August 23, 2013 – Sometimes people read too much into a movie and see things that really aren’t there. But other times, they may be right. And so today’s theme is: “How Star Wars became an allegory about war and politics, and how its new owners might have to tread carefully in the future.” But first, a little history.
Few realize that the original Star Wars movie (1977) was an allegory about America and the Vietnam War. “Come again?!”, you say? In 2005, George Lucas revealed that Star Wars “was really about the Vietnam War….” He first conceptualized a Flash Gordon-inspired space saga in 1971 and began writing the script on April 17, 1973 at age 29, in the midst of the United States’ escalating conflict in southeast Asia. Recall that Lucas (born May 14, 1944) wore a black beard back then, a proud counter-culture badge of honor in a divided America that was rapidly changing. The passions and conflicts of his era informed his world view.
So is it a stretch to view Han Solo (played by Harrison Ford) as a guerrilla on the run — sort of a Vietcong minus the black pajamas? Or to find parallels between Grand Moff Tarkin (played by the late Peter Cushing, 1913-1994) with his planet destroyers and the unpopular General Westmoreland (or “waste more land”, as his critics called him)? Or to treat Darth Vader’s henchmen, the Imperial Stormtroopers, as the moral equivalent of “imperial capitalists”, a favorite epithet from a struggling land called Vietnam?
Perhaps it was inevitable that the conflict in Vietnam would spill over into the world’s most successful sci-fi franchise. Star Wars truly became an anti-Vietnam War allegory. And even though the movie did not premiere until May, 1977 (the United States had pulled out of the war before the fall of Saigon in 1975), Vietnam had already cast its long shadow and imprint on Lucas’s space fantasy.
Twenty-eight years after Star Wars‘ release, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005) premiered. At that time, the United States found itself engaged in another highly controversial war, this time in Iraq. George Lucas said, “[T]he parallels between Vietnam and what we’re doing in Iraq now are unbelievable.”
In a 2005 interview, Lucas said that Star Wars “was really about the Vietnam War, and that was the period where Nixon was trying to run for a [second] term, which got me to thinking historically about how do democracies get turned into dictatorships? Because the democracies aren’t overthrown; they’re given away.”
And so contemporary audiences watching the last of the six Star Wars films, Revenge of the Sith (2005), would not have missed these allusions to the War on Terror: As the Galactic Senate votes to grant “emergency” powers and to elevate Senator Palpatine to the position of Supreme Chancellor, Senator Padmé Amidala (played by Natalie Portman) quips, “This is how liberty dies: with thundering applause”. Few viewers missed the allusion to Bush’s intervention in Iraq and the curtailment of civil liberties under the U.S. Patriot Act. And when the twisted Anakin Skywalker (a young Darth Vader) declared near the end of Episode III, “You are either with me – or you are my enemy”, who could escape echoes of the voice of George Bush and his invocation of the Axis of Evil? Suddenly, American audiences had to confront an uncomfortable question: Despite America’s long cherished self-image as a guardian of freedom and champion of democracy, was the corrupt tyranny really our own? How could this have happened?
Conservative critics took umbrage and interpreted Episode III as a criticism of, and veiled attack against, former President George Bush and the Iraq War. Meanwhile, some diehard Star Wars fans simply shrugged their shoulders and pronounced Episode III to be a suitable redemption of the much-criticized Episodes I and II – while others found this last chapter to be the final nail in the coffin of an unsatisfactory prequel trilogy (1999-2005). Whatever happened to the glory days of Star Wars, fans bemoaned.
The Chicago Tribune wrote in 2005: “Lucas said he wrote … the screenplay’s … politically pointed elements before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the subsequent war on terror. So when Palpatine announces that he intends to remain at war until a certain General Grievous is captured, no parallels to the hunt for Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein were intended.
“‘First of all we never thought of Bush ever becoming president,’ Star Wars producer Rick McCallum said, ‘or then 9/11, the Patriot Act, war, weapons of mass destruction. Then suddenly you realize, ‘Oh, my God, there’s something happening that looks like we’re almost prescient.'”
Still other conservative voices have criticized Disney for its humanitarian (versus Christian) view that we are, essentially, one global village that can work together to solve mankind’s problems. Even Disney’s embrace of the environmental ethos ruffles feathers as being unnecessarily “anti-business” or “anti-capitalist”. (The irony is rich because Disney, by any measure, is a global capitalist conglomeration.)
So how will Disney/Lucasfilm treat Star Wars’ sequel episodes, premiering in December 2015 and beyond? As virgin territory for more allegories? Or should we really view Star Wars on a more personal, individual level – as a mirror into how we view the world around us, a private Rorschach ink-blot test? Perhaps we over-analyze and over-complicate things? Because sometimes a blot really is just a blot, and that’s all you need to know.
You might also enjoy the following articles:
● Joseph Campbell, George Lucas and the Power of Myth (29 Jan 2014)
● United Artists’ Rejection of Star Wars: Where Are They Now? (22 Aug 2014)