Beyond East Meets West: A Look at Cultural Influences in the Star Wars Saga
Joshua McCrary | On May 26, 2015
In Fall 2014, Joshua Sikora led a Media Studies class examining the cinematic work of George Lucas, from his experimental student shorts to his groundbreaking six-film Star Wars series. This article, written by Cinema & New Media Arts senior Joshua McCrary, explores some of the fascinating historical and philosophical concepts that influenced Lucas as he created the Star Wars saga. We also invite you to check out other articles from the class as they’re posted throughout the summer.
Star Wars has always revolved around the convergence of disparate cultures, both in the vast and eclectic worlds that the story spans and in the series’ aesthetic and thematic influences. When Star Wars premiered in 1977 it was the best possible version of the East-West crossover film, drawing from the lore and imagery of both classic samurai films and traditional westerns. The movie took inspiration from Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress and classic cowboy adventures in equal measures and combined them like no other film before it. But these obvious influences are just the beginning of the franchise’s interaction with the convergence of Eastern and Western culture. While these influences are often mentioned in passing, in reference to costume design or character types, a deeper look at them is critical to a comprehensive analysis of the Star Wars films. This tension between Eastern and Western culture is one of the core elements that drives both the overarching plot and thematic development of the Star Wars saga, and is one the most complex and interesting facets of the prequel trilogy.
Over the course of Episodes I — VI, Lucas draws on everything from the fall of the Roman Empire to the turn of the 19th century and the ending of World War I, alluding to these periods in order to enrich the events of the Star Wars saga in a deeper way. Lucas also creates complex allusions to a plethora of classic films, most notably the work of Akira Kurosawa and John Ford.
The Star Wars saga can really be broken down into three major thematic sections, each of which is important to look at. In Episode I: The Phantom Menace and Episode II: Attack of the Clones, the first of these sections, we are introduced to a series of problems and then watch as those problems build. In the second section, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, we see the inevitable result of these unresolved issues as everything falls apart. Finally, in the third section — Episode IV: A New Hope, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, and Episode VI: Return of the Jedi — we see the after aftermath of the fallout caused by these problems and how things develop afterwards. Let’s begin with the first of these sections, covering Episodes I and II.
Central to the Star Wars universe is the concept of the Force, which is a part of all living things. Lucas suggests in Episode I that the Force is out of balance, but not in the way we might expect. The Jedi Order, an embodiment of the light side of the Force, is depicted at its height, large and powerful. The dark side of the Force is limited to just two Sith, both of whom were in hiding prior to the events of The Phantom Menace. This imbalance can be seen as a parallel to the ending of World War I, with the Sith comparable to Germany and the Jedi Order to the Allied powers. This parallel becomes more obvious when you connect the Sith and Jedi to their respective political sides during the Clone Wars. Having crushed their enemies, the Republic and the Jedi grew larger than they could maintain, while the other side finds itself suppressed to the point of eventual rebellion.
This reading isn’t without foundation; Lucas had visited this exact scenario years before in his TV series, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. In one episode, after witnessing the treaty sessions at Versailles that ended World War I, Indy comes to the realization that the unbalanced negotiations would almost certainly lead to an even worse war.
While we can see Western influences here, there are also Eastern traditions that Lucas is drawing from. In traditional samurai culture, it was dangerous to have too many samurai in one area. The samurai settled major disputes between people groups, so having too many samurai in too close of proximity to each other could upset the balance of power, throwing things into chaos. This is exactly what happens with the Jedi throughout the prequels and in the accompanying TV series, Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Like the samurai, the overabundance of Jedi knights unbalances the Force and throws the galaxy into chaos. There might be some wisdom in the Sith’s “rule of two” that only ever allows a single master and a single apprentice.
All of this lays the groundwork for the fall of the Jedi and the Republic. The fall of the Republic is clearly modeled after the fall of Rome; an incredibly powerful political force that overextends its reach falls as a result of internal corruption. In both Star Wars and Roman history, the senate spends their time in conflict with its own leaders who are trying to become emperors, all while constantly embroiled in war and conflict.
