The Cinema Behind Star Wars: War Movies and Westerns

For a series with the word “war” in the title, it’s no wonder that war movies and Westerns would have an influence on the stories told inside the Star Wars universe.

 

We talk about the influence of films on the Star Wars movies and the cartoon so much, I thought it would be a nice break to discuss a few books in the Expanded Universe and the cinematic forces behind them.

 

Shatterpoint

First is Matthew Stover’s Shatterpoint. Shatterpoint was one of the first books in the Expanded Universe to take place during the Clone Wars, and centered around Mace Windu as he journeys to the jungle planet of Haruun Kal, hoping to rescue his former Padawan, Depa Billaba.

 

But she’s been lured to the dark side of the Force, and he must journey through the darkness to bring her back or kill her.

 

It at once evokes the mood and sensibilities of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, itself inspired by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Mace Windu is cast in the Willard (Martin Sheen) role, and Depa Billaba is cast as Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando). The book permeates the same confused, dark brooding of the film, and as much of the soul-searching that is common to the struggle of looking for meaning in war. Stover himself described the genesis of the book as inspired by Apocalypse Now, but starring Jedi.

 

But this wouldn’t be the last time Apocalypse Now would find itself seeping into Star Wars. On the other end of the spectrum of the Force, Savage Opress would go on a journey searching for his brother, Darth Maul, in much the same way.

 

Even the promotional poster for those episodes of The Clone Wars were a loving recreation of the poster art for Apocalypse Now.

Sometimes the sprawling nature of the Expanded Universe can make it a little hard to find exactly what you’re looking to read, but knowing what you have a taste for can lead you to some great material. On Twitter one day, I was reminiscing about how much I liked M*A*S*H, both the television show and Robert Altman film upon which it was based. I wondered out loud why no one in Star Wars had done something with a similar medical unit in the Star Wars universe only to find out that someone had.

The MedStar Duology, Battle Surgeons and Healer, written by Michael Reaves and Steve Perry focuses on a remote planet on the front lines of the Clone Wars and a Republic Mobile Surgical Unit stationed there. It has the same maudlin sense of grim humor, but also adds in layers of science fiction about the morals and ethics doctors would encounter working on clones. Throw Jedi Padawan Barris Offee into the mix and you have a pair of great Star Wars books that have the flavor of M*A*S*H, but are uniquely Star Wars.

Maybe that’s what I love about the Star Wars universe: it’s so malleable that you can tell any kind of story you can imagine in the confines of its world.

You can easily adapt ideas and themes from war films into the fabric of Star Wars pretty seamlessly, but Westerns have their way of winnowing through the stories as well.

Star Wars: Kenobi

Take the most recent release from Del Rey books, Kenobi. Reading this wonderful book, it’s clear there’s a western influence. A group of settlers in the unforgiving Tatooine desert are being attacked by a group of desperate sand people. Obi-Wan Kenobi finds himself in the middle of the conflict as a Byronic new arrival to the planet, wishing to escape his past as a warrior to protect the last hope the galaxy may have.

Aside from the classic Western tropes expertly turned on their ear in clever ways by John Jackson Miller, the book is incredibly reminiscent of the film Shane. Shane tells the story of a stranger who rides into a sleepy Western town, looking to have a quiet life to himself after years of a violent past. Soon enough, he’s drawn into a quarrel between a homesteader and an evil cattle baron. He finds attachments with a woman and her children (much the same as Ben does in Kenobi), and has trouble reconciling them with his own goals.

And of course, he has to take up arms one last time to defend what’s good and right in the world.

At San Diego Comic-Con, I learned that the book Kenobi was even almost called Ben in a more direct homage to the film that gave it inspiration. I think both titles would have worked as well, but they probably made the right choice.

Coincidentally, I’m sure, Shane starred Alan Ladd as the titular character. His son, Alan Ladd, Jr., was the executive at Fox who greenlit Episode IV even though he didn’t understand it, based solely on the strength of George Lucas’ masterpiece American Graffiti.

Apocalypse Now and the film version of M*A*S*H are both rated R and probably not appropriate for younger viewers. Shane, on the other hand, is perfect to watch with the kids. My local theatre played it on 35mm not too long ago and I took my then 10 year old son to see it with me and it’s remarkably timeless. We both loved seeing it and you’d do well to visit (or revisit) it as well.

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

You can also follow him on twitter.

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