Star Wars, Remixed

George Lucas' universe is a mashup masterwork.


Mark Hamill on the set of Star Wars: Episode IV
© Sunset Boulevard/Corbis

You know the scene: Young Luke Skywalker stands alone, watching as binary suns set over the stark, inhospitable dunes of the desert planet of Tatooine. The landscape is vast, our hero threatened with insignificance by comparison, and yet the scene remains firmly focused on the power of Luke's potent yearning: for the frontier, for the opportunity to become more than a subsistence moisture farmer like his uncle, for the vastness of space beyond those setting suns.

Such visually stunning Star Wars scenes, as film scholars have long observed, owe a direct debt to the legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. His epic samurai works such as 1958's The Hidden Fortress were the standouts in a genre known as jidaigeki, from which George Lucas derived the name Jedi. Kurosawa, in turn, took inspiration from the westerns of John Ford, while Lucas also borrowed freely from Flash Gordon serials and the pulp science fiction tradition that inspired them.

Much has been made—including a 1988 Bill Moyers PBS special, The Power of Myth, and a 1997–1999 exhibition at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, "Star Wars: The Magic of Myth"—of how the Star Wars cycle of stories taps into an archetypal monomyth shared by numerous cultures across human history. It's hardly debatable that Luke Skywalker's journey takes him along the general path tread by Odysseus, King Arthur, and Harry Potter. Yet many other heroes have walked similar circles as well, and failed to become a part of the global vernacular in the same way as the farm-boy-turned-Jedi-Knight.

So what set George Lucas apart from other filmmakers who wear their references on their sleeves? His unmatched ability to identify the symbols indispensable to the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, from the cowboy to the samurai to the spaceman. Using such pop culture iconography as building blocks, Lucas constructed a deeply rooted epic that felt fresh and resonant with contemporary concerns.

As scholar Andrew Gordon puts it in "Star Wars: A Myth for Our Time" (from Screening the Sacred: Religion, Myth, and Ideology in Popular American Film), "Star Wars is a masterpiece of synthesis, a triumph of American ingenuity and resourcefulness, demonstrating how the old may be made new again: Lucas raided the junkyards of our popular culture and rigged a working myth out of scrap. Like the hotrods in his previous film, American Graffiti, Star Wars is an amalgam of pieces of mass culture customized and supercharged and run flat out."

Now it is a new dawn, and Disney has liberated the content of the Star Wars empire from Lucas' increasingly close grasp. The question is, can a post-Lucas Star Wars, led by people who grew up on the saga, secure and defend its place as a lasting epic for our times?

Reinventing the Pulps

George Lucas borrowed more than a mere scene or word from Kurosawa in creating the Star Wars style. He mimicked the director's use of the "wipe" to transition from one scene to another. Watching the point-of-view characters in The Hidden Fortress—an ever-bickering but lovable pair of peasants who are swept up in adventure with a princess on the run—we clearly see the prototypes of R2-D2 and C-3PO.

Kurosawa admitted to drawing lessons in imagery and theme from popular westerns such as Ford's 1956 classic The Searchers. He repaid this debt with interest by inspiring such iconic westerns as John Sturges' The Magnificent Seven (1960), which was based on Kurosawa's 1954 film Seven Samurai, and Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars (1964), an unauthorized remake of Kurosawa's Yojimbo (1961).

These artistic connections come full circle in the Star Wars universe. John Jackson Miller's outstanding Kenobi (2013), an officially sanctioned novel tie-in best described as a Star Wars western, recasts the no-longer-Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi and not-yet-Crazy Old Ben Kenobi as Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name from Sergio Leone's films: the mysterious stranger who rides into town, rights all wrongs, answers no questions, and then vanishes into the sunset, alone.

The headline film franchise, with showpieces such as the famous cantina scene on Mos Eisley (that "wretched hive of scum and villainy"), captures much of the charm and challenge of cowboy and samurai tales—the threat to an overreaching authority posed by a courageous individual or ragtag group of rebels, and the danger and possibility of life on the margins, where present deeds are more important than personal past and a stout-hearted soul can always invent, or reinvent, his or her destiny. The texts that launched the genre of western pulp fiction, literature, and cinema told similar stories, helping to shape the symbols that followed.

One of the most popular of these was also one of the first: Charles A. Siringo's 1885 autobiography, A Texas Cow Boy: Or Fifteen Years on the Hurricane Deck of a Spanish Pony, which recounts the adventures of a green and inexperienced youth of no means who leaves home and makes good as a cowboy, running with fellow scoundrels who (usually) survive rip-roaring and hair-raising adventures but also make the West a little less wild by enforcing a consensual code of conduct. One of the key messages that emerges from A Texas Cow Boy is the efficacy of individual action. Problems require solutions and injustice requires a response—if I don't step up to do what's right, who will? Siringo certainly lacked the polish of Princess Leia Organa of Alderaan, but shares the winning, "can do" attitude.

