Star Wars Hails to A Pre-Vietnam America: This New Hope is Old Fashioned
The first time I watched Star Wars I was actually exposed to Episode I: The Phantom Menace. I remember growing up being compared to young Anakin Skywalker, and greatly wanting a light saber of my own. It was not until I was much older and in college that I began to see universal distaste for the prequel trilogy. Old school Star Wars fans are very loyal to the original trilogy, from A New Hope to Return of the Jedi, Star Wars has touched the hearts of people all around the world. However, what made the original Star Wars film so popular in the first place? A New Hope was more than its astounding special effects for its time. It was more than its engaging plot and its characters. A New Hope presented two opposing ideas and Americans strongly clung to one. On the one hand, Americans could be the evil empire fighting against the Vietnamese people, and on the other hand Americans actually identified with the Rebel Alliance. For a post-Vietnam America, A New Hope quite literally provided a new hope for all Americans. With a group of ragtag rebels overcoming the great, evil empire through religious dedication and a western-vibe, A New Hope hails to American nostalgia and a simpler time.
Star Wars came out during a time when America suffered a great existential crisis. America suffered its first loss to Vietnam, and years earlier Nixon betrayed the American people through the Watergate scandal. In 1972, Nixon’s Watergate Scandal caused an intense uproar because the betrayal came directly from the top of our system: the President. At the same time while Americans were initially gung ho about the Vietnam War and expected an easy victory against the underdeveloped people, our soldier’s brutality eventually turned the people against the war and American soldiers. As a direct result of these events, American faith in its government was wavering. While this “lack of faith” may have been “disturbing” as Vader would say, these events set Americans up perfectly to identify with Star Wars: A New Hope.
The Star Wars era did not start with the film’s production, but from the mind of one man. George Lucas’s pursuit of Star Wars began while he was in college during the Vietnam war. As such, Lucas was surrounded by an entirely anti-government and anti-war movement. The Vietnam War produced an era of distrust, and a group of people that were entirely against the war (Kaminski). For Lucas, film making would be his means of expressing his personal discontent. “Being a student in the sixties,” he states, “I wanted to make socially relevant films, you know, tell it like it is” (Rolling Stone, June 12, 1980). In fact, George’s first major film project was in partnership with John Milius on Apocalypse Now. “Most of the things in the film were things the public didn’t know about yet. Nobody had any idea that people were taking drugs over there. Nobody had any idea how crazy it was. None of that had come out. The film at that time was vaguely an expose, vaguely a satire and vaguely a story about angry young men.” (Rolling Stone, June 12, 1980). Lucas’s interest in creating a film about the Vietnam War was always evident. However, he never quite had the opportunity to create a proper film that directly commented on the Vietnam War. As such, his commentary soon transferred onto his creation of Star Wars.
Lucas did not have an opportunity to work directly with Star Wars until the end of the Vietnam War. In the original draft of Star Wars, the protagonists earns the respect of native warriors (a concept Lucas revisited with the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi) and with their help defeat the evil empire:
The protagonists crash land on a jungle planet named Yavin, where they discover that the native wookiees have been sieging Imperial outposts on their planet for two years now…After Annikin frees some captive wookiees from Imperial…Annikin trains the wookiees to pilot the spacecraft. In the end, it is the wookiees who destroy the “death star” space fortress, while Annikin and Valorum rescue the princess within. (Kaminski)
The characterization of the wookiees and the existence of the evil empire parallel America and Vietnam very distinctly in this original draft. It could be said that Lucas’s perspective aligns with left wing sentimentalities in the 70’s. To liberals that opposed the war, the US has actually become the Evil Empire. After winning two world wars, Americans have disillusioned themselves to be all-powerful, and Americans were crippled by this disillusionment. It was only natural that the American people expected the native “Gooks” would be easy to dominate. Their technology and their tactics were not as efficient, or up-to-date, as ours. However, this expectation changed and just as the evil empire toppled under the might of the wookiees, so too did America falter and fail to defeat Vietnam.
