Maligned when they first appeared in 1999, 2002, and 2005, Episodes I, II, and III of the Star Wars films—collectively known as the prequels—have been experiencing a renaissance recently. The release of the limited series Obi-Wan Kenobi on Disney+, which takes place ten years after the events of Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005), has reignited interest in the stories and characters introduced in the prequels. More generally, the children who saw the films in the theater during their original releases have since grown up, and they are eager to defend the films that excited their young imaginations. The passage of time, it would seem, has been kind to the prequels.
Indeed, the prequels themselves are a product of the passage of time. Although the creator of the Star Wars universe, George Lucas, claimed from the beginning to have planned nine films for the saga, 16 years passed between the release of the last film in the original trilogy and the first film in the prequels. Those 16 years witnessed seismic shifts in society. They saw Lucas transform from one of the most notable in a new generation of young, maverick filmmakers to an established industry leader overseeing a massive movie empire.
Lucas’ transformation is the transformation of the Baby Boom generation writ large. In the 1960s and 1970s, Boomers were young, idealistic outsiders bucking against the system. In the 1980s and 1990s, they were the system. How Boomers felt about the system they now commanded depended greatly on their political leanings. As conservatives seem to emerge dominant in US politics, liberal-leaning Boomers struggled to come to terms with their failures. That reckoning with the course of history influenced the story told in the prequels. While the original trilogy displayed Lucas’ youthful optimism, the prequels revealed his dismay and regret at the world that the Boomer generation had created.
The scholarly examination of generations owes a debt to Karl Mannheim, an early 20th-century sociologist of German and Hungarian heritage who laid the groundwork for contemporary generational studies. In his influential essay “The Problems of Generations”, Mannheim argued that people born around the same time shared significant experiences, such as wars or economic upheavals, and that these experiences generated a common sense of history and a connection that shaped how they saw their world and responded to it.
Mannheim was quick to acknowledge the complexities of generational cohesion. For example, if a generation experienced economic upheaval, such upheaval would affect the various social classes differently, which could potentially blunt any sense of common generational identity. Subsequent scholars of generations have acknowledged that factors such as race, gender, sexual identity, and disability (among others) have also undercut generational cohesion. Mannheim also introduced the idea of generational units. Although all generation members may share common experiences, their responses to those experiences may vary; they may even be diametrically opposed. According to Mannheim, all the members of a generation that shared a common response make up one generational unit within the larger generation.
The idea of the generational unit is important to keep in mind when examining the Baby Boomers. Born around the end of World War II and for approximately two decades thereafter, Boomers shared in the prosperity of the postwar years while simultaneously bearing the brunt of the Cold War. Given its unprecedented size and eventual influence, it is not surprising that the Boomer generation is arguably the most talked about, studied, and dissected generation in modern memory. It is also probably the most stereotyped. Most notably, as young Boomers entered adulthood, popular media portrayed them almost exclusively as members of the so-called counterculture—radical, leftist student protestors or drug-loving hippie dropouts. That stereotype proved remarkably enduring.
To be sure, the counterculture certainly represented one generational unit—to use Mannheim’s concept—among the Baby Boomers, but it was not the only one. Lucas is an interesting case in point. Born in 1944 in Modesto, California, Lucas represents the first wave of the massive Boomer generation. In his youth, he sympathized with the counterculture’s political beliefs, opposing the Vietnam war and supporting civil rights. Similarly, as he explained in a 1980 interview in Rolling Stone, when he first began making films, he wanted them to have messages. “Of course, being a student in the Sixties, I wanted to make socially relevant films, you know, tell it like it is” (Kline 1999). His first feature-length film, THX 1138 (1971), offered just such social commentary, imagining a dystopian future in which those in power kept the population complacent through mind-numbing pills and constant surveillance.
But even if Lucas wanted to “tell it like it is”, like millions of other Boomers, he was never completely committed to the counterculture. After THX 1138, he gave up on social relevance and instead made the nostalgia flick American Graffiti (1973), followed by the space fantasy Star Wars (1977, now known as Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope). Even today, it is difficult to pin down Lucas’ political beliefs. In a 1997 interview with journalist and playwright Bernard Weinraub, Lucas said that he is “very conservative, always have been” (Kline 1999). But his biographers typically disagree with Lucas’ assessment of his politics. Although he has some conservative tendencies, his political views are generally liberal, and he frequently supports progressive causes.
