Five war movies you need to see before Rogue One
We've all heard that Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is going to be a war movie — but what does that actually mean?
There have been thousands of war movies – including, from a certain point of view, all the other Star Wars movies. As Rogue One director Gareth Edwards helpfully pointed out at Star Wars Celebration last year, “It’s called Star… Wars”.
By taking a look at the specific war movies Lucasfilm is drawing inspiration from, though, a clearer picture of Rogue One emerges.
The Guns of Navarone (1961)
One of three films cited by Lucasfilm Story Group executive Pablo Hidalgo as a key influence on Rogue One, The Guns of Navarone treats war less like hell and more like an adventure.
It’s the story of a group of men with very particular sets of skills, coming together to take on an impossible mission and beat the odds stacked against them – and that’s exactly what ILM executive John Knoll had in mind when he conceived of the idea for Rogue One.
“I’ve always loved these films where you have a small group of people with complimentary skills who come together to do something amazing,” Knoll explained at Celebration 2016’s Rogue One panel, “like you see in commando films, films like Guns of Navarone, caper films like Ocean’s Eleven, things like that… the original Mission: Impossible TV show.”
The Guns of Navarone follows an Allied commando team (played by Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, David Niven, James Darren and Stanley Brown) who are attempting to infiltrate and destroy a supposedly impregnable fortress that houses two massive superguns.
In one week, the Axis powers will bear down on the nearby island of Keros, where 2,000 British soldiers are marooned – but in order for the Royal Navy to rescue those men in time, the superguns have got to go.
Much of the tension in the film comes from the time limit imposed on the Commando team to get the job done, and we know from the Rogue One trailers that Erso and her team of Rebel recruits will be up against a similar deadline – “A major weapons test is imminent,” Mon Mothma tells us. “We need to know how to stop it.”
The commandos’ attack on Navarone is an impossible mission – the man who assigns it to them, Commodore Jensen, freely admits there’s “not a chance in the world” they will succeed. Similarly, in Rogue One, we know that Jyn Erso’s team have a "97.6 percent chance of failure" — a classic Star Wars trope, for sure, but also very much in line with the war movies Edwards is referencing.
Of course, we all know they will successfully steal the plans for the Death Star – the fun will be in finding out how they get the job done, and how many of them live to tell the tale.
This is hardly the first time a Star Wars film has been inspired by The Guns of Navarone. In Return of the Jedi, Han Solo leads a daring mission on Endor to destroy the Death Star shield generators before the Rebel fleet arrives; in The Force Awakens, we see a slight variation on this story beat that hews even closer to Navarone, as Solo leads a team that infiltrates Starkiller Base, lowering its shields and setting off thermal detonators inside.
The three-episode Citadel arc in The Clone Wars animated series also tips its hat to Navarone, particularly the classic scene in the film in which the commandos have to scale a seemingly unscaleable wall to proceed with their mission. (You could make the case that those episodes are the high point of The Clone Wars, but that’s a good question for another time.)
But from what we know of Rogue One so far, it seems there’ll be more Navarone in its DNA than in any other Star Wars story – and considering it won a slew of Oscars and is still considered one of the greatest war and adventure movies of all time, that’s probably a good thing.
If you get to the end of The Guns of Navarone and want more, they did make a (less successful) sequel – 1978’s Force 10 From Navarone, starring Robert Shaw, Barbara Bach, Carl Weathers, Richard Kiel and a hot young star named Harrison Ford.
Where Eagles Dare (1968)
Hidalgo’s second recommendation, Where Eagles Dare, is also based on an Alistair MacLean book – and in this case, MacLean also wrote the screenplay. (Hidalgo’s third and final recommendation was Star Wars, but I’m going to go ahead and assume you’ve seen that one.)
It’s another story about a small group of men on an impossible mission with huge ramifications for the war effort. This time around, a team of Allied commandos, led by a British Major (Richard Burton) and a US Army Ranger Lieutenant (Clint Eastwood), is tasked with parachuting into and infiltrating a fortress in the Bavarian Alpsto rescue a US Army Brigadier General before the Germans can interrogate him.
Along the way, they get some help from a deadly MI6 agent (Mary Ure) whose presence is known only to Burton’s character. She is, quite simply, a bad-ass, and she absolutely holds her own with Burton and Eastwood, particularly in the no-hold-barred, all-guns-blazing finale.
