Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Star Wars = Apocalypse Now?

Posted by metaphorical on 5 December 2006

Star Wars fans, is this generally known?

I’m reading The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, by Michael Ondaatje.

Ondaatje is the novelist who wrote The English Patient, as well as Anil’s Ghost, Running in the Family, etc. Murch is a film and sound editor who went to film school with George Lucas at USC, in the 1960s. (Francis Coppola was across town at UCLA.)

Murch talks about his film and/or sound editing on such pictures as The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, Apocalypse Redux, American Graffiti, THX 1138, and The English Patient, through which he and Ondaatje met. The “John” in the passage below refers to John Milius, who wrote the original Apocalypse Now screenplay.

Originally George Lucas was going to direct [Apocalypse Now], so it was a project that George and John developed for Zoetrope. That was back in 1969. Then when Warner Bros. cancelled the financing for Zoetrope, the project was abandoned for a while. After the success of American Graffiti in 1973, George wanted to revive it, but it was still too hot a topic, the war was still on, and nobody wanted to finance something like that. So George considered his options: What did he really want to say in Apocalypse Now? The message boiled down to the ability of a small group of people to defeat a gigantic power simply by the force of their convictions. And he decided, All right, if it’s politically too hot as a contemporary subject, I’ll put the essence of the story in outer space and make it happen in a galaxy long ago and far away. The rebel group were the North Vietnamese, and the Empire was the United States. And if you have the force, no matter how small you are, you can defeat the overwhelmingly big power. Star Wars is George’s transubstantiated version of Apocalypse Now.

The Conversations, p.70

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4 Responses to “Star Wars = Apocalypse Now?”

  1. I don’t buy it. Apocolypse Now wasn’t about the North Vietnamese beating the US, it was about people in a mad situation going mad. The North Vietnamese never appear in the movie at all, except as dead bodies or disembodied voices outside the wire.

  2. RBS said

    I think you’re onto something.

    In retrospect, the Star Wars cycle is very much about Vietnam, and about Imperialism. The newer prequel trilogy follows the events of 9/11 and thereafter pretty closely.

    I’ve elaborated a bit here:

    http://scorpionbowl.blogspot.com/2007/05/george-lucas-american-orwell.html

  3. Paul:

    That’s Coppola’s movie. Who knows what Lucas’s Apocalypse Now would have been?

    That being said, though, the Coppola movie is an allegorical version of Heart of Darkness, which is about the madness people allow themselves to succumb to. The film acts as a kind of double-reverse metaphor: the Vietnam War is a metaphor for the opportunity we all face to let the madness inside us take over, while Heart of Darkness is a metaphor for the madness of the Vietnam War. In the end, the war was the insane act of insane people, and all too human for that. None of which has anything to do with a rag-tag band of rebels overthrowing an evil empire through the force.

    Really hard to see Star Wars as a Vietnam metaphor, even if you’re sympathetic to the VC. I don’t even see the message of the war as “the ability of a small group of people to defeat a gigantic power simply by the force of their convictions”. (I see it as a good reason not to fight irregular forces on difficult territory in their own country, using large-unit equipment and tactics.) I think it’s just what it appears to be: a fantasy cobbled together out of familiar movie cliches. The fact that Lucas had to revisit his own politics partway through suggests that he really didn’t intend to embue it with any sophisticated political message. (It wasn’t until the 5th or 6th movie that he noticed that his noble rebels were fighting for a hereditary monarchy against a democratic regime. Then he had the princess resign her throne and run for the Senate, which allowed the 9/11 metaphor to come through but completely buggered the politics of the previously-released Chapter 1, in which the non-princess’s daughter is again a princess. He also famously re-edited the Chapter 1 gunfight so Han Solo does not shoot first, something you think he might have thought of beforehand if Solo is supposed to be the Vietcong.)

  4. I don’t think Star Wars is supposed to be a Vietnam allegory or metaphor so directly, or a literal commentary on the war. But it was certainly a response to Vietnam and has a pretty clear anti-imperialist message.

    You can’t look at the release date and not see it influenced by what was going on in the country at the time.

    Kevin, I think your read on the politics within the films is inaccurate. The Empire is not a democracy, and the rebels are certainly not fighting for a monarchy. Leia Organa is a Princess on Alderaan, but she is a Senator on Coruscant.

    Just like her mother.

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