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The best films, comics and TV series have always had a political edge to them — yet often, that political aspect becomes forgotten, lost in the mists of time. That's the case with Star Wars; the franchise was actually influenced dramatically by the Vietnam War. But Rogue One: A Star Wars Story returns us to that surprising, if often-forgotten, theme!
The Hidden Vietnam Connection
Born in 1944, George Lucas grew up during a tense period of American history. In August 1964, when Lucas was twenty, President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered retaliatory bombing of military targets in North Vietnam. A controversial anti-war movement began to grow on college campuses, spurred on by left-wing groups, while men of George Lucas's age were drafted into the military. Lucas himself was almost sent to Vietnam, but was exempted when medical tests revealed that he had inherited diabetes.
As the years passed, the Vietnam War rumbled on; although President Nixon insisted only a small minority of Americans were anti-war, surveys consistently demonstrated otherwise. George Lucas himself was anti-war, a belief which shaped his work. Believe it or not, Lucas was originally set to be the director of Apocalypse Now, and was involved in the early development of the script (one character in the film is named 'Lucas' in a nod to him).
When Lucas moved on to his science-fantasy project, he brought his views on modern politics with him. In notes for A New Hope, he described the battle between the Empire and the Rebellion in terms that are very much reminiscent of the Vietnam War:
"A large technological empire going after a small group of freedom fighters."
Just as in Vietnam, Lucas envisioned an Imperial war machine going up against guerrilla freedom fighters. And notice which side he takes; the Empire are the villains, the freedom fighters are the heroes. The idea was that he wanted to show human spirit as triumphing over the Empire, and in so doing to make a subtle commentary on his own political context. Although the Vietnam War was over by the time A New Hope was released, in 1977, it doesn't take much effort to spot the parallels. By the time of 1985's Return of the Jedi, Lucas was willing to make the analogies much more obvious — the Ewoks were inspired by the Viet Cong, whose guerrilla tactics overwhelmed U.S. forces.
Gareth Edwards Returns to This
When he started work on Rogue One, one of the challenges Director Gareth Edwards faced was how to create a different experience to the classic Saga movies. Here's how Edwards sold his pitch to Disney:
"One of the early experiments we did was taking real war photography, pictures of Vietnam, conflicts in the Middle East, and World War II. And we literally photoshopped rebel helmets on the tops of the real soldiers. We looked at this stuff and it was really effective and you’re like, ‘Oh my God, I really feel for these guys’."
Watching Rogue One, you can easily see the Vietnam parallels once more; a handful of Rebels are battling against overwhelming odds, and the camera angles are usually ground-level, with the Rebels looking up at the towering threat of the AT-ATs. That said, Rogue One differentiates itself from the other Star Wars films by openly discussing the 'shades of grey' morality of the Rebel Alliance.
From espionage to assassination, the movie lets you see that the Rebels aren't just 'whiter-than-white' heroes; they have to do dark things in the service of their ideals. The conflict in Rogue One is more nuanced than anything we've seen before in Star Wars, and that perfectly represents the tactics of the Viet Cong.
It's fascinating to see how the Vietnam War has shaped the broader Star Wars franchise, and it's entirely fitting that Gareth Edwards tried to capture the sense of a modern war movie in Rogue One. In returning to the time of the Rebellion, he's taken the franchise full-circle — and even embraced some of the ideas behind the franchise!