Monday, June 2, 2014

The Great Recasting: Star Wars

The following post is part of my recurring series known as The Great Recasting, wherein I take a modern, or modern-ish movie, and recast it in several different classic genres, and with classic actors and classic directors, all coming together in the most dee-lightful alt-cinematic history kinda way. Have at it...

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This time around we are taking a look at George Lucas' 1977 space opera Star Wars. This spectacle of moviemaking, for better and for worse, helped to usher in the age of the big budget blockbuster. Its marketing and merchandising alone were unparallelled at the time - and probably still are. The film would go on to spawn two sequels, an ill-advised trilogy of prequels (which I tend to believe never actually existed, and are nothing more than a group hallucination), an infamous Holiday Special (which made this then ten year old cry at the brutality of those damn stormtroopers), tons of cartoons and comic books and novels and trading cards (many of which have been officially purged by the new owners at Disney), a slew of ridiculous impersonators, and about a quadrillion or so action figures and accessories. Now that Disney has taken the helm from Lucas, we are sure to have much much more in store for us in the future - and a lot of it has the potential to be even more annoying than Jar Jar Binks, Hayden Christensen and Jake Lloyd combined. But alas, this is an inevitably terrible story for another inevitable time, so let's move on to why we are here today. Here is the all-true, never before revealed story

Many critics have cited Akira Kurosawa's 1958 samurai film, The Hidden Fortress, as the main source for Lucas' space epic, and many of the plot threads and characters (a kidnapped princess, an evil warlord, a young brash wouldbe samurai, an older, wiser samurai, a pair of bumbling lackeys, a lowdown howdown between the evil warlord and the older samurai) are quite similar, but what many people do not know, is that Star Wars was actually a remake of a 1942 war film, simply titled The War, that was directed by the legendary John Ford. A film that also inspired the John Ford fan Kurosawa to make The Hidden Fortress sixteen years later. Actually, The War, spawned several remakes and/or homages throughout the years, including a 1950's musical version starring Gene Kelly, as well as an Italian Commedia dell'Arte from the early 1960's. There was even a French New Wave version. Many film scholars claim that Ford's film was actually a remake itself, having been more than simply inspired by the lost 1919 silent epic War!, by Erich von Stroheim. Since that film is lost, or rather was destroyed by Universal boss Carl Laemmle in frustration over not being able to control the director, we can not be sure just how much Ford's The War, resembles the von Stroheim film (many claim it does not resemble it at all), but as a young budding filmmaker, Ford worked on the Stroheim film, and considered it his biggest influence when making The War. But enough of these other versions - we will discuss several of them in a bit - let us first speak of John Ford's influential war epic.

Originally Ford had planned to start his film, at the time set to be a World War I drama, by the end of 1941, but when Pearl Harbor happened, the patriotic filmmaker had joined in the war effort by making documentaries for and about the military. This postponed the start time of The War until the late Spring of '42. When filming did eventually begin, now having updated the film to be about World War II, Ford had just come off of winning the third of an eventual record four Academy Awards for Best Director, for the film How Green Was My Valley. The film, of course, starred John Wayne. In the film, the Duke plays a cocky ace fighter pilot named Han Solo, who is shot down over enemy lines. While attempting to make his way back, he stumbles across two fellow American soldiers. One is a grizzled Captain name Ben Kenobi, and the other is a young Private named Luke Walker. The two are on a mission to rescue a General's daughter from a Gestapo Captain, and the Duke reluctantly joins them on their mission. The cast of Ford's film, all playing second fiddle, of course, to the Duke, included Tim Holt as the wide-eyed young Pvt. Walker, Walter Brennan as Ben Kenobi, the beautiful Maureen O'Hara as the General's daughter, and in a casting coup, the aforementioned Herr von Stroheim as Von Vader, the Gestapo Captain. Ford's film also featured a young and unknown Robert Ryan, as Han's best friend, Lt. Charles "Chewie" Bacca, and Duke's Stagecoach co-stars Thomas Mitchell and Andy Devine as a pair of bumbling Army Sergeants.

