From the actors, to the locations and the inspiration, Europe has always been at the heart of Star Wars, says JAMES OLIVER… even the Nazis.
The law of unintended consequences is always intriguing, and the story of Star Wars offers some particularly fine examples. Back in the mid-1970s, when George Lucas began working on his space opera, he had no idea that the results would prove so popular, nor that it would spawn sequels and spin-offs that continue more than 40 years later.
At the time, Lucas just wanted to make his movie, little realising how apparently casual decisions would have incalculable effects over the decades. The most important of those was the choice to make the film in Europe rather than America, something that had a huge impact on the film he made and which continues to shape its descendants.
The decision to cross the Atlantic was a pragmatic one: thriving American studios could not spare the sort of room that Lucas’ epic required so it was decided to look further afield. At that time, the British film industry was in a more parlous state and many studios were empty: with no one else using its services, the production booked the whole of Elstree studios, just north of London, for a comparative song. It was a business decision with huge creative repercussions, changing the flavour of the film that Lucas had conceived.
While obviously inspired by the Flash Gordon serials of his youth, Lucas was also profoundly influenced by Japanese films, most especially those directed by Akira Kurosawa; he’d intended to cast Kurosawa’s great star Toshiro Mifune as the warrior-monk Obi-Wan Kenobi, but with shooting relocated to the UK, he had a change of heart – what about Alec Guinness instead? The character thus evolved, more Merlin than Samurai, accentuating the fairytale aspects that made the film more than straightforward sci-fi.
Nor was Guinness the only Briton so cast; beyond the leading players imported from Hollywood, most of the actors were found in London. One of the great joys of Star Wars films for local viewers is spotting the minor British character players. Who isn’t thrilled when Michael Sheard – Mr Bronson from Grange Hill! – pops up in The Empire Strikes Back? And it’s tempting to think George Lucas was tipping his hat to Acorn Antiques by casting Celia ‘Miss Babs’ Imrie as a pilot in The Phantom Menace – after all, director Rian Johnson put Adrian Edmondson in The Last Jedi because he was a fan of Bottom.
It is not immediately obvious just how British Star Wars casts are, especially in the originally trilogy, since Lucas often re-voiced them to sound American. David Prowse, for instance, might have worn Darth Vader’s suit but his dulcet tones were replaced by those of James Earl Jones (Lucas felt a thick Bristol accent wasn’t entirely appropriate for an evil Lord of the Sith). Still, the mainly British cast inevitably altered the texture of the film, moving it further away from slam-bang movie matinee stuff into something more stately.
But then, Lucas always had ambitions for his film beyond the glorified Saturday Morning Serial his backers expected. His influences encompassed not just Kurosawa but European film too. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis was a touchstone: first released in Germany in 1926, Metropolis was the first significant science fiction film and Lucas directly modelled C3PO on the robot in Lang’s film.
Less obviously, he also drew on – er – Nazi propaganda: the final scene of Star Wars seems a tad less jubilant when you realise that it is based on shots from Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl’s account of a Nuremberg rally.
At least by the time you get there you’ve passed the climactic attack on the Death Star, which is heavily influenced by a couple of euro films with solid anti-Nazi credentials, The Dam Busters and 633 Squadron; before his boffins completed the special effects, Lucas even used shots from those films as a guide to what he wanted.
Even before the days of computer generated imagery (CGI), Lucas preferred to construct alien worlds within the safety of the studio. Just occasionally, however, he ventured into the great outdoors, most famously to Tunisia for the first film. They didn’t always go so far; the Rebel base, for instance, was housed in the former airship hangers in RAF Cardington, Bedfordshire. For The Empire Strikes Back, the Hardanger glacier in Norway doubled for the ice planet Hoth.
Even the unloved prequel trilogy, decorated as they are with CGI, wasn’t entirely studio-bound. The Phantom Menace used the royal palace at Caserta in Campania, Italy, as the royal palace on Naboo (Natalie Portman’s house, basically). Later on, Lucas went to Seville to use the Plaza de España there as backdrop for scenes in Attack of the Clones. He also took advantage of an eruption at Mount Etna to capture footage of molten lava, which he used in Revenge of the Sith for the final battle between Anakin and Obi-Wan.
Only one of those films, the first, was shot in Britain though. Thereafter production left Europe entirely, shifting Down Under and giving fans from Australia the fun of recognising actors from their children’s TV. But happily, balance has now been restored to the force: the latest trilogy that began with The Force Awakens is ensconced at Pinewood studios, and the producers seem more enthusiastic than ever about using European locations.
Iceland has been used in both The Force Awakens – scenes around Starkiller base were filmed around infamous plane-disrupting volcano Eyjafjallajökull – and Rogue One, first of the spin-off films, which begins with shots taken at Reynisdrangar. Dubrovnik played host to production of The Last Jedi, for the sequence set on the casino planet.
In the latest film, Solo: A Star Wars Story, Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands stands in as Han Solo’s home planet Corellia, with scenes also filmed in Tre Cime di Lavaredo, a mountainous area in northern Italy. Closer to home, Southampton’s Fawley power station features in the new film, while a show-stopping battle in The Force Awakens was shot in Cumbria, at Derwentwater and Thirlmere. The Forest of Dean was also used, and Luke Skywalker’s island retreat was created on Skellig Michael, just off the south west coast of Ireland and more usually a bird sanctuary. (Forbidden from rousting the puffins that call it home, the filmmakers covered them up with CGI, turning them into the cute little critters flapping about in those scenes). Nor is it just European locations featuring more prominently: while Lucas was somewhat tardy about using actors from mainland Europe in the original trilogy and the prequels – only Pernilla August, the Swedish actress who played Anakin Skywalker’s mum in I and II could boast any kind of role – the new regime are more open to non-Anglophones: the legendary Max von Sydow (another Swede) had a small part in The Force Awakens, and in Rogue One, we learned that the Death Star was built by Mads Mikkelsen, a Danish actor. Admittedly, there’s still some way to go there, but it is, at least, a start.