The Politics of Star Wars
In the latest episode of season three of The Artist in American History we examine the surprisingly deep politics of the original Star Wars film. From the importance of guerrilla fighters in the post-Vietnam era to the arrogance of technologically superior empires, the original Star Wars was a surprisingly deep affair that had much to say about the politics of the 1970s and America’s recent past in Vietnam.
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For over three decades now, George Lucas’s Star Wars has cast a long shadow over the pop culture landscape. Since the late 1970s, the films and spinoffs which comprise the Star Wars series have captivated audiences with stories of high adventure, galactic knights, universal evil, and far-off battles in space. Now we sit on the verge of the release of the latest entry into the beloved, and sometimes hated, space-based fairy tale with director JJ Abrams set to shake up the series’ narrative core once again. As excitement builds among the series’ fans (and, it seems, the rest of the world), it is worth taking a few moments to look back to the saga’s roots and perhaps ask some new, or at least interesting, questions about the film that started it all.
Although it is Lucas’s much maligned 1999 prequel, Episode I: The Phantom Menace, which is usually thought of as the series’ most politics-heavy entry, I think there is something of value in looking at each film and trying to decode the way in which it reflects the world from which it emerged. As much credit, and criticism, as George Lucas and his collaborators deserve, they were all products of a changing geo-political environment which helped to shape them even as they were creating and shaping these films. George Lucas may have directed Star Wars, but it was real life that directed George Lucas. Just as surely as the collapsing skyscrapers seen in the likes of The Avengers, Man of Steel, Transformers 4, and Star Trek into Darkness reflect the realities of our post-9/11 world, so too did the real world seep into Lucas’s magnum opus.
I say Star Wars rather than the Star Wars Trilogy or Saga, for a reason. Star Wars grew and evolved as more films and spinoffs were released. The events of one film –obviously– laid the groundwork for the next, but decisions made in later films had the effect, intended or otherwise, of potentially altering how we thought about earlier parts in the series – but we need to be on our guard against such retroactive changes and deal with each movie on its own terms. This effect is most obvious when the original trilogy is compared with Lucas’s much maligned prequels, where, most infamously, the Force was retconned into a type of microscopic bacteria. But this effect can also be seen in the original trilogy where later films discard or reshape story elements no longer consistent with the filmmakers’ evolving vision of the larger saga. Luke and Leia’s kiss in Empire Strikes Back immediately springs to mind. In other words, I think we should consider each film on its own as much as possible, and where we must look to its links to the wider saga, we should try to limit ourselves only to those stories that went before it, not those that came afterwards. Remember, from the perspective of the original film, there was no such thing as the Empire Strikes Back – Vadar was not Luke’s father and the Clone Wars was simply a narrative MacGuffin. Maybe some of these later ideas were gnawing at the back of Lucas’s head, but the next set of films in the series would come together with a lot of outside collaboration, a lot of new perspectives and ideas not then present when the original Star Wars film was being created.
Ok, so thinking about that first film in isolation, on its own terms, let’s us move away from later evolutions and revolutions in the series’ narrative and allows us to really zoom in and think about what outside forces, rather than story-bound considerations, helped to shape one of the twentieth century’s most enduring pop culture icons. On its surface, Star Wars –and no, I have no intention of calling it either of its retroactively applied titles Episode IV or A New Hope– is a pretty straight forward space based fairy tale. There are good guys –Luke, Obi Wan, Leia, and, my favourite intergalactic scoundrel, Han Solo– and there are bad buys – Vadar, Grand Moff Tarkin, and so on. The good guys are, for the most part, wholly good and the baddies are, more or less, wholly bad. There are few grey areas in Star Wars, though early on the film establishes that people can and indeed do transition between the two states. What Lucas created was a sort of two dimensional good v bad universe which drew upon long Judaeo-Christian traditions which account for the passing of people from one state to the other. Yes, the good guys are, more or less, very good but this is a universe in which they can become evil. Vadar, as he is explained by Ben Kenobi early in the film, is perhaps the greatest example of that transition having occurred. A fallen Jedi who turned upon his own people and helped to usher in an era of evil tyranny, Vadar epitomised the power of evil or, as it is called in this film, the Dark Side, to seduce the good and transform them utterly. What’s interesting about this dichotomy, and worthy of note, is just how absolute states of good and evil are in Star Wars. Vadar is not some complicated character with overlapping and competing motivations – he does what he does in that movie because he is wholly bad, just as Ben Kenobi and Luke Skywalker do what they do because they are wholly good. In Star Wars, evil is a state of absolute being, an all-consuming cosmology which draws heavily upon Christian and Jewish constructs of the absolute nature of supernatural corruption and perfection. People can become evil, sure, but they do not appear to linger in the expansive grey area which exists between those two states. Whereas in real life, good and evil exist upon a spectrum, one which we all occupy, in Star Wars people, at least the main characters, tend to exist only on the extreme ends of that spectrum. There are plenty who might point out that this makes Star Wars very two dimensional – and they would be totally right, but there is more to it than that.
