Star Wars. When the genre defining film was released in 1977, it was simply Star Wars. Not long after, Star Wars became the identifier of a franchise, the umbrella under which six more theatrical films would be released, multiple television shows, and dozens upon dozens of books and comic books. The stories and characters that became beloved all emerged from the central tenant of conflict, of galactic wars which framed every adventure and sojourn to a place a long time ago and far, far away. First there was the rebellion against the Empire, then Naboo and the Clone Wars, and most recently, the Resistance against the First Order. Yet, for all that the word war and conflict were inherently part of every installment, as a franchise, Star Wars has generally avoided glorifying battle and war, in particular.
From the very beginning, A New Hope balanced the youthful idealistic expectation of war against its grim realities. When Luke Skywalker first encounters the hologram of a space princess, pleading for the assistance of a General Obi-Wan, he excitedly questions C-3PO about the droids involvement in the rebellion against the Empire. The romantic reflection in Luke’s question isn’t lost upon the viewer, though the golden protocol droid dashes Luke’s hopes for war stories with an admission of not being a very good storyteller. Luke, however, learns over an immediately short time the grim realities of what war brings to society, destruction and death. The Empire’s willingness to slaughter Jawas, and then execute his uncle and aunt, propel him into a conflict in which he later became a hero. On that path to heroic status, however, Skywalker not only watched the death of his friend and mentor, Kenobi, but also lost his childhood friend Biggs Darklighter, who fell protecting Luke on the famous trench run of the Death Star. A New Hope’s message about war was not limited to Skywalker’s own perspective, either.
That message is not strictly anti-war, but that war is necessary but brings with it terrible things. Millions die as a result of Alderaan’s support of the rebellion, an atrocity brought home not by the scene of an exploding planet, but by Alec Guiness falling back, overwhelmed by the pain of a million voices crying out all at once that reverberated through the Force. In the Battle of Yavin, nearly two dozen rebel pilots flying X-wings and Y-wings set out for the Death Star, but only a fraction of them return. Instead, in the lead up to Skywalker’s Force guided torpedo shot, viewers are treated to rebels being shot down one after another. Their losses aren’t simply space fighters blowing up with anonymous pilots within them, but often cut to recognizable faces dealing with the impossible task of accepting their demise seconds before dying. Even the grave acceptance by Red Leader, aware that his death is only a few breaths away, adds a solemnness to the combat, as he coolly issues orders to his surviving fighters to continue the attack without him. Stripping away the science fiction and fantastical elements of the war in A New Hope, the message remains clear. War is needed to stop the bad guy, but people die and it comes with a price for those who elect to resort to it. In the sequel that followed, war was treated no less differently, and arguably, with a more critical view.
The first act of The Empire Strikes Back is the story of rebel defeat on the battlefield. One can point that the avoidance of complete annihilation represents a success, but under the command of General Veers, the Imperial forces swiftly overwhelmed the rebel fortifications and dealt their foe a harsh defeat. The attention that Star Wars gave to the realities of war in the fight over the Death Star returned over the snow fields of Hoth, as rebel snowspeeder pilot after snowspeeder pilot is seen being shot down in the course of their attack on the Imperial walkers. Luke’s own gunner, Dak, whom we are introduced filled with the buoyant enthusiasm that Luke once held for fighting the Empire, is slain almost immediately, his body left to be crushed by a monstrous AT-AT foot. Luke heroically takes down the walker, but ultimately leaves Hoth for Dagobah where a quintessential good guy clearly outlines how war should be viewed.
Small, green, and more than willing to play the literary Russian fool, Jedi Master Yoda was introduced in Empire as the font of Jedi wisdom and practice. Nowhere else in the original trilogy do fans receive the greatest amount of knowledge about the Force, nor the greatest amount of argument for approaching the world from a pacifistic perspective. It begins with an unknowing Luke telling Yoda that he sought a “great warrior,” to which Yoda responded, “wars not make one great!” In a short syntax challenged answer, Yoda sums up the approach to war of the Star Wars franchise. There is nothing great about war and partaking in them does not, or should not, bequeath greatness. The rest of Luke’s time on Dagobah is spent learning that the Force, that mythical power introduced in A New Hope, is a weapon that should only be used for knowledge and defense, and incredibly, never for attack. Aggression does not belong on Dagobah, or in Empire, as Luke disregards Yoda’s admonishments twice. First in taking his weapons with him into the cave, and second, leaving Dagobah, granted under the premise of saving his friends, but aggressively seeking out Vader. In both cases, Skywalker loses.
On Cloud City, the word war is never mentioned, but it exists as something of an idyllic society, a heaven in the clouds for those who live and work there. The main reason for the tranquil existence being the absence of the Empire, which has been presented as nothing but a war machine in this film or the previous. When the gas-mining Eden falls, it’s because the Empire arrives, bringing war, and destroying the paradise that existed prior to its arrival. In turn, Skywalker confronts Vader and is defeated, losing a hand in the process. By losing a limb, Luke joins the hundreds of thousands, millions, who have gone to war and returned as amputees. The loss of his hand is not glazed over, even when the film concludes with a visually identical replacement, but a replacement, none the less, which is introduced as cold and mechanical. His amputee status will be reflected upon in Return of the Jedi, the trilogy’s final installment which mirrors A New Hope’s manner of refusing to hide the warts of war.
The idea of a paradise invaded by war, such as Cloud City in Empire, is also replicated in Jedi with the forest moon of Endor. There the message is even more pronounced with the introduction of a native people, otherwise uninvolved with the wider war, who are dragged into the conflict. As amusing as the Ewoks are shown in battle against the Empire, Return of the Jedi separates a quiet moment in the midst of the climatic battle to focus the lens of the camera on an Ewok grieving over the death of a friend. Short of Luke’s own momentary pause in the cockpit of his X-wing upon learning Biggs has been shot down, there are no other moments of soldiers mourning the loss of their comrades in the original trilogy. In the stars above, rebels die through much of the space battle, most notably, an A-wing pilot who guides his stricken fighter into the bridge of the super star destroyer Executor, all the while screaming loudly against his eventual doomed fate. Inside the fully operational Death Star, another battle helps define the place of war within the franchise.
For the final act of Return of the Jedi, Skywalker spends the majority of the time in the presence of his father, Darth Vader, and Emperor Palpatine. The purpose of the audience which completes the journey of an inauspicious farm boy from a backwater desert planet to a confrontation with the most powerful man in the galaxy is a thematic exploration of what it means to be the good guy and the bad guy in Star Wars. Palpatine, representing Team Bad, relishes the space battle outside his window, and the thought of the rebels being annihilated on the moon below. In the midst of his gleeful predictions of the battle’s outcome, Palpatine attempts to lure Luke into taking an aggressive action. For Palpatine, war is a tool without costs, that can and should be used to further his own goals, be it on a galactic scale or simply attempting to turn the last of the Jedi into an obedient servant. Palpatine’s use of war is later explored in the prequel trilogy, but in Return of the Jedi, his delight at conflict is perfectly communicated by his rapturous expression when Luke finally attempts to strike him down only to be blocked by Vader.
In the course of the duel that follows between father and son, Luke is forced to come to terms with what he believes. He initially refuses to fight his father, believing Vader still has good in him, and acknowledging that conflict is not the answer. He is goaded, however, into attacking when Vader threatens Leia. It calls into question, is conflict righteous when defending others, and it’s the principle under which the Rebel Alliance has engaged in war over the course of the trilogy. Surprisingly, when Luke overwhelms his father, amputating his father’s hand, Luke comes the realization that the answer is no. The lessons of Yoda come to fruition and the last Jedi casts down his weapon in the face of the Emperor, an enemy that he would unanimously receive approval for striking down in lieu of his defeated father.
One reason for this final understanding returns to Luke’s prosthesis. After Luke severs his father’s hand, the connection that he and his father share is clearly drawn. His father has all but lost his humanity serving the furtherance’s of war, and Luke’s own path of aggression threatens the same result. The simple understanding is that war and conflict take something from those who participate, be it friends, limbs, or even humanity. The only way Luke can avoid this fate is to avoid conflict entirely, hence the lightsaber on the floor instead of on his side. This decision is cloaked in the moral vestments of the Jedi, whom from the first film have always existed as the heroic good guys of the trilogy, and punctuated with Luke’s announcement, “I am a Jedi, like my father before me.” As all know, the good guy wins.
The Battle of Endor ends in a celebration among the participants, who notably delight most not in their victory, but upon seeing their friends and comrades safe and sound in its aftermath. The celebration is framed between a funeral pyre for Anakin Skywalker and the presence of the approving Force ghosts of Yoda, Obi-Wan, and Anakin. It’s a celebration that doesn’t forget death and that celebrates life. War in the original trilogy isn’t glorified, but full of death, costs, and allusions to it destroying places of peace and paradise. In the prequel films, and associated media, the franchise’s message of war assumes a more cynical commentary and warning to those who would embark in it to question its very existence in the first place. From A New Hope to Return of the Jedi, it’s allowed to serve a needed purpose, to defeat a greater evil, but not without a price for all who are involved.