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...
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.
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.
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.
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.