Empire in pop culture
“For a thousand generations, the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic. Before the Dark Times. Before the Empire.” – Ben Kenobi
” What if the democracy we thought we were serving no longer exists, and the Republic has become the very evil we have been fighting to destroy?
– Senator Padme Amidala
This is how liberty dies: with thundering applause.”
– Senator Padme Amidala
Star Wars is a series of films and later an extended universe in the form of merchandising that has permeated our culture to the point that it really doesn’t require an introduction. Nevertheless, for the sake of those readers who may be from the most desolate places on earth or another planet for that matter, it is a trilogy created by one of the best-known names in American cinema, George Lucas. From a purely economic point of view the Star Wars franchise is one of the biggest money makers of all time especially when you factor in the brilliant marketing that goes along with it. There are books, video games, comic books, board games, action figures, models, a ride at Disneyland, Lego sets and several animated series all based on the Star Wars theme. So far there have been six feature films, which were two trilogies respectively. Mr. Lucas did something unusual inasmuch as he began the story with episodes IV A New Hope; V The Empire Strikes Back and VI Return of the Jedi back in the seventies and later released episodes I The Phantom Menace in 1999; II Attack of the Clones released in 2002 and most recently episode III Revenge of the Sith released in March 2005. In his own words, George Lucas explains from the preface of Splinter of the Mind’s Eyei ,
“It wasn’t long after I began writing Star Wars that I realized the story was more than a single film could hold. As the saga of the Skywalkers and Jedi Knights unfolded, I began to see it as a tale that could take at least nine films to tell – three trilogies – and I realized, in making my way through the back story and after story, that I was really setting out to write the middle story.”
While many scholars have written a great deal about the religious, spiritual and philosophical overtones and aspects of Star Wars, there are fewer who have noticed that George Lucas may have been making a political statement about recent history and current events. In interviews, George Lucas acknowledges that he was influenced by some of the works of Joseph Campbell who in his book, the Hero with a Thousand Facesii describes a “monomyth” or the hero’s journey:
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
Of course, we all know that the hero was Luke Skywalker and he ventured out into the world and learned about the supernatural aspects of “the force” and how to use it. We also know that the archetypal antagonist, Darth Vader was the quintessential bad guy. That relates to the religious, spiritual and philosophical overtones of the series but what about the politics? The very name of episode V is a reference to imperialism so there must be some politics in this saga. I intend to answer a couple of questions in this essay both of which have to do with empire. The first question is; “are there parallels between the fictitious world George Lucas created and actual events that took place in Nazi Germany during WWII?” The second question is closer to home; “is it possible that George Lucas is making political statements about the British Empire of the past and the American Empire of the present?”
The answers to the first question are obvious. George Lucas didn’t even bother changing the name of the storm troopers, which is a direct reference to Germany as that is what the “shock troopers” used in WWI and II were called. These were specially trained soldiers who infiltrated enemy lines by learning English and wearing the uniforms of the enemy’s army. We see that theme repeated in A New Hope as Luke and Han rescue the princess by wearing the costumes of the Empire. Later during the years when Adolf Hitler was rising to power before WWII, the Storm Troopers were known as “brown shirts” and their role was to harass and intimidate people of opposing political opinions. George Lucas himself has said that the Empire is based on Nazi Germany. In an interview he did for Time Magazine just prior to the release of Attack of the Clonesiii, Lucas states:
“I’m more on the liberal side of things,” he says. “I grew up in San Francisco in the ’60s, and my positions are sort of shaped by that … If you look back 30 years ago, there were certain issues with the Kennedys, with Richard Nixon, that focused my interest.” Lucas’ own geopolitics can sound pretty bleak: “All democracies turn into dictatorships but not by coup. The people give their democracy to a dictator, whether it’s Julius Caesar or Napoleon or Adolf Hitler. Ultimately, the general population goes along with the idea … What kinds of things push people and institutions into this directioniv?”
Followers of the Star Wars saga have been asking the same question. In the case of the Galactic Republic it was a megalomaniac seizing power and people & institutions going along with it largely because they were deceived into thinking the chancellor was a good guy. The dictator Emperor Palpatine seizes power during a crisis and the people go along with it because they believe that it is in their best interests to give him greater executive powers extending to the establishment of a Grand Army of the Republic. He assures his people after being voted in that;
“”PALPATINE: In order to ensure our security and continuing stability, the Republic will be reorganized into the first Galactic Empire, for a safe and secure society which I assure you will last for ten thousand yearsv.”
Before he becomes the emperor, the cloistered Sith Lord Darth Sidious (Palpatine) is the chancellor just as Adolf Hitler was the Chancellor of Germany who rose to power during a period of crisis (economic upheaval) in Germany. The Nazi party rose from a point of being a relatively inconsequential ninth largest party to the second largest in 1930. Another more obvious comparison is the officer’s uniforms used by the Empire. They are strikingly similar to SS uniforms used in Nazi Germany.
