The Cinema Behind Star Wars: John Carter

Learn more about the story that inspired Princess Leia, the Galactic Empire and the battle over the Great Pit of Carkoon!

John Carter is a film directed by Pixar alum Andrew Stanton that follows Civil War veteran John Carter on his astounding trip to the planet Barsoom, which we know as Mars. There he meets a princess leading a rebellion, fights against an evil empire, and meets a variety of strange aliens on a desert wasteland of a planet, gets powers far beyond the abilities of normal men, and encounters a strange religion. There are times where he’s captured, thrown into an arena to fight bizarre monsters, and other times where he’s forced to rescue a princess.

It sounds like I could be talking about Star Wars just as easily as John Carter. And since John Carter came out in 2012, you might be thinking, “No! You’ve got it the other way around! John Carter was influenced by Star Wars.”

But you’d be surprised.

Here’s a quote from George Lucas in a 1977 issue of Science Fiction Review: “Originally, I wanted to make a Flash Gordon movie, with all the trimmings, but I couldn’t obtain all the rights. So I began researching and found where [Flash Gordon creator] Alex Raymond got his idea: The works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, especially his John Carter series of books.”

The first book in the series, The Princess of Mars, was written by Edgar Rice Burroughs of Tarzan fame, and lays out the framework for the original swashbuckling science-fiction adventures that would become the pattern that every serial that inspired Star Wars was based on. Just because the film version of the pulp novels didn’t come out until 2012 doesn’t mean they didn’t inspire Star Wars.

Attack of the Clones - Geonosis Arena

In fact, when the film came out, comparisons were drawn to Attack of the Clones almost instantly. Both Tatooine and Geonosis share the barren landscape of Barsoom and both movies share a massive arena battle, which was something described in the original books more than 100 years ago. The Nexu could very well be inspired by John Carter’s calot, Woola.

The powers that John Carter receives when he’s transported to Mars can also be seen as a prototype of the physical abilities granted by the Force. He is able to leap higher, run faster, and fight harder (with a sword, no less!), than anyone else on the planet.

There are also overtones of religion and mythology in the books and corresponding movie that certainly inspired aspects of the Force.

Hologram of Darth Sidious

Other characters find inspiration in works of Burroughs and those inspired by him. In the Martian stories there’s a character by the name of Matai Shang, played in the film by Mark Strong. Shang is the leader of a secret cult called the Holy Therns who use politics and their shadowy nature to manipulate empires to their will and their eventual goal of ruling Barsoom as well as the rest of the galaxy. They operate in many ways just like Palpatine/Darth Sidious as he sets to take control of the Galactic Republic and form it into the Empire.

A New Hope - Bantha-II Cargo Skiff

Watching John Carter and Return of the Jedi back to back, you would see plenty of inspiration from the Martian series. The sailing ships that dot the Barsoomian landscape and the way John Carter floats between them with a sword, taking apart bad guy after bad guy, feels exactly like Luke’s action sequences over the Great Pit of Carkoon.

That style of episodic storytelling in the John Carter books and movie might be the biggest influence on the Star Wars saga. The original novel in the series of Martian Chronicles was published serially in The All-Story pulp magazine beginning in 1912 and created the cliffhanger structure that is vital to Star Wars. The books maintain that breakneck pace. Reading those stories or watching the movie, it’s apparent that George Lucas was true to his word when drawing his inspiration from the John Carter series.

Marvel Comic #53 Cover

The influence of these stories on Star Wars didn’t end with George Lucas writing A New Hope, it went on in a way more direct than you would have ever guessed. In 1981, Marvel comics took unused art by Carmine Infantino of two never-published issues of the cancelled John Carter: Warlord of Mars and printed them as Marvel Star Wars #53 and #54. Chris Claremont was tasked with re-writing the book to fit the Star Wars universe and Walt Simonson was tasked with massaging the art and drawing new sequences as necessary. The issue originally dealt with Dejah Thoris who was recast easily as Princess Leia who had crash landed on a planet. That’s why the stormtroopers look so unnaturally large in these issues, they were drawn over the Tharks of Barsoom, one panel at a time.

The movie adaptation is a gem that will resonate with Star Wars fans. Andrew Stanton’s direction and cinematic language is incredibly competent and quite clearly informed by Star Wars. If you bear in mind that everything in the film was conceived a hundred years before its release and informed every piece of pulp that inspired Star Wars during that century, you’ll understand how important the story was to the Star Wars saga. Released in 2012, it was one of my favorite films to come out that year and my kids begged me to go back and see it over and over again. If you were on the fence on it, see it now. It’s fun for the whole family, though it is rated PG-13 by the MPAA for intense sequences of violence and action, it is easily more tame than anything you would see in Revenge of the Sith.

Availability: John Carter is readily available on DVD, Blu-ray, and digitally. It’s available to rent for a modest fee on most streaming video services. The books on which they’re based are available everywhere. Since they’re in the public domain, you can download them for free for your eReaders as well.


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

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