Forty one years on and Star Wars is still proving that at the heart of it all, like the founding of America itself, the story is about rebellion!
Another Independence Day is here and America will be grilling and celebrating in honor of the ratification of the Declaration of Independence. This document brought forth halfway through the American Revolution announced that the then Thirteen Colonies would no longer be subject to British Rule. Breaking loose the rusty shackles of oppression and tyranny. The people and the militia fought a bloody rebellion that lasted for years before winning their independence in 1783 and, as they say, the rest is history.
Our own real world history has played an important part in the Star Wars universe from its very inception. Producers, writers and directors have all drew inspiration from the stories of America’s beginning all the way up to and including the present. From way back in 1977 with the release of Star Wars to now this influence has persisted in some fashion in most of the media.
Rebellion, revolution and the fight for freedom are central themes of the saga and the parallels to American history are fascinating.
Heroes Of The Rebellion
The premise of the original Star Wars was a simple one. A small outnumbered and outgunned band of freedom fighters take on a large technologically advanced Galactic Empire to restore peace and freedom to the galaxy. At the time not too much context was given to the story other than that. The opening crawl did give some background information as to the current state of the galaxy. Combined with tales of the Clone Wars from Obi-Wan Kenobi and cryptic lines from Grand Moff Tarkin – “the last of the Old Republic have been swept away” – viewers had all they needed to enjoy this self-contained middle chapter of a grand multi-chapter story.
These freedom fighters, the steadfast Rebel Alliance, were made up of the many species and inhabitants of a vast number of worlds. All who suffered under the shiny boot of the Empire and chose to act in order to free themselves and others. Naturally the Empire would look down on these rebel cells as nothing more than terrorists and pushed that narrative through propaganda to the general populace. Terrorist is determined and defined inconsistently, depending on which side one is on more often than not. The parallel running here in A New Hope is that creator George Lucas drew inspiration from the era in which he wrote and crafted this mythology.
The Vietnam War.
Lucas has been on record many times stating this fact but it was made incontrovertibly clear recently in an interview with fellow visionary and director James Cameron. In James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction he sits down with George and again it is reinforced:
In Lucas’ mind, America was the Empire, and the Viet Cong the Rebellion. Where the United States was once the underdog in the fight against the vastly superior British they now played the role of the evil empire. A condemnation of colonialism and imperialism was the driving point behind Lucas’ story. Wrapped up in a fun, light-hearted adventure for children was something deeper and more substantial. The Vietnamese were painted as extremists and terrorists in the States, but was this America’s own form of propaganda? In Star Wars it is clear that the Rebel Alliance were a well-intentioned group fighting foxr a noble cause. As is always the case it is not as crystal clear in reality and history is often left to judge.
Both the following films of the original trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi, continue the rebellion against the Empire. But the spirit of true rebellion rang particularly loud in the latter film. In Jedi, the already hard-pressed Alliance finds some primitive and unlikely allies.
A cute and cuddly (don’t let them hear you call them that!) teddy bear-like species who are brave and skilled warriors even without the benefit of spaceships and blasters. With their assistance the Rebels wage true jungle warfare in a last ditch effort to bring down the Imperial menace. And they succeed. Again Lucas’ point is driven home that an outmatched force is capable of toppling a massive military-industrial complex. The victorious Rebel Alliance even celebrates with fireworks over the forest moon of Endor much the way that America celebrates every Fourth of July. But the roots of tyranny run deep and although the head was metaphorically removed from the body, with the death of Darth Vader and the Emperor, the Empire as a whole fought on.
Several battles took place after the Battle of Endor with the remnants of the Empire struggling to hold tight to their territories. These harrowing and bloody battles came to a head at the desert wasteland of Jakku in a massive land, air and space fight to the finish. Here the forces of the Rebellion again came through the fire burned and battered but alive and the Empire was forced to accept defeat. The historic peace treaty, known as the Galactic Concordance, was signed and ended the open hostilities between the two warring factions, setting boundaries for each party to abide by. It is equivalent to the Treaty of Paris signed in 1783 that ended the conflict between England and the newly formed United States of America.
