It is often interesting revisiting the interests of our childhood with fresh eyes. My son, just turned five, was fascinated by my old Star Wars action figures when I took them out and gave them to him, and so, little by little I introduced him to the films. I had to edit out bits and pieces, though, watching them, I was struck by how little gore or even uncomfortable material was present in the first three films. (Strangely, the more recent three, though often derided as being "dumbed down" to "appeal to kiddies" were actually more uncomfortable to explain, and I told him we would have to wait before watching the last one, as he finds the idea of a hero turning into a villain troubling*.)
But, what interests me is, having watched all six movies in sequence, I can see an interesting trend in the Star Wars films, and that is a pattern which follows almost perfectly the changes in Hollywood.
Hollywood was a very conventional place for many decades. The stars may have misbehaved and led scandalous lives by the standards of the times, but the studios were very traditional, from economic self interest, from fear of regulation, from the influence of the various semi-criminal unions which controlled various aspects of the studio system, and for a hundred other reasons. Throughout the sixties, Hollywood largely played at being on the extremes of patriotism. They would, from time to time, release a picture which was "thought provoking" and questioned traditional values or conventional patriotism, but even then the film would always hedge its bets and argue that whatever the excess it portrayed, it was an aberration, and the status quo was still safe and sound.
In the late 1960s and the early 1970's, with the breakdown of the studio system, the birth of high profit small independent films, like Easy Rider, and the societal changes in the nation, film makers began to experiment, to try to appeal to "the counterculture" and to break out of the "stodgy" image the studios had acquired.But, by and large, the studio's efforts in that direction ended in failure. While the independent Billy Jack and Easy Rider were hits, the studio efforts to mimic them, like Skidoo, Candy and Zabriskie Point, all bombed. There were a handful of exceptions, but the studios learned the lesson and realized that they might make some money by distributing independent art films, but their bread and butter was still in making mainstream films.
And that was still true throughout the seventies and eighties. There were some changes, such as the growth of horror, though that started in the 1960's, or the birth of the "slasher" film. Similarly, the growth of "raunchy" comedy and of teen sex farces were largely creations of the 1980's. But, excepting horror, these outgrowths were still pretty traditional. Despite being more sexual, the teen comedies still espoused pretty traditional values. Similarly, the action films which predominated in the 1980's were the most patriotic of films. They might, from time to time, gripe about missing POWs or about the way Vietnam was handled, but in the end they were complaints of a more "conservative" than "liberal" nature.
And it was in this period that the first three Star Wars films were born.And it shows. The films were of their time, in that they were heavily experimental in terms of the new technologies used, and the perfectionism shown in the model design, but they were also conventional in many ways. Looking at the films, it is easy to see the plot of Star Wars (now dubbed A New Hope) as not just conventional heroic fiction, but as a film pulled form two, quite conventional sources. First, the final sequence, the attack on the Death Star, which is taken entirely from 1954's The Dam Busters, a pro-military British film, portraying the development, and eventual deployment of bouncing bombs used to take out the Ruhr dams. Second, the film stole much of its plot, and even many scenes, from the Hidden Fortress. At first glance this does not seem traditional, being a Japanese film. But as Kurosawa was more strongly influenced by western film than many westerners, and as his films drew heavily on generic heroic fiction, and especially the "western" genre, it is arguable that stealing from Kurosawa was more conventional than stealing from a European film would be.
The second film, The Empire Strikes Back, was as traditional as the first. There was the introduction of some conflict, of flaws to the hero and some humanity to one villain, but those are the standard elements of western heroic fiction. Wagner is full of those elements, as were heroic tales going back to Greece. Even the third film, The Return of the Jedi, was conventional heroic fiction. I know Lucas claimed his Ewoks were some sort of parable for Vietnam, but even there they were more similar to the "revenge of the downtrodden" theme found in many heroic tales, rather than any anti-American plot device.
Taken as a whole, the first three films formed an incredibly conventional heroic tale. A young innocent, trained by a master who later falls, fights against all odds, overcomes uncertainty and his own flaws, and in the end not only wins, but redeems a hero fallen to evil ways. Excepting his failure to "get the girl", the first three films were almost the archetype of heroic fiction.
The next three films were quite different.
Of course, between the third and fourth films, many years passed, and Hollywood changed as well. For whatever reason, Hollywood no longer hewed as closely to the line of patriotic, conventional, "normalcy" as they once did. Partly, I am sure, because our ever more juvenile culture ("Inversion of Traditional Values") was no longer willing to see itself as "normal" and, with everyone wanting to imagine themselves "unique" and "a rebel", it now paid for Hollywood to join in that rebellion. And so, over the years, Hollywood decided to become part of the "counterculture", the multibillion dollar movie industry posing as the opponent of "evil industries" and "big business", making more and more propaganda films. They still stuck with successful formulae, but now, for example, big action films were about white supremacists, militia members and Serbian terrorists, instead of communist Russians and PLO bombers.
