When "Star Wars" first came out in 1977, block-long lines were common outside theaters everywhere.
People were entranced by George Lucas' space opera, his tale of the struggle between a rebel alliance and an evil empire bent on domination of the galaxy at all costs. But how much did fans of the film -- and its sequels -- know about Lucas' inspirations?
Did they know, for example, that the film was full of allusions to the Vietnam War? Or that nuclear weapons were a model for the power of the Death Star? Or that the resistance of Princess Leia was inspired in part by both the French Resistance in World War II and rebels in the Mexican Revolution?
With "Star Wars and History," editors Nancy Reagin and Janice Liedl attempt to dig in to the deep parallels between Lucas' fictional films and hundreds, or even thousands, of years of human conflict and behavior. A project championed by Lucas himself, the new book uses chapters written by leading historians along with a wide variety of illustrations to show that there was a lot more going on in Lucas' films than an overactive imagination.
In the wake of recent news about Disney buying Lucasfilm and committing to produce at least three more "Star Wars" films, CNET caught up with Liedl yesterday for a 45 Minutes on IM interview about the new book.
Q: You write that history is like the Force. How so?
Janice Liedl: History has an invisible and powerful role in our lives and our culture, just like the Force that the Jedi manipulate. If you know your history, you're not operating blind like Luke was with the blaster shield down. Your senses are open to all that has been and can be.
How well understood is it that George Lucas didn't create the "Star Wars" universe out of whole cloth?
Liedl: I know that a lot of fans and scholars appreciated George Lucas' use of classic films and mythology in creating the stories of the "Star Wars galaxy" but the role of history wasn't always appreciated. We historians could see a lot of the parallels there in the films and beyond. That's what made getting involved in this project so exciting.
Where did the idea for the project come from?
Liedl: The book originated with George Lucas himself. He saw an earlier volume in Wiley's "Pop Culture and History" series in 2010 and wanted to know why there wasn't anything for "Star Wars." So the call went out to Nancy Reagin, who is the series editor.
How did you get involved? Were you a major "Star Wars" fan?
Liedl: I was a "Star Wars" fan before the films came out. Seriously. A school friend had a copy of the first movie novelization and passed it around. When I went to the theater, it was even better than I imagined. I was hooked.
I was brought on to co-edit "Star Wars and History" because Nancy Reagin knew me from my contributions to earlier volumes in the series. She'd asked if I was a "Star Wars" fan and I believe I bowled her over with my confession of fannish enthusiasm. The next thing I knew, we were talking about how we could make this book a reality.
You say the project was Lucas' idea. How closely did you work with him on putting the book together? And how cool was that?
Liedl: It was really cool to know that George Lucas was as involved in the project as I was. My inner teenager hasn't stopped jumping up and down in glee over the realization that I was collaborating with George Lucas on a history book.
And Lucas participated every step of the way, conferring with us over what topics we'd include, approving all of the historians who were involved, and commenting on every single chapter. His insights shaped the book from the start to finish. We were also privileged to work very closely with Lucasfilm editor and author Jon Rinzler on much of the project. He passed Lucas the questions that arose during the project and relayed answers, sometimes very detailed, back to us and the other contributors.
As you researched and wrote, what were a couple of historical parallels that you discovered that surprised you?
Liedl: Some of the parallels we had heard before from Lucas, such as his modeling of the Rebellion against the Empire with the Vietnam War. But I was surprised when he explained that the one parallel for the Death Star he wanted to see in the book was the atomic bomb. His lines about the ultimate power in the galaxy and the terror that the Death Star inspired makes a lot of sense in light of how atomic weapons affected our world during the Cold War.
Some of the parallels in the American Civil War are also striking. You see how much Count Dooku looks like Sen. John Calhoun of South Carolina, but you also are struck by the heartbreak of civil wars dividing friends and family in history as it divided the Jedi and the Republic.
Do you feel that some of the parallels are literal enough that you can say that Yoda equals...? Leia equals...? Darth Vader equals...? Or is it a little more abstract than that?
Liedl: Lucas insisted that our book go beyond singular parallels wherever possible. Just like history repeats itself in the "Star Wars" galaxy with Skywalker after Skywalker taking up the Force, so, too, in history, he sees many lives repeating the same themes in variation.
For instance, in my chapter on Padmé and the history of royal women, Lucas started the ball rolling with mentions of Cleopatra and Catherine the Great of Russia in his comments. I added in Elizabeth I of England, Maria Theresa of the Holy Roman Empire and a few other historical women who were powerful leaders.
Even with Emperor Palpatine, there were times when he resembled Caesar Augustus and others, in the book, where we picked up Lucas' parallels to Richard Nixon. All the parallels make sense both to historians and to Lucas as well. That was very important.
How well known was it when "Return of the Jedi" came out that Lucas based the Ewoks at least in part on the Viet Cong? I can't imagine it would have gone over very well.
Liedl: I don't think that detail was very well known at the time, you're right. George Lucas has rarely steered clear of controversy in airing his opinions on politics and history, so it just would have taken someone asking the right question. In our case, Bill Astore, a respected military historian who wrote the chapter, "Why Rebels Triumph," was able to enrich his argument by relying on Lucas' insights about the parallels he saw in Vietnam at the time and even in American military operations today. The chapter shows how underestimating your opponents or denigrating their more primitive technology has been a real problem for historical great powers as well as for the Empire.
But had it been understood at the time, how much of a public relations problem do you think it might have been?
Liedl: The parallel with the Viet Cong wouldn't have been as badly received as it might have been today. Before the advent of social media, outrage took a longer time to spread. But anyone who wanted to wrap up "Star Wars" in a brand of American triumphalism would have to think twice. "Star Wars" is a lot more complicated as our books shows. It's a great story but it's not all feel-good: just like in history, there are many shades of grey in Lucas' creations.
Who do you imagine is the audience for this book?
Liedl: We've aimed the book at a general audience -- first and foremost, fans of the films and the "Clone Wars" series. But even if it's been a while since you sat down with "Star Wars," it makes a cracking good read touching on thousands of years of world history as well as an entire galaxy's stories.
Can you imagine the book making learning history more fun for students who might otherwise have trouble with it?
Liedl: Certainly. If you thought that economic history was boring, wait until you read how the British and Dutch East India Companies were fighting wars and cutting out their rivals or learn how historical pirates turned patriots in East Asia during the seventeenth century. It's a painless way to get up to speed on a lot of world history.