Another Day, Another Director
The Star Wars movies began their slow, intergalactic ascent into our collective subconscious on May 25, 1977, with the initial release of the enticingly titled Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope.
I can remember glancing up at that enormous Panavision widescreen and being thoroughly enchanted, as well as confused, by the receding letters on that vast, blue-black star field. I distinctly recall wondering to myself, “Where the hell was I for the first three installments?” I was not alone in that regard.
In fact, the next chapter in Twentieth Century-Fox’s financial juggernaut, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, followed soon thereafter on May 21, 1980, with the last entry taking another three years to complete, before Episode VI: Return of the Jedi was readied for release — again, on a lucrative 1983 Memorial Day weekend and on May 25, just as the first entry.
Each picture in the series features a different director: Mr. Lucas (THX 1138, American Graffiti) for the first; the veteran Irvin Kershner (Return of a Man Called Horse, Never Say Never Again), a former film and photography student, for the second; and Richard Marquand (Jagged Edge, Eye of the Needle) for the third. Kershner and Lucas were fellow alumni at the University of Southern California (USC) Film School, where Irvin was tapped for his directing assignment. Director Marquand, on the other hand, was a writer and producer previously associated with TV programs, commercials, and mini-series in his native England.
Politically, things were not so far advanced. When the original Star Wars epic premiered in May 1977, Democrat Jimmy Carter had already been sworn in as the 39th President of the United States — the proverbial “New Hope” for North America, politically speaking — just as the public outcry against the abuses of the Watergate scandal had toppled Republican Richard M. Nixon (the Evil Emperor) from power.
After the affairs of Nixon and his equally nefarious cronies were over and done with, democracy was supposedly salvaged by a more benign figure (Master Yoda in human guise?), one who was not only completely outside the established Washington, D.C. mainstream but straight out of the jilted backwater of a sleepy little town called Plains, Georgia — the proverbial “mud hole” of the Dagobah system, about as long ago and far, far away from the D.C. limelight as the planet Tatooine was from our home planet Earth.
James Earl Carter was a genteel, born-again Christian — a peanut farmer, if memory serves me, and the former governor of Georgia. In retrospect, Carter wasn’t quite the sort of leader the country required at the time in order to confront the burgeoning Soviet arms buildup and advancing Red menace. Then again, neither was Obi Wan Kenobi, nor Luke Skywalker for that matter. Appearances can be deceiving.
The Vietnam War had officially come to an end not two years prior. Yet Americans were still unable to come to grips with that disastrous episode in our history and its overpoweringly socio-political aftermath. The veterans of that unpopular exchange were not even granted a victory parade until a full decade or so later. To have been a Vietnam War veteran during those troubling times was not looked upon with pride or distinction. It was more in the nature of their having worn a Red Badge of Discouragement for serving in that conflict.
With all that in mind, a young Southern California movie-maker named George Lucas began to slowly emerge as part of the new “advance guard” of a Vietnam-driven generation of film directors and writers that spawned the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, John Milius, Steven Spielberg, Oliver Stone, Paul Schrader, Martin Scorsese, and Brian de Palma.
Though likely not the first of the breed, Lucas was perhaps the most adventurous of the bunch to have used the Vietnam War-metaphor (by way of classical mythology) as the principal underlying theme of his films; by showing what a hopelessly outnumbered band of courageous guerrilla fighters and their surprise hit-and-run tactics could do to undermine the efforts of a much larger, more unwieldy, and vastly superior Imperial Force — a reference to the United States of America, one would imagine.
It was supposed to have been a foregone conclusion in the 1960s that the U.S. could defeat any foe at any time or any place; we would triumph in any military campaign against allegedly weaker, albeit undersized, enemy opponents such as the runty North Vietnamese, as the generals and military types of the era so pompously pointed out (forgetting the harsh lessons that the Korean campaign had taught us).
Little did we know how wrong they truly were. If prior to 1977 the so-called New Hollywood had been obsessed with the social consequences of the Civil Rights movement, women’s liberation, the sexual revolution, film noir and its application of paranoia, distrust and feelings of dread, then the subsequent films in the Star Wars lineup went on to serve as prescient lessons in hubris, humility, lost causes, and old-time religion.
