In which I argue that an obscure glamrock musical with a soundtrack by the man who wrote âThe Rainbow Connectionâ was the inspiration for one of the greatest movie villains of all time.
Heâs a character of superhuman power and strength, clad in black leather and a flowing cloak, with a stylized helmet to cover hideous scars on his face. The damage to his vocal cords means he breathes with an eerie rasp, and has a box with lights and switches on his chest to help modulate his voice. He retreats to an egg-shaped chamber where he can meditate and find peace. Heâs not wholly evil, but has been enslaved by someone who is: a cruel master who exploits his unique powers in order to further his own, evil ends.
Darth Vader? Actually, itâs the Phantom of the Paradise, from Brian De Palmaâs 1974 movie musical of the same name. Itâs a film that bombed everywhere it was released except my hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, (where it played for a year) and Paris, France. It is obscure enough that, although it was nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe, it is not included in De Palmaâs filmography on Entertainment Weeklyâs website.
I watched it, not having seen it in years, because I wanted to see what conclusions you could draw about the character of Winnipeggers that this film could develop such a local cult following. (I never found out.)
Instead, I realized that this film must have been one of George Lucasâ biggest – and unmentioned – inspirations for Darth Vader and the story of Star Wars.
The Inspirations for Star Wars
When Star Wars was released, it was hailed by Time as âa subliminal history of movies.â
Some of the inspirations were obvious, especially Flash Gordon Serials. Lucas had wanted to remake Flash Gordon, but couldnât secure the rights. He pitched the story as an âamalgam of Buck Rogers and Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk,” (the latter two being Errol Flynn swashbucklers).
Dale Pollockâs biography, Skywalking: the Life and Films of George Lucas provides an ample list ofÂ influences – âvideo screens, medieval costumes, art deco sets and blaster gunsâ (as well as the opening crawl) from Flash Gordon; Ming the Merciless as the model for the Emperor; a copper-coloured robot servant from Alex Raymondâs Iron Men of Mongo for C-3PO; banthas from Edgar Rice Burroughsâ John Carter of Mars; visual inspiration from Forbidden Planet and The Day the World Ended, and sci-fi novels like Dune and E.E. âDocâ Smithâs Lensman saga. The style for C-3PO was borrowed from the robot in Fritz Langâs Metropolis.
The storylines were borrowed and re-purposed: a princess and a hidden rebel fortress comes from Kurosawaâs The Hidden Fortress; the attack on the death star borrows visuals and dialogue from the classic WWII film Dambusters. Princess Leiaâs cell block, 2187, is a reference to an NFB film, 21-87 by NFB filmmaker Arthur Lipsett.
(You can see more influences here http://moongadget.com/origins/other2.html)
Lucas has tended to downplay the pop culture inspirations and played up more âseriousâ inspirations, like Joseph Campbell âmonomythâ and âThe Hero with a Thousand Facesâ and the works of Carlos Castaneda. If you doubt the visual impact of some of Lucasâ inspirations, you need look no further than this image of Batgirl to see where a possible inspiration for Princess Leia.
[I have been corrected on this. Edwars Rinzler writes that "Leia buns came from photographs by a well-known photographer, Edward S. Curtis. Anyway, he took photos of Native Americans and the hairdo meant they were married (or not--I can't remember). The other influence for the buns was Mexican rebel women fighting with Pancho Villa in the Mexican Revolution. They, even Villa's wife, often had their hair done up like that."]
Before making Graffiti, Lucas had worked for the Air Force, editing film that was coming back from Viet Nam. (The student version of THX 1138 was shot with members of the U.S. Air Force as actors).
It inspired one of the major themes of Star Wars: a spiritual David vs a technological Goliath. Lucas said âI was fascinated by the futuristic society, the idea of rocket ships and lasers up against somebody with a stick.Â The little guys were winning and technology was losing – I liked that.â
(Lucas has also said that Nixon was an inspiration for the Emperor: to follow this logic, the evil empire is the U.S. and the scrappy rebels are the Vietnamese. For a variation on this theme, please see James Cameronâs upcoming film Avatar).
Lucasâ original draft for Star Wars was about 200 pages long, and ended with an attack on the Death Star and the climactic battle between âthe little guys with a stickâ was not with Ewoks, it was Wookiees. (Sounds better already, doesnât it?) To make the first script for Star Wars work, he took the first act, and stuck the very end of the film on.
