A New Scope: Analyzing the Political commentary As it relates to the COld War in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, America was at “the height of the Cold War” (Wetmore 2). The globe split in two, as the superpowers of the Soviet Union and United States struggled for a balance of power. While wars literally broke out in Vietnam and Korea, another war came and spread across American soil. This war was not fought by soldiers, but by actors, and not fought on battlefields, but on a large screen. On May 25th, 1977, Star Wars: A New Hope was released in United States theatres. Less than 3 years later, on May 21, 1980, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back was released, and with it came a whole new world (literally) of political commentary on the events of the time. Ronald Reagan was the current President, and had “engaged in numerous plans to make a nuclear war winnable, via such programs as the MX missile and the Strategic Defense Initiative” (Wetmore 2). Reagan recognized the relevance of Star Wars to the political atmosphere of the time, as he aptly nicknamed the Strategic Defense Initiative ‘Star Wars’. With the Arms Race in full swing and new nuclear technology developing, Star Wars perfectly reflects the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union as “the fight between “freedom-loving” people who are fighting an evil empire that has enough power to destroy a planet” (Wetmore 3). Throughout the film, the use of parallels, visual cues, metaphors and a variety of other methods are used to establish the American cause as analogous with the “good” side and the Rebellion. Adversely, the Soviet cause is analogous with the Dark Side and evil.

The Empire

With obvious evil themes such as “the Sith” and “the Dark Side”, every audience member immediately understands that Vader and the Emperor are the villains. After the Empire and its leaders are clearly identified as the villains of the movie, the makers of Star Wars set to work on associating the Empire with the Soviet Union. One way in which this is done is through the use of military conquest to coerce planets into their form of government. Fear tactics and brute force are on display as Darth Vader forces Lando Calirissian to give up his friends to the Empire in order to save his home planet. The empire simply does not tolerate any form of government different from their own, evident by the absurd uniformity of their army and fleet in general. Additionally, the cold, robotic way in which the Imperial troops operate dehumanizes them, to the point where the Empire is much more of a war machine than a governing body. The musical score associated with the Empire also gives off a distinctly negative sound. All of these elements combine to not only relate the Empire to the Soviet Union, but also to cast the Empire (and by extension the Soviet Union) in an extremely negative light.

The Rebellion

Americans have always loved an underdog story. When you think about it, America itself began as an underdog story, with the colonists overcoming the large army of the British Empire to start their own country. To establish the metaphor of the Rebellion to America, “an All-American cast for the trio of heroes” battles against “an all-British cast portraying the upper echelons of the Imperial Order” (McDowell 77). With the opening battle on Hoth, it is clear that the Empire neither respects nor fears the rebellion. However, the Rebellion, while giving off the persona of an underdog, is actually “a well-organized, well-funded, well-armed body, organized into military ranks with several hidden bases” (Wetmore 47). Furthermore, the Rebellion is fighting to restore democracy and is “multiethnic, multiracial, multicultural, and, at least in theory, egalitarian” (Wetmore 47). Having established the Empire as the Soviet Union, it now seems perfectly fit that the Rebellion, endeared to the audience in all aspects of the War, is the perfect metaphor for the ideal image of America. As a heterogeneous group fighting for the rights of all people, the Rebellion latches itself to the idea of inclusivity. During the Cold War, this idea of fighting for equality and the rights of all would have been very important to the American cause, as one of the main premises for US involvement in foreign conflicts (i.e Korea, Vietnam) was the defending of democracy in foreign countries.

In this scene, the British Imperial commanders regard the incoming Rebel Ships not as threatening or with the potential to flea, but instead as fish that have just been caught in a net.

In this scene, there seems to be no doubt as to how the invasion of Hoth will go. Before even capturing the base, the Imperial Commander confidently tells Vader to being his approach, as if the rebels are already captured.

SETTING

Much of The Empire Strikes Back takes place in very remote places of the galaxies. Systems such as Dagoba, Hoth, and Bespin are all in the outskirts of the galaxy, with very few (relatively) large cities playing a role. Throughout the saga, fighting on the outskirts seems to be a theme. This theme is very comparable to the Cold War which “was not fought openly between the Soviet Union and the United States, but by proxy in Africa, Asia and Latin America (Wetmore 41). Furthermore, one cannot help but notice the parallels of the specific locations in Empire to events and issues of the Cold War. Hoth bears eerie similarity to Siberian Russia, where many ‘enemies of the state’ were held in Soviet gulags. Just as Luke is tested in his training on Dagoba, the US is tested in the rainforest climate of Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Lastly, Cloud City is a small, uninvolved gas mining city, which parallels very well with the “spiraling oil prices” and subsequent struggle for the resource at the time of the Cold War (Wemore 2).

