Battle of the Primitives: Nature versus Industry and Vietnam in Star Wars

When George Lucas was in college the Vietnam war was raging overseas, while at home the war divided the country as many protested it’s pointlessness and high cost of American lives. Lucas graduated from university in 1966, terminating his protected status in what would become the last instance of conscripted military service in the United States. Friends of his had gone as far as fleeing to Canada, which he briefly considered, but Lucas thought he could avoid combat if he voluntarily enlisted in the photography unit. His application was rejected because of his speeding tickets from his teenage years. When he was finally drafted, his application came with both good and bad news: he was exempt from military service, but it was because doctors discovered he had diabetes during his medical exam. He had made plans “around the fact that I was going to spend two years somewhere slogging around in the mud, hoping to get assigned to something reasonable,” he says, with the Army “lining us up for the butcher block,” yet he now found himself a free man. (Pollock, 60) And so the 22-year-old continued his goal of working in the film industry, while on the other side of the world a brutal and bloody war continued to be fought. Like many his age, Lucas was a liberal and supported civil rights and the anti-war movement. “The sixties were amazing,” he told Alan Arnold in 1979. “I was in college and was just the right age. I guess everybody who lived through that period felt a very strong sense that something special was happening.” (Arnold, 188)

The Vietnam war was a defining event for American baby boomers. The counter-culture movement of the 1960s sparked the first widespread protest and criticism of both the military and government, and as the hippie generation preached its message of peace and tolerance American soldiers died on live television, in an unprecedented media exposure that weakened American confidence and morale (the next major war, in Iraq in 1990, would be carefully scripted to avoid the exposures that occurred in Vietnam). Lucas and his friends were of the draft age, and so of course for them the war was all the more powerful, and real. Unlike those in their thirties or those in their teens, Vietnam hung over Lucas and his friends as a real threat, as they were in line to be sent to the front. Many of the people they knew had been drafted, or were returning from duty with bizarre and horrific stories that even the media was not privy to. Stories of drug use and prostitutes being imported to bases, atrocities committed against civilians, destruction of entire villages, and widespread abuse of power stood in stark contrast to the clean-cut “G.I. Joe” image put forth by the propaganda of World War II that the baby boomers grew up seeing in the post-war era.

There was also an element of irony to the war that was unique to American military endevours at that time. While the war was at first thought to be an easy victory over what was seen as a bunch of primitive backwoods people living in the jungle–like many wars before and since, a distinct element of racism and cultural superiority pervaded, even if it was often unspoken–the public and military were both surprised to find that the enemy could not be beat. For all the billions of dollars at their disposal and all the cutting-edge technology Americans employed, the Vietnamese were defeating them using basic technology and guerrilla tactics. For someone like Lucas, who began academia in the cultural studies of anthropology, this was no doubt a fascinating twist.

“Being a student in the sixties,” he states, “I wanted to make socially relevant films, you know, tell it like it is.” (Rolling Stone, June 12, 1980) One of Lucas’ classmates was future writer and director John Milius, who was also rejected from military service. The two began developing an idea to make a film about the war, something controversial but also honest, and with a satirical edge to it. To facilitate a small budget, they proposed to film it in a documentary style using 16mm. “I was doing it much more as a documentary in the style of Dr. Strangelove,” Lucas told Rolling Stone in 1980. “It was going to be shot in 16mm. That’s how John and I originally pitched it to Francis. Until he made it [in 1979], though, you couldn’t do a film about the Vietnam War. That’s what we discovered. No one would even have anything to do with it… Most of the things in the film were things the public didn’t know about yet. Nobody had any idea that people were taking drugs over there. Nobody had any idea how crazy it was. None of that had come out. The film at that time was vaguely an expose, vaguely a satire and vaguely a story about angry young men.”