Ford's film also starred a typically slimy John Carradine (yet another Stagecoach alum) as Von Vader's second-in-command, Captain Heinrich Van Tarkin. Though it was a small part, Carradine would receive his one and only Oscar nomination (Best Supporting Actor) for the role. The film would also feature two quite fun cameos. One was Victor Mature as a civilian con man named Lando, who helps Solo and his cohorts take down the evil Von Vader, and the other was the enigmatic 21 year old Mickey Rooney, in full make-up, as Yoda, a Chinese ex-pat who helps to train the young Pvt. Walker to become a better fighter. Even back in 1942, Rooney's character was seen as racist - and this was at a time when actors would still do black face on the big screen. Sadly, The War was one of Ford's biggest financial and critical flops. Most of the film's stars would go on to do great work (duh!), but the film would pretty much be forgotten for many years. But not forgotten forever. But more on that in a bit. First, we should probably talk about the 1952 Stanley Donan/Gene Kelly musical version of the story. The all-singing, all-dancing The War Ain't Over Yet. Sadly, this film was a flop as well. Coming out on the coat tails of the moderately successful Singin' in the Rain (a film by the same directing duo, and three of the same stars), this musical kinda fell through the cracks of film history. Granted, Singin' in the Rain would not be considered a great film for at least a decade or so (when it was rediscovered, so to speak), but it was still a bigger hit than this Hollywood dud. Even today, decades after Ford's The War was rediscovered and placed high up in the cinephiliac canon, The War Ain't Over Yet is still mostly forgotten. But again, more on that rediscovery in a bit.

Basically, The War Ain't Over Yet, had pretty much the same story as Ford's film (and possibly von Stroheim's lost classic as well). Gene Kelly starred as Capt. Han Solo, Danny Kaye was Pvt. Luke Walker, Debbie Reynolds was Leia, the General's daughter, and Donald O'Conner was Lt. Charlie "Chewie" Bacca. It's a shame really, that this film has been mostly forgotten, because it has some fun musical numbers in it. From the melancholy soft shoe number, "The Farm Back Home" to the fun-loving "Cantina Song" to the rousing danger of "Garbage Chute Blues" to the gorgeous eleven minute finale "The Death Star Ballet." My personal favourite though, is Maurice Chevalier, as Monsieur Kenobi, a member of the French Underground, singing "These are Not the Jews You are Looking For." Granted, in hindsight, the song may seem a bit insensitive (although it was most certainly a pro-Jewish, anti-Nazi song) but Chevalier just has a way with his singing that makes the song memorable (even if the film itself is forgotten). The added irony of having a Frenchman who, rumour has it, was a sympathizer during the war, sing this particular number, is an interesting bit of film history. The best parts of the film though, involve the great Jimmy Cagney as Von Vader, as he sings and dances his way through the evil empire. The film also features Mickey Rooney, reprising his role as Yoda, from the Ford film. But alas, as good as the film is (I got to see a rare print at the Tarreytown Film Festival about a decade ago, and quite enjoyed it) it just never caught on with audiences, and is still pretty much unknown even today. But Ford's The War would soon not be forgotten anymore - thanks to the Cahiers du Cinema crowd.

First in 1957, an Italian film called Salvataggio (translated as Rescue Me in the US), was released. It was a loose comedic retooling of Ford's 1942 film. The film starred Marcello Mastroianni and Alberto Sordi as a pair of bumbling private eyes, hired to rescue Claudia Cardinale from the clutches of a mad scientist. The film really had nothing but the barest bones relation to the Ford film, but director Mario Monicelli did dedicate his film to John Ford, so one must assume it is meant as a remake. But the big deal came the following year, when Japanese master, Akira Kurosawa, released Hidden Fortress, an out and out Samurai remake of The War. Kurosawa's film helped to relaunch Ford's film, as the success of this latest version brought Ford's film to the attention of some rather radical film critics turned filmmakers over in France. The Cahiers crowd were a bunch of young cinephiles who devoured world cinema, and especially old Hollywood cinema, and screamed about them from the proverbial rooftops. Jacques Rivette wrote about the film in Cahiers du Cinema. Francois Truffaut lauded it as one of the best films to come out of WWII. He also said something about how if you did not love The War by John Ford, you did not love cinema. He even wrote a screenplay adaptation of the film, and in 1963, he would see that screenplay become a film, directed by fellow Cahiers critic-turned-auteur, Jean-Luc Godard. The film would star Godard/Truffaut regulars Jean Paul Belmondo, Anna Karina, and Jean Pierre Leuad as Han, Leia, and Luke. This film, titled Etait! (French for war - even taking on the Stroheim exclamation point), would mark the first time this particular story was told as an actual sci-fi tale. It would also mark Godard's first foray into that genre, two years before his Alphaville. Oh, and this one was a hit.

