Sunday, 15 February 2009

Triumph of the Force: Star Wars and Fascism

Thanks to Jonah Goldberg's laughable Liberal Fascism , I've been reading a lot of definitions of fascism lately, both on the interwebs and in the popular prints. What I wasn't expecting was to find similar discussions in a review of '300' which I came across after Wikipedia made that rather cheesy pecs-and-persians flick one of their featured articles. Or for them to involve Star Wars.

Like a lot of people, Star Wars was a major part of my childhood - though unlike some of my contemporaries, I don't feel strongly enough about it to consider George Lucas' work on the prequels an act of pederasty on a massive scale. I do feel strongly about it, though, to the point, at times, of religious mania - I wanted to be a Jedi as a child (and finally got my chance with the 2001 census), but as I grew older, I began to question my faith, rather as Anakin did in the third prequel - though I emerged with all my limbs intact. What caused me to doubt the Jedi cause? Was I groomed by some devious Sith Lord, during visits to slightly incomprehensible theatrical entertainments involving giant balls of liquid? Well, no; but a performance, of a sort, was involved, and a Dark Lord as well. I speak, of course, of Leni Reifenstahl's Triumph of the Will
, a film which features a lot less CGI than Revenge of the Sith, but compensates with a powerful performance from its lead actor, Mr Adolf Hitler.

If there can be such a thing as an intrinsically evil film, then Triumph of the Will is it. For those who don't know, it's a Nazi propaganda film, a record of one of Hitler's Nuremburg rallies. But the evil in the film doesn't just come from its subject matter. The Nazis produced lots of propaganda, but Hitlerjunge Quex and The Eternal Jew, as foul as they are, look as foul as they are. Triumph of the Will is far more insidious, because it's an extremely well-made film. Its cinematography inspired generations of later filmmakers (here's Clive James on the pernicious influence of Reifenstahl's little masterpiece.) And one of the people it influenced was George Lucas.

As can be seen from the comments on Roger Moore's review of 300, a lot of Star Wars fans don't like it when you suggest that the films have a fascist aesthetic, but it's clear that it has. The most obvious example of this is the medal scene at the end of A New Hope, which is practically a shot-for-shot remake of some of the scenes from Triumph, but it permeates the whole series. Although the prequels make an effort to mention democracy every now and again, the society of the Star Wars films' 'Republic' is one which is overseen by a superior warrior caste with mystical ideas, who initiate a eugenics programme with the aim of creating a perfect soldier. And they're the good guys. One of the most interesting things in the third prequel is the fact that Palpatine's comments as he leads on his apt pupil are actually pretty sensible: the Jedi do have too much power and they do need to be controlled. From one point of view, the Jedi are evil.

Fans don't like it when you bring this up, but the Star Wars films have a strong vein of fascism running through them. What lessons the impact of its problematized aesthetic is that, as Moore observes, if the goodies are fascists, the villains are as well. One of the reasons for the popularity of Han Solo in the series is that he's the only character who isn't fighting to restore the old Jedi-dominated system. He's a pirate: pirates are fun! And - for a viewer increasingly uncomfortable with the Jedis' place in the narrative structure of the war, the fun that Solo represents is worth latching onto.

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