Commentary Magazine

Celebrating Defeat

In The Empire Strikes Back, a continuation of the Star Wars saga, George Lucas has made an original movie: the first space fantasy heralding the demise of Western civilization. Originally aimed at an audience of twelve-year-olds (literally), the series—for such it has become—now shows unmistakable signs of aspirations to the deepest “relevance” and “significance,” drawing its ideology, although this might surprise some of its viewers, straight from the radical utopianism of the 60’s, widely thought to be quiescent.

In the opening scene of the original Star Wars, an imperial Death Star commanded by the Dark Lord of the Sith, Darth Vader himself, halts and boards in outer space a vessel carrying Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher). Leia somehow manages to be, at the same time, a princess of the royal family, a senator of a republic overthrown by the wicked Empire of which Darth Vader is a kind of shogun, and a leader of the rebel Alliance to Restore the Republic. She is the daughter of Bail Organa, Viceroy and First Chairman of the Alderaan System. Leia’s claim to the appellation “royal,” the quaintness of giving her the seemingly contradictory twin titles of princess and senator, and the problem of what a viceroy’s daughter (retaining her royal title) is doing leading a rebellion to restore a republic are left zanily foggy. In any event, Vader takes Leia prisoner.

Meanwhile, on another planet, no less, our “farm-boy” hero, the young Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), is tooling around in an outer-space equivalent of a beat-up old Chevy. Via some very human robot chums, Luke intercepts a holographic distress signal from Princess Leia to a certain Obi-Wan Kenobi, appealing to Kenobi to extricate her from her predicament and join the struggle against wicked Darth Vader. “Say, I wonder if he could be referring to old Ben Kenobi . . . who lives somewhere out on the fringe of the Western Dune Sea?” says Luke, and proceeds to the Western Dune Sea, where he promptly finds Alec Guinness, dressed in a cowl rather like that of a Christian monk, living a life of monastic asceticism.

In classical mythology, when the young hero encounters the essential mystery or problem at the heart of the tale, he conveniently finds close at hand a seer of some sort who both explains the problem to him and instructs him how to solve it. Ben Kenobi serves this traditional double function, filling in the young Luke on all he needs to know about the world and history, on who is good and who is bad. He informs Luke forthrightly that his father, like Kenobi himself, was a Jedi knight, who was betrayed and murdered by Darth Vader. (Unlike other elite military castes, from Praetorian Guards and Janissaries to Samurai and Ivan the Terrible’s Oprichniki, all of whom served absolutist autocracies, the Jedi knights, curiously, are the defenders and custodians of Star Wars’ ancient republic.) Kenobi gives Luke his father’s “light-sword,” the Jedi emblem he had been keeping for him (he knew he’d happen by some day), and Luke is off to do battle with Darth Vader.

Once Luke has teamed up with Han Solo (Harrison Ford), a World War II “hot-pilot” type who serves as an older-brother figure, the adventures of the two are, in essence, those of The Rover Boys in Space. There are ups and downs, setbacks, obstacles to overcome. But basically the story is of two red-blooded American boys, pure-hearted, valiant, sure of their values and the justice of their cause, who trounce the villain. At the film’s climax Luke and Han Solo destroy the Empire’s Death Star and apparently Darth Vader with it, and in the last scene they are decorated with medals by Leia, our republic’s well-known royal princess.

The only element of the story that seriously clashes with traditional boys’ adventure fiction is the character and personality of Princess Leia, whose dialogue seems to have been vetted by the National Organization for Women and whose personality would have chilled the blood of centuries of male “action” writers from Sir Thomas Malory to Ian Fleming. Whether Princess Leia’s obstreperousness was introduced to increase Star Wars’ appeal to young females, or to mollify the women’s movement specifically, or Lucas’s own wife, or perhaps even because Lucas has a personal weakness for obstreperous women, I do not know. But her character, plus the replacement of the devoted retainers of inferior race—a staple of an earlier age of adventure fiction—by Luke Skywalker’s robots R2-D2 and C-3PO and Han Solo’s “Wookie” Chewbacca (an ape-like creature of surprisingly high intelligence in that he can both pilot a rocket ship and repair electronic equipment) are Star Wars’ only concessions to recent social developments. They are signs, however, of things to come.


Between Stars Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, two things overtook George Lucas that had earlier overtaken his friend and mentor Francis Ford Coppola. He became intellectually more ambitious. And he became more “relevant,” offering profound comment on the times in which we live.