It's no coincidence that, just as early cowboy tales gave momentum to western pulp fiction, western pulps then fueled the evolution of action-adventure science fiction novels, magazines, and comics. Space became the new frontier, and mastery of the starship and ray gun replaced mastery of the horse and six-shooter. Those adolescent male readers in the late 19th and early 20th century who didn't want to be Charlie Siringo wanted to be an adventurer of a different kind: an innovator, entrepreneur, and pioneer of the future. Like Thomas Edison.

Many early works of pulp science fiction therefore included ingredients of the "Edisonade"—a term coined in 1993 by scholar John Clute for The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, which he co-produced with Peter Nicholls. The term refers to scientific romances featuring "a young US male inventor hero who ingeniously extricates himself from tight spots and who, by so doing, saves himself from defeat and corruption, and his friends and nation from foreign oppressors." Forget the midi-chlorians: How do we know in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace that Anakin Skywalker is the Chosen One? Because at a freakishly young age he builds C-3PO, fixes anything he puts his tiny little hands on, and wins podraces. (His son turns out to be not such a bad pilot himself.) The personalized lightsaber each Jedi builds also fits the Edisonade's tendency to place the technological gadget at the center of the story and at the heart of the hero's identity.

After a hop, skip, and jump that included such Edisonades as the Tom Swift "sense of wonder" tales, the science-fiction pulp mentality reached comics and finally movie serials. Between 1936 and 1940, Buster Crabbe brought a comic hero to cinematic life as Flash Gordon, another key influence on the Star Wars franchise. As Chris Taylor notes in his able account How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present, and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise [see page 24 of this issue for an excerpt], Lucas identifies watching Flash Gordon as the "stand-out event" of his young life. On the set of The Empire Strikes Back in 1979, he acknowledged how the serials had launched his own creative quest: "Loving them that much when they were so awful," he mused, "I began to wonder what would happen if they were done really well?"

Answering his own question, Lucas recycled Flash Gordon's opening text scrawl, exotic settings and costumes, fast-paced action sequences and cliffhanger endings in building Star Wars. His Princess Leia and Padmé Amidala share the sass and savvy of Flash's fellow adventurer and love interest Dale Arden, and the improbable coiffures of the series' Queen Fria of Frigia. Star Wars heroes follow the trail that Flash blazed in building alliances with like-minded people from other planets, infiltrating enemy lairs in disguise to free those unjustly imprisoned, and using the latest in space-age technology to liberate the galaxy from tyranny. Like Charlie Siringo before them and Luke Skywalker and his comrades after, Flash Gordon and his friends ask, "If we don't step up to do what's right, who will?"

History Repeating Itself

Lucas learned another, perhaps counterintuitive lesson from the gleefully cartoonish Flash Gordon serials: Keep it real. Look past the detail in Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, for example, that Prince Barin and his faithful subjects in extraterrestrial Arboria look improbably like Errol Flynn's Robin Hood and his merry men and maids from Sherwood Forest, and instead observe that villain Emperor Ming the Merciless reflects an evil ripped directly from contemporary headlines. The fictional Ming administers concentration camps for his enemies, approves a plan that will destroy all freethinkers, and attempts genocide using a new weapon of mass destruction, the dreaded "death dust." Audiences in 1940 and immediately after certainly understood the seriousness underlying the symbolism.

Like Flash Gordon, Star Wars was in part a response to the events of the 1930s and '40s-so much so that the official Star Wars website for the last year and a half has been running a regular feature by historian Cole Horton entitled "From World War to Star Wars" exploring the links between the two. The climactic scenes of Star Wars: A New Hope, in which rebel pilots fly into the perilous Meridian Trench of the Death Star in order to attack the massive battle station at its point of greatest weakness, pay homage to a similar sequence in the 1955 British war film Dam Busters. That movie recounted the true story of the Royal Air Force's 617 Squadron attack of dams in Germany's Ruhr Valley with a "bouncing bomb." The style of the Imperial uniforms and even the use of the term stormtrooper in Star Wars also underscore the connection to the Nazi Third Reich.

The Star Wars franchise does more than nod to history; it asks audiences to learn from it. For example, the saga poses the question of how a Hitler (or a Napoleon, or a Caesar) comes to power—and thus how the next one might be stopped. In the prequel trilogy of films, Palpatine rises from senator to chancellor to emperor in a series of moves that parallel Hitler's own ascendance. As scholar Tony Keen notes in "I, Sidious: Historical Dictators and Senator Palpatine's Rise to Power" (an essay from the larger collection Star Wars and History), both Hitler and Darth Sidious built military forces to bring them to and keep them in power; both employed similar rhetorical techniques (Hitler's "Thousand-Year Reich" became Palpatine's promise that the Empire "will last for 10 thousand years"); both became dictators by election; and both dispensed with their state's parliamentary bodies after claiming supreme authority. From a certain point of view (as Obi-Wan Kenobi would say) both Germany and the Empire got the government they deserved.

