Star Wars is the past. Before every trilogy film’s opening credits are the iconic words, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” The stories we watch, the stories we read, represent a past, and as a result, constitute a telling of history. A fictional history, for sure, but worked into Star Wars from the very beginning are elements of our own real history. As Faulkner said, the past is never dead, and that history of it lives and breathes within the Star Wars franchise, giving it a subliminal layer of familiarity and comfort.
One can find it in A New Hope by peeling away the nominal outer layers of the story being told, such as the history invoked by imagery and action. The Galactic Empire represents a mighty industrial power at war against a small collection of insurgents determined to bring it to an end. This is the setup for a hundred escalations between white colonial powers and the people, almost always of color, who fight against their literal empires for their freedoms. That the Empire’s rank and file soldiers are clad in white, their officer corps almost exclusively Caucasian (did we mention English accented?), only reinforces this aspect of who and what the Empire reflects from our world history. Like many colonial powers, the Empire claims to promote order within a wild galaxy, all the while draining native planets of their valuable material resources. Rogue One enters this lexicon keeping it intact and in a way, amplifying the comparison.
No true analysis can be applied to Rogue One until its release in December, but we know the setting and we’ve seen the trailers, which provide a sufficient amount of information regarding what we will experience in movie seats in a couple months. For example, we see an Empire occupied ancient city of holy importance to others, and wonderfully, an insurgency that is greatly diverse in race and color (if not gender). It’s also a setting of a colonial power using its military might to control the fates of others, but this is only half the story of history in Rogue One or Star Wars in general. The other half is the invocation of history by our own telling of it.
How George Lucas pitched Star Wars to studio executives is widely known with his use of dogfight reels from a film about the Second World War. As a Baby Boomer, Lucas grew up with the same generational attachment to that conflict as Faulkner had to the American Civil War and unsurprisingly, both creators had their works influenced purposefully or subconsciously by the cultural dominance that those wars inflicted upon their respective societies. At the same time, Lucas lived through an era that documented the next biggest conflict and the first to broadcast into every home with the nightly news, the Vietnam War.
The Vietnam War began as the French Indochina War in the 1950s, when France attempted to retain its pre-Second World War colonial holdings in Southeast Asia. That colonial power failed, but fueled by fear of the spread of Communism, the United States allowed itself to be drawn in after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu. It was this war of a powerful industrial military power grappling with a smaller, less advanced equipped enemy in foreign jungles that likewise influenced Lucas’ generation, who as they assumed creative roles in Hollywood, sought to wrestle with that war’s impact on America through numerous films from The Deer Hunter to Platoon. In Return of the Jedi, the jungle is transformed into a massive redwood forest where the indigenous people appear from nowhere to attack their mechanized enemy with ruthless efficiency. Jedi is not a critique on American involvement in Vietnam, but it drew upon that war and the memories of a generation.
In the trailers released for Rogue One, the specter of that war is drawn upon with even greater clarity. Its director, Gareth Edwards, is not a Baby Boomer, but a member of Generation X, a generation which grew up with Vietnam not as an experience, but as a living memory and the subject of most war films in the same way that Boomers grew up with World War Two films. When Edwards set out to put the ‘war’ in Star Wars, that conflict undoubtedly was part of his vocabulary of cinematic war. We know, courtesy of the opening crawl of A New Hope that Rogue One will feature a major victory for the Rebel Alliance, an insurgency, by the way, operating from a hidden jungle base. That battle, it can be reliably wagered upon, is the one seen in the trailers occurring on the paradise-like planet of Scarif.
The palm frond shaded battlefield with images of soldiers emerging and rushing through the large leafed environs recall scenes of battle from Oliver Stone’s Platoon and, generally, other Vietnam War films. It’s a cinematic telling of the past, a history that inspires and influences another history, of a rebellion against an empire in a galaxy far, far away. In the same manner, Rogue One also returns to the Second World War, with rebels invoking the image of Marines crashing through blue Pacific waters with landing craft just behind under enemy fire. This turn is not surprising, either, given the focus on the ‘Greatest Generation’ and the onslaught of recent films about the Second World War, a result of the Baby Boomers grappling with the passing of their parents’ generation.
Rogue One is history, because Star Wars is history. The franchise is conflict, unsurprisingly, because as a civilization, our oldest stories and histories revolve around the infliction of power via Force either to be free or to enslave. Now, in a 21st Century incarnation of Star Wars, produced as a war film, it’s not surprising that the history drawn upon is both a history of war as it happened and of war as it has been told through film. Star Wars has always echoed our history, from the wars to the those who fought them, and it will continue to do so in the macro and micro storytelling sense. The past is the past, but our telling of it, that is our history. It is how we identify ourselves, and how Rogue One tells its story of war, its history, will allow us to understand how Star Wars as a whole sees itself.