The story sounds simple enough, but it gets… complicated, as crosses, double crosses and triple crosses abound.
Once they’re inside the castle (and disguised in the enemy’s uniform, a recurring MacLean trope that we already know Rogue One will employ), a particularly thrilling sequence sees Burton seemingly change his allegiances multiple times in the course of one conversation, playing a hunch and masterfully manipulating everyone around him until he gets the information he needs.
As is almost always the case in MacLean’s work, one of the supposed good guys in Where Eagles Dare turns out to be a traitor. It’ll be interesting to see if Rogue One subverts this trope, or if Jyn will indeed be betrayed by one of her own.
If so, MacLean’s traitors were usually high-ranking authority figures, and we know Mon Mothma and Bail Organa are on the level, so my money’s on Alistair Petrie’s unnamed Rebel general.
We're on to you, buddy.
The Dirty Dozen (1967)
“Can you be trusted without your shackles?”
The inclusion of this line in the Rogue One trailer makes it pretty clear that Rogue One will take at least some inspiration from The Dirty Dozen, the classic criminals-turned-war-heroes picture.
Lee Marvin’s Major Reisman leads Operation Amnesty, a top-secret initiative to take the Army’s worst convicts – played by an all-star cast that includes Charles Bronson, Jim Brown, John Cassavetes, Telly Savalas and Donald Sutherland – and turn them into commandos on a suicide mission.
Anybody who survives the mission, which requires them to infiltrate a meeting of high-ranking German officers and take them out before D-Day, will be rewarded with a pardon for their crimes – but, as Marvin makes clear, the survivors will be in the minority, if there are any at all.
If that set-up sounds very familiar, but you haven’t seen The Dirty Dozen, it’s probably because you saw Suicide Squad (or one of its 47 trailers and TV spots). Luckily, Rogue One’s trailers seem to indicate that Jyn Erso’s team will have a clear and logical mission; a crucial element of any men-on-a-mission movie that Suicide Squad whiffed on.
We don’t know exactly why Jyn Erso is in those shackles yet, but we know she’s reckless, aggressive and undisciplined – and we definitely know she rebels against authority. She’d fit right in with The Dirty Dozen.
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Not every influence on Rogue One hails from the pre-VHS era. At Celebration 2015, Gareth Edwards namechecked Saving Private Ryan as a touchstone for the film.
It’s probably not a coincidence, then, that Saving Private Ryan’s special effects supervisor Neil Corbould and costume designer Dave Crossman are working on Rogue One (Corbould also worked on the similarly frenetic Black Hawk Down).
Ryan is best remembered, of course, for its depiction of the Omaha Beach landing, which captured the chaos and sheer brutality of war and imbued it with a sense of immediacy and urgency that went beyond anything we’d seen on screen before.
Director Steven Spielberg’s use of desaturated colours and hand-held cameras to portray his cinematic battleground virtually created a new visual language for war movies, and it had a profound impact on Gareth Edwards, who might have made the most intense Star Wars film yet.
“Gareth has shown a stylistic preference that’s much more handheld, visceral, inside-the-action kind of feel,” Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy told Entertainment Weekly earlier this year.
“He does a lot of handheld, intimate, close-up work. That’s not something you’ve necessarily seen in a Star Wars movie before.”
We’ve seen echoes of Saving Private Ryan in Star Wars before – the beach landing on Kashyyyk in Revenge of the Sith reads as George Lucas’ nod towards his buddy Spielberg’s film – but Edwards looks to be taking that influence to another level.
At Celebration 2016, he revealed that he even employed Maldivian soldiers to play Stormtroopers in the film, just as Spielberg enlisted members of the Irish Reserve Defence Forces for Ryan.
Incidentally, although Ryan is best known for that iconic beach landing, the rest of the film tells a more traditional men-on-a-mission story – not at all out of place with the other entries on this list so far.
It’s not the first movie to feature a harrowing Omaha Beach scene, either – Samuel Fuller’s The Big Red One explored similar territory in 1980, with a cast that included Lee Marvin and a fresh-faced Mark Hamill.
Apocalypse Now (1979)
While working on Rogue One, Gareth Edwards had posters for two movies in his office – the Ewok stand-alone movie, Caravan of Courage, and Apocalypse Now.
I’m not even going to try hazarding a guess about how Caravan of Courage might factor into all this, but Apocalypse Now is another story.
