Doctor: But could you hit a target that size from eight miles up?
Wallis: I reckon that a near miss, even 50 feet, would do the job.
—The Dam Busters, 1955
You don’t need to look too far to find analyses of Star Wars that point out it’s modeled after the hero’s journey of Joseph Campbell’s scholarship, or that it borrows heavily from Westerns and samurai films. But even more deeply ingrained in the phenomenon, I think, is that Star Wars is a post-war film, made by a Baby Boomer who clearly immersed himself in post-war film. And nowhere is that specific influence easier to see than in the dogfights that mark some of the series’ most thrilling set pieces. The spaceships are some of the coolest things about Star Wars, period.
And so, one of the most exciting announcements about Star Wars’ future to come out recently was that Patty Jenkins (director of the Wonder Woman movies) will direct a movie about Rogue Squadron, the storied X-Wing squad from the movies and numerous other spin-off properties. Besides the usual intriguing questions about just where such a story could go, it’s also exciting to think what you could do with a movie focused fully on space laser dogfighting action.
“How many guns are there?”
“I’d say there’s about 10 guns. Some on the field, and some on the towers.”
—The Dam Busters, 1955
Your stereotypical fighter aircraft pilot is a cocky hotshot, but one we think of (fairly or not) as smarter than a lowly grunt. Operating a military vehicle that can fall out of the sky if you’re bad at driving it is difficult, and dogfighting—the aerial battles between fighters—requires so many different skills and physical demands at the same time that it seems superhuman. As the world wars introduced new, unfathomably cruel weapons to the battlefield, fighter pilots were lionized at the same time. “Knights of the Air,” they’ve been called. And Lucas was born into a time when many rah-rah, effects-heavy war stories in cinema focused on their exploits.
It’s not surprising that, in crafting an adventure story, so many elements of it would reflect the war Lucas’ generation grew up hearing stories about. And, in retrospect, not surprising that such a story would resonate with the population that still remembered that war. The Empire looks like an awfully familiar old enemy, at the same time the Rebel Alliance has always had the feel of the Dirty Dozen.
The most direct precursor to A New Hope’s starfighter combat (in that it, at times, seems to have been ripped off wholesale) is 1955’s The Dam Busters, a story based on an actual Royal Air Force squadron’s mission to develop and successfully deploy a top secret bomb made for the sole purpose of smashing a pair of dams. The dams provide water and power to an entire arm of the Third Reich’s industrial infrastructure, and busting them will well and truly fuck Hitler’s couch. The trouble is that they are built so solidly as to be impervious to all but an apocalyptic carpet bombing, and they’re deep behind enemy lines.
The British inventor, Wallis (Michael Redgrave), successfully designs the bomb, but there’s a catch: It can only hit its target by skipping across the water like a stone, a feat made possible only if the bombers are flying perfectly level, at just the right height, just the right speed, and just the right distance for it to bump gently into the wall of the dam and then sink down the right depth to blow it the hell up. And time is not on his side: There’s only one week on the calendar with a high enough water level and a bright enough moon to make the raid count.
The movie builds to a final act that will immediately be familiar to those who have memorized every last frame and line of dialogue in A New Hope, in which the bomber crews fly low over German flak to deliver their payload. Many don’t make it back, but they get the job done, destroying their thought-to-be-invincible targets.
(It’s fortunate that Lucas didn’t borrow literally everything from the movie and the events upon which it was based: The airfield’s pet is a black Labrador whose name you get no points for guessing. The dog gets run over, and his name is turned into an operational code-word among the pilots. It’s the code-word they send when a dam has been busted and is thus shouted gleefully when they win. TWICE!! WITH A HARD “R” AT THE END!!!)
Because Star Wars was rooted in the action of The Dam Busters, The Battle of Britain and Tora! Tora! Tora!, it’s very much dogfighting from a different time than we’re in now. The X-Wings and TIE fighters of Star Wars twirl and juke around one another before lining up the perfect shot. Ever since the advent of jet fighters and guided missiles (horrible innovations that were just developing by the end of the war), dogfighting has not really looked like it did in the movies that gave rise to Star Wars.
There are any number of approaches Jenkins might take in bringing a new, starfighter-centric story to the Star Wars universe. Rogue Squadron and its rotating cast of hotshot pilots have been the jumping-off point for an entire series of novels and several videogames that rank among Star Wars’ most successful adaptations. The “Rogue” name, we now know, comes from the successful suicide mission from Rogue One, something that was called back to in the comics.
Are we going to see a new visual style to Star Wars dogfights that more reflect the computer-and-missile fights we’ve seen in movies like Top Gun? New ships? A story set after The Rise of Skywalker that sees a New Republic try to revive the squadron for some new mission? There are some intriguing possibilities for this premise that might add up to something fresh that still draws on Star Wars’ roots.
Kenneth Lowe turned off his targeting computer. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.