Redemption of the Father: A Look at Father-Son Relationships In the Films of George Lucas
Charissa Fenton | On Jun 25, 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 Charissa Fenton, explores the role of fathers and sons in Lucas most iconic series, Star Wars and Indiana Jones. We also invite you to check out other articles from the class as they’re posted throughout the summer.
“Deeply ingrained in our reality is our relationship to our parents and our relationship to our kids, that’s where the real stories always end up, even if they’re action-adventure pieces.”
— George Lucas
From Darth Vader’s infamous line “I am your father” to the dynamic interplay of Indiana Jones and Henry Jones Sr., father-son relationships have played an integral part in George Lucas’ most famous films. “Almost all of our films are about fathers and sons,” Lucas once commented, referring also to the works of his longtime friend and collaborator Steven Spielberg. “Whether it’s Darth Vader or E.T., I don’t think you could look at any of our movies and not find that.” In his work, George Lucas has recognized the basic human need for fathers. He shows us how, in their humanity, fathers often fail but they can be redeemed. There is a domino effect from one generation to the next that George Lucas chronicles and captures in his two major franchises.
George Lucas’ own childhood growing up in Modesto, California was relatively normal. “It’s not like we had really wacky childhoods or anything.” he said, referring again to director Steven Spielberg, “The odd part is that both Steve and I grew up in a fairly middle-class environment. His parents were divorced, which obviously affected his point of view on that. My mother was sick quite a bit, which influenced my take on things.” His father, George Lucas Sr. was a businessman, the owner of an office supply store that he hoped one day his son would inherit.
However, the young Lucas had other ideas and eventually settled on a career in filmmaking. His father did not approve. “Making movies was not something he thought was respectable,” Lucas said. “He thought I was going to fail. Which was reasonable.” He laughed, “I certainly wouldn’t want my kids to work in the movie business.” This brief period of estrangement may have influenced Lucas’ portrayal of fathers, but it certainly wasn’t the only thing. “I studied anthropology, and I’m very interested in ancient storytelling,” Lucas said. “Most of that is about personal relationships, about parents — or the gods, which are sort of like über- parents.” All of these things combined together helped shape Lucas’ storytelling lens.
In The Phantom Menace, the first film of the Star Wars prequels we see the first generational domino fall. Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn serves as the primary father figure to two of the saga’s most pivotal characters. As Obi-Wan Kenobi’s master, Qui-Gon shares with him the master-padawan relationship that mimics the father-son dynamic. As the film progresses we meet the second son figure for Qui-Gon: Anakin Skywalker. Not only has Anakin never known his father, but according to his mother he never even had one. The Force itself is his father. Qui-Gon naturally slips into that role as he gently instructs Anakin about the force. Because Qui-Gon believes Anakin is the answer to a mysterious prophecy, he brings him along to be trained as a Jedi Knight. But Anakin has come between Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, figuratively and literally, as you can see in the first scene they share together.
This blocking setup continues to be used each time we see the three characters together. Anakin is like the new favored son, displacing Obi-Wan. Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan disagree as to the boy’s future, putting a strain on their relationship. In a desperate move to ensure Anakin’s training as a Jedi, Qui-Gon volunteers to take the boy as his padawan, essentially casting Obi-Wan aside. Qui- Gon says Obi-Wan is ready, but he hedges his statement with, “He is headstrong and has much to learn about the living Force.” What should be a moment of affirmation becomes a backhanded insult. Lucas shows us that even good fathers with good intentions can hurt their sons.
With Qui-Gon’s death, Obi-Wan must now take on the mantle of fatherhood, whether he’s ready for it or not. Anakin becomes his responsibility, however, Obi-Wan does not believe in Anakin the way Qui-Gon did. In fact, he fears Anakin’s potential power, so he spends most of his time in negative criticism, depriving Anakin of the positive encouragement he needs. Even more than that, there is a disconnect in the way Anakin and Obi-Wan view their relationships with each other. Anakin sees Obi-Wan as a father, whereas Obi-Wan sees Anakin as a brother. In Attack of the Clones, their relationship is marked by an underscore of rivalry and resentment.
Into this confusion swoops Emperor Palpatine. Palpatine sees Anakin’s need for a strong father figure and takes advantage of it. Every time they are together he is extremely encouraging of Anakin. James C. McDowell writes in The Politics of Big Fantasy that Palpatine is “integral to ‘feeding’ or guiding Anakin’s unhealthy self-consciousness, both feeding the rising Jedi star’s ultimately detrimental feelings of ego-filled self-importance, and glorying in the flattery of Anakin’s Force and military prowess. Palpatine subtly fans into a great conflagration Anakin’s sparks of narcissism.” Palpatine uses Anakin’s hurt and need to gain a foothold over him. He plays the caring father, but is surreptitiously preying upon Anakin’s fears. Anakin’s fall to the dark side marks the ultimate fall of a father: not being a father at all. He doesn’t even know his children are alive. At the end of Revenge of the Sith, Luke and Leia are both sent to adoptive families.
To some this may seem like a sad note to end on, but for Lucas it shows the beauty of the adoptive family. Lucas adopted three of his own children, two of which while he was a single parent. He retired from work for two years so that he could raise his eldest daughter when his wife divorced him. In those last scenes of Revenge of the Sith, the first complete family (Anakin, Padame, and their children) is tragically split apart, but from its pieces rise two new families.