George Lucas envisioned his fable purely as a morality tale of mythic proportions. It was destined to become a combination New Age Nibelungenlied and coming-of-age story starring a boyishly blond, teenaged Siegfried (our young friend, Luke Skywalker) for the “me” generation. Darth Vader was the Wotanesque father figure, with Jedi masters Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi playing the all-knowing, all-wise, behind-the-scenes architects of it all (Loge and Erda, respectively).
As Lucas re-imagined it, each character had his or her own mythic archetype attached to his or her actions, brilliantly conceived and commented upon by author Joseph Campbell (The Hero of a Thousand Faces) and subsequently discussed at length in his now-classic television interview series, The Power of Myth (1988), with PBS journalist and former JFK speech writer, Bill Moyers.
In conjunction with this narrative, there needed to be music of a similar bent, although Lucas eschewed the use of electronic or “concrete” music. John Williams, whose Hollywood and television career had been established as far back as the late 1950s and well into the 1960s, was chosen to sonically represent the director’s vision: “Many film composers can write small orchestral pieces or various kinds of indigenous scores,” Lucas stated, “but there are few with the talent to create the full-on, old-fashioned movie score for a large orchestra that I envisioned.”
As both Lucas and writer Charles Lippincott indicated in the liner notes to the original Star Wars soundtrack, what George “had in mind was a musical background that would create the same kind of atmosphere that the scores of Erich Wolfgang Korngold had accomplished in the swashbuckling epics that had starred Errol Flynn.
“George felt that since the picture was so original and so highly different in all of its physical orientation — creatures unknown, places unseen, and noises unheard of — that the music be on a fairly familiar emotional level … Rather, he wanted a dichotomy to his visuals, an almost 19th Century romantic, symphonic score against these yet unseen sights.”
Politics Rears Its Ugly Head
By the time of the second feature, The Empire Strikes Back, a change in U.S. administrations had signaled a complete reversal of political fortunes. It was Memorial Day again in May 1980, and, with the presidential election only a few months away, it started to appear that Jimmy Carter would be going up against former actor and governor of California, Ronald Wilson Reagan, a Western-like cowboy figure riding to the rescue, in big white Stetson hat and proverbial white horse.
But to leave the bitter Vietnam War experience behind would take time. The decade-long conflict in Southeast Asia remained a sore spot for many filmmakers just getting over Nixon and Watergate. The bombing of Laos and Cambodia, for instance, was a tactical maneuver that lasted from March 1969 through May of 1970, a total of seven years from the Star Wars premiere. As recorded in Jonathan Kirshner’s powerful study of Hollywood’s Last Golden Age: Politics, Society, and the Seventies Film in America, “almost four thousand B-52 sorties dropped over 100,000 tons of bombs on Cambodia,” including a half-million tons on Laos alone, along with “another quarter-million tons of bombs secretly in February 1970.”
This massive upscale in the size and scope of the war — an operation designed to demonstrate the U.S.’s “credibility” — became a demonstration of misguided power and resolve. Lucas would incorporate this buildup in military firepower and might into several of his subsequent Star Wars installments, as embodied in the ongoing work of completing the first Death Star in Episode IV: A New Hope, as well as the reconstituted and “fully operational battle station” known as Death Star II (sort of a “sister star”) in Episode VI: Return of the Jedi.
Getting back to Star Wars itself, Luke Skywalker was now a full-fledged knight of the Jedi realm, and equipped with a new light saber (including several upgrades) as the symbol of his power over earthy matters. The technologically inferior and seemingly incapable Ewoks — those little cuddly-bear types with twitchy personalities and hair-trigger tempers — along with metallic androids C-3PO and R2-D2, contribute, fight back, and eventually win the day for the Rebel Alliance. Three cheers for that!!!
Soon, our young hero Skywalker will discover that he has his own personal challenges to face, and against the far greater strength of the Emperor himself, that traditional black-hooded bogeyman — a latter-day Grim Reaper, but without the sickle.
Sticking with this main point, the decidedly low-tech Ewoks present an interesting twist to the usual downtrodden situation: in order to help conquer the high-tech soldiers of the Imperial Forces, these scrappy little fighters harass and pester their foes to submission by sheer tenaciousness. After all, the inferior and illiterate Barbarians of Northern Europe ultimately defeated the Roman Republic, so why not the hapless little Ewoks?
The Vietnam analogy will win out in the end, though, with the Ewoks obviously representing the united Vietnamese front (both the North and the South) fighting for their territory — and on their turf.
(End of Part Two)
Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes