When the first “Star Wars” movie opened almost 40 years ago, in 1977, a surprising new force was rising in American politics. It would soon be embodied in Ronald Reagan’s smiling, self-confident conservative charisma and the “Reagan Revolution.”
Today a new force is again stirring in American politics — the appeal of Donald Trump’s pugnacious populist ire. And maybe the historic popular and cultural success of a new “Star Wars” film, “The Force Awakens,” is no coincidence.
If the first “Star Wars” epic foreshadowed Reagan’s 1980 election to the presidency, does the new one point to Trump’s triumph 11 months from now?
The parallels between the two blockbusters include the role of each as a source of psychic relief from widely held anxieties and a dramatization of what the American people long for in their leaders.
In the summer of 1977, Americans were down in the dumps.
We had just lost our first war — the costly and controversial defense of liberty in South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Yet it was taboo to talk about defeat. We had never been the “bad guys” before, but some Americans insisted that’s what we had become.
Along with that costly failure, the Watergate scandal had recently driven a president from office, beginning our long, seemingly irreversible loss of trust in our politicians and governing institutions.
The Soviet Union threatened us day after day with nuclear annihilation. Many argued for peace at any cost. Inflation was eating into the well-being of the middle class. Money power flowed to the OPEC nations sitting on their God-given reserves of oil. Americans lined up to buy gas for their cars. The new Moral Majority subculture was insinuating that God had turned his face away from our nation as punishment for all of the legal abortions performed after 1973.
American culture was suffering a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter would speak to the nation about its “crisis of confidence.”
The first “Star Wars” movie provided that weary America with a needed therapy, in the form of an allegory about the triumph of American idealism. We loved it.
Why was that movie such a salve to our angst back then? Because the story’s archetypes — Princess Leia, Obi Wan Kanobi, Han Solo, Darth Vader, the Death Star, Luke Skywalker, Chewbacca, C-3PO, R2-D2 — served as Freudian or Jungian symbols to conjure up pride and hope, thwart our fears and remind us of our destiny as a great people.
The 1977 movie’s icons were metaphors for America’s national experiences in World War II and the Cold War, when we had led the world in standing up to “the dark side” embodied in fascism and Stalinism.
Consider this interpretation of the story: A rising empire of power is led by cruel tyrants and served by an army of “stormtroopers” commanded by a villain in a helmet rather like those of Hitler’s troops. The empire, which inflicted a holocaust of mass destruction on the people of Alderaan with a technological breakthrough in weaponry, is challenged by freedom fighters whose leader is costumed like Lady Liberty herself. The movie gave a nod to America’s World War II ally and historic mentor in world affairs and constitutional democracy, Great Britain, by casting a British actor of Churchillian gravitas as the iconic character of Obi Wan. The mentor passes the torch of leadership to the rising paladin of virtue, the very American kid Luke Skywalker.
Other heroes riding to Lady Liberty’s rescue likewise echoed rough-around-the-edges American archetypes from westerns and war dramas. Han Solo is a cross between John Wayne’s Davy Crockett or Ringo Kid and Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine from “Casablanca.” Chewbacca, C-3PO, and R2-D2 are updates of devoted sidekicks like Rin Tin Tin, Roy Rogers’ Trigger and Gabby Hayes, and the Lone Ranger’s Tonto.
And finally there was Luke, the American everyman who carried “The Force” within him and with it could take down the Evil Empire itself, a G.I. Joe or Seargent York for a new generation. Giving him a name combining one of Christ’s apostles with an American Indian vision quest about walking the sky was not out of totemic place.
The film ends, like World War II, with triumph for the universal but very American ideal of liberty.
In short, when we Americans were down about our destiny in 1977, the first “Star Wars” film came along to reassure a disheartened people that hope could be made real by those whose inner virtue would never let them surrender to darkness.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected president to “make American great again” and end the trauma triggered by our defeat in Vietnam. Had the conservative maverick’s ability to rally voters (surprising at the time) been foreshadowed by the appeal of the “Star Wars” mythology three years earlier?
If so, one wonders what the new “Star Wars” movie — a carefully constructed echo of the first one — foreshadows about this year’s presidential race? (Warning: Spoilers ahead.)
This year, Americans again are discouraged. After years of fighting, we have not secured peace in the war on terror. Iraq is falling under the sway of Iran and its religious fundamentalism. We have no strategy to eliminate or even contain Salafi Sunni extremism. Syria is a bloody mess with no peace in sight. Random Islamic fundamentalist killers sulk in our cities.
Russia and China are playing great power games undercutting the rule of law as we stand impotently by.
We have not defended our own borders. The middle class is shrinking. The rich are growing richer. Millennials may not enjoy the living standards of their parents.
Recently, I ran into a noted University of Minnesota professor who thinks America’s greatness is over. Analogies are being made between our times and the end of the Roman Republic.
As in 1977, conditions today justify grievous American self-doubt.
And so, we have flocked to see “Star Wars VII — The Force Awakens,” the reworked fable once again affirming American exceptionalism. The film is making box-office history. Once again we are soothed by cinematic psychotherapy for the despairing American soul. The movie’s triumph tells us something important about our emotional needs as a people.
The new film promises that the force will awaken anew, in still-difficult times for peace and justice, and the Nazi-like First Order and its minions will fail in their megalomaniacal viciousness.
But Luke Skywalker has given up the fight and fled after discouraging setbacks. The leaders of the First Order tout the benefits of totalitarian conformity with the verve of Islamists and seem to enjoy killing their enemies. They preach in a great meeting space modeled on Hitler’s Nuremberg parade ground. Han Solo’s parricide death reflects the turning of a younger generation of Americans against parental norms of heroism.
The movie thus confronts us with the worry that the future may yet belong to the dark side.
The two new youthful protagonists for meaningful peace and justice in the galaxy do not seem up to their responsibilities and don’t really bond with their sidekicks as Han and Luke had done with theirs. But the girl, Rey, shows promise. And the Millennium Falcon still flies through hyperspace.
The new movie is not as affirmative as its predecessor, leaving us in suspense. Will the surviving American Everyman, Luke, grown wiser with failure, once again assume leadership of the fight? Will he take the torch and let its light shine?
The movie’s ending reminds me of John Kennedy’s affirmation in his inaugural address that “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.”
Walking out of the same theater where I had seen the original “Star Wars,” I hoped that Luke would lead, but was uncertain whether he had the stomach to brave the trials he knows a hero’s course would bring upon him.
Donald Trump, for his part, exhibits few doubts. He is picking up the swagger stick of political leadership, stepping forth before our eyes to significant (and surprising) popular acclaim. He seems to have stomach for the fight ahead, driven by some unseen force to “make America great again.”
Will he be our everyman hero and next president? Is he the force that has been awakened?
Stephen B. Young, of St. Paul, is global executive director of the Caux Round Table, an international network of business leaders working to promote a moral capitalism.