The Politics Behind the Original “Star Wars”




IN 1977, STAR WARS transformed the Hollywood blockbuster not just financially, but in the way it affected popular culture. From toys to Star Wars disco music, to cosplay (costume play) and beyond, George Lucas and his collaborators meticulously crafted a movie many people wanted to make a part of their lives, even outside of the theater. With the release of The Force Awakens, Star Wars mania has been renewed — although it never really went away. The series has been culturally powerful for almost 40 years, although primarily as a pop culture phenomenon. The politics behind the creation of the original film, A New Hope, reveals a rich geography of American history, technology, race, and religious mores.

George Lucas came of age in the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s, and was profoundly affected by the culture and turmoil of those decades. Lucas, along with millions of other Americans, opposed US involvement in the Vietnam War. A capsule description that he wrote in 1973 described Star Wars as “a large technological empire going after a small group of freedom fighters,” — incorporating the asymmetrical quality of the Vietnam War into his space fantasy. This can be seen in the very opening scene of Star Wars, as Princess Leia’s rebel ship is completely overwhelmed in size and firepower by an Imperial Star Destroyer. Lucas’s description of Star Wars, of course, could also fit other conflicts in history, which he has also acknowledged as influences, including the American Revolutionary War with its challenge to the British Empire.

Looking at the history within which Star Wars was made, and more specifically how George Lucas interpreted that history, we can begin to see how parts of his life, as well as his cultural environment, helped shape the films. Of course, Star Wars is much more than the sum of its influences, for Lucas was intentionally creating a new contemporary myth. As Lucas said, “Star Wars came out of my desire to make a modern fairy tale. In college, I became fascinated by how culture is transmitted through fairy tales and myths. Fairy tales are how people learn about good and evil, about how to conduct themselves in society.”

Many of the Lucas quotes in this article are from Dale Pollock’s ground-breaking biography Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas, first published in 1983. Lucas gave Pollock more than 60 hours of interviews, but they have been neglected in interpreting Star Wars. Additional interviews Lucas has given over the years fill out the story, as does the Lucasfilm-approved book Star Wars and History, edited by Nancy R. Reagin and Janice Liedl, published in 2013, and the best-selling How Star Wars Conquered the Universe by Chris Taylor, published last year.

In many ways, the political meanings in Star Wars were and are progressive, but in other ways the film can be described as middle-of-the-road, or even conservative. And one scene may arguably have appropriated Nazi imagery — not for the Empire, but for the rebels, and specifically Leia, Han, and Luke.

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George Lucas, Jr., was born in 1944 in the then-small city of Modesto, California. Rather like his later creation, Luke, who grew up on an out-of-the-way farm on remote Tatooine, and whose name echoes his, Lucas grew up far from the center of excitement. His father was a successful small business owner and an ardent Republican. Because George Sr. spent so many hours each week at the Lucas Stationery Store, earning his family a comfortable middle-class life, George Jr. was closer to his mother, Dorothy. Dorothy was kind and sensitive, in contrast to her husband’s often strict ways. Lucas recalled that his father was “a very conservative self-made kind of man, with a lot of prejudices which were extremely annoying. I learned very early on not to discuss politics with my father.”

And yet, George Sr.’s success as a small businessman — he was his own boss, stocked the best merchandise, was known for excellent customer service, and was able to keep his own profits —was a powerful model for George Jr. throughout his career in Hollywood, and also influenced the creation of Han Solo. Lucas has described Han Solo as “a free-enterprise small businessman.” And, as he later said, “The way my father brought me up gave me a lot of the common sense I use to get me through the business world.” Today, Lucas is worth about five billion dollars —more even than Steven Spielberg or Oprah Winfrey — and so his father’s entrepreneurial business sense clearly helped him.

Although Lucas Sr. was often stern with his dreamy son, he also gave him some of the best toys available, including a big Lionel train set. George played with his sister Wendy and his friends nearly endlessly with these toys, creating what Lucas called “elaborate little environments” — which was, in a sense, not all that different from the making of Star Wars two decades later. As Lucas’s childhood friend George Frankenstein recalled, “He had all the goodies, and he was very willing to share.” Connected to these toy-constructed worlds were elaborate stories George would often tell. As another friend, Alan Grant, recalled, George was frequently “telling a story. He was always in a make-believe world.”

