The Cinema Behind Star Wars: Citizen Kane

From Rosebud to Podracing, these kid heroes had a lot in common.

Citizen Kane is one of those movies that makes every great list. The critics love it, cineastes love it, movie fans love it, and filmmakers love it. Released in 1941, it’s a thorough examination of the life of Charles Foster Kane. Kane himself is a newspaper magnate based loosely on the real-life William Randolph Hearst, and spends his time allowing power and wealth corrupt him. Written, directed, and starring Orson Welles, Citizen Kane broke all the rules of cinema. The story wasn’t told in linear fashion, and even though it was a fairly straightforward drama it could easily be classified as an early special effects picture.

Citizen Kane is one of those movies that, like Star Wars, changed what was possible in film after its release. It was a new way of telling stories and showing other filmmakers what the medium was truly capable of.

There are many comparisons to be made between the filmmakers of these movies as well. Orson Welles was only 25 when he created his magnum opus, inventing new methods to tell stories on film. George Lucas wasn’t much older when he began work on the first Star Wars film. I’ve already written much about the technical similarities that Lucas pulled from Welles and Citizen Kane, you can read that piece here. What I want to talk about now is how George Lucas brought some of the themes and story flourishes from Citizen Kane into the story of Anakin Skywalker.

To start, we’ll go to The Phantom Menace. Some people (perhaps most famously Patton Oswalt) have questioned George Lucas’ decision to give us an eight-year-old version of Anakin Skywalker to start with, but Citizen Kane shows us why and how such a decision works so well. As an eight-year-old, Charles Foster Kane is a regular boy living in the middle of nowhere in the snowy wastelands of Colorado — the exact opposite environment that we find Anakin in. He has no idea that he’s destined for greater things, but the adults around him conspire to tear him from his home and send him off to learn the ways of the world. In Citizen Kane, this is a series of boarding schools and a knowledge of business and wealth; in Star Wars, Anakin leaves to begin his training as a Jedi. Though Anakin is much more willing to go fulfill his dream than Kane is, the scene where each of them have to leave their mother is staged very similarly. On the left side of the screen we see the force that will be training the boy, on the right side of the screen is the disconsolate mother, having to give up their son to give them a better life.

He’s even playful and offers his own version of a “yipee.” Since the demeanor of the two boys is so close, it wouldn’t surprise me to find out that George Lucas was directing Jake Lloyd specifically to emulate Buddy Swan, the actor who played the eight-year-old Kane.

It’s important to have the context of the young boy who could have been anything in order to properly chart the descent of a character, especially those who fall as far as Charles Foster Kane or Anakin Skywalker.

Kane is given a number of friends who help guide him on his path, but none more important than Jed Leland (played beautifully by Joseph Cotten). Jed acts as an Obi-Wan figure to Kane at times, and the two of them start as the best of friends and turn into bitter enemies. Where they war with words to advance their ideology, Anakin and Obi-Wan battle with lightsabers.

Through the course of the film, as the power of wealth and influence (and a secret affair) corrupt Kane’s life, he becomes more and more isolated from the things most important to him. He’s an idealist until his belief in his own infallibility turns him dark. He loses his friends, he loses his influence, and many of his newspapers go bankrupt. Eventually, he loses his first wife to death and his second wife leaves him, causing him to explode violently, physically tearing apart her bedroom as viciously as Darth Vader tears apart the operating room when he discovers Padmé’s death.

Like Anakin, Kane has no one but himself to blame for his own self-destructive behavior, isolation, and loneliness. By the end of his life, wheelchair bound, Kane looks remarkably like the Anakin Skywalker revealed to Luke Skywalker at the end of Return of the Jedi, played by Sebastian Shaw.

Thematically, both Anakin and Kane ended their lives whispering about the loss of what they wanted most. For Kane, it was the happiness and innocence of his youth, for Anakin it was goodness of love and a family.

Citizen Kane is one of those films that everyone should watch at least once. It might be a little esoteric for younger kids, but I watched it with my 13-year-old and his attention was kept. There’s nothing in the film more risqué than a Star Wars movie, but the themes are adult in nature.

Over the years, it’s become one of my favorite movies and I love sharing it with the same fervor and enthusiasm of Star Wars. I hope you give it a shot and can see the similarities between the rise and fall of Charles Foster Kane and Anakin Skywalker as clearly as I do.

Availability: Citizen Kane is readily available on DVD and Blu-ray, or you can get it via Amazon or iTunes to purchase or rent for a small fee.

Bryan Young is an author, a filmmakerjournalist, and the editor in chief of BigShinyRobot.com! He’s also the co-host of the Star Wars podcast, Full of Sith.

You can also follow him on Twitter.

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