As the case of Lucas demonstrates, the stereotype of the counterculture does not work for every member of the Boomer generation. The media certainly privileged the image of the counterculture of radicals and draft dodgers in its representations of the Boomer generation. Still, such reductive stereotypes do not give the diverse generation its due justice. Given that Lucas cannot be easily pigeonholed, an analysis of the original trilogy from a generational perspective should proceed along the lines suggested by Mannheim. Rather than focusing on media stereotypes, it is better to start with the core common events that shaped Lucas and the other members of the Boomer generation.
To begin, Baby Boomers grew up in the shadow of World War II. The echo of the war is easily identified in Star Wars. The Empire’s uniforms are reminiscent of the Nazis, and Lucas called the Empire’s soldiers stormtroopers, the same name as the paramilitary that helped bring Adolf Hitler to power. But the influence of the war on the original trilogy far exceeds a borrowing of an aesthetic and language. As children, Boomers wrestled with the failure of the previous generation to take a stand against totalitarianism and the Holocaust. Unlike their European peers, youth in the United States were largely spared from having to wonder if their parents had been Nazis or collaborators.
Nevertheless, there were still troubling questions about what the United States knew about the events of the Holocaust and why the country waited so long to act. US youth also had to contend with the knowledge that the United States was the only country to use a nuclear weapon against a foreign population. The lesson for US Boomers, then, was that history would judge them if they remained silent in the face of the mass murder of civilians.
One of the interesting aspects of the Empire in the original trilogy is the absence of any identifiable ideology. It is unclear what the Empire stands for or if it has any guiding principles beyond might equals right. As a product of the postwar years, Lucas did not necessarily feel compelled to give the Empire principles or an ideology. It was only necessary to show that the Empire was evil, which was easily accomplished by echoing World War II. Lucas not only evoked Nazism but also the dropping of atomic bombs on the defenseless civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki when the Empire destroyed a peaceful planet and all its inhabitants just one hour into the first film. For Boomers like Lucas, evil was easily recognizable; it looked like World War II. Moreover, through Star Wars, Lucas preached a doctrine of standing up to evil, no matter the costs—an implicit criticism of the previous generation.
As Boomers reflected on the mistakes of their parents during World War II, they also had their wars to contend with. Most notably, Boomers in the United States were born into the Cold War, which dominated national and international politics in the postwar era. Spending their childhood under the growing threat of nuclear annihilation, by the time Boomers began to enter adulthood in the 1960s, they started to wonder if it mattered on which side of the Iron Curtain one lived. The US-led West and the Soviet-led East were equally culpable in adhering to inflexible ideologies, building up threatening military capabilities, and fighting deadly proxy wars. So although anticommunist sentiment generally remained high in the United States, there was a growing recognition that when two great powers fought for dominance, everyone suffered.
The tendency among members of the Boomer generation to view both the United States and the Soviet Union as equal offenders in the Cold War helps explain why the war in Star Wars is not a traditional war between two competing national—or interplanetary, in this case—powers. In the context of the Cold War, there was nothing noble about two competing powers. Such wars just caused misery—misery for which both sides were equally responsible. It is not surprising, then, that Lucas chose as his heroes in the original trilogy, not a great power with right on their side but outsiders. Lucas’ heroes were freedom fighters or rebels.
So were the Viet Cong, the communists in South Vietnam who led a surprisingly effective insurgency against the United States and its allies during the Vietnam War. As influential as the memory of World War II and the effects of the prolonged Cold War were on the Boomer generation, there is little doubt that the conflict that most directly impacted the Boomers was the Vietnam War. Lucas expected to be drafted into the war until a medical exam revealed that he was diabetic and was subsequently classified as unfit to serve. But even if he never fought in the war, it significantly shaped his perspective of the world, including a noticeable admiration for the Viet Cong.
For many Boomers—particularly those on the Left—the Viet Cong were folk heroes. They were simple people standing up to a much larger, imperialist force—and winning. In an interview, Lucas made explicit the influence of the Viet Cong on the story of the original trilogy. He said, “I was interested in the human side of the war [in Vietnam] and the fact that hhere was a great nation with all this technology which was losing a war to basically tribesmen” (Baxter 2012). The Rebels were the tribesmen of the Star Wars universe; the Empire was the floundering United States.
The Menace Is Not the Nazis
Despite having the trappings of the Nazis, the Empire in the original trilogy is a stand-in for the United States. Because of the Cold War, Boomers had to come to terms with the reality that the United States was a growing imperial power that often exerted its influence over people who did not ask for or want US intervention. So although the Nazis were long gone in 1977 when A New Hope appeared, the idea of an evil empire still resonated with Lucas. The possibility that the United States had become an evil empire weighed heavily on the minds of many Boomers.
