U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Empire, This Is: Reflections on the Star Wars Saga and Everyday Empire

Stormtroopers-in-formationAfter 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.

stormtrooper-selfieBut 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!”). Stormtrooper-hit-no-one-everI 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.

The stormtrooper joke memes work so well precisely because we don't see ourselves as tools of an empire.

The stormtrooper joke memes work so well precisely because we don’t see ourselves as tools of an empire.

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

26 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Since Tim only briefly touches on the prequels, allow me to be a shameless self-promoter and pitch my exhaustive analysis (and defense) of their political themes, the one thing about them that people hated more than Jar Jar Binks.

    https://medium.com/@varadmehta/star-wars-and-the-unraveling-of-american-politics-part-i-8a37f8a0c972#.z7fynj5xn

    https://medium.com/@varadmehta/star-wars-and-the-unraveling-of-american-politics-part-ii-237e225558af#.krym02b7p

    • On Part I of your two pieces, I agree with you on the importance Episode I and the keys of taxes, corporate power, corporatocracy, paralyzed legislative bodies–and the connections to Occupy and the potential unraveling of democratic/American politics. I disagree with you about recent U.S. history and Obama, however, who has been trying to act in the face of an obstinate Senate. Obama has been using executive power reluctantly, esp. only in the second term because of the procedures of a minority against the will of a majority of Americans. – TL

    • On Part II of your commentary, I love your point about conspiracy theory—plots within plots (never let a crisis go to waste!). I also like your points about arrogance and intellectual rigidity. And I agree with your conclusion about the importance of *The Phantom Menace*—Jar Jar Binks goofy silliness notwithstanding. – TL

  2. Have a couple of reactions to this interesting post.

    The first point is that I think the Star Wars movies (the ones I have seen*) succeed as pop-cultural artifacts, for lack of a better word, but they are not very effective vehicles for raising or discussing political issues (I realize a lot of people disagree w this statement). My sense is that most viewers probably don’t draw those (political) connections, even if that’s what Lucas intended them to do. The special-effects, the explosions, the mythology of the Force, the manichean good-vs-bad guys frame are all too distracting from whatever actual political themes he might have wanted to raise. The WW2 analogies (stormtroopers, Nuremburg rally scenes, etc.) are, arguably, simply kitschy (again, not quite the right word, but…).

    If they’re not effective political vehicles, it follows the movies can’t really have had the effect of making Americans less likely to think of the U.S. as an ’empire’. Most Americans never thought of the U.S. as a Cold War (or post-Cold War) empire anyway, and I don’t think the Star Wars movies had much effect one way or another on that. I can’t prove that, of course, any more than Tim can prove his opposite claim.

    Last point is that the notion of imperialism was also occluded by the way mainstream international-relations scholars tended to write about U.S. foreign policy in the post-1945 period. The W.A. Williams school in history was focusing on empire, of course, but most U.S.-based IR scholars weren’t in those years. It’s only in fairly recent years that the themes of imperialism and ‘U.S.-as-empire’ have seen a resurgence in IR.

    Robert Vitalis’s recent revisionist disciplinary history (which I’ve bought but only glanced through), underlines the way in which questions of race and colonialism were centrally ‘present at the creation’ of International Relations as a field in the U.S. at the turn of the twentieth century and then how the theme of imperialism got occluded later. He also discusses the contributions of African-Americans to IR, what he calls the ‘Howard school of IR theory’, and how they have been generally overlooked. (R. Vitalis, White World Order, Black Power Politics: The Birth of American International Relations, Cornell U.P., 2015. [The book is full typos and other small errors, btw. Someone did an absolutely terrible job of proofreading.])

    —–

    *I’ve already seen ‘The Force Awakens’. Ordinarily I prob. wdn’t have bothered to see it at all, but due to unusual circumstances I saw it last night, the opening evening. Big crowd, people seemed to like it. One tip: if you’re in the kind of theater I was in and have the bad luck to be sitting near the speakers — or anywhere in the theater, really — bring earplugs, b.c a lot of the movie is hard on the ears, given the prevailing volume level these days.

    • Louis: Thanks so much for the engaged reply. Much appreciated.

      I think we should read Varad’s posts before we state that these movies (esp. Episodes I-III) don’t succeed in terms of political commentary. I feel pretty certain that many viewers “got” the direct connections between those episodes and what happened in the early 2000s internationally.

      Thanks for the PS on noise in The Force Awakens! – TL

      • Tim,
        You might be right on Episodes I-III. I’ll take a look at Varad’s commentaries.

        Hope you enjoy TFA.

  3. Hi Tim, Thanks for your thoughts on the film. As a 25 yr. old father who joined his wife and 4 yr old to watch this film in 77′ it’s hard to impart how impressive this film was in its special effects and sound. It really was quantum leap (jump?)! I can’t imagine anyone born after this film, having been exposed to contemporary special effects, can get the full impact. We actually stayed in the theater to watch a second time. They let you do that back then.
    But I have to agree with Louis on the implications of the story line beyond a vehicle for selling product for kids. The film can easily be interpreted as a conservative polemic on the need for a well armed militia to fight the undefined, undescribed “other” who at any time could rise up and threaten an otherwise peaceful community. I’m thinking the NRA loves this film. Also the “good guys” are monarchists trying to protect “their” kingdom from destruction. Shades of King Arthur, Black Knights, magic, chosen ones etc all suggest serial borrowing of ideas of an idealized past rather than an anti-Vietnam War subtext.

