Star Wars is a franchise which revolves around concealment of one’s identity. It’s most
famous villain resides behind an impenetrable mask for almost the entirety of his screen time, and the removal of masks is nearly entirely the role of the protagonists. Its prevalence throughout the Star Wars films occurs because concealment is simply excellent stagecraft, be it a marching forest or standing behind a curtain in Shakespeare to a weekly old man exposed by Mystery Incorporated and their great dane. Masks heighten an individual’s ability to intimidate, as well, stealing away all the visual cues that we humans search for to better understand each other. In Star Wars, as we mentioned above, it began with a lord of the Sith.
From the second Darth Vader emerged steps behind the flood of white storm troopers aboard the Tantive IV, his mask became iconic. A science fiction riff on Japanese masks, be it the theatrical Kabuki or visages of samurai helms worn into battle, Vader’s mask does more than simply intimidate. It conceals his identity as Anakin Skywalker, a truth buried deep within, and only resurfacedthrough the valiant efforts of his son. The mask and Vader’s character never weakens until Return of the Jedi, when the Emperor’s efforts to kill Luke force Anakin to once again embrace the good within. One can read Anakin’s return as early as the moment he hefts Palpatine into the air, the force lightning shocking his treasonous lieutenant, revealing the man inside with flashes of a skeleton. That he asks Luke to remove his mask before his death is only the final note in the story of the mask’s attempt to conceal. His son, Luke, runs into his fair share of masked individuals out to give him grief.
While Luke’s introduction to the wider world beyond the good ol’ moisture farm may have been the hologram of a brave princess, the first danger he encounters in the film comes at the hands of masked individuals, the Sand People. Ostensibly, the Tusken Raiders cover their faces as a matter of survival in the harsh Tatooine deserts, or genetically, they’re extremely ugly people. Either way, their appearance is frightening with eyes and mouths reduced to literal pipes and weird apparatuses emerging from bandage wrapped heads. Toss in the nearly inhuman screams of rage and the Sand People may be one of the scariest races in the Star Wars universe, because we can’t, as humans, find the obvious facial cues with which to emphasize with them. Unfortunately for Skywalker, they’re not the only masked individuals out to blast him to pieces, and yes,accuracy jokes aside, we mean the storm troopers.
Vader’s aforementioned entourage, the white helmeted storm troopers have become iconic symbols of the franchise, inspiring thousands to make their own armor and if
possible, dance to the fine tunes of Weird Al. Fan activities aside, the design of the storm troopers, uniform with large insect like eyes and permanent frowns, rely upon the concealment of the very human soldiers within as a means of intimidation. Similar to the Sand People, their dehumanization through their armor’s concealment, makes them alien and impenetrable to the audiences’ best attempt to associate with them. Likewise, it’s not a coincidence that the soldiers of the rebellion all have unconcealed faces. When the time came to update the white clad warriors for The Force Awakens, careful attention was made to retain the same inherent disturbing features of oppression’s army.
The use of concealment is not limited to just the bad guys of the Star Wars alone, but the motivation behind the concealment is completely different. Our best example is the first act of Return of the Jedi, as both Leia and Lando conceal their identities for the purposes of sneaking into Jabba’s palace to rescue Han. Even Luke obscures his face with shadow when making his way into Jabba’s court, but as noted, the concealment is entirely for a good moral reason, rescuing Han. Incidentally, rescue was also the reason for the first time our heroes donned disguises in A New Hope. Luke Skywalker might have been a ‘little short for a storm trooper’ but he convincingly, along with Han, were able to walk the corridors of the Death Star with little problem. Han plays up an Imperial disguise in Jedi to trick the shield generator base commander into opening his doors in his last, best impression of a servant of the Emperor. For the good guys, concealment is a tool on the path to justice, and then there are the characters in between the good and the bad.
Many of the bounty hunters either conceal their appearances or partially obscure
them. Most notably is Boba Fett, whose Mandalorian helm and armor became shorthand for cool and mysterious among Star Wars fans. Incidentally, perhaps the next best example is the poor bounty hunter, Zam Wesell. Wesell receives bonus points for not just physically concealing her true appearance via shape shifting, but even covering up most of her fake face, too. That moment in Attack of the Clones, when Zam covers her human looking face, signals that there’s another layer to her mystery only revealed when a poisoned dart hits her in the jugular. It is a bit ironic that her death came at the hands of Boba Fett’s father, whose we learn set the standard for cool concealment in Star Wars, but that’s a working partnership for you.
Concealment, be it for nefarious purposes to scare one’s enemy, add a level of intrigue, or
to aid a greater good, is found throughout the Star Wars franchise. It’s present for those reasons, but even more simply, because concealment is a wonderful tool of storytelling. It adds symbolic layers to a character or signals cues to the audience to add to their interpretation of what’s going on in the film, play, or novel before their eyes. From A New Hope to The Force Awakens and beyond, it will undoubtedly remain a part of the Star Wars galaxy.
Addendum: The Force Awakens
The Force Awakens executes the use of concealment for storytelling purposes to great effect, particularly through the use of unmasking. The inhuman FN-2187 becomes Finn, our hero, once he removes his bloodstained helmet to reveal a panicked and stress face, someone we can empathize with. Likewise, Kylo Ren’s habit of removing his helmet to humanize the villain who ruthlessly orders the killing of innocent villagers adds subtext to his character, as well his propensity for the comfort of returning to its concealment. Finally, we have Rey who’s face is concealed to represent the different lives she lives or wishes she lives. As a scavenger, her face is concealed by salvaged storm trooper goggles and bandages, almost a mixture of Tusken Raider and storm trooper. As a woman dreaming of a world beyond the drab existence of Jakku, she hides behind the helmet of an X-wing pilot. The sequel to Return of the Jedi serves well as a general exhibition of the use of concealment in storytelling.