After writing and directing A New Hope, Lucas took a less leading role in the two subsequent films in the original trilogy, merely providing the story for and producing Star Wars: Episode V – Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983). Lucas’s direct engagement with filmmaking was limited for much of the ’80s and early ’90s. He preferred the role of producer, which afforded him the time to build a massive filmmaking empire that included the powerhouse special effects firm Industrial Light & Magic, among other business ventures. Then in 1994, Lucas announced that he was finally ready to return to the Star Wars universe by delivering the long-promised prequel trilogy that would provide the backstory for Darth Vader and the rise of the Empire.
At the time of the announcement, Lucas was 50 years old. He was perhaps still a maverick—preferring to locate his film empire near San Francisco rather than Hollywood—but he was no longer part of the young, up-and-coming generation. He was just another established, aging Boomer. How exactly had Lucas’ worldview changed with the passing of time, and what impact did it have on how he continued the Star Wars story?
One potential area of exploration is Lucas’ self-proclaimed optimism. In numerous interviews spanning decades, Lucas repeatedly said that the shift from the dystopian vision of THX 1138 to the popcorn fare of American Graffiti and the original trilogy was intentional. He believed that society had become too pessimistic in the ’70s and that he wanted to make optimistic films. Although Lucas believed that his optimism ran against the grain of the era, he was not exactly right.
In general, optimism was a hallmark of the Boomer generation in their youth, particularly among activist Boomers associated with the Left or the counterculture. Student protestors may have been cynical about the actions of the United States in Vietnam, but they also firmly believed that by bringing attention to those actions, they could force an end to the unjust war. Similarly, a new generation of black civil rights activists embraced Black Power over civil disobedience, believing that a militant, empowered, and united black population would bring to fruition the racial and social justice that the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr. could only dream about.
But by the ’80s, that earlier optimism among Boomer activists was getting harder to uphold. In the years that followed the turbulent ’60s, there was a significant backlash against the so-called counterculture. President Richard Nixon came to office in 1969 promising to give a voice to the Silent Majority, the supposed bulk of the US citizens who wanted “law and order” rather than leftist politics. The backlash that began in the ’70s under Nixon became the norm in the ’80s under the presidency of Ronald Reagan.
The apparent triumph of the Right found Boomers on the Left reflecting on how they had seemingly lost the advantage. Many pointed to their optimism, especially their naïve faith in their ability to affect political change. One prominent example is Mark Rudd. As a student at Columbia University in 1968, he helped orchestrate a student occupation of several campus buildings to protest the Vietnam War and Columbia’s intrusions into the adjacent Harlem neighborhood. After the occupation ended with a police bust, Rudd became increasingly radical, joining the militant group Weather Underground, which the FBI classified as a domestic terrorist organization.
In 2018, he reflected on his actions during the campus occupation and the years that followed: “We were so sure [of our militant methods] …that we completely forgot about organizing, the hard work of education, gaining people’s trust, building relationships, forming alliances, and ‘building the base’” (Rudd 2018). Looking back, Rudd realized that he had failed to appreciate how complex politics were and that real political change takes time and strategy.
When Lucas reflected on the ’60s in a 1987 interview with Rolling Stone, his takeaway was similar to Rudd’s. He explained, “You must accept change so you can control it and make it work for you…. I think it’s the people who realize this the fastest who can go in and subvert the system and direct it and have a far greater impact than the ones who try to throw bombs. I believe people learned that lesson in the Sixties” (Kline 1999). Like Rudd, Lucas disavowed militant action to affect change and implicitly embraced the complexity of politics. For Lucas, to win, it was necessary to work within the system and play its game.
These sentiments from 1987 seem odd in the context of the original trilogy. Imperial Senator Leia Organa (played by Carrie Fisher) did not defeat the Empire through her impassioned speeches on the Senate floor, but rather as a leader of the Rebellion that blew up two Death Stars. But these comments from 1987 were not made by the George Lucas of the original trilogy; they were the views of the George Lucas of the prequels. As Boomers aged and reflected on their youthful experiences, they came to acknowledge a certain naïvete about how politics worked. This later-life realization explains why the first prequel film Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999) opens with trade negotiations and, unlike the original trilogy, includes those scenes on the Senate floor. Alongside aging Boomers, Lucas had come to accept that getting the right thing done was not as easy as mounting a protest or blowing up a Death Star. Lasting change required understanding—and ultimately playing—the complex political system.
