As with most Star Wars movies, Solo: A Star Wars Story is a mashup of genres and classic film influences. Some of the same films we’ve seen inspire past installments can be felt again here, such as Metropolis and Casablanca, while there are also the homages to movies I’ve recommended recently, including Paths of Glory and The Wages of Fear.
Experts like Bryan Young (now writing essentials at Slashfilm) are sure to pick out more references and inspirations in due time. For now, we can highlight those already shared by director Ron Howard and screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and Jonathan Kasdan, as well as some other necessary building blocks for fans to go back and discover.
Oliver Twist (1948)
When we first meet young Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) and Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), they’re working for a local Corellian crime boss called Lady Proxima (voiced by Linda Hunt). The two are expected to steal for the large, severely photosensitive worm woman along with other orphaned youths living in the sewers she governs. While Han and Qi’ra are a bit old to be considered orphan kids, they clearly came out of the system and continue to be indebted to it.
Lady Proxima is reminiscent of the villainous character Fagin from the Charles Dickens novel “Oliver Twist,” about an orphan boy who gets mixed up with a similar criminal operation. Many adaptations of the book exist, most famously in musical form. This David Lean version is probably the finest non-singing take, and it has a special Star Wars connection: Alec Guinness, the original Obi-Wan Kenobi, plays the part of Fagin. Be warned: the portrayal is faithfully anti-Semitic and has rightfully been the subject of controversy throughout its 70-year history.
Treasure Island (1950)
One of the direct influences on the script for Solo: A Star Wars Story, according to the Kasdans, was Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic adventure story “Treasure Island.” They told Entertainment Weekly that they went back to the book for the inspiration, rather than any of the movie adaptations. The younger Kasdan said:
“One of the things that Larry and I talked about right at the beginning of where we started working together on this was what kind of stories we wanted to riff off…One we immediately reread was Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Treasure Island’ because we wanted it to be a boy’s adventure story, but one in which he encounters characters of dubious intent, and that everyone he would encounter would sort of inform his maturation as an adult…We were talking a lot about Long John Silver and his relationship with the kid in Treasure Island.”
“Treasure Island” is about pirates and buried gold and approaches the narrative from the coming-of-age perspective of a kid, Jim Hawkins, who is taken under the wing of Long John Silver, a murderous schemer who is both mentor and nemesis. The Kasdans admit to have modeled Woody Harrelson’s Beckett after the iconically complex villain.
Disney’s 1950 adaptation of “Treasure Island” is not the first, but it’s surely the most famous straight live-action telling — of course, there’s also the Muppets version, which was also put out by Disney, and relevant to Star Wars is the underrated sci-fi take on the story, again from Disney, the animated feature Treasure Planet. In that adaptation, the adventure takes place in outer space, and Silver is a cyborg.
Bullitt (1968) and Dirty Harry (1971)
When asked by Fandango if he watched any movies in preparation for directing Solo, Howard answers, “Bullitt was helpful.” A few days later, the filmmaker explained a little more how the Steve McQueen classic informed the main character in Solo. Answering a tweet from Nerdist’s Michelle Buchman during a Twitter Q&A, he said:
“This is the story about a young, reckless, rebellious guy, Han Solo. He’s got a lot of swagger, he’s got the need for speed. So it prodded me to sort of look back at those kind of ’70s movies, things like ‘Bullitt’ influenced some of the choices that we made. Some of those kind of heist/crime movies, those sort of adventures are something that I looked at a lot.”
— Star Wars (@starwars) May 7, 2018
More recently, he also described Solo to The Detroit News with acknowledgement of its influences:
“I’d say it’s more of a late ’60s, early ’70s crime-action movie like ‘Bullitt’ and ‘Dirty Harry,’ where the lead characters have a Western feel, but instead of horses and wagons, it’s muscle cars.”
Bullitt is primarily remembered for its San Francisco-set car chase and stars McQueen as the title character, a cop who fails in protecting a witness and then must solve the case. The performance is modeled after real-life detective Dave Toschi, who went on to be a chief figure in the Zodiac Killer investigation, through which he also inspired the title character of Dirty Harry. Decades later, Toschi was also portrayed by Mark Ruffalo in Zodiac.
In the Fandango interview, Howard also mentions Michael Mann’s 1995 thriller Heat because Jonathan Kasdan “talks a lot about” that movie’s influence. It’s the older Kasdan, however, who tells EW why and how it was an inspiration:
“We talked about the relationship between Val Kilmer and Robert De Niro in ‘Heat,’ where there’s a sort of older, wiser criminal, and then someone who’s learning the ropes from them. We wanted this movie to have that flavor and that swagger… No one is reliable… There’s always a chance of betrayal. And, I wanted to take what is essentially a street smart, but very innocent, young man, and figure out how could we start him on the journey to being the character who comes into the cantina [in the original ‘Star Wars’]?”
Another movie the Kasdans name to EW is the Western Unforgiven, which I recommended last year with Logan. Directed by Dirty Harry star Clint Eastwood, the movie was cited as an influence for its apprentice/gunslinger relationship.
American Graffiti (1973)
While not a direct influence on Solo, this movie is where it all began for Howard’s connection to the Star Wars legacy. He was still an actor back then, having grown up in the industry as a child performer. While he’d been in plenty of movies before American Graffiti, here was his big break as an adult actor, albeit playing a teenager. Not only is he working for director George Lucas, who would go on to make Star Wars, but one of his costars in the ensemble is the future Han Solo, Harrison Ford.
