The other day, I was reading a book called “A Galaxy Not So Far Away”, a book of essays about ‘Star Wars’. The essays varied wildly in quality from “kind of mediocre” to “crimes against the English language”, but one of the things that stuck out about them was the way that they all talked about the meanings that the author projected onto what they ‘knew’ to be ‘escapist fiction’. Normally, I’d chalk this up to a failing of the author, much in the same way I’d ding them for not realizing that a Boba Fett vs. Predator website might not be entirely serious, but this view isn’t unique to this book. Critics as diverse as Roger Ebert, Nathan Rabin, Tom Shone and Peter Biskind have all called ‘Star Wars’ a piece of pure escapism, with varying degrees of respect and appreciation. It has come to be the fundamental received wisdom about the original film. No allegory, no message, just a classic Boy Becomes Man story set so far away from anything we know that everyone can enjoy it.
Which is totally wrong. ‘Star Wars’ is actually an intensely political story, with a scathing and vicious statement to make about modern American politics cloaked in an allegorical “space opera”. The reasons that nobody appreciates this are twofold: One, the political landscape changed so much during the film’s lengthy journey from script to screen that much of its impact was neutered, and two, Americans have an amazing ability to assume that they’re the “good guys” in any allegorical story. This, combined with Reagan’s later appropriation of the imagery and terminology of the film, made it seem like an all-purpose battle of good and evil, but it wasn’t always intended this way.
It’s important, when looking at the political elements of ‘Star Wars’, to look at the era in which it was written. When Lucas first envisioned his follow-up to ‘American Graffiti’, Nixon had just been re-elected in an astonishing landslide. The Vietnam War had outlasted both the President who started it and the President who championed it, and was now continuing into the second term of a President who had promised to end it…and had instead escalated both its intensity and its scope. Watergate, the scandal that would eventually grow to consume the Nixon presidency, was at this point merely seen as a couple of muck-rakers trying to stir up trouble for a man as unpopular with liberals as he was popular with conservatives. And George Lucas? He was hanging out with radical, political film-makers like Francis Ford Coppola and his then-wife, Marcia Lou Griffin. He was potentially tapped as the director of ‘Apocalypse Now’, before ‘Star Wars’ came along to occupy his attention at the time. He was consumed with the idea of a political film about what he saw as the end of American democracy as we knew it.
This is actually worth repeating, because we’re at this point so far removed from the era that many people have forgotten the most troubling aspect of Watergate. It wasn’t that the President had bugged, burglarized, and “ratfucked” his opponents on the way to his victory. It wasn’t even that he’d paid hush money to his co-conspirators to make it all go away. It wasn’t even that he’d discouraged the FBI from pursuing the case. It was what people saw as the very real possibility that Nixon might simply tell the United States Congress to shove their investigation up their collective ass sideways, and to tell the Supreme Court exactly what they could do with their 8-0 ruling that he turn over the tapes. It was the idea that we had a President who genuinely saw himself as not subject to the rule of law. “Imperialist Presidency” gets bandied around a lot by both sides of the political spectrum, but everyone was worried that Nixon was setting one up.
And what did Lucas write against this backdrop? He wrote a story about a democracy that had become an Empire, with a ruler who (all together now) “dissolved the council permanently”. The Empire is now constantly on a war footing, using technology they perfected in the wars against its enemies on its own citizens to stifle dissent. Only a group of anti-establishment rebels who remember The Way Things Used To Be can possibly restore the Republic. In case the symbolism isn’t blatant enough, should I mention that the ending of ‘Jedi’ (in which a bunch of foreigners/aliens with primitive weapons overwhelm a technologically and numerically superior force through use of cunning, ambushes and a superior knowledge of the local area) was originally planned to be the ending of ‘Star Wars’ before budgetary constraints forced him to move it? Even the costume design for the Rebel pilots evokes early Russian cosmonauts. (If you don’t believe me, just drop by the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum sometime.)
In ‘Star Wars’, the Empire is America. The Emperor is Nixon. The oppressor is us, and the call in the air everywhere is “Revolution!” George Lucas, the supposedly escapist film-maker who wanted nothing more than to entertain, was advocating for the armed overthrow of the United States government. By the time his film hit theaters, of course, it was already dated; nobody could look at “the sanctimonious impotence of Carter” (to borrow a phrase from James Lileks) and see a menace that had to be toppled from his iron throne. But by couching his work in the language of allegory, Lucas created a story that survived its political origins in a way that many other political films could not. Which is a good thing for us, but I suspect the idealist that Lucas used to be is a little bit sad about it.
(Post-script: I hate to have to mention this, because it seems like it should be self-evident, but…yes. I am serious. This is actually sourced in J.W. Rinzler’s “The Making of Star Wars”, which took contemporary interviews with Lucas and his friends and co-workers, along with drafts of the script, to show how the atmosphere of political idealism and frustrated radicalism that Lucas lived in during the 70s informed the work. Lucas has explained all this, but he’s offered so many contradictory explanations of the genesis of his work that most people ignore it. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.)