Naturally this sentimentality would not appeal to Americans. If, as we’ve discussed in class, attending the cinema is a means of simultaneously confronting and getting a release from our anxieties, then a film that paints Americans as the evil empire would do little to appeal to an American audience. Lucas was in a position where he had to take an entirely different approach, and thus audiences are treated to A New Hope.
A New Hope opens with text going across the screen and provides exposition for what has happened prior to the start of the film:
Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire…Pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy.
The word use alone invokes several thematic elements that Americans can identify with. The “evil Galactic Empire” is a representation of the British Empire, and the “freedom to the galaxy” is similar to the freedom and autonomy that Americans sought from Britain during the Revolutionary war. The film action begins in battle, and the two droids must escape the modernized world of the space ship if they have any hopes of surviving. Prior to R2D2’s (Kenny Baker) departure, Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) leaves a message for Ben Kenobi (Alec Guinness), the man who – from her perspective – is the only hope for the rebel alliance.
As a stark contrast to the space-ship, the planet Tatooine is very simple in its existence. The amount of technology is heavily limited and the leading protagonist of the original trilogy, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), leads a very dull life. Luke wishes to join the Imperial Academy as a pilot in hopes of escaping his life as a moisture farmer, but his uncle forbids it. Luke’s identity as the hero with nothing resonates strongly with American nostalgia. His dissatisfaction with his life is matched by his want for something greater than what he has. This is greatly similar to the American dream and American’s entitlement attitude for better things. When Ben Kenobi offers to teach Luke the ways of the Force, Luke refuses. However, when Luke finds his aunt and uncle murdered by Imperial stormtroopers, Luke is inclined to fight the good fight and learn the ways of the Force.
This concept of the Force could be perceived as religious doctrine, however I argue that the old Jedi order represent the founding fathers. Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader (David Prowse) both have unsurmountable faith in the Force and what it could mean for success. To American audience members, the Force could very well-parallel with old-American idealism. Obi-Wan teaches Luke to reclaim the original identity. Darth Vader aligns himself with the original American identity but his perspective of these ideals are obviously bastardized because he took them and created the death star. Interestingly enough, Vader’s creation of the death star also parallels American idealism’s bastardization by the government.
A New Hope creates a brutal enemy that should be trusted but isn’t. On the one hand, the Empire represents the American government after the war. It is not to be trusted, and should be fought. When Governor Tarkin (Peter Cushing) promises to spare Leia’s home planet for information, it turns out he lies and destroys the planet anyway. “You’re far too trusting. Dantooine is too remote to make an effective demonstration – but don’t worry; we will deal with your rebel friends soon enough.” In a way Dantooine’s betrayal can be aligned with Nixon’s betrayal of the American people. The Americans are put in a position where they should trust Nixon because he is President and therefore an authority, but his morality and own choices lead to his betrayal. However, at the same time the government officials in A New Hope all speak with a British accent. In a not-so-subtle way Lucas has created a nostalgic empirical enemy that Americans can detest. Lucas does not stop there though, in order to truly identify with the rebels, Lucas provides a modernized cowboy that remind Americans of the likes of John Wayne: Han Solo (Harrison Ford).
Han Solo looks out for himself, Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), his ship, and no one else. In fact, upon meeting Leia, she comments about his character, “Your friend is quite a mercenary. I wonder if he really cares about anything…or anybody.” His personal sense of honor is similar to the honor-code the cowboys followed in western films. He is separate from the expectations of the status quo, and as such can rise above those expectation. Americans need a person that can take that first step away from government expectations. While that person cannot necessarily lead, he can be an excellent symbol for American ideology. Han Solo treads the line between “selfish” and “selfless” in the way that he helps others, but does not explicitly admit that he’s doing it selflessly. When Luke asks him to join the fight, Han Solo responds, “That’s right, yeah. Got some old debts I gotta pay off with this stuff. Even if I didn’t, you don’t think I’d be fool enough to stick around here, do you? Why don’t you come with us? You’re pretty good in a fight. We could use you.” His interest in self-preservation extends to his want to work with people he appreciates. Unlike the Empire, Han acts for himself and the people he cares about, he is an American in spirit.
