The arch villain of the Star Wars series, Darth Vader, has been grossly misrepresented by historians. In fact he is a Richard III-like character given gross deformities and credited with all sorts of evil deeds to make the story of a supposedly fun rebellion against allegedly harsh overlords seem better, as well as ensure that the writers stayed out of the hands of the dreaded Skywalkerian secret police. Arguing by analogy from earth's history it can be shown that Vader was ordered to eliminate the Jedis as they had become a major obstacle to reform of the military. The famous declaration by Vader that he was Skywalker's son also probably owes much to writers shifting events around for dramatic effect as often happens in films. In fact Luke probably declared himself to be the general's son, long after Vader had been killed in his Death Star.
When Star Wars Episode IX is released in December 2019 it will be the twelfth film set in the Star Wars universe to reach the cinemas. Besides the trio of trilogies of the main story arc, which should finish with Episode IX, two additional live action films plus one animated feature have filled in parts of the back story. There have also been animated television series, one off specials and documentaries. But the Star Wars universe is not done with us yet. At the time of writing two more animated films are scheduled to reach the theatres, and a bewildering variety of live action film projects have been proposed then dropped. A live action television series in the SW universe, The Mandalorian, looks likely to go ahead, but a film based on the bounty hunter character Boba Fett has been shelved along with two proposed trilogies of films in the Star Wars universe. However, Rian Johnson, the writer and director of the latest film in that universe, The Last Jedi (2017), is reported to be involved in another trilogy of films.
To place that actual total of 11 films and counting (let’s leave the animated films out of it for the moment) in perspective, the longest running film franchise would have to be the James Bond series with 24 films to date, plus a 25th somewhere in the production pipeline. The runner up might well be the Star Trek films at 13 in the can, with the Rocky and Alien franchises bringing up the field at, respectively, seven (an eighth in development) and six plus two crossovers with the Predator franchise. Another Alien film is in development.
All this means that the Star Wars films are about to overtake the Star Trek franchise and may eventually challenge the James Bond series. In this they have the advantage that James Bond is (mostly) stuck on earth while the Star Wars characters can get into trouble anywhere in the universe.
The rock on which all these Star Wars films are founded is the first three films (I have listed them below) which features the original all-star bad guy, Darth Vader. Those familiar with my efforts to uncover the historical truth behind science fiction will not be surprised to hear that I contend Darth Vader to be mostly innocent of the many crimes laid at his door in these films. He is not snow-white innocent and perhaps not really a “good guy” as the title of the book states. I needed something catchy. He was a hard man in hard times and such men, and women, do not play nice. But I contend that much of his evil reputation has been overblown by writers in a galaxy far, far away anxious to stay out of a New Republic prison and, not incidentally, to tell a good story.
My unique form of reasoning – unkind people may describe it as eccentric or peculiar – will become apparent as my thesis unfolds. I reason by analogy from sections of earth’s long history, picking the parts that would seem to fit the often patchy source material. Of that source material the canonical part has to be the first three films. These are:
Star Wars – A New Hope (Episode IV, 1977).
The Empire Strike Back (Episode V, 1980).
The Return of the Jedi (Episode VI, 1983).
These are by far the best of the Star Wars films, with Episode V the best of them all and Episode VI arguably more fun than the original 1977 film.
These films not are cinematic masterpieces with dark, literary themes. Far worse in the eyes of the academic community they do not deal in politically correct matters such as same-sex marriage, treatment of minorities (droid empowerment does not count in our era), violence against women, indigenous recognition and assorted issues concerning gays and transgender individuals. There is perhaps a nod towards gender equality in the chick-lit tradition of feisty women exerting their independence over men they regard as obnoxious, only for both parties to eventually fall in love (Leila and Hans Solo), but that would count for little among academics.
