Phantom of the Space Opera

December 10, 2009


In which I argue that an obscure glamrock musical with a soundtrack by the man who wrote “The Rainbow Connection” was the inspiration for one of the greatest movie villains of all time.

He’s 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. He’s 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, it’s the Phantom of the Paradise, from Brian De Palma’s 1974 movie musical of the same name. It’s 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 Palma’s filmography on Entertainment Weekly’s 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 Lucas’ 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 “a subliminal history of movies.”

Some of the inspirations were obvious, especially Flash Gordon Serials. Lucas had wanted to remake Flash Gordon, but couldn’t secure the rights. He pitched the story as an “amalgam of Buck Rogers and Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk,” (the latter two being Errol Flynn swashbucklers).

Dale Pollock’s biography, Skywalking: the Life and Films of George Lucas provides an ample list of  influences – “video screens, medieval costumes, art deco sets and blaster guns” (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 Raymond’s Iron Men of Mongo for C-3PO; banthas from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars; visual inspiration from Forbidden Planet and The Day the World Ended, and sci-fi novels like Dune and E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman saga. The style for C-3PO was borrowed from the robot in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

The storylines were borrowed and re-purposed: a princess and a hidden rebel fortress comes from Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress; the attack on the death star borrows visuals and dialogue from the classic WWII film Dambusters. Princess Leia’s cell block, 2187, is a reference to an NFB film, 21-87 by NFB filmmaker Arthur Lipsett.

(You can see more influences here

Lucas has tended to downplay the pop culture inspirations and played up more “serious” inspirations, like Joseph Campbell “monomyth” and “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” and the works of Carlos Castaneda. If you doubt the visual impact of some of Lucas’ 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 “I was fascinated by the futuristic society, the idea of rocket ships and lasers up against somebody with a stick.  The little guys were winning and technology was losing – I liked that.”

(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 Cameron’s upcoming film Avatar).

Lucas’ original draft for Star Wars was about 200 pages long, and ended with an attack on the Death Star and the climactic battle between “the little guys with a stick” was not with Ewoks, it was Wookiees. (Sounds better already, doesn’t 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 doesn’t get much credit.

DePalma’s film, released around Hallowe’en 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 Palma’s 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 – a    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 Phantom’s deal with Swan has imprisoned him and made him immortal; but Swan, too has a deal with the devil: in a variation of Wilde’s picture of Dorian Gray, Swan ages on videotape, but not in person.

The film is uneven at best. It doesn’t 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, wasn’t 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 “Adventures of the Starkiller, Episode One of the Star Wars.”

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 Palma’s 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 Lucas’ 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.

“They all thought it was a disaster,” Lucas said. De Palma was the most critical, needling Lucas about “the almighty Force” 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 “De Palma faced them and made snide suggestions.”

In the end, De Palma stopped being such a dick, and he and Cocks rewrote the “opening crawl” that introduces the film, changes that Lucas incorporated in the final edit.

Where the Two Films Line Up

The Phantom of the Paradise’s influence is clear in both the design and character of Darth Vader.

  • In Episode IV it’s most evident in the design of Darth Vader’s 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 Phantom’s cubicle – studio.
  • That same cubicle studio – which is a real studio at New York’s the Power Station – is the design inspiration for Darth Vader’s 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 “Beef” onstage, while the Emperor and Vader use “Force Lightning.”
  • 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 1’s title, The Phantom Menace being an obvious nod. And in Episode III, Palpatine proposes his “deal with the devil” 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.  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 “blockbuster” 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 verité, highbrow critics scoff. But before Star Wars,  American Graffiti and THX 1138, Lucas had been an award-winning student filmmaker. He really was inspired by experiments in film, from cinema verité to “impressionistic” 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 “synthesized” and modern. The sound effects used “real-world” 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 and  had two and a half movies, with Return of the Jedi being the half.

There was a lot of “filler” as a result, and though when I was 12 thought “Jedi” 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.

19 Responses to Phantom of the Space Opera

  1. ScripTeach on December 11, 2009 at 9:32 am

    VERY interesting article! I would have never thought of the Phantom as being an inspiration for Darth Vader, but I completely see your points, especially in light of Lucas’s & DePalma’s friendship.

    As flawed as it may be, I love PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE. The first time I saw it (at a revival house, back when they had those), I sat for two screenings in a row. Where most of the audience laughed at the Phantom’s travails, I empathized and felt his pain. I own the CD and to this day “Old Souls” is one of my favorite haunting ballads.

    Kudos to you for exploring a hereunto unexplored cinematic connection!

  2. KFM on May 3, 2010 at 3:09 am

    That WAS the story of the prequels. It was overblown, but it was melodrama, and it was operatic, what more do you want from a Faustian story?

  3. The Lurking Bat on May 3, 2010 at 5:46 am

    Mix that in with Akira Kurosawa’s “The Hidden Fortress” and, yeah, I could definitely see it.
    VERY interesting article indeed!!! Thanks!

  4. » Darth Vader: Rock God on May 3, 2010 at 6:33 am

    [...] Darth Vader? Not so much. [...]