The most high-profile new vehicle announced for Rogue One so far is the U-Wing, which Pablo Hidalgo has confirmed is based on a military helicopter, the Bell UH-1 Iroquois.
The Bell UH-1 Iroquois — aka Huey — is instantly recognisable for its use in the Vietnam War, appearing in movies like Born on the Fourth of July, Casualties of War, Platoon, We Were Soldiers and, most famously, Apocalypse Now.
Strictly in terms of plot, Apocalypse Now does have something in common with the other films we’ve talked about here — it’s another man-on-a-mission movie.
US Army Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) is sent to kill Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a highly decorated Green Beret Colonel who has gone mad with power and started carrying out illegal guerrilla attacks in Cambodia. In the words of Harrison Ford’s Colonel Lucas, who assigns Willard to take out Kurtz, his is a mission that “does not exist, nor will it ever exist”.
Apocalypse Now is a film that has a pretty fascinating history with Star Wars. Way back in 1969, Francis Ford Coppola’s production company, American Zoetrope, bought the script to the film from John Milius as part of a development deal Coppola had with Warner Bros. But at that stage, Coppola was only interested in producing the film — he wanted Milius’ college buddy George Lucas to direct it.
Lucas and Milius worked on the project together for some time, with Lucas intending to make “Dr Strangelove in Vietnam”, filmed on location, documentary-style, with hand-held 16mm cameras.
And while it’s been well documented that Apocalypse Now was a rough shoot for Coppola, things weren’t exactly going swimmingly before he slid into the director’s chair. The spectacular failure of Lucas’ THX 1138, released as part of American Zoetrope’s deal with Warner Bros, led the studio to demand Coppola to pay back the money they’d already given him to develop Apocalypse Now.
Other studios seemed interested for a while, and Lucas even had producer Gary Kurtz scout locations in the Philippines and Hong Kong for Apocalypse Now while the director was in postproduction on American Graffiti, but the stars just never seemed to align.
Lucas recounted his experiences working on Apocalypse Now in JW Rinzler’s excellent book, The Making of Star Wars.
“I had worked on Apocalypse Now for about four years and I had very strong feelings about it,” he remembered.
“I wanted to do it, but I could not get it off the ground. Columbia had just turned it down. It had started at Warner and then it went to Paramount, and it had been just about everywhere in town. Everywhere had that script at least once, and the main studios had it twice. I think everybody was just afraid of the Vietnam War and they were afraid that it was going to cost more than we thought it was going to cost, and nobody wanted to go near it.
“So I figured what the heck, I’ve got to do something, I’ll start developing Star Wars.”
Of course, there’s a little Apocalypse Now in Star Wars, and we’ll certainly get to that another time. If you’re one of those fans who thinks it’s ridiculous that the Ewoks were able to take on the technologically superior Empire, study up on the Vietnam War.
There’s also a little Lucas in Apocalypse Now – Harrison Ford’s character was literally named ‘Lucas’ in honour of George.
Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is a film about the horrors (“the horrors!”) of war, and it goes to some extremely dark places that Star Wars could never go; that it should never go, because frankly, it’d be absurd for a space opera to take itself that seriously.
But Rogue One is going to be grittier than any Star Wars film we’ve seen so far, and the use of Vietnam iconography (or, at least, a vehicle that recalls Vietnam iconography) is striking.
The real-world war most heavily referenced in Star Wars films tends to be World War II, which most Americans consider a ‘just’ war in which they were unequivocally the ‘good guys’. Vietnam is a conflict that Americans had a much more complex relationship with, which seems to suit Edwards’ intentions for his film.
“The thing that interests me most about Star Wars is, in terms of what was going on, it was very black and white,” he told fans at Star Wars Celebration 2015. “The good guys were very good, and the bad guys were very bad. But our movie is basically the grey that leads to the polarised event that turns into A New Hope.
“It’s the realities of war – a complicated, layered, very rich scenario in which to set a movie.”
Perhaps, in Forrest Whitaker’s Saw Gerrera, Star Wars will have its Colonel Kurtz. Certainly, it’s been hinted that Gerrera is a soldier who has done terrible things and employed barbaric methods in his fight against the Empire, and that this has scarred him. When he poses Jyn Erso that infamous question – “What will you become?” – I think we can assume his concern comes from personal experience.
Or maybe the only thing Apocalypse Now will end up having in common with Rogue One is a beach scene. Do you think Saw surfs?