In Telegraph’s original 1977 review of Star Wars, they claim “The story is unpretentious and pleasantly devoid of any message.” Only to describe a plot that is entirely full of a “message.” A group of unscrupulous interstellar politicians have overthrown the legitimate authority and created an evil galactic empire. However, the beautiful Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), a leader of the defeated party, starts a rebellion to restore democracy.” The plot, as described by the Telegraph, definitely has a message. Democracy is something that America believes in and something that America defends to this day. It is evident in why we fought in the Vietnam War. The “message” that supposedly doesn’t exist, is that America is the Evil Empire. It cannot be, Lucas cleverly created a space odyssey that allowed Americans to reclaim their identity.
Lucas himself takes this claim and secures it. “This film was written during the Vietnam war, where a small band of ill-equipped people were able to overcome a mighty power,” Lucas says. “It’s not a new idea. Atilla the Hun was able to overwhelm the Roman empire. The American colonies were able to overrun the British. It’s always the same story; the Roman empire had a huge mechanical advantage, and training advantage, over the Huns, but the Huns were still able to overwhelm them with enthusiasm and their humanism and the belief in what they were doing. That was the main theme for the overall downfall of the Empire” (ROTJ). Han Solo’s cowboy attitude, Luke’s sincere nature, and Leia’s firm loyalty to her people greatly represent every aspect of an old-fashioned American identity that had been lost due to the Vietnam War. Americans may have experienced a loss but, at least in a “galaxy, far, far away”, Americans were successful in blowing up the death star.
Barry, Adrian. “Star Wars: The Telegraphs Original 1977 Review.” Telegraph 16 12 1977, Original n. pag. Print. <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/star-wars/10430039/Star-Wars-the-Telegraphs-original-1977-review.html>.
Kaminski, Michael. “Battle of the Primitives: Nature versus Industry and Vietnam in Star Wars.” The Secret History of Star Wars. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Nov 2013. <http://secrethistoryofstarwars.com/battleoftheprimitives.html>.
ROTJ DVD commentary, 2004. Film.
“The Empire Strikes Back and So Does Filmmaker George Lucas With His Sequel to Star Wars” by Jean Vallely, Rolling Stone, June 12th 1980. Print.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
Most of my childhood memories of the Star Wars franchise came from the follow-up, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. So, basically, my earliest memories would be of my love of Yoda, the main “spoiler” of father/son and the big walking dogs at the beginning in the snow.
This film has a special place in my heart as it was the first film and trilogy I remember seeing as a child and I must say 10 years later it is still one of the best films of all time. When pushed for my favourite film of all time I am always struggling to pick between the three Star Wars films or the three Lord Of the Rings but I must say when a film can just make you smile no matter what mood your in or no matter how many times you have seen it that film holds a special case in your heart like Star Wars has for me.
Intriguing! Thanks for posting.
That was an interesting way of looking at the movie series and I had no idea that Lucas had been inspired by such anti-government sentiments. I always thought it was ironic that though Vader’s intentions had always supposedly been good, his actions wrought such destruction and despair for his subjects. I think that fact speaks volumes to your allegory to how the American government may also have been attempting to achieve a worthy goal from its perspectives but ultimately failed.
Interesting study. I first saw it on the big screen when it came out. I remember standing in the lobby with “May the Force Be With You” signs hanging all around. I wondered what the heck the signs meant. It’s so much fun to see a movie knowing nothing about it.
May I ask what your reactions were when you first saw the film? You can private message it to me of course but I would love to hear a first-hand account.
My older sister and her friend took me to see it when it first came out and I loved it. The only down side was the theatre had a guy dressed in a Darth Vader costume walking up and down the aisles and he made me nervous. I had to go to the bathroom when the film was over, but being a boy, my sister couldn’t take me into the ladies room, so I held it till I got home for fear he would follow me into the men’s room and kill me.
When this movie came out back in the days I couldn’t understand most of it. I was young, I didn’t knew a thing about space travel, plasma stuff or force fantasies. Over the time I must have watched it over 50 times and bit by bit I understood more and more and this movie grew into my heart.
