How Original Is the Original Star Wars?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

From Chris Orr’s review redux of The Force Awakens:

Even George Lucas has gotten in on the act, complaining that the movie is all recycled ideas, and that his experience of selling the franchise to Disney was akin to selling his children to “white slavers.” (Which mostly raises the question: Who’s worse? White slavers, or the person who sells his children to them?)

A reader seized on that passage:

Lucas is basically full of crap. The first Star Wars movie was a MASSIVE remix of classic cinema, on an almost shot-for-shot level. He took several movies, ranging from Samurai period pieces (The Hidden Fortress) to Westerns (The Searchers) to WW2 (The Dam Busters) and even Casablanca.

The Telegraph has a broader list of cinematic influences. Each of the links above points to a video comparison of Star Wars to their respective films, but the following video sent by our reader, for the Dam Busters comparison, is by far the most persuasive:

By the way, if you missed the rest of our coverage of The Force Awakens:

Spencer and David debated the question of “When is cinematic recycling too much?,” Krishnadev assessed the film’s massive hype, Megan delved into the feminism of the Rey character, and Ta-Nehisi responded to Atlantic alum Ross Douthat’s review. Alan reflected on seeing the original film as a kid and readers joined him here and here. Another somewhat related piece was the one Angelica Jade Bastién wrote for us advancing “the case against colorblind casting,” using The Force Awakens as a central target for critique. A reader writes:

So how exactly is The Force Awakens supposed to “acknowledge the ethnicity” of its characters? It’s a fantasy story that takes place in a distant galaxy. The fact that it has English-speaking humans makes the film already grossly unrealistic, and now the writers were somehow supposed to have Finn and Poe discuss the differences in their respective cultures and backgrounds while escaping a life and death situation?

Another reader snarks:

If you think black androids are being mistreated by Hollywood, consider the underrepresentation of Wookies in Star Wars. Chewbacca has been the token Wookie for far too long. He’s never the pilot of the Millennium Falcon, always relegated to co-pilot.

Our reader obviously never saw The Star Wars Holiday Special and its rich Wookie-centrism:

From the YouTube description:

The basic story goes, Chewbacca and Han Solo visit Kashyyyk, Chewbacca’s home world, to celebrate Life Day. Along the way they are pursued by agents of the Galactic Empire, who are searching for members of the Rebel Alliance on the planet. The show introduces to the ever hungry Star Wars cannon new elements, such as the three members of Chewbacca's family: his father Itchy, his wife Malla, and his son Lumpy (or Attichitcuk, Mallatobuck, and Lumpawaroo, respectively), plus a four-armed chef, a trumpet-playing goblin in spandex, Beatrice Arthur and umm ... Jefferson Starship. Need we say more?

I truly love this crazy thing and hope it can be shared to new generations of innocents who may not have seen it and can now appreciate it for the once-in-a-lifetime television atrocity that it is now preserved forever in the international archives of the internet.