I have just seen the new Star Wars film, The Force Awakens. I am not going to review it here (but suffice to say that a text conversation afterwards with a colleague - who is also a child of the Seventies - mostly consisted of the word 'AMAZING' in capital letters). What I am going to do instead is to reflect on the movie with my historian's hat on, hopefully without giving away any spoilers.
Critics and fans seem to be in agreement that the new film recaptures the spirit of the original trilogy, in a way that the prequel films failed to do. There are various theories as to why this is the case. The new film prioritises real action over CGI, several of the original cast and characters return, and it also restores the humour of the original. But, to my mind, what really connects The Force Awakens with the first three films is its sense of history.
It has often been said that the original Star Wars films were steeped in historical allegory. (This was less of a feature of the prequels, which instead explained the prehistory of Star Wars itself in rather a pedantic way.) Critics have speculated whether the struggle of the Rebel Alliance against the Empire was a metaphor for the American Revolution, or the more contemporary Vietnam War.
Where The Force Awakens is concerned, however, the key historical reference point is arguably the Second World War.
The aesthetic of Nazi Germany was always to the fore in the depiction of the Empire, in its culture of dictatorship, it uniforms, its 'stormtroopers', and so on. But it is even more explicit in the new film. The First Order is quite literally a Third Reich, being the third incarnation of the dark side after the Sith and the Empire. One mass meeting clearly references the Nuremburg rallies.
Rather than the Second World War itself, however, Star Wars references the many films about the conflict. George Lucas famously was in debt to British war films such as The Dambusters and 633 Squadron for his Death Star attack in A New Hope (as numerous Youtube videos attest). The new film contains Battle of Britain-type dogfights, bombers going up against fighters and flak, and aerial gunners not unlike those in a Lancaster or a Flying Fortress.
The desert scenes in The Force Awakens clearly reference British films about war in North Africa such as Ice Cold in Alex. Finally - and switching sides this time - the landing of the stormtroopers straight into a firefight at the beginning of the film is a clear echo of the depiction of the D-Day landings in Saving Private Ryan.
It is perhaps a stretch to suggest that the success of what may become the most profitable film of all time is down to the unconscious appeal of filmic historical references. But people often experience history through film, and relate to films via well-established historical narratives. I think it also tells us something about the enduring stature of the Second World War in American and British culture.
This blog first appeared on the University of Northampton's blog