Lucas has described his childhood, without irony, as a “Norman Rockwell upbringing,” which explains his large collection of Rockwell paintings. These Rockwells will be part of the new billion-dollar Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, which is scheduled to open in Chicago in a few years. The incorrect cliché some have about Norman Rockwell is that his paintings are kitschy and conservative, but in fact Rockwell was often progressive on political issues, including civil rights.

Lucas, like most Americans of his generation, spent a fair amount of his childhood watching TV, including Westerns, war movies, and reruns of the 1930s serials of the adventures of Flash Gordon — all of which influenced Star Wars. The humor mixed with heroism of characters like James Garner’s Maverick influenced Han Solo, and World War II dogfights became the model for the Death Star battle; dashes of Flash Gordon are found throughout the Star Wars saga. All three of Lucas’s early TV favorites featured patriotism, and good triumphing over evil.

Lucas was fascinated by depictions of war, including World War II and the Korean War raging in the early 1950s; war was a big part of his childhood. As he recalled, “I loved the war. It was a big deal when I was growing up. It was on all the coffee tables in the form of books, and on TV with things like Victory at Sea” — an ambitious 26-part NBC documentary about Navy combat during World War II. The personal costs of war were brought home to Lucas when his oldest sister Ann’s fiancé, with whom George had been friends for years, died in Korea. The sacrifices of war are reflected in the original Star Wars when a large number of rebels in their X-wing fighters die in their battle with the Death Star.

George and his sister Wendy also had a huge collection of hundreds of comic books that they shared, and kept in a shed their father built for them in their backyard. As she remembered, “We’d take these big quilts and sit out there and read them.” Their favorites were the favorites of millions of kids at the time: Superman, Batman and Robin, Scrooge McDuck, and many others. As Lucas said, “I was never ashamed that I read a lot of comic books.” And as biographer Dale Pollock perceptively observes, “The attractive graphics and simple messages made an indelible impression on him and percolated in his imagination for the next two decades until they leaped, seemingly fully formed, out of his imagination and onto the movie screen as Star Wars.” Lucas later said, “There’s more of me in Star Wars than I care to admit.”

In the summer of 1955, the Lucas family drove to Anaheim for the opening of Disneyland. They stayed for a whole week at the Disneyland Hotel, riding the futuristic monorail each day to the park. This had a profound impact on Lucas, who said, “I loved Disneyland […] I was in heaven.” Lucas was stunned by how Walt Disney created a whole world with imagination, money, and engineering — which is what Lucas himself later did with Star Wars. And although Disney was a noted Republican, his creation is not easy to classify ideologically. As Karal Ann Marling writes in her classic study, “Disneyland, 1955: Take the Santa Ana Freeway to the American Dream,” Disneyland was in some ways a utopian critique of contemporary America, and specifically automobile-obsessed Los Angeles. At Disneyland you got around by walking in a pedestrian-friendly small town street from the past, or you rode the cutting-edge public transportation of the monorail. Cars, with the exception of one ride, were not part of the Disneyland experience once you left the parking lot.

Lucas, unlike Disney, was obsessed with automobiles as a teenager. He was a bad student, mostly getting Cs and Ds because he spent so much time with cars. His father gave in to George’s begging when he was 15, and bought him a tiny two-cylinder Fiat Bianchina. As Lucas said, “What could I do with that? It was practically a motor scooter.” But like his later creation Han Solo with the Millennium Falcon, Lucas made a lot of special modifications himself, beefing up the Fiat’s engine and suspension. It still didn’t look like much, but it had it where it counts, kid — and it almost killed Lucas when he wrapped it around a tree at high speed, a week before he was going to graduate from high school.

A picture of the wreck made the local paper’s front page as Lucas was in intensive care. Only half-joking, he said the only reason he graduated was that his teachers felt sorry for him. But his brush with death changed him. As he later recalled, “It made me apply myself more, because I realized more than anything else what a thin thread we hang on in life, and I really wanted to make something out of my life.” Lucas developed a strong work ethic, because he came to realize that “If you want to be successful in a particular field of endeavor […] perseverance is one of the key qualities.”