Others in the cast also auditioned for parts in the original Star Wars. Howard’s onscreen girlfriend Cindy Williams was up for the role of Princess Leia, as was Candy Clark. Charles Martin Smith auditioned to play Luke Skywalker. And Paul Le Mat was considered for the part of Han Solo. He sort of plays a Han-like character in American Graffiti anyway. Not only is he trying to act tougher than he is, but he’s also an expert driver, someone who could probably also maneuver a M-68 landspeeder pretty well. For more details on how an article by Bryan Young on the official Star Wars this early Lucas movie influenced his later franchise, check out site.
Grand Theft Auto (1977) and Willow (1988)
While Lucas and Ford went on to make blockbuster movie franchise history together in 1977, Howard made his feature directorial debut the same year. Grand Theft Auto, which was released less than a month after the original Star Wars, came out of the Roger Corman school of filmmaking. It’s a low-budget comedy focused on a young couple (Howard, directing himself, and Nancy Morgan) who, like Han and Qi’ra, start out just wanting to run away together. And head out on their adventure in a stolen vehicle — here it’s the girl’s parent’s Rolls Royce.
Solo has some of the energy of Grand Theft Auto, which we don’t see from Howard all that often anymore. Another movie he directed that’s felt a lot in the new Star Wars Story is Willow, a Tolkien-esque fantasy co-written and produced by George Lucas. It stars Warwick Davis, who has become a staple of the Star Wars movies (in Solo he plays the same character he played in The Phantom Menace ), as a dwarf tasked with the protection of an important baby. Val Kilmer joins him in his adventure as an obvious Han Solo type. As we’ve discussed on FSR recently, Willow was basically a trial run for Howard to direct an actual Star Wars movie.
Gangster No. 1 (2000)
Another one of the movies named as an influence by the Kasdans, Paul McGuigan’s Gangster No. 1 was part of a wave of British gangster films that came out around the same time. But it wasn’t anywhere near as successful as Sexy Beast or Snatch in the US. Gangster No. 1 stars Solo actor Paul Bettany as a young enforcer on the rise in London’s underworld in the ’60s, playing a role in flashbacks portrayed 30 years later, in the present, by Malcolm McDowell.
In Solo, he gets to be the veteran criminal but it’s a part intentionally similar to Bettany’s part in Gangster No. 1. While the casting of Bettany to replace Michael K. Williams in the role of crime boss Dryden Vos may have had a lot to do with his previous experience working with Howard (in The Da Vinci Code), the actor also fit well into the role, which apparently was inspired by his own earlier character here. Jonathan Kasdan told EW:
“‘Gangster No. 1′ is a wild movie and Paul is great in it… It’s a combination of class and swagger and real danger, which I think is a fun thing, and he absolutely inhabits it… [Vos is] way deeper in the world than anyone else that we meet in the movie, but again, Woody’s character is a career criminal, too… They’re just in slightly different places, much like a movie like ‘Layer Cake,’ where you see a [Michael Gambon]-type of character who’s a little more advanced. Within the criminal underworld, there’s no hierarchy. There are some that are in power, and there’s some that are scrambling to stay alive.”
I guess Matthew Vaughn’s 2003 British crime film Layer Cake can also be added on to your list of movies to watch after seeing Solo, as an honorable mention.
The Secret World of Tinder (2015)
I should probably start including TV series as recommendations on these lists, since the best places to direct you to more of Donald Glover and Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who plays the robot L3-37, are the shows Atlanta and Fleabag, respectively. I also should be more lax about my rule to include at least one documentary each week, since it’s very difficult to find nonfiction films that are relevant to space operas like the Star Wars movies. Alas, I need a doc and I’m focused on non-episodic media, so here’s a medium-length Channel 4 doc about a social media app.
Yes, there’s a good reason for recommending it. And it’s not just because Lando (Glover) is clearly all about hooking up with as many partners as possible, pansexual to the extreme without limitations on gender or species or lack of organic material. The Secret World of Tinder is narrated by Waller-Bridge, meaning you can learn all about other real-life sex addicts and “technosexuals” (which seems like it’d apply to guys who like to have sex with droids) and pretend it’s L3-37 providing the information.
Watch it here.
Hail, Caesar! (2016)
Rounding out the Kasdans’ influences is The Big Lebowski, Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1998 comedy that pays homage to classic hardboiled crime stories while also offering an early ’90s pastiche wrapped up in a goofy, highly quotable farce. Is Han the Dude to Chewie’s Walter? Not quite, but here’s what Jonathan Kasdan told EW:
“[We were] trying to create a crime movie where our character was entering a crime world where there were already dramas in place and relationships and complications, and we have to see him negotiate a lot more rivalries than he is expecting at the beginning of the story… [‘Solo’] has that flavor of a crime world that has weirdness and surprise and people stumbling into things — and other people very intentionally getting into [trouble]… ‘The Big Lebowski’ is a great example because ‘Solo’ has a more off-kilter tone than you’ve ever seen in [‘Star Wars’].”
According to EW, the Kasdans, who are admitted “huge Coen brothers fans,” also name Miller’s Crossing as an influence. Presumably, they must also like Hail, Caesar!, the Coens’ last feature and a very underrated one — or at least under-seen one — at that. The 1950s set Hollywood comedy is notable for its supporting performance by Solo star Alden Ehrenreich. While he’s actually the least interesting part of the new Star Wars movie, Ehrenreich’s young actor character, Hobie Doyle, is the most interesting and memorable part of Hail, Caesar! If you missed it when it came out, now’s the time to see why a certain line reading by Ehrenreich was one of the most enjoyable bits of dialogue in years. And if you want more Coen brothers movies featuring Solo actors, there’s Woody Harrelson in No Country for Old Men.