By Shawn Stjean
No more basic example of cultural criticism exists than to recognize that the original Star Wars offered a subtextual retelling (in production during our nation’s Bicentennial,) of the American Revolution. And even though it enjoyed success worldwide, US citizens, whether they thought consciously about it or not, had an extra layer of identification with Luke Skywalker and his outgunned band of rebels, battling the evil Imperials.
As the teaser trailer for the next iteration in the mythology has appeared, I’m reminded that there’s an even deeper subtext that runs through both trilogies, running counter to American mythology, that apparently will move forward. I refer to the films’ far-less discussed British-ness.
The screenshot above from the The Force Awakens teaser invokes nothing so much as a knight, straight out of Arthurian legend, leaving the shelter and protection of court, to enter the wilderness with medieval broadsword, and fulfill his quest. The hilted sword itself, while functional in its ability to turn an opponent’s blade from the wielder’s wrist, also in its time functioned as a readily identified icon for the cross, as carried by the Crusaders. Do not underestimate the connotative power of this image, especially when featured in a 88-second text that reintroduces us to a whole new phase of George Lucas’ canon.
The 1977 original mixed in but downplayed, as much as it could, such elements. Filmed substantially at Elstree Studios outside London, and employing many Brits among crew and cast, including a real knight (Sir Alec Guiness) as Obi-Wan Kenobi and Hammer films veteran Peter Cushing as Governor Tarkin, the story recounted not a civil war (as the opening crawl claims) but an open rebellion against a corrupt empire. In finally defeating its ultimate weapon, the Death Star, everyman Luke employs a Force for humanism bequeathed to him by his father. This is key. Because I doubt there was an 11-year old boy sitting in those theater seats in 1977 who didn’t feel the strength of the thematic message of that climactic space battle. When Luke puts away his computer, and freely chooses to use the Force to guide his hand, we not only witnessed the superiority of the human spirit over technology (expressed in cheers and standing ovations by the crowds as the orgasmic explosion of the space station filled the screen). No gimmick or special effect could have achieved such a response. The film spoke to us at a much deeper level, told us that great feats of courage are possible by anyone, no matter how low their birth or background, no matter how small or weak their physical body, no matter how powerful the tech and resources arrayed against them.
Years later, as the second trilogy premiered with The Phantom Menace, commercial success welcomed it in arms of inevitability. But die-hard fans made no secret of their discomfort and dissatisfaction–these are a matter of public record. But the reasons cited were often unarticulated (“something’s missing”) or silly. Jar-Jar Binks could not have sabotaged that film, any more than British-butler droid C-3P0 could. I propose an alternate explanation: while catering intermittantly to an American sensibility, the Star Wars films progressively adopt disturbing (to us) trends from other cultures. Here I’ll ignore the oriental, and direct my focus right across the pond. PM‘s plot hinges on a search for The Chosen One–unnamed by prophecy–and we discover that he was fathered by the Force itself (immaculate conception.) He’s a born noble, like Oedipus, hidden in obscurity. Already this sounds much less North-American to me. We proceed to learn that this universal cosmic force which “surrounds us and binds us, all living things,” as Obi-Wan had explained to Luke years earlier (or later, chronologically,) is in fact very elitist in its function: only certain special people have the gift, so much so that they are identified at birth and whisked away to be trained in the Jedi temple. It undoubtedly served Lucas’ larger canvas to introduce slow compromises to the Jedi Order (beginning with Kenobi’s initial lie to Luke about Vader murdering his father.) However, the audience’s sympathies shift more and more away from the unconscious/mythological level to the conscious, intellectual level. Eventually the second trilogy pares down to a few moral characters with whom to sympathize, fighting on the side of internally degraded forces in a vain attempt to restore the principles of the Republic. This may all be much more “grown-up,” and therefore more satisfying in a certain cerebral way. But Americans, especially, would much rather look away and point the finger at corrupt forms of foreign democracy (see Jon Stewart’s 2014 Rosewater) than accept an allegory of the decline of their own. Here, the Republic works!
The initial resistance to The Empire Strikes Back is telling in this connection, for it stands as a film with a much less romantic, more “grey,” European aesthetic: life as a series of disillusionments, defeats, and loss, sometimes compensated by survival. Many throughout the world welcome this sort of philosophical realism–but it is far from the “Everything will be alright” handholding that define 90 percent of American films (including Return of the Jedi, with its childish proposal that Vader could find redemption). Living Americans never have had to live under sustained aerial bombardment and blockade such as the English did during the mid-twentieth century, or occupation such as the French endured, or the sacrifice of many millions to outlast invasion, as the Russians, or had weapons of mass destruction unleashed upon them, as the Japanese. We have the luxury of our illusions, observing the world in exclusive terms of “the dark side, [or] the light.”
So the six films increasingly reveal that the Force, like the truth itself, really resides in the custody of the few elites, to be employed against non-sensitives in such forms as mind tricks, telekinesis, and dueling/acrobatic skills. Anakin finds the Jedi order itself to be very hierarchical, in which padawans answer to knights who answer to masters who ultimately answer to the Council (or just Yoda, or even the Chancellor.) I’m not claiming that the United States is without its elitism or its class system–but we are very fond of telling ourselves that, and films defy that collective ego-image at their peril.
It isn’t authentic British-ness (if there is such a thing), then, that undergirds the films, so much as the American vision of that entity: unquestioned authority and hierarchy by birth, elitism, exclusionism, expansionism, and a sense of racial/moral superiority, versus American democracy, inclusiveness, and tolerance. Obviously, to claim this “Yank vs. Brit” dichotomy is real would be absurd–but it certainly is what young people learn from Hollywood film and television. These dubious truisms may be more visible in Disney’s Pirates of the Carribbean franchise, though no more palpable than in Star Wars.
Even though Lucas’ films are truly postmodern, mixing languages, racial and cultural traditions, and visual iconography (Mark Hamill, for example, trained in Kendo for his lightsaber duels, and Lucas has acknowledged his debt to Japanese director Kurosawa), it’s useful to unpack the various elements, to separate the less- from the more-meaningful. Will U.S. audiences embrace an even further push east as the Empire rises again, or will they insist on a return to their own cultural values?
link to the teaser trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=erLk59H86ww