No-one really wants a young Han Solo film. Among the perfectly-hyped upcoming roster of Disney-developed Star Wars films, it stands out like a sore thumb. Han Solo is a character so effortlessly cool, so iconic, that we no-one wants to learn more about him at the risk of destroying what we already have, nor do we really want to see a new actor – regardless of how good they are – take on the role. Image: supplied Han Solo is not Bond, and he’s not Spider-Man – he’s Harrison Ford, a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. In the worst case scenario, a bad young Han Solo film runs the risk of recalling that other young Star Wars moment – the one where the intimidating and all-powerful Darth Vader metastasised into a kid who makes whoopee over podracing. It’s not a great prospect.
But if we have to see young Han Solo, I think I’ve figured out how to not only make it work, in a Star Wars sense, but also how to make it actually mean something more than just a corporate tent-pole franchise instalment.
Here’s how you do it: you remake Casablanca.
Though it isn’t necessarily obvious, the Star Wars films are often really films about films. Not in an inchoate, lol-let’s-make-a-meta-film-because-we’re-clever sense, but rather as films that clearly understand their role and place within a rich history of cinema. These are films that have a deep love for filmmaking and show it in every frame. Yes, even in George Lucas’ terrible prequels, but that’s a story for another day. One of the major reasons for the success of Star Wars is the way these films subconsciously tap into a kind of cultural memory for older genres and styles that we sometimes aren’t even aware of understanding.
Casablanca is one of the films that already underpins Star Wars, especially the first film. Casablanca, one of the all-time greats of American cinema, a film about an antihero bar-owner in wartime Morocco and two idealistic French resistance fighters, shares a lot with Star Wars, even on the surface. That hive of scum and villainy in Mos Eisley? Definitely the cinematic grandkid of Rick’s Bar in Casablanca.
Even Jabba the Hutt was originally modelled on a similar character in Casablanca, played by the renowned character actor Sydney Greenstreet. The early concept art for Jabba is said to have had him wearing a small fez, in an obvious nod to the Casablanca original.
But really, Casablanca’s most important contribution to Star Wars was Han Solo. Don’t misunderstand me: Han is his own character, and Harrison Ford gives him a charisma that goes beyond the simple replication of a cliché. But Solo is cut from the cloth of Humphrey Bogart’s Rick: a man who you know has tried, at some point, to do the right thing, to be the good guy, but who has been forced by circumstance to seal off his emotions from the world. He’s the antihero, the rogue, the man who will go to extreme lengths to look after himself first. When Solo takes the money and runs in the first Star Wars film, it’s a neat echo of Humphrey Bogart refusing to help the French resistance in Casablanca. “I’m the only cause I’m interested in,” declares Bogart’s Rick, while Solo claims to “take orders from just one person: me.”
These are men who have forced themselves to believe that they don’t believe in things, that they understand the ways of the world and just want to get by. We know they’ll come around, eventually – but that’s the play in these characters, the drama between self-interest and a deeply repressed but powerful care for the well-being of others. Casablanca draws this from reality, by juxtaposing a metaphoric American isolationism (crucially, Casablanca is set before America entered World War II, but was made just after it) with European idealism and politics. Star Wars takes the same idea, but of course pushes it out into the fantasy of space. Nonetheless, reluctance is still the backbone of these characters.
So returning to Casablanca for the young Han Solo movie is a bit like returning to the original source, without the strict parameters of adaptation. We can easily imagine how the young Han Solo movie could play out otherwise: we meet Han, we go on an adventure, he runs into Lando, he finds Chewbacca, they become friends, Han wins the Millennium Falcon from Lando, loses Jabba’s cargo, and ends the film as a happy-go-lucky smuggler with a price on his head. Every beat, every juncture in the plot writes itself; it’s predictable, it’s dull, and it’s exactly the kind of film that I think no-one wants to see.
So instead of that, let’s image what the young Han Solo could look like with Casablanca’s influence.
First, young Han Solo must be set during a time of occupation. People often forget that Casablanca is a film about refugees. Take a look at the film’s famous opening monologue.
This film – the film that so many people know as just ‘Play it again, Sam’, or ‘Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine,’ or ‘Round up the usual suspects’, is in fact about the movement of frightened people from country to country, seeking a life free from violence. This element is absolutely necessary to setting up Solo. Where does he get his wanderlust from? Why does he not want to be tied to any cause, locked in to any one particular group? Because the formative events of his life were spent in a world where everyone desperately wanted to get out, but couldn’t. This also marks the film as different from the expected Star Wars fare: we’re not planet-hopping until Han Solo can become Han Solo.
Second, we might actually be able to afford to start Solo off a little more optimistic than we find him in A New Hope. This film should be, at least in part, the ‘we’ll always have Paris’ part of Casablanca. For those who haven’t seen Casablanca, or who need a reminder – this is the part of the film where we find out why Rick is so bitter: he fell in love – deeply in love – and he was let down. He wasn’t let down easily. He found himself, in his own words, standing on a “station platform in the rain with a comical look in his face because his insides have been kicked out.” There are no explanations for the betrayal Rick suffered – no context, no answers. Maybe we don’t want Solo to be so romantically let-down (that might reframe the later relationship with Leia too much), but if the film can provide some sort of shattering explanation as to why Solo views the world as he does it’ll go a long way to being something more than just a franchise instalment. But it can’t be cliché. It can’t be an obvious betrayal, with overstated drama and Days Of Our Lives speechmaking. Solo cannot have an explanation for why he was betrayed. In an ideal world, the audience shouldn’t have an explanation, either. We need to feel the comical look. Unlike most origin films, this one should be about losing – and not finding – purpose, even if freedom of movement is gained in the process.
That brings me to the final, perhaps most important point. Casablanca was about refugees, even if we often seem to forget that. But it was more than just about refugees: it was actually made by refugees as well. Certainly, this was a time where Hollywood was full of European emigres, but even considering that, Casablanca is still unusual in its sheer number of immigrant and refugee cast and crew. The director, Michael Curtiz, was born and raised in Hungary before moving to Austria, and then the United States. Composer Max Steiner was Viennese and was interred in England at the outbreak of World War One before moving to America. Paul Henreid, the actor who plays the infamous resistance fighter Victor Laszlo, fled Austria in 1935 to escape Nazi persecution. Peter Lorre, the brilliant character actor who plays Signor Ugarte, was a Jewish man who left Nazi Germany in 1933. Ironically, Conrad Veidt, the actor who so effectively plays the German Major Strasser was also a refugee due to the fact his wife was Jewish. Veidt dedicated a good sum of his personal fortune to fight the Nazis despite frequently being cast as one in his films.
Beyond that, at least another half-dozen cast members were European exiles and refugees. This lent a character of a different sort to the kind of story – a cliché, really, even in 1941 – that Casablanca was trying to tell. Author Aljean Harmetz, in his exhaustive account of the making of Casablanca, Round Up the Usual Suspects, tells how many of the actors cried real tears on set during the filming of the famous dueling-anthems scene. Displacement, loss of country, war: these were not just Hollywood fantasies for some.
Star Wars films have never belabored their politics, but they’ve always been there. Yes, okay, maybe the “if you’re not with me, you’re my enemy” line in Revenge of the Sith was a little bit of an on-the-nose reference to the politics of George W. Bush, but did you know that even the first Star Wars film was intended as an allegory for Vietnam? By the time we get to the simple Ewoks taking down a technologically advanced invader in Return of the Jedi the links are a little more obvious, but they’ve always been there. They’re even called the Empire, for god’s sake – you can’t argue there’s nothing post-colonial about that. Today, with The Force Awakens, the real-life politics have perhaps given way to franchise world-building, but they’re more present than ever in terms of the film’s production: a major franchise with a heroic trio of a woman, a black man, and a latino man isn’t just reflecting the politics of our time, it’s remaking them.
If you return to Casablanca for dramatic inspiration for the young Han Solo, you also return to the politics of being a refugee. When it’s easier than ever to persuade voters of all stripes that refugees are out to cause problems and to take jobs, then making a film where the hero is a refugee – even a space refugee – might just give Star Wars some much needed real-world bite, and gift this unwanted young Han Solo film a proper reason for being.