Because of this adoptive set up Luke and Leia, unlike Anakin, grow up with a stable home life in a traditional family structure. While Luke’s adoptive parents tell him very little about his biological father, they do not keep him completely in the dark. James F. Iaccino states in his essay on the Jungian Psychology of Star Wars, “Luke’s uncle resembles the father archetype in that he needs to keep things the way they are, with himself in charge. The individuality which Luke is showing cannot be tolerated because it threatens the entire structure Owen has imposed over his family.” In a sense this is true, but we must remember that, as a protective father, Owen wants to keep Luke from Anakin’s dark fate. Owen’s view of Luke and Luke’s relationship to his biological father is paralleled by his view of R2-D2 and the droids relationship to its former master. “Tomorrow I want you to take that R2 unit to Anchorhead and have its memory erased. That’ll be the end of it. It belongs to us now.” Owen has cast over both Luke and R2 the status of belonging in his family. To him, that is the end of it. But to Luke, that can’t be the end of it. He, like R2, is searching for his father and cannot rest until his questions are answered.
Luke is the quintessential archetype of the orphan searching for his family. Why does this idea resonate so strongly with all people, regardless of their own family and upbringing? The orphan’s journey serves as a metaphor for the “spiritual orphanhood” that all people experience in their lives. We are all on a search for our father, God. Since George Lucas is using Star Wars to create a modern myth, it makes sense that this pivotal part of humanity should start off the series. That is how it starts, but it soon returns to the motif of the fallen father when the villain, Darth Vader, utters those infamous words, “I am your father.”
As much effect as a father has on his child, the child also has a great effect on his father. It is Luke’s faith in Anakin that redeems him in the end. In the The Making of Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, Lucas says, “Children teach you compassion. They teach you to love unconditionally. Anakin can’t be redeemed for all the pain and suffering he’s caused. He doesn’t right the wrongs, but he stops the horror. The end of the saga is simply Anakin saying, I care about this person, regardless of what it means to me. I will throw away everything that I have, everything that I’ve grown to love—primarily the Emperor—and throw away my life, to save this person. And I’m doing it because he has faith in me; he loves me despite all the horrible things I’ve done.”
When Luke throws down his lightsaber and declares, “I am a Jedi, like my father before me.” It is one of the greatest moments of “honor thy father” in cinematic history. He is both honoring the Anakin of the present by not killing him, and honoring Anakin as he should have been by identifying with his father’s true self. In another interview, Lucas talked about his own experiences as a parent. “Parents try as hard as they can to do the right thing,” he said. “They aren’t purposely out to get you. They don’t want to be Darth Vader. As Luke says, ‘I know there is good in you, and I have faith in you . . . even though the rest of the universe thinks you’re a schmuck.’”
But sometimes the son does think his father is a “schmuck,” as illustrated by one of Lucas’ most dynamic father-son relationships: Indiana Jones and Henry Jones Sr. Here we have a father and son who are so much alike they can’t stand each other, and yet just enough different they can’t see their own similarities. At the beginning of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, we see Henry as a sort of absentee father. Present, but not engaged. Overwhelmed with the prospect of raising a son after his wife’s death, he buried himself in his work.
Reunited during an adventure in the search for the Holy Grail, father and son grow closer together. But true reconciliation of father and son comes in the moment when Henry tells Indy to let the Grail go. In those words, Henry is saying to Indiana, “You are more important to me than this treasure, this obsession that has consumed my life up until this point.”
Thankfully the Indiana Jones saga did not end with The Last Crusade because we get a new layer to this father-son dynamic in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Lucas shows us another aspect of the generational domino effect. As Indiana grows older, he becomes more like his father. Instead of being called Indiana, there are many points in the film when Indy is called Henry. Harold Oxley repeats over and over “Henry Jones Jr.” emphasizing Indy’s place not as a pop culture icon, but as the son of his father. Indiana has taken on some of his father’s mannerisms. In the scene where he and Mutt are being chased on a motorcycle there is a moment where Mutt smiles at the mayhem around them, and Indy grimaces back at him. This mirrors a similar interchange between Indy and Henry during the motorcycle chase in The Last Crusade. Another example can be found in the middle of the film when Mutt makes an impromptu escape attempt. Indy is heard saying his father’s catchphrase “This is intolerable!”
While Indiana Jones has stood for the ultimate adventurer, George Lucas did not leave him there. At the end of Crystal Skull, Indy is much more concerned with the safety of his friends and family than the quest they are on. Rather than riding off into the sunset, as he had at the end of The Last Crusade, Indy takes on the greatest adventure of his life by settling down as a part of a family. It seems likely that this is something he wasn’t capable of doing before he reconciled with his father. Once again, Lucas has restored the family unit in the final chapter of his saga.
Throughout his legendary films George Lucas has painted for us a dynamic picture of generational failure and redemption. Fathers have an incredible impact on their children and, perhaps just as important, Lucas shows the profound impact children have on their parents. This holds true whether it’s a long time ago in a galaxy far far away, or right here, right now.
Hailing from San Antonio, Texas, Charissa Fenton is a senior in HBU’s Cinema & New Media Arts program.