Editor's note: Starting today, we're running a four-part series about the Star Wars saga as adapted from a chapter in Catching Light: Looking for God in the Movies, by Roy M. Anker. Today's first segment sets the scene as a young Luke Skywalker, looking for great adventure beyond his banal existence on Tatooine, begins what turns out to be quite the spiritual journey when he meets an eccentric old man, the former great Jedi knight, Obi-Wan Kenob.
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The Star Wars saga wraps up with this week's final installment, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. The five previous movies, about ten hours of film story, featured three big surprises, one in each of the three original pictures, Star Wars (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and The Return of the Jedi (1983). All three of these bright and revealing moments prove to be turning points, amazing ones, on which the progress of George Lucas's whole remarkable saga depends.
The first takes place amid quiet conversation and, because the context is so unremarkable, it is easy to overlook; after all, the scene is mostly talk and, furthermore, talk of abstract forces about which the audience has no idea. Soon after the talk, though, comes the surprise that the hidden realities of which old Obi-Wan Kenobi has spoken actually shape the cosmic conflict at the center of the Star Wars chronicle. The second surprise, coming early in The Empire Strikes Back, offers even greater revelation, but this time it takes a notably comic turn, namely, the incredulity of the young hero in response to the farfetched notion that a puny, pesky, and funny-looking creature, the now legendary Yoda, trains warriors and, more than that, carries in his mind and soul the extraordinary powers of the universe.
The last glowing instant comes in the spectacular, unforeseeable, and wildly revealing climax of The Return of the Jedi. This is the conclusion nobody guessed, the full blossoming—or, more aptly, eruption—of the Force about which Obi-Wan quietly spoke to naive young Luke Skywalker long before. Two completely unexpected and stunning acts of selfless bravery, one fast upon the other, defeat the vast metaphysical evil that is a hair's breadth from completely extinguishing the slowly dimming light of human kindness.
Against all odds, then, wrapped in the pop space western that is Star Wars, lies a fetching, luminous, and finally exultant fable of holy trust, apprenticeship, and pilgrimage that culminates in a resplendent vision of servanthood, reconciliation, and a winsome portrait of the new creation that awaits the cosmos. At its core, the very heartbeat of the Star Wars saga offers a riveting melodrama of redemption by love, the unforeseen wild Force that runs all galaxies both near and "far away." To be sure, much in this saga is digressive and self-indulgent, especially chase sequences and the special effects ad infinitum; but throughout the saga Lucas deftly displays in fresh, crisp images the hidden forces whose conflict drive the story. From beginning to end, Lucas's wild and fetching claims about the supernatural spangle forth, going where few films even dream of venturing, turning the whole of his story on the lathe of intergalactic metaphysical mystery.
The sacred journey begins
That first surprise comes twenty minutes into Star Wars, after an opening sequence that pumps its importance. It is clear from the story's prologue that the stakes are very high—in fact, the world depends on it—for the evil depicted is neither tepid nor readily contained. That is immediately obvious even without the graphic violence of the kind that so many films now use to get an audience. The ship of young Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), an emissary for the besieged Republic, is taken over by the forces of the Empire's ominous Darth Vader (the acting of David Prowse and the voice of James Earl Jones), whose character, appearance, and sound comprise one of Lucas's many strokes of imaginative genius. This first glimpse of the towering Vader as he strides down the ship's corridor—large sculpted black helmet over his entire head, long black cape flowing behind, and a resonant, diction-perfect, razor-sharp voice—tells audiences all they need to know about the great measure of evil now afoot in the universe. Hardly ever has there been a classier, more striking, or more fearsome villain conjured on film.
Though young Princess Leia Organa is feisty enough, she is hardly a match for the ruthless might of Vader. For one thing, the conspicuous difference in size between the tiny princess and the gigantic dark "Lord," as his minions call him, is striking. Furthermore, the utter darkness of Vader comes across in his clothing, and even more in the remarkable tone of his voice, full of anger and venom. And his actions speak even louder than his words when he lifts a Republic soldier off the ground by his neck with one hand (we see his feet dangling) and then crushes his throat (we hear the crunching) and throws him aside. Princess Leia, while by no means a traditional damsel in distress, given her moxie, is nonetheless in a terrible fix.
The only hope for Leia's rescue and, it seems, the survival of the old Republic now rests on the shoulders of a most unlikely person, a kind of last resort, who dwells in a remote corner of the galaxy. Before her capture, the princess has managed to launch an escape pod that carries a faithful droid who bears a plea for rescue to an elderly friend on the distant desert planet of Tatooine. The droid turns out to be the stalwart R2-D2, and the old friend is Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness), a once famous Jedi knight who now lives, in a barren wilderness, the purposefully obscure life of a hermit and, as his attire and words suggest, a monk. Most of his few neighbors refer to him simply as "old Ben Kenobi" and think of him as a half-mad eccentric.
The unexpected begins to happen when the droid, safely landed on Tatooine, comes into the hands of young Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who works on his uncle's hardscrabble moisture farm. When the droid escapes to look for Obi-Wan Kenobi, to whom he is to deliver the princess's message, Luke goes in search of the droid, only to be ambushed by nomadic bandits known as Sand People. Wounded and unconscious, he is rescued and magically restored, in Good Samaritan style, by old Obi-Wan. The pair take refuge in Obi-Wan's simple desert dwelling, where the old monk explains to young Luke the princess's message and the destiny that beckons Luke to join him, Obi-Wan, on what he acknowledges to be a "damn fool idealistic crusade."
