Few cinematic sagas are as well-known as Star Wars. As part of the arsenal of American soft power, cinema has always promoted the American Way of Life in more or less obvious ways. But it’s easy to miss how much the Star Wars movies are embedded with the United States history— a history that is both a source of inspiration and criticism. Join us today for a trip to a galaxy far, far away to discover how the Star Wars saga paints a shaded picture of the United States of America.
American history and politics are woven throughout the Star Wars saga, right from the founding of the United States. The founding fathers’ idea of a great democratic republic is reflected in the Galactic Republic, which brings together several thousand planets or planetary systems and has guaranteed peace for over a thousand years. In contrast to Rousseau’s idea of pure democracy, the new republic was to take the form of a representative system. A system that would guarantee “government of the people, by the people and for the people“.
However, this project was soon perverted by bureaucracy and capitalism. In the case of the United States, as early as 1787, when, James Madison warned of the danger of factions in his essay in Federalist No. 10. In Star Wars, the political system of Coruscant (the Republic’s capital planet) and the Senate are shown to be overrun by bureaucrats, who can be seen as an echo of the lobbyists in Washington.
These economic concerns can lead to war. Slavery is often presented as the sole cause of the Civil War, but it was also motivated by economic disputes. Northern political elites were oriented towards a domestic market and favored a form of protectionism. Lincoln, elected in 1860, proposed tariff protection and a Bank of the United States, which represented their best interests. The South, on the other hand, was free-trading, oriented towards Europe for its raw material exports (cotton, textiles), and was disadvantaged by these decisions. Taxes were a particularly thorny issue. Episode 1 of Star Wars, The Phantom Menace, opens with these sentences: “Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute.”
The enemies of the galactic republic in the first trilogy, united under the name of Confederacy of Independent Systems, are supported by several corporations which form its executive council: the Trade Federation, the Intergalactic Banking Clan, the Techno Union, the Commerce Guild, the Corporate Alliance etc. Several lines of dialogue deleted from the final cut further highlight Lucas’ critique of capitalism, as Count Dooku, leader of the separatist movement declares, “And let me remind you of our absolute commitment to capitalism… of the lower taxes, the reduced tariffs, and the eventual abolition of all trade barriers.” A statement that the Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi overhears, horrified. In these films, there’s no doubt: that one of the elements leading to the collapse of the Republic is the will of unbridled capitalism. Indeed, the spaceship of the separatist general Grievous is dubbed the Invisible Hand, after the economic process theorized by Adam Smith. Even today, the question of what place the economy and financial interests should occupy on the political stage is a hotly debated topic.
The founding of the United States—and its political and economic system—was not the only source of inspiration for these films. Many of the themes in Star Wars reflect the times they were conceived, which are also in contemporary cinematographic works. For example, do you know what Apocalypse Now has in common with the first Star Wars trilogy? George Lucas was set to direct Apocalypse Now, but preferred to concentrate on his saga, entrusting the film to Francis Ford Coppola, with whom he had already collaborated (notably by their production company American Zoetrope). Why is this an interesting anecdote? Because these two very different works (Apocalypse Now and the original SW trilogy) both depict the Vietnam War.
George Lucas, a child of the baby boom, grew up to become a young adult very disillusioned with the American project. The Vietnam War (1955-1975) and Watergate (1974) did nothing to ease his disappointment. This critique of the times in which he lived can be found in his second film, American Graffiti, released in 1973 and a tribute to the early 1960s. But how can you draw a parallel between the Vietnam War and Star Wars? This is quite apparent and has been acknowledged many times by Lucas himself. In episodes IV, V and VI, we see a handful of rebels fighting against a technologically and numerically superior empire. If the United States had been the rebels against the British Empire in the Revolutionary War, it had gradually become “the very thing [they] swore to destroy”. Faced with Vietnamese fighters (but not only), the United States is an evil empire. Yet this handful of rebels manages to win. This mise-en-abîme is further accentuated in Return of the Jedi when the rebels are assisted by the Ewoks, formidable fighters in a forest environment, but whom no one would have given the win against the Galactic Empire.
George Lucas was also strongly influenced by the Watergate scandal and the figure of Richard Nixon. In an interview shortly before the 1983 release of Return of the Jedi, Lucas was asked if Palpatine had been a Jedi before the Empire. “No, he was a politician,” Lucas replied. “His name was Richard M. Nixon. He subverted the Senate and eventually took power and became an Imperial guy, and he was really evil. But he pretended to be a really nice guy.” A statement that clearly shows the direct influence of American politics from the 1960s-1970s on the Star Wars saga.
After seeing the ideal republic of the Founding Fathers perverted by capitalism and free trade, after losing faith in the political system, the question arises as to how to re-enchant the American project. How can we make audiences want to see such a disillusioned film? Star Wars is certainly a story of war, but a war that takes place in the stars. In the face of such disappointment, what better way to re-enchant the American social project than to deal with the conquest of space?
Space has always fascinated mankind. From Cyrano de Bergerac’s The Other World: Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon, published in 1657, to the films that abound in our cinemas today. For Lucas, one of his first encounters with space was in the Flash Gordon comics (first published in 1934). With the technological advances of the Second World War and the onset of the Cold War, it soon became clear that the conquest of space was getting closer and closer to reality. In this race, space became the “New Frontier“ that the American people had to reach. They are led there by “Manifest Destiny” because the USA is an “exceptional nation”. A story set in space – even a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away – could only inspire hope, stimulate the imagination, and stimulate dreams.