The title of the film was Apocalypse Now. Milius wrote a screenplay draft, and Lucas was set to direct the film for his and Francis Coppola’s production company, American Zoetrope, in partnership with Warner Brothers. While editing his first film, THX 1138, Lucas met producer Gary Kurtz. “Gary and I found that we had a lot in common, including the background of USC,” Lucas says. “Francis Coppola thought Gary might be the right person to be the line producer for my next film, Apocalypse Now, as it was a war film and Gary had been a sergeant in the Marines. So, we started to do Apocalypse together.” (Arnold, 196) Unfortunately, the release of THX 1138 was so financially unsuccessful that the company virtually dissolved, Warner Brothers pulled out of the partnership, and all future Zoetrope films were shelved, including the Vietnam film. “I told Gary that I wasn’t going to do Apocalypse but Graffiti, a sort of hot-rod movie,” Lucas states. (Arnold, 196)

While the Vietnam idea faded away, Lucas struck gold with American Graffiti in 1973, as the film became one of the biggest hits of all time, and he thought he finally had the professional clout to get Apocalypse Now made. Lucas recruited Graffiti producer Gary Kurtz, and the film was developed enough that they began scouting locations in the Philippeans. “We couldn’t get any co-operation from any of the studios or the military, but once I had American Graffiti behind me I tried again and pretty much got a deal at Columbia,” Lucas says. “We scouted locations in the Philippines and were ready to go.” Columbia wanted all the rights American Zoetrope controlled, however, and Coppola refused to give them up. “The deal collapsed. And when that deal collapsed, I started working on Star Wars.” (Hearn, 78)

In the midst of this brief revival, Lucas was writing the earliest versions of his space opera project. In early 1973, George Lucas sat down to write a film he was calling The Star Wars; he had a suitably generic name, and visions of space dogfights in his head, but no storyline. By May of that year he had a fourteen page treatment, which he based off of the Akira Kurosawa film The Hidden Fortress . However, he added additional content to the final act, bringing the story to a jungle world where giant furry aliens fight the protagonists at first, but then help them defeat an Imperial outpost stationed on their world.

Lucas wrote this treatment before Graffiti was released, and hence during the period in which Apocalypse Now was considered a dead project. Here, the seeds of Vietnam entered the franchise. Apocalypse Now was no more, but he found a way to briefly touch upon similar themes and scenes in the film he was making in its place. This is not to be downplayed. Lucas adapted almost every single scene from The Hidden Fortress for this 1973 treatment, even copying word-for-word some passages from Hidden Fortress’ description in the influential Films of Akira Kurosawa book by Donald Richie, as there was no home video for him to study the scene-by-scene plotline. However, one of the only times Lucas deviates the plot from Hidden Fortress in such a 90-degree manner is when he sends the group down to the jungle planet where they team up with primitive aliens who use spears and darts to fight back against the Imperial forces who are occupying their world. Brendon Wahlberg describes part of the sequence:

“The group is surrounded by [furry, giant] Aliens. Skywalker jumps off his “jet-stick” and takes a defense stance… [The aliens] seem puzzled by these intruders and jabber to themselves. Two leaders carry on a heated argument. Finally one storms off in disgust and the other summons a guard who steps forward with a large spear in his hand. Skywalker and the Alien stand surveying each other… A desperate fight ensues, but eventually Skywalker wins by cutting the Alien in half with his lazer sword. At this, all the Aliens worked into a frenzy mob, carry the general off and throw him over a thousand foot crevasse into a boiling lake.

The general’s sure death terrifies the bureaucrats and moves the princess. The Aliens lead them to a small hut where they are imprisoned. Unknown to everyone, the general grabs an overhanging vine on his descent and swings to safety. He starts back to rescue the others when he encounters an Alien…The general recognizes the Alien as the one who argued with the leader, who ordered his death. The general trys to communicate with the Alien, but all he can make out is that the creature worships him and wants to take him some place urgently.

