Star Wars (you know, the proper one) (dir. George Lucas, 1977)

Ah, Star Wars. Graveyard of Grange Hill teachers, home of pioneering special effects, hairdressers' nemesis, origin of quite possibly the Best Made-Up Weapon Ever.

As any of my old friends reading this will be aware, I have been known to express some... opinions... on Star Wars. Fortunately, we're all grown-ups now, and since my idea of making friends no longer involves slagging off Star Wars at length, I no longer feel the need loudly and repeatedly to criticise every aspect of it. The film definitely has merits (including a really satisfyingly happy ending). Some things, however, remain true: I prefer The Lord of the Rings and Star Trek, I still think Episodes IV and V are slightly over-long and dull while I and II are appallingly over-long and dull, and I still think Revenge of the Sith is by far the best of the Star Wars films. It doesn't help, of course, that I've loved LOTR and Star Trek since early childhood, but didn't see Star Wars until I was 16 (and by the way, to all those who saw it as children - weren't you freaked out by the horrific skeleton of Uncle Ben smoking gently in the sunlight?!).

George Lucas claims that the success of Star Wars - perhaps better to say the quality of Star Wars - is partly thanks to its following the mythical pattern of the hero's journey, as laid out by Joseph Campbell. I'm afraid this argument has always mildly irritated me! One reason is that it sounds like a cop-out excuse for how derivative Star Wars is. Obi-Wan is like Gandalf and Merlin because he's a Jungian archetype, apparently - reasoning which protects Lucas from accusations that he's like Gandalf and Merlin because he's based on Gandalf and Merlin. I find Jung's theories, on which Campbell's are based, very interesting, but I don't subscribe to them myself. I think the enduring popularity of myth is fascinating, but more complicated than such a theory allows (though clearly there are universal story elements about sex, parenthood, growing up and so on that have meaning across times and cultures due to our basic biological make-up). I also prefer to defend derivative stories, not because there's something inherently mythic and worthy about them, but because there's nothing wrong with re-telling an old story in your own way. That's what the Greek tragedians did, and it's what Shakespeare did, and the modern obsession with originality is what we should be criticising, not the authors or stories that build on those that have gone before.

While I'm on the subject of universal myths, I don't actually think Star Wars has much in common with ancient myths. Scholars like Jung, Campbell and Claude Levi-Strauss liked to break myths down into constituent parts so tiny, you could relate almost anything to almost anything else. But I'm a Classicist - I don't deal with broad plot outlines, but with individual texts/pictures/films/whatever. And similarities between Star Wars and Greek tragedy or ancient epic poetry are limited. The damsel-in-distress angle, though not unknown in Greek myth (Perseus and Andromeda, for example) is much more common in European folklore. The Wise Old Man is more common in Norse or Arthurian legend (ancient heroes get oracles and advice from friendly deities, quite often female ones, but are otherwise on their own). The young hero yearning for adventure is not a common feature - ancient heroes are more likely to get exiled for accidentally murdering a relative or dress up as girls on the Island of Skyros to avoid 'adventure' (partly because the inevitably of fate and man's helplessness against the gods is often a theme, which doesn't work if your hero is desperate to get out there and start adventuring). Ancient metaphors for coming of age tended more towards sacrificing girls to deities (symbolising the 'death' of the young girl as she becomes a wife and mother) than training montages with fancy weapons.

This is not to say, though, that there are no Classical influences on the films. For one thing, the political system is based on the Senate - which I'll discuss in more detail when I get to the prequels (if I can bear to sit through The Phantom Menace again, and actually pay attention to the politics of it). The word 'Empire' might also bring Rome to mind, though to be honest, I'm not sure something described simply as 'the evil Galactic Empire' can really be mapped onto anything real (and the depiction of it here is much more reminiscent of Nazi Germany, right down to the 'Stormtroopers'). Otherwise, Classical elements in this first film are fairly limited, the ancient world not being terribly big on rebellions. Or spaceships.

