Star Wars' Vietnam roots

Rogue One (above) is the latest film in the Star Wars franchise established nearly 40 years ago.
Rogue One (above) is the latest film in the Star Wars franchise established nearly 40 years ago.PHOTO: DISNEY

Disney's CEO Bob Iger denies it, but the epic space opera has always been political

WASHINGTON • Just days ahead of last week's opening of the latest Star Wars film, Disney chief executive officer Bob Iger told the Hollywood Reporter that Rogue One is not a political film.

He might not see "political statements" in the new movie, but he cannot deny the roots of the franchise.

That is, unless he honestly believes that a war epic penned by a passionate young man during the height of the Vietnam War - a writer who saw in his evil Empire a potential near-future of his beloved America - can avoid being political.

In other words, geopolitics is baked into the very clay of Star Wars, if not the very title.

George Lucas harvested his epic space opera in Northern California much the same way his nearby pal Francis Ford Coppola crafts his wine: The fertile soil of time and place absorbs what's in the air.

And in 2016, the Rogue One film-makers are serving a version of what they grew up on - and in the case of director Gareth Edwards, those influences include 1970s-era Lucas, Spielberg and Coppola, who were depicting the collisions of menacing and violent forces, often on an epic scale.

Which is why, I am convinced, the riveting third act of Rogue One looks like what Lucas himself might have created if he had managed to make both 1977's Star Wars and 1979's Apocalypse Now (a film he was on board to direct), and then combined the visuals in both with a masterstroke of 21st-century technical wizardry fostered at Lucasfilm.

Because Rogue One is not simply a story about war; it is a true modern "war picture", in which the computer-generated effects are visually rooted in documentary-style realism - a dark, strikingly realised version of the sensory experience that was on Lucas' mind more than four decades ago.

When hashing out early drafts of Star Wars in 1972 to 1973, Lucas famously pulled from a trove of midcentury pop sources, including space comics and sci-fi novels and TV westerns and ancient myth - from Isaac Asimov to Harry Harrison, Jack Kirby to Alex Raymond. And then there was the war.

"Even Vietnam was in his thinking, a by-product of the (then-) abandoned Apocalypse Now," Brian Jay Jones writes in his excellent new biography, George Lucas: A Life, which continues: "'I figured I couldn't make that film because it was the Vietnam War,' said Lucas, 'so I would essentially deal with some of the same interesting concepts that I was going to use and convert them into space fantasy so you'd have a large technological empire going after a small group of freedom fighters.'"

Jones goes on to note that Lucas created planet Aquilae as "a small independent country like North Vietnam threatened by a neighbour of provincial rebellion", according to Lucas, and that the Empire was "like America 10 years from" that time.

Jones also quotes a Lucas associate who said: "Most people have no realisation that part of (Star Wars) is about a Vietnam situation."

(Lucas, perhaps still mourning his missed shot at Coppola's Apocalypse Now, would later shoot his own literal Vietnam-set scenes, in the 1979 sequel More American Graffiti.)

Now, nearly 40 years after the first Star Wars film established a cinematic beachhead, we finally get the immediate prequel in the timeline, the stand-alone Rogue One.

Is it any wonder then that Edwards, whose deep fandom of Star Wars even led him to Tunisia (where Lucas had filmed), created a climactic Rogue battle, set on tropical planet Scarif, that bears eerie echoes of decades of classic war films and iconic war photography (including D-Day images)? And one that, almost as if a cinematic gift to Lucas, offers visual nods to Apocalypse Now even more directly than last year's The Force Awakens (with its sun-silhouetted aircraft) did?

In an electoral year of heightened emotions and divisions, many viewers will see what they want to see politically - or in Mr Iger's case, not see - in Rogue One, from cultural diversity to nationalism to female empowerment. But you need not look deep beneath the Tattooine sands to survey the franchise's original, hard-baked geopolitics to be sure of the ideological soil on which creator Lucas has stood.

Every Star Wars film has been scrutinised for political agenda. And that's how it should be. Lucas, passionate ol' grease monkey that he is, custom-built a highly durable narrative engine that could handle such inspection.

Just as Lucas knew, too, that our starkly exposed hopes and fears and faults lie not in our stars but in our wars.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 19, 2016, with the headline 'Star Wars' Vietnam roots'. Print Edition | Subscribe