Another Day, Another Director
The Star Wars movies began their slow galactic 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 like the first entry.
Each picture featured three different directors: Mr. Lucas 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 he was tapped for this directing assignment. Director Marquand, on the other hand, was a writer and producer previously associated with TV shows, 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 (Yoda in human guise?), one who was not only completely outside the established Washington 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, he 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.
With all that in mind, a young Southern California movie-maker named George Lucas slowly emerged as part of the new “advance guard” of a Vietnam-driven generation of film directors 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 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, I 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 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 taught us).
Little did we know how wrong they truly were. The subsequent films in the Star Wars lineup, then, went on to serve as prescient lessons in hubris, humility, lost causes, and old-time religion.
Lucas envisioned his fable as a pure 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.
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 appeared that Jimmy Carter might 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 big white horse.
Getting back to Star Wars, 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, 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, young Luke discovers that he has his own personal challenges to face, and against the far greater power 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 are there in order to help conquer the high-tech soldiers of the Imperial Forces. 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 wins out in the end, though, with the Ewoks obviously representing the Vietnamese (both the North and the South) fighting for their territory — and on their land.
(End of Part Two)
Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes