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10 ways World War II influenced the original Star Wars

Star Wars
The division between “good” and “bad” is easy to tell in A New Hope. Pic credit: Lucasfilm

Like much of the rest of Western culture, the Star Wars community has been locked in an argument not only about the political messages in various forms of media but rather whether political messaging is present at all.

Part of the fight stems from the fact that we don’t even agree on precisely how “political” is defined. A hamburger can be political when placed in the context of environmentalism, capitalism, cultural colonialism, veganism, and beliefs about animal treatment—or, it can just be a tasty lunch.

When A New Hope was created, its characters, themes, and plot was presented with the assumption that bending the will of sapient beings to a tyrannical dictator through domination and physical fear is bad. Conversely, striking a major blow to said power is good.

The symbolism of A New Hope is so clear-cut and primary that it can be applied in a number of different ways, which greatly adds to the political tumult that has come to surround it. If you want to see America as the Empire, you’ll find it. However, a reading of Imperial characteristics as Axis powers is on the top layer of this film.

While Lucas in later years claimed that the Vietnam War was an influence for Star Wars, the themes he mentioned in 2005, “…how do democracies get turned into dictatorships? Because the democracies aren’t overthrown; they’re given away” were much more closely explored in the prequel trilogy.

In fact, one of Padme Amidala’s most famous lines in the prequels (“So this is how liberty dies… with thunderous applause”) almost exactly echoes Lucas’ above quote.

The Vietnam War era was a deeply painful one, in which the usual burdens of war were further marked by profound domestic conflict and interconnecting issues of freedom, democracy, and government enforcement. It carried no simple answers, no obvious heroes with glowing blades facing down ominous Sith Lords clothed entirely in black.

This doesn’t mean that more thematically intricate properties within the Star Wars universe aren’t appropriate or interesting. For example, the multifaceted nature of The Mandalorian—which included questions of who is the good guy, whose actions are justified and why—is one of the highlights of the series.

The slow unfolding of such intricate relationships is extremely difficult to achieve in 90 minutes, especially when some of those 90 minutes require dedication to establishing what is literally an entirely different galaxy.

It’s no accident, though, that many elements of A New Hope carried the stamp of the Second World War.

Right vs. wrong… and not much in between

Heroes Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia were clothed entirely in white, while Darth Vader wore black from head to toe. Pic credit: Lucasfilm

George Lucas is a classic Baby Boomer. World War II was still raging when he was born, and he was raised in the immediate aftermath of a nation reveling in victory over a tremendous evil. The entertainment and media around him reflected this, and it created an impression on the future filmmaker.

The World War II era was often presented in the films and serials of Lucas’ youth as a binary battle between righteousness and evil. And so: Luke Skywalker good; Darth Vader bad.

The framing, script, visual cues, and music of the first Star Wars film did all the thinking for the audience. Although the themes of A New Hope are timeless and related to mysticism and the hero’s journey, the relief many moviegoers felt in having a clear side to root for, and watching that side win, was exhilarating.

Whatever else George Lucas later said that he meant by the creation of his universe, the original Star Wars consistently presented certain characters and heroes and others as villains. That hearkens to WWII iconography.

This, in fact, was one of the proponents of its wild success: in a nation exhausted by the tangled motivations and nature of the Vietnam War and a barrage of nihilistic media, the good guy and the bad guy were fully delineated. It was a dependable, cohesive moviegoing experience.

For example, while Han Solo is originally presented as a shady antihero, he saves the day in the final frames, an act rather obviously remarked upon by Princess Leia: “I knew there was more to you than money!”– a kinda-compliment which wasn’t exactly fair to Han, given that the man was trying to pay off a price on his head.

In any case: The audience knows for sure who’s in the right, and it ain’t Vader.

Dogfights

X-wings against the Death Star. Pic credit: Lucasfilm

Airplane-to-airplane combat was present in World War I, but it became a prevalent art form in World War II. The dodging and firing of the Rebellion’s X-wing against Imperial TIE fighters, the main feature of the films’ third act, was meant to call to mind the air combat of World War II. Specifically, the action was an homage to movies celebrating WWII aviation.

In fact, since the practical special effects took longer than other scenes to complete, Lucas pasted in footage of era dogfights, and effects artists were told to model the way WWII aircraft interacted with one another and other objects.

Helmets

It’s no accident that this helmet is pretty scary. Pic credit: Lucasfilm

The uniforms of Imperial officers, the helmets of certain techs, and Darth Vader’s wide head covering were modeled on those worn by members of the Nazi German Army.

While moviegoers in 1977 might not have pointed to the costume design and said, “Yep. Nazis,” it was an aesthetic that was unconsciously recognized, and reinforced the consistent design of all things Empire.

The uncomfortably conforming Empire

Another evil meeting that could have been an evil email. Pic credit: Lucasfilm

Many different species were members of the Rebellion, with women in leadership roles. Democracy was valued by the Republic, but, as high-ranking Imperial officials later tell us, the Galactic Senate was abolished, because “fear will keep the location systems in line.”

