"The Americans are a people who had their Civil War 100 years ago and they are still fighting it."
Charlies de Gaulle, 1955
"I think Vietnam is what we had instead of a happy childhood."
Michael Harr, 1977.
Buried just beneath the surface of the cultural phenomenon known as "Star Wars" is surprising proof that De Gaulle's pronouncement on the permanently enflamed temper of American public life is outdated, and that author Herr is much closer to the mark today. "Star Wars" is in many respects a film about Vietnam; but it is made at one step removed, for post-Vietnam self-absorbed Americans.
"Star Wars" is "about" Vietnam in the sense that "Alice in Wonderland" is "about" a drug experience George Lucas' film encompasses much more than Vietnam-inspired imagery and, like Lewis Carroll's masterpiece, it evokes a multitude of responses. But Vietnam is in there, too, and there are instant shocks of recognition for those sensitized to that frame of reference.
The film more directly concerns the American fascination with technology. Both in "Star Wars" and in Vietnam, technology's equal potentials for violence and for fantasy were exploited to the maximum.
"Flying over jungles was almost pure pleasure." Michael Herr writes in his book on Vietnam. "Dispatches," "doing it on foot was nearly all pain . . . You could fly up into hot tropic sunsets that would change the way you thought about life forever."
"Star Wars" is so transplanted that most people have no realization that part of it is about a Vietnam situation," says Charles Lippencott, one of the principla figures in the production team that helped director George Lucas and producer Gary Kurtz create the science fiction film.
Until now, the production team has shied away from talking about the strong Vietnam influence on "Star Wars," which was in fact conceived in 1971 while Lucas was preparing to make a combat film about Vietnam. Lucas backed off the combat movie and went to work instead on "Star Wars."
"It would have been impossible to make the film then and have it be so successful," because public sensibilities about Vietnam were so much more exposed. Lippencott agreed in a lengthy telephone interview.
Why does "Star Wats," which deals with a disguised Vietnam both in general theme and specific sequences, float so lightly across political nerve endings that were rubbed raw at the beginning of the decade?
That questioned formed in my mind as I watched the final battle in space, which is a harrowing re-creation of what flak suppression and bombing missions over North Vietnam must have been like for U.S. Air Force and Navy pilots. Like Luke Skywalker, the F4 Phantom pilots had to seek the narrow air tunnel between the high flying MIG fighters above them and the deadly ZSU-23 anti-aircraft gun batteries on the ground around Hanoi and Haiphong.
Those misions were still being flown when "Star Wars" was conceived. Moreover, they were still being flown and were the center of the divisive, empoisoned debate that dominated American public life the last time I lived in the United States. For a returning native, America without Vietnam is still a new experience, and even subliminal refrences to that conflict and debate glance across sensitized nerves. Small echoes, not of what is but of what until very recently was, fall most clearly across a distance of time as well as of space.
But it is difficult for the returnee to get a reading on what has happened, precisely, to the national energies that went into the comfrontations in the streets that tiggered De Gaulle's description of us being perpetually at one another's throat. Part of it is evidently being sopped up by screen phenomenon like "Jaws" and "Star Wars," and by the violence of nightly American television, which is truly astounding by the standards of any other nation I know. Moreover, Americans have up to now shown they want to look at the impact of Vietnam on the U.S. through carefully filtered lenses, if at all.
"Perhaps "Star Wars" and Jimmy Carter are both tapping a certain naivete in this country in this decade." mused filmmaker Lippencott in discussing the film, which depicts space warface between imprecisely defined, outgunned "rebels" backed by their determination and faith in The Force, and an equally dimly outlined "imperial" government that is both totalitarian and prepared to use its technological superiority to destroy entire civilizations.
The rebels win.
"People are doing little thinking about what the film is saying." Lippencott continued. "My own views is that it deals with the fact that someone who is politically disinterested can be forced to become involved, that one has a responsibility to fight against to talitarian governments in one form or another. But I'm not sure people in this era or decade are prepared to look at that yet."
"Star Wars" is a diguised forerunner for eight to 10 dozen major films about Vietnam, or the war's impact on America, that are being released over the next six months. Those releases and a spate of new Vietnam-related books that are receiving wider attention may spark some new examination of the turmoil that dominated American life for a decade.
But Lippencott and others are not so sure that unvarnished Vietnam will have any pull in the market that "Star Wars" has swept so completely.
"No film that has dealt directly with the war and its consequences has had any success," Lippencott said, "and probably for good reason. This country still has a strong guilt feeling, and a feeling that we lost the war. These have kept people away from the war."
One of the films, "Heroes," is about a returning Vietnam veteran. "But none of the ads mention Vietnam." notes Gloria Emerson, whose book, Winners and Losers, probes the war's impact on America. "It might be consoling to beleive that somewhere in the national subconscious people still know about Vietnam, but not even that is true. It has all been forgotten, even though its great scores are still there."
Among the upcoming releases are "The Deerhunter," starring Robert De Niro, and "Apocalypse Now," the first big-budget Vietnam combat movies produced since "The Green Berets." "Apocalypse" cost $25 million and was the Vietnam movie that George Lucas originally intended to make. One version was written for him in 1969. But the project was repeately delayed, Lucas went off to what eventually became "Star Wars" and Francis Ford Coppola took on "Apocalyse Now."
The clearest tip-off of "Star Wars'" early influences comes from the film's concentration on aerial combat by computer, perhaps the most distinctive mark of the American military involvement in Vietnam.
To design the special effects for his mega-dogfight in space, Lucas assembled a huge library of documentary and commercial films of aerial combat from all American wars. Little was available on Vietnam but the 38-year-old LIppencott recalled having seen a Canadian-made, short documentary called "Mills of the Gods" that showed strafing missions over Vietnamese jungles "in remarkable detail."
"It reflected the disembodiment from reality that those missions brought," Lippencott said. "The filmmaker was a pacifist, who admitted that the film showed how quickly you could get sucked into believing there beneath the bombs and all the technology."
"Star Wars" "had none of the seeming ambiguity of '2001,' " Lippencott added. "The story line was kept very simple. But three books are being written about it from political viewpoints, all of them different. The French Comunists have called the film cryptofascist, which it is not, and anarchists in California have taken it up. The deeper meanings are only now being seen."