The Alien leads Skywalker to a clearing where a platoon of the Imperial guard is lounging, obviously waiting for someone or something. The general jumps undercover as a herd of Aliens arrive with the princess and bureaucrats in tow. A trade is made and the platoon leaves in a “speed tank” with the three captives.

The Alien leads Skywalker to a small farm where he discovers the boy rebels are waiting for him. The farm is owned by a cantankerous old farmer who is married to an Alien. He tells the group that he hates the Empire and shows them the location of an outpost where they might have taken the princess.The general and his army of youthful warriors plan an attack on the small Imperial outpost. They use surprise and the general’s rigorous training to overcome the enemy and capture the outpost.”

In this first version, General Skywalker and his team do the fighting, and not the aliens. But in time this would grow to a fuller parallel of the Vietnam conflict. Lucas’ story at this point didn’t have room for a full-out war in the plot, as it was so closely based on Hidden Fortress to the point of qualifying as an adaptation, but Lucas was able to pry open a gap in the storyline to introduce the idea of a technologically-primitive people being able to–at least help with–the repelling of a sophisticated enemy. This matched a larger theme within the story itself–that is, a lone General and his rag-tag band of teenage soldiers being able to escape the clutches of the big bad Empire.

It took Lucas a very long time to complete the first screenplay–what was titled as the rough draft–because in the interregnum Apocalypse Now took priority as Lucas’ next film once Graffiti became a hit; Star Wars was briefly shelved. However, once the revival of Apocalypse Now fell apart, Lucas increased the parallels already present in his 1973 story synopsis. As far as he knew, his Vietnam war movie was never going to be made, so the only way he would be able to make any commentary on it was through Star Wars . Keep in mind that at this time–late 1973–the war was still going on. It was clear by then that the Americans were on the losing end of the battle, as protests and riots at home increased and public favour soured, and within a couple short years Americans overseas would evacuate as Saigon was overrun, with news footage famously showing the last Americans fleeing in a helicopter pickup from the roof of the Embassy, as the Vietnamese surrounded the building. The final stages of the war were within sight, and Lucas, like many of his generation, felt that this needed to be addressed more than ever.

In early 1974, Lucas completed the first screenplay to Star Wars . Building on the story treatment from the year prior, Lucas expanded the section set on the jungle planet. He named the giant, furry aliens “wookiees”, and in this version a full-out battle takes place. The protagonists crash land on a jungle planet named Yavin, where they discover that the native wookiees have been sieging Imperial outposts on their planet for two years now. There is again a fight where the protagonist must eventually face one of the native aliens and defeat him in order to win the others’ respect, and he is then worshipped. After Annikin frees some captive wookiees from Imperial hostiles, including prince Chewbacca, the protagonists fight alongside the wookies as they assault the Imperials using booby traps, spears and arrows. They capture nine fighter ships, and Annikin trains the wookiees to pilot the spacecraft. In the end, it is the wookiees who destroy the “death star” space fortress, while Annikin and Valorum rescue the princess within. Brendon Wahlberg describes part of this section:

“Annikin is taken to the Wookee camp, which consists of bark and mud hovels. The scene is very much like the Ewok sequence from ROTJ. Annikin awakens and must fight one of the Wookees. When he seems to win by using his Jedi skills, they begin to worship him.

Meanwhile, Luke reawakens the frozen princess, and they all begin a trek through the jungle. The group discovers the hut of Owen and Beru Lars, who are anthropologist settlers familiar with the Wookees. Lars tells of a small Imperial outpost five leagues away… It turns out that the Wookees have been besieging the outpost for two years without success. General Skywalker makes a plan with the Wookees, and a forest battle ensues. This was the battle that would later become the ground battle of Endor, including smashing an air tank with stone pendulums swung from the trees, and the capturing of one air tank to use against the others. Wookees with spears, axes, and arrows, manage to hold their own against the laser weapons of the stormtroopers…Meanwhile, stormtroopers capture the princes…The Imperial base contains several fighter craft, and Luke gets the idea that he can train the Wookees to fly them and attack the death star… Annikin is very skeptical of his mentor’s plan, and decides to go rescue Leia from the death star, taking only Artwo with him.