Not exactly a fan of republics or democracies, Lucas pointedly reminds viewers that gullible people and their easily manipulated representatives not only enabled the rise of Nazism, but also helped transform the earlier Roman Republic into one of the Nazis' chief inspirations, the Roman Empire. (Martin M. Winkler's "Star Wars and the Roman Empire" from the book Classical Myth and Culture in the Cinema is one of several academic works to discuss how Star Wars employs and echoes the classical past.) The takeaway? Citizens in these cases did not so much lose their freedom as willingly give it away. As Amidala observes Palpatine's political victory in the Senate in Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, she utters prophetic words well worth remembering: "This is how liberty dies: with thunderous applause."

The saga suggests that history teaches other lessons as well. For example, over-powerful states or leaders may come to view robust, independent institutions within their borders as threats. Just as the Shaolin Temple in China suffered multiple attacks and the Knights Templar in France fell by the order of Philip IV, so the Star Wars Jedi became "all but extinct" thanks to Supreme Chancellor Palpatine's Order 66, which triggered their executions by members of the clone army. And just as American and Viet Cong revolutionaries proved that knowledge of local terrain, unanticipated guerrilla tactics, and ideological investment in a fight could trump the superior firepower and training of the most powerful military force in the world, so too the Ewoks of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi remind us that determined underdogs can prevail against vastly grander forces.

What happens if audiences ignore instructive examples from history? According to the logic of the saga, we're already guilty of doing just that. Star Wars, after all, takes place long ago in a galaxy far away; any similarities between its narrative and our earthbound experience reflect our failure to learn from the past. That said, we can stop the cycle here. Before it's too late.

If we don't step up to do what's right, who will?

Hope with the House of Mouse

The Star Wars story cycle consistently champions independent thought and warns against tyranny. It lauds heroes who show initiative, dedication, and responsibility and turns a wary eye on bureaucracy, propaganda, and the concentration of power in any setting. There is an "I" in Jedi, after all. Arguably the most courageous of these knights are shown defying the dictates of their own Jedi Council. In the Star Wars universe, "committee" is quite literally a bad word (and something of an ongoing joke).

What's more, the success of Star Wars offers a case study of the power of innovation and entrepreneurship in a free society. Lucas purposefully went outside the major studio system and worked to get around stultifying regulations, investing huge sums of his own money so he'd have the freedom to follow his vision in collaboration with equally pioneering artists. The results were works that changed cinematic history. And his business savvy—especially when it came to merchandising—made him a fortune at the same time it turned his saga into the common cultural vocabulary of generations around the globe.

Yet somehow, Lucas failed to heed the lessons from his own stories, fictional and real. In a January 2012 interview with Charlie Rose, he agreed with the assessment that he is "a billionaire who's not that crazy about capitalism," and asserted that "we got a country based on greed. And as long as you got that, then it's corrupt." The villain General Grievous captains a flagship during the Clone Wars called the Invisible Hand.

More importantly for his legacy, Lucas' later years heading the Star Wars franchise suggest that he grew to err on the side of authoritarian control rather than artistic collaboration. The resulting prequel trilogy of films, the 2008 Clone Wars movie and spinoff TV series, and later tie-in fiction all suffered as a result. As the science fiction author David Brin points out in the foreword to Star Wars on Trial: The Force Awakens Edition, "You'll notice that very few screamed in outrage when Walt Disney Studios purchased the franchise…Even diehard fans knew that changes were desperately needed at the helm."

The House of Mouse has made a promising start bringing Star Wars into a new era. An updated canon, which supplants the older Expanded Universe series, novels, comics, and games (not forgotten, but renamed Legends to represent the now-alternate-universe nature of its stories), grows each month. The current Star Wars: Rebels animated television series handles, with sophistication and nods to real-world applicability, the manipulation of public opinion and suppression of dissent, the problems of state-sponsored terrorism and genocide, and the potential of grassroots protest and resistance—all without sacrificing a sense of Flash Gordon–esque fun and frolic.

Recent novels and comics set a similarly high bar. One standout of the recent "Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens" publications that dropped on Force Friday (September 4) was a young adult story called Lost Stars. In that title, author Claudia Gray revisits the events depicted in the original trilogy of Star Wars films from the points of view of two young and star-crossed lovers, one of whom joins the Rebel Alliance while the other serves as an officer of the Empire. How could a good person become part of a mechanism that enslaves, tortures, and even exterminates its own people? What lies must that person be told—and possibly want to believe—and what does this ultimately cost him or her? Gray's psychological investigation challenges readers to question the facts they're presented with and the purposes to which they'll dedicate their lives. If this is a sign of what's to come, I am most heartened.

In the end, Star Wars doesn't say anything profoundly new, or even say it in a stunningly original way. It is a saga with global underpinnings, one that echoes the classical epics that first gave shape to what mythologist Joseph Campbell dubbed the Hero's Journey. But the true genius of Star Wars rests in how it distills recent popular culture down to its most potent symbols, such as the cowboy or the samurai or Flash Gordon himself. Furthermore, it's a "working myth" that carries a sense of history and message of substance with which to challenge contemporary audiences. What we've seen thus far during the Disney era of the franchise suggests that the most interesting days of Star Wars storytelling are far from over.