As the most successful movie franchise in history, Star Wars has generated millions of fans worldwide, not to mention the billions of dollar revenue it created already. Soon after the first movie release, critics and academics began their study of the background, intentions and inspirations of the saga.
This project until today remains mostly incomplete, as the canon of movies very quickly was extended by related media not written by George Lucas. As a result, a multitude of writers added content, stories, and most important for this title, events, wars, disasters, invasions, terrible large-scale crimes and genocide with traceable relation to real-life events in world history.
Based on this concept, Chris Kempshall, historian and author of several academic works on computer games and WWI, presents what he believes “the first detailed and comprehensive examination of all the materials making up the Star Wars franchise relating to the portrayal and representation of real-world history and politics.” This with regard to the fact that the influence of Star Wars has become bigger every year, as in addition to the official movies and the Clone Wars and Rebels TV shows provided by Lucas, and after 2012 by Disney, the saga was also continued in the so-called “Expanded Universe.”
The life action TV shows The Madalorian and Obi-Wan Kenobi are not part of this study, as in those cases the release happened while the study at hand already was on its way. This is just one example of how quickly the franchise and its fans demand and consume new bits and pieces, to add more detail to the Star Wars universe. It also shows that the serialized production picked up speed, at least for TV and streaming media.
Kempshall inserts hundreds of quotes from interviews, publications, documentaries and personal recollections from all directors of the saga, as well as from actors, set crews, writers and Disney representatives in direct relation to the presentation of contemporary political agendas and conflicts worldwide as they appear in the films. According to him, already the movies are inseparable from modern history, as they center on “… key themes such as fascism and the Galactic Empire, the failures of democracy, the portrayal of warfare, the morality of the Jedi, and the representations of sex, gender, and race. Through these themes, this study highlights the impacts of the fall of the Soviet Union, the War on Terror, and the failures of the United Nations ….” And that they strongly reflect on the heroic fight against fascism and a powerful enemy through clandestine rebel guerrilla warfare in the original trilogy. The prequel trilogy, however, aims to shine a light on the failure of a once working and just democratic system by focusing on Anakin Skywalker and his slow transformation into Darth Vader. Thereby illustrating how in a galaxy far, far away simultaneously democratic institutions and individuals became victims of fascist oppression, massive violence and a military complex. With a new totalitarian order in power, namely the Galactic Empire.
George Lucas – apart from being influenced by ideas, plots, spiritual concepts, sagas of several centuries, and previous film classics – always was inspired by the politics of his time. In this case, domestic American politics as well as involvement abroad, as for example in Vietnam, were a massive stimulation when he conceived the first part of his epic story (A New Hope). Since Lucas is not a historian, but a director, his recollections or understanding of current political developments and causes must not always be exact and unbiased; he tells fictional stories that may draw ideas from real-world developments.
With that background, and the intention to find links, parallels and sometimes the scenarios, the many fights, lessons from the Jedi, speeches in Senate, conspiracies, conflicts and large-scale battles of the franchise make a bit more sense. As they were alternate and fictional, and eventually very similar renditions of the political events of the day, ever since 1977, when the Skywalker story was first published in print and in cinemas.
In five chapters, with often meticulously inspections of single scenes, paragraphs or dialogue, he investigated the multitude of material, “… the films, the interviews, the television series, computer games, and novels” to realize that it was “possible to see when and where Star Wars draws upon real-world history.” Depending on the year of release – and important events in real-world history – the Galactic Empire and the franchise’s protagonists took on several features, like those imaginings of Nazi Germany society, a Soviet Union on the decline, or the US during the early days of the War on Terror. Equally, the movies portray shifting states of democratic systems, always in danger of being taken over by military action, intrigue, mad dictators or dangerous ideologies.
Chapter four, “’Keepers of the Peace, Not Soldiers.’ Jedi, the Force and the complicated morality of intra-state operatives” may be the most interesting part here. It discusses the Force and its masters and scholars. As they also changed, depending on the movie and its production date: the once glorified power that only was available to the gifted (and good) ones was transformed, from basic morals to the support of the respective (good) leaders of the Republic at a certain moment in Star Wars history. Slowly, several former Jedi adapted the air and motivation of the Sith, it seems. “The Jedi of Star Wars do not exist in a vacuum …. [their role] in fighting the Clone Wars which led to the destruction of both the Republic and themselves is a cautionary tale regarding the nature of unjust wars. … [The] erosion of their own high ideals through the use of torture, warfare, and aggression reflects the concerns regarding the soul of the United States during both the Vietnam War and the War on Terror.” Generally, one could assume, the Jedi Order and the Force were unable to stop massacres, wars or maintain rules even with the Senate. And most importantly: corruption was at work in those spheres and parts of society, too.
The final chapter is devoted to social order and systems of representation, such as discrimination against women, certain aliens or droids within the Star Wars films and Expanded Universe. Needless to say that there are strong factions throughout the fan world who want these situations resolved, while others prefer them the way they are, as they happen in a fictional universe. Again, this discussion alone bears parallels to real-world (American) everyday practice.
The History and Politics of Star Wars is an eloquently written title on the franchise, the Expanded Universe and the huge impact Lucas’s vision still has on audiences worldwide. Apart from the probably thousands hours of research, one can easily guess that this is the work a serious fan, a historian and a critic. Recommend reading for Star Wars fans, students of sociology, international relations and film studies.
Review by Dr. A. Ebert © 2022
Chris Kempshall. The History and Politics of Star Wars. Death Stars and Democracy. (Routledge Studies in Modern History). Routledge, 2022, 236 p.