There were other more subtle examples that point to WWII Germany in the original trilogy. We find the rebel’s base on the ice planet of Hoth in the Empire Strikes Back. Herman Hoth is that name of a General in Hitler’s army. There’s also a reference to the planet Kessel made by C3PO; “”We’ll be sent to the spice mines of Kessel, or smashed into who knows what!” Mortimer Von Kessel was a highly decorated German general and commander of the 20th Panzer Division during WWII. So far we’ve looked at Star Wars, episodes IV, V and VI and the similarities between the empire and Nazi Germany. We have also examined the parallels between the rise of Hitler and the ascension of Chancellor Palpatine. When you look at episodes I, II and III you will find other likenesses to other historical and current empires. Episode I The Phantom Menace starts out with the familiar rolling titles that fade into infinity. It describes the current situation on Naboo:
“EPISODE 1 THE PHANTOM MENACE” Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlaying star systems is in dispute. Hoping to resolve the matter with a blockade of deadly battleships, the greedy Trade Federation has stopped all shipping to the small planet of Naboo. While the congress of the Republic endlessly debates this alarming chain of events, the Supreme Chancellor has secretly dispatched two Jedi Knights, the guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy, to settle the conflict.”
Taxes, blockades, embargo and other mercantile manipulation is the basis for the turmoil that is going on in the outer reaches of the republic before it becomes an empire. When you consider the introduction, it becomes clear that this current conflict described here is based on economic principles. The republic was degenerating into an empire partly because they follow some unfair trading policies such as protectionism, levying unreasonable tariffs and regulating commerce to death. Ludwig Von Mises was a well-known Austrian economist who believed in a free-market economic system. In his book, Interventionism, An Economic Analysis, he describes some of the disastrous consequences of big government meddling in economic affairs. It almost appears as though Lucas took some of his ideas directly out of Mises’ writings although it is likely a coincidence. Nevertheless, part of the message of Episode I is that when the government gets involved in the economy, sometimes unforeseen penalties can result such a loss of individual liberties, the rise of big government and an increase in bureaucracy.
Following the opening scroll describing the scene, we see a ship transporting two Jedi Knights on its way to Naboo. The communications officer contacts the officials on the planet and speaks to a viceroy to announce their arrival. It is interesting that in colonial British India, the official representative of the British Empire was titled, the “Viceroy and Governor General of India.vi” The allusions to the mighty erstwhile British Empire do not end there. Down on the planet we find a society that has some things in common with British India. One of the most startling similarities are the costumes seen below.
Mughal Queen Queen Amidala
The queen is poised and speaks very precise correct English, as did the well-educated class of rulers in India during the British occupation. The monumental architecture you see on Naboo is reminiscent of the grand palaces the Mughals built in India. The Trade Federation is a private enterprise doing the work of the emerging empire just as the East India Trading Company did the bidding of the British government.
The people of Naboo were not the first inhabitants that the Jedi encountered when they arrived on the planet. Jar Jar Binks, a primitive life form, was the first person Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon literally ran into. He led them to the underwater Gungan City where the Jedi were able to persuade the leader to provide them with transportation as well as allowing Jar Jar to serve as their guide so they could make their way through the planet’s core to the capital city, Theed. One Star Wars observer and enthusiast observed that the jungle environment of the Gungan’s is representative of British Jamaica vii The Gungan’s are representative of the indigenous people groups found living in Jamaica. Some critics proposed that Lucas was making fun of black people with the Jar Jar character while others say that he wasn’t trying to be politically incorrect at all, he was just telling a story the way he perceived it. The subtlety with which all of these images and historical background that are presented to the audience in the Star Wars Saga make the story plausible even though it takes place long ago and far away.
This past week we commemorated the 150-year anniversary of the Civil War. One would have only to look at the original Episode IV, Star Wars a New Hope to find examples of likenesses of their fictitious struggle to the genuine American history. The similarities are undeniable. The main issue at the beginning of the Civil War was that a group of southern states wanted to cede or separate from the union. Lincoln called the union army, The Grand Army of the Republic, which by now should sound oddly familiar. The secessionists, or separatists were called rebels and Lincoln’s generals were merciless leaving a path of utter destruction behind them. Governor Tarkin, the commander of the Death Star, declared after the battle station was fully operational, “Lord Vader will provide us with the location of the rebel’s hidden base. We will then crush the rebellion with one swift stroke.” It sounds like he was drawing inspiration from General Sherman.
Let’s jump ahead from the Civil War to the present. One only needs to see an Imperial Star Destroyer next to an American aircraft carrier to see the similarities.