He gave up his dream of becoming a racecar driver, and instead started using the 8mm camera his father gave him. When Lucas finally recovered, he went to community college, which was his only option, where he studied anthropology, art history, speech, and astronomy — and began earning Bs, and sometimes even As. At Modesto Junior College, he became a reader of serious books, like 1984, Brave New World, and Joseph Campbell’s book on mythological archetypes, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

A friend who was going to the University of Southern California’s film school then told him that it wasn’t that difficult to get in (unlike today). So Lucas applied to USC and was accepted, which led to a fight with his father. His father’s dream was for him to take over Lucas Stationery, but George Jr. wouldn’t do it. He said, “My father thought I was going to turn into a beatnik,” adding, “I’ve always had a basic dislike of authority figures, a fear and resentment of grown ups.”

George Sr. told his son he would fail in Hollywood, and would be back. George Jr. shouted, “I’ll never be back. And as a matter of fact I’m going to be a millionaire before I’m 30.” Lucas actually beat that prediction. But he owed a good deal of his success to his father and mother, who, in spite of initial opposition, generously paid for his college education.

By 1965, Lucas had learned a lot about film at USC, and started making fascinating experimental films, starting with the one-minute, politically-engaged “Look at Life.” But he was also in some ways turning into his father’s nightmare. As Lucas said, “I was angry at the time, getting involved in all the causes. The draft was hanging over all of us, and we were bearded, freako pre-hippies.” He supported civil rights while opposing the Vietnam War. Lucas was finally drafted; he considered but then rejected fleeing to Canada. But the army doctors discovered that he had diabetes, which, like his car accident, shook him up. He was given medical release from what Lucas called the Vietnam “butcher’s block.” Although he was a bit of a hippy in the 1960s, Lucas didn’t smoke, take drugs, or, because of his diabetes, drink or eat sweets.

He later reflected that, “You can’t have something as powerful as the Sixties and not have a consequence.” Specifically, he saw the Vietnam War and its cultural effects as a turning point for the United States. He elaborated, saying,

Wars have a tendency to be course changes, which is why it is dangerous for a society to get into a war — it shakes up the status quo. Vietnam is a perfect example. It was billed as a completely harmless war over there; no bomb was ever going fall on United States soil. But a huge psychological bomb landed on United States soil, and it changed it forever.

Lucas increasingly saw film as political, and started envisioning an epic movie about the Vietnam War called Apocalypse Now. Yes, that title and the whole concept were the invention of George Lucas and his co-writer John Milius. Lucas saw the film as being similar in tone to Stanley Kubrick’s anti-war classic, Dr. Strangelove. But Apocalypse Now was taken away from him in a complicated legal deal arranged by his friend, and at that time business-partner, Francis Ford Coppola. One tribute to the movie’s originator remained in the film. Harrison Ford’s character, seen in the beginning telling Martin Sheen’s character about his mission, is named “Colonel George Lucas.”

But the Vietnam War, which was an asymmetric conflict with a huge power unable to prevail against guerrillas fighters, instead became an influence on Star Wars. As Lucas later said, “A lot of my interest in Apocalypse Now carried over into Star Wars.” In a Lucasfilm-approved book, Star Wars and History, B-52s, which dropped more bombs on Vietnam than were dropped in all of World War II, are compared with Imperial Star Destroyers.

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Lucas’s first film, the dystopian THX-1138, released in 1971, was a critique of a soulless future society where brutal police, videogames, and tranquilizing drugs subdue the population. Its basic message, according to the director, is that, “Modern society is a rotten thing.” It was a box-office disappointment.

The Vietnam War intensified with President Richard Nixon’s incursion into and bombing of Cambodia. Protests against the war gripped the nation, and turned tragic at Kent State, Ohio, when the National Guard fired into an unarmed crowd of students, killing four and wounding nine. This led to the famous Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song “Ohio,” with its with its warning that “Nixon’s coming.”

