Political Motivations In Star Wars: Part II

And now for part two of our discussion on the Star Wars films.  If you’ve missed the first one, I encourage you to check it out before delving into this segment.

Much like A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back is politically loaded.  At the start of the film we are reintroduced to the overarching political struggle, as the Empire discovers the new Rebel Headquarters on the frozen tundra world of Hoth.  After a short battle, the better-equipped Empire easily routs the Rebels despite their extensive defenses and entrenchments.  In the remaining portion of the movie, we primarily follow the routed Rebels as they seek refuge and new allies in their struggle.

Darth Vader takes his place as the central villain, not only in this film, but also in the entire Star Wars saga.  Right off the bat, he reminds us of his evil ways with a taste of his power by killing several of his supposed allied Imperial officers.  First, he strangles Admiral Ozzel after the Rebels on Hoth are needlessly alerted to the approaching Imperial fleet.  Later, he repeats this deed on Captain Needa, the commander of one of the Star Destroyers, after Han and the rest of our rebel friends manage to escape the Imperial blockade.  As further proof of his expanded influence, he either has (or assumes) the power to promote officers when he grants Captain Piett the rank of Admiral following Ozzel’s death.

If you recall, in Episode IV, we see Darth Vader try a similar intimidation tactic aboard the first Death Star on Admiral Motti, but a superior officer, Tarkin, stops him.  Although Darth never really acquires a traditional rank within the Empire, presumably his authority has grown given that there are no noticeable repercussions for his actions.  Then again, perhaps, as Leia suggested in Episode IV, only an extremely powerful figure like Grand Moff Tarkin was capable of “holding Vader’s leash.”  With Tarkin gone, and no other Grand Moff in the picture, Vader is free to terrorize his fellow servants of the Empire.  Either way, for better or worse, the Emperor has let loose this mad dog upon the galaxy.

This movie introduces two new characters of particular importance, Lando Calrissian and Yoda.  Lando is an interesting figure as very early on he is revealed to be a traitor to his friend, Han Solo.  Darth Vader holds Cloud City, a territory where Lando is more or less the mayor, hostage in exchange for Han’s (and Luke’s) capture.  Lando has a difficult choice.   Should he betray his friends to a ruthless murderer or should he gamble with the lives of the roughly five million inhabitants under his administration?  Although one can certainly argue the morality of his decisions as well as his methods, he chooses the needs of the many and leads his guests into a trap.  Immediately before his duplicity is revealed, Lando explains that his primary goal is to insure the freedom of his people from direct control of the Empire.  Later, once Vader breaks and re-breaks the deal that he forced upon Lando, Calrissian openly defies his Imperial subjugation.   Realizing that neither he nor the people of Cloud City will ever be free under a ruthless and deceptive monster like Vader, Lando order the evacuation of the city and personally joins the Rebellion.  Although certainly reluctant at first, he ends up risking his political future, wealth, and even his own life for the sake of liberty.

Next we have Yoda, a diminutive figure and the last living Jedi Master.   Unlike most people, I have a negative opinion of Yoda.   Drawing a bit on the new trilogy, we learn that he was once a person of great authority.  Not only did he head the Jedi Order, but also he was a supposedly a guardian of the Republic.   While it decayed all around him, a Sith Lord (a person diametrically opposed to the ways and teachings of the Jedi)  assumed control of the government but Yoda was either too ignorant or foolhardy to notice.  Rather than serve as noble arbiters of justice, the Jedi became tainted.  As their power and morals wane, they are warped into a role as the policemen of the galaxy, inadvertently quashing the liberty of others for the sake of order and supposed security.  (Can anyone draw any parallels in our modern world?)

Then, once the Empire came into full power, rather than fight it directly or indirectly, Yoda cowardly sneaked into hiding on Dagobah, a planet so remote and devoid of any strategic value that no one would ever find him.  He never went looking for Luke or anyone else.  Clearly, he was guided by self-preservation and had little true loyalty to the supposedly selfless Jedi ideals of helping those in need.  In fact, if not for the advice of Obi Wan, Yoda and Luke would have never met and thus he would have no hand in the destruction of the Empire.  So how does he occupy his free time?  Secretly hating the government and writing angry manifestos on his typewriter?  The way he shuns technology and society fits the classic profile of violent neo-Luddites like Ted Kaczynski.

Lastly, let’s examine the relationship between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker.  At the end of the climactic fight scene on Cloud City after Luke loses his hand, Vader reveals that he is Luke’s father.  Following this shocking news, Vader informs Luke that the Emperor has prophesied his downfall at Luke’s hands.  Vader then proposes an alliance between himself and Luke, a partnership of father and son to claim the Empire jointly under the guise of bringing order to the galaxy.   The suggestion harkens back to the day of hereditary monarchies where mere blood relations were sufficient to legitimize the rulers of a nation.  Why Darth would think that Luke would agree to partner with an estranged father who just seriously injured him merely for the sake of power and family ties may seem baffling, but clearly acquiring unquestioned power and the establishment of a dynasty are the primary driving motivations of Lord Vader.  Perhaps even more surprising is Vader’s proposal to overthrow his leader and supposed master.  Thus his loyalty lies only with himself and therefore swears fealty to no one.  It is remarkable that the Emperor, with the aid of the force and his supposed political prowess, would not be able to detect such treachery but, as shown with Yoda, perhaps Jedi powers aren’t what they’re cracked up to be.

But what about the shadowy leader of the Empire?  Up through this point, we have only learned a bit about the character through his opponents and subordinates.  I hope you stay tuned for part three of my commentary as we turn to him as well as additional political thoughts regarding this entertaining and timeless trilogy.

Political Motivations In Star Wars: Part I

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.