Star Wars' reflections on real-world political conflicts, from Hitler's Germany to Trump's America

Prahlad Srihari

Dec 10, 2017 13:40:48 IST

"A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...."

Every Star Wars film begins with the instantly recognisable yellow-on-black text crawling into deep space — all set to John Williams' booming score. (Ah, pure movie magic!)

But do the films merely depict the troubled political history of worlds far, far away or do they represent our own?

Star Wars artwork by Mondo artist Matt Taylor. Alamo Drafthouse

Star Wars artwork by Mondo artist Matt Taylor. Alamo Drafthouse

On the face of it, Star Wars is a timeless tale of good versus evil (light versus darkness) — a battle between a ragtag bunch of good guys and cold-hearted bad guys, with ray guns and laser swords (Okay, fine! Lightsabers). But look underneath, it is a nuanced, hard-hitting socio-political allegory with several real-world parallels. By imagining a distant world very different from our own, it holds up a distorted lens to our society and our institutions while revealing some deeper truths about them. And in an era of Donald Trump, it contextualises and mirrors some of our deepest anxieties — be it political, social, cultural, technological or even environmental.

"The Empire is the Republic"

All democracies turn into dictatorships — but not by coup. The people give their democracy to a dictator, whether it's Julius Caesar or Napoleon or Adolf Hitler. Ultimately, the general population goes along with the idea ... What kinds of things push people and institutions into this direction? That's the issue that I've been exploring: How did the Republic turn into the Empire? — George Lucas in a 2002 interview with Time magazine.

Star Wars highlights a painfully true aspect about the institution of democracy. The prequels chronicle how a democratic republic can slip into a dictatorship by feeding on the ignorance and disillusionment of its citizens. In the films, the galactic citizens are oblivious to the fact that the entire Separatist crisis was orchestrated by Count Dooku, in collusion with his Sith master, Supreme Chancellor Palpatine aka Darth Sidious. This leads to a period of intense political turmoil in which numerous star systems secede from the Galactic Republic and instead pledge their loyalty to Dooku and — unbeknownst to them — the Sith Lord. Soon, the free Republic slides down a slippery slope to an oppressive tyranny led by a ruthless emperor, with a massive droid army and a legion of stormtroopers at his behest.

Darth Vader in Star Wars Rebels. Disney XD

Darth Vader in Star Wars Rebels. Disney XD

Even in the most recent installment, The Force Awakens, the citizens of the New Republic continue to roll in the same mistakes of the past that led to the downfall of the Old Republic. They are caught unaware yet again having failed to discern the rise of a new Galactic Empire, the First Order, in the aftermath of the Sith Lord and Darth Vader’s defeat in Return of the Jedi.

"So this is how liberty dies...with thunderous applause." — Padme Amidala (Revenge of the Sith)

This is all too true even in the real world where widespread voter ignorance has opened the door for similar public manipulation as electorates vote despots and reality TV stars, who promise solutions to all their problems, into power. Ignorance is the root of our cyclic existence.

"We don't serve their kind here"

Maz Kanata, a humanoid alien introduced in the The Force Awakens

Maz Kanata, a humanoid alien introduced in the The Force Awakens

The pan-galactic multi-species civilisation of Star Wars also exposes the flaws and frailties of democracy in a world of diverse races and cultures. In a galaxy so diverse, there's potential for a variety of conflicts: inter-racial, inter-class, inter-species, inter-planetary and inter-galactic. There is also an inherent anti-droid sentiment among vast sections of the galactic citizenry. This, in turn, reflects the myriad internal bigotries of contemporary racial politics and illustrates why heterogeneity can often hinder the efficient functioning of a democracy. Rather than embracing an inclusive, diverse society, the rise of multiculturalism in a democracy ends up breeding nationalistic sentiments with an emphasis on the idea of a common language, religion, ethnicity or race.

You're either with us, or against us

"And don’t forget, she’s a politician. And they’re NOT to be trusted." — Obi Wan Kenobi (from Attack of the Clones)

"Not another lecture, Master. Not on the economics of politics" — Anakin Skywalker

Ever since the Stormtroopers — clad in stark white armour and helmets — led by a caped Imperial overlord hit the screens in 1977, it became clear that the murderous Galactic Empire was explicitly based on the Third Reich. Even in The Force Awakens, the First Order, which rises from the ashes of the Empire, continues a Nazi-like regime as we see General Armitage Hux make a rallying speech to the stormtroopers before unleashing the Starkiller weapon. It evokes images of the Nazi pageantry of Hitler's Nuremberg rallies.