As part of the Nouvelle Vague, or French New Wave as it was more commonly known, Godard had made the proverbial splash in the cinematic world in 1960. His film Breathless (written by Truffaut) had helped change the way film was looked at. Many claim someone like Welles or Hitchcock or even Griffith were the most influential filmmakers of their day, but if one really looks at modern moviemaking, it should be obvious that it was Godard (with the help of Truffaut, Rivette, and the others of the Nouvelle Vague) who changed cinema more than anyone else before or after. Godard would go on to become one of the most prolific directors of the sixties. Making fifteen films over the next seven years (before delving into a more essayist-style of filmmaking after the New Wave became old news) Godard would become an icon of modern cinema. One of the auteur's lesser known films is 1963's Etait!, the aforementioned remake of John Ford's The War. But lesser known or not, it was an integral part of cinema history, as it would eventually be remade by some guy named George Lucas. But more on that in a bit. The film, based as much on Ford's film as Godard would allow (anyone who has seen a Godard film, should understand that), is about a farm boy on the planet Lubitsch (yeah, Lubitsch!) who teams up with a gruff space pirate, and a wizened wizard, in order to rescue a princess from an evil warlord. As I said before, Belmondo plays the gruff space pirate, Han Solo, Leaud is the farm boy, and the director's wife at the time, Anna Karina is the princess. Along for the ride are French director Jean-Pierre Melville as the wizard Obi-Wan, American actor (and co-star of Godard's better known '63 film, Le Mepris) Jack Palance as Warlord Vader, Michel Piccoli as Solo's sidekick, Chewie, and American auteurs Nick Ray and Sam Fuller as a duo of argumentative film critics who keep spouting lines from classic films.

Godard's film also featured Mickey Rooney, once again reprising his role as Yoda, Eddie Constantine as bounty hunter Boba Fett, and Henri Langlois, co-founder and director of the Cinematheque Francaise, in the role of space mobster Jabba. This film, possibly even more so than Ford's, would become a huge influence on that George Lucas guy, but before we get to him and his rather successful movie, we should discuss Orson Welles' failed attempt at making a version of this story. Welles had wanted to make a film version of Ford's The War since the late 1950's (after screening the film at the 1958 Berlin Film Festival, where it had played, thanks to the Cahiers gang getting it back into the world) but the great filmmaker could never get the funding. He almost managed it at one point, and had even come up with a script and was set to start filming in 1971, but funding fell through, and it was never made. Rumour has it that Italian Western actor Franco Nero (he was Django!) had been cast in the role of Han Solo. Rumour also has it that in 1973, after the success of American Graffiti, Welles had gone to George Lucas with the idea for the film (which Welles had actually named Star Wars) and told him to "Get the damn thing made!" And that brings us to 1977, and the release of Star Wars. So there ya have it. The as-til-now untold but totally true story of the history of Star Wars. And remember that this all must be true, because it's on the internet. That's it gang. See ya 'round the web.


5 comments:

  1. Jabba played by Langlois-Had to laugh..Orson Welles would have been great as Jabba too. This is originality to the nth degree-loved it...now you must write all the lyrics to the Chevalier song

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  2. That last shot is terrific! And you're right, the only reason I know this is all true is that I saw it on the 'net.

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  3. Glad ya'll liked my alt-history Star Wars post. My plans are to do future ones of these on Dazed and Confused, The Breakfast Club, The Avengers, and more. Any suggestions on a modern-ish film to do, let me know.

    See ya 'round the web.

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  4. Seriously, your passion for the cinema is amazing. Either that or you are an obsessive freak with nothing else to do than live inside your own freaky obsessive world. Let's go with the first one.

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  5. Thanx Rosenblatt. I love making up my own imaginary worlds. They are almost always better than the real thing.

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