There are legion reviews that describe in detail the state of the world as it lead up to first screening of Star Wars in 1977. Usually those essays, blogs, and documentaries then focus on the impact of Star Wars as a blockbuster phenomenon on (pop-) culture. The idea of such analyses is that there was something about the world before Star Wars that made us embrace it. I will take a different point of view in this article. My thesis is that it was the series of historical events and developments that occurred simultaneously with the Original Trilogy’s release and reception that can illuminate why this set of movies had such a huge impact in culture.
I want to take you on this journey from my personal point of view. That will be different from Obi Wan’s and probably also is different from yours. But I hope my thoughts may nevertheless contain interesting insights for you as well, reader.
1977: The End of an Age and A New Hope
In many ways the last months of 1976 and the first months of 1977 are the end of one Era and the beginning of something uncertain but new. With the successful Viking landings on Mars concluded in the Summer of 1976 the ‘Old Space Age’ comes to a close and with the assassination of Bob Marley more dreams evaporate. Elvis is on his last US tour in ’76/’77 and he dies in the summer of ’77, Fritz Lang, the founder of fantastic film and director of ‘Metropolis‘ dies, Mao Zhe Dong dies putting an abrupt end to China’s Cultural Revolution and with the disbanding of the Vietcong and the election of southern Democrat Jimmy Carter as US president the long shadows of Watergate and Vietnam seem removed from Office. In Europe 1976 sees the hottest summer on record, the new civil Greek government puts the recently ousted military Junta on trial and Spain makes its transition from fascist dictatorship to democratic monarchy and the English author Agatha Christy dies. In many ways just as baby-boomers and ’68 protest generation come of age the elements that made up the world of their childhoods and youth are being phased out.
But at the same time all kinds of new things appear that will become to define a new generation of youngsters. The Sex Pistols start their short but loud career, Commodore introduces the world’s first all-in-one personal computer and soon Apple follows. The first Space Shuttle Enterprise makes its first public appearances piggy-back on a 747, the Voyagers are launched into the Grand Tour of the Solar System and a little known Canadian heavy rock band Rush produce their break-through album 2112 that becoming an instant classic among fantasy-loving Rock fans.
So (pop-) culture is very much in motion during that time when also Star Wars explodes onto the scene. These new elements are picked up by a new generation, Generation X, whose perspective on life is modulated by a re-invigorating Cold War, by an epidemic of divorces, by environmental pollution scandals and by the advent of home-computing and programming as a technology that youngsters adopt while parents and older siblings just wonder what they’re up to.
This ‘generation’ is looking for a Rebellion for a new age, is dreaming about doing something significant in the big wide world while at the same time wanting to mend the broken home it lives in. When they sit in the theatres in that May of 1977 and they see Luke stare into the setting twin suns of Tatooine they identify with this story on a deeper level. A New Hope becomes the transformative cultural experience for a worldwide generation X, while desperate baby-boomers sometimes dub it Generation X’s Woodstock.
1980: The Past Strikes Back
But there is something add about the historical experience of this new generation which reflects itself in what happens in the Original Trilogy. Star Wars (1977) opens to raving press reviews across all generations, but not ‘Empire Strikes Back’. 1980 is also the year that the Canadian band SAGA release their masterpiece ‘Silent Knight’ and the lyrics of the song Don’t be Late capture something of the ‘on the run’ atmosphere of those years
“Look at him running there’s so far to go,
He’s very short of breath
And he’d said don’t be late
Just don’t be late”
Empire Strikes Back tells a tale of Rebels on the run, fighting a fight against the odds and overwhelming fire power. It depicts how our heroes must turn inwards to find renewed courage but also to find the key to their path to realize change in their world. What George Lucas magnificently translates into a visual epic is the struggle with challenges the world throws at one that find their roots in the privacy and intimacy of family, friends and lovers. But by means of Yoda’s wisdom, and Luke’s gallant way of ignoring Yoda’s advice, the narrative of Empire Strikes Back also informs us that sometimes it is exactly our local and private environment we need to change, the demons in our own past and our own self we need to face, if we want to achieve change.
In 1980 George Lucas tells us a story that our deepest and greatest lessons are taught to us in defeat, not in victory. The mystery and myth of the second Star Wars film to be released is lost on the representatives of ‘established’ culture. Although Episode V is hugely successful at the box office, it falls short of its predecessor and in critical acclaim it is almost uniformly considered disappointing. But to the fans Star Wars once again expresses what they see occurring all around them. Whether it is their identification of the ‘evil parent’ in their lives, or the conservative authoritarian roll-back under Thatcher (elected ’79) and Reagan (elected ’81) or the renewed deep-freeze with the Sovjet Union, and the frost-bite of the Eighties recession kicking-in in earnest from 1980 onwards. Empire strikes Back resonates with a significant crowd that went to see Star Wars in 1977. But the reason why it does is not only because it is telling a story using the archetypical heroes journey and all that, although that evidently is also part of the cause. But at a more profound level, for that generation, Yoda’s mutterings, Luke’s challenges and Han and Leia’s on/off romance are metaphors for experiences they go through in their ordinary every day lives.