The Phantom Phantom
So the examples of influences are legion: but Phantom of the Paradise doesnât get much credit.
DePalmaâs film, released around Halloweâen 1974, was a glam-rock musical with some strong similarities to Rocky Horror – which had opened onstage in L.A. six months earlier. De Palma wrote the script himself, and the soundtrack is by Paul Williams – yes, that Paul Williams, who wrote the soundtracks to films like the Muppet Movie and Bugsy Malone, among others.
Phantom of the Paradise was obviously an update of the horror classic the Phantom of the Opera, (which had already been remade several times) the story of an enigmatic figure who haunted the Paris Opera house and who is obsessed with a beautiful young singer.
De Palmaâs innovation was to combine the stories and character of the Phantom – a passionate but horribly disfigured character, desperately in love – with Faust, who obtains greatness and eternal life at the price of his soul.
De Palma also created a backstory for the Phantom, who in the original is an enigma – aÂ Â Â maimed genius whose origins are unexplained. In Paradise, he starts out as a goofy and affable songwriter named Winslow, who shows up at auditions for the opening of a new theatre, the Paradise, owned and run by a promoter named Swan, played by Williams.
Swan frames Winslow on a drug charge and steals his music – a cantata of Faust. In jail Winslow is subjected to experiments engineered by Swan (including replacing his teeth with metal ones) but when Winslow hears his music will be played by a band he loathes, the Juicy Fruits, he breaks out of jail to wreak havoc in the plant where the records are being made.
Instead, Winslow ends up nearly crushing his head in a hot record press, deforming his face. He dons a black leather body suit and cape and a bird-like mask, and starts living in a studio in the Paradise, writing for Swan.
As he discovers over the course of the film, The Phantomâs deal with Swan has imprisoned him and made him immortal; but Swan, too has a deal with the devil: in a variation of Wildeâs picture of Dorian Gray, Swan ages on videotape, but not in person.
The film is uneven at best. It doesnât have the same dreamlike quality, sense of humour, or even memorable songs that Rocky Horror has. Its interest is more for trivia – Paul Hirsch, the editor, went on to edit Star Wars and the Empire Strikes Back, and Sissy Spacek – who starred in Carrie – was the set dresser on Paradise.
Combining the three stories of the Phantom of the Opera, Faust, and the Picture of Dorian Gray is the best thing about the film. And that is the part that George Lucas used to create the character of Darth Vader.
Lucas and De Palma
It took Lucas years to finish the script for Star Wars. His first draft, started in 1973, wasnât finished until May, 1974. The Phantom of the Paradise was released in October, 74, and Lucas turned in a second (and apparently much-improved) draft on January 28, 1975, titled âAdventures of the Starkiller, Episode One of the Star Wars.â
Lucas and De Palma knew each other well. They were both young filmmakers in L.A., and they famously held the auditions for Star Wars and the horror film Carrie together, at the same time. They both wanted to cast young, relative unknowns. Lucas and De Palma spent two months together in the old Samuel Goldwyn Studios seeing between 30 and 40 actors a day. Lucas was shy and quiet, De Palma was outgoing. Mark Hamill, later cast as Luke Skywalker, thought Lucas was De Palmaâs gofer.
Making Star Wars was an ordeal for Lucas. He struggled with the studio, the British crew refused to work past 5:30 in the afternoon, there were budget overruns and when he returned to California from shooting in the UK, the special effects company he had set up to create shots for the film had already spent half its $2-million budget and produced only three shots. At one point, Lucas was hospitalized due to stress, and had virtually resigned himself to the film being a failure.
This was borne out by Lucasâ experience screening a rough cut of the film to a select group of friends. They were Bill Huyck and Gloria Katz, (who wrote the script for American Graffiti and had punched up the dialogue in Star Wars); John Milius (who wrote the screenplay for Apocalypse Now) Matthew Robbins and Hal Barwood, Jay Cocks (the film critic for Time), Steven Spielberg and De Palma.
âThey all thought it was a disaster,â Lucas said. De Palma was the most critical, needling Lucas about âthe almighty Forceâ and calling it one of the worst things he had ever seen. When the group went out for dinner afterwards, Pollock writes that Cocks and Spielberg were the only ones who liked it – they sat on one side of the table praising the film while âDe Palma faced them and made snide suggestions.â
In the end, De Palma stopped being such a dick, and he and Cocks rewrote the âopening crawlâ that introduces the film, changes that Lucas incorporated in the final edit.
