Teenagers in Space
Star Wars, G.I. Joe, Rambo, Red Dawn, and How a Tale of American Triumphalism Was Returned to the Child’s World (Part 2)
By Tom Engelhardt
[The following excerpt from Tom Engelhardt’s book The End of Victory Culture is posted with permission from the University of Massachusetts Press. Part 1, “The Secret History of G.I. Joe,” can be found by clicking here.]
1. “Hey, How Come They Got All the Fun?”
Now that Darth Vader’s breathy techno-voice is a staple of our culture, it’s hard to remember how empty was the particular sector of space Star Wars blasted into. The very day the Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973, Richard Nixon also signed a decree ending the draft. It was an admission of the obvious: war, American-style, had lost its hold on young minds. As an activity, it was now to be officially turned over to the poor and nonwhite.
Those in a position to produce movies, TV shows, comics, novels, or memoirs about Vietnam were convinced that Americans felt badly enough without such reminders. It was simpler to consider the war film and war toy casualties of Vietnam than to create cultural products with the wrong heroes, victims, and villains. In Star Wars, Lucas successfully challenged this view, decontaminating war of its recent history through a series of inspired cinematic decisions that rescued crucial material from the wreckage of Vietnam.
To start with, he embraced the storylessness of the period, creating his own self-enclosed universe in deepest space and in an amorphous movie past, “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” Beginning with “Episode IV” of a projected nonology, he offered only the flimsiest of historical frameworks — an era of civil war, an evil empire, rebels, an ultimate weapon, a struggle for freedom.
Mobilizing a new world of special effects and computer graphics, he then made the high-tech weaponry of the recent war exotic, bloodless, and sleekly unrecognizable. At the same time, he uncoupled the audience from a legacy of massacre and atrocity. The blond, young Luke Skywalker is barely introduced before his adoptive family — high-tech peasants on an obscure planet — suffers its own My Lai. Imperial storm troopers led by Darth Vader descend upon their homestead and turn it into a smoking ruin (thus returning fire to its rightful owners). Luke — and the audience — can now set off on an anti-imperial venture as the victimized, not as victimizers. Others in space will torture, maim, and destroy. Others will put “us” in high-tech tiger cages; and our revenge, whatever it may be, will be justified.
In this way, Star Wars denied the enemy a role “they” had monopolized for a decade — that of brave rebel. It was the first cultural product to ask of recent history, “Hey! How come they got all the fun?” And to respond, “Let’s give them the burden of empire! Let’s bog them down and be the plucky underdogs ourselves!”
Like Green Berets or Peace Corps members, Lucas’s white teenage rebels would glide effortlessly among the natives. They would learn from value-superior Third World mystics like the Ho-Chi-Minh-ish Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back and be protected by ecological fuzzballs like the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi. In deepest space, anything was possible, including returning history to its previous owners. Once again, we could have it all: freedom and victory, captivity and rescue, underdog status and the spectacle of slaughter. As with the Indian fighter of old, advanced weaponry and the spiritual powers of the guerrilla might be ours.
Left to the enemy would be a Nazi-like capacity for destroying life, a desire to perform search-and-destroy missions on the universe, and the breathy machine voice of Darth Vader (as if evil were a dirty phone call from the Darkside). The Tao of the Chinese, the “life force” of Yaqui mystic Don Juan, even the political will of the Vietnamese would rally to “our” side as the Force and be applied to a crucial technical problem; for having the Force “with you” meant learning to merge with your high-tech weaponry in such a way as to assure the enemy’s destruction. Looked at today, the last part of Star Wars concentrates on a problem that might have been invented after, not 14 years before, the 1991 Persian Gulf War: how to fly a computerized, one-man jet fighter down a narrow corridor under heavy antiaircraft fire and drop a missile into an impossibly small air shaft, the sole vulnerable spot in the Emperor’s Death Star.
Here, Lucas even appropriated the kamikaze-like fusion of human and machine. In Vietnam, there had been two such man-machine meldings. The first, the bombing campaign, had the machinelike impersonality of the production line. Lifting off from distant spots of relative comfort like Guam, B-52 crews delivered their bombs to coordinates stripped of place or people and left the war zone for another day. The crew member symbolically regained humanity only when the enemy’s technology stripped him of his machinery — and, alone, he fluttered to earth and captivity.
At the same time, from Secretary of Defense McNamara’s “electronic battlefield” to the first “smart bombs,” Vietnam proved an experimental testing ground for machine-guided war. Unlike the B-52 or napalm, the smart bomb, the computer, the electronic sensor, and the video camera were not discredited by the war; and it was these machines of wonder that Lucas rescued through the innocence of special effects.
In James Bond films, high-tech had been a display category like fine wines, and techno-weaponry just another consumer item for 007. For Lucas, however, technology in the right hands actually solved problems, offering — whether as laser sword or X-wing fighter — not status but potential spiritualization. This elevation of technology made possible the return of slaughter to the screen as a triumphal and cleansing pleasure (especially since dying “imperial storm troopers,” encased in full body carapaces, looked like so many bugs).
The World as a Star Wars Theme Park
Not only would George Lucas put “war” back into a movie title, he would almost single-handedly reconstitute war play as a feel-good activity for children. With G.I. Joe’s demise, the world of child-sized war play stood empty. The toy soldier had long ago moved into history, an object for adult collectors. However, some months before Star Wars opened, Fox reached an agreement with Kenner Products, a toy company, to create action figures and fantasy vehicles geared to the movie. Kenner president Bernard Loomis decided that these would be inexpensive, new-style figures, only 3 ¾-inch high. Each design was to be approved by Lucas himself.