the procedural and documentarian sensibilities of Star Wars, ultimately failing to raise the same emotional response as the sequence with which it was attempting to rhyme.
Dale Pollock. Skywalking: The Life And Films Of George Lucas. Harmony Books, 1983.
Sally Kline. George Lucas: Interviews. University Press of Mississippi, 1999.
Born and raised in Denmark, Michael resides in New York with his wonderful wife, where he is the Director of Product Design at Squarespace Inc.