That said, the person who is best at playing the system in the Star Wars prequels is the villain, the future Emperor Palpatine (played by Ian McDiarmid). Certainly, one of the primary purposes of the prequels was to establish how Palpatine came to power. Lucas knew as early as 1981 that, compared to the original trilogy, the prequels would be “a little more Machiavellian—it’s all plotting—more of a mystery” (Kline 1999). But what is striking about Palpatine’s Machiavellian political scheming is his ability to play the long game, as it were. His ascension to power takes place over three films, as he first creates an artificial crisis on his home planet to become chancellor, then manipulates other political actors into a divisive civil war that enables him to amass even more political power, and finally ends the civil war that he started and reorganizes the republic into an empire that he commands. It was a crushing defeat for the heroes.
This defeat in the Star Wars universe mirrored the defeat of the Left in US politics. As noted, in the ’60s, the media image of Boomers tended to focus on the counterculture of hippies, draft dodgers, and student protesters. But Nixon was right to assume that the media was not telling the full story. The counterculture was not the voice of the Baby Boomers; it was merely a voice, just one generational unit, to use the language of Mannheim. The reality was that plenty of Boomers in the ’60s did not identify with the counterculture and were politically more conservative. These more conservative Boomers shunned the protesting and theatrics of leftist politics. Instead, they buckled down and began to work the system.
In the summer of 1999—while The Phantom Menace was smashing global box office records—William A. Rusher reflected on the rise of the Right in US politics. A member of the earlier Greatest Generation, Rusher was one of the most prominent voices of the conservative movement, serving as publisher and editor of National Review, which is generally considered the most important conservative journal in the United States. In his article, Rusher observed, “The New Left of the 1960s has no traceable successors in the politics of the 1990s. On the other hand, the conservative movement has advanced politically with seven-league boots”. He credited the conservative movement’s success to actions dating back to the Barry Goldwater presidential campaign of 1964—a campaign that had mobilized young, conservative supporters.
According to Rusher, the Right circumvented the media in the years that followed. This appealed directly to average conservative US citizens, which allowed it to build its base slowly and methodically. By the ’70s, “there were brand-new think tanks, …eager political candidates, experienced campaign managers, ‘public interest’ legal foundations to test issues in the courts, candidate-training schools, journalistic training schools, columnists, radio and television commentators, and even new foundations offering financial support” (Rusher 1999). The successes that Rusher pointed to continue today. The conservative movement has not only become a powerhouse in grassroots organizing but, more crucially, it has played the long game well.
If the Star Wars prequels are to be believed, Boomers sympathetic to the Left should have seen it coming. One of the more troubling aspects of the prequels is the failure of the Jedi. Palpatine hid his Sith identity from them while simultaneously manipulating the Jedi into fighting a fraudulent civil war and poisoned the mind of the prophesized Chosen One, Anakin Skywalker (played by Hayden Christensen). The Jedi of the prequels were blinded by pride in the Jedi Order and their naïve faith in the politics of the Republic. The failures of the Jedi in the prequels are the failures of liberal Boomers. Because of their naïvete and pride, they found themselves beaten by those who held values antithetical to their own.
In the original trilogy, when Lucas needed a villain, he evoked the Nazis. But when challenged with telling the story of Palpatine’s rise, Lucas did not need to go as far back as World War II. Rather, he went back just a few decades to the failures of the counterculture and liberal politics. Lucas was not a member of the counterculture himself, but his political sympathies lie with them. In the wake of Nixon’s “law and order”, the Reagan Revolution, and George W. Bush’s War on Terror, the defeat of the Left felt crushing—and the sting of that defeat saturates the prequels.
However, the Boomer generation’s narrative is not as simple as the victory of the organized, methodical Right over the idealistic, naïve Left. The contemporary feminist, environmental, and LGBT+ rights movements can all trace their roots to the Boomer activists of the ’60s, suggesting that the defeat of the Left was not so crushing after all. Similarly, for all the pessimism of the prequels, the Star Wars universe still had hope. Some Jedi, most notably Obi-Wan Kenobi (played by Sir Alec Guinness) and Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz), survived Order 66. More importantly, Anakin’s children, Leia and Luke, were hidden, protected, and ultimately given the opportunity to right the wrongs of the previous generation by leading the Rebellion and reestablishing the Jedi Order.
Ultimately, George Lucas may have regretted the course of history in the real world. Still, when it came to the galaxy far, far away, he made sure to leave the gift of his youthful Baby Boomer optimism behind for future generations.
Baxter, John. George Lucas: A Biography. HarperCollins Entertainment. 2012.
Kline, Sally, Editor. George Lucas: Interviews. University Press of Mississippi. 1999.
Rudd, Mark. “What It Takes to Build a Movement”. A Time to Stir: Columbia ’68. Ed. Paul Cronin. Columbia University Press. 2018.
Rusher, William A. “Reflections on the Rise of the Right”. National Observer. No. 39. 1999.