A long time ago, in a movie theater far, far away …
Actually, 40 years ago, beginning in about 40 theaters in the United States, an uncanny, cowboys-in-space movie — produced and directed by independent filmmaker George Lucas — was released. “Star Wars,” starring the unknown young Mark Hamill, the little-known young Harrison Ford and the better-known young Carrie Fisher, along with legendary actors Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing, swept the country in the summer of 1977. The film was an instant success, wildly surpassing every expectation and instantly changing how movies were made. Soon, these unknown actors became household names — and it was “Star Wars” in these homes, nothing but “Star Wars.”
There was a reason for that success: The movie was hopeful. It was clear. It was different. It was real. It was upbeat. Lucas, decades after its release, admitted to the Boston Globe, “I love history, so while the psychological basis of ‘Star Wars’ is mythological, the political and social bases are historical.”
The 1970s in America, compared with the social revolutions of the 1960s and the Reagan revolution of the 1980s, was an abysmal decade. Vietnam had escalated under President Lyndon B. Johnson, but it was failing under President Richard M. Nixon. Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned, only for Nixon to follow suit after one of the worst political scandals of the 20th century. President Gerald R. Ford’s term was forgettable. Oil prices rose. Iran was acting up. There was stagflation, a seemingly impossible scenario of simultaneous stagnation and inflation in the economy. President Jimmy Carter, who came to Washington in 1977 to clean up the bureaucracy and the United States, became that which he most feared: a pessimistic, bureaucratic politician, not against the system but part of it.
By 1977, the Soviet Union was agitated, and it appeared, by most measures, that they were winning the Cold War. Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev took a strong tone against the West and against capitalism, especially in keeping their hold on occupied Eastern Europe. “We will bury you,” Khrushchev had proclaimed in 1956. Two decades later, many feared that he was right.
All these issues put a damper on the American spirit, and this could be seen no more clearly than in movies at the time, such as “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” in 1975, or “Taxi Driver” in 1976. A sense of doom was always around the corner and always prevalent. Even the fun “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” was a celebration of crooks.
And then along came “Star Wars.” It was a story of a young group of independent rebels fighting against an oppressive, collectivist empire for the freedom of the galaxy. The former government was even known as “the Old Republic.” The Force is a hint of Judeo-Christianity as a unifying agent for goodness, and “a New Hope” screams conservative optimism. The militarized Galactic Empire was ruled with an iron fist by a Politburo and an emperor. Its main tactics for unity and stability were enslavement, fear, death and destruction, especially with its new planet-killing weapon. Its uniforms of masked, bright-white armor destroyed any sense of identity; a soldier was simply a number. On the other hand, the Rebels, a loose collection of ragtag freedom fighters, staged an all-out attack on the Empire to erase it from the galaxy. They were a small, motivated force who learned they could defeat a large, unmotivated force. It was George Washington against the British Empire.
Switch a name or two around, and the film’s political landscape looked familiar: It was no less than the Cold War in space. The Soviet Union still had its grip on Eastern Europe, violently suppressing any sort of rebellion or call for reform. The Hungarian uprising of 1956 had collapsed within three weeks when hundreds of Soviet tanks came barreling into Budapest. The revolts within the Vorkuta, Norilsk and Kengir gulags and slave labor camps in the mid-’50s had failed. The Prague Spring in 1968 was similarly put to rest when the militaries of the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia. The precursor of Poland’s Solidarity movement was formed in the 1970s, and negotiations for reforms were squashed in Yugoslavia in the mid-’70s. Several decades after the end of the Second World War, the Soviet Union still controlled all of Eastern Europe, in the name of “security” against the West.
No matter how many times revolutions against the Soviets failed, though, there was still that renewed call for freedom for the people of Eastern Europe. The United States knew that call, and moviegoers recognized it, too. “Star Wars” showed that that call was not worthless, not simply a fool’s errand. It was worth pursuing. The phrase “may the Force be with you” is the ultimate statement of individuality, of American conservatism.
In “Star Wars,” there was no moral ambiguity for the audience. We knew the good guys, we knew the bad guys. Only Han Solo, the smuggler, could be considered morally gray, but even he had a good heart. It was almost fairy-tale-like in the starkness of its battle between Good and Evil.
The best part? Unlike the moral ambiguity of “The Godfather,” unlike “Taxi Driver,” in “Star Wars,” the good guys win. The bad guys lose. That is exactly what Americans and all people of the free world wanted. It was a clear message that good can and does prevail in the face of evil. It was a message that republics win over collectivist oppression.
Was it any wonder that a few years later, Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and his missile defense system was derided by the left as Star Wars? The public, though, associated success with the phrase and overwhelmingly supported it, much to the chagrin of Reagan-haters and Soviet-lovers.
Not bad for a scruffy-looking independent director. Well done, George. You made a political epic for the ages.
May the Force be with you. Always.