Perhaps there is no better example of just how intentionally two-dimensional and traditional the good-evil dichotomy of Star Wars is than Han Solo and Greedo’s now infamous encounter at the Mos Eisley Cantina. In the original version of the film, the one with which we are concerned, Han shoots Greedo moments before Greedo is able to squeeze his own trigger. Back in the 1990s, when Lucas was preparing the Special Editions of the original trilogy, he had that scene altered to show Greedo shooting first. For some fans, this change, though a tiny detail, was deeply upsetting. The original version of the scene gave Han a hint of depth absent from the other protagonists in the series; here was a good man who was capable of being ruthless and placing his own safety and self-worth above what an outside observer might recognise as absolute, objective good. In other words, by shooting at Greedo first, Han demonstrated that he existed just a bit further down the good-evil spectrum than the other protagonists in the film. Here was a selfish and, perhaps, ruthless man willing to kill in cold blood; fast forward to the end of the film, when Han returns in the Millennium Falcon in a nick of time to save Luke and ultimately ensure the destruction of the Death Star, and we have the resolution of that character’s arc. The selfish and self-centred smuggler, pirate, and, yes, killer, has discovered something larger than himself that is worth fighting for. Whereas Vadar, we are told, went from good to evil, Han has slipped the other way up the spectrum. To be sure, he was always good, but by the end of the film he has moved into the unambiguous level of goodness occupied by the rest of the films’ heroes. It was a small shift, certainly, but evidently it was one that made Lucas so uneasy that he altered that original Solo/Greedo encounter decades after the fact.
That Han shot first hints, just hints, at a level of depth to the good-evil dichotomy in Star Wars – but no more, and we should be wary about getting caught too deeply in the great Han/Greedo debate. Although Han shooting first adds depth and subtly to the character, his arc is, at best, subtle and the character arc I just described is barely evident; Han is always a bit of a scoundrel and his criminal credentials are established early on, regardless of whether or not he shot first. In other words, by his very nature, he is presented to audiences as a morally ambiguous character – but, and I think this is the point Lucas was trying to emphasise in the 90s with his controversial edits to the original film, he was always a character who was always fundamentally good. Returning again to that moment when Han appears to save the day at the end of the film, it confirms something audiences had long suspected about the character; that he had been good all along. Sure, he was a smuggler and, when necessary, a killer, but his criminal activities flew in the face of the evil galactic empire – and other criminals with obvious, openly stated criminal intentions. Yes, Han shot first, but it hardly matters. Han was always a character willing to take on darkness and evil with a smile and quip and, shooting first or second, that is precisely what he does throughout the film. Sure, he can be selfish and self-centred, but he was, in spite of how he may have appeared to some audience members, as avowedly good (if not honest) as the other protagonists in the film.
To put that another way, Star Wars is unashamedly about purely realised versions of good and evil and whilst that might make some viewers uneasy, it actually lends depth to the way in which the film deals with the real world politics which influenced the younger Lucas. We have to remember that in 1977, when Star Wars was released, America was living in a post-Vietnam world. Whereas World War II, a conflict referenced heavily by Star Wars’ Nazi-like villains, is much easier to erroneously imagine in morally unambiguous terms, the post-World War II era saw the United States drawn into a series of conflicts which were more obviously morally ambiguous. In the Second World War the Nazis offered a vision of evil so profound that it still has the power to boggle and beguile the imagination; and in that context the allies and their leadership can easily be seen as resplendent. Of course, as America was fighting the Nazis, African Americans were being repressed in the Jim Crow South, as well as other areas of the nation, complicating the historic picture considerably. Indeed, we should not shy away from such harsh truths; as amazing as our forebears were in many regards, they had their faults and those faults could be profound indeed. There is no such thing as absolute good in the real world – but Hollywood has consistently appealed to that old Judaeo-Christian belief in extremes of good and evil, particularly with regards to World War II, and in that regard Star Wars is no different. From a certain perspective, as Ben Kenobi might have said, Star Wars was yet another chapter in the two dimensional way in which American participation in war was positively sold to the masses in the post-World War II era. However, the true genius of Star Wars was the way in which it took the storytelling and filmmaking tropes of the 1950s and 1960s and subverted them just enough to challenge the dominant narrative. Yes, Star Wars is a good old fashioned film about good versus evil – but the good guys are the guerrilla fighters, the rebels. And in a post-Vietnam world, that really was an interesting statement.