It is noteworthy that the decade of the 70’s, which saw network television scrub from its programming the last remote allusions to the high culture (studies having shown that uneducated audiences actively resented references to a culture they did not themselves possess), witnessed the further consolidation of the cinema as the most “intellectual” of the popular theatrical arts. Taken seriously by critics, thrown into the company of Picasso and Solzhenitsyn and Alban Berg by arts-section editors of major publications, American film-makers have had an increasing tendency to take themselves seriously as well, casting off the cloying conventions of the old “masscult” Hollywood and grappling with intellectually challenging material.

This has produced substantial numbers of American films of an artistic and dramatic sophistication unthinkable in the old Hollywood, whose upper reaches stopped fairly abruptly at Louisa May Alcott and Raymond Chandler. Sadly, it has also induced numerous successful film-makers of essentially popular gifts to embark on enterprises for which they are plainly not intellectually equipped. There is nothing that makes more ludicrous the whole last section of Apocalypse Now than Coppola’s daft attempt to integrate into the Joseph Conrad story his own ill-grasped readings in Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough and Jessie K. Weston’s From Ritual to Romance. (So proud was Coppola of his newly acquired erudition that he even displayed copies of the books in the film itself—presumably to prove to a doubting world that he had read them.) With the cheers of the critics in his ears, with vast sums earned from earlier hits, Coppola, now his own producer, would hardly have been amenable to suggestions from lesser men that he was living beyond his intellectual means. Who was there to say him nay? So too with Lucas.

By and large Star Wars is a technically extremely accomplished rendition of the world of the adventure comic books of George Lucas’s youth. (His first commercial success, American Graffiti, was a celebration of his own adolescence.) But with Star Wars the biggest financial hit in movie history (at least in inflated dollars), Lucas was now out in the adult world of big money, and a hit this big called inexorably for a sequel. How to extend the story in time? The first segment had almost taken form of itself. The Princess in Distress. The bad Darth Vader. The seer Ben Kenobi explaining the perilous situation to young Luke (Lucas?) and telling him what to do. Luke doing it. The story had been told so many times that Lucas, unassumingly, considered the film more of a composite than anything else.

But now what? Unable to resist the impulse to “upgrade” his work intellectually, what Lucas did, of course, was to give himself a crash course in mythology, anthropology, and psychology, reading ancient myth, classical epics, folk tales, the Arthurian cycle, chansons de geste, tales of all the ancient heroes, mythic or legendary, throwing in lumps (no doubt from secondary sources) of Paradise Lost, Suhrab and Rustam, Freud, Jung, Yoga, Zen (California school), drawing from what the press manual for The Empire Strikes Back calls a rich “miasma” of cultural sources.

Lucas claims that well before making Star Wars he wrote a series of nine sequential movie treatments (synopses) covering the whole Star Wars cycle, of which he felt most “secure” with Part IV, or the first section of the Second Trilogy. This he consequently made first as Star Wars. (In this age of cultural inflation, even a vulgar twenty-four part television series might some day be referred to as “eight trilogies,” or perhaps “six tetralogies.”) Unfortunately, the press material now being handed out on the First Trilogy no longer jibes with the Star Wars prologue. And, more grave, at least one conspicuous element of The Empire Strikes Back no longer even jibes with the main body of the earlier film.

Star Wars tells us quite unequivocally that Luke’s father was a Jedi knight betrayed and killed by Darth Vader. But in The Empire Strikes Back we learn to our astonishment that Luke’s father was not killed by Darth Vader at all and is still alive. In fact, he is Darth Vader. This is the Dark Secret that critics are enjoined not to reveal to their readers. I am not certain how great a thrill is felt by the audience when it receives this information, but I have a suspicion of how thrilled George Lucas was when the new concept burst upon him. What vistas it opens: Zeus and Cronus! Oedipus and Laius! The stirring prospect of generational conflict!


I have unearthed the tape of a curious unpublished interview Lucas gave before the release of Star Wars and in which, modest and unaffected, he makes no bones about his intended audience. Star Wars is “something for kids”—specifically twelve-year-olds. It is not science fiction and not about the future, but his attempt to do a “young person’s adventure film” providing a “wholesome fantasy life like we used to have when we were kids.” He lists the favorites of his childhood, the spirit of which he has attempted to capture, condensing them all in one film: Westerns, pirate movies, Gunga Din, Treasure Island, Flash Gordon, Robin Hood, King Arthur, the Walt Disney “classics,” early John Wayne, the Odyssey.

