Yesterday was the 40th anniversary of Star Wars, whose glorious debut I well recall attending on May 25, 1977, at the Uptown Theater in Washington, DC. I still have the “May the Force Be With You” button distributed that opening day.
Stars Wars was described by some at the time as a patriotic film, contrasting with the dark cynical amorality and nihilism of many 1970s films in favor of reviving more traditional morality themes found in earlier Westerns and heroic WWII films. The Empire was unequivocally wicked while the partisans of the Republic were heroic and virtuous. Darth Vader and his storm troopers echoed the Third Reich, whose ragtag opponents resembled the French Resistance.
Per the Cold War, the Empire resembled the then ascendant Soviet Bloc while the Republic was like the then in retreat, post-Vietnam America. This analogy was apparently not the intent of film maker George Lucas, who in later years claimed he crafted his initial trilogy earlier in the decade with Richard Nixon in mind as the Emperor subverting democracy. And the rebels were based on the Viet Cong fighting the American Empire.
What Lucas may have politically intended subtly with Star Wars, explained many years later, and how it was received by the public, are different stories. I don’t recall anyone at the time interpreting Star Wars as an anti-American parable. It was instead received rapturously as an overdue alternative to drearily heavy anti-American and anti-war themes in films over the previous decade.
Star Wars debuted in 1977 at the start of the Carter Administration, then full of high, noble hopes, and less than a year after the patriotic hoopla of the Bicentennial celebration. The darker sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, appeared in 1980 at a strategically more precarious time, when the Soviets were invading Afghanistan and Iran’s Islamist revolution was infamously holding American diplomatic hostages. Its happier sequel, Return of the Jedi, released in 1983 at the dawn of Reagan-era optimism, when America’s global position seemed to shift more favorably.
Reagan unveiled his space-based missile defense idea in early 1983, which critics quickly derided as “Star Wars.” As a college student I interned with a pro-missile defense advocacy group, which happily embraced the Star Wars label that unintentionally identified our cause with the forces of good. George Lucas in reaction sued our group for infringement of copyright and no doubt out of political spite. He lost. The label has endured and been vindicated across 35 years, further confirming that the film maker’s intent diverged from his work’s ultimate political and cultural impact.
Star Wars became the unintended science fiction dramatization of America’s resurgence to ultimate victory in the Cold War. In 1985 President Reagan himself rejected the “Star Wars” label for his missile defense plan even while appropriating the saga for his larger purpose of opening a “happier chapter in the history of man”:
The Strategic Defense Initiative has been labeled “Star Wars.” But it isn’t about war, it’s about peace; it isn’t about retaliation, it’s about prevention; it isn’t about fear, it’s about hope. And in that struggle, if you will pardon my stealing a film line, the Force is with us.
Reagan of course was identifying with the spiritual energy often cited in Star Wars known as The Force, which in the film was amorphous and seemed pantheistic. Lucas became an admirer of mystic mythologist Joseph Campbell who syncretistically hypothesized that all religion had common origin. Later describing himself as “Buddhist-Methodist,” Lucas had been raised Methodist and used The Force to invest his stories with transcendent and moral purpose.
Arguably there are some echoes of Methodism in Lucas’s moralism and in his substitution of The Force for the Holy Spirit. More importantly, Stars Wars and its Force claimed a spiritual purpose and offered spiritual heroes lacking in other 1970s films, which largely were allergic to religion. Here again, Star Wars illustrated the rise of American religiosity in public life during the Cold War’s final years, which Lucas almost certainly did not consciously intend.
Sometimes The Force enacts what its believers do not fully plan or comprehend, which Lucas, or at least his Star Wars characters, would understand.
The rhapsodic public reception that Star Wars received 40 years ago in America, even as it was originally banned in the Soviet Union, was part of a larger, slowly emerging renewal of American confidence in its democratic principles and in its global responsibilities. Would that there were a film or artistic equivalent today.