Star Wars is a “bleak” critique of democracy that does not propose any better alternative and uses Nazi imagery to attack the United States’ alleged descent into imperialism.
That’s according to a historian who says the space fantasy has always been political and recent calls for Star Wars to keep out of politics and culture wars are ill-founded.
Chris Kempshall, postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Exeter and senior research fellow for the Centre for Army Leadership at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, has studied all the Star Wars films and hundreds of storylines from the franchise’s “expanded universe”, including novels, comic books and video games. “The sheer tonnage of historical and political material embedded at every conceivable level is remarkable,” he said.
In The History and Politics of Star Wars: Death Stars and Democracy, his new book, he shows that George Lucas, creator of Star Wars, intended the first films as a searing critique of US policy in Vietnam, with the evil Galactic Empire as the US and the Rebel Alliance as its Vietnam War enemies North Vietnam and the Viet Cong. In later films and media, the focus of Lucas and other Star Wars creators shifted to criticism of more recent US policy such as the War on Terror.
The original trilogy, which was released between 1977 and 1983, follows Rebel Alliance heroes including Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, Chewbacca and the droids C-3PO and R2-D2, in their uprising against the empire.
Kempshall said that, while Lucas’ recollections were sometimes inconsistent, he had always been clear on the central inspirational role of Vietnam. This was documented in Lucas’ early drafts for Star Wars (1977), which was conceived during the Vietnam War and released only two and a half years after the Fall of Saigon. Setting the scene, Lucas wrote: “Aquilae is a small independent country like North Vietnam threatened by a neighbour or provincial rebellion, instigated by gangsters aided by empire.”
Decades later, Lucas described how he had imagined the mindset of the Rebel Alliance protagonists. He told interviewer James Cameron: “‘We’re fighting the largest empire in the world, and we’re just a bunch of hayseeds in coonskin hats who don’t know nothin’ … and it was the same thing with the Vietnamese. The irony of that one is, in both of those the little guys won.”
Kempshall said Lucas was alluding to Vietnam in The Empire Strikes Back (1980) in the dramatic scene in which All Terrain Armoured Transport vehicles (AT-ATs) march across the snowfield of Hoth. The visually impressive imperial vehicles highlight the empire’s technological advantage but prove vulnerable to guerrilla-style improvised attacks. One of them is toppled by having a tow-cable wrapped around its legs.
Such Vietnam references were missed by many original viewers, according to Kempshall. This was partly down to Lucas’ use of Nazi-linked imagery in depictions of the Galactic Empire, such as in the uniforms of imperial officers and the helmet of the empire’s chief enforcer, Darth Vader. “Some of that aesthetic clouds the ability for people to go, ‘Oh, this is actually a searing critique of America in Vietnam’. Because if it looks like a Nazi, walks like Nazi, dresses like a Nazi, you’re going to understandably come to the conclusion that this is about the Nazis.
“And it is about the Nazis. But it’s about America as the Nazis. I think it’s an extra step that people didn’t entirely recognise at the time.”
Kempshall added: “Ironically, Darth Vader, arguably the most recognisable character in the entire series, is almost entirely irrelevant. He’s been compared to Adolf Hitler — even by actress Carrie Fisher — but unlike Hitler, Vader has no prevailing ideology and little charisma. When you look at the original trilogy, he appears for just 34 minutes and has 146 lines of dialogue. The Emperor, on the other hand, is a much more interesting and nuanced character, and has clear references to Hitler, Louis XIV, Nixon, George W Bush and even Trump.”
He said that depictions of the Galactic Republic, which collapsed into dictatorship to become the Galactic Empire — as told in the prequel trilogy released between 1995 and 2005 — drew from the precedents of Weimar Germany and the Roman Republic. Both historical republics failed, giving way to Nazi Germany and the Roman Empire, respectively.
“Star Wars paints a very bleak picture of democracy. The main message for George Lucas is that democracy is vulnerable and constantly on the verge of being given away,” Kempshall said. “It’s not that democracy gets overthrown or there’s a coup or it gets stolen. It gets given away by the people inside it.
“The problem with that is Lucas appears to have an incredibly low opinion of democracy. He never actually gives a version of it that looks good, that people participate in . . . Even in the expanded universe, democracies never work. They all revert back to that ‘democracy is 15 minutes away from collapse’ element. The threat of fascism is ever present and corruption and bureaucracy bog down governmental systems — until the moment of collapse or danger is delayed for another 15 minutes.”
While Star Wars depicts the vulnerability of democracy and the evils of fascism, Kempshall said there was no portrayal of a preferable alternative. Thus Lucas celebrates North Vietnam and the Viet Cong as adversaries of the US, but Kempshall said there was no indication that he was endorsing their communist ideology.
“That’s the weird thing. Because you’d think that someone who’s trying to put across this message would give a vision of a system that was better and that worked. I find it lacking in hope, which is interesting because Star Wars has always been nominally about hope and redemption.”
“There’s a fairly hefty culture war that exists around Star Wars“Dr Chris Kempshall
Kempshall said that, over the years, films, books and other media across the Star Wars franchise had weighed in on matters from nuclear weapons to the fall of the Soviet Union, the Rwandan genocide and the presidency of Donald Trump. As such, he believes that criticism from fans of Star Wars creators’ recent efforts to achieve better LGBTQ+, female and ethnic minority representation is founded on ignorance.
He said: “There’s a fairly hefty culture war that exists around Star Wars, of people saying, ‘I don’t like the way that Star Wars is politically portraying new things. I don’t want politics in Star Wars, I don’t want social commentary in Star Wars, just give me space lasers — that will make me happy.’ And, as a result, you get arguments and disputes within the fan base about what people want to see portrayed — who gets to see themselves within the franchise and who doesn’t. And that, in itself is historical and political and is a manifestation of ongoing cultural and political tensions as well.
“What you get now is almost the mainstreaming of very strong political reactions to things. Generally if you deviate from a portrayal of Star Wars that is about white men, and include anybody else — women or people of colour, or different genders or sexualities, then some fans claim that makes it political. They say that previously it wasn’t political and now you’ve made it political and ruined it. A point the book is making is that it has always been political. This recent evolution of including extra people in it is not adding politics to something that has always been apolitical. You just didn’t understand the politics or you chose not to see it.”