(Above) Stormtroopers in a scene from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. (Below) Nazis at a Nuremberg rally. AP

(Above) Stormtroopers in a scene from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. (Below) Nazis at a Nuremberg rally. AP

However, Lucas didn't just embed Nazi allegories and imagery in his sci-fi saga. When he originally conceived the idea for the space opera and started working on the screenplay in 1973, the Watergate trials had just begun. "It was really about the Vietnam War, and that was the period where Nixon was trying to run for a (second) term, which got me thinking historically about how do democracies get turned into dictatorships? Because the democracies aren't overthrown; they're given away," Lucas revealed in a 2005 interview with The Chicago Tribune,  He even described the Empire as "Nixonian gangsters".

Similarly in 2003, when George W Bush declared war on Iraq after overplaying the WMD (weapons of mass destruction) threat, Lucas references his black and white rhetoric in the final instalment of the prequels. In Revenge of the Sith, when Anakin Skywalker announces his betrayal to Obi Wan Kenobi, he utters the famous line, "If you're not with me, you're my enemy." This is an almost verbatim from Bush's speech to the Congress at the launch of his anti-terrorism campaign, where he said, "You’re either with us or you’re with the enemy." But Obi Wan's laconic response, "Only a Sith deals in absolutes," reveals the problems of oversimplifying complex issues and projecting a world view of extremes. As a non-conflict spiralled into a way to reaffirm your patriotism and an almost decade-long war, Lucas took a dig at the Bush administration, in a New York Times interview, saying “Anakin Skywalker is a promising young man who is turned to the dark side by an older politician and becomes Darth Vader” before adding “George Bush is Darth Vader. (Dick) Cheney is the Emperor.”

Jedi mind melds?

The Star Wars films have some of the most quotable characters and its references are deeply embedded in our pervasive popular culture narratives. But sadly, over the years, politicians and imperialist world leaders have been using these quotes and references, often incorrectly and in the wrong context, escaping from Lucas' intentions and ideologies.

A faux 'Rogue One' poster created by street artist Sabo. Twiiter/@tkinder

A faux 'Rogue One' poster created by street artist Sabo. Twiiter/@tkinder

Ronald Reagan referred to the USSR as an "evil empire" and even his space-based anti-missile system, Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), at the height of Cold War in the '80s was derisively dubbed by the media as "Star Wars." During a 2013 White House press conference called to convince the Republican House to avert the crisis of budget sequestration, Barack Obama made reference to a "Jedi mind meld," effectively mixing up his references from Star Wars with Star Trek (Ah, the horror!) and thus ruining his nerd crediblity.

Even our very own Narendra Modi has become an unwitting fan of the saga. After his election in 2014, Modi's speech at Global Citizen Festival at Central Park ended with him thanking the crowd with a 'May the Force be with you'. In July this year, when Modi introduced his new tax reform, GST (Goods and Services Tax), he closed his speech by waving to the large crowd as Darth Vader's sinister-sounding 'Imperial March' theme boomed across New Delhi's Indira Gandhi Stadium.

I’ve got a bad feeling about this

Rogue One writers Chris Weitz and Gary Whitta used the film's symbolism and plot to denounce then-President-elect Donald Trump and his supporters. “Please note that the Empire is a white supremacist (human) organization,” Weitz tweeted. Whitta, quoting Weitz's tweet, chimed in saying, "Opposed by a multi-cultural group led by brave women."

To express their solidarity with the oppressed, both writers changed their Twitter avatars to an insignia of the Rebel Alliance symbol with a safety pin stuck through it. Soon, it drew plenty of backlash from the numerous colourful members of the so-called "alt-right" community who also identified themselves as Star Wars fans. Clearly ignorant of the saga's deep-rooted political overtones, they argued against the politicisation of a beloved saga as they encouraged their followers to boycott the film by tweeting #DumpStarWars. Worried about the film's box office performance and studio profits, Disney chief executive Bob Iger absurdly assured, “Frankly, this is a film that the world should enjoy. It is not a film that is, in any way, a political film.”

All of the Star Wars films are set against a backdrop of political strife and oppression. All of them involve a rebellion against a corrupt central government, led by an iron-fisted tyrant. What are they, if not political?

Poster for the upcoming Star Wars film, The Last Jedi. Twitter/@starwars

Poster for the upcoming Star Wars film, The Last Jedi. Twitter/@starwars

It is clear that George Lucas' incredibly prescient visions of the future have always been eerily similar to our own political situation. With the release of the upcoming Star Wars film, The Last Jedi, it'll be interesting to see if the film continues to critically interrogate matters of common political concern or if the writers bow down to studio pressure and fear of an alt-right embargo.

George Lucas' imagination has always bound together the movie’s politics and its artistry. And in an age of Trump, ignorance and fake news, we need him, now more than ever, to transport us to a galaxy far, far away only if it gets us thinking about the way that we live in our own world.

Updated Date: Dec 17, 2017 18:42:37 IST