This new version has been thoroughly revised to include discussion of The Force Awakens and other new developments in the Star Wars universe.
|Publisher:||Westminster John Knox Press|
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About the Author
John C. McDowell is Professor of Theology and Director of Research at the University of Divinity, Melbourne, Australia. He is the author of numerous works on the ideologies of Star Wars.
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A New Myth
The Truthfulness of Star Wars
What you get out of it is what you bring to the cinema, and you read into the thing the things you want to read into it.
— Gary Kurtz, cited in John Baxter, George Lucas: A Biography (London: Harper Collins, 1999), 166.
One of the many reasons for watching SW is the way it relates to and reveals currents in contemporary culture (from 1977 to the present), reflecting that culture's understanding of itself and its inherent value system. Conversely the saga's success reflects a deep cultural resonance with its story that is manifested in a zealous fan base and has further enabled several of the characters to take on a life of their own (Darth Vader advertises a throat lozenge and Mark Hamill plays himself acting the Luke Skywalker character in an episode of The Simpsons, for instance).
However, not only does the saga distill something of the ethos of popular culture; it is also significantly culturally generative. Put another way, it can shape and reshape the ways in which many think and feel about themselves and their world. Because of its massive appeal worldwide — particularly at a time characterized by fragmented and professionalized knowledge — SW is enviably well positioned for mass communication. It is well placed to appeal to, generate, and reinforce a certain collective consciousness with a shared stock of images, narratives, and categories. As Orson Scott Card observes, "Hardly anybody can answer the easy Bible questions on Jeopardy anymore, but almost everybody can tell you about Obi-Wan Kenobi, Darth Vader, Yoda, and The Force." James Ford suggests it even carries "more influence among young adults than the traditional religious myths of our culture." In this way the saga seems to fit Conrad Kottak and Kathryn Kozaitis's criteria for "myth": expressing "fundamental cultural values," being "widely and recurrently told among, and ... [having] special meaning to, people who grow up in a particular culture," and also "at least partly fictionalized." Yet critics such as John Baxter see Lucas's control over the saga as somewhat subverting this sense of ANH as popular mythology:
Although Lucas claimed he had created Star Wars to endow mankind with the mythology it lacked, his behaviour became less and less philanthropic with the film's success. Over the next decade, he became obsessively proprietorial of his characters and ideas, ruthlessly pursuing anyone using them without permission and payment.... Real mythology, by its very nature, is communal, and open to interpretation by all. But Lucas ... hadn't given us a mythology; we could only rent it.
Lucas himself is profoundly aware of the teaching possibilities available through the medium of film. He claims to have been presented with "a very large megaphone" in making his films, and he consciously uses this to provide a kind of instruction in moral matters. "Somebody has to tell young people what we think is a good person.... You need that in a society."
It is this supposed mythic quality that makes SW as myth such rich material for theological and moral reflection. Steven Spielberg claims, "George [has] ... created a mythology of characters — he touched something that needed touching in everybody." SW draws on certain mythic archetypes, a practice that enables it to become a hybrid of Flash Gordon, Japanese samurai epics, Carlos Castaneda's Tales of Power, and the theologically profound fantasy fiction of Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. SW is Lucas's myth, exploring possibilities of struggle, journeying, discovery (particularly self-discovery), good and evil, and so on. In order to understand the performance of these works, we need to turn to the well-known work of Joseph Campbell (1903-87), which attempted to identify and describe the general pattern that mythologies have taken, especially the hero mythologies. In fact, when we speak further about "myth and popular culture," the prominence of Joseph Campbell's PBS interviews, and the popularity of the 1997 Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum exhibition "SW and the Magic of Myth" are the main reasons why "in the public's imagination, the terms 'myth' and 'SW are very closely linked." As Liam Neeson, the actor portraying Qui-Gon Jinn in TPM declares,
George's tales, the Star Wars tales, have really tapped into the psyche and mood that popular modern culture has never done before. For me that says yes, these films are incredibly well made, but also it's tapping into a void which we have as human beings that we have kind of lost something. And George provides ... the great storytelling sense of myth.
It is through acquaintance with Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces that ANH in particular is shaped, although, as we will see, Lucas goes much further in providing a vision of society that questions the dominant values of modern Western liberal individualism.
Campbell's Hero compares the myths of various cultures and concludes, echoing the work of the Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961), that they are all the same "monomyth." In other words, each myth broadly depicts the same hero, even if that is under different culturally specific guises. Consequently, the characters driving every mythic narrative are ancient or "primordial" archetypes. A cardinal problem with this approach, of course, is the fact that it "is interested less in analyzing myths than in using myths to analyze human nature." Campbell unfortunately "cites hundreds of myths and extricates from them hundreds of archetypes ... [but] he analyzes few whole myths," and deals with even those in insufficient critical depth. Also, his assertion that all mythologies are broadly the same seems too strained, although we will not develop this observation for the moment.