On the tape Lucas chats freely about three earlier Star Wars scripts he had written before choosing to make the fourth into the final film. He talks of his hope of sequels if Star Wars is successful, which would keep him going financially while he indulged his penchant for “little, tiny, experimental movies.” “My directing tendencies are so radical. They’re not commercial,” he says. It is odd to hear Lucas—whose earlier success with American Graffiti even surprised him—say in his shy voice: “Graffiti was as successful as I could ever hope a movie of mine to be. I don’t think anything I’ll ever do could be more successful than that.” This, from the man who had just finished Star Wars, whose dollar earnings were in weeks to rocket it past every other motion picture ever made.

It is not widely known that Lucas, before Star Wars, worked four years on the Apocalypse Now project and was never able to raise the financing, finally turning it over in despair to his friend Coppola, who could. The world will never know what George Lucas would have done with Apocalyse Now, he says his version would have been “angry” and “esoteric,” a kind of “Dr. Strangelove in Vietnam.” But monied tyrants deemed that Lucas should make “this movie for kids.” (The history of the cinema is replete with stories of this sort, Coppola himself having been dragged with some reluctance into The Godfather— generally considered his best film—because he needed the money.) But if Lucas was denied his chance to indict the U.S. for the Vietnam war, the success of Star Wars gave him the opportunity to make up for it in a new and unexpected form.


The original Star Wars, to stress the point again, is boys’ fiction of a perfectly conventional and traditional sort. Although set in an exotic locale (outer space), it contains an endless string of feats of intrepid derring-do by our boy-man heroes and ends with, their smashing victory overy villainy and their adversaries. There is no questioning, no casting about for “new values.” The old ones are good enough for them. By contrast, The Empire Strikes Back consists of an extensive series of defeats, disasters, humiliations, almost as if our heroes were being punished for the sin of pride (or cultural arrogance) they displayed in Star Wars.

The reversals, in fact, are well under way even before The Empire Strikes Back starts, and the new movie opens with the leaders of our rebel Alliance to Restore the Republic very much down on their luck, holed up in a hideout on the ice-planet Hoth (actually shot in Norway). In the first scene, Luke Skywalker is mauled by an abominable Hoth snowman. But trouble begins in earnest when the Empire, having spotted the rebel hideaway via space probes, sends out an expeditionary force consisting of a squadron of giant, death-belching tanks that walk like enormous camels. In the debacle that follows the destruction of their Hoth hideaway, the friends split up, and one of the tedious things about The Empire Strikes Back is that from this point on it keeps cutting back and forth between two separate stories, which are never fully re-entwined even at the end of the picture.

Princess-Senator Leia, pilot Han Solo, his Wookie Chewbacca, and C-3PO (the walking robot with an English accent) set off in the Millennium Falcon, their beat-up intergalactic Buick. They are rather swiftly trapped and captured by Darth Vader, C-3PO is dismantled for scrap, and Han Solo is put into “carbon freeze,” a kind of suspended animation, in which state he remains suspended indeed, in a stunning non-climax, as the final credits crawl up the screen.


Meanwhile, Luke Skywalker—accompanied by R2-D2 (the wheeled robot that beeps)—has been having experiences of a far more significant nature. A holographic vision of Alec Guinness sends Luke, in his dark night of the soul, off to apprentice himself to an Oriental-style guru named Yoda on the planet Dagobah, which for variety is all tropical swamp. Now in Star Wars Ben Kenobi, dressed in his monk-like cowl, could for all the futurist rigamarole and Japanese-sounding name have almost been a knight of the monastic Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, the so-called Knights of Malta, sworn to defend Christian Europe against the infidel Saracen or Turk. Yoda, however, is another matter.

The actual Yoda (yoga?), in fact a 26-inch Muppet manipulated by the same man who does Miss Piggy, puts Luke on an idiot’s version of an Oriental mystic discipline. Yoda’s Orientalism is only Muppet-skin deep, his basic belief system being a lot less close to the sound of one hand clapping than it is to The Little Engine That Could. But even the most ignorant members of the audience (in fact, especially the ignorant members of the audience) are plainly intended to see that Luke is reaching outside his corpus of traditional (Western) belief for some new, mystical, “Oriental” understanding of the universe. At the start of his training Yoda says of Luke to the holographic Alec Guinness, “I cannot instruct him. The boy has no patience. . . . All his life has he looked away—to the horizon, to the sky, to the future. . . . Adventure, excitement. A Jedi craves not these things.”