The years from 1980 to 1983 in many places are not a ‘fun time’ but rather a recession-ridden time of angry protest but defeat, of staying out of sight and of realizing that we need to make things better in our own small worlds. It is also the year in which RUSH produce their best selling album Moving Pictures including the song Tom Sawyer in which we hear
“No, his mind is not for rent
To any god or government.
Always hopeful, yet discontent,
He knows changes aren’t permanent,
But change is”.
Generation X collectively goes into the Dagobah swamp and comes out of the story one-handed, with a bleaker view on the future as well as on the past but with an odd kind of confidence that grows from such events. The truly ‘alienating’ experience for Luke is not the bloodbath at his homestead in A New Hope. That is shocking, but it sets his feet on a new path towards adventure. The experience of the Rebel defeat at Hoth, being hunted across the Galaxy with a friend frozen-in and sold-out and of only finding refuge beyond the edge of the galaxy is truly the moment where Luke, Leia and Han realize they are, metaphorically, on their own. At the end of 1980 we are there with them.
1983: Believing there is still some Good
After the shocking reveal in Empire Strikes Back of Luke’s origin and Luke’s experiences in the Dagobah swamp it is evident that the Star Wars Saga is every bit as much about the conflict with the enemy within as it is about a galactic civil war. In fact, the struggle against our inner demons and vices is epic on a similar scale. Part of that struggle is not giving in to the easy way out, to fear and to the temptation of easy answers. Luke has to learn to see through the advice of Yoda and Obi Wan and to hold on to his own intuition that there is still some good in Vader. He realizes in Jedi that it is worth going the distance and giving that attachment, that good, a final shot at redemption.
The year 1983 is the year in which Arpanet becomes the root of the Internet, and with the release of the IBM XT home-computing becomes serious business. It is the year in which the Reagan administration hijacks the name ‘Star Wars’ for its ‘strategic defence initiative’ that represents yet another spiral in the escalating cold war arms race. It is the year Thatcher is re-elected in the UK, youth unemployment goes through the 20% roof in many countries and anti-nuclear-weapons demonstrations sweep through Europe. It is the year of the Beirut suicide bombings that foreshadow the events in the early twenty-first century. It is also the year of one of the tensest Cold War episode after the downing of a Korean civil airliner by Soviet fighters aircraft. Yet it is also the year in which a US school girl is invited to the Kremlin after she wrote the Soviet leaders
“Are you going to vote to have a war or not? If you aren’t please tell me how you are going to help to not have a war.”
To which Yuri Andropov, the new soviet leader replied with an invitation, including the passage
“I can tell by your letter – that you are a courageous and honest girl, resembling Becky, the friend of Tom Sawyer in the famous book of your compatriot Mark Twain. This book is well known and loved in our country by all boys and girls”.
But it is also the year of ‘Billy Jean’, of Cindy Lauper who just wants to have fun, of Journey’s Frontiers album, of Duran Duran’s Is There Something I should know, Bon Jovi, Red Hot Chili Peppers, U2 … a (pop-) culture scene that is vastly more varied and diverse that in earlier decades.
Into this bewildering variety of impressions and experiences steps Return of the Jedi with it’s tale of how the soft forces of nature and innocence, represented by the Ewoks, can aid a Rebellion based on friendship and loyalty and the belief that there still is some good in even our darkest adversaries to achieve …. To achieve what? Well maybe not the ultimate defeat of an Empire, but the restoration of bonds that were broken may just about prevent the worst from happening.
The ‘evil’ we fight in ‘the other’ may very well be just our own worst internal fears. The New Hope we seek might just be found in our confidence there is still some good in the other and ourselves. Galactic liberation is not brought about by shiny super heroes but by a varied group of outcasts. Not by a Grand Army with an array of super-weapons but by a farm boy who has accepted his origins and who rather gives up his only weapon than to give up on people he cares about.
Look Ahead Anakin, Don’t Look Back …
I think one reason why the Original Trilogy has made such a lasting impact, in particular on a wide section of Generation X, is because its story resonates with the experiences of that Generation in those formative years from ’77 to ’83. In a follow-up post I will argue that Lucas pulled that off again between ’99 and ’05 with his Prequel Trilogy. I hope that Kennedy, Abrams and Johnson will display a similar degree of being ‘in touch’ with our times.