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.