An American Tale
What can I possibly say about Star Wars that hasn’t already been said a hundred times? George Lucas’s modern fairy tale must be one of the most discussed, most analyzed films of the century — the film itself as well as the effect it has had on the movie industry and on our culture have been rehashed for the past two decades. It’s certainly one of the films I’ve seen the most often, and I’ve had lots of intellectual fun with like-minded friends as we’ve come at the story and its archetypal characters from every angle: mythological, generational, political, scientific, cultural, literary.
A huge part of the continued appeal of Star Wars, as I’m hardly the first to note, is that it re-presents to us ancient stories and ancient figures in a way that other films simply have not yet done (The Wizard of Oz perhaps comes the closest). These heroes and villains and tales of adventure and self-discovery have appeared and reappeared since Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey (and he likely fashioned his work from even older yarns that humans have probably been telling one another since we acquired speech). I wouldn’t be surprised if George Lucas’s name was one day uttered in the same breath as those of Shakespeare and Dickens. Lucas has done exactly the same thing those now-exalted purveyors of popular entertainment did: He has made a story steeped in culture and history palatable to audiences that usually disdain either, and yet who obviously crave such stories. Were the month-long lines at box offices in advance of the opening of The Phantom Menace really any different from the mobs of readers who waited on the New York docks for the next installment of a Dickens serial to arrive by ship from England?
(Here’s a fun game for everyone who’s seen Star Wars a million times: Find all the parallels with Shakespeare and Dickens in Lucas. Dickens would have liked the princess who’s actually lowborn, the humble farmboy which a secret talent that will topple those in the highest of places, and the improbable coincidence of the relationship between the two. Shakespeare would have recognized his fools in R2-D2 and C-3PO, and would have appreciated the drama of a powerful Jedi Knight disguised as a “crazy old hermit.”)
But Lucas is the first to put a uniquely American spin on the yore of old. Yes, Star Wars is timeless not only for its classic story and characters but also for the fact that it’s almost impossible to identify when the film was made. There is no distinctly 70s feel in the costuming or design to give away the era of its production; even the special effects have held up remarkable well — Star Wars could surely be made more cheaply and easily today, but it wouldn’t likely look very different. Neither do the politics of the 70s show through — nothing of the environmental movement or the cold war shows through. But for all its agelessness, Star Wars is steeped in the oldest of American values.
Could Lucas’s triumphant story of rebellion, of freedom fighting, of throwing off oppression have been made by a British director? (It took another former colonist, Mel Gibson, to make the antityranny tirade Braveheart.) Perhaps… but the symbolism would be less amusing. At first, one might be tempted to dismiss the fact that all the Imperial officers speak with British accents as coincidence. But when I started to look for support for a comparison with the American Revolution, other things started leaping out. American actor James Earl Jones, as the voice of Darth Vader, sounds suspiciously English. Scottish actor Denis Lawson, as Rebel pilot Wedge Antilles, speaks his few lines of dialogue in an American accent (another Rebel pilot sounds Texan!). And now even Carrie Fisher’s now-you-hear-it, now-you-don’t English accent (which the actress has put down to attending drama school in England) makes a sort of sense: While she’s still pretending to be merely a member of the Imperial Senate, Princess Leia’s accent is mostly British; by the time her involvement with the Rebellion is out in the open, she sounds American.
I never tire of this movie. Star Wars is a touchstone of my childhood of mythic proportions, and I doubt that my fascination with it will ever end.
AFI 100: #13
unforgettable movie moment:
An unforgettable movie. One of my favorite moments is when Luke looks off into Tatooine’s setting suns, wishing he were anywhere but stuck in his backwater home, as the strings of John Williams’s extraordinary score swell with Luke’s longing.
previous AFI 100 film:
12. The Searchers
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