Star Wars Origins - Flash Gordon
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LEFT: Cloud City from Flash Gordon. RIGHT: Cloud City from The Empire Strikes Back. Cloud cities in modern science fiction trace their heritage to Laputa, from Jonathan's Swift's wonderful 1726 novel Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World by Lemuel Gulliver (today called Gulliver's Travels). Swift drew most of his fantastic metaphors from the Greeks, so there's a good chance Laputa was based on the flying city of Nephelokokkygia ("Cloudcuckooland"), from a play called The Birds (414 BCE) by Aristophanes (c. 448-380 BCE).

George Lucas has often said that his original idea for the project that evolved into Star Wars was to remake the Flash Gordon movie serials from the 1930s (a "serial" is a movie shown in weekly installments of about 10-20 minutes each). The license wasn't available, so Lucas moved on to other ideas, beginning with Akira Kurosawa's film The Hidden Fortress and then Joseph Campbell's Hero With a Thousand Faces. Despite the plot changes the Star Wars films are still bursting with influences from the Flash Gordon movie serials, including the Rebels vs. the Imperial Forces, Cloud City, the "soft wipes" between scenes, the underwater city with a manta ray-shaped sub and even the famous "roll up" which begins the movie:


LEFT: Flash Gordon-style title crawl.
RIGHT: Star Wars-style title crawl.

The Flash Gordon movie serials closely followed Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon newspaper comicstrip. Raymond's strip was first launched in 1934, at the height of the Great Depression. Many Americans were living under conditions of extreme poverty and despair, so they welcomed any kind of escape. And what better escape than into the dream of a better tomorrow?

Flash Gordon borrowed images and ideas from world's first science fiction comicstrip, Buck Rogers (launched in 1929). They both featured very similar spaceships, laser pistols, costume styles, gadgets, hairstyles, creatures, etc. Raymond's strip probably captured the public's imagination more strongly because it had better art, better storytelling and was the first to reach the theaters, but most of the Flash Gordon science fiction "vocabulary" came from Buck Rogers. Universal Studios made a good profit with Flash Gordon, so when the series ended they wanted to follow immediately with another science fiction serial. The obvious solution was to make a serial based on Buck Rogers, and the obvious actor to play him was the same actor who had been so popular as Flash Gordon, Larry "Buster" Crabbe. This repeated cross-borrowing blurred the two characters together so much they practically became the same character.


Illustration courtesy of Justine Shaw, ©1999.

Buck Rogers first appeared in a novella called Armageddon-2419 A.D. by Philip Francis Nowlan, from in the August 1928 issue of Amazing Stories magazine. It was John Flint Dille, president of the National Newspaper Service syndicate, who had the inspiration to make the first science fiction comic strip. He hired Nowlan to write scripts based on his Buck Rogers novel, and artist Richard Calkins to illustrate them. The spaceships and most gadgets in the Buck Rogers strip were strongly influenced by the paintings of Frank Paul, house illustrator for Amazing Stories Magazine from 1926 through 1929. Pauls' vision was most responsible for creating the public perception of what a spaceship would look like from 1926-1966: a brightly-colored cross between a rocket and a submarine. In 1946 the world was offered the first widely-accepted alternative spaceship design, the "flying saucer," but Paul's image remained dominant until Star Trek's Enterprise shook up the rules in 1966.

Alex Raymond, Francis Nowlan, Frank Paul and George Lucas were all influenced by the John Carter, Warlord of Mars series by Edgar Rice Burroughs (who would go on to write Tarzan). Burrough's first novel was A Princess of Mars (1912), which was really the first swashbuckling, wish-fulfillment science fiction novel: The hero is magically transported to Mars, which is filled with beautiful, forever-youthful women who wear elaborate jewelry but no clothes. Men are valued solely on their combat ability, and the reader's alter-ego, being from the higher-gravity world of Earth, is many times stronger than Martians. This series routinely falls out of the public's memory, because the literati don't care for science fiction and the science fiction community takes great pains to distance ourselves from such "juvenile fantasies" in (futile) hopes of convincing the literati to take us seriously. It's a shame this book isn't better-known, because if you can look past the silliness (which is no worse than any James Bond movie), Princess is one of the most exciting, imaginative and well-crafted adventure stories of all time, in the same league as Star Wars. The heroine, Dejah Thoris, is a strong female role-model even by today's standards, let alone for 1912 - she doesn't fight much, but she faces danger and makes sacrifices. And despite the silly James Bond-like male fantasy environment he lives in, hero John Carter is a faithful husband and caring father.

Like many early science fiction adventure writers, Burroughs borrowed ideas from H.G. Wells, Westerns, H. Rider Haggard and the other usual sources, but he seems to have also broken convention by importing into fiction ideas from 19th century psychics, in particular Helena Blavatsky (1831-1891) and Edgar Cayce (1877-1945). Part of Burroughs' genius was in his ability to guess that ideas like telepathy, astral projection, four-armed giants and magical flying platforms would be just as appealing in adventure fiction as they were in visions of Lost Atlantis and Lost Lemuria. Portions of L. Ron Hubbard's Scientology are reputedly based on these same authors, and the American New Age movement (including the idea of auras, the Akashic Record and emphasis on the Devanagari symbol for aum) traces its roots largely to Blavatsky's massive 1,565-page book The Secret Doctrine; the Synthesis of Science, Religion and Philosophy (1888). Imagine how powerful Blavatsky's imagination must have been to have influenced all these things!

The subtle lesson Star Wars borrows from Flash Gordon is the idea of a fairytale in which technology plays the traditional role of magic. This idea ultimately came from H.G. Wells. He arguably invented the genre we now call "science fiction" in his first novel, The Time Machine (1895). Wells believed that culture requires myth to move forward, and myth requires a shred of plausibility to work properly - take for example modern America's dominant myth, that we are visited by extra-terrestrials. Wells believed the Industrial Revolution had quietly destroyed the idea that fairy magic might be real, thus draining the power from fairytales. He used the Industrial Era to create a new kind of magic: time machines instead of magic carpets, Martians as dragons and scientists as wizards. Wells based his "new kind of myth" partially on the work of other writers, including Jules Verne, Edgar Allen Poe, and especially Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (who probably updated the Jewish "Golem" myth into her proto-science fiction novel Frankenstein in 1818). He combined these ideas with the political cartoons he had loved as a child (from the humor magazine Punch), exaggerating some aspect of the real world to circumvent his reader's preconceptions and make political points. Wells called his new genre "scientific fantasia."

Lucas' next idea was to restage the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa in space

Sources: 1The Unauthorized Star Wars Compendium, by Ted Edwards

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