Darth Vader

The Ultimate Villain in the franchise, Darth Vader is a ruthless dictator ruling over the Imperial Star Fleet. In his quest for power, Vader shows no mercy, even to his own comrades. Vader’s all black dress further convinces the audience of his inherent villainy. Vader’s robotic prosthetics remove him from humanity and makes him into more of a war machine. His monotone voice and constantly audial breathing are dreadful, and make the entire audience both fear and despise the sound. Darth Vader, with his merciless punishment to any who impede the progress of the Empire and his machine-like pursuit of power is Josef Stalin. Stalin similarly took over power, arresting and executing anyone who might threaten his power or stand in his way at all. Stalin conducted purges of his own people in an attempt to further distance himself from his own paranoia. Meanwhile, Darth Vader feels no remorse choking his own officers to death and cutting off the hand of his own son, Luke Skywalker. Stalin made reforms that forced millions of his own citizens into death and starvation. Vader “goes on to kill billions of people like Stalin” (McDowell 99). The parallels make it clear that Darth Vader is meant as a metaphor for a “human butcher[s] like Hitler [or] Stalin” (McDowell 99). The Empire Strikes Back shows the corruption of Anakin Skywalker by his desire for power, turning him towards evil and villainy for the prospect of gaining more of it. The film thoroughly advocates against an all-powerful government with a militaristic leader, much like the very government Stalin had attempted to set up.

In this scene, Vader is shown mercilessly killing a commander in the Empire because Vader believes that this man is impeding his progress.

Yoda

While Yoda is instructing Luke, he is also instructing the audience as to the difference between good and evil. His message, though slightly jumbled in syntax, clearly connects Vader and the Empire to “the Dark Side.” Yoda explains to the naïve Luke Skywalker and the audience just how powerful the Dark Side is, and how Luke is susceptible to it. Essentially, Yoda introduces the ideological battle of Star Wars, connecting the Dark Side (and by extension the Soviet Union) to lust for power, anger, and jealousy. In opposition, he connects the Light Side of the force to the best in all of us. Ideas of self-sacrifice, courage, and justice are associated with the Light Side and ergo the United States. Essentially the character of Yoda establishes what kind of emotions and ideals are associated with each side, further endearing audiences to the American-representing Rebellion.

The Emperor

With the release of Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back, the audience is introduced to a new, and perhaps the most intrinsically evil of all villains, the emperor. The Emperor, within the context of Empire, “rules directly by passing his orders to the regional governors” (Wetmore 45). All elements of democracy existing extensively in the prequel trilogy is done completely away with by the 5th film of the series. Just as the Soviet Leaders ruled over the Soviet Union with the dreaded Red Army, the emperor “exert[s] authority over the systems and planets of the Empire through the power of the clone army” (Wetmore 45). Like his apprentice Vader, the Emperor shows his ruthless desire for power in ordering Vader to either turn or destroy his own son in the name of the Empire. Ultimately, the character of the Emperor represents something purely evil, which when placed at the head of the Empire, makes a strong statement as to what is truly at the heart of this government.

Watch as the Emperor heartlessly tells Vader that his own child, Luke Skywalker, has become a threat to the Empire and that he must be stopped.

Han SOlo

Han Solo is the American “seasoned noble outlaw” of the Star Wars Universe (Brode and Deyneka 5). Playing by his own rules, he is immediately endeared to the audience as a desperado who is just trying to make his way in the universe. Within this film, Solo embodies the American ideals that conflict with the communism in Soviet Russia. First, Solo is a smuggler. In Communist governments, all power, especially that of the economy, is given to the state. Therefore it makes perfect sense that Han Solo, the American of the story, would fight back against unfair Imperial trade laws by smuggling his own goods. As a successful smuggler, Solo is also portrayed as more intelligent than the Empire, as he is easily able to slip through their fingers despite such a large force. Looking back on historical events such as the Space Race or the publicity surrounding Bobby Fischer’s Chess match against the top Soviet candidates, it is evident that Americans had a desire to prove themselves more intelligent than the Soviets. Additionally, the character of Han Solo can be perfectly described in this movie as torn between his allegiance to the rebellion and his need to address his personal affairs. What is truer to American history than the constant struggle between personal gain due to the capitalistic economy and national pride? In an attempt to rejuvenate national pride, Solo chooses the Rebellion. In a scene that tugs at the heart strings of the entire audience, Han Solo is martyred for the Rebellion. Just before his freezing in carbonite, Han Solo’s love interest, Princess Leia, expresses her profound love for him, conveying a message to the audience that those who choose the right thing over the easy thing will be rewarded, in this case with love.

Luke SkyWalker

The protagonist throughout The Empire Strikes Back, Luke Skywalker embodies the idealistic American hero. He is selfless, choosing to become a Jedi. Traveling to the Dagoba system, he shows his resolve is strong to defeat Darth Vader and restore the balance to the force. Skywalker is human, evident through his skepticism of Yoda’s teachings and his ultimate failure in this movie. However, similar to the American ideals of hard work and reliability, Luke is eventually successful in his quest (though not until the next movie). The penultimate scene in The Empire Strikes Back is undoubtedly the reveal that Darth Vader is in fact Luke’s father. Even facing the life-altering fact that his arch-rival, Darth Vader, is his father, Luke, as the representation of the ideal American, stays true to the cause.

