Remembering the Veterans in Star Wars

Known as Armistice Day, Remembrance Day, or Veterans Day, November 11 serves for many countries around the world as a time to reflect on very real wars and the people who participated in them. The Star Wars universe was brought to life by a long list of veterans, including Ralph McQuarrie who served during the Korean conflict and numerous other crew members that served in Vietnam.

In my ongoing research for the Star Wars Celebration lecture series “From World War to Star Wars,” I’ve come across an ever-growing list of Star Wars cast and crew who were also veterans of World War II. Thanks in large part to their autobiographies we have first hand accounts of their life before Star Wars.

One such veteran is Sir Christopher Lee, who played Count Dooku in the Star Wars prequels. Alongside schoolmates, Lee was among a very rare set of volunteers that went to Finland to help fight the 1939 Winter War against the Russians. “Our idea was that we would rescue the Finns from the Russian invaders. Our surprised hosts affected to be delighted by this callow set of volunteers, and touched that we had paid our own third class fares, they gave us some white uniforms as camouflage in the snow, and took us up front to a perfectly safe area. We never saw any Russians, and were sent home after a fortnight. It was clear that the Finnish Army was doing rather well against the Russian colossus, without our help.”

After a brief stint in the home guard, Lee joined the Royal Air Force intent on becoming a pilot. A medical condition kept him grounded, but created the opportunity to serve as an intelligence officer for the remainder of the war.

Christopher Lee during World War II

Christopher Lee during World War II.

Lee served in North Africa, passing through the Tunisian city of Medenine (which would become a filming location for The Phantom Menace fifty years later). As the war progressed, he followed his squadron through Sicily and mainland Italy. At one point, his squadron found themselves with no mail, no beer, and at the point of mutiny. Their biggest grievance was simply not knowing what was going on, presenting a perfect opportunity for Lee who had been keeping up with current events in great detail. “For a couple of hours I let them have it, with pictures,” he wrote. “I saturated them with facts and figures. They may by the end have wished that I’d never got started.”

In total, Lee battled seven bouts of malaria, was shot at by the enemy and allies alike (his landing field was mistaken by American ground attack fighters), and perhaps most importantly, was reacquainted with a prominent Italian family member who introduced him to the right people in film. Without this chance meeting of a relative in Italy, Lee might have never become an actor.

His longtime friend and co-star Peter Cushing attempted to enlist during World War II, but was turned away due to a childhood rugby injury. Instead, he served briefly on a civilian vessel, making a one-way voyage across the Atlantic with an allied convoy. Upon arriving back in England, Cushing enlisted with ENSA, the English equivalent to the USO, tasked with entertaining troops around the world. Cushing and future wife Helen performed in the play Private Lives on simple stages in drill halls or airplane hangars, at one point performing during a Luftwaffe attack.

Fellow veteran actor, Alex McCrindle (Rebel general Jan Dodonna) first appeared in some of the earliest TV broadcasts until TV was shut down during the war. He was called up for the Royal Navy where he produced the first ever play aboard a Royal Navy ship, transmitted via loudspeaker during the war. He died April 28, 1990.

Reg Bream worked as a draftsman for Episodes IV-VI, drawing iconic blueprints for the Mos Eisley cantina exterior, the carbon freezing chamber, and the Emperor’s throne room. Thirty years earlier, he was a prisoner of war in Japan. Alan Tomkins remembers that “he never spoke about it.” Sadly, bream passed during the production of Return of the Jedi.

Behind the cameras were a number of veterans as well. Two of the cinematographers for the original trilogy served during the war. Gil Taylor, cinematographer for Episode IV, served for six years in World War II as an officer in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve where he became a cameraman flying in Lancaster bombers, documenting the damage after British bombing raids. Alan Hume, cinematographer for Return of the Jedi was called up to serve in the Royal Navy during the Second World War. “I was in the photographic unit,” he said. “I learned more about photography in the navy than anywhere else.” Before serving, he worked on a number of wartime pictures, including In Which We Serve (1942).

Director Irvin Kershner served as an airplane mechanic and flight engineer for the 8th Air Force in England during World War II. He told Alan Arnold while filming The Empire Strikes Back that the war “left us all different people.” He went on: “…many young people today don’t even understand the war’s significance. It may just as well never have happened. They don’t realize that they have inherited a legacy of cruelty more terrible than in the whole of history.”

Fencing instructor and lightsaber choreographer Bob Anderson joined the Royal Marines before World War II, teaching fencing aboard warships and winning several combined service titles in the sport. He served in the Mediterranean during the war and in September 1942, he was one of the survivors when HMS Coventry was badly damaged in the eastern Mediterranean by German dive-bombers. After the Second World War, Anderson, who had taken up fencing at a very young age, taught the sport as an instructor for the services before joining the film industry.

Even members of the cast of the Star Wars Holiday Special were veterans. Harvey Korman played three roles in the Holiday Special. Perhaps the most famous was that of Krelman, the humanoid who drinks through a hole in the top of his head. After graduating high school, he enlisted in the Navy during World War II. Bea Arthur (Ackmeena the bartender) was one of the first members of the United States Marines Women’s Reserve, serving as a typist and truck driver. Long-time television actor Art Carney (San Dann the trader in the Holiday Special) was drafted into the army and was sent to Normandy after the D-Day invasions in 1944. Art reached Normandy in August of 1944, two months after D-Day. Shortly after arriving, he was blown off his feet by a Nazi mortar shell. He recalled, “Something whammed me, and I was on the ground with my right leg bent in a funny way.” Art was transported off the line to an army hospital in the English Midlands where his leg never fully healed, leaving Carney with a permanent limp.

Finally, Alec Guinness served in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve during the war, spending most of his service as an officer on a troop landing craft. His service took him from England to the United States, from North Africa to Italy, and to Yugoslavia.

Alec Guinness (center row third from right) with his landing craft and crew

Alec Guinness (center row third from right) with his landing craft and crew.

Guinness’s service included a number of important missions, including the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943. Guinness wrote later about the his pre-invasion activity, recalling, “The whole operation took about three quarters of an hour longer than planned. In the confusion I never received the signal postponing the actual time of the invasion by an hour. Once we had our full complement [of troops] aboard, many of whom were already sick, and were free of the troopship, I carried out my instructions by making straight for the beach.” Unaware that the invasion was postponed an hour, Guinness inadvertently might have commanded the first craft to land at the invasion of Sicily!

In his autobiography, Guinness lightheartedly recalls, “When, nowadays, I am asked what I consider the best performance I have given, I reply, ‘That of a very inefficient, undistinguished, junior officer in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve. It also proved to be the longest-running show I have ever been in.’”

Without a doubt, there are others who served during the Second World War who went on to play a role in the creation of Star Wars. If you have information, please leave a comment below.

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.

TAGS: , , ,