I don’t hate it, but I definitely don’t love it. This goes for the entire franchise and personally I’d prefer to watch the prequels as they have better effects…. Either way I’m just not into star wars and think its SOOOOO overrated..
I think from a modern perspective younger generations can be very jaded about the films. We have higher expectations about special effects, but a part of what makes the films so brilliant is they were revolutionary for their time. That, and the sheer amount of merchandising that directly came with the movie was unheard of.
I think that in later years, movies that we love now could easily reach that level of overrated. Though thank you for the opinion. I definitely am not as in love with Star Wars as many other fans, but I’m a product of this generation as well.
If your entire reasoning for watching the prequels over the originals is due to their better effects, then I pity you.
To think the series is overrated is clearly narrow minded. To not like the films is one thing, but to completely overlook their contribution to cinema is just ignorant.
Don’t split infinitives if you want to be taken seriously.
To glaringly spit in a fellow’s eye due to a gramatical rule which only the haughtiest of perscriptivists would impose deigns to lesser your own moot argument more.
In other words, attacking how someone speaks does nothing to counter their argument and only to make yourself more dislikable. Elitism has always been despised. No need to hurt the English community more than to reinforce the grammar nazi stereotype.
You misspelled “grammatical,” the negative of “likable” is “unlikable,” and there are other errors in passages such as “…lesser your own moot argument more,” “…does nothing to counter their argument and only to make yourself more dislikable [sic―already discussed]” that actually undermine your credibility. Additionally, you labour under a misapprehension: I had not expressed an opinion that Star Wars is an overrated work. In fact, I agree with the person to whose defence you have (belatedly) sprung, that being that the original films do, in fact, bear far greater re-viewing value than the prequels. Then again, I would rather watch a funeral than the Star Wars prequels. When you agree with someone who presents his/her argument very poorly, however, you have to point out that they are doing so if you wish for the argument to be taken seriously.
Furthermore, why did you wait for more than a year to respond to my comment?
So you would just prove my point.
This is a supportive community where everyone can hold their own opinions, whatever those opinions may be. There are constructive ways to tell someone you disagree with them without attacking them. Please refrain from making this and any comment section of any article a flame war.
Well… There’s the whole ‘you had to be there’ and the ‘there was nothing like it at the time’ but there is soooooo much more. Imagine a world with no Darth Vader, no lightsabres, no TIE Fighters, no Jedi Knights, no ‘May The Force Be With You’ etc etc. Nowadays we’re so used to all this stuff, but imagine being a kid in 1977 and seeing it all for the first time!
Every image in this film was so iconic. It wasn’t just the pacing and special effects (which at the time were absolutely spellbinding) but the characters and the humour and the story arcs (especially going into “Empire’). The opening shot with the massive Star Destroyer, Vader’s menacing breathing sound, R2’s whistling and chirping, the droids’ banter, the cantina with its crazy aliens, the landspeeder hovering above the ground, the dianoga popping its head up in the trash compactor, the holographic chess set and so on. Every scene had that special element that kids would excitedly bring up at school – “hey, what about when that dude’s arm got sliced off!” “hey, how freakin’ cool was the end battle!” etc etc etc
Don’t forget that back then there were no DVDs with bonus commentary. You basically had that two hours in the cinema to take it all in and then it was over. Heck, it was a year before the toys started to show up! Just seeing the film was a huge experience. And even when the thrill of the SPFX wore off (Empire immediately made Star Wars look simple by comparison) it was the story and the characters that kept it all so special.
I was never really impressed by it. I found “Close Encounters” to be a much better sci-fi film that year. Yeah, I was 10 years old and some of the visuals were cool, but the story was really weak an uninteresting compared to the sci-fi I was growing up with. Sci-fi that actually said something about us.
But I also recognise that Lucas set out to make a mindless popcorn fluff piece and he did a great job of creating a galaxy of weird ships, weird aliens and a fun little flick.
I don;t really care for the prequels but I found them to be far more interesting (midichlorians aside) than the original trilogy. But that’s due to my particular tastes and penchant for political intrigue, and in no way indicates they are better films than the original trilogy.