If the way in which the Empire rules makes you uncomfortable… it’s supposed to. It should seem quite threateningly familiar, and in fact did to Americans watching the first Star Wars film.

Swing!

Play it again. Pic credit: Lucasfilm

A definite cultural marker of the World War II era is swing music. It evokes images of bustling USO canteens and Rosie the Riviters taking a break from airplane production to enjoy some Glenn Miller on the radio as they tuned in for news updates.

This was the music of Lucas’ very earliest existence, and he celebrated it in A New Hope.

One of the most iconic scenes of an iconic film, the scene in the Mos Eisley Cantina features a band, Figrin D’an and the Modal Nodes, playing a song later named “Mad About Me” on instruments bearing a suspicious resemblance to clarinets.

 Like a lot of people watching A New Hope, the first few times I saw it, I was too interested in the grand sweep of species in the cantina to pay much attention to the music. But later in life, when I became interested in swing dancing, the soundtrack leaped out at me in a different way: Those aliens were playing swing!

Indeed, Lucas asked John Williams for a little Benny Goodman, and the jitterbug classic “Sing Sing Sing” was played for the actors portraying the band so they could keep time.

Coded language

Speaking my language… Pic credit: Lucasfilm

While negotiating for safe passage from Tatooine to Alderaan, Obi-Wan Kenobi is eager for Han Solo to avoid “any Imperial entanglements” (well… that’s the real trick, ain’t it?)

This was a saying-without-saying moment for the two men that quite possibly went over the head of naïve Luke. Obi-Wan was communicating to Solo that this transaction must take place without the Empire knowing anything about it.

In other words, there was Rebellion stuff going on here rather than usual piracy. An old dude, a kid, and two droids weren’t lucrative on the black market.

Kenobi was feeling Han out, confirming that the smuggler’s loyalty could be bought—and that was good enough for the moment.

In the same way. Europeans in occupied nations were forced to communicate in code, gesture, and local dialect to retain some semblance of normalcy. Resistance activities were conducted this way, just as they were in the Star Wars galaxy. Keeping one’s head down, unfortunately, was the easiest path to stay off the radar.

Smuggling

Every day I’m smuggling. Pic credit: Lucasfilm

Smuggling in Star Wars is most typically connected to the “spice” trade, but as Han Solo remarks in A New Hope, civil war sometimes means smuggling oneself.

The French Resistance scored moral victories by swapping out good wine and Champagne bound for Axis officers with spoiled bottles. Some Nazi officials prided themselves as wine connoisseurs, and by holding back some of the best vintages, local winemakers were able to defy their overlords just a bit.

Items such as maps, compasses, and files were smuggled to Allied POW camps in the guise of Monopoly games, and crystal radio sets were sent to troops camouflaged as cribbage sets.

Smuggling was happening in another way in the States. Citizen consumption was heavily regulated by use of stamps or coupons, and such everyday goods as rubber, flour, and metal were reserved for the war effort. The black market was busy.

Carrying on

“I’m just a simple moisture farmer…” Pic credit: Lucasfilm

The British “Keep Calm and Carry On” posters that saw revitalized interest in the early 2000’s wasn’t much displayed during the Blitz, but its later popularity underlines the bravery and determination of citizens heavily affected by World War II.

Similar hints of altered everyday life are also seen in A New Hope. Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru are simply trying to farm moisture while sheltering young Skywalker, the Jawas and Sand People are going about their usual activities, and presumably, at least some of the “scum and villainy” in the Mos Eisley Cantina were simply citizens seeking out a drink.

Stormtroopers

Not a good shot. Pic credit: Lucasfilm

If you were born after 1977 and first knew the term “stormtrooper” as a lousy shot in white armor rather than the name of German special forces originally trained to infiltrate enemy lines… you’re not alone.

“Storm Troops” trace their history back to before World War I, and the name was later applied to the paramilitary section of the Nazi Party—also known as “Brownshirts.” These were not, as you can imagine, nice people, and so the term was an inspired choice for Lucas’ faceless bad guys.

While they were clad in white like Leia, Luke, and mostly-Obi-Wan, the black accents of the armor and lack of identity suggested by their helmets puts them on the Bad Guy Squad.

Cockpit of Millennium Falcon

This famous cockpit is tribute to WWII engineering. Pic credit: Lucasfilm

Those who watched stars streaking past the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon are usually in for a pleasant surprise when they come into similar contact with the B-29 Superfortress. This World War II all-star served as a heavy bomber into the Korean War era, and its latticed cockpit is now a sci-fi icon.

With four engines and a legacy that includes dropping the nuclear bomb, the Boeing B-29 was an incredible feat of wartime engineering.

Two are still flying and twenty can be found in aviation museums, so if you have a chance to see one up close, don’t miss it. You’ll feel like Chewie is right by your side.

The Bad Batch and all other Star Wars properties are currently streaming on Disney+. Follow Monsters and Critics’ Facebook page for the latest Star Wars theories, essays, news, and reviews.

Proud aunt Mary Beth Ellis, MFA, is a freelance writer, college instructor, reader, and reality consumer in Cincinnati, OH. She is the author of "Drink to the Lasses," a memoir, and a contributor to...read more

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