Wednesday 30 December 2015

"The Force can have a strong influence on the weak-minded"

The title of this blog is, as Star Wars fans will not need reminding, taken from the line delivered by Alec Guinness in the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi (and I'm surely not the first to notice the embedded 'wanker' in the character's name). But reverse the line and it's just as true: "The Force can have a weak influence on the strong-minded" or, to put it another way, Star Wars means nothing to me.

It's a commonplace critical observation that the movies are reactionary and unoriginal. Special effects aside they haven't advanced a millimetre in the four-decades since the first in the series was released. This will of course be seen by loyal fans as a quality rather than a flaw, and the film-maker George Lucas has said that he was influenced by the cheap and cheerful Flash Gordon series of the 1930s (the star of which, Buster Crabbe, was the only actor to play Tarzan, Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers – the top three syndicated comic strip heroes of the 1930s). But there's another influence that I'd like to mull over with you.

Watching  the latest Star Wars episode with my two boys the other day (and reluctantly conceding that this wan't so much a film as a Major Motion Picture Event, then being depressed by the sight of the great Max von Sydow reduced to a cough and a spit) I was struck - and not for the first time, having noted this in the original movies nearly forty years ago -  by the portrayal of the Rebel headquarters (and you don't need me to remind you that the Rebels are fighting the Empire, that is to say the Bad Guys). I know - who does not? - that the films are set 'once upon a time in a galaxy far far away' but the whole set-up is deliberately reminiscent of American air force bases in East Anglia during the Second World War: the fighter planes diligently serviced by ground crew who are constantly, constantly welding; the water bowsers and bomb gurneys purposefully circulating; the sense of collective prepping; the ad hoc briefings to youthful pilots before their next perilous mission; the colour-coded squadron leaders in their helmets with chinstraps; the commanders with harumphing English (not American) voices at odds with their alien appearance; the easy-going camaraderie; the grace under pressure, the urgent tannoy announcements and the regular scrambling in all directions. The only thing missing is a black labrador. The Rebel command centre itself is remarkably similar to Churchill's subterranean war bunker in Whitehall, a dark and windowless place where young uniformed women move things around on maps while robots and elderly men do other stuff, intently.

I was born in 1959, which makes me a tail gunner in the baby-boom Lancaster bomber (if you see what I mean). As a schoolboy I recall reading and admiring Paul Brickhill's The Dambusters, a gripping account of Operation Chastise, which involved the delivery of Barnes Wallis's so-called 'bouncing bombs' to demolish dams in Germany's industrial Ruhr valley, flooding German infrastructure. This is the kind of book we read, the kind of film we watched. It struck me that something should be said about Star Wars' explicit indebtedness to the film of the book (which regularly shown on the telly when I was a boy). But somebody, I discover, got there first and made the point better, by editing Dambusters footage to Star Wars dialogue, or vice versa. Take a look here.

And here's the real thing: the 617 Squadron website 617 Squadron website. Great stuff.

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