Full disclosure: Darth Vader used to live at the top of my street. No really, Bristolian actor David Prowse lived just by a mini roundabout rather than the Death Star, although there was a police station just down the road. But this weekend it was time to suspend disbelief again as we witnessed the most successful and keenly awaited release in movie history. The highest praise 'The Force Awakens' received must be that the original cast has managed a film that stands right next to the original trilogy.
Star Wars contains elements of other epoch changing blockbusters like Flash Gordon, Lawrence of Arabia and Metropolis, but none of them capture the global imagination in the same way. Perhaps Star Wars is perpetually popular because it contains a story that lives up to the CG aesthetics.
George Lucas has been straightforward about his intention to create a franchise with mythical qualities which appeals to young people and the films contain aspects of several religious traditions and teachings such as forgiveness. For anyone looking for a historical analogy, it is most obvious these values have been applied toward a retelling of the American founding myth.
It is true that Star Wars is replete with pioneer and colonial overtones, like those other sci-fi future histories churned out in the wake of special effects and success in the space race, topped with a healthy dose of political self-determination. Tall masts of imperial battlecruisers recall the powerful Royal Navy. The maritime theme continues in the character of Han Solo, a smuggler mired in tavern politics who becomes convinced of the rightness of the rebel cause. I mean, the original sequel was even called 'The Empire Strikes Back'! And Jedi concludes with a liberated wilderness as the prototype for a galaxy safe for freedom.
But what links Star Wars to the English Civil War, to the American Revolution and even to contemporary American society is the central role played by religion. At its heart, Star Wars is a spiritual story of one group who believes that the individual can seek and receive blessing from a benign force present everywhere, pitted against an authoritarian super-state which uses religion to control and coerce political uniformity. This is really a fable of the origin of modernity, begun in the English Reformation and eventually enshrined in an unusually powerful New World republic: the idea that you don't have to go to an established church to have a religious experience or moral compass.
Viewing Star Wars through the prism of religion unlocks the full force of this Atlantic folk memory, once we remember that the American Revolution was a Protestant sectarian conflict as much as political one. In fact the idea of a force which surrounds all living things is a pretty good description of the beliefs of American Deists like Thomas Jefferson. It is this wider, individualist break with top-down, medieval thought which explains the timeless popularity, the chronology, and even the plot twists of Star Wars. Bear with me.
'A New Hope' begins with an Elizabethan preoccupation with savage natives in an environment reminiscent of virgin beach as much as desert west, climaxing with the defeat of political autocracy cloaked in the black arts. But like the failed English Republic that emerged from English Civil War, the revolution is incomplete and must be fought again. 'The Empire Strikes Back' documents a resurgence of imperial power, just as the anti-colonial monarchy was reestablished in Britain in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, setting up a third conflict with free-thinkers remaining in the new world. It also introduces a father-son emotional blackmail reminiscent of the colonial relationship. Final victory only occurs on a forest moon, just as the dissenting values of English moralists like the Puritans, Quakers and Levelers took firm root only in the colonies before going global.
Just as each Star Wars episode draws on its last, the Founding Fathers argued their revolution could only be understood in the context of the earlier conflict that drew religious as much as political battle lines. From Jefferson who described 'rummaging through the notes of the Puritans of the day' to formulate John Locke's liberal government in the service of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Or Madison who traced the American story to the English Civil War when 'under the execrable race of the Stuarts (read Sith) the struggle between the people and... spiritual tyranny become formidable, violent and bloody. It was this great struggle that peopled America. It was not religion alone- but it was a universal love of liberty'.
Alexis de Toqueville described Americans in the nineteenth century as an old people in a new land, with traditions they feel as 'affairs of the heart' rather than ideology. In this space opera we have an old story in a new setting with a great deal of heart. And not only does it happen a long time ago, but somewhere far, far away. If you think about it, the elements of American society that make outsiders scratch their heads today- that make America exceptional- still have their roots in the English Civil War; the continued popularity of evangelical religion, the preference for an armed citizen militia and puritanical work ethic to name a few.
Even if you don't recognise the English Civil War as the ghost in the machine of Star Wars, current events teach the lesson of what happens when the architects of American power forget their mission of radical egalitarianism and are tempted instead by 'imperial entanglements'. It is perhaps no coincidence the editor of Iraq War cheerleader 'The Weekly Standard' has come out in favor of the Sith Empire, arguing the Alliance were terrorists who got what was coming to them. Either way, the success of Star Wars as the defining tale of our age is food for thought, whether you think Darth Vader lives at the end of your street or not.