Where the Two Films Line Up
The Phantom of the Paradiseâs influence is clear in both the design and character of Darth Vader.
- In Episode IV itâs most evident in the design of Darth Vaderâs costume – his cape, helmet and electronic chest box. You can also see that when Obi-Wan Kenobi shuts down the power to the tractor beam, it is actually similar to the monitor levels in the Phantomâs cubicle – studio.
- That same cubicle studio – which is a real studio at New Yorkâs the Power Station – is the design inspiration for Darth Vaderâs meditation chamber in The Empire Strikes Back.
- In the Return of the Jedi, there are two similarities – in Paradise, the Phantom uses a neon sign shaped like a lightning bolt to kill a character named âBeefâ onstage, while the Emperor and Vader use âForce Lightning.â
- Darth Vader removes his mask and reveals his scarred face at the moment of his death, just as the Phantom reveals that he is Winslow at the end of Phantom of the Paradise.
There are other references as well – Episode 1âs title, The Phantom Menace being an obvious nod. And in Episode III, Palpatine proposes his âdeal with the devilâ to Anakin Skywalker – using the Dark Side of the Force to extend life – while the two are at the opera.
And Palpatine, like Swan, have both made Faustian bargains of their own to appear young even as they grow old, and both have their true appearance revealed when they are attacked – Swan at the end of Paradise, and Palpatine at the end of Episode III.
So is Lucas ripping off De Palma? No. Both directors were making movies they had written themselves, and both films were deliberately re-telling and reinventing old stories.Â This falls under homage – it was probably a kind of private joke between Lucas and De Palma, not least because Lucas was convinced the film would, at best, bring in $16 milllion, which is what an average Disney film grossed back then.
(Lucas is blamed for the âblockbusterâ culture that developed in Hollywood after Star Wars, but it was not expected to be a blockbuster. At its debut, the sci-fi genre was a niche market, and pre-sales were a whopping $1.5 million at a time when a movie that was expected to succeed would get $10-million, and the film opened in 32 theatres across the U.S)
What it does is shed a bit more light on Darth Vader as a character – he is the Phantom of a Space Opera, weaker and more tortured within than you realize. As Faust, a villain and a victim of the pact he has made with the Emperor.
It also shows that Lucas was supremely talented at perceiving the one aspect of a film that really works and seizing on it.
In fact, Lucas often deserves more credit than he gets. When he talks about experimental film and cinema veritĂ©, highbrow critics scoff. But before Star Wars,Â American Graffiti and THX 1138, Lucas had been an award-winning student filmmaker. He really was inspired by experiments in film, from cinema veritĂ© to âimpressionisticâ editing and films that strung together seemingly random images and noise but still seemed to convey meaning.
American Graffiti and Star Wars worked in large part because Lucas was a student of film who had an incredible understanding of the technical aspects of the medium, and how to use them to persuade the audience that what they were watching was real, even if the content was pure fantasy-fairy tale. He even conceived American Graffiti as a kind of anthropological study of American teenagers.
He packed everything he loved into Star Wars, and used every cinematic trick in the book, from the 1930s on, to sell it. In order to convince the audience that what they were seeing was real, he insisted on shooting using natural light, used dirty sets and props and a documentary shooting style. He wanted an old-fashioned, classical soundtrack instead of something âsynthesizedâ and modern. The sound effects used âreal-worldâ sounds, especially for electronic and mechanical effects.
In looking at the Star Wars saga – all six films – it becomes apparent that the parts that work are the ones that were part of his original, 200-page script and the backstory that led up to it. In creating the original trilogy (Episodes IV, V, VI) Lucas chopped it up andÂ had two and a half movies, with Return of the Jedi being the half.
There was a lot of âfillerâ as a result, and though when I was 12 thought âJediâ was a return to form after the downer of Empire, Jedi seems the weakest one now.
The same is true of the prequels – of which only one really seemed necessary. So little of consequence to the story happens in the first two episodes that a single film could readily have done the job. (Some fans have been editing just such versions).
A compressed narrative would have been the story of Darth Vader as Faust and the Phantom: his temptation, his pact with the devil, his fall, his obsession and his redemption. In fact, it would have been the story of Phantom of the Paradise. Only better.