From World War to Star Wars: The Cantina

The best World War II nightclub wasn't on Earth.

From the moment it hit screens in 1977, the cantina sequence from Star Wars: A New Hope has sparked the imagination of audiences and left us wanting to learn more about the beings that inhabit it. The shady tavern was teeming with interesting sights and sounds, many of which were inspired by the Second World War. From the crazy characters to the swinging band, here are a few ways that history shaped this galactic dive bar.

Among the crowd of interesting cantina denizens is Nabrun Leids, a four-armed alien who stands near the bar. The alien’s head comes to a dull point, while its face is covered in a bug-eyed breath mask. As the story goes, this is because Leids’ species cannot breathe the oxygen-rich air on Tatooine. It’s a convenient and logical story, given that the mask is actually a World War II gas mask of British make, one of millions produced by companies like Avon Technical Products during the war. They were issued to military personnel and civilians alike in England and abroad, as the wide use of poison gas in Europe during the first World War caused many to fear that it would again be used on troops or civilian populations. Fortunately, a large-scale gas attack in Europe never materialized and many of the masks never left their canvas bags. The mask worn by Nabrun Leids, and many like it, were available as surplus for decades after the war. Even the simple canvas bag became famous as the bag worn by Indiana in the Indiana Jones films.

Nabrun Leids

It’s important to note that the cantina scene we all remember was filmed over two separate sessions. The first attempt was filmed during principle photography in England and included more humans than aliens. In order to fill out the scene with even more interesting characters, director George Lucas added an additional shooting session in the United States, complete with newly-designed aliens by Rick Baker and his team. While many of them were new creations, production constraints required that other pieces be “off the shelf” rentals left over from previous productions. An example of this was Pons Limbic.

Gloster Meteor jet engine hanging above

Luke and C-3PO at the cantina

Baker’s crew sculpted and cast the “Brainee” mask for the US shoot from scratch, but the character’s costume was vintage 1940s. The diamond shape on the tunic reveals that it was reused from an old Republic serial called Spy Smasher. This classic serial series is based off the Fawcett Comics’ character Spy Smasher — a costumed vigilante fighting a Nazi agent, The Mask. It began filming December 22, 1941, just after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and Germany’s declaration of war on the United States. The 12-episode series continued filming through January 29, 1942 and was released later that year.

Even the cantina’s most unfortunate alien, Greedo the bounty hunter, has a connection back to World War II. According to the comprehensive guide to Star Wars sound design, The Sounds of Star Wars, the explosion following Greedo’s death is a stock explosion traced back to the 1941 film, Sergeant York.

The bar set also has a neat reference to World War II. Behind it are parts of the Gloster Meteor jet engine, hanging as large metallic drink dispensers. These flame tubes later became IG-88’s head, among other props. In fact many pieces of this World War II-era jet found their way into the Star Wars universe, which I’ll discuss in a future blog post!

Pons Limbic

The cantina wouldn’t be the same without music. When it came time to finish the scene, Lucas found inspiration from a surprising source: Benny Goodman and the swing music of the 1930s and early 1940s.

Benny Goodman is known as the “King of Swing,” and his music was omnipresent in the United States during the period leading up to and including the war. One of his most famous recordings is his 1939 version of Louis Prima’s “Sing, Sing, Sing.” Many of you might recognize the tune of “Sing, Sing, Sing” from Chips Ahoy brand cookie commercials from the 1990s.

While filming pickup shots in the US for the cantina scene, “Sing, Sing, Sing” was played out loud to get the tempo and movements right for the actors in the musician costumes. ILM member Phil Tippett remembers in J.W. Rinzler’s The Making of Star Wars, “we had to dance to the beat of an old Benny Goodman tape that George brought in, and the instruments had been designed at ILM.”

As Lucas and co-editor Richard Chew were editing the cantina sequence, Chew asked Lucas what he wanted in the temporary music track. He recalls asking George Lucas in The Making of Star Wars, “hey George, have you ever heard Tibetan music, because I think the chanting and the animal-bone instruments might really be appropriate.” But Lucas replied, “no, I’m going to use Benny Goodman. Yeah, they’re gonna play swing, man.”

John Williams later recalls this process as well, saying, “George found a record that he liked. He used it for a temp track and he shot to that, which gave him a rhythmic continuity shot to shot, cut to cut. What he said to me was, ‘can you imagine these creatures in some future century having found in a time capsule or under a rock an old 1930s Benny Goodman swing-band record? Can you imagine what their distorted idea of how to play it would be?’”

Evidence of this intent remains the liner note for the 1997 release of the A New Hope soundtrack. It describes the cantina songs as “several creatures in a future century finding some 1930’s Benny Goodman swing band music … and how they might attempt to interpret it.”

As you can see, the cantina just wouldn’t be the same without the influence of World War II. Whether it’s the costumes, props, sounds, or music, relics of the 1930s and 1940s are dotted throughout this iconic scene.

Cole Horton is a historian and co-author of the upcoming book, Star Wars: Absolutely Everything You Need to Know from DK Publishing. He also contributes to Marvel.com and runDisney.com You can follow him on Twitter @ColeHorton.

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