The plan to make pilots out of the Wookees goes forward, leading to predictable effects that resemble the Ewoks riding speeder bikes. Later, the Wookees practice shooting asteroids. Annikin, meanwhile, dresses as an Imperial skyraider and gets onto the space fortress…Vader is aware of him, and traps and gasses the young hero… When Valorum is given custody of Annikin to take him to the Emperor, he makes a decision to help the warrior Jedi, who is more like him than General Vader will ever be. He even helps get Leia out of her cell.

Suddenly, the Wookees begin their attack on the death star with nine ships. At the same time, rebels on the surface of Aquilae begin an uprising. Wookee laser fire hits the vulnerable power terminals, and power goes out on the station…Valorum, Leia, Annikin, and Artwo escape the station in a lifepod.”

Lucas has never hid the fact that this sub-plot was meant to mirror the Vietnam conflict. “A lot of my interest in Apocalypse Now was carried over into Star Wars,” Lucas admitted in The Making of Star Wars. “I figured that I couldn’t make that film because it was about the Vietnam War, so I would essentially deal with some of the same interesting concepts that I was going to use and convert them into space fantasy, so you’d have essentially a large technological empire going after a small group of freedom fighters or human beings.” (Rinzler, 8)

However, this first script to Star Wars, while not the exaggerated behemoth Lucas claims (saying it was 200+ pages and told the whole original trilogy storyline), clearly was too ambitious to film. This had less to do with length and more to do with money: the film was jam-packed with special effects and action scenes, many of which were impossible to do with the technology of the time. Lucas’ imagination exceeded reality, and the script needed to be simplified for character and pacing issues as well. Lucas overhauled the story for the second draft, and among other things axed from the film was the wookie subplot. Instead, Lucas developed the idea of an organized rebellion against the Empire–what would later become the Rebel Alliance–which was under-funded and undermanned but still managing to wear down the mighty Empire through ingenuity and guerrilla tactics. “Star Wars is George’s version of Apocalypse Now, rewritten in an otherworldly context,” editor Walter Murch commented. “The Rebels in Star Wars are the Vietnamese, and the Empire is the United States.” (Crowie, 1)

The Rebel Alliance is a less-elaborate version of the original Vietnam parallel of the rough draft. In some ways, it is also a better one. American and western perception of the Vietnamese army was of the Gook in the jungle with a sharp stick, a simple savage who used primitive weapons but was able to best his “superior” enemies–the Americans–with knowledge of the land and geography as well as ingenuity and guerrilla combat, coupled with an unprepared American military presence and technology unfit for jungle combat. Yet this was a simplification of the Vietnamese people and its army. While they were technologically inferior relative to their Superpower enemy, the North Vietnamese army still used bombs, bullets and many of the same weaponry that Americans did, and for that matter had urbanized cities, advanced infrastructure and everything from television stations to film industrys. The Viet Cong army was also readily supplied with arms and funding from the North as well as the Soviet Union, who was it’s strongest ally in the 1960s. While American rhetoric served to undermine their Asian opponents–with those pro-military doing so to humiliate the enemy by portraying them as backwards and those anti-military doing so to undermine the American army, that even primitive people could stand up to them–in reality, this was an exaggerated portrayal of a land and people that arose primarily from their foreignness. Some might compare this to the myth of the native American “savage” by the older generations and in opposition the early modern-era myth of the “noble savage” supported by the younger, counter-culture generation who sought to revise the historical record. In the end, both portrayals were simplistic, and projected the biases and ideology of each side, arising in many ways from a lack of genuine understanding of the cultural history of said societies. In many ways, the mythology George Lucas introduced of the “primitive” tribal society fighting and defeating a super-powered Imperial enemy is testament to the era in which it was born. 

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