Photo: A New Hope / 20th Century Fox

Historical References In 'Star Wars' Movies

Star Wars has been referred to as science fiction, fantasy, and space opera, but according to its opening scroll, it’s also a historical film, and that’s truer than most would believe. As far as we know, the events depicted within are entirely fictional, the Star Wars franchise is absolutely loaded with very-direct historical references and allusions to important figures and events.

George Lucas has been quite open about his various influences and inspirations for Star Wars, and his favorite historical periods are chief among them. The impact of the past can thus be felt across every film and other piece of media, in everything from the costumes to the most vital of plot points. 

Photo: A New Hope / 20th Century Fox

  • Stormtroopers Were Specialized German Soldiers In World War I

    It’s not that hard to see Star Wars’ Galactic Empire as one big allegory for the Third Reich, but their foot soldiers take direct inspiration from another major German conflict: WWI’s German Sturmtruppen. These particular soldiers, whose name translates to 'Stormtroopers,' were the spearhead of a new “Sturmabteilung” strategy aimed at countering the new reality of trench warfare and heavy machine weaponry.

    Just like their cinematic counterparts, these Stormtroopers were expected to strap on helmets and head into the most dangerous areas of combat. Organized into small groups, they were tasked with moving quickly through no man’s land and assaulting weak spots in the enemy line, with the ultimate goal of entering the opposing trench and winning control of it. Unlike George Lucas’s Stormtroopers, these ones were incredibly effective at their job, though their casualty rates were similarly high.

  • The Jedi Function Similarly To Orders Like The Japanese Samurai And The Knights Templar

    The Jedi Function Similarly To Orders Like The Japanese Samurai And The Knights Templar
    Photo: Attack of the Clones / 20th Century Fox

    Like a lot of the aspects of Star Wars lore, the Jedi Order doesn’t take inspiration from just one historical reference, but many. Their traditional and deadly bladed devices, rigid code of honor, and important military role are reminiscent of ancient samurai and their Bushido code. Plus, Darth Vader’s outfit is straight out of the Japanese history books. The Jedi’s reticence for mayhem, combined with their extreme proficiency at doling it out, calls to mind Shaolin monks. 

    Lucas took his most direct influence, however, from the legendary Knights Templar. According to historian Terrance MacMullan, both Jedi Knights and Templars “were esteemed above other knights for their austerity, devotion, and moral purity. Like the Jedi, they practiced individual poverty within a military-monastic order that commanded great material resources.”

    Both orders were governed by a 12-member council, traveling far and wide to dispense peace and justice. They were also easily identifiable by their robes. In addition, both of them were all but eradicated when a purge of their ranks was ordered by King Philip IV in 1307 in the case of the Knights Templar, and by Emperor Palpatine’s Order 66 for the Jedi. 

  • Palpatine Was Inspired By Many Figures (But Mostly Nixon)

    It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Sheev Palpatine, cinema’s greatest galactic dictator, was inspired by a real-world tyrant - but, as it turns out, he’s actually inspired by multiple real-world tyrants. Parallels have been drawn between the emperor and figures like the Third Reich leader, various leaders of the Soviet Union, or the Chilean leader Augusto Pinochet, but the political bad boy that Lucas really had in mind when designing Palpatine was Richard M. Nixon.

    Lucas spoke directly about it as early as a behind-the-scenes featurette for Return of the Jedi, when he was asked if Palpatine was a former Jedi, responding:

    No, he was a politician. Richard M. Nixon was his name. He subverted the senate and finally took over and became an imperial guy and he was really evil. But he pretended to be a really nice guy. He sucked Luke’s father into the dark side.

    Lucas expanded on that thought in a 2005 interview with the Chicago Tribune, saying:

    It was really about the Vietnam War, and that was the period where Nixon was trying to run for a [second] term, which got me to thinking historically about how do democracies get turned into dictatorships? Because the democracies aren't overthrown; they're given away.

  • The Senate And Colosseum Scenes Are Modeled After Ancient Rome

    The Senate And Colosseum Scenes Are Modeled After Ancient Rome
    Photo: The Phantom Menace / 20th Century Fox

    There’s a lot of ancient Rome in Star Wars, which is to be expected, given how influential that empire has been on everything that has come after it. Consider that it’s not just the Galactic Senate that is heavily based on the Roman Senate, but also every subsequent real-world senate in existence. Both the historical and fictional senates would tragically lapse into totalitarianism, and there are multiple parallels in their fall. 

    As historian Tony Keen writes in Star Wars and History, “It is plain that the basic structure of Lucas’s history derives from the fall of the Roman Republic and the subsequent establishment of a monarchy.”

    One very direct allusion to ancient Rome comes in Attack of the Clones. Anakin Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Padmé Amidala are to be executed in a Colosseum-esque arena through combat with ferocious beasts. Those three managed to make it out alive, but most historical gladiators weren’t quite as lucky. 

  • Podracing Is Built On The Tradition Of Chariot Races And ‘Ben Hur’

    Podracing is one of the most divisive aspects of the Star Wars franchise. Some find it to be visually stimulating good fun, and others think it’s so silly, impractical, and dangerous that it breaks the suspension of disbelief. But even those latter traits are further similarities between podracing and the real ancient sport that inspired it: chariot racing. In fact, other than substituting horses for enormous turbine engines, they’re practically the same activity.

    Anakin’s dramatic podrace against Sebulba in The Phantom Menace is very reminiscent of one of the most important historical filmsBen Hur. Not only does the whole thing come off as a near shot-for-shot remake of that film’s chariot race, the celebratory parade that concludes the film is also shamelessly cribbed from the 1959 classic. 

  • The Empire’s Marching Formations And Aesthetics Are Modeled After The Third Reich

    The Empire’s Marching Formations And Aesthetics Are Modeled After The Third Reich
    Photo: Return of the Jedi / 20th Century Fox

    There are endless parallels to be drawn between the Star Wars’ Galactic Empire and the reality of the Third Reich, and Lucas isn’t shy about acknowledging the similarities. He regularly refers to Imperial officers as members of the Third Reich in various film commentaries. Lucas also directed his costume designers to look to history for inspiration, as costume designer John Mollo recalls:

    We didn’t look at any films specifically, but had a lot of books - all the books there were on science fiction and science-fiction films, books on World War II, on Vietnam, and on Japanese armor. George made pronouncements of a general nature... he wanted the Imperial people to look efficient, totalitarian, fascist; and the Rebels, the goodies, to look like something out of a Western or the US Marines. He said, "You’ve got a very difficult job here, because I don’t want anyone to notice the costumes. They’ve got to look familiar, but not familiar at the same time."

    As such, officers of the empire weren’t exactly parading around in replica uniforms, but there were some other aesthetic corollaries that are difficult to ignore. There’s the cold efficiency of their actions, the intimidating emblem, and, of course, the Stormtroopers' penchant for marching in rigid formation, a key trademark of authoritarian regimes.