Since its release on May 25, 1977, Star Wars – now known as Episode IV: A New Hope – has inspired millions of followers across generations. The film has stood the test of time, but the original circumstances of Star Wars’ creation, and the film’s deliberately constructed relationship with US history, have become obscured.
It seems unthinkable that Star Wars was a film that studios did not want. George Lucas’s treatment was rejected by United Artists, Universal and even Disney – ironic given the $4.05 billion they paid for the franchise in 2012. Though 20th Century Fox picked up the project, it was Lucas they wanted, not Star Wars.
The deal Fox and Lucas made was unusual. Lucas’s previous movie American Graffiti had been such a hit that Lucas could have raised his fee, but he chose not to. Instead, he negotiated a deal which gave him merchandising and sequel rights in what was a pivotal moment for the industry, establishing the practice of merchandising.
Interpreting America’s history
After American Graffiti, Lucas initially returned to Apocalypse Now, a project he had been working on with screenwriter John Milius. It was to be a subversive film: Lucas wanted to make an anti-violence movie, showing so much violence that the audience would be repulsed. Ultimately, Lucas opted out of directing Apocalypse Now, but his reasons for doing so are illuminating:
… since the demise of the Western, there hasn’t been much in the mythological fantasy genre available to the film audience. So instead of making “isn’t-it-terrible-what’s-happening-to-mankind” movies, which is how I began, I decided that I’d try to fill that gap.“
This statement, lamenting the state of American myth in contemporary culture, reveals a great deal about what Star Wars was intended to be. The iconic scrolling opening title, "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away …”, vividly establishes Lucas’s idea: Star Wars is both history and fantasy. It provides audiences with an escape, something cinema had always done, but this was a consciously constructed escape into a fairy tale, a universal mythology of heroes and villains, good and evil and, crucially, a milieu where the good guys win.
Myth is the key to unlocking Star Wars. These shared stories, typically with a basis in history, shape and explain national values, characteristics and identity. The experience of the frontier, of the “Wild West”, is central to the American myth. But that myth was badly damaged by the ugliness and violence of American involvement in Vietnam, and the fractures it caused at home. Star Wars seeks to retrieve these shared stories, rebuilding the myth by reminding audiences of simpler, more innocent times.
Star Wars rejects the ambiguity and moral uncertainty of post-Vietnam America and instead depicts a universe of moral absolutes. It deploys elements of classic western films: characters Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Chewbacca resonate with frontier archetypes. The dust up in the saloon and the frequent shoot outs play with the conventions of the genre.
References to American wars in which the US held the moral high ground are another recurring motif. The imagery and iconography of World War II is everywhere in Star Wars. Terms like stormtroopers, the evil empire and super weapons are suggestive. The design of the ships, costumes and weaponry are modelled on examples from World War II. The choreography of the space battles are even based on aerial dogfight sequences from other war movies.
Lucas also employs a range of visual cues from Nazi propaganda film The Triumph of the Will, most obviously in the closing medal ceremony.
Moral high ground
In the film’s opening moments, Lucas reminds audiences of another war with mythic implications, America’s Revolutionary War. This conflict ideally suited Lucas’s purpose because it is perhaps the most unambiguous war in American history: the Americans were underdogs fighting a well-equipped empire – but they were victorious. For Lucas it is a compelling and attractive alternative to Vietnam’s moral ambiguities, atrocity and defeat.
Looking at the film through the lens of the Revolutionary War, Lucas’s myth building is fascinating. The opening shot of the small blockade runner being chased down by the massive Star Destroyer perfectly articulates the heroic context and asymmetry of the conflict.
This sense of poorly equipped rebels versus a professional military force is further enhanced when the action comes aboard the smaller ship, where a small force of men awaits combat. These are not traditional soldiers, however: they are not young men at the peak of physical and psychological readiness. Rather they are all older, scared, a volunteer militia, and the coming combat, as historian John Hellman has suggested, resonates with the iconic clash of redcoats and minutemen.
Lucas’s efforts were an attempt to repair and rebuild American confidence and the belief that the United States was a force for good by celebrating the simplicity and certainties of mythic narratives. Star Wars reminds audiences of the qualities of innocence, purity and heroism these stories contain. The “return to childhood” that critic Pauline Kael recognised in her famously negative New Yorker review in 1977 is an acknowledgement of Star Wars’ ability to reconnect audiences with a more innocent time.