It’s been said by far wiser people than I that cinema was the art form of the twentieth century but it was (and is) also the propaganda tool of the modern era. It is able to absorb audiences and convince them of new truths through visceral, life-like realisations of age-old morality tales adapted for the modern era. It is able to preach whilst appearing to depict reality and that is a very powerful tool indeed which was employed throughout the last century to create or reinforce dominant historic, political, and cultural narratives. Watching Disney cartoons from the 1950s, for instance, one would hardly think that a large proportion of their childish audience could look forward to a life or bitter prejudice and suppression. Those films were the cinema of hope and conformity, just as the many, many films produced about the Second World War in that period tended to be constructed around characters who embodied great heroism, nobility, and goodness; no hint of America’s deeply rooted racial problems and inequalities were owned up to in many of these Hollywood classics. In that respect, Star Wars, with its old-school feel, was no different. And yet, the Hollywood vision of goodness normally reserved for mainstream American culture was thrust upon a group who did not entirely fit as direct representatives of America. Sure, Han, the smuggler, seemed to parallel revolutionary-era heroes like John Hancock, and there is a hint of the War of Independence to the film, but discussions of liberty or abstract constructions of freedom are noticeably absent.
The rebels in Star Wars fight because they reject the empire, not because they have a competing political and social philosophy in which they have come to believe. Quite naturally, parts of the story seem to reference or mirror the popular narrative surrounding the American Revolution but in a post-Vietnam world that parallel sat uneasily with America’s recent wartime experiences. It was a film which, at once, celebrated American revolutionary history whilst reminding audiences that technologically advanced empires were things that needed to be opposed. Considering the sheer weight of the military machine that was dispatched against North Vietnam and the overwhelming technological advantage possessed by the United States, the parallel was, I think, an important one. It might be possible to imagine the Rebel Alliance as parallels for the America’s revolutionary generation but their tenacity and determination in the face of a massive and disproportionate technological disadvantage speaks to the era in which the film was released. It is the portrait not of rebels fighting the system, a popular narrative even today, but rebels standing up to those who feel their military might and technological superiority should guarantee them power or success. The rebels in Star Wars are guerrilla fighters, dependent upon secrecy and the ability to escape notice; they are heroes because they fight for what they believe in, in spite of the shadow cast by their enemy’s vastly superior technologies. In other words, they paralleled America’s enemies in the 1960s and 1970s but cast them not as the villains of the piece, but as the heroes. If Vietnam were to be recast in space, the United States, Star Wars subtly reminds us, would not necessarily be the hero of the story.
But –and this is really important– the United States retains the potential to be the hero, according to the film. Star Wars pulls off something stunning with its rebels. It makes them stand-ins for America’s revolutionary generation and it makes them parallels for some of America’s enemies in the Vietnam era. The rebels are, all at once, representative of the best and the worst of America’s potential on the world stage; they are the plucky rebels standing up to the tyrannical, established state; they are those who stand up against evil; and they are the slippery guerrilla fighters, struggling against the technologically superior as they thumb their noses at the unrestrained arrogance of a superpower which believes it has the right to impose its vision of order upon others. In that context, the relatively two dimensional good-evil dichotomy suddenly finds depth. Yes, Star Wars can be two dimensional, but those two dimensions are used brilliantly. The, more or less, absolute good or evil nature of the characters might suggest a lack of depth but, placing the film in its original socio-cultural context, Star Wars reveals a perhaps surprising level of engagement with the complexities of America’s position on the global stage. Ronald Reagan once famously called the Soviet Union the ‘Evil Empire’ but, from a certain perspective, in the era of Vietnam, perhaps that label, Star Wars seems to imply, might have been more accurately been applied to the United States. By revelling in a simplistic and seemingly childish or naïve contrast of absolute good and evil, Star Wars was able to suggest deep questions about the United States and the nature of that country’s complicated morality during the era of the Cold War.
Thanks for listening to this episode of the Artist in American History. I hope you enjoyed this episode and, even if you didn’t agree with what I said in it, I hope that it was provocative enough to help you revisit and think in some more depth about some of the topics and themes I covered. I hope to return shortly with a new episode looking at Adam Sandler’s Netflix exclusive, The Ridiculous Six, shortly and, if you’re interested, I might well expand upon The Politics of Star Wars series with new episodes examining the each of the films in that series. Please let me know what you thought via twitter where you can connect with me www.Twitter.com/ThatHistorian and remember to visit my website at www.darrenreidhistory.co.uk. Thanks for listening!