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Revisiting a 1982 Star Wars Analysis

PUBLISHED: August 31, 2009

Way back in 1982, we published David Wyatt’s essay “Star Wars and the Productions of Time,” a serious analysis of the trio of films that then comprised the Star Wars franchise. Wyatt examined the movies’ place within the history of epics like The Odyssey and Hamlet, describing how the then-planned nine-film series would fit within that tradition. Given the newfound popularity of Wyatt’s recently-rediscovered article, and the mixed reviews garnered by the three most recent installments of Star Wars, we thought it would be interesting to ask Wyatt to revisit his forecast for the film. He was kind enough to humor us these 27 years later by answering a couple of questions via e-mail.

What did you think of Episodes I, II, and III? Did you watch any of them with children or grandchildren and, if so, do you think that affected your take on them?

First of all, I have to confess that I have not made a study of the second trilogy. I wrote my essay almost thirty years ago, and my interests have naturally moved in other directions.

My difficulties in returning to my essay are, I think, paralleled by some of Lucas’s difficulties in returning to his epic after a long period of time. Lucas’s difficulties in reconnecting with issues that might have interested him in his youth lead him to fall back on technique which was always only half the joy of the first trilogy. The early movies had a kind of handmade look, whereas the more recent ones have the high polish of a twenty-first century video game—the difference between Space Invaders and Grand Theft Auto. The new movies lack the humor, the sense of flying by the seat of one’s pants. What’s missing, then, is Harrison Ford.

Yes, I did happen to see Episode Three with my grandson. He kept on running out of the theatre. I’m not sure if he was scared or bored. The experience was for me an unsettling one. What he lacked was my history with the earlier films, which I don’t believe he had even seen.

You posit that epics must take their time, that they must unfold gradually and be spaced accordingly, and that the natural timeline of an epic story “runs from the youth of the grandfather to that youth as remembered in the mind of the mature grandson.” Star Wars only wound up running two generations, from the youth of Anakin Skywalker to the mature Luke Skywalker. How has limiting the scope of the story’s internal timeframe affected its epicness?

We can repose the question: Do Anakin and Luke have epic grandeur? While Luke may not seem fully an epic hero, the trio of Luke, Han, and Leia does have promise in this direction. Anakin however is a different problem.  He is not himself of epic proportion, and only becomes mythic in his Sith form. Moreover, the path that growth will take in the first trilogy is so fully known that there is not much room for narrative surprise, let alone epic growth. The third trilogy—and an extra generation—might have helped this feeling of incompleteness, because we would come to know things left trantalizingly obscure at the end of the epic as it now stands. At the end of Jedi, Luke seems childless. The savior—if any—will come matralinearly from Leia’s children with Han. There can be no moment where three generations actually stand side-by-side as do Laertes, Odysseus, and Telemachus at the end of The Odyssey.

Anakin Skywalker
Hayden Christian as Anakin Skywalker, in a promotional still.

For me the one truly epic and moving scene in the recent trilogy comes at the very end, when Anakin is wounded on the volcano and becomes reconstituted as Vader. Lucas seems to be drawn towards amputation. Since the amputation of Luke’s hand at the end of Empire, there have a number of similar amputations. What to make of this? One could make it a trope of castration, but why would this problem bother and fascinate Lucas? Is it the old notion that the hero must pay with his own body and desires? And why is Vader the ultimate amputee if he is not Lucas’s ultimate hero?

This gets into the bigger question of why Lucas has chosen to center his epic on Vader and not on Luke. Is is something as simple as that goodness is rarely as interesting as evil?

People have read Paradise Lost as if Satan were the hero. While I think this is a misreading, it is a tempting one. Blake went so far as to say Milton was of the Devil’s party without knowing it. Can the same be said of Lucas; is he of Vader’s party without knowing it? At the end of Jedi Lucas shows us Vader standing with Yoda and Obi-Wan, reborn as a necessary part of the good that Luke has achieved. In later versions he even cut Hayden Christensen into the print, which had previously featured another actor. This solution seems too mechanical.

The problem is whether or not we think Vader “evil,” and what that word might mean in the epic’s worldview or in ours. Evil belongs to the Christian tradition much more than the epic one. It is a term around which mystification swirls. Lucas tries to explain how Vader became evil by psychologizing and medicalizing his story—placing surprising emphasis on Anakin’s relation to his mother, and even to special particles in his blood. To do this is to turn his evil into one more story of the luckless, abused child.

Do we actually think Anakin does anything wrong? Is there any point in the Anakin story when the audience really wants him to act other than he does? If not, then we too are of the Devil’s party—and now we know it.


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