ABOUT THE DEPARTMENT OF STAR WARS STUDIES
On one hand, I’m pretty tired of Star Wars as an omnipresent cultural phenomenon that’s now going to be marketed to death every year for the rest of our lives, and the behavior of hardcore Star Wars fandom often makes me want to poke my eyes out with chopsticks.
But on the other hand, the Star Wars movies are as close to a cultural lingua franca as we’ve got these days. Everybody knows them, everybody understands references to them, and so they make good universally-accessible subjects for critical thought. And for me, well, I was born in 1974, grew up watching the original trilogy, and then spent my early brain-tuning years obsessing over the movies like any late-80s/early 90s nerd; the critical faculties that I use now to argue about the role of science in the paintings of Thomas Eakins or the use of autobiographical comics as vehicles for the assertion of female identity, well, that all got started in thinking about how the first chunk of IV is pretty much a Western and why Han and Lando share so many of the same lines in V. Thinking about Star Wars is how I got started thinking about culture to begin with, so really, I’m just sort of coming home by thinking about it some more.
So the Department of Star Wars Studies is my catchall name for a recurring thing I’ll be doing where I poke and prod at Star Wars stuff and try to apply some of that fancy critical thought to a bunch of movies that usually feature a walking dog who flies spaceships.
WICKET DON’T SURF
In 1983, George Lucas quietly entered the shit-stirrer hall of fame. The United States was still trying to figure out how to deal with the end of the Vietnam War, and was in fact about to kick off a decade of (retrospectively terrifying) cultural freakout about it. And in that milieu Lucas tricked the entire country into paying to go into theaters and root for thinly-veiled stand-ins for the Viet Cong.
I mean, think about it. In the last act of Return of the Jedi, the Empire has forces stationed on Endor, a place known for rough terrain filled with thick vegetation that impedes conventional open-field tactics and rewards hit-and-run ambushes. Imperial troops, with armor, laser blasters, speeder bikes, and various armored walkers (which are impractical but really cool-looking) have vastly more firepower and conventional training than the local insurgency they’re trying to put down, but the Ewoks overwhelm this superior conventional force with their guerilla tactics and knowledge of the local terrain. This is barely subtext; it’d be hard for it to be any more blatant. The parallels couldn’t be more clear, down to the fact that American forces suffered greatly in Vietnam from being built around theoretical open-field tank battles with Soviet forces on the plains of Europe; tanks don’t look as cool as AT-STs, but they’re clearly filling the same role of having their battlefield usefulness blunted by thick foliage and resourceful guerilla fighters.
You just have to be amazed at the politics of this. If the Ewoks are thinly-veiled stand-ins for the Viet Cong, what about the other side of that analogy? The Empire is the US. With the timing of this, there’s a curious historical hiccup: Return of the Jedi was released in May of 1983; Ronald Reagan first referred to the Soviet Union as the “Evil Empire” in March of 1983. So it’s not possible that Lucas was specifically tweaking Reagan’s usage with his US-Empire conflation, nor that Reagan was directly responding to it. But one of the strengths of Star Wars is that it is built out of easily-applied analogies, and both men were no doubt looking at bigger-picture parallels that were obvious to them (or their speechwriters, in Reagan’s case).
The thing about that timing: in 1983, the United States was deep into the cultural-hangover phase after Vietnam, about to kick off a wave of revisionist “stabbed in the back” movies. Think of Rambo 2 and Uncommon Valor and every other post-Vietnam movie where soldiers puff up and ask if the politicians are going to let them win this time. And I say “stabbed in the back” advisedly; that phrase refers to a recurring toxic myth that pops up in great powers after bad war experiences. The canonical occurrence of it was in Germany after World War I, when a widespread belief took hold that German forces in the field would have won if only the treacherous politicians hadn’t tied their hands (which, of course, is exactly what John Rambo asks Col. Troutman about). The Nazis made this a central argument in their sales pitch that they were going to “avenge” the dishonor and make Germany great again.
I’m not about to equate Ronald Reagan and Adolf Hitler, but you’d have to be blind not to see this same sentiment in the US in the early 80s (and not just regarding Vietnam; in the comedy Back to School, Sam Kinnison’s unhinged history professor screams that the US could have won in Korea if Truman hadn’t been such a “pussy-wimp.”) The country was coming to terms – badly – with having lost a war that was a mistake to begin with, and sympathetic treatments of the Vietnamese side of the war were basically unimaginable. And yet somehow George Lucas convinced the public, to the tune of $253,000,000, to root lustily for the Viet Cong and maybe buy some toys as well to act it out at home. Think what you will about his skill as a moviemaker, you have to admire the balls that took.
If you think I’m reaching on this, I offer two final counterarguments: first, consider Revenge of the Sith, which transparently (and clumsily) encodes criticism of the George W. Bush administration to the point of having Anakin Skywalker paraphrase Bush (Skywalker: “If you’re not with me, then you’re my enemy!” Bush: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists!” Only George Lucas can take a clunky GWB line and make it clunkier).
And second, look again at the illustration at the top of this article. That’s he cover of a comic licensed by Lucasfilm, and obvious homage/parody of the poster for Apocalypse Now. Take a look at the TIE fighters in silhouette towards the top. On the Apocalypse Now poster, those silhouettes are US Air Cav helicopters. If that’s not an admission, I don’t know what is.