From World War to Star Wars: The Millennium Falcon

Last month, I claimed that World War II impacted more elements of Star Wars than any other single influence. This month, I set out to prove it by studying the galaxy’s most famous spacecraft: the Millennium Falcon. Nearly every aspect of this famous ship shares a connection to the war: from the cockpit to the engines, the Second World War helped build everyone’s favorite bucket of bolts.

The Millennium Falcon cockpit interior while jumping to lightspeed

The connections begin in the cockpit of the Falcon with its iconic greenhouse-style window. It was here that audiences first jumped to hyperspace, and from these famous viewports that Han Solo evaded Imperial ships in the asteroid field above Hoth. Thirty years earlier, this same style of cockpit was found flying aboard one of the most advanced bomber aircraft of World War II: The American B-29 Superfortress.

B-29 cockpit interior, a design influence for the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon

B-29 cockpit interior. Photo by Andrew Kalat.

The B-29 was an American four-engine heavy bomber designed by Boeing and used extensively during the later-stages of the strategic bombing campaigns in Germany and Japan. Two atomic bombs dropped from B-29s brought an end to the war and signaled the beginning of the atomic age.

Like other bombers of the age, the B-29 bristled with machine guns to defend from enemy fighter crews. Footage of gunners manning their machine guns and tracing fighters as they raced across the sky was a hallmark of newsreel footage in the 1940s. But with the advent of guided weapons, defensive machine guns were largely outmoded after World War II. This type of aerial warfare was unique to the Second World War, but made an impression on George Lucas and the crew of Star Wars.

Interior of the bomber gunner, and inspiration for the Millennium Falcon's gun port

Luke Skywalker in the Millennium Falcon gun port

In order to convey a sense of movement he wanted for the film, Lucas created his own early version of an animatic using World War II footage and classic war films. As he wrote for the film, Lucas also watched television. “Every time there was a war movie on television, like The Bridges at Toko-Ri [1954], I would watch it — and if there was a dogfight sequence, I would videotape it. Then we would transfer that to 16mm film, and I’d just edit it according to my story of Star Wars. It was really my way of getting a sense of the movement of the spaceships.” Lucas claims to have amassed up to 25 hours of videotape. It was footage like this that inspired Han Solo and Luke Skywalker manning gun ports and fighting off Imperial TIE fighters to escape the Death Star.

Look closely at those ships as they pass and you might even find part of a wartime vehicle. Thanks to a method called kit bashing, the detailed models built by the effects crews at ILM and literally covered in World War II ships, tanks, and artillery. Steve Gawley, model maker for A New Hope recalls, “We didn’t have any money at all! I don’t think we bought anything new — even the furniture in the screening room was recycled from Goodwill. We had a relationship with Monogram, a model kit company in Hawthorne, California, so we were able to order certain plastic trees with kit parts from some of their models and to buy ‘returns’ that maybe had a part missing — chances are we wouldn’t need that part anyway. We’d get tremendous discounts on that kind of thing.” These discount models became the fine detail that gave Star Wars models a distinctive “used” look.

World War II model kits dot the surface of the Millennium Falcon

World War II model kits dot the surface of Han Solo’s famous ship.

The Millennium Falcon model is covered in just such model kits. Pictured here is the 5 ft. Falcon model, used during the production of Episode IV. The main structure of the ship was made from scratch, but much of the rich detail was added using existing model pieces. On the hull of the Falcon you will find pieces of Panther tanks, Tiger tanks, Messerschmitt 109 fighters, Kubelwagons, and many more.

The Millennium Falcon wasn’t always a model though. For Episode IV, a portion of the ship was constructed on set and later a full-size Falcon was constructed from steel and plywood for The Empire Strikes Back. The full size Millennium Falcon was built by a firm of maritime engineers from Pembroke Dock in Wales. The construction teams at Pembroke were no strangers to large wooden vessels either. During World War II, Pembroke was the world’s largest military flying boat base, constructing and launching the long-range floatplanes that helped protect US and British convoy ships crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Thirty years later, the craftsmen at Pembroke worked in secret yet again to build the Falcon before it was shipped in pie-shaped sections to the shooting stage at Elstree studios.

To really bring the Millennium Falcon to life on screen, even the ship’s sound effects were of a wartime vintage. As Ben Burtt explained, the Falcon is essentially a slowed down P-51 Mustang fighter aircraft recorded at air races in the Mojave Desert. “While at the races, I just said, ‘I want to record some planes,’ and they said ‘Yeah? Then go on out there.’ You could never do that nowadays — I was out at the pylons, and planes were passing 15 feet above my head. They were so fast that I could hardly see them go by; they were just a blur, though I could smell the oil and exhaust. I was lying flat on the ground with my microphones, recording these airplanes for a couple of days in the desert. I got lots of great stuff. Almost all of the spaceships came out of those Mojave recordings, including the Falcon. Using piston-engined aircraft is one of the things that distinguishes Star Wars vehicles from most movie vehicles. Sound editors always seem to go with just the rumble and the roar of a rocket or jet.”

You might chalk these up to coincidence, but history buffs will find these parallels curious. While you might be familiar with the big Corellian ships piloted by the likes of Han Solo, did you know about the Karelian Isthmus, a lake-dotted stretch of land in Northwest Russia where the Finns and Soviets fought the Winter War during the earliest days of the World War II? Or did you know that during the war, making a “kessel” run would have referred to German pilots trying to supply troops encircled by the Soviet army after the battle of Stalingrad? Kessel, or “cauldron” in German, was the term used to describe any such encirclement. Did these places, so important in the Second World War, have anything to do with their galactic counterparts? I’ll leave you to think about it until next month when From World War to Star Wars returns!

Special thanks to the community at the Replica Prop Forum for their work identifying many of the model kits used to create the Millennium Falcon.

Cole Horton is an R2 builder, historian, and creator of From World War to Star Wars, an ongoing series of lectures at Star Wars Celebrations. He has also worked as World War II historian for Marvel Comics Augmented Reality app. You can find him on Twitter @ColeHorton.


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