 Cave home of the type used for filming Tattooine, in Tunisia

On another subject entirely, the added CGI for the special edition is horrible. Plastic, out of place and not nearly as amusing as Lucas clearly thinks it is.

And why does George Lucas hate arms? Every film, someone loses an arm. Logical I suppose, but you'd think occasionally they'd go for a leg instead.

Now I must go as I've developed a mysterious and inexplicable craving for a Danish pastry...


  1. No Star Wars article is complete without a Danish pastry reference, surely! ;)

  2. Yes, the Star Wars films (the original Trilogy) have much more to do with the US of the 1960's and 70's and a young, rebellious, film maker, than with the ancient world.

    The prequels (Episodes I - III) on the other hand do attempt to graft ancient myth onto the story, but will little success. The story is now being told from the perspective of a father and older, if not wiser, film maker. This, I think, accounts for the lack of humor in the prequels that so informed the original films.

    The Lucas Empire published a book (some years ago) to accompany their museum tour: Star Wars - Myth & Magic. In that book they make references to classic myths, but even here the majority of influences seem to be from Europe or the American West and in particular pre-modern Japan, rather than Ancient Greece or Rome.

    Costume designer John Mollo, who along with brother have published several excellent books on military uniforms, was clearly influenced by the German military when designing costumes for the Imperial forces.

    And of corse Darth Vader wears a samurai helmet as do many of the Imperial Navy technicians and guards. This should come as no surprise since Lucas has said that one of the biggest influences on Star Wars was the Akira Kurosawa film, The Hidden Fortress. That film includes two bumbling and bickering peasants (one tall and one stout), a rebel princess on the run, chased by an enemy general who eventually sides with the princess who herself is protected by a wise old general.

    Indeed, The Force, has more in common with Zen than with the Olympian or Egyptian gods.

    Finally, there is the problem of Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker. Here, I think, is where Lucas and his story first ran off the rails and, frankly never recovered.

    But I wax over long. Once again, an enjoyable essay -- Thanks.

  3. Yes, I must re-watch the prequels, I think there's more Classical stuff in there - but not an overly enticing prospect in the case of I and II!

  4. Fascinating post by the way - especially the thought of what VI would have been without the revelation in V, though I think that revelation was Lucas' one moment of genius

  5. I think you forgot the lovable rogue with a heart of gold. But then, he isn't classical either. More like Robin Hood or some continental equivalent. (Which is sort of a watered-down Trickster, but apart from a couple of Hermes stories and the occasional Odysseus scam, the classical world didn't have a lot of tricksters either.)

    The Wise Old Man does make an occasional appearance with the Greeks. Mostly Nestor, of course, though only in the Telemachy does he really fit the role, or maybe Teiresias.

    I'll give Lucas a little credit for using Campbell. It's just that he was so ham-handed at it (and borrowed so heavily from Kurosawa) that everything looks terribly derivative. Every Disney film since the rebirth of the animation department with The Little Mermaid has used a Hero's Journey template without looking derivative. Lucas is just a terrible writer.

    Does Leia's costume count as classically influenced? I've always thought it seemed reasonably so, though clothing is an area I've never paid that much attention to.

  6. I don't think you should lump the prequels together with the original trilogy. The prequels were made by an evil alien clone of George Lucas.

  7. I was thinking that about Leia's costume, I thought about mentioning it but wasn't sure if I was just looking too hard - but it does look vaguely Grecian or Roman or something, and I wondered if it was supposed to be Senatorial outfit, since she introduces herself as a Senator.

    I've got nothing against the Hero's Journey, it can be a great device, I just don't think you can explain something's popularity by saying 'it's the hero's journey' - that's just one of the building blocks. And I like derivative things - like Harry Potter!

  8. Actually, I always put down the initial popularity of the first film to it having a bad guy was bad. We were coming off a decade or so of anti-heroes and villains who just needed a hug. People wanted a villain you could boo and Vader was most definitely that. Of course, that doesn't really explain the lasting popularity, but I think it helped at the start.

