You KNOW THE SCENE: Young Luke Skywalker stands alone, watching as binary suns set over the stark, inhospitable dunes of the desert planet of Tatooine. The landscape is vast, our hero threatened with insignificance by comparison, and yet the scene remains firmly focused on the power of Luke's potent yearning: for the frontier, for the opportunity to become more than a subsistence moisture farmer like his uncle, for the vastness of space beyond those setting suns.
Such visually stunning Star Wars scenes, as film scholars have long observed, owe a direct debt to the legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. His epic samurai works such as 1958's The Hidden Fortress were the standouts in a genre known as jidaigeki, from which George Lucas derived the name Jedi. Kurosawa, in turn, took inspiration from the westerns of John Ford, while Lucas also borrowed freely from Flash Gordon serials and the pulp science fiction tradition that inspired them.
Much has been made--including a 1988 Bill Moyers PBS special. The Power of Myth, and a 1997-1999 exhibition at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, "Star Wars: The Magic of Myth"--of how the Star Wars cycle of stories taps into an archetypal monomyth shared by numerous cultures across human history. It's hardly debatable that Luke Skywalker's journey takes him along the general path tread by Odysseus, King Arthur, and Harry Potter. Yet many other heroes have walked similar circles as well, and failed to become a part of the global vernacular in the same way as the farm-boy-turned-Jedi-Knight.
So what set George Lucas apart from other filmmakers who wear their references on their sleeves? His unmatched ability to identify the symbols indispensable to the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, from the cowboy to the samurai to the spaceman. Using such pop culture iconography as building blocks, Lucas constructed a deeply rooted epic that felt fresh and resonant with contemporary concerns.
As scholar Andrew Gordon puts it in "Star Wars: A Myth for Our Time" (from Screening the Sacred: Religion, Myth, and Ideology in Popular American Film), "Star Wars is a masterpiece of synthesis, a triumph of American ingenuity and resourcefulness, demonstrating how the old may be made new again: Lucas raided the junkyards of our popular culture and rigged a working myth out of scrap. Like the hotrods in his previous film, American Graffiti, Star Wars is an amalgam of pieces of mass culture customized and supercharged and run flat out."
Now it is a new dawn, and Disney has liberated the content of the Star Wars empire from Lucas' increasingly close grasp. The question is, can a post-Lucas Star Wars, led by people who grew up on the saga, secure and defend its place as a lasting epic for our times?
Reinventing the Pulps
George Lucas borrowed more than a mere scene or word from Kurosawa in creating the Star Wars style. He mimicked the director's use of the "wipe" to transition from one scene to another. Watching the point-of-view characters in The Hidden Fortress--an ever-bickering but lovable pair of peasants who are swept up in adventure with a princess on the run--we clearly see the prototypes of R2-D2 and C-3PO.
Kurosawa admitted to drawing lessons in imagery and theme from popular westerns such as Ford's 1956 classic The Searchers. He repaid this debt with interest by inspiring such iconic westerns as John Sturges' The Magnificent Seven (1960), which was based on Kurosawa's 1954 film Seven Samurai, and Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars (1964), an unauthorized remake of Kurosawa's Yojimbo (1961).
These artistic connections come full circle in the Star Wars universe. John Jackson Miller's outstanding Kenobi (2013), an officially sanctioned novel tie-in best described as a...