The United States is often referred to as a global superpower for good reason. There hasn’t been a world dominating power like it at anytime in history. According to the New York Times, there are at least 560 U.S. military bases in foreign landsviii. In the bestselling book, The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic, Chalmers Johnson points out that since September 2001, the United States has “undergone a transformation from republic to empire that may well prove irreversible” Unlike empires of the past where you see colonization as a key component of domination, the United States has established its preeminence with the strategic positioning of military bases throughout the globe. As someone who has traveled extensively, I haven’t been to any nation where there wasn’t a U.S. military base nearby. It was particularly imposing in South Korea. Seoul is a sprawling city that doesn’t really have a downtown but the U.S. base occupies some very desirable real estate that could easily be devoted to other uses. It’s a point of contention with the Koreans. If you go onto the base, you have a vivid example of what Chalmers Johnson was talking about. It’s like a little America right there in the center of Seoul. The landscape in Seoul is dotted with symbols of American capitalism. You can find Starbucks and McDonalds all over the city but you have to go onto the base to find a Taco Bell. The Pentagon has been called the world’s largest landlord.
When Star Wars Episode II—Attack of the Clones was released, there was some speculation among critics and others who wondered if George Lucas was casting George W. Bush in the role of the Supreme Chancellor Palpatine. In an archived interview, George Lucas dispelled that myth stating;
“I wrote the screenplay’s politically pointed elements before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the subsequent war on terror. So when Palpatine announces that he intends to remain at war until a certain General Grievous is captured, no parallels to the hunt for Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein were intended.”ix
In a similar interview that was done at Cannes 2002, George Lucas explained that the creation of Attack of the Clones started 30 years ago. He states that; “Star Wars was influenced by the Vietnam War”x. So, according to the creator himself, there is a connection between Star Wars and American Imperialism.
In the years following WWII, the United States engaged in a number of activities that would galvanize its position as a global superpower. The government was determined to maintain its nuclear supremacy. The military would take over remote islands in the Pacific, force the inhabitants to leave and subsequently render them uninhabitable by conducting several nuclear tests.
In 1950 the United States entered the Korean War. Again, referencing the time I spent in Korea, one of the things that was surprising about the Korean War Museum in Seoul was the number of Soviet aircraft they had captured and had on display. Another thing that impressed me was the number of nations involved in the war. Several U.S. allies sent troops to fight in the Korean War. Yet, in retrospect one could argue that the war was less about the United States gallantly defending a small nation against an evil communist invasion than it was about the
U.S. gaining a foothold in Asia with its eye on the communist government in China. It was all about expanding the empire.
George Lucas made reference to Viet Nam influencing the development of Star Wars and it is noteworthy to see the similarities between the war fought by the Ewoks against the Empire in the Return of the Jedi and the war fought by the Vietnamese against the United States. In both cases a much less sophisticated force of freedom fighters defeated a technologically superior power.
By the end of Star Wars III—Revenge of the Sith, we have a pretty good idea about how the republic became an empire. The relevant question is how did America become an empire? I suppose in similar ways as the fictitious republic.
For generations our leaders have used a certain amount of deception to convince the people that it is in our best interest to expand government and relinquish part of our freedom. One of the more blatant examples of that would be the pre-war rhetoric of George W. Bush and his WMD fears. The Patriot Act soon followed and the rest, as they say, is history. It’s a safe bet that a majority of Americans would prefer the old republic to the evil empire.
Mary L. Means, James F. Voss. ” Star Wars: A developmental study of expert and novice knowledge structures.” Journal of Memory and Language . 24.6 (1985): 746 -757. Print.
Carroll , Noel. “Nightmare and the Horror Film: The Symbolic Biology of Fantastic Beings.” Film Quarterly. 34.3 (1981): 16-25. Print.
Goodnight, G.Thomas. “Ronald Reagan’s re-formulation of the rhetoric
of war: Analysis of the “zero option,” “evil empire,” and “star
wars” addresses.” Quarterly Journal of Speech. 72.4 (1986): 390¬
Robert G. Collins, “Star Wars: The Pastiche of Myth and the Yearning for a Past Future,” Journal of Popular Culture 11.1 (1977): 6, and Richard Grenier, “Celebrating Defeat,” Commentary 70.2 (1980): 58
i Foster, Alan Dan. Splinter of the Mind’s Eye. 1st edition. New York: Ballantine Books, 1978. Preface. Print.
iiCampbell, Joseph. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. 3rd. New York:
Pantheon Books, 2008. 23. Print
iii Jeffrey, Ressner. “Star Wars–The Clone Wars.” Time Magazine. 29 April 2002: 34. Print. iv http://www.time.com/time/covers/1101020429/story2.html v http://www.imsdb.com/scripts/Star-Wars-Revenge-of-the-Sith.html vi http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viceroy
vii Thornton, Mark. “Star Wars and Our Wars.” Mises Daily. 27.3 (2002): 14. Print. viii http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/26/opinion/26kristof.html