Culture Magazine

‘Star Wars’ – The Original Series (Part Two): War and (Sometimes) Peace

By Josmar16 @ReviewsByJosmar
Imperial Walkers from The Empire Strikes Back

Imperial Battle Cruisers from The Empire Strikes Back

Another Day, Another Director

The Star Wars films began their slow galactic ascent into our collective subconscious on May 25, 1977, with the initial release of the enticingly titled Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope.

I seem to recall glancing up at that enormous Panavision widescreen and being thoroughly enchanted, as well as confused, by the receding letters on that vast, blue-black star field. I distinctly remember wondering to myself, “Where the hell was I for the first three installments?” I was not alone in that regard.

In fact, the next chapter in Twentieth Century-Fox’s financial juggernaut, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, followed soon thereafter in May of 1980, with the last entry taking another three years to complete, before Episode VI: Return of the Jedi was readied for release — again, on a lucrative 1983 Memorial Day weekend.

Each picture had featured three different directors: Lucas for the first one; the veteran Irvin Kershner (Return of a Man Called Horse, Never Say Never Again), a former film and photography student, for the second; and Richard Marquand (Jagged Edge, Eye of the Needle) for the third. Kershner and Lucas were fellow alumni at the University of Southern California (USC) Film School, when he was tapped for this directing assignment. Director Marquand, on the other hand, was a writer and producer previously associated with TV series and mini-series in his native England.

Politically, things were not so far advanced. When the original Star Wars movie premiered in May 1977, Democrat Jimmy Carter had already been sworn in as the 39th President of the United States — the proverbial “New Hope” for America, politically speaking — just as the public outcry against the abuses of the Watergate scandal had toppled Republican Richard M. Nixon (the Evil Emperor) from power.

After the affairs of Nixon and his cronies were over and done with, democracy was supposed to have been salvaged by a more benign figure (Yoda in human guise?), one who was not only completely outside the Washington establishment but straight out of the jilted backwater of a sleepy little town called Plains, Georgia — the proverbial “mud hole” of the Dagobah system, about as long ago and far, far away from the mainstream as the planet Tatooine was from our home planet Earth.

James Earl Carter was a genteel, born-again Christian – a peanut farmer, if memory serves me – and a former governor of Georgia; in retrospect, though, he wasn’t quite the sort of leader the country required at the time in order to confront the burgeoning Soviet arms buildup and Red menace. Then again, neither was Obi Wan Kenobi, nor Luke Skywalker for that matter. Appearances can be deceiving, you know.

The Vietnam War had officially come to an end not two years prior. Yet Americans were still unable to come to grips with that disastrous episode and its overpoweringly sociopolitical aftermath. The veterans of that unpopular exchange were not even granted a victory parade until a full decade or so later.

California Dreamin’

Imperial Walkers (The Empire Strikes Back)

Imperial Walkers (The Empire Strikes Back)

With all that in mind, a young Southern California movie-maker named George Lucas slowly emerged as part of the new “advance guard” of a Vietnam-driven generation of film directors that spawned the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, John Milius, Steven Spielberg, Oliver Stone, and Brian de Palma.

Though likely not the first of the breed, Lucas was perhaps the most imaginative of the bunch to use the Vietnam War-metaphor – by way of classical mythology, that is – as the principal underlying themes of his films; by showing what a hopelessly outnumbered band of courageous guerrilla fighters and their surprise tactics could do to undermine the efforts of a much larger, more unwieldy, and ergo vastly superior Imperial Force — a reference to the United States of America, I imagine.

It was supposed to have been a foregone conclusion in the 1960s that the U.S. could defeat any foe, and could triumph in any military campaign against an allegedly weaker, albeit undersized, enemy such as the runty North Vietnamese, as the generals and military types of the era so pompously pointed out back then.

Little did we know, however, how wrong they truly were. The subsequent films in the Star Wars lineup, then, went on to serve as prescient lessons in hubris, humility, lost causes, and old-time religion.

Lucas envisioned his fable as a pure morality tale of mythic proportions. It was destined to become a combination New Age Nibelungenlied and coming-of-age saga –  specifically starring a boyishly blond, teenaged Siegfried (our young friend, Luke Skywalker) for the “me” generation. Darth Vader was the Wotanesque father figure, with Jedi masters Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi playing the all-knowing, all-wise, behind-the-scenes architects of it all (Loge and Erda, respectively).

As Lucas imagined it, each character had his or her own mythic archetype attached to their actions, brilliantly conceived and commented upon by author Joseph Campbell (The Hero of a Thousand Faces), and subsequently discussed at length in his now-classic television interview series, The Power of Myth (1988) with PBS journalist and former JFK speech-writer, Bill Moyers.

By the time of the second feature, The Empire Strikes Back, a change in U.S. administrations had signaled a complete reversal of political fortunes. It was Memorial Day again, May 1980, and, with the presidential election only a few months away, it appeared that Jimmy Carter might be going up against former actor and Governor of California, Ronald Wilson Reagan – a Western-like cowboy figure riding to the rescue, in his big white Stetson hat and white horse.

Wicket, on the Ewoks (Return of the Jedi)

Wicket, on the Ewoks (Return of the Jedi)

Getting back to Star Wars, Luke Skywalker was now a full-fledged Jedi knight of the realm, and equipped with a new light saber (including several upgrades) as the symbol of his power over earthy matters. The technologically inferior and seemingly incapable Ewoks, along with metallic androids C3PO and R2D2, contribute, fight back, and eventually win the day for the Rebel Alliance.

Luke soon discovers that he has his own challenges to face, and against the far greater power of the Emperor himself, that traditional black-hooded bogeyman – a latter-day Grim Reaper, but without the sickle.

Sticking with this point, the decidedly low-tech Ewoks help to conquer the high-tech soldiers of the Imperial Forces. After all, the inferior and illiterate Barbarians of Northern Europe ultimately defeated the Roman Republic? Why not the helpless little Ewoks? The Vietnam analogy won out in the end, with the Ewoks obviously representing the Vietnamese (both the North and the South) fighting for their territory on their own land.

(End of Part Two)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

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