Star Wars Influences Heidi

(Welcome to The Movies That Made Star Wars, a series where we explore the films that inspired George Lucas’ iconic universe. In this edition: the family classic Heidi.)

1937 saw the release of Heidi, a classic film starring Shirley Temple and directed by the legendary silent film maker Allan Dwan. Temple, a box-office powerhouse, stars as a young orphan girl sent to live with her gruff, malcontent grandfather. In short order, the two of them form an unlikely bond and come to love each other, but soon they’re torn from each other. Heidi’s evil aunt kidnaps her and sells the young girl to a woman as a companion for an injured girl. Of course, Heidi’s grandfather sets out on foot in the harsh winter to rescue the girl so they may be reunited. Of course, a fast-paced chase ensues and then everyone lives happily ever after.

So, how in the world did this inform the world of Star Wars?

Inspiring Star Wars

This was the film George Lucas watched that inspired, The Battle For Endor, the second Ewok adventure. Sure, the made-for-TV Ewok Adventures are much-maligned, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything to learn from them. Inspiration comes from everywhere and it influences everything a filmmaker does.

When I spoke to him for the Full of Sith podcast, Eric Walker, the star of the first Ewok film, The Caravan of Courage, explained that the reason his character of Mace Towani didn’t return for more than a cameo in The Battle for Endor was because of Heidi. He said George Lucas had watched it with his daughter and wanted to emulate more of that style and structure of film for the second Ewok movie, leaving the adolescent older brother of Cindel little to do but die.

On the Surface

When you look at The Battle of Endor on the surface, it’s easy to see the similarities in the story at once. Cindel becomes an orphan quickly in the film and finds herself in the company of Wicket the Ewok, looking for food and a place to stay. Like Heidi, Cindel quickly arrives at a spartan cabin in the middle of the woods. This is where they find Noa, an old, grandfatherly man (played by Wilford Brimley), and his speedy companion, Teek.

Noa and Cindel, just like Heidi and her grandfather, form an unlikely bond over a meal. In both films, that first meal they share in the cabin is the most important tool in bringing them together. They’re humorous scenes and highlight the surly but soft nature of both Noa and Heidi’s grandfather.

Recurring Ideas

Charal, the evil witch who abducts Cindel, bears a striking resemblance to Fraulein Rottenmeir in Heidi. Both women aim to use the little girls for their nefarious purposes while the paternal figures chase through the countryside to mount a rescue. Charal was fascinating because she was our first glimpse at something in Star Wars akin to a witch of Dathomir, a dark side wielding witch with a heart full of selfish evil.

Lucas took this idea and brought it back once more in The Clone Wars with the character of Mother Talzin. Although Talzin and Charal are more mystical than the sinister Fraulein Rottenmeir, they do share similar DNA. It wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that Lucas also learned how to name characters based on Rottenmeir’s character.

Tyrannus. Maul. Grievous. Savage. It’s a bit on the nose, but why argue with what works?

The Chase

At the end of Heidi, we’re treated to a thrilling chase in the snow on horseback. Allan Dwan’s kinetic energy in his editing in the chase is light years ahead of its time. With George Lucas’s interest in speed and fast editing, it’s no wonder we got a speedster like Teek in The Battle for Endor.

The chase itself plays out like a hundred chases we’ve seen in movies like Star Wars, and the way Dwan pieces the shots together is very much the way Lucas might have put the same sequence together in the ‘70s and be hailed as a revolutionary.

Heidi is one of those classic films that works well enough for the entire family, but is also a forgotten piece of cinema that cinephiles will want to consume. It’s charming and surprisingly well put together. Director Allan Dwan came from an era when he was delivering one or two movies a week, so to see him work with a budget in the sound era is an enriching experience in its own right. There’s something about the sound films of directors that learned in the silent era magical and Heidi is no exception. And is there anything more charming than Shirley Temple?

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Heidi is widely available on Blu-ray and DVD and is available for a modest rental fee on most streaming video platforms. The Ewok Adventures are available only on the secondary market.

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