"A Long Time Ago ..." Star Wars, Genre Pastiche, and the Fairy Tale
An early draft summary (May 1973) of what was then tentatively titled The Star Wars was set in the thirty-third century. Lucas had in mind a Buck Rogers/ Flash Gordon type action/adventure story, but he failed to procure the rights to remake Flash Gordon. So he began to develop an original hero-in-space adventure story. The story gradually was removed from a future-of-this-world setting, and early in 1976 the script for The Adventure of Luke Starkiller as Taken from the Journal of the Whills: Star Wars opened with a longer version of the now famous scene-setting line: "A long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away ..." Possibly a result of Lucas's familiarity with Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment, this introduction provided a distinct conceptual link to fairy tales and legends; in other words, to the stories of our past.
Like Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Lucas had conceived of SW as being part of a grand narrative being recounted many years later, something picked up by Peter Jackson's setting of his Hobbit trilogy. To that end, Lucas developed the idea of the Journal of the Whills, echoing the function of Tolkien's ancestral mythology of Middle-Earth in The Silmarillion. This, Lucas claims, "was meant to emphasize that whatever story followed came from a book," an inspirational legend of chivalry, heroism, and adventure passed down through the ages in the form of a book, a "holy book." "Originally, I was trying to have the story be told by somebody else," Lucas explains. "[T]here was somebody watching this whole story and recording it, somebody probably wiser than the mortal players in the actual events."
In the opening crawl there is a reference to a princess, but this is an echo not merely of fairy stories but of another influence. Initially, when searching for a story to tie a few visual ideas together (principally, the cantina scene and the space battle), the story became shaped around Akira Kurosawa's sixteenth-century adventure The Hidden Fortress (1958). While the narrative developed through subsequent drafts, the influence of this movie remains in several places in the final version: in the perspective on the story offered through the two squabbling peasants, Tahei and Matashichi (in SW, C3PO and R2D2); in General Rokurota Makabe (in SW, General Obi-Wan Kenobi), who rescues the young Princess Yuki (in SW, Princess Leia Organa) to return her to her own people (in SW, Leia's family on Alderaan, and then the Rebel Alliance on Yavin IV). Lucas also named his religious order the Jedi after the Japanese term jidai geki, meaning period film; and the Jedi were dressed in Buddhist-like monastic robes with kimonos underneath. At one stage Lucas even toyed with the idea of making SW a wholly Japanese affair.
The director from Modesto was keen, too, on the swashbuckler movies of old, such as those starring Errol Flynn, and from this comes the notion of the Jedi as knights and of their weapons as sabres (albeit a technologically sophisticated version, lightsabers). The eminently popular Westerns of Lucas's youth had enough of an impact upon him for SW to raid that particular genre, with its frontier hero mythology, for some of its inspiration. The saloon scene in John Ford's The Searchers (1956) "partially inspired the [Mos Eisley] cantina sequence"; Tatooine was a frontier environment, with settlers under constant threat from nomadic indigenous peoples (Tusken Raiders or Sand People); Han Solo is an old-fashioned gunslinger, kitted out in waistcoat, boots, and low-hanging gun belt; Luke's uncle Owen and aunt Beru are farmers living at the edge of civilization; and the gun and the gangs (the Hutts, with their hired hands and bounty hunters) are the "law."
There are also references to, among other things, Isaac Asimov's Foundation stories in the term "The Empire"; to the histories of imperial Rome, Britain, and Nazi Germany; to Fritz Lang's 1926 masterpiece Metropolis (Lucas's C3PO); and Carlos Castaneda's Tales of Power.
But while SW involves something of a pastiche of genres, its eclecticism is not a simple homage. Instead, its referential diversity suggests that here we have something that sums up all others in a single instance. This would consequently entail that it becomes a representative narrative. This, in turn, has much to do with its appeal to myth, and specifically the kind of understanding of myth it is largely predicated on.
According to Lucas, "being a student in the Sixties, I wanted to make socially relevant films. . . . But then I got this great idea for a rock & roll movie, with cars and all the stuff I knew about as a kid." As he was completing American Graffiti (1973), he began to slowly design his space adventure. His first foray into theatrical moviemaking with THX1138 (1971) had been a financial disaster two years before, and he was having problems selling the idea of Apocalypse Now, which he had spent some of the past four years developing — Vietnam movies were too controversial for film studios and audiences at that stage.
