(Welcome to The Movies That Made Star Wars, a series where we explore the films and television properties that inspired George Lucas’s iconic universe. In this edition: Buster Keaton’s The Navigator.)

Buster Keaton’s 1924 film The Navigator isn’t spoken of as often or as lovingly as the much more known The General from 1926, but it was the biggest hit of his career. It tells the story of a foppish young aristocrat accustomed to having servants tend to his every whim suddenly find himself (and the equally well-to-do love of his life) on a cruise ship adrift at sea. The two elites have to learn to fend for themselves through a series of hilarious antics. On the surface, one could watch this film and Star Wars may well never cross your mind, but it feels apparent that this Buster Keaton classic had a significant influence on The Phantom Menace.

Star Wars creator George Lucas went back to the well of silent film for inspiration when working on the prequels, which makes sense. If the classic trilogy was patterned after the cheap serials of the ‘30s and ‘40s, why wouldn’t one go back to the silent films of the ‘10s and ‘20s? It’s the same reason The Phantom Menace is dripping in art deco design that precedes the industrial war look of World War II that was common to the classic trilogy. He set the clock back a generation to create films that fit in the timeline of Star Wars while still being cohesive in design.

You can watch The Navigator in its entirety on YouTube:

The Phantom Menace

The Navigator opens with a group of business leaders deciding they need to sabotage a ship that is heading to a small country at war. It would be easy to see how this very idea may have inspired the ending battle of The Phantom Menace, where the Naboo have to destroy a droid control ship in orbit around their planet in order to bring peace to their people. But for The Navigator, this is the beginning of the story for young Rollo Treadway, the young, rich snob played by Buster Keaton. He bought tickets for a cruise to celebrate a honeymoon, but when his well-to-do neighbor rejects his proposal, he decides to take the cruise anyway and he ends up on the boat that needs to be destroyed. It ends up adrift in the ocean and he finds that the woman he’d proposed to is also on the boat.

And they’re absolutely alone.

Fish out of water.

Just like Jar Jar Binks.

Jar Jar Binks

The introduction of Jar Jar Binks in The Phantom Menace is reminiscent of the physical comedy Keaton plays in the galley of the titular boat, trying to find food and not being terribly well-equipped to do so. It’s been said for a long time that Jar Jar was deeply inspired by silent film stars. We’ve already talked in this space about how Jar Jar was inspired by Harold Lloyd, but Buster Keaton offers just as much inspiration for the lovable Gungan and so much of it plays right into this particular Keaton film.

Keaton’s entire climax of this film has him almost single-handedly fending off island natives (who are, admittedly, problematic in their portrayal) and he does so intentionally when he can, but is very clumsy about it. He tosses coconuts just like Jar Jar tosses boomas and does his best to fend off a superior foe with no training whatsoever.

There is one gag, though, that Lucas has Jar Jar repeat almost shot for shot. In The Navigator, Keaton has his foot caught in the rope tied to a miniature cannon after he lights it. The wheeled cannon follows him around no matter how much he tries to get away and when he finally ducks when the cannon goes off, the blast takes out one of his enemies accidentally. This is repeated, shot for shot, when Jar Jar Binks catches his feet in the torso of a downed Battle Droid whose blaster keeps going off. Jar Jar mimics that same ducking move that Keaton perfected and the blaster goes off once more, hitting a Destroyer Droid and disabling it.

It’s a beautiful homage and a useful guide for what lens you should be watching Jar Jar’s sequences through.

Underwater Sequences

Another notable similarity between The Navigator and The Phantom Menace is that both films feature groundbreaking underwater sequences. For the production of the 1924 film, Keaton spent weeks underwater filming comedy bits for an extended underwater sequences, something that was brand new to audiences in the ‘20s and helped the film achieve box office success. The Phantom Menace was the first (and, to date, only) Star Wars film to bring audiences into a world beneath an ocean and George Lucas was able to create two of the film’s most breathtaking sequences, the approach to Otoh Gunga and the passage through Naboo’s core.

It was much easier for Lucas to film underwater than it was for Keaton. When Keaton made the film, he originally began filming in the Riverside municipal pool, but the weight of the production was too much and the bottom of the pool caved in. Keaton had to finish his underwater production in the cold waters of Lake Tahoe. Ewan McGregor and Liam Neeson had a much easier time for their water scenes in Phantom Menace, even though most of them were cut from the final film.

Keaton’s Legacy

Buster Keaton was a pioneer of cinema and always pushed things forward. For The Navigator, he bought an entire boat that was going to be scrapped and showed audiences something they’d never seen before, all through his comedic stylings. His use of special effects for even mundane sight gags helped cinema take giant leaps foward. George Lucas embodied that same pioneering spirit for the modern era of filmmaking and the two of them will go down in the history books together as two of the most influential filmmakers of all time.

The Navigator is widely available on streaming platforms, including Youtube. The Phantom Menace is available on easily Blu-ray and streaming, though you’ve probably already got it on your shelf and can pull it down to enjoy at your leisure.

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