After the smashing success of Star Wars in the late 1970s, everyone—of a certain age—was looking forward to the release of The Empire Strikes Back, which occurred in 1980. Everyone wanted to see what those plucky rebels would do for an encore after destroying the Death Star. I feel the excitement of those days this winter, as we head to the theaters to watch the latest installment, Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Several recent writers have noted what is sometimes lost in the shuffle when we watch the Star Wars saga: the films are about war. George Lucas created the films to explore the problems of conflict, fascism, and empire. He conceived of the first film, at least, as commentary on the Vietnam War. The larger Wars portion of the title gets lost in the fun of alien races, space ships, future technology, “the force,” jokes, and entertaining music. Some have even declared the saga more of a moral adventure—a romantic search for meaning.
It is hard to capture, today, just how different the films were from everything else on the cinematic landscape. Given the difference, it’s understandable how some themes, even prominent ones such as war, might be overlooked, or seen as background. War was just the setting in which a lot of action took place. Even the blaster strikes and light saber duels in the Star Wars saga didn’t draw blood! Readers today most certainly understand the notion of war as background, or as a distraction or something one would rather forget. Our ongoing wars sometimes seem bloodless, given that the action is far away.
Not only war, but the subject of “empire” might also seem foreign or alien to viewers, especially during the 1970s and 1980s. I have never, for example, spent much time or energy imagining what it was like to actually live, day-to-day, in a historical empire. Yet, if I did, I would probably think of war in the background. I think about other things too, of course. When I think of real and aspirational empires, my imagination is colored by historical images and facts: goose-stepping soldiers, displaced families, terrible weaponry, bloodshed, terrifying charismatic leaders, ethnic cleansing and genocide, the controlled movement of people, resource extraction, information control, etc.
But those are hard images of empire, much like those portrayed in the Star Wars saga. Those distracting and fantastical images made empires seem almost fictional. They were a part of my historical imagination, only to be conjured up in film. Darth Vader and the Emperor were Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Napoleon, and Nero all in one. The Storm Troopers were comically inept, psychologically-damaged nuisances. The Empire’s officers were Nazi SS, or Stalin’s military henchmen.
These images blinded me, as unlearned child raised among regular patriotic working people, to the manipulations of our American Empire. As others have observed about the Star Wars saga, I saw Lucas’s Rebels as future-past American-style guerrilla Revolutionaries. Since Luke, Han, Leia, and Ben Kenobi were Anglo “whites,” I related to them. Were I in the Star Wars saga as a soldier, certainly I’d be fighting against the oppressive Empire. The Rebels were my team.
I couldn’t see that, were I an American soldier in the 1970s or 1980s, I’d be fighting for imperial interests and against natives. Indeed, I played soldier a lot as a kid (i.e. “Kill a Commy for Mommy!”). I was fascinated with America’s militarism, as portrayed in other movies like Red Dawn, Rambo, or Top Gun. I didn’t realize it, but I was sort of dreaming of being a comical American Storm Trooper. I dreamed of being a tool for empire.
Or, had I trended toward business as a future businessman, I’d be pushing for the soft empire of capitalist expansion. I couldn’t imagine, as a kid, business as a profit-seeking mode of resource extraction, whether those resources were material or in terms of human labor. I couldn’t see the history of the United States I loved as an aggressive, expansionist Empire that conquered and oppressed native peoples all over the North American continent, all for the sake of trade and business expansion. In this way I was dreaming of being a kind of Han Solo renegade businessman. Or a kind of Trade Federation alien, per Star Wars Episodes I-III. I realize this second example refers to the later installment of the series, and brings in Lucas’s revisionism. But we know now that empires of trade lurked in the background of his original thinking about the Star Wars series.
As a high school student I wrote a well-researched term paper on the Strategic Defense Initiative. I was attracted to the topic for technical reasons and for its nickname, “Star Wars.” That Star Wars moniker, intended by critics to make fun of the Reagan-era initiative’s outlandishness, had the reverse effect. It made SDI feel like a kind of new Rebel system rather than the tool of an aggressive empire. With it we were an empire reasserting itself against a threat. I recall thinking that SDI was common sense. Of course we should defend ourselves against nuclear attack. It was the next logical step in weapons development. Of course nuclear attack could be stopped from space by lasers and satellites!
George Lucas enabled us all to escape from reality, I think. The fantastical seemed possible.
Lucas enabled escapes from reality in other senses too.I think his terrific, fun films made the notion of a U.S. Cold War empire, or U.S. imperialism, seem positively outlandish in the way he vividly portrayed The Galactic Empire. Because of the Star Wars saga, Americans could move further away from imagining themselves in any imperial role. No president could be a Vader, right? Or even a Grand Moff Tarkin. In this way the United States became, through lack of self-awareness, a plain sort of everyday empire. The idea of empire coursed through society, politics, and our intellectual life. It was so common that it couldn’t be seen by its complicit citizens and denizens.
Because of this I appreciated the newer episodes (i.e. I-III). Sure, in those installments Lucas tended to hit viewers over the head with directly applicable lessons about political manipulation and the weaknesses of representative government. But at least no one could imagine, this time around, that he wasn’t trying to send messages to see-no-evil patriots who lionize the United States, both presently and historically. I hope this new movie keeps some of Lucas’s more explicit political themes in play. I’m not sure that all of today’s viewers have held up the United States for all the scrutiny it deserves. We still live in an everyday empire. – TL