Princess Leia

While Princess Leia’s character is not completely free from stereotype in The Empire Strikes Back, she does a great job in “upending the traditional fairy trope of the damsel in distress” (Elovaara 49). Princess Leia shows a great deal of agency throughout the film. She is a leader of the Rebellion, an able-bodied and deft soldier, and even able to fix parts of the Millennium Falcon by herself. While she ultimately falls in love with Han Solo, she establishes from the very beginning of the film that she is an independent woman capable of making her own decisions. Towards the end of the film, Leia proves the hero, as she rescues the protagonist Luke, who is dangling from an antenna. She is shown as the captain of the ship, with the most agency of any character in the scene. This message of female empowerment would further endear American audiences to the rebel side, preaching a message unlike the Soviet Union.

Important Plot Points and Their Metaphorical Counterparts:

Luke’s Training:

Luke’s Training with Master Yoda is representative of an American’s formation of values. Luke begins with juvenile ideals, as “self-interested adventure and excitement are key values” (McDowell 116). However, Luke’s training “has the effect of deconstructing his notion of heroism,” and replacing it with a sense of duty to the right thing (McDowell 116).Additionally, he is taught the value of faith and hard work. Essentially, Luke, being taught by the wisest character of the movie, learns to rise above himself for the good of the community, a message of great importance to the American public at the brink of war.

Escaping the Fleet:

This scene is important as it establishes the skill of the Americans (via Han Solo) as compared to the Soviets. Despite being ridiculously outnumbered (essentially an Imperial Fleet vs. the Milenium Falcon), Han Solo is able to outmaneuver the entire fleet and an asteroid field. The Imperial pilots prove no match for Solo, as they crash and burn in the wake of the Falcon. Solo, though not an experienced military pilot, proves far superior and even overcomes the enormous odds against him (explicitly stated by C3PO).

Cloud City

While on Cloud City, a number of important events comment on the Cold War at the time. The first is how Vader is able to capture Han and Leia, through Lando Calrissian’s betrayal of the two. The United States was not exactly united on the Cold War front at the time, as some believed that the US should not have been involved in Vietnam, and others were distrusting of the government due to President Richard Nixon. In this one scene, Star Wars informs audiences that the only way in which America can lose is if they fail to unite. With the torture of Han, the Empire is further engrained as purely evil, as it is soon revealed that Vader is using Luke’s friends as bate in order to capture the young rebel

Luke vs. Vader

The quintessential scene in the movie, Vader and the Soviet Union are pitted against Luke and the USA. From the beginning, it is clear the Luke is no match for Vader physically at this point in the saga, yet the more important battle is not the duel with swords, but the dialogue. As Yoda foreshadows before Luke leaves Dagoba, Vader tries to lure Luke to the Dark Side. Psychologically, with incomplete training, friends in danger, and a juvenile mind that has just been burdened with the fact that his arch enemy is actually his father, Luke is at his most vulnerable at this moment. Physically, he is hanging over an abyss after recently losing his hand. Yet despite all of these obstacles, Luke, the ideal American, trusts in his ideologies and his friends. As a result of this, he is saved by his friends and lives to fight another day.

Visual Cues:

Color association

The Empire is pretty clearly associated with the color red. Sound Familiar? One of the most haunting motifs throughout the original trilogy is Darth Vader’s red light sabre slowly rising from its base. Red, the universally accepted color of communism, is thus associated with death and destruction via the most powerful villain’s weapon.

Uniforms

While the Rebellion wears a rag tag selection of uniforms, the Empire wears a military uniform very reminiscent of a Soviet Military uniform.

Soviet Uniform
Imperial Officer Uniform

Rebellion and Empire Symbols

Interesting to note, the two symbols of the Rebellion and the Empire combine almost perfectly to make a Soviet Hammer and Sickle. The Rebellion symbol makes up most of the center, whereas the Imperial Symbol make up the surrounding border. Could this be a metaphor for the Rebellion as an attack at the very center, or heart, of the Empire?

Imperial Seal
Rebel Seal
Two Symbols Overlayed

Works Cited

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“Star Wars Return of the Jedi- Emperor's Arrival on the Death Star II [HD]” (image), uploaded by Lolrocket, 19 July 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i9U7rAi7Aeg

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“The Empire Strikes Back- The Battle of Hoth” YouTube, uploaded by Brendan Burke, 30 March 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6X3Hv1YLhG8

“The symbol of the Soviet Union on a Russian Army officer's hat at Izmaylovo Market”. Moscow Times, Moscow. Moscow Times, https://themoscowtimes.com/articles/today-in-history-dec-30-30853

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Wetmore, Kevin J. The Empire Triumphant. McFarland and Company Inc. Publishers, 2015.

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