As Lucas began work on his space epic during these years, he envisioned an evil Emperor who was pulling strings, and sowing destruction and tragedy. He has said that President Nixon was one of the models for Emperor Palpatine in the Star Wars saga. It was going to be an expensive film; at the time he was struggling to get Universal Pictures to even release his just-completed low-budget film about the car-culture of his youth, American Graffiti.

Universal did finally release American Graffiti, and his parents were in the audience at an early screening. They proudly watched as the opening credits announced that it was a “Lucasfilm” production. Like his father, Lucas had put his name front and center for his product. The film was a stunning success, grossing $140 million back in 1973, which is about $750 million in today’s dollars. Lucas earned only $65,000 for writing, directing, and producing the film, but he also received a percentage of the profits.

When that turned into more than $7 million dollars, Lucas surprised his cast and crew, who did not have percentages in the film, by voluntarily giving them some of his profits. Most of them got many times more than they were contractually entitled to, which rarely happens in Hollywood — or anywhere else. As Richard Dreyfuss said, who was made a star by American Graffiti, “It was such a pure thing. Everyone was so venal in that rotten world [of Hollywood], and here was this free gift, a really great gesture.” Lucas was equally generous with the cast and crew of Star Wars, making the then-little known actors Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, and Mark Hamill all millionaires. Like Dreyfuss, Lucas thought that Hollywood was often corrupt — not sufficiently valuing the hard work of the real talent, and instead frequently being more about deals and sleaze than about making good movies.

Even before Star Wars was greenlit, he poured his profits from American Graffiti into the production. This is unusual, since in Hollywood one of the rules of a long-lasting career seems to be to avoid making expensive movies with your own money. Lucas instead followed something closer to the Walt Disney rule. Disney once said, “We don’t make movies to make money, we make money to make more movies.” Disney invested most of the profits from the hugely successful Mickey Mouse shorts into making Snow White, the first full-length animated feature. Then Disney put most of the profits from his many successful movies into the creation of Disneyland, which had so mesmerized Lucas as kid.

Like Disney, Lucas put the profits of American Graffiti into Star Wars, and then put the profits of Star Wars into The Empire Strikes Back, and — you get the idea. By the time of the Star Wars prequels, he was making movies that cost over $100 million, entirely with his own money. As he said in the 1990s, “Whatever money I’ve made I’ve plowed back into the company.” He once explained his ideal of movie making in contrast to the Hollywood system with the following phrase: “The workers have the means of production.” By “workers” he meant himself, but also his collaborators at Lucasfilm.

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In using his own money to launch the Star Wars saga, one of the smartest early decisions Lucas made was hiring former NASA illustrator Ralph McQuarrie to make dramatic and beautiful visualizations of the story. When he tried to explain early versions of parts of the Star Wars story to people, mentioning things like “Jedi Bendu,” “Imperial Space Force,” and “Annikin Starkiller,” eyes would sometimes glaze over. But McQuarrie’s stunning art — with its mixture of NASA precision and pure fantasy — made the sale to Alan Ladd, Jr. then President of 20th Century Fox — as well as to some of the cast.

Even though Star Wars was a “space fantasy,” rather than science fiction, Lucas wanted his film to get people excited about real space exploration. He’d loved the NASA missions that he’d watched as a teenager and in his 20s; he built into Star Wars the idea that “opening the door and going out here, no matter what the risk, is sometimes worth the effort,” because “I’m very keen on having people accept the space program.” In another interview, Lucas explained, “One of the most significant moments in establishing our direction now was when we landed on the moon. It was the first time we could look back and see us as one planet. We began to perceive ourselves as a human race, as one world, one little ball of humanity.”

But while in some ways Star Wars praises technology, transforming the nightmare of HAL in Kubrick’s 2001 into the comic and compassionate artificial life forms R2-D2 and C-3PO, Lucas’s film was also meant to be an exploration of technology’s limits. “I was fascinated by […] the idea of rocket ships and lasers up against somebody with a stick. The little guys were winning and technology was losing — I liked that.” This was Lucas’s adaptation of how the underdog can sometimes win a war, from the American Revolution to Vietnam.