Defeating darkness itself
And here, in this quiet moment of refuge and talk, comes the first huge—and lasting—surprise in Star Wars, the central element that transforms the epic from a dreary space-western into a tale of transcendent wonder and delight. As Obi-Wan talks to Luke Skywalker, it slowly becomes clear that there is more at stake than simply rescuing a princess or defeating the bad guys, though those are certainly conventional and worthy plots. Obi-Wan is after nothing less than the defeat of Darkness itself, the metaphysical power that seeks to destroy all that is good in the world. For this to happen, young Luke must join up with the old man, who now seems well past his prime physically and certainly no match for the fearsome Darth Vader. But joining up—and here's the rub, as Obi-Wan tells Luke—involves far more than learning to shoot a blaster or wield a light saber. To succeed in the task set forth by Obi-Wan, Luke must reckon with many difficult truths, which are at the same time, paradoxically, wonderful truths.
The first and greatest of these is Obi-Wan Kenobi's challenge to Luke's picture of himself and his world; for if Luke is to succeed in his combat with the Empire, his superficial notions of what the world is like must radically change. Luke's first substantial shock is learning the truth that he is born of a distinguished spiritual parentage. His long-dead father was not, as Luke's uncle has told him, an insignificant navigator on a spice freighter, but was, like Kenobi himself, a Jedi knight, a member of a famed brotherhood like King Arthur's Round Table or Robin Hood's Merry Men. "For a thousand generations" this brotherhood protected peace and justice in the old Republic before the tyrannical reign of the dark Empire, which "hunted down and destroyed the Jedi knights." Luke's father, Anakin Skywalker, was "the best star pilot in the galaxy" and a "cunning warrior" until he was murdered by the Emperor's agent named Darth Vader, the same man who now threatens Princess Leia. For Luke, this is jolting news: he had always seen himself as unexceptional, just an ordinary kid. Now he has more heritage and promise than he ever dreamed.
Then, in news bigger and stranger still, Obi-Wan tells Luke that, in order to free the captive princess and do battle with the evil Empire, he must go with Obi-Wan to learn about something Luke has never heard of, "the ways of the Force," a mysterious and invisible energy that bonds and animates all matter and spirit: "It surrounds us, it penetrates us, it binds the galaxy together" (a quote that sounds strikingly similar to St. Paul's language in Ephesians 4:6, which invokes "one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all"). The notion of anything spiritual at all surprises Luke, for he lives in a thoroughly secular age and has never had the least notion about the possibility of anything metaphysical—anything beyond the tangible world.
Nor is Luke's common-sense empiricism at all uncommon. The same skepticism is later prominently displayed by Han Solo (Harrison Ford), the vagabond adventurer who Luke and Obi-Wan hire to transport them to the hidden rebel base. While Obi-Wan is instructing Luke in his first lessons about the Force, Solo volunteers that in all his roaming of the galaxy he has never seen anything that has prompted him to believe in the existence of a "mystical energy field" or "one all-powerful force controlling everything," including one's personal destiny. Obi-Wan's bemused response to Solo's claim that everything is chance and luck is that "there's no such thing as luck." Clearly, Lucas intends to pose hard questions about the foundation of knowledge, metaphysical reality, and personal human destiny—questions of fate or providence.
These questions and other important ones become more insistent as the series progresses; indeed, they become the matters on which the outcome of the whole story hinges. Viewers of the trilogy know that it will take virtually the entire saga for Luke Skywalker to fully trust the reality of the Force, in other words, to arrive at faith in something he cannot detect with his senses. Indeed, argues Lucas, there is more to the world than what meets the eye, and that makes all the difference, despite the persuasiveness of common sense and reductionist science. For the time being, though, sitting there in Obi-Wan's desert hermitage and for the first time hearing of such strange notions, all Luke can think about is that he's late for dinner and "can't get involved" in an old man's "damn fool idealistic crusade."
Luke's reasons for not following Obi-Wan reveal much about him and forecast major obstacles to a quick and happy outcome. The biggest of these is that Luke has a lot of growing up to do—emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. This is no small task because of who Luke is at this early stage, and Lucas works from the film's beginning to show how unlikely a candidate for any kind of heroism Luke is. His origins and experience do not promise much: an orphan farmboy on an obscure desert planet on the fringes of the known world (for those inclined to read Star Wars as Christian allegory, Tatooine is the equivalent of the biblical Galilee, Jesus' own obscure home territory, and by the end of the film Luke Skywalker will emerge, given the sacrifice he offers, as something of a Christ figure). Furthermore, his character and temperament seem ill-suited for valor or selflessness: he's impatient, brash, short-tempered, dreamy, and full of wanderlust.
Unfortunately, his dreams stretch no further than the macho ideals that his culture glorifies, and here the filmmaker undertakes a quiet but persistent strain of social criticism. Luke's great ambition in life is to attend fighter-pilot school to become a "top gun" and then go off to war. But he doesn't even have much hope for that because his uncle wants to keep him, quite literally, "down on the farm" for at least another year. Lucas deftly dramatizes Luke's unrest in a couple of brief scenes; most effective, though, is the wordless shot of Luke simply gazing at the horizon, yearning for who knows what as John Williams's music of plaintive longing adds texture and depth to the boy's frustrated desires.
Then comes this chance, out of nowhere, for more adventure and life than Luke ever imagined.
Reprinted from Catching Light: Looking for God in the Movies (Eerdmans). Used by permission. To purchase a copy of Catching Light, click here.
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