In the modern era it is difficult to imagine a world not awash in “Star Wars.” Whether it be new films, merchandise, seemingly endless streaming series on Disney+, or theme park attractions and hotels, the culture is inundated with the space epic’s artifacts. None of this, however, is by accident in that Disney purchased the franchise from filmmaker George Lucas in 2012 for over $4 billion and always had its sight on overhauling and “expanding” the monetarily lucrative brand for massive profits.
Now that a “Star Wars” themed hotel experience opened—to less than stunning results—and with the announcement of a new “Obi-Wan” streaming series, it is time to return to the original source and gauge exactly why an unlikely space-fantasy was able to tap into the collective zeitgeist of a generation and become a cultural mainstay.
Joseph Campbell, Space Cowboys, and Samurai
Lucas’s “Star Wars” was released on May 25, 1977, on just 34 screens across the United States (adding nine more two days later). Over six days the film had grossed a stunning $2,556,718. Over the course of the summer long lines would form around the block that surrounded movie theaters (that is, a blockbuster) in anticipation to see the film.
By November, “Star Wars” had grossed more than $187 million and beat Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” (1975) to become the all-time box office earner. For a film that had been passed up by several of the major studios that included Warner Bros. and Disney, Lucas’s $11 million-dollar special effects-driven fantasy epic took the nation by storm.
Much has been written on the groundbreaking special effects work and marketing colossus that was the original film. In fact, many critics have noted that the modern toy sale trend that surrounds Hollywood blockbusters originated with Lucas’s film.
It is true that the consumerist-driven products helped the film gain more traction with filmgoing audiences, and the technical composition should never be understated; however, there is a deeper narrative and cultural factor that truly propelled “Star Wars” into film history. Much of this narrative includes a deep unconscious human attraction to specific archetypal characters, monomyths, and, for lack of a better phrase, a new hope.
One of the major contributing factors for “Star Wars’” success was how Lucas actively employed the notion of the monomyth and hero’s journey as described by Joseph Campbell.
In his book, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” Campbell lays out the basis for myth, archetypal characters, and heroes that transcend cultures and time and states that: “It would not be too much to say that myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation. Religions, philosophies, arts, the social forms of primitive and historic man, prime discoveries in science and technology, the very dreams that blister sleep, boil up from the basic, magic ring of myth.”
Campbell argues that this form of narrative myth can be found in most all ancient and modern texts due to its ability to speak to the human condition. Lucas understood this and crafted a filmic narrative that centered around the archetypal hero and his transcendent struggle against evil.
Luke (Mark Hamill), a pseudo-orphan and ordinary farmer, is tempted to the hero’s journey by Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) the “magical” character that pushes him over the threshold and into the larger world. By learning the ways of the force and accepting the mystical Jedi weapon, Luke is governed along the path of the hero and faces down an all-consuming evil threat in Darth Vader (James Earl Jones and David Prowse) and the Galactic Empire.
Along the way, the audience meets other archetypal characters such as the fool (C-3PO and R2D2), the rugged individualist with a suppressed heart of gold (Han Solo), a female in distress but also a strong and competent woman (Princess Leia), and the tyrannical father (Darth Vader).
Each of these characters transcend time and culture and speak to the human condition. The struggles of the small and failing Rebel Alliance against the overpowering Empire is a story that harkens to any variety of epic narrative. It appears in such stories as found in the Bible, “Lord of the Rings,” and “Harry Potter.”
Pair the basic premise of the hero’s journey with film traditions grounded in 1940s space operas such as “Buck Rogers,” as well as Akira Kurosawa’s Samurai epic “Hidden Fortress” (1958) and “Star Wars” hooked a generation that desired new and exciting filmmaking. As the United States was plagued by rampant inflation, a stagnated economy throughout the early 1970s, and freshly recovered from the grim horrors of the Vietnam War, “Star Wars” was a hopeful film that truly defined “escapist” entertainment from a depressed world.
Vietnam and ‘A New Hope’
Although “Star Wars” didn’t gain the subtitle “A New Hope” until well after its initial release, the tone of the film was a cry for positivity in a generation ravaged by the realities of crises, war, and an inert economy. Following the tumultuous 1960s, America entered a recession that saw cities plagued by crime, unemployment, and a sense of cultural stagnation.
Hollywood began churning out countless films that focused on anti-heroes and storylines that centered around a sense of deteriorating morals and cultural erosion. “New Hollywood” films such as “The Godfather” and “Taxi Driver” exposed the dark underbelly of America’s churning nihilism and seeming hopelessness. Even the first ever blockbuster, “Jaws” features a powerless father-figure grappling with an unseen terror that ravages the small New England community as well as his family.
Alternatively, Lucas’s film employed a more hopeful narrative that tapped into the American cultural psyche. Luke’s and the rebels’ struggle against the oppressive tyrant is visually symbolized in the opening shots as Princess Leia’s tiny ship is overtaken by the massive Star Destroyer.
For an audience all-to-familiar with overreaching governments, an endless war in Southeast Asia, and a future that seemed hopeless and stagnant, the image tapped into the collective unconscious.
Luke is a poor farmer who is whisked away on an adventure to save the princess and restore hope in the galaxy. His actions return Princess Leia to the rebels so that she can hand over the secret Death Star plans and mount the attack on the space station. It is in this climactic battle in which Han surprisingly rejects his pessimistic outlook and returns to the battle to save Luke the moment when all seems lost. Through the linking of these specific characters to fight a destructive evil, the good triumphs over evil in the end, and restores peace and prosperity to a galaxy ripped apart by tyranny and oppression.
As more and more sequels, prequels, series, hotels, Baby Yoda dolls, and video games appear, it is helpful to remember the power of the source material. Without Lucas’s gamble on a narrative that seemed outlandish and doomed to failure, and a generation desiring for hope and positivity at the movies, “Star Wars” would not have made the impact it did.
Although the recent contributions to the franchise are far removed from the original tone and intent, it is still possible to enjoy the 1977 masterpiece on its own and remember why an unlikely space-fantasy was able to capture the imagination of a generation and become a cultural mainstay.