The Real History That Inspired “Star Wars”
Filmmaker George Lucas may have set “Star Wars” in a galaxy far, far away, but real-life characters and events from this planet’s history inspired his creation of the sci-fi saga. As “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” the seventh film in the popular series, premieres, explore how history—some of it a long time ago and some much more recent—has been a powerful force in shaping one of Hollywood’s top movie franchises.
When George Lucas developed the storyline for “Star Wars” and crafted his heroes and villains, he tapped into elements of theology, mysticism and mythology as well as his knowledge of classic films. And befitting a story set a “long time ago,” real-life history also played a central role in shaping the filmmaker’s space opera.
“I love history, so while the psychological basis of ‘Star Wars’ is mythological, the political and social bases are historical,” Lucas told the Boston Globe in a 2005 interview. In fact, the filmmaker is such a history buff that he collaborated in the publication of the 2013 book “Star Wars and History,” which was edited by history professors Nancy R. Reagin and Janice Liedl. Written by a dozen leading historians and reviewed and confirmed by Lucas, “Star Wars and History” identifies the numerous real-life figures and events that inspired the science-fiction franchise, including the following:
There’s nothing subtle about this historical allusion in “Star Wars.” After all, the elite assault forces fanatically devoted to the Galactic Empire share a common name with the paramilitary fighters who defended the Nazi Party—stormtroopers. The Imperial officers’ uniforms and even Darth Vader’s helmet resemble those worn by German Army members in World War II, and the gradual rise of Palpatine from chancellor to emperor mirrored Adolf Hitler’s similar political ascent from chancellor to dictator. The Empire wasn’t the only side in “Star Wars” that cribbed Nazi imagery, however. The final scene of the original 1977 “Star Wars” in which Princess Leia awards medals to Rebel heroes Luke Skywalker and Han Solo while soldiers stood at attention echoed the massive Nazi rallies in Nuremberg captured in Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 propaganda film “Triumph of the Will.”
Although there are parallels between Emperor Palpatine and dictators such as Hitler and Napoleon Bonaparte, the direct inspiration for the saga’s evil antagonist was actually an American president. According to J.W. Rinzler’s “The Making of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi,” when asked if Emperor Palpatine was a Jedi during a 1981 story conference, Lucas responded, “No, he was a politician. Richard M. Nixon was his name. He subverted the senate and finally took over and became an imperial guy and he was really evil. But he pretended to be a really nice guy.” In a 2005 interview published in the Chicago Tribune, Lucas said he originally conceived “Star Wars” as a reaction to Nixon’s presidency. “It was really about the Vietnam War, and that was the period where Nixon was trying to run for a [second] term, which got me to thinking historically about how do democracies get turned into dictatorships? Because the democracies aren’t overthrown; they’re given away.”
The guerilla war waged by the Rebel Alliance against the Galactic Empire mirrored the battle between an insurgent force and a global superpower that was playing out in Vietnam as Lucas wrote “Star Wars”. The filmmaker, who was originally set to direct to the Vietnam War film “Apocalypse Now” in the early 1970s before moving on to “Star Wars,” said in an audio commentary on the 2004 re-release of “Return of the Jedi” that the Viet Cong served as his inspiration for the furry forest-dwelling Ewoks, who were able to defeat a vastly superior opponent in spite of their primitive weapons. As William J. Astore writes in “Star Wars and History,” both the Viet Cong and Ewoks were well-served by their “superior knowledge of the local terrain and an ability to blend into that terrain.”
The political institutions of “Star Wars”—such as the Senate, Republic and Empire—and the pseudo-Latin names of characters such as chancellors Valorum and Palpatine echo those of ancient Rome. As Tony Keen notes in “Star Wars and History,” the architecture on the planet Naboo resembles that of imperial Rome, and the pod race in “The Phantom Menace” rivals that of the Roman chariot race seen on screen in “Ben-Hur.” The transition from the democratic Galactic Republic to the dictatorial Galactic Empire over the course of the franchise also mirrors that of ancient Rome. “It is plain that the basic structure of Lucas’s history derives from the fall of the Roman Republic and the subsequent establishment of a monarchy,” Keen writes.
While the elite Jedi—who guard peace and justice in the Galactic Republic—bear similarities to Japanese samurai and Shaolin monks, they also echo the medieval monastic military order of the Knights Templar. The Templars, writes Terrance MacMullan in “Star Wars and History,” “were esteemed above other knights for their austerity, devotion, and moral purity. Like the Jedi, they practiced individual poverty within a military-monastic order that commanded great material resources.” A 12-member council of elders headed by a grand master governed both the Jedi and the Templars, and Jedi clothing even resembled the hooded white robes worn by the Christian warrior-monks who took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Much like the Great Jedi Purge ordered by Chancellor Palpatine in “Revenge of the Sith,” France’s King Philip IV annihilated the Knights Templar after arresting hundreds of them on October 13, 1307, and subsequently torturing and executing them for heresy.
The tense relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union, with the threat of nuclear annihilation lurking in the background, was hardly history when “Star Wars” first premiered in 1977. The threat to the planet posed by nuclear weapons was encapsulated on screen in the ultimate weapon of mass destruction—the Death Star—which destroyed Princess Leia’s home planet of Alderaan, a blue orb that closely resembled Earth. “Star Wars” itself entered the realm of Cold War history after it was adopted by the media in the 1980s as a nickname for President Ronald Reagan’s proposed Strategic Defense Initiative, which would have used lasers to defend the United States against incoming nuclear missiles.