I certainly don’t find “Star Wars” to be overrated. When people willingly stood in line for hours to see it- and repeated that process time and again, I think it’s earned its rating – and its place in film history.
I think it is a a bit overrated, yes.
It’s a great adventure and a exciting film and I can see why it made such an impact but it’s not a masterpiece.
I think it is a bit silly and the dialogue is to much really.
Personally. I think you read way too much into the message of star wars. Sure. Movies have been and will be used as propaganda. But, come on man. There need to be good guys and bad guys. Otherwise,there is no conflict and there is no movie. So I could see how a parallel could be drawn between this film and the Vietnam war. But, I just felt like you were making a stretch and grasping at straws. Well written though.
I would agree that it sounds like I’m grasping at straws, but in actuality any time a film is produced it is always made socially or politically relevant in some way. Whether the directors admit to this or not remains to be seen, but many movies out hail to something within us whether explicitly or implicitly. If George Lucas was not at risk of being drafted into the war (he was rejected because he was diagnosed with diabetes) and if he was not so anti-war, I would not have drawn the conclusion myself.
I do agree with the sense that anything needs a protagonist and antagonist for conflict to exist, but as seen by the original prequel films there is no “black and white”.
This is a perspective I’ve never thought about while watching these movies. My boyfriend would love to read this, he’s obsessed with Star Wars. But you did a really awesome time explaining all your points and your article was really interesting. Good job!
I was in an American Film class that was dedicated to looking for socially relevant meanings to films while explaining the star system, studio system, and film techniques that directors use. That being said, please let me know what your boyfriend thinks when he reads this! Thank you =].
Much has been said and written about this film but I have not read about this.
I am a fan of Star Wars, and many of my earliest childhood memories are focused around watching the films and playing with the action figures with my father, cousins, and uncle. Despite being a fan (and an English major!) I’ve never thought to analyze or explore the ideas behind Star Wars, so I found this to be an interesting read. Thanks!
I appreciate the politicized perspective, and I’m wondering how it jives with the other narrative I’ve heard re: Star Wars’ inspiration and ensuing popularity. I’m referring to Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” the Classics book about mythological tropes that was apparently a favorite of Lucas’. How did America’s image of itself mix with this soup of ancient tales?
Also, and I understand this is outside the scope of this particular essay, how would you account for Star Wars’ ridiculous international popularity? This was not just a hit in the USA, it was a hit in every major world market. Surely there’s something besides the US’s particular political climate at play here.
Yeah, but you have to remember that Star Wars is a US production created by a US filmmaker, so that is going to probably have the greatest influence.
Great article, I remember reading somewhere that Lucas got much of inspiration from the anthropologist Joseph Campbell’s book Hero with a Thousand Faces. Of course, Stars Wars took inspiration from many sources, so I guess Pre-Vietnam America could certainly be one of them.
Having been born too late to enjoy the original Star Wars trilogy when it first came out and through happenstance growing up in a family that didn’t relish the Star Wars franchise, I wasn’t exposed to it until I was much older than most. I think this is why I never found myself enthralled in the universe of Star Wars. I enjoy the films, and will watch them occasionally if there is nothing better to watch, but there is no nostalgia there to rose-tint my glasses.
I am envious of the people who got to experience Star Wars first hand. How great it must have been to be in an audience when Darth Vader’s identity was revealed! However you feel about the films themselves, you can’t deny that that was a great cultural moment in cinema.
This was a really great analogy of Star Wars and America and the Vietnam war. I never really had this insight but now I do thanks man
Good article. I love your analysis of Obi Wan and the Force as the “original” American identity. I never thought of episodes IV V and VI as being a product of the Vietnam war but you make an interesting case. I grew up in the 90’s watching these movies on VHS and probably wouldn’t have picked up on subtleties of politics that were before my time. However, when the prequels came out, I was in high school and noticed that there were aspects of the plots which were paralleling tensions and fears towards the Bush administration and frustrations over the War in Iraq (much more overtly than the Vietnam parallels in the original films).
You illustrated the allegorical nature of Star Wars fairly well. Good job!