Like all good writers, artists, and film makers George Lucas borrowed liberally from his heroes and contemporaries when writing the original outlines for his Star Wars films. Some would like to claim Star Wars was an attempt to steal from other artists, but in the world of narrative the best products tend to be collections of previous ideas with a fresh new take – and that’s exactly what Star Wars was.
There are dozens of theories postulated by fans of where and how George Lucas compiled his epic Star Wars trilogies. However, Lucas has actually cited specific influences himself in interviews. One would think that the majority of his influence would have been in the science fiction works of Asimov or Herbert but according to Lucas much of his inspiration came from less obvious sources like “Watership Down” or Akira Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress.
In fact, a lot of the form and execution of Star Wars can be traced to the Samurai film. The figures of Darth Vader and the mysterious Jedi Knights are mystical, high tech allusions to the Samurai himself, quiet, noble yielder of a sword in protection of ironclad beliefs. Some have even pointed to the garb of Vader as a nod to the helmets of arch villain samurai in Kurosawa’s films like Seven Samurai. As for Hidden Fortress, Lucas has stated that the narrative structure of Star Wars was inspired by the film, by telling the story through the perspective of the droids (in Kurosawa’s film they are two bumbling ronin) instead of the major characters. Also in Hidden Fortress is the noble general leading a princess to safety, a familiar theme in Star Wars.
Another major inspiration for the Star Wars saga is the work of Joseph Campbell, the famous studier of myths and their common themes. He composed in The Hero with a Thousand Faces the theory of the Hero Quest an exploration of the Monomyth – a term taken from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. The Monomyth as Campbell described it though was the common set of themes found in all literature dating back to the Ancient Greeks and classic tales of Heracles and Odysseus. Best classified in his Hero Quest, it involved directly mapping out the path of a young man from the call to adventure to the status of Hero. Luke Skywalker follows the path almost exactly, becoming a modern incarnation throughout the Star Wars trilogy of the classical hero.
In college level classics courses even now, Star Wars is cited as an easily recognizable example of Campbell’s work and a modern reworking of classical themes, something Lucas intentionally did. Joseph Campbell himself quotes Star Wars as an example in the classic 1991 PBS series, “The Power of Myth”.
Lucas didn’t limit his thematic pilfering to Samurai films and Classicism though. He also borrowed heavily from history, both the Roman Empire and the great wars of the 20th century. The power structures of the Empire mirror the Roman infrastructures, and the intergalactic war including how Palpatine took power are reminiscent of Hitler’s ascent in Germany in the 1930s. The allusion, in case anyone didn’t catch it, is highlighted by naming the Empire’s troops after the Storm troopers of the Nazi army.
Whether George Lucas’s influences end with what he’s openly admitted or he did, as some fans suggest, openly borrow from Asimov’s Foundation series or Herbert’s Dune is impossible to know, but to be sure Star Wars was the product of a great deal of prior work, as any great cultural addition tends to be. The composition of art or entertainment is just that, the culmination of all that’s come before. Star Wars may be a mish mash of ideas and narratives, but it is entirely its own entity, Star Wars through and through.