The Force Will Always Be with Us

How 'Star Wars' Supplanted Religion, Mutated the Species, and Changed the Movies

When Disneyland began to televise the adventures of Davy Crockett, every kid on my block had a coonskin cap and could chant "The Ballad of Davy Crockett"— and not just on my block. The boomers entered the marketplace. A generation recognized itself in the greatest merchandising bonanza of the age. The child George Lucas was watching TV then too. Thus, as prophesied by Uncle Walt, Star Wars was a religion founded on the imaginary community of Disneyland and the cash-cow collectibility of Davy Crockett.

A man with a mission, Lucas would explain that whereas he made American Graffiti (the movie that effectively ended the '60s when it was released during the summer of 1973) for 16-year-olds, Star Wars was created for a younger audience. The filmmaker was addressing those 10-year-olds who— in his opinion— had been deprived of their mass cultural birthright. As Lucas remembered, western movies had been the great repository of mythic narrative and moral value when he and we were growing up post­World War II. Cowboys and Indians, every night on TV and every week at the movies, taught us right from wrong, good guys from bad. But somehow the genre failed to survive the tumult of the Vietnam era— as did many thousands of little western devotees. Lucas took it upon himself "to make a film for young people that would move forward the values and the logical thinking that our society has passed down for generations."

Star Wars was not just a seamless blend of Walt Disney and Leni Riefenstahl, The Searchers and 2001, The Wizard of Oz and World War II. Lucas had not only studied Akira Kurosawa but Carlos Castaneda and even Joseph Campbell's 1949 pop Jungian treatise on the monomyth, The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Moreover Star Wars had politics. Clancy Sigal soon noted in The Spectator that Lucas had synthesized "the most imaginatively compelling aspects of the Vietnam-era culture: the technical achievements of scientific hardware (from NASA space probes to helicopter gunships used in search-and-destroy operations) and the ascendancy of mushy mysticism." Star Wars was an antitechnological technological wonder— an ultra-authoritarian presentation with an antiauthoritarian message.

Jeff Crosby

Sigal cited Star Trek as Star Wars's precursor: "a substitute classroom-church for millions of American kids." But I was in grad school when Star Wars opened and, as Fox dumped a bunch of invites at Columbia, managed to be present when the sacred text first scrolled upon the screen. For me, Star Wars was a New Wave nightmare— sanctimonious and soulless, a jet-propelled smile button with a raucous blitzkrieg ending. But what did I know? As the lights rose I was amazed to see the middle-aged face of my department chairman redder than usual and creased with childlike delight. (I'd be less surprised six years later when President Ronald Reagan appropriated the movie for his own political agenda.)

So I thought Star Wars was a bore— but so what? I was hardly the target. A movie about teenage heroism in an adult universe, Star Wars created a pop-cultural generational divide comparable to the chasm that had split the nation with the arrival of Elvis Presley 21 years before. (In a convenient bit of Jungian synchronicity, the King OD'd the summer of Star Wars's release— never to be introduced on planet Vegas by a blast from the cornball migraine-maker that was John Williams's instantly disco-ized theme.) Just as few born before 1938 would ever truly believe in the "magic" of rock and roll, those born after 1968 experienced a force that their elders could barely imagine. Call these mutants the Star Woids. There is not one person that I've asked between the ages of 25 and 30 who doesn't have some powerful Star Wars association. An artist remembers leaving the movie house and hallucinating Darth Vader in the streets. A writer who has no memory of the movie recalls organizing the neighborhood kids in a Star Wars pageant.

When I surveyed my college students on the occasion of the 20th-anniversary rerelease, their responses were scarcely less cosmic. "The Empire Strikes Back was the first event in my life," one wrote. "My brother remembers the exact time and the position of the sun when he first saw Star Wars," another maintained. If some couldn't bring to mind the first time they saw the movie, it was because they felt they'd always known it. One found it more powerful than Catholic school. Another described his grade-school trauma— being asked the "horrifying question: 'You really haven't seen any Star Wars movies?' " A boy from South America recounted a similar moment of truth. "When I raised my hand telling I had not yet seen Star Wars, my friend looked at me sideways and whispered, 'Freak.' " As one Russian student described the heroic risks that his family took to see Star Wars in Odessa, a Caribbean girl remembered recognizing that this movie was the "symbol of America" and a Pakistani boy, brought to the U.S. at eight, knew then that knowledge of Star Wars was "required if I was to be Americanized."

Was there a choice? In the half dozen years between the opening of Star Wars and Reagan's "Evil Empire" speech, kids wore Star Wars sweatshirts, carried Star Wars lunchboxes to schools where they wrote with Star Wars pencils in Star Wars notebooks, lobbied for Star Wars light sabers, role-played Star Wars and played Star Wars videos, read Star Wars books, listened to Star Wars records, attended Star Wars birthday parties, donned Star Wars Halloween costumes, and, each night, brushed with Star Wars toothbrushes and slept in Star Wars pajamas, between Star Wars sheets, to dream Star Wars dreams.

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