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Unless mercifully you live under a rock, you have heard all the hoopla over the upcoming next installment in the “Star Wars” franchise. Those of us over the age of consent realize the series jumped the shark after the third, no-sixth, no-who cares, film. It went from being your basic World War II fighter pilot movie placed in outer space to a jumbled PC narrative of offensive mumbling space lizards and ethnic stereotypes that would put Joseph Goebbels to shame. The latest in the offering is a slightly rebooted effort of past stories with a feminist tinge.
Yeah, boring stuff.
The first and original “Star Wars,” combined with other 1970s movies “Rocky II” and “Apocalypse Now,” offered America, in the worst of modern decades, release from the progressive pieties of the day and a chance for the silent majority to reconnect to an America they thought could be gone forever. Such was the pessimism of the Me Decade. Such were the alternatives yearned for.
“Star Wars” portrayed the plucky pilots of an American Revolutionary-like force in a fight against an aesthetically combined Nazi-Soviet empire. This when the United States was getting its hat handed to it all over the world in places such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Nicaragua, and Angola; at a time when an American president rambled on about “a crisis of confidence” festooned in a cardigan better suited to a butch grandmother. The movie was a fantasy of American geopolitical resurgence.
The U.S.-Rebel Alliance similarities in Star Wars are notable. The rebel pilots’ flight suits were almost exact copies of U.S. naval aviator flight suits. The imperial uniforms had a Tyrolean look, of course, in feldgrau. The call signs were American and the mission chatter would not have seemed out of place in “Top Gun.” To be fair, there was some RAF thrown in too. The genre, dashing U.S. fliers against aliens would later be done to clichéd perfection in “Independence Day.”
The country kid coming to the rescue at the end with his sharpshooting skill is such a blatant “Sergeant York” scene, or of any number of cavalry coming to the rescue Westerns, that the writers must have blushed at the plagiaristic chutzpah of including it.
The Han Solo and Princess Leia romance? Gee, anti-hero reluctant loner interested in sticking his neck out for nobody in a rocky romance with idealistic heroine of the resistance. “Casablanca” anyone? Luke and Obi-Wan? “A Guy Named Joe,” a World War II-era Spencer Tracy, Irene Dunne, and Van Johnson vehicle where dead pilot Tracy gives invisible over the shoulder advice to novice pilot Johnson.
The list goes on. Not that it diminishes “Star Wars.” It just pays a debt to memories of those of us who grew up watching television reruns of those films and thus bonded with the Lucas creation, as Lucas intended.
“Rocky II,” after the ascendency of black power Muslim and draft-dodger boxer Muhammad Ali, gave Middle America an Ellis Island ethnic heavyweight champion who was right out of Central Casting. The message wasn’t black versus white. Joe Louis had been black, as had Sonny Liston, and they were popular favorites. The comparison was big-talking, name-changing Ali, who was tremendously talented as a fighter, versus his easier to stomach competitors who couldn’t match him in the ring. It was the old world reassurance of an Italian from Philly against a new cultural force as evidenced by Ali.
“Rocky” was not derivative as was “Star Wars.” Its appeal was to feed an American hunger for comparative stability in a world that to many had gone mad after they had experienced the U.S. economic boom of the 1950s followed by the humiliations of the next 20 years.
The lovable lug of various past boxer movies was incarnate now in Rocky Balboa. His city, the cradle of American freedom. His opponent? Ali in everything but name and certainly in arrogance and showmanship. “Rocky” was a teaser for the sequel, given the virtual tie at the end of the match. After the victory of Balboa in the follow up, the two work together first to defeat the menace of the urban predator in III and then the Cold War foe in IV. It’s as if Chuck “The Bayonne Bleeder” Wepner had miraculously defeated Ali. Then Ali was in his corner against Mike Tyson.
Not at all likely. Though flyover country wasn’t looking for reality in this series. They already had too much of that in the evening news. They wanted and got cinematic comfort food.
“Apocalypse Now” showed the Vietnam War not exclusively as the Left intended, of a neocolonial exercise of a capitalist superpower to oppress the peace-loving people of Southeast Asia. Instead it told of a surreal landscape of U.S. power challenged by Stone Age technology. The Americans had their moments of glory, as in the Wagner-scored helicopter attack scene led by Robert Duvall’s Wild Bill Kilgore. At its end the film recognized the only way we were going to be victorious in that war was to do what the British and Field Marshal Templer had done during the Malayan Emergency, be more Viet Cong than the actual Viet Cong. It was no throwaway script line that VC activity had fallen dramatically in Kurtz’s area of operations. However, since our national security policy and Army doctrine forbade anywhere near proper implementation of that, we were doomed to eventual loss by political attrition and tactical malfeasance.
I think Sir John Keegan wrote the best book printed on tactical relationships between men, The Face of Battle. In it he compares three clashes, Agincourt in 1415, Waterloo in 1815, and The Somme in 1916. While the technology changes, the reaction of the men under fire essentially does not. They do not primarily fight for flag, country, or ideology. They fight for the guy next to them. Coppola got that and emphasized the men on the boat and the insane bonds of loyalty to Colonel Kurtz over any sense of the geopolitical or ideological aspect of the conflict. A story as old as “Beau Geste” and “Battleground,” it rang true to veterans of any military conflict. And this movie had a rock and roll soundtrack in keeping with the zeitgeist.
“Apocalypse Now” was not Hanoi Jane-inspired Bolshie agitprop, as Vietnam vets had been already used to. This film said to those vets, yes you sometimes had your glory and you did what you had to do in a dysfunctional environment led by bureaucrats in Washington and higher command.
It also, by the seeming absence of coherent leadership at the top, recalled another part of the war. Colonel Harry Summers, an accomplished soldier, led a team to Hanoi in July of 1974 to resolve the issue of U.S. MIAs with the North Vietnamese. During a break in the negotiations he got into a conversation with his NVA counterpart. As they debated the ups and downs of U.S. involvement, Summers opined, “You know, you never beat us on the battlefield,” NVA Colonel Tu countered, “That may be so. It is also irrelevant.”
The Communist colonel knew what Coppola did and LBJ did not, faced with muddled and constrained objectives the mission was handicapped from the get-go. Throw into that Tu’s simultaneous dagger in the gut over the United States kowtowing to teenage protestors and you have the recipe for abject strategic failure.
The frustration of U.S. vets stateside to what they saw as lack of purpose in fighting that war is reflected in Summers’ challenge and the brutal accuracy of Tu’s response. Again, the American fighting man didn’t lose. Armchair generals did. It was a message traditional America could embrace. Perhaps too comforting in its rationalizations. Certainly better than the drum beat of imperial overreach and downfall emanating from other parts of the popular culture.
In their alternative messages, these films led the way for the reborn America of the 1980s that emerged out of the national traumas of Watergate, Vietnam, and Jimmy Carter. Thus their cultural reconnaissance went far past celluloid and into the national consciousness.
You can say better things about the influence of a movie. But not by much.
Photo Credit: John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images