But the Cold War was not just about the space race. The arms race was also in full swing, generating its share of fears. The threat of a nuclear apocalypse is well represented in the two successive Death Stars: a total weapon from which no one can escape. This connection became even more obvious in the 1980s, especially in 1983, when Ronald Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). A project commonly dubbed “Star Wars” by the media. This missile defense project was designed to protect the United States against a strategic nuclear strike by ballistic missiles from the “evil empire”, i.e. the Soviet Union. A use Lucas didn’t appreciate, but the name stuck. In 1985, a group supporting the Strategic Defense Initiative used the name in its advertising, leading to an unsuccessful lawsuit by Lucasfilm Ltd. for trademark infringement. Interestingly, this was not the last time Star Wars had an impact on American politics, after drawing inspiration from it. But if the first two trilogies were conceived as a liberal warning, that’s not how their references were subsequently used.
Another political thought that shines through in Star Wars is the eternal debate between freedom and security. In the United States, this is an old dispute, dating back to the founding of the country. Should foreign policy be interventionist or isolationist? For Lucas, the ramifications of this question run even deeper: democracy or dictatorship?
The question of how democracies get turned into dictatorships is fundamental to understanding Star Wars. George Lucas asked himself this question a lot (particularly following the period when Nixon was trying to run for a second term), from both a historical and political perspective. He concluded: “The democracies aren’t overthrown; they’re given away.” The idea is that people must voluntarily give up their freedom for a little more security. The transition from democracy to dictatorship and its long-term consequences are explored in every episode of the saga. This theme was underlying in the original trilogy, even if some of the more explicit lines were cut for reasons of clarity and quality, like this one—which Mark Hamill complained about in 1977 with good reason—”But we can’t go back, fear is their greatest defense, I doubt real security there is any greater than it was on Aquilae or Sullust and what there is is most likely geared towards a full-scale assault”.
Historical examples are legion: the decline of the Roman Republic and its replacement by a tyrannical regime, Napoleon’s Empire, the Third Reich, or Fascist Italy… For the US, this resonates particularly in the context of terrorism in the late 1990s and 2000s. Even though the film scripts were all written before the September 11th attacks, all these warnings about fear, retaliation, and the danger of putting security above all else seem particularly relevant in the face of the measures that followed (such as the Patriot Act). This perspective is particularly prevalent in episodes II and III. In Attack of the Clones, several Senators attempt to fight the creation of a Republic army, which would inevitably be seen as a declaration by the Separatists. And Revenge of the Sith sees the Galactic Republic transformed into an Empire, for “a safe and secure society”. A speech that prompts Senator Amidala to declare “So this is how liberty dies…With thunderous applause”.
This historical journey, through both American history and the first six films in the Star Wars saga, highlights the coherent links between them. But this work is not without its paradoxes. First of all, we can question the way in which Lucas, an important director in the New Hollywood movement from the 1960s to the 1980s, contributed to the end of this counter-culture movement by creating, with his friend Steven Spielberg, the first major blockbusters. One also wonders how to reconcile the anti-capitalist rhetoric of the prelogy (“It’s business becoming government”, from a scene cut from Episode II) with Disney’s takeover of Lucasfilm, in order to further exploit multi-billion-dollar franchise.
However, even after Disney’s takeover and revival of the franchise, Star Wars remains relevant. The new films have adapted to the times, and issues such as feminism and diversity have been incorporated into the universe. Just take a look at the main trio of the Disney trilogy, played by Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Oscar Isaac. Another fairly recent development, linked to the legitimization of pop culture as an object of research, is the academic use of the Star Wars universe.
Take, for example, the case of the female characters. Many agree that Leia is a feminist icon (notably at the 2017 Feminist Marches), but it’s worth noting that she’s one of the only women in the entire original trilogy. A YouTube video has collected all the lines uttered by women other than Princess Leia in the films: the total length is just over a minute. There are no women in the Empire and only a handful in the rebellion. There were a few female pilots whose scenes were filmed in Return of the Jedi… But they were either cut or dubbed by men, as the production didn’t think audiences at the time were ready to see women fighting and dying on screen. Despite the many “feminist ideals” these first heroines [Leia Organa and Padmé Amidala] embody, they remain relatively unchallenging, heteronormative representations. More diverse representations can be found in series, canon books and comics (and also in Legends or fan works) but remain relatively unknown to the general public. As Megen de Bruin-Mole writes, “One thing that seems increasingly clear is that Star Wars tends to follow mainstream politics rather than revolutionary ones.” More important, however, is the way in which these representations “are continually negotiated and reinterpreted by fans, creators, licensees, and feminists around the world”. This conclusion can also be applied to questions of diversity, cultural appropriation, ‘’or LGBTQ+ representations (for instance, the first live-action lesbian kiss in Episode IX). There’s still plenty of room for improvement…
But if Star Wars is still an interesting world to immerse yourself in in 2023, it’s because George Lucas has succeeded in his initial gamble. To create a timeless fairy tale that appeals to the widest possible audience. Today, Star Wars is a veritable mythology, multifaceted and syncretic, in which we can find reflections of America.
This article was edited by Katherine Brennan.