SW was conceived against a backdrop of cultural turmoil in America — the Vietnam War limped to its ignominious end, and many in the nation suffered from traumatic introspection; President Richard Nixon was implicated in the Watergate scandal (1974); and economic misery loomed on the horizon. Francis Ford Coppola had challenged his friend Lucas to make "a happier kind of film" than THX 1138. In response, SW was supposedly created to encourage wonder, an enjoyment of stories, and a fantasy imagination among the youth in a post-Vietnam era. More specifically, Lucas hoped to reeducate young people.
To many critics, SW, and the director's claims concerning it, look like a return to the older American hero myths, and thus view the film as a simple product of escapism that both emotionally comforts the traumatized American psyche and politically mitigates the possibility of learning from the mistakes that resulted in Vietnam in the first place. So Dan Rubey, in a sharply written paper, claims that Lucas's "ingenuous statements about fantasy and kids and the irrational serve to disguise Lucas's conservative ideological bias." For instance, the Empire's Nazi look resonates for American audiences, with its clear reference to less morally complex wars, and thus reromanticizes American involvement in conflict. Influential film critic Pauline Kael even describes SW (and Spielberg's Jaws ) as infantilizing the cinema, reconstituting the spectator as a child and then overwhelming him with sound and spectacle, obliterating irony, aesthetic self-consciousness, and critical reflection. Andrew Gordon, among others, consequently claims that SW responds to the need for Americans to renew faith in themselves as the "good guys" on the world scene.
That reading, however, can and should be contested. First, Lucas's political/ cultural dystopian film THX1138, adapted from his Samuel Warner Memorial Scholarship-winning student film THX 1138.4EB/Electronic Labyrinth (1967), is a critical observation on the United States of the late 1960s and early 70s. The film accuses U.S. society of promoting a dehumanizing capitalism that makes its citizens into conformists in the same way their Communist enemies did.
Second, when Lucas's significant involvement in originally conceiving of the politically subversive Apocalypse Now ended, he admitted to migrating several of its broad themes into SW. In particular, America, he claims, is acting in ways similar to the "evil Empire"; the Emperor Palpatine is supposedly like Richard Nixon, and Lucas speaks of Palpatine both as Nixon-like and "the classic devil character"; and the Rebel Alliance's guerrilla fighters are like the Vietcong (even if they were represented by an all-American cast). So in an early draft of SW in 1973, Lucas envisaged "a large technological empire going after a small group of freedom fighters." In pouring his political observations into his notes for his planned space opera, Lucas wrote that the planet of Aquilae is "a small independent country like North Vietnam." Consequently, "The Empire is like America ten years from now after gangsters assassinated the Emperor and were elevated to power in a rigged election.... We are at a turning point: fascism or revolution." ROTJ takes up this idea again.
Originally I started writing Star Wars because I couldn't get Apocalypse Now off the ground. When I was doing Apocalypse Now it was about this totally insane giant technological society that was fighting these poor little people. They have little sticks and things, and they completely cow this technological power, because the technological power didn't believe they were any threat. They were just a bunch of peasants. The original draft of Star Wars was written during the Vietnam War where a small group of ill-equipped people overcame a mighty power. It was not a new idea. Attila the Hun had overrun the Roman Empire; the American colonies had been able to defeat the British Empire. So the main theme of the film was that the Imperial Empire would be overrun by humanity in the form of these cute little teddy bears.
Third, it is important to observe that American Graffiti produced the kind of fan-mail that convinced Lucas that an upbeat mood movie could be more transformative of young people's increasingly fractured lives. "Traditionally we get ... [moral values] from the church, the family, and in the modern world we get them from the media — from movies." In response, among other things, he lightened the serious tone by introducing more humor into SW's third script draft (Aug. 1, 1975). It consequently makes sense to understand Lucas's claims concerning challenging the post-Vietnam mood as an attempt to encourage a new hope: not a wallowing in self-pity or pacifying introspection but a learning to be moral agents giving of themselves and taking responsibility for one another's well-being.
As early as 1977 (the month before SW's theatrical release) Lucas declares: "I wanted to do a modern fairy tale, a myth." What does he mean by "myth" and by SW as updating "ancient mythological motifs"? What has been discussed above provides several clues.
Excerpted from "The Gospel according to Star Wars"
Copyright © 2017 John C. McDowell.
Excerpted by permission of Westminster John Knox Press.
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Table of Contents
1. A New Myth: The Truthfulness of Star Wars, 1,
2. The Force of the Divine: God and the Good, 20,
3. Evil Strikes Back, 39,
4. Beware the Dark Side Within: The Tragedy of Anakin Skywalker, 58,
5. The Politics of Evil, 78,
6. Rebelling against Evil: The Violence of Star Wars, 98,
7. Feeling the Force: The Ethics of the Good Life, 117,
8. A New Hope: Redemption in Star Wars, 135,
9. Whose Force Awakens? J. J. Abram's Star Wars's Return to Violence, 146,
Select Bibliography, 209,