Meanwhile, the Jedi Order also crumbles in large part due to its own corruption and unhealthy relationship to the state. Yet there is also a subtext that connects the Jedi’s fall very directly to the passing of the samurai during the turn of the 19th century, as the Edo period came to a close in Japan. It will become clearer and more important in the final section of the saga, but the theme is very much present in the prequel trilogy. In fact, the ending of Revenge of the Sith brings to mind the final scenes of Kurosawa’s 1961 film Yojimbo. There is an underlying tension and uncertainty running throughout Yojimbo, as the protagonist and his culture are passing away, caught in the midst of a great change and left with only the realization that their time is over. Just as Yojimbo ends with Toshiro Mifune’s nameless protagonist, the last of an ancient order, leaving town and wandering into the wilderness, at the end of Revenge of the Sith we are left with the image of the last Jedi knights leaving the active galaxy which is moving forward without them. Yoda gives up the chance to train a new generation of Jedi, choosing exile instead. Obi-Wan abandons his name and, in one of the final shots of the film, walks away from civilization and into the wilderness of Tatooine.
The thematic transition between Revenge of the Sith and the original trilogy flows naturally and makes a lot of sense when viewed in this context. The Western and Eastern influences on the original trilogy are very important and perhaps more linked and intertwined here than anywhere else in the Star Wars saga. The original trilogy, and A New Hope especially, is largely about the emergence of the cowboy west and its subsequent flaws. In the wake of the fall and passing of the old world (the Classical West) the new West emerged, one not unlike Tatooine, full of cowboys and bandits and poor farmers just trying to scrape out an existence. It is out of both this figurative and literal landscape that our protagonist comes. The world he must interact with is not the high, regal West of the past, but the frontier of the new still unknown West of the present. The East has undergone a similar fate, as Obi-Wan now finds himself living in a world with no place for or understanding of him. This clash between different times and cultures is best embodied in the conversations between Obi-Wan and Han Solo. Han Solo represents everything that the cowboy west is, full of charisma and punchy grit, but ultimately lacking the honor and responsibility of the old world.
While the passing of the old order was an important cultural theme at the end of the prequels, it is just as important here and more applicable to the influences from both hemispheres in Episodes IV – VI. It is helpful to make reference to John Ford’s 1962 film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. While Yojimbo claimed that the figures of the past had gone, Liberty Valance takes things one step further — that the figures of the past had to go. Liberty Valance ends with John Wayne’s character, who embodies the cowboy west, being left behind as society (embodied by Jimmy Stewart’s character) moves forward without him. At the end of Liberty Valance it is not enough that John Wayne made the villains leave, he must make himself leave as well. The world must move forward to a new time and both the bandits and the cowboys have to be left behind and pass away into legend if the world is to move forward.
By the time the original trilogy begins, the Jedi are nothing more than a legend and Obi-Wan and Darth Vader are both seen as relics of a past age. However, the present age fares little better. In the end of the saga, the cowboys, bandits, and samurai alike must pass away. Han Solo isn’t able to move forward until he leaves the role of the cowboy smuggler, which is ultimately part of what saves him spiritually. Obi-Wan, Yoda, and Anakin are all merely ghosts of the past by the end of Return of the Jedi. Luke, the man to straddle both worlds, moves forward as a leader of the new age, but only once he puts aside aggression and violence by throwing down his lightsaber, almost exactly mirroring Jimmy Stewart’s character at the end of Liberty Valance.
The Star Wars saga captures the history of our world in myth. The prequel trilogy depicts the height of the ancient world’s glory and its subsequent fall. The original trilogy shows us the new, but unstable world that emerged out of that fall. The entire saga highlights the challenges humanity faces as the old order passes and a new order takes its place. Heroes must find their place in the changing world, often at great cost to themselves. In the end, all of this just adds to the marvel of the work that George Lucas has created. The Star Wars saga is one of the most thematically deep and complex works of popular film to ever be created, with new layers to continually explore. Yet it is also built on the foundations of great classic films and compelling historical narratives, all of which enrich Lucas’ work. Studying these rich influences and inspirations is only the first step to discovering how masterfully crafted the saga is, while also drawing us back to the cinematic masters and great storytellers of an older world.