The Empire Strikes Back Got Me Thinking
Contributing writer, Amanda Glenn recently sat down for a Star Wars movie marathon. She came to the realization that classic films serve as evidence of cultural moral attitude differences between nations. That may sound a bit highfaluting, but The Empire Strikes Back got her to thinking.
Watching Star Wars in logical order (which is to say, IV, V, VI, I, II, III) is a two or three times a year personal festival for me. Recently, right in the middle of V an anomaly in world cultures suddenly became perfectly clear. You do not have to agree, but do consider: American classic folk tales and eventually the now classic films most often depict the common man making a difference. We glory in John Henry, Johnny Appleseed, Mr. Deeds, Sgt. York, and Han Solo going back to save Luke. Lando Calrissian regrets a deal with the Empire to save his own (and his peoples) skin and joins the good guys. From Charlie Chaplin’s The Little Tramp to Clint Eastwood’s anti-heroes the American public has reveled in the power of the most unlikely person making a difference big or small. We smile all over when Jimmy Stuart’s character explains what the ringing of Zuzu’s bell means. We take hope and confidence in the power and the responsibility of taking action, of doing something, anything, as long as we do something.
A case in point: the three Americans on the French train much in the news of late were born and raised in the tradition of “Don’t just sit there, do something.” Much of that tradition comes to us from the films we see, the films our parents and our grandparents saw that reassured us we cannot sit and watch evil in action, that we can make a difference, that we must make a difference. The cultural stories of many other parts of the world has the hero always ending up in charge, the king, the emperor, the Sultan, all powerful and the masses simply trade one master for another. Long history has put acceptance at the top of the how to survive list and the putting of self at risk for the common good is an unthinkable idea for a large share of the world’s population. We as a western culture do not comprehend why they do not stand up for themselves, and those beyond the “west” do not comprehend what it is we expect of them.
They (whoever they are) have obviously never read the Hardy Boys or watched Roy Rogers. Flash Gordon had his Emperor Ming and Star Wars has Darth Vader. The bad guys go down in flames and do not get replaced, and the American public soaks into their very being the idea that things may not get perfect but they can get better and that we have a responsibility to try. I think there is a strong moral fiber in all American people that protests that mere survival is not enough, it is our common thread across ethnic lines.
No, I am not saying it is all due to the movies. But I do think the movies over the decades have reflected the valuing of the individual, the responsibility to attempt to do the right thing whatever the personal risk. The iconic personalities of the movies remind us of Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, and a whole slew of real and fictional heroes and heroines whose behavior we find reasonable to immolate. Not bad for a pop culture medium that is not that much younger than the country in which it now thrives.