Star Wars is, at its heart, a very political story: the corruption and decay of a republic, the rise of an oppressive galactic empire, a rebellion, the struggle for freedom, a brutal civil war, finally concluding with the creation of a new republic. As the movies are plot and character driven, these series of posts will be a marriage of both, seeking to explore the political motivations of the characters. The tale itself is currently spread over six movies (or novels), but for the purpose of this assessment, I will only be focusing on the original or classic trilogy. To make it a little more manageable, this piece shall center only on the first film. So, let’s get underway.
The very beginning of Episode IV: A New Hope draws us right into the heart of the conflict and it all hinges around the actions of Leia Organa. She is a strong-willed Senator in the Imperial Government as well as a Princess of the planet Alderaan. Fed up with the actions of the Empire, she travels into the outer rim of the galaxy to acquire the technical specifications to a new and massive battle station created to instill fear and obedience throughout the universe. She hopes to discover a weakness in this Death Star in the hopes of destroying it and the eventual dismantling of the Empire itself. By doing so, she risks her safety, her political career, her life, and even the lives of the people of Alderaan. Thus there is fundamental question that should be addressed, is she a patriot or a traitor? That inquiry alone colors your entire outlook of the film. Does she owe allegiance to her government and whoever may be in charge, or should she support the higher ideals and original spirit of that government? Obviously, as almost all of the film is shot from the Rebel’s perspective, George Lucas, the creator, strongly pushes you one way. But back to our story, when captured, she sends out a request for aid, jettisons the plans, and kills a trooper that discovers her location. Leia disavows all knowledge of the plans and of the Rebellion, even under torture. She remains defiant even with knowledge of her impending death until the entire planet of Alderaan is threatened. She ends up lying to buy time, but her homeworld is destroyed anyway.
In this installment, we are not introduced to the Emperor himself. Instead we only learn about him through other characters. Similar to Caesar in Imperial Rome and with a name that sounds like one of the seven hills, Emperor Palpatine heads up the galactic government with a Senate of undefined but obviously limited power. Early on, the Emperor quickly and easily dissolves the body using the excuse of the threat of Rebellion. With the Republic now completely dismantled, the Governors and the bureaucrats wield the power. In A New Hope, the Empire is represented by the white armored stormtroopers, Vader, and the highest-ranking Imperial, Grand Moff Tarkin. Tarkin makes his political philosophy, aptly named the Tarkin Doctrine, manifest through his actions. Taking a page from Machiavelli, the Governor opts to rule through the primary motivation of fear. Rather than using force directly, he relies on a fear of the use of force to promote his will. Thus by using the Death Star, the Empire’s new battle station, twice to destroy the planets of Alderaan and Yavin IV (sort of like the use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II), he plans to force other planets to bend to his will without resorting to annihilating them as well. As Tarkin is killed and the first Death Star is destroyed, we don’t discover if his doctrine is ultimately successful or not, whether the threat of the Death Star would compel other systems to accept Imperial rule without further need of violence.
The original film is rich with even more characters with political motives. For example, there is the old Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi burdened with the memories of the decay of the Republic and the fall of Darth Vader. He lives like a hermit on the outskirts of humanity dutifully watching over Luke Skywalker. As soon as he receives the call from Leia, he jumps into action, recruiting Luke and chartering a starship. Once they are captured, he willing offers himself as a sacrifice in order to further the mission. Although martyrdom for a political cause has become tainted due to fact it is presently associated terrorists whose main goal is to kill innocent civilians, Obi-Wan is perhaps the most noble of all of the characters.
When we first meet Han Solo, he is an amoral politically neutral smuggler. He treasures freedom and wealth and only helps the Rebels for an excessively high fee. Chewbacca, his first mate, bound to Han through a life debt, acts as the moral conscious of the pair. Unlike most of the characters, Chewie speaks in a non-English tongue and his words are never translated, so we can only assess his thoughts by his tone and the reaction of the others. By the end of A New Hope, Han, with pressure from Luke and Leia, comes to the realization that he can never really truly be free under the threat of an oppressive Empire. Therefore, he signs on with the Rebellion in part, to further his own goals, but also to become part of a movement larger than himself.
The political motivations of the main character, Luke Skywalker, are far less clear. At the beginning of the film, he strongly desires to go to the Imperial Academy to become a pilot, like his friend Biggs did some time earlier. After meeting Obi-Wan and hearing the plea of Leia, he resolves to fight against this now hated Empire. With the death of his Aunt and Uncle at the hands of stormtroopers, he is further provoked in the struggle. Only by including information found in the radio drama do we discover Luke’s driving inspiration. Although unfortunately cut from the movie, Biggs reunites with Luke so that he can inform him of his defection from the Empire and his plan to join the rebellion. This revelation begs the question; at first was Luke only a mindless groupie, or an easily impressionable youth? Did he originally join the Rebellion merely to gain the approval of others like Biggs, Leia, and Obi-Wan?
Don’t forget the droids! C-3PO seems only vaguely aware of the great political struggle all around him. He is primarily concerned with his own survival and displays loyalty to whichever party claims ownership of him. In many ways, he displays the typical attitudes and interests of the average citizen. R2-D2, on the other hand, forsakes concepts such as ownership and self-preservation in order to further the task set forth by Princess Leia.
One may be disappointed to find that Darth Vader makes only the briefest of mention in this article, but politically his role in this film was minor compared to what is revealed about him in the next two. The Rebellion may have won the day, but the Emperor will not simply surrender to these so-called terrorists. And so, in the next chapter, The Empire Strikes Back.