It’s May the 4th, which means it’s time to celebrate Star Wars Day. While we’re eagerly awaiting the next Episode 8 trailer, it’s a good day to reflect on the enormity of what George Lucas has built over the past forty years.
On the surface Star Wars deals with the battle between good and evil, an ancient one at that. But the journey of our heroes, in both the original and prequel trilogies, are set against a backdrop of complex political strife and oppression. The films, at their core, explore the nuanced relationship between a state and its people, and how a democracy can slip into a strict dictatorship.
George Lucas has admitted that one of the biggest influences on the series was the Nixon era. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Lucas said Star Wars “was really about the Vietnam War, and that was the period where Nixon was trying to run for a [second] term, which got me to thinking historically about how do democracies get turned into dictatorships? Because the democracies aren't overthrown; they're given away."
Lucas has also expressed that Emperor Palpatine, or Darth Sidious, was directly inspired by Nixon, which makes a lot of sense given the the nose. In “The Making of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi,” when asked if Emperor Palpatine was a Jedi at one point in his life, Lucas responded, “No, he was a politician. Richard M. Nixon was his name. He subverted the senate and finally took over and became an imperial guy and he was really evil. But he pretended to be a really nice guy.”
But the political inspirations didn’t stop at the original trilogy. Say what you will about the prequels, but revisiting them will show you that Lucas held fast to his political ideology and used his massive entertainment franchise to comment on and predict the Bush administration.
Once again, Lucas drew connections between real life political figures and those in his cinematic universe. In a New York Times interview, Lucas explained that “Anakin Skywalker is a promising young man who is turned to the dark side by an older politician and becomes Darth Vader.” He added, “George Bush is Darth Vader. Cheney is the Emperor.”
The prequels allowed Lucas to fully explore how a people’s republic can turn into an empire. While the original films were largely reactionary to the politics of the time, the prequels were occurring simultaneously to the War on Terror, and it reflects in the films as we see a non-conflict blown up into something that represents absolute patriotism, and the gradual decline into the creation of the Galactic Empire.
Most famously, Lucas got some heat for giving Anakin a line of dialogue that was almost verbatim from a Bush speech. Anakin says to Obi Wan before his ultimate betrayal, “If you’re not with me then you’re my enemy.” Bush’s line was, ““You’re either with us or you’re with the enemy.”
The question is, how will the new era of Star Wars deal with the underlying politics of the universe in the Trump era? Now that Disney holds the keys to the Star Wars universe, they’ve been adamant about them not being political. Some Trump supporters went as far as to boycott Rogue One because they said it was a slight against The Donald. However, Disney chief executive Bob Iger made the absurd claim, “Frankly, this is a film that the world should enjoy. It is not a film that is, in any way, a political film.” The film’s plot centers around rebelling against an oppressive tyrant. That is at least, in some way, political.
With the new trilogy under way, it begs the question of whether Disney’s team will stay true to Lucas’ political influence, and use the billion dollar franchise to comment on the Trump administration. If the original inspiration for Star Wars was to explore how a democracy turns into a dictatorship, certainly this is more relevant now than ever.