Let us start by setting the scene; It is May 1977 and a cinema event unlike any before it is about to take place; the premiere of Star Wars – A New Hope. Breaking the boundaries of film, sound and science fiction, Star Wars would go on to become a phenomenon of film and culture, spawning sequels, prequels, toys and television, alongside a whole galaxy of characters and stories. The cultural impact of Star Wars has been explored many times over the subsequent years, from its transformation of science fiction and adventure to its revolutionary use of film, visual effects and sound. Star Wars leapt from the screen into the public consciousness unlike many other films of its generation, and the reason for this is far more multi layered than simply visual effects and cinematic experience.
In this blog, I am going to explore the social, political and cultural impact of Star Wars – A New Hope with particular reference to its enduring ability to reflect the fears and hopes of young people.
Star Wars plays with the age-old concepts of friendship, good versus evil and adventure found in literature since the birth of the written word. There are links to ancient Greek mythology alongside similarities with modern literature ranging from Tolkien to comic books. Additionally Star Wars takes clear inspiration from earlier Japanese filmmaking and children’s matinee adventures alongside the vision and creativity of Kubrick’s 2001. However, Star Wars also plays heavily with 20th Century social themes, ideologies and fears, including generational change and youth empowerment.
Rebellion versus control
Star Wars – A New Hope launched into a world where the fears and unease of the political and social divides of Cold War, still clung to societal structures. The film plays with terminology such as ‘Empire’ and ‘Dark Side’ to portray the divide of democracy versus authoritarian control; empires built on subservience pitted against rebellions built on freedom and equality. There are elements within this portrayal that reflect the allied fight against far right extremism during the Second World War, and on a deeper level the social and physical conflicts of the post war years.
To understand this we need to explore the era Star Wars was born from, an era that included the Cuban missile crisis, the Vietnam War, social revolution, and the demand for equality and human rights. All set against a backdrop of emerging youth culture, the teenager and educational advancement.
The 1960’s explosion of youth culture and identity continued into the 1970’s with young people using a newly achieved confidence to increase their political engagement; using youth culture to challenge socio-political systems. Young people demanded change from governments, fighting against a perceived indifference from older generations to the needs and views of younger people. These were young people proud to fight for a belief and vision of a world where peace, love and reconciliation sat at the core, challenging older generations in their views of the modern world. They often saw governments as empires of imposed control that ignored the views of younger people while demanding their allegiance in domestic and foreign policy. The Vietnam War provides a clear example of young people fighting in a war that few in their generation believed in, demonstrating a clear divide in generational opinion on issues relating to political ideology and military action.
In the UK, the turmoil of a changing economy, trade union action and the emergence of sub cultures that defied social structures shocked older generations. Young people led social demonstration through art, fashion, music and culture, while pushing for equality and diversity.
These examples of youth rebellion against government, injustice and structures of perceived oppression were reflected across many Western democracies during this period. Echoing a fear of young people’s culture being out of control in many of the structures they opposed.
On its release, many of the young people and young adults watching Star Wars would have related to the concept of a small rebellion fighting a large empire. Its characters reflecting a message of hope over oppression. Allowing young people to use the film as a mirror to their own struggles, protests and feelings.
Star Wars – A New Hope offered a reflection of this youth culture and passion for change. The films structure provides a clear divide between a youthful and diverse rebellion and an Empire of older patriarchal figures, clearly playing with concepts of generational divide in political views and actions. The orphaned young lead (Luke Skywalker) plays to feelings of youth isolation in creating change, only finally using his power when united with a group of like minded younger people. Kenobi acts as grandfatherly figure, unthreatening to our young heroes. Kenobi is a source of historical knowledge and advice, a teacher and mentor who can guide a younger generation to victory. He is relatable to a younger audience as someone who drives and encourages the empowerment of a new generation, a youth worker who understands that change only occurs through empowering its younger citizens.
By the end of Star Wars – A New Hope we see our young rebellion destroy a symbol of oppression (The Death Star) through perseverance and hope. This is a young generation dismantling the advancement of war and conflict, demonstrating their right to impact change and social advancement in their universe.
Coming of Age
Star Wars – A New Hope and its subsequent films are coming of age stories, bringing together key themes of isolation, youth rebellion and belonging with a coming of age journey for Luke, Leia and Han. We see our rebellion find belonging and voice in each other, discovering the roots of their identities in unison. Our orphaned and isolated Hero (Luke) lives with a vision of his absent father as being a hero who fought for justice and freedom, something later brought into stark reality in Empire Strikes Back; the crisis point in Luke’s coming of age journey.
The coming of age journey does not stop with Luke, we see Leia as a passionate political force, the loss of her home world only strengthening her resolve to initiate change at any cost. While with Han we see a young man giving up his drifter lifestyle of low level crime in favour of concepts and ideas he can truly believe in. While neither Leia nor Han receive the same level attention we see in Luke, they are also lost young people achieving a home through shared beliefs and a desire for change.
At this point, it is also interesting to note that Luke’s coming of age journey through the Star Wars trilogy is echoed in the prequels. Anakin follows the same path in reverse, with the passion of youth leading to darkness. This is a tough sell for an audience who had previously seen youth as a power for good and change in the original trilogy.
Star Wars was not only a technical and visual triumph, it played into the notion of young people being a force for change in a society where young people’s views were diverging from the parental influence. Youth rebellion and involvement in political action are central to the core delivery of a film that not only encourages young people to believe they can challenge power, but also asks young people what kind of world (or universe) they wish to live in.
The success of Star Wars is multi layered, but its enduring ability to appeal to young people comes through a clear understanding of the passion and ideas that young people offer, even when facing adversity and oppression. Reflecting the post war social development of the teenager and the need for a youth voice in a world of dramatic change ‘A New Hope’ reflects its title. It demonstrates that future generations are the key to social change in a society that has failed them, while encouraging young people to believe in their power to change their world or universe.