The Treaty of Paris is responsible for the long lasting peace between the two nations. Unfortunately the peace accorded by the Galactic Concordance would prove to be finite as will be touched on later.
The Rise Of Tyranny
The original trilogy as it’s now called were released as Episodes IV, V and VI to let the audience know that they were being dropped in during the middle of an epic story. Jumping straight into the action.
So where were Episodes I, II and III?
The end of the twentieth century saw the release of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, the first in a new trilogy that would highlight the rise of the Empire. Rising from the ashes of Democracy and heralded with thunderous applause.
The Phantom Menace played on these themes by laying down seeds that would grow into something similar to Civil War-era secession. The infamous trade dispute highlighted the ineptitude and corruption that had laid the Republic bare rendering it ineffectual in conflicts such as the crisis at Naboo. All while machinations were afoot behind the scenes pulling the strings of both sides. Not exactly like our own history per se but several things of note are eerily reminiscent. Large scale expansion of the Republic has stretched its control too thin. Combined with corruption in the Senate, mostly due to moneyed intrests from corporations such as the Trade Federation and the Banking Clan, have influenced and purchased politicians. A very real problem here today.
To combat this growing threat the government of the Republic establishes a Grand Army to “protect” the citizens and maintain order in the galaxy. But what is ushered in is a large scale military apparatus that is under the command of the Supreme Chancellor; Sheev Palpatine. A man with very ill intent. The Republic’s “Commander in Chief” assumes full control over the military and over the Senate during Attack of the Clones and The Revenge of the Sith. After the devastating terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001 certain measures were put in place to help protect the United States. These arguably have been misused to expand the powers of surveillance – via the Patriot Act – on American citizens and to justify massive military spending. America has the largest military in the world, larger than many of the countries behind it combined, and is a force that can be deadly in the wrong hands. Some would argue that it has already been used to push American imperialism across the globe.
The prequel trilogy shows how a once powerful republic falls and becomes the very thing it has stood against. Government’s collapse, Rome is a good example, and what comes out of it is a tyrannical empire drunk on power and control. Adding a new context to the rebellious struggle that came before in the films of the original trilogy. It was a tale worth being told in order to show just what the Rebel Alliance was up against. There is also a powerful lesson here and a warning in that the struggle to protect can too often justify horrific means to that end.
The First Order And Fascism
Lucas’ own empire, one worth $4 Billion, was sold to Disney in the fall of 2012 and swiftly plans were put in place to expand on the lore that the company had established. Everyone was wondering…the Rebel Alliance had their victory in Return of the Jedi but what happened after?
Here director J.J Abrams and writer Lawrence Kasdan discussed their inspiration for the new fascist First Order:
That all came out of conversations about what would have happened if the Nazis all went to Argentina but then started working together again? What could be born of that? Could The First Order exist as a group that actually admired The Empire? Could the work of The Empire be seen as unfulfilled? And could Vader be a martyr? Could there be a need to see through what didn’t get done?
Visually the similarities between Nazi Germany and the newly reborn Empire are striking. General Hux’s speech to the amassed troops on Starkiller Base looks like it could have leapt of the page of history books on the Second World War. Banners bearing the emblem of the First Order could easily be swapped with images of the swastika or the imperial eagle.
To combat this growing threat, a force that was proactive in their approach was needed, to strike first before it was too late. Once again the government, now the New Republic, proved that they did not truly learn from their own blood-soaked history. Bogged down with bureaucratic formalities and its own corruption the New Republic became vulnerable to enemies inside and out. Leia Organa, a wiser person than most, did not forget this lesson and refused to stand idly by. Together with others they formed a new rebellion, the Resistance, to bring the fight to the First Order preemptively. A form of militia, not officially sanctioned by the Government, is its own form of revolution.