In Star Wars, the Empire believes that the Death Star is “the ultimate power in the Universe”; the Lucasfilm book Star Wars and History compares the Death Star with potentially civilization-ending thermonuclear bombs. The Death Star is also Lucas’s portrayal of the diseconomies of scale when it comes to huge military organizations and their gigantic machines. It‘s so large that Solo first mistakes it for a moon, until old Ben Kenobi says, “That’s no moon. It’s a space station!” But the vast size and excessive bureaucracy of the Death Star makes it possible for Luke, Leia, and Han to avoid capture in its miles of corridors. The Death Star is like an armed Pentagon in space that’s turned to the Dark Side. Even Darth Vader says to the Empire’s evil bureaucrats, “Don’t be too proud of this technological terror you’ve created. The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.”

The Force, as Ben Kenobi (Alec Guinness) describes it, is “an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us, and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.” Like some others of his generation, Lucas did not find organized religion, in the form of his parents’ Methodist church, compelling. But from a young age, he sometimes asked, “what is God, but more than that, what is reality?” Drawing on such diverse sources as Buddhism, Daoism, Christianity, the Bushido code, and the writings of Carlos Castaneda, the Force infuses the conflicts in Star Wars with a spiritual, moral, and supernatural dimension. As Yoda says, “A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack.”

In contrast to these politically progressive and spiritual elements, the original Star Wars was not particularly progressive in terms of race and gender. Aside from the colorful aliens, the first movie features an almost all-white cast of human males, with Princess Leia being the only important woman in the first film. The blaster-wielding Leia is a powerful and brave political leader, who gets lines like, “Would someone get this big walking carpet out of my way!” The great African-American actor James Earl Jones voices Darth Vader, but beneath the mask the actor playing him (the talented David Prowse) is white. But as Lucas said, “Chewbacca’s nonhuman and nonwhite. I realize it seems rather obscure and abstract, but it was intended to be a statement.” Originally, he’d also considered asking Toshiro Mifune to play Ben Kenobi, in part as an homage to the Japanese Samurai films that he greatly admired, but when the equally legendary Guinness agreed to do the role, Lucas couldn’t pass it up. In any case, in the sequels and prequels Lucas included greater diversity, with characters such as Lando Calrissian, played by Billy Dee Williams; Queen Amidala, played by Natalie Portman; and Mace Windu, played by Samuel Jackson.

One of my mentors, architectural historian Reyner Banham, mentioned in 1978 that a few scenes from Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935) seem similar to the final scenes of Star Wars, ironically for the gathering of the freedom-fighting rebels for their awards ceremony. Lucas has said that he saw Triumph of the Will in the late 1960s, but he dismissed any direct influence, saying that any awards ceremony, even a graduation ceremony, would have a similar look. His point is well taken, but the visual parallels are nonetheless striking. Ultimately, even if a fragment of Riefenstahl’s imagery unconsciously influenced Lucas, or one his production designers, that does not mean this scene has anything to do with Nazi ideology.

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As a whole, Star Wars is inspiring because it’s about the virtues of struggling for freedom and justice, against political oppression, while making common cause with diverse life forms — even artificial ones. Star Wars is often about taking on difficult political challenges with bravery, friendship, and loyalty, so that, in Lucas’s words, “the world might be a better place to live.” He later added, “My films have a tendency to promote a personal self-esteem, a ‘you can do it’ attitude. The message is, ‘Don’t listen to everyone else. Discover your own feelings and follow them. Then you can overcome anything.’” He added, “It’s old-fashioned and very American.”

Although a fantasy film, Star Wars drew deeply from Lucas’s life and the history of his time. And it remains relevant decades later. Lucas has said, “Even in high school I was very interested in history — why people do the things they do. As a kid I tried to relate the past to the present.” In creating Star Wars, Lucas connected American history to his universe, where things happened a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.

Lucas has pointed out that the history informing parts of Star Wars is replaying itself in the early 21st century, saying, “The parallels between what we did in Vietnam and what we’re doing in Iraq now are unbelievable.” When New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd compared Vice President Dick Cheney — with his advocacy of preemptive war and “enhanced interrogation” — with Darth Vader, Lucas corrected her. “George Bush is Darth Vader. Cheney is the Emperor.”

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Ben Hufbauer is the author of the book Presidential Temples. He teaches art history and film studies at the University of Louisville.


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