And Star Wars followed suit.
Much has been made of the anti-Bush propaganda lines in the third of the new three films (Revenge of the Sith), but that seems to be making much of a minor point while ignoring the bigger picture. Look at the entire plot arc. A politician, who rules over an otherwise peaceful republic, stages a phony war to get permission to finally create an army, and as a result, everyone loses their freedom. The logic is standard far left rhetoric. Armies are the real danger, wars are created for sinister purposes by cabals plotting against individuals. And let us not forget the almost truther formulation of the plot itself.
But there is more. For example, who are the enemies? Well, "the Sith", but who do the Sith use as their catspaw? Why the Trade Federation, the Banking Guild and technology, that is the group who manufactures robots. Think about that for a minute. Who causes war? Merchants, bankers and technology. Could you get more left wing than that?
And, as a final point, let us not forget the true nature of the Jedi when we finally see it. In the first three films we saw Jedi largely as some sort of knight errant, fighting the good fight. But now, seeing them before the fall, we find them a hereditary power behind the throne. Where everyone else is driven by emotion and thinks irrationally, this small elite can see "the right thing" ("The Right Way") and then coerces or cajoles everyone into following them. And, when others are too stubborn to listen, then they send out armed men to make them listen. It is the left wing world view I have described over and over ("Deadly Cynicism", "The Citizen Dichotomy", "Man's Nature and Government", "Our View of Our Fellow Citizens", "Seeing People As Stupid", "Appealing to Arrogance"). A small elite of clever individuals who have the ability to force the ignorant masses to do the right thing. It is the way liberals see themselves, a small group of noble individuals, who see things more clearly, and have a mission to save everyone else.
With films containing all those, who cares about a few excerpts from Bush speeches or obvious jabs at the president?
But I am not here to criticize the films, I want merely to point out how much Hollywood changed. Of course a lot of that change came long before Star Wars, but even then, in the 1970's, Hollywood still was making conventional heroic fiction, staying close to traditional values. What makes the later three films interesting is how far they move away from those first three, how big a gulf separates the two trilogies. From a conventional tale of heroics to a triad of films showing the fall of an "anti-hero" filled with liberal rhetoric and justifications, it is a tremendous gulf, and it is quite informative concerning the differences between the Hollywood that produced the first three films, and the Hollywood that produced the last three.
* My wife teases me over having raised such a pacifist child. As my son is, as she puts it, "my shadow", she pretends to think he got his whole personality from me, and jokes that it is ironic that such a "militarist" would have a son who is so strongly opposed to anything violent. I do correct her and explain that my philosophy is actually strongly opposed to war, I just recognize not everyone thinks the same way, so we need to prepare just in case. (One day I may write about the very common mistake that sees conservatives pragmatic preparation to defend themselves and calls it war mongering. Especially as our biggest wars in the 20th century were all started by Democrats, most by very liberal Democrats. But that is for another time.) But, my point here is that my son does not like to see others hurt, though he does not have a problem seeing "bad guys" being defeated. So, the first three films were fine with him (except a few casualties among the "good guys") while the more recent three troubled him much more.
Before ending this, allow me to say that I actually enjoy all six films. While I find some of the politics very poorly hidden in the newer three films to be troubling, the movies themselves still entertain. My only real complaint is one I have never heard another person express. I can stand the first two of the more recent trilogy, but in the third, I find there is too little character development. I know many have criticized the acting of the leads, but I think the problem is that they have too little time to sell us on their love, and his fear of losing her. Had they spent more time on character development, both there and in scenes showing the future emperor manipulating him (a bit more subtly), I would have liked it better.
Still, overall I am hardly one of those who denounce the new films. I have enjoyed them, and do not think they deserve the criticism they have received. But I do think the politics of the old and new films is very enlightening, and I had to make mention.
POSTSCRIPT IIFor those who do despise the newer films, there is an amusing site which provides plenty of reasons to dislike the new films.
Update (02/16/2010): After I read my post, I imagined readers possibly objecting that it was unfair to criticize the new three films for featuring an "anti-hero". After all, it was planned to show the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader, so how else could it proceed? But, a little thought shows that the film did not have to make him its hero. As in the first film, the focus could have instead been on Obi-Wan or on another Jedi, with Anakin/Vader as an antagonist, with the hero at first a friend and later trying futilely to sound the alarm. The fact that Lucas chose to make him a "tragic hero" tells a lot about the changes in Hollywood. Although Darth Vader is redeemed in the last moments of Return of the Jedi, I still think he is far too much of a villain in the first three films for someone with 1980's sensibilities to have imagined him as the hero of the prequels. It was only with more modern eyes that he could be seen as a legitimate choice for a protagonist.
Originally posted in Random Notes on 2010/02/16.