The absurdity of applying such admonishments to the hero of a futurist comic-book series hardly needs stating, but it is worth noting that Irvin Kershner, whom Lucas delegated to direct this installment of the series, is an adept of Zen and has had what the parapsychology crowd calls “out of body” experiences, while Lucas himself, it turns out, subscribes to a rich array of occultist beliefs, literally believing in, of all things, Star Wars’ “ The Force.” “If you use [The Force] well,” he says solemnly, “you can see the future and the past. You can sort of read minds and you can levitate and use that whole netherworld of psychic energy.” Lucas humbly admits he cannot yet do any of these exhilarating things personally, but it is evident that we are dealing here with a card-carrying member of the occultist subculture.

Warned by Yoda that he is not yet ready, that his training is not yet complete, Luke Skywalker nonetheless sets forth to do battle with Darth Vader. We are treated to a long Three Musketeer s-like duel with light-swords, in the time-out moments of which Vader alternately taunts Luke (“You’re not a Jedi yet!”) and, Mephistopheles-like, tempts him to join the Forces of Darkness. Luke remains uncorrupted, however, continues the sword fight, and is soundly defeated by Vader, who strikes off his right hand, his symbolic sword arm, and again tempts Luke to join him. It is only when Luke refuses that Vader reveals that he is his father. “Join me and together we will rule the galaxy as father and son!” he appeals to him majestically. “Never!” cries Luke and—death before dishonor—casts himself into the void.

A suicide attempt by a comic-book hero is another first. But Luke doesn’t really die, of course. He catches onto an external weather vane of the space station and, not seeming to lose any blood to speak of from his severed arm, happily breathes the non-air of intergalactic space until the Millennium Falcon, receiving an SOS via ESP, nips by to rescue him. With a new sword arm for Luke hitched on by futuristic surgeons aboard the rebel flagship, conveniently cruising in the vicinity, we arrive at a thumping non-ending.

In the final scene, half of our little group of lovable subhumans and intergalactic adolescents sets off to free Han Solo from his state of carbon freeze, while the other half waves them goodbye over an almost visible “To Be Continued.” It is a most extraordinary conclusion to a piece of popular entertainment, with the heroes still all in dire straits, and the villain not only winning, but way out in front.


The obvious defense for this non-ending is that the Star Wars films have been converted from a “series” (in which every episode is self-contained) to a “serial” (each segment merely an installment, with conflicts unresolved). But the concept of a movie serial to be made over a projected time span of some twenty-seven years (at the present rate of production) is in itself rather stunning, suggesting that Lucas has fallen victim to lurking delusions of grandeur. Personally quiet and self-effacing, he has nonetheless admitted, “The Empire is as complicated as any movie, and it says a lot of things,” adding only, “But I don’t like to come out with a big sign and say, This is significant.” It doesn’t seem to have occurred to him that when he undertakes a gargantuan epic blatantly plucking themes from classical mythology and some of the greatest works of world literature he is doing just that.

Lucas, moreover, has given out that, if he identified in Star Wars with Luke Skywalker, in The Empire Strikes Back he identifies with our Muppet mystic, Yoda. This bodes ill for the ideology of the rest of the serial, at least of the concluding episode of the current trilogy. For in the opening sequences of the episode Luke is doomed to return for a graduate course in Yoda’s brand of Dale Carnegie mysticism. With his parchment in his pocket, as it were, Luke will battle once again with Darth Vader, a combat from which Lucas has promised all interviewers that “only one will walk away.” The betting, obviously, is favoring Luke heavily. Those confident of his eventual triumph assume that in The Empire Strikes Back Luke is passing through the time of testing and trials faced by all mythic heroes as they confront demons, monsters, magicians, the dark forces of the cosmos, as well as those within themselves, a contest from which Luke, like them, will emerge victorious.

But I am not so sure. During a scene in The Empire Strikes Back in which Ben Kenobi says to Yoda, “The boy [Luke] is our last hope,” my ear was caught by Yoda’s cryptic answer: “No. There is another.” My sense of George Lucas’s thinking is that Luke—the old Luke, that combination of Rover Boy, Captain Marvel, and Mr. America—can no longer be allowed to triumph in the old gung-ho, self-justifying way. To win, if he is to win, he must be transformed into someone representative of George Lucas’s own, superior ideals. If I were to take a wild flyer at plotting for this increasingly meaning-laden space fantasy, I might guess that Darth Vader will conquer Luke, but that Luke will be discovered to have a “purer” twin brother (the bad self and the good self), or conceivably even son (who could play Galahad to his Lancelot).

In any case, whoever triumphs, Lucas’s heavy emphasis on the “Oriental” wisdom of Yoda leads me to doubt very much that the victory will be shown as one for “our side.” If Yoda is the key—and everything indicates that he is—Star Wars’ way ahead for humankind will be founded on the Four Pillars of the Lucas world: (1) superficial Orientalism; (2) profound occultism; (3) pop Freudian-ism; and (4) a hodgepodge of “anti-materialist” pieties salvaged from the detritus of the counterculture.

