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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

5 Movies That Inspired Movies

Posted By on Wed, Mar 19, 2014 at 3:39 PM


"I think all stories have been around for a few thousand years," George Lucas once said, in an interview about Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress.

This week the Criterion Collection released a definitive edition of Kurosawa's film, along with that Lucas interview, in which he also explained its major influence on Star Wars. So if in a few thousand more years we finally comprehend the totality of cinema -- a vast multiverse of remakes, ripoffs, homages and references -- at least some thanks will be due to filmmakers such as these. In their honor, therefore, we present a short list of movies that inspired movies.

The Hidden Fortress: Star Wars

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Both films make use of a princess-in-jeopardy plot, but the essential similarity, as Lucas recalls in that interview, came from his idea to "take the two lowliest characters, as Kurosawa did, and tell the story from their point of view." Thus, where The Hidden Fortress had peasants, Star Wars had droids. Lucas' take was a tad less edgy, however; for a general sense of the difference, imagine that early scene in the Tatooine desert but with C-3P0 and R2-D2 on battleground body-burial duty, telling each other, in Japanese, "Stay away from me, you reek of corpses!" and, "You're a shitworm, you make me sick!" Importantly for Lucas, allusiveness itself already was embedded in Kurosawa's work: A sweeping castle-staircase rumble in The Hidden Fortress suggests the oft-riffed-on Odessa Steps sequence in Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin, from 1925, and its full title, which translates as Three Bad Men in a Hidden Fortress, calls out to John Ford's silent 1926 epic Three Bad Men, a Kurosawa favorite.

Yojimbo: A Fistful of Dollars

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Here Kurosawa is again. Clearly he liked stories made of universal stuff. One irony of Kurosawa being a king among movie influencers is that for a while his own susceptibility to Western styles marred his reputation in Japan. Another is that Kurosawa acknowledged his 1961 film Yojimbo to have been influenced by Dashiell Hammett's novel The Glass Key, which already had been a Hollywood movie twice, yet he also sued Sergio Leone for 1964's A Fistful of Dollars, on account of how much it resembled Yojimbo. (A lot.) In retrospect, the scraggly-badass ronin played by Toshiro Mifune and the scraggly-badass gunslinger played by Clint Eastwood seem equally iconic. Meanwhile, history keeps reiterating the versatility of fables about loners who turn warring clans against each other. Later variants include the Coen brothers' Miller's Crossing, from 1990, and Walter Hill's Last Man Standing, from 1996.

The Virgin Spring: The Last House on the Left

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Although the movies in question here each seem unlikely to shock today's audiences, it is still at least a little shocking to remember them as related -- to remember, in other words, that the world's most famous maker of lurid slasher films launched his career with a direct nod to the world's most famous maker of lofty European art films. But sure enough, Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring, which won an Oscar in 1961, was in fact a bitter parable of rape, murder, and revenge, and therefore perfectly conducive to being reworked as Wes Craven's 1972 feature debut, The Last House on the Left. Well, it just goes to show that the human horror of defilement is archetypal, and that one man's pedigreed philosophical examination of medieval Swedish folklore is another's unabashed exploitation of a rural America still mourning its Summer of Love and reeling from the psychic shock of Manson Family depravity. Who knew?

Blow-Up: The Conversation

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Francis Coppola's lesser-known 1974 masterpiece owes its green light to his Godfather success, but owes its origins to a lasting impression made by Michelangelo Antonioni in 1966. In Antonioni's Blow-Up, David Hemmings is a London fashion photographer who finds evidence of foul play in his casual snapshots. In Coppola's The Conversation, Gene Hackman is a lonely San Francisco wiretapper who does likewise in his recordings. Both films track a man with technical skills who delves in to a mystery and is annihilated by his quest. Both draw great cinematic power from observing an obsessive at work on a personal puzzle. (Both also happen to remind us why mimes make us uncomfortable.) Together they reveal how a certain kind of modern alienation persists, from the swinging '60s to the Nixon '70s and beyond -- at least into the '80s, when the torch got passed again to John Travolta as an ill-fated sound-effects guy in Brian De Palma's 1981 Blow Out.

City on Fire: Reservoir Dogs

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Hong Kong filmmaker Ringo Lam's 1987 thriller was particularly important to a certain young American upstart, who saw the violent caper of an undercover cop amid a gang of jewel thieves and recognized his own potential. Without Lam's City on Fire, the sample-giddy cinematic DJ known as Quentin Tarantino couldn't have made Reservoir Dogs, his 1992 directing debut. A resemblance is clearest in the two films' more or less parallel post-heist climaxes, from the lethal two-handed fusillade of bullets pumped into a cop car windshield to the tense trust breakdown of an equally lethal multi-way standoff. Other elements differ, of course; whereas City on Fire had cheesy sax slathered all over its soundtrack, Reservoir Dogs lubed itself up with the differently oily tunes of Stealers Wheel and Harry Nilsson. Since then, Tarantino's prosperous career has repeatedly reaffirmed how little it matters that material is unoriginal if style is undeniable.

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About The Author

Jonathan Kiefer

SF Weekly movie critic Jonathan Kiefer is on Twitter: @kieferama and of course @sfweeklyfilm.


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