An orphaned hero. An imprisoned princess. A wise old hermit. A magic sword. A fearsome dark lord.
Such conventions are the stuff of myth and romance — yet, inexplicably, the first Hollywood film to give these mythic archetypes their due was not some Arthurian romance or epic costume drama.
Rather, it was a gonzo space-opera swashbuckler combining a nostalgic blend of cinematic influences — Saturday-matinee serials, Westerns, WWII movies — with unprecedented technical virtuosity and effects wizardry.
Yet the iconic stature of Star Wars can’t be reduced to a laundry list of influences or technical achievements — any more than it can be debunked by a laundry list of its admitted limitations (e.g., creaky dialogue, uneven acting, philosophical shallowness). Rather, the film’s place in our collective imagination is ultimately rooted in its sense of wonder, of innocence, its unironic celebration of heroism, its unreconstructed vision of good versus evil.
So rare are films with this sort of storybook spirit that critics looking for cinematic precedents (as opposed to literary ones, such as The Once and Future King or The Lord of the Rings) have been driven all the way back to The Wizard of Oz. The comparison has even at times been pressed too far, with See-Threepio and Chewbacca, for example, held up as analogs to the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion (despite the lack of any similarity in their characters and dramatic roles).
What Star Wars and The Wizard of Oz do have in common is that each represents a distinctively American take on older European type of folk narrative, dressed up in the conventions of Hollywood cinematic tradition. In my review of The Wizard of Oz I called it "the quintessential American fairy tale"; if so, Star Wars is the quintessential American mythology.
The Wizard of Oz is "Snow White" and "Jack the Giant-Killer" transplanted from Europe, reimagined for a land of cornfield scarecrows and sideshow hucksters, and (in the film) repackaged as a Hollywood musical. Likewise, Star Wars is King Arthur and the samurai / wuxia epics of the East, repackaged as space opera in the pulp tradition of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, and reimagined with saloon shootouts, WWII dogfights, Nazi-like villians, and 1950s hotrods.
Star Wars gave us one of the screen’s most indelible icons of evil, Darth Vader. It also gave us space-age chivalry, knights and swordsmanship combined with laser lightshows. In a mythic genre in which female characters are too often passive prizes to be won or rescued, it gave us one of the genre’s spunkiest and most self-possessed heroines. And in the Force, it gave us a potent symbol of mystery and transcendence over against the anti-religious Imperial culture and the cynical skepticism of Han Solo.
And, as with The Wizard of Oz, many of us first saw Star Wars in childhood, and parents who grew up with it delight in sharing with their own children. It has shaped our imaginations, our inner worlds. The series may be over at last, but the Force will be with us always.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.