To give a balanced view, I should point out that some intellectual analysts have hailed with enthusiasm the greater complexity of The Empire Strikes Back, Lucas’s jettisoning of the simple black-and-white ethics of his earlier picture, and Luke Skywalker’s “internalization” of evil. Dr. Weyler Greene, a Los Angeles Jungian psychologist, feels a clean break between good and evil may not be something we want our children to learn these days. “Can we afford this kind of purity?” he asks. “In Star Wars they were able to go in—bombs away—and be successful. In this one, that approach no longer works. That’s what’s wrong with America in this Iranian situation. We want to operate in a traditional, rational, strong-guy hero way, and somehow it doesn’t work any more.”

The only comment called for here is that the reason the traditional, rational way doesn’t work any more might be that so many Americans have been going about “internalizing evil,” like Dr. Greene and George Lucas, and that perhaps a Jungian might not be a very good choice for Secretary of State. Dr. Greene and I plainly saw the same movie, however. We merely feel differently about where it leads us.


Let there be no mistake. George Lucas has real gifts. He is a superb film craftsman, and, although The Empire Strikes Back was directed by Kershner and its full screenplay was fleshed out by Lawrence Kasdan and the late Leigh Brackett, the whole concept was Lucas’s, he reviewed the production footage day by day, and his mark is on it. Lucas is also far too modest when he describes the original Star Wars as merely a “composite.” He is remarkably fertile in the invention of those near-human doll characters on which the appeal of a certain kind of children’s fiction so much depends; his creations equal or surpass the Tin Man, Scarecrow, and Cowardly Lion of L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz and that whimsical bunch of familiars surrounding Christopher Robin in A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh. Lucas’s Droids R2-D2 and C-3PO and the Wookie Chewbacca, along with the magical suprahuman adversaries Ben Kenobi and Darth Vader, are far more responsible for the vast success of Star Wars than the movie’s nominal central characters, Luke, Han Solo, and Princess Leia.

In The Empire Strikes Back Lucas seems to be at the top of his form in this department. At this writing, Amy Carter, the President’s twelve-year-old daughter, has already been allowed to see the new movie twice, and her favorite is Yoda. “I just loved him and the way his ears wiggled!” she says. Indeed, the comradeship of Droids, Wookies, Muppets, and other such is one of the real trouvailles of the Stars Wars movies, replacing such fixtures of earlier generations as Gunga Din, Nigger Jim, and Robinson Crusoe’s Man Friday. Relationships of this sort are now unacceptable to our modern notions of social equality (though they offer deep pleasure and comfort to the mind of the child). Change Gunga Din into R2-D2, however, and the proprieties are preserved.


It only remains to explain how it is that George Lucas, who just a few short years ago thought “wholesome” fantasies for children were Westerns, and pirate movies, and the warlike knights of the Round Table, and military tales by Kipling, and Classic Comics—all representing rather extreme patterns of aggressivity and cultural assertiveness—should, when given his head on his own epic, suddenly find such models unwholesome, apparently preferring to inculcate a quietism aimed at undermining them. The question is critical, and the answer clear-cut.

George Lucas lives in the dream world of the child, where the relationship of action to consequence is fuzzy at best—a state of impaired perception widespread in the so-called counterculture. Lucas, in fact, is the counterculture in a nutshell, a charter member of that extraordinary “youth” generation which took absolutely for granted all the affluence and freedoms which came its way so effortlessly, and wanted not less, as it claimed, but more. In addition to effortless ease it wanted moral superiority, admiration, power. It is ironic, now that so many of the radical and revolutionary leaders of the 60’s and early 70’s have scampered back into the political mainstream, that their attitudes arc now being voiced by a True Child, in what is after all the appropriate medium of a children’s story. Many have fallen away, but Lucas, with his particularly intimate feeling for the joys and longings of the juvenile mind, is still engaged in the vast enterprise of proving that the world of the child is superior to the world of the adult.


The Empire Strikes Back is a particularly obvious example of the falsity—at least in America—of the currently wildly popular notion that the director is the “author” of a film. Although Lucas has courteously affirmed, “It’s Kershner’s movie,” Irving Kershner is hardly more the author of The Empire Strikes Back than Elia Kazan is the author of A Streetcar Named Desire which he directed on Broadway. American movies are group undertakings made under the leadership of whoever has effective control. Great battles have been fought for artistic control of a film, but not in this case. The Empire Strikes Back was completely under the control of George Lucas.

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