How The Star Wars Franchise Started As A Commentary On American Imperialism

A screenshot from the “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” trailer on YouTube.

In the run up to the “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” the latest addition to the franchise, there has been a flurry of blog activity making comparisons between current national security issues and a “galaxy far, far away.” Star Wars is a fruitful topic for writers everywhere, as it has a broad appeal and is general knowledge for most people because of its status in popular culture. What many people may not know, however, is that Star Wars creator George Lucas had national security issues in mind as he wrote and produced the first three movies in the series.

“Star Wars: A New Hope” was released in 1977, just two years after the fall of Saigon, Vietnam, and four years after the end of direct U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. These memories were fresh in movie audience’s minds as they viewed the on-screen struggle of poorly trained and equipped Rebels against the technological juggernaut that was the Empire. The analogy lay on the surface, and it was not unintentional. Lucas has since suggested that his work was meant as an allegorical protest of the Vietnam War.

However, if it was Lucas’ intent that his original trilogy be remembered as a striking blow against “American imperialism,” as some have called the Vietnam War, he made a major misstep: His movies were too good. Instead of seeing the plucky freedom fighters of the Rebel Alliance as the Vietcong revolutionaries, Americans saw themselves in Luke, Leia, and friends. From Episode IV to Episode VI, Americans saw their own story of rebellion against the British played out, much to the probable frustration of Lucas. In fact, as Charlie Jane Anders writes on the blog iO9, “Return of the Jedi” brings the American experience into World War II, with invasions, raids, and the triumph of good over evil.

Anders notes that Lucas was more heavy handed in the second installment of the Star Wars movies, produced around the same time the U.S. was beginning the Global War on Terror. The parallels are very identifiable, as we watch the Galactic Senate pass laws granting emergency authorities and the erosion of liberties, while becoming involved in military conflicts. The message was a clear shot at the Bush administration’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which possibly made the movies less enjoyable. Heavy-handed allegory that gets in the way of the story is not something moviegoers want to see.

It has been 10 years since the last edition of Star Wars was released in theaters and the world has changed yet again. Gone are the massive ground wars, where hundreds of thousands of troops were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. We have seen the explosion of social media, a massive global recession, the Arab Spring, and the rise of the Daeshbags in the Middle East. Russia has risen as a dominant military actor again and global uncertainty has increased. The world is closer to the post-Vietnam War era of the first Star Wars films, as superpowers vie with each other via proxies and new modes of technology shrink the battlefields ever smaller. In many ways, the world is a far more complex place than it was in 2005.

From the various trailers and teasers for “The Force Awakens,” we can glean that the Star Wars universe is similarly complex. We are finally in the sequel years of franchise, where all of our lingering questions will be answered. The supposed victory of the Rebel Alliance seems somewhat in question, even as a Star Destroyer lays in mouldering ruins on the surface of what we can surmise is Tatooine, Luke Skywalker’s home planet. The legacy of the Sith still survives, in the mysterious figure of Kylo Ren. Battle scenes between X-Wings and Tie Fighters emphasize that the struggle continues for dominance in the galaxy. Perhaps governance proved more difficult for the Rebel Alliance than they had anticipated. Perhaps the Empire was able to reorganize after the loss of Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine to be a more goal-oriented organization than one driven purely by ideology. Conversely, perhaps you can’t destroy an ideology by only killing people, which would be a message in our own fight against the so-called Islamic State. Regardless, we can see that the war still continues, although the sides appear less black and white than they were in previous films.

Where the previous Star Wars movies mirrored the anti-war rhetoric common in much of the public of their times, this new installment seems more nuanced and far grittier, which is what we’ve come to expect of J.J. Abrams, director of “Super 8” and the Star Trek reboots. If the movie plays out as the trailers indicate, we are going to be presented with a much more complex environment than existed at the end of “The Return of the Jedi” to match our own complex place in the world. Iraq and Afghanistan have shown us the limits of American power, while the Arab Spring has demonstrated how dangerous power vacuums can be. While the new film will doubtless be entertaining, it will also most likely reflect changing worldviews and societal norms.

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