They had a fiery spirit and a resolve on par with the Rebel Alliance of the past. Even Luke Skywalker recognized this in The Last Jedi. He knew that even though all seemed lost the Rebellion was reborn that day and Kylo Ren knew it too. The First Order may have cornered the rebels but nothing is more dangerous than an animal with its back against the wall and nothing left to lose.
Since the welcome onslaught of new material began flooding the market after Disney purchased Lucasfilm the focus has still been centered around that timeless idea; the oppressed wresting power back from the oppressor.
In 2014, the animated series Star Wars Rebels took off on Disney XD and told the story of Ezra Bridger, Hera Syndulla, rogue former Jedi Kanan Jarrus and others fighting back against the Empire. Known as the Spectres they were one of a growing number of autonomous rebel cells strewn across the galaxy. As the series progressed over four seasons the Spectres were instrumental in cementing the cells together into an Alliance to Restore the Republic. Committing acts of sabotage and acquiring arms to strengthen the rebellion and weaken the Empire as much as they could. Events like those seen in the series are comparable to historic events such as the Boston Tea Party. Acts of “treason” as labled by the British Empire led to the issuance of the Proclamation of Rebellion in 1775. Here King George the III declared the Colonies were in open rebellion to the Throne.
The Boston Tea Party
It would be difficult today to find anyone condemning the actions of the Colonists as the cause was just. The narrative in England however was much different at the time. Heroes of the revolution were deemed to be terrorists and extremists much like the Empire would label those who stood against them. Again, freedom fighter and terrorist were interchangeable depending on which side of the line one was on.
The set of films labeled Star Wars Stories so far have also lent a hand in furthering the rebellious narrative.
In Rogue One: A Star Wars Story a new faction of the Rebel Alliance was introduced; the Partisans. Led by the dangerously passionate Saw Gerrera the Partisans went above and beyond that of what was “allowed” by Alliance leadership. Doing what they felt must be done to win the war. This included actions that Alliance leader Mon Mothma did not endorse or condone. Made up of a disparate rag-tag band of soldiers they fought the Empire the only way they knew how. With extreme violence. Fighting terror with terror. Their guerilla warfare raises the old question; how long can you fight with such ferocity before becoming a villain yourself? And is someone willing to do what is needed no matter the cost?
Even in the latest film, Solo: A Star Wars Story, the seeds of the inevitable rebellion were layered into the seemingly unrelated tale. Enfys Nest and her Cloud-Riders were first seen as nothing more than marauders and villains but turned out to be something else entirely. Rebels. Acting as a sort of Robin Hood style group that would raid the Empire and criminal organizations to accomplish one single goal; to fight back. And the liberated spoils:
It’s the blood that brings life to something new. A rebellion. – Enfys Nest
The Rebellion To Come
With the tattered threads of the Resistance inevitably defeating (at least hopefully) Kylo Ren and the First Order in Episode IX in 2019 and the upcoming Star Wars Resistance series later this year, the revolutionary heart of Star Wars is alive and well. Beating strong to the drums of war.
Revolution, the fight against tyranny….rebellion. Something to remember this July 4th and for all that come after.
In this fairy tale the underdog always comes out on top giving hope to the galaxy. In a story that has drawn so much from our own history it has become a resource all to its own. One that now offers inspiration to so many while also being an inspired work to enjoy in many ways.
Star Wars is political and always has been. It can be enjoyed both as the escapist space opera that it is at its heart, and as the cautionary tale that is gleaned through all the nuance it offers if one looks deep enough. The lessons taught through this fantastic story can and should be heeded to this day however. I think George said it best:
Because the democracies aren’t overthrown; they’re given away.
Mike Harris hails from the suburbs of Chicago and has been a fan for most of his life. Working as an industrial radiographer and raising a family with his wife take up most of his time, but there’s always room for Star Wars books and podcasts! Just looking to give back to Star Wars and the fan community, it’s been a source of fun and learning for him for so long.