  5. The Former 786 on May 3, 2010 at 11:41 am


    I was shown this film a number of times while studying film in college, and not ONCE was this connection brought up. However, now that you’ve brought it up, the similarities are striking!

    Well done!

    Now if I could just get my wife to enjoy Phantom of the Paradise as much as I do. . .

  6. meccano on May 3, 2010 at 12:38 pm

    The studio/Vadar’s Meditation Chamber room that the Phantom is in is actually “The Tonto Synthesizer.” Wikipedia describes it as “the world’s first (and still the largest) multitimbral polyphonic analog synthesizer, designed and constructed by Malcolm Cecil.” It was custom built from several different units (starting with a Moog) from different manufacturers and custom units. “The modules are all mounted in an instantly recognizable semicircle of huge curving wooden cabinets, twenty feet in diameter and six feet high.” The synthesizer is no longer located at the Record Plant, but does still exist and apparently is still functional.

  7. admin on May 3, 2010 at 12:52 pm

    Thanks for that. Very interesting about the “Tonto.” I wonder if the word could in any way be the inspiration for “Tauntaun.”

  8. Kathy on May 3, 2010 at 12:53 pm

    I’m not the only one who saw this!!!!

    And all this time people have looked at me like I’m some PotP obsessed weirdo….


  9. John on May 3, 2010 at 2:49 pm

    Great article! Very intriguing, but not surprising that Lucas would have been influenced by Depalma, seeing as they were good friends
    Also, just to clear up the error, it’s Dale Pollock, not Dave, I felt I had to say something as he’s a friend and former teacher.

  10. admin on May 3, 2010 at 2:54 pm

    Thank you – I will correct the error – I knew it was Dale Pollock, it’s just a typo on my part.

  11. Moonrider on May 3, 2010 at 8:27 pm

    Hmm interesting

    I can’t seem to locate any mention on the linked website or here about Mark Hamill describing Darth Vader as Doctor Doom when he first saw him on set. I can’t seem to find any references to Jack Kirby’s Fourth World comic books from the very early seventies and all of the incredible similarities between that and Star Wars.

    Selective presentation?

    May the Source be with you

  12. admin on May 3, 2010 at 9:02 pm

    It is a selective presentation, but mostly because I think the links between DePalma’s Phantom and Darth Vader are very direct, both in terms of their visual appearance, their narrative, and Lucas and De Palma’s friendship.

    As for the Fourth World Series, I confess ignorance. I have only heard them referenced elsewhere, and not in either Pollock’s Skywalking or in Kinzler’s Making of Star Wars. There is an acknowledgement that Lucas bought and read hundreds of comic books in order to make a movie for 12-year-olds.

    I did find the links with Kirby here, and they are interesting, although the article makes it clear there are plenty of people and plot elements that were not influenced by Kirby.

    I have heard the Dr. Doom argument before, but I didn’t know about Mark Hamill’s reference. The conception of Vader wearing armor and a breathing mask came in part from the artist Ralph McQuarrie and other production designers – a Star Wars script describes Vader as floating, bedouin-like with a cape trailing behind him. Vader looks like Dr. Doom, but he doesn’t really have his story.

    Vader does have the Phantom’s story, however, which is why I found the connection interesting not just from a cinematic point of view but I felt like it shed new light on Vader’s character, and Lucas’ conception of him, right from the first movie.

    Thanks for commenting! I appreciate it.

  13. Moonrider on May 3, 2010 at 9:49 pm

    Thank you for posting that link. I have read that article before and I appreciate the cited information I disagree with the author’s conclusions.

    I would urge you and anyone else to read this article:

    Both of these articles were originally written in magazines produced by The first one from “The Jack Kirby Collector” and the one I posted is originally from “Alter Ego”.

    I should add that the drawing of Batgirl’s hairdo is EXACTLY like Princess Leia’s and the photograph of the Native American woman’s hairdo is marginal at best.

    Beware of Darkseid

  14. admin on May 3, 2010 at 10:16 pm

    I scanned the Batgirl from a DC collection – I think it is literally her first appearance. Amidala had hairdo more like the ones from Pancho Villa in the prequels.

    Funny thing, a local comics dealer in my home town actually sat on the comics panel with George Lucas and Mark Hamill! No one showed up so they went for coffee. He still owns a great shop at

  15. Moonrider on May 3, 2010 at 10:40 pm

    Thought I would post some Batgirl info.

    Bob Kane and Sheldon Moldoff created the first incarnation of the “Bat-Girl” named Betty Kane. She debuted in Batman #139 (1961) as the sidekick to Batwoman.

    Julius Schwartz became the editor of the Batman comic book titles in 1964. Batwoman and Bat-Girl were removed and replaced by the New Batgirl: Barbara Gordon who was police commissioner James Gordon’s daughter. Her fist appearance was Gardner Fox and Carmine Infantino’s Detective Comics #359, entitled “The Million Dollar Debut of Batgirl”, in 1967.

    I have seen that scan of her before but I think it was later than ’67.

    My Name is Mark Moonrider

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