    • Paul: Thanks for the comment. Of course I intended my commentary above, regarding empire, to be provocative. I do not expect others to share my sentiments—not even my younger self (including me up until about the age of 35). And I think you might be on to something about armed militias and the NRA. I have a family member who LOVES the *Star Wars* saga and who is also an AVID gun enthusiasts. So I see your POV. – TL

      • I love Varad’s analysis – thanks Varad! – but I tend to agree w/ Paul that to the extent that the prequels succeed as political commentary, the perspective they offer is not exactly a wholesome liberal one. To paraphrase Darth Vader: If this is a story about democracy, where is the demos?

        In the original trilogy, we can see Luke and Han as everyman, and as a straightforward fairy tale of white-hatted little people against black-hatted space Nazis it works. In the prequels there is no such character – literally everybody is an elite, even slave-boy Anakin (due to his unique connection with the Force, which marks him from birth – “there was no father” – and leads to his being caught up in elite society). Lucas seems to take for granted that the faceless masses are so hopeless as to not even be worth talking about. Which makes him appear, not as a defender of democracy, but rather as a true arch-reactionary of a 19th-century sort.

  4. Thank you to Tim Lacy for a well written, provocative piece. Instead of writing a simple blog post, you missed the mark entirely, and created a serious piece of work. Also, a tip of the hat to the commenters who exhibited a high level of insight. Kudos to Varad Metha for penning two astute essays which he linked to within the comments. I want to thank everyone for providing me with one of the most enjoyable learning experiences I’ve had in the past several years. Thank you.

  5. Yes, Lucas saw Star Wars as a commentary about war and the Vietnam War in particular. He also made conscious of the nightmare unfolding for his friend and mentor Francis Ford Coppola who was shooting Apocalypse Now in the Philippines at the same time that Star Wars addressed a different kind of concern. Lucas said at the time “there’s whole generation growing up without any kind of fairytales.” So yes, Star Wars is about war, and Lucas’s attempt to give his generation something less depressing that what they saw in most other films of the time. There is an interesting shape to the blockbusters of the day and the public discussion about them that you are leading us toward.

    • Thanks for commenting, Ray. I wish I knew more about Lucas and his relationship to other directors–i.e. his professional artistic influences. – TL

    • I guess at some point I’m going to have to follow the links Tim put in his main post, because at the moment I continue to be somewhat puzzled by the claim that ‘Star Wars’ is “about war,” and Ray’s comment here has not lessened my puzzlement.

      My recollection of the original 1977 Star Wars (The New Hope or whatever the title was) is admittedly a bit sketchy (I’m not sure I’ve seen it since I saw it in a theater in ’77), but all I can say is that if it is supposed to be an anti-Vietnam War movie, I think it does a quite good job of concealing that aim. Of course it can be read as ‘anti-imperialist’ in a generic sense (‘the Empire’ are the bad guys), but since, as I recall, it doesn’t tell the viewer who the Empire is ‘supposed’ to be (beyond the Nuremburg rally / Leni Riefenstahl stuff), I don’t see it as an especially powerful ‘anti-imperialist’ statement.

      Moreover, the desire to give a generation “its fairy tales” seems to contradict the intention to make a movie “about war.” War is, to a large extent, inherently depressing; it’s not a fairy tale, basically by definition. Of course there can be quasi-propagandistic, uplifting movies designed to rally ‘the home front’, but Star Wars isn’t that. A movie intended to make people feel “less depressed” about the Vietnam War (or anything else) is not, in my view, a movie ‘about war’ simply because it intends to make viewers feel less depressed about a recent war.

      Star Wars 1977 might well say something about imperialism, it might well say something about international or at least intercultural relations (I’m aware of some academics who think it does), but the claim that the movie says something specific about war I find questionable, and the claim that it says something specific about the Vietnam War in particular I find even more dubious.

      I haven’t read ‘the literature’ on Star Wars or to any sizable extent the literature on film studies or popular culture. I haven’t read Ray’s books on movies and ‘civil religion’. Perhaps they would change my mind. But as of now, the claims about ‘Star Wars and war’ are not making much intuitive sense to me.

      • One of the more interesting contributions to the BFI Film Classic Series is Will Brooker’s Star Wars (2009).

        He contends that there are continuities between Lucas’s more experimental THX 1138 and Star Wars that are sometimes ignored. Brooker also finds Lucas struggling with a love/hate relationship of Imperial regimentation. . .

      • Louis:
        I agree with you–I think the thread between Lucas’s movie and war is thin but I think we love using movies such as Star Wars as metaphors for speaking about our times and need to address huge issues like war. I want to emphasize that we rarely look at the historical record in regard to why movies get made or what the people who make them actually say about their own movies. All Lucas said about Star Wars and its relationship to war is that he thought his generation had grown tired of being told how horrible the US was and he believed this generation needed new fairy tales to distract them from the nightmares that Coppola and others were creating about actual wars. I can understand and appreciate what Tim or Varad and others write about Star Wars or any movie as part of a critique or a riff, so I don’t disagree with the connections they draw. But I agree that the movie is not anti-Vietnam or anti-imperialist but a reference to all the movies Lucas and his generation became such experts on as part of the film generation.

  6. On the relation of SDI, politics, Reagan, and the Star Wars saga, this is an excellent piece. Here’s a passage that corroborates my memory that the film was attached to SDI as a means of criticizing it:

    Senator Edward Kennedy first attached the ‘Star Wars’ label to Reagan’s vision in comments made on the floor of the Senate the day after the speech, it was to accuse the President of ‘misleading Red Scare tactics and reckless Star Wars schemes’. Kennedy’s comments were meant to point out the fantastic nature of Reagan’s missile defence programme and the real dangers of his escalation of the arms race into space. – TL

  7. @Ray H. (upthread at 10:22 a.m.)
    Thank you for the reply, esp. the point about Lucas responding to or being in dialogue with other movies; that makes sense to me.

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