Star Wars Origins - The Droids
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LEFT: C-3PO. RIGHT: The evil robot Maria from the 1927 film Metropolis.

C-3PO is a gold, male version of the robot Maria from Fritz Lang's highly influential 1927 scifi masterpiece, Metropolis. The whirring sound of C-3PO's joints was probably inspired by the clanking joints of the Tin Woodsman in The Wizard of Oz.

LEFT: A drone from Silent Running (note retractable arm, single eye, walking on "arms"). RIGHT: R2-D2.

Douglas Trumball has been described as the "boy wonder" of special effects, contributing to 2001: A Space Odyssey as a teenager, then going on to work on Blade Runner, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek the Motion Picture and Brainstorm (a thoughtful, under-marketed science fiction movie). On the strength of having supervised photographic effects for 2001 he was given free reign to direct the ecologically-aware Silent Running in 1971. Audiences found the film slower than they anticipated, but the "drones" were a hit. They were named Huey, Dewey and Louie, after Donald Duck's nephews. Trumball's method for creating his fantastically life-like robots was a carefully-guarded studio secret, but was eventually revealed to be amputees in plastic boxes. The Drones have a single eye, extendable arms and communicate using beeps and whirs - an unambiguous inspiration for R2-D2. The square eyes of the Drones may have been replaced with R2-D2s round eye partially to differentiate from the Drones and partially in homage of HAL from 2001. One scene from Trumball's movie features a drone playing a card game with a human around a circular chessboard-like table: probably the influence for R2's game against Chewbacca. R2's head (and maybe the gadget Luke dueled with aboard the Falcon) is probably inspired by the top half of the Telstar Satellite, launched 1962.

The droids are widely reputed to be inspired partially by comedians Laurel and Hardy, who made movies from about 1926-1945, but I don't particularly notice a connection (unless perhaps that the bossy one is always blaming his companion for anything that goes wrong). Lucas has acknowledged that the droids were based on Tahei and Matashichi, the two bickering peasants from Akira Kurosawa's 1958 movie The Hidden Fortress.

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Star Wars created by George Lucas, © LucasFilm Ltd.
Star Wars: Origins © 1999-2006 by Kristen Brennan,
part of the Jitterbug Fantasia webzine.