Dr. Wiltshire is professor of classics at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, July 20-27, 1977, p. 666. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Star Wars offers tasty morsels of the western, monster movie, swashbuckler, historical epic and sci-fi thriller all in one package. It offers a vision of fantasy as opposed to realism, and strikes us with the force of stepping from the cave into bright sunlight.
George Lucas’s Star Wars is a peach of a movie. Undoubtedly you already know something about it, either through the mass media or by word of mouth, and if you haven’t seen it yet, you will. It’s going to be as big as The Godfather and Jaws, if not bigger, and the reasons why it will please so many people are obvious: it’s exciting and it’s fun. The pace of Star Wars is rapid fire for most of its hour and 57 minutes, and the script is filled with a verbal and visual wit that has been rare in Hollywood movies since the screwball comedies of the ‘30s.
Lucas, who describes the film as “space fantasy” rather than science fiction, spent four years and $9 million creating the follow-up to his immensely successful American Graffiti. Star Wars is an adventure yarn of the “save the world” type. Militaristic villains, led by the Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Gushing) and the evil Darth Vader, have taken control of the universe, forcing the true royalty into the role of rebels. The rebels’ only chance is to get the secret blueprints of the usurpers’ command post, a Manhattan-size space station called the Death Ship, into the hands of the rebel army.
Unfortunately, the Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), who is carrying the plans to her father, is captured by Darth Vader, but not before she deposits the information in the computerized Droid, R2-D2. R2-D2 and his robot companion C3PO escape to the remote planet of Tatooine, where they happily fall into the hands of the ingenuous Luke Sky. walker (Mark Hamill), a WASPish youth who is bored with life on the space-wastes (actually the Tunisian desert), and is ripe for adventure. He teams up with the venerable though retired knight of earlier battles, Obi-Wan Kenobi (brilliantly played by Alec Guinness), and together they become the hope of the empire. I don’t have to tell you how it turns out.
There is a self-conscious use of archetypes from other genres that contributes to making Star Wars such an enjoyable experience. Obi-Wan Kenobi is an amalgam of the ascetic monk of religious epics -- dressed in Franciscan robes and living in a desert hermitage -- and the John Wayne hero of EL Dorado, passing on gun-lore to the neophyte Luke, who is destined to carry on after he’s gone.
Han Solo (Harrison Ford), the outlaw smuggler who agrees to transport the motley crew of Obi-Wan, Luke and the Droids, is both a space cowboy, down to the swagger and the holster on the hip, and the Humphrey Bogart of To Have and Have Not, a hard-boiled adventurer whose cynical shell dissolves in the climactic battle sequence to reveal a romantic bravado that saves the day. He’s also reminiscent of the high-school hot-rodders of American Graffiti, with a souped-up jalopy of a space ship that readily outraces the Imperial fighters.
Star Wars offers tasty morsels of the western, monster movie, swashbuckler, historical epic and sci-fi thriller all in one package. The movie escapes being “camp” because, like the filmmakers of the French New Wave, Lucas displays a fondness for the formulas he satirizes. Unlike Mel Brooks’s comedy Blazing Saddles, in which Brooks plays against the genre by making it clear that he’s spoofing it, with the black sheriff and the horse KO’d by an uppercut to the nostrils, Lucas goes with flow of his story. We recognize the various characters In Star Wars as friends we’ve met before.
Probably more impressive than the direction of the film is Lucas’s achievement with the script. I suspect that a lot of the recent spate of sci-fi films -- Logan’s Run, Demon Seed, A Boy and His Dog -- failed because their scripts were leaden, flat and without humor. Lucas’s dialogue, on the other hand, fairly bursts with good-natured corn. When Luke, Han, and Han’s sidekick Chewbacca are fruitlessly trying to shoot their way out of a cellblock with Princess Leia, the feisty female coolly takes charge, chiding Han for his impetuousness and lack of finesse. While the lethal rays of enemy blasters strike all about them, Han remarks in an aside to Luke, “Either I’m going to kill her or I’m beginning to like her,”
R2-D2 and C3PO are the real charmers in the film, providing a steady stream of comic relief. Their Mutt-and-Jeff banter in Upstairs, Downstairs dialect gives us the sense of an unruffled continuum of interpersonal relationship amid the high-and-mighty conflict for control of the universe. Lucas never misses a chance to inject an anomalous touch. After the climactic battle, in which R2-D2 has had more than a few circuits roasted by enemy pursuit ships. C3PO watches forlornly as mechanics remove the wounded Droid from the victorious fighter. Though assured that a few hours in the machine shop will make R2-D2 good as new, C3PO anxiously tells them, “I will happily donate any internal organs, terminals or wires, if it will be of help.”
Though we are immediately able to assess what it is in Star Wars that entertains nearly everyone who sees it, it is a task of a wholly different degree to analyze what it means. Entertainment of the storytelling variety has a function beyond “escape from” the pressures and ambiguities of “real life” It is what we escape to that matters and can tell us in deep ways things about ourselves that are not readily apparent, caught as we are in the hither and thither of everyday life.
The important question to try to answer is this: Why do we need fantasy? John Cawelti, in his recent book Adventure, Mystery, and Romance (University of Chicago Press. 1976), concludes that popular formula stories meet two basic human needs -- excitement and security. Our identification with the protagonists in their harrowing adventures provides us relief from the boredom of everyday existence. At the same time, though we continually teeter with Luke and Han on the, abyss of death, we know from repeated forays into this region that things are going to work out all right, that Grand Moff Tarkin and Darth Vader will be defeated and the salutary order of the republic restored.
Our era is dominated by a taste for realism, and we feel ourselves constrained to judge a work of art against the measure of how “real” it is. What we often lose is our ability to appreciate the value of an idealized world wherein we are able to raise ourselves above the follies of our own predicament. Realism generally turns out to be very conservative, positing at best a grudging contentment with things as they are. Fantasy, on the other hand, is the truly revolutionary form because it celebrates the possibility of a different and better world.
To judge from the vast numbers thronging to see Star Wars, there is a need for fantasy that has gone unquenched in recent years. The public events of an obscene war, presidential corruption, worldwide inflation and arbitrary tenor have been thrust back upon us in the stark depression of Godfather I and II, the bathos of Love Story and the Pyrrhic victory of The Exorcist. Star Wars strikes so many of us as a breath of fresh air not only because we need to believe that the good can triumph but because lately we have had such difficulty in identifying the good and distinguishing it from the evil. The penchant toward realism has given us a popular culture that has made us feel trapped in a dungeon, assuring us that this is the way the world is and must be. The alternative vision of Star Wars, a vision of fantasy as opposed to realism strikes us with the force of stepping from the cave into bright sunlight.