The Cinema Behind Star Wars: The Wizard of Oz
Posted on January 18 2016
Released in 1939, The Wizard of Oz is the classic tale of a Kansas farm girl named Dorothy who, by way of a hurricane, is thrust into a world unlike any she’d ever seen. She is forced to go on a quest with unlikely allies to find a wizard and then defeat a monstrous witch if she ever wants to get home. It’s based on a series of books that began in 1900 and endure in popularity and the pop culture consciousness, every bit as much as Star Wars does.
When Roger Ebert first reviewed Star Wars in 1977, he included a reference to The Wizard Oz that might seem obvious now, but in 1977 he might have been the first critic to begin connecting the dots. “Star Wars is a fairy tale,” he wrote, “a fantasy, a legend, finding its roots in some of our most popular fictions. The golden robot, lion-faced space pilot, and insecure little computer on wheels must have been suggested by the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz.”
Indeed we can see these influences almost instantly. Luke Skywalker is very much our Dorothy, and the yellow-brick road is the road to Alderaan. Threepio’s fussing and sometimes angry demeanor, not to mention his look, make him a perfect stand-in for the Tin-Man. Han Solo and Chewbacca share the role of the Cowardly Lion, not quite having the courage to stand up and do the right thing until the last minute. Even Chewbacca’s costume and sounds echo a lion, doubly so when he’s shaking his head profusely, refusing to go back into the trash compactor.
Unlike Dorothy, though, Luke can find his way to defeat the evil, but is left without a home to go to. He can only move forward with his life, finding a new acceptance with new friends.
From The Empire Strikes Back and into all three of the prequels, Darth Sidious plays an evil version of the wizard of Oz, pulling strings behind the curtain and almost exclusively appearing in his holographic visage. It wasn’t until Luke pulled the curtain on his over-confidence in Return of the Jedi that he was finally vanquished, cackling like the Wicked Witch of the West all the way until his untimely demise on the second Death Star.
The Wizard of Oz’s influence would stretch even further into Star Wars, though. In “Nomad Droids,” the sixth episode of the fourth season of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Artoo-Detoo and See-Threepio are caught in a hurricane-like battle and end up on a planet, recasting them as Dorothy and Toto. On one of the planets, they find a group of pit droids who have subjugated a diminutive race with a giant hologram, literally mirroring a Wizard of Oz scenario. Taking his role as Toto a step further, Artoo exposes the pit droids just as Toto pulls the curtain back on the great wizard.
The Clone Wars had more connections to the land of Oz in the fourth season than just this episode, though. “The General,” which is the seventh episode of Season Four, was directed by longtime Lucas collaborator Walter Murch. Murch directed Disney’s 1985 fantasy film Return to Oz, which sent Dorothy back to Oz.
The era of The Force Awakens doesn’t slow down on references to The Wizard of Oz, either. At the press conference for The Force Awakens, screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan said, “When George made A New Hope, he was influenced very much by Kurosawa and by Flash Gordon and by the Wizard of Oz, and I think that all those movies, you can feel them in A New Hope, and everything that’s in A New Hope has come down through the movies to this day.”
And that influence can be seen, most notably, in The Force Awakens with Snoke, the new phantom menace, controlling the fate of the galaxy from behind his curtain and only showing himself, so far, as a hologram. But, like the Wizard of Oz, will his true form be something else completely? Only time will tell.
Though it was made in 1939 (the same year as Gunga Din and Gone with the Wind, which we talked about here and here), The Wizard of Oz has a compelling staying power that makes it relevant to generations over and over again, just like Star Wars. It’s a fantasy film fit for the whole family and is sure to hold the attention of everyone from the age of 1 to 100.
Availability: The Wizard of Oz is widely available on DVD and Blu-ray, and is available to stream for a modest rental fee on most streaming movie services.