The hate-to-love romantic sub-plot makes for a good story, incidentally, but has little to do with reality. In my often fraught experience with women they start out regarding a particular guy (maybe me) as obnoxious and don’t see any reason to change. Or they start out thinking that the guy should at least be given the benefit of the doubt only to soon decide he is obnoxious (still me), and see no reason to change. I suppose the love bit must happen sometimes, but I only remember being thought of as obnoxious. I digress.
To make matters worse as far as academics are concerned, despite those films being corny space operas without any of those dark themes, they are so appealing that they have become part of the popular culture, as hit films do. When someone says, “I AM your father” and pretends to duel with a light sabre, everyone knows that it’s a reference to the Star Wars films. They might think the person is a nut or a nerd, but they will understand the reference.
Given the enormous success of the original films, it is little wonder the producer George Lucas eventually made three more –
The Phantom Menace (Episode I - 1999).
Attack of the Clones (Episode II – 2002)
Revenge of the Sith (Episode III – 2005).
The second series of films attempts to fill in the back story of the original series which makes them tedious at times, and they do not have the same sense of fun as the original trio. But the second trio still have their moments, with chase scenes, thrills, spills and the occasional plot twist.
Those six films, plus the attendant formidable literature are the material on which I base my (I hope) educated guesses as to what might have happened. The seventh and eighth film The Force Awakes (2015) and Star Wars – the last Jedi (2017) are essentially a reboot of the original series while recycling some of the characters of the nearly 40-year old original film, but not Vader, and so does not figure in this analysis. I discuss them briefly, at the end of the book. As noted, the ninth film, just called Episode IX, should finish the rebooted story arc.
My personal quest to clear the name of Darth Vader from all the mud thrown at it by historians and script writers under the thumb of Sky Walker and his cronies dates from when I, as an undergraduate, watched the original Star Wars with a group of friends. Yes, I am that old.
I am not alone in this quest. A number of writers have also expressed doubt about aspects of the Star Wars story, and whether the good guys really were “good”. One excellent essay, taking somewhat different lines of reasoning and arriving at different conclusions to mine is by Charles C Camosy, a professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University in the US. In the essay published as part of The Ultimate Star Wars and Philosophy: You Must Unlearn What You Have Learned (Wiley Blackwell, 2016), Professor Camosy points to articles suggesting that the Jedi were evil, and that Luke Skywalker turned to the dark side in his final fight with Darth Vader, that the rebels were terrorists and much else.
As would be expected, given Prof Camosy’s specialty, he examines the theological and ethical dimensions to the destruction of the second Death Star, only to finally conclude that the rebels were not terrorists. They were the good guys.
In a New York Times article on January 3, 2016, Zachary Feinstein, an assistant professor in the department of electrical and systems engineering at Washington University in St Louis, argues that the Death Stars were too big to fail. So many resources had been poured into making them that their destruction would have caused a serious galactic depression that would also have affected the rebels.
Both men refer to a conversation in the classic 1994 movie Clerks in which the film’s writer-director Kevin Smith has his characters wonder about the ethics of blowing up the second Death Star when there would have been plenty of independent contractors working on the craft, as there are on any big project under construction on earth. Those contractors would have innocent victims of the explosion.
In a 2015 post Star Wars: The Realist Case for the Empire on his Strategy Counsel blog, Australian lawyer Gary Connolly points out, quite rightly, that the empire was providing a common currency and functioning markets which, among other results, permitted what would seem to be an efficient market for recycling second hand droids shown in the original movie. Mr Connolly’s piece is entertaining.
These items, very likely a tiny subset of material questioning aspects of the Star Wars universe, have different conclusions to my own, but that does not mean I disagree with them. The Star Wars universe is a big place with lots of room for different interpretations. I can see no reason, unlike the Rebels and the Empire, why all these interpretations and more cannot happily co-exist.
Alert consumers of my peculiar brand of historical analysis of science fiction may decide that I am not politically correct and, in particular, that do not hold human rights academics in high regard. How can that be so? I’m sure such academics are wonderful people with families.