  9. Great review Juliette! This has long been one of my favourite movies... until I ran into LOTR :p
    I was so obsessed with this as a teenager that when the digitally "revised" versions came out in '97 I was listening to the original version in my brain (blocking the Spanish dubbing) mixed in with the nez sound effects, and tallying up all the changes for the original! And then talking them over on the phone with my sister in the US... lol!

    "doesn't work if your hero is desperate to get out there and start adventuring" LOL!!!

    By the way, I think I have the same photo from Tunisia! Plus one with the R2D2 canyon in the background (when he's captured by the Jawas) ;o)

  10. oh yeah: the ending is perfect! I still get the occasional tear in my eye when I hear the music from that final scene ;o)

  11. You know, I always heard that Hero's Journey bit, but I never thought much about it. I didn't care for Luke all that much (or any of the Jedi, for that matter)-- my favorite characters were always Han Solo and Princess Leia. But I don't think it's the journey so much as it is the world that he built (and expanded upon), which is what makes Star Wars so spectacular. Like you said, Lightsabers are awesomely cool made up weapons, and the Millennium Falcon has character and life of its own, too! A place where these things exist is really fun to think about.

    And I will always maintain that grounded physical sets with muppets have MUCH more character than CG green screen constructions. I hated the insertions in special edition, and to this day I cling to my copies of the ORIGINAL originals. CG just looks too fake, even now. The best way to use it is for touch ups on physical sets, I think, rather than to create sets from scratch, but that could just be me.

  12. Amalia, I totally agree - I love physical effects (especially if they're from the Henson workshop!) and I think CG looks really fake a lot of the time. Sometimes it works really well, especially when it's seamless and representing something simple like the crowd scenes in Titanic, and sometimes you have a character like Gollum that works best in CGI, but I prefer puppets and models wherever possible!

    Cris, I cheated a bit cause that's not the actual location, but it looks the same! I also have a random shot of desert landscape that was apparently a location for Star Wars, but it's hard to tell, it just looks like sand and scrub!

  13. Nice post Juliette!

    For a bit more on this topic you may be interested in 'Star Wars The New Myth' by Hanson and Kay, though I enjoyed Galipeau's 'The Journey of Luke Skywalker' more - which raised some similar points as your post along Jungian archetypes.

    I always was reminded of Telemachus when considering Luke being on Tatooine - even the meaning Telemachus name seems to referenced by Luke when he complains to 3PO that he is on the planet that is furthest from the bright centre of the universe, far from the struggles of the Rebellion against the Empire. You could even stretch it to include Telemachus only knowing about his father and not being able to recognise him, the altered appearance of Vader/Odysseus obscuring their sons perception of his identity, and that Athena was a mentor figure.

    There are of course parallels with the Rise of Palpatine with Pompey the Great (granting of emergency powers) and Caesar (declaration of a perpetual leader) but you would need to re-examine the Prequel Trilogy for that.

    I noticed there is an upcoming collection of essays on "Star Wars and history" which invited contributions on classical reception as well (mentioned at Liz Gloyn's blog) which also mentioned the rise of Palpatine as a potential topic - I hope someone took it up!

    You also may be interested to know that the latest series of books, Fate of The Jedi set many years after the events in the movies was given the project title 'Odyssey' as it drew on elements of Odysseus' story.

    Thanks for the interesting post!

  14. Yeah, I want to look at the prequels, I think there's a lot more that's self-consiously classical in them - I have to steel myself to sit through Phantom Menace again! I hadn't heard of Fate of the Jedi, that sounds interesting. I nearly submitted something for the Star Wars and History thing, but just didn't have time to get something together for it! Glad you liked the post :)

  15. You know ...

    You could postpone your viewing of The Phantom Menace until next year when Lucas releases in back into the theatres in "breathtaking" 3D!

    For myself, I'll pass. 3D ... Bah!

    Instead, next month all six films will be out of Blu-ray -- Star Wars in HD splendor sounds pretty good to me.

  16. Blimey, what a thought! Though it might make the only good bit of the film - the bit where they're nearly eaten by a giant fish - even more fun, I suppose. But Jar Jar in 3D? Argh!


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