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Summary Article: Star Wars Series, The
from Movies in American History: An Encyclopedia

Star Wars is the collective term for a franchise of media texts and products based on a core of six motion pictures. The original trilogy of Star Wars (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and Return of the Jedi (1983) was followed by a prequel trilogy of The Phantom Menace (1999), Attack of the Clones (2002), and Revenge of the Sith (2005). A seventh all-CGI film, The Clone Wars (2008), was inserted into the narrative of the prequels. While many people worked on the production of Star Wars, the franchise is typically described as the vision of its creator, George Lucas. Star Wars changed the nature of film in America by advancing the idea of the summer special-effects blockbuster and by becoming the gold standard model in merchandising licensed products. Star Wars enjoyed enormous success. According to the Internet Movie Database, three of the films in the franchise (Star Wars, Phantom Menace, and Revenge of the Sith) placed in the top 10 of all-time top U.S. box-office takes.

Scene from the 1980 film Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, starring David Prowse (as Darth Vader; voice: James Earl Jones) and Mark Hamill (as Luke Skywalker). Directed by Irvin Kershner. (Photofest)

The original trilogy revolves around the attempt by the heroic, outnumbered Rebel Alliance to overthrow the repressive Empire. The film centers on the character of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), a young man pursuing his destiny to become a Jedi. Mentoring Luke are Obi-Wan “Ben” Kenobi (Alec Guinness) and the alien Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz). Luke is aided by droids R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), the independent and resourceful Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), and the roguish Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his Wookie first-mate Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew). In the second and third movies, the heroes are also joined by Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams). Opposing these heroes is the intimidating villain Darth Vader (David Prowse, voiced by James Earl Jones), who leads the storm troopers on behalf of the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid).

When Star Wars debuted, the film took a different direction than science fiction movies of the past. Unlike the monster and alien invasion films of the 1950s that expressed American Cold War anxieties or the more cerebral fare of movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Star Wars struck out in the direction of epic space opera adventure. As with the films that followed in the series, the original movie used space as a backdrop for grand adventure, spiced with visual spectacle. Planets were the exotic backdrops to these quests. Viewers were taken from the twin-sunned desert planet Tatooine to the menacing, moon-sized Death Star, a technological atrocity that destroys other worlds.

Audiences responded enthusiastically to Star Wars. The simple morality of the first film no doubt appealed to a nation that had gone through Watergate and was dealing with the cultural malaise during the Carter administration. This melodramatic strain runs through the original trilogy. Good has to work hard, but it generally triumphs against overwhelming odds to defeat evil in the end. Although fairly direct, the narratives of the films did spin out some surprises, most notably the shocking revelation, at the end of Empire, that Darth Vader was Luke's father. In Return of the Jedi, Luke is able to redeem his father when Vader dramatically sacrifices his own life to save Luke from being killed by the Emperor. Despite their surface differences, Han and Leia find true love. In the Star Wars universe, trust in friends is always rewarded.

The films' eye-popping special effects were also a tremendous draw. Audiences were treated to cutting edge special-effects sequences in all the movies. Although modern in effect, Jedi lightsaber duels invoked the swashbuckling swordfights of old Hollywood adventures. Space battles between Rebel X-Wings and Imperial TIE fighters drew on memories of fighter plane battles.

Viewers began to rewatch the spectacle, often bragging of the number of times they'd seen the films. The trilogy demonstrated that well-crafted special-effects blockbusters could earn enormous profits beyond their high production cost. Star Wars led directly to the resurrection of the Star Trek franchise with Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) and probably contributed to the success of movies like Superman (1978). Such success also bred many imitators. While borrowing heavily from Star Wars' space opera feel, films such as Starcrash (1978) or Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) failed to muster dazzling special effects. Later films such as The Last Starfighter (1984) would lift whole plot elements, such as a young man destined to defeat an evil ship with a fatal design flaw.

Many years passed before the next Star Wars movie came to the screen. The idea of the prequel stories was hinted at by the opening narrative crawl for The Empire Strikes Back, which labeled the film “Episode V.” In anticipation of the prequels and in celebration of the 20th anniversary of Star Wars, in 1997 the films of the original trilogy were returned to the theaters as special editions. The first film began being known under the new episode title, A New Hope. The special editions were not merely rereleased. Lucas changed the films, largely by inserting new special-effects sequences into older scenes. While the narratives went relatively untouched, a controversial change was made to the character of Han Solo in A New Hope, when a scene in which Han shot the bounty hunter Greedo was altered to make it appear that Han shot only after being fired upon by Greedo.

The prequel trilogy takes a more tragic direction as the films center on the character of Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd, Hayden Christensen), destined to become the evil Darth Vader. Anakin is mentored in the first film by Jedi Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and then later by young Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor). Anakin is aided in his adventures, and later has a doomed love affair with Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman). While the prequels introduce new characters like the Gungan Jar Jar Binks, audiences see earlier versions of favorite characters such as Yoda, R2-D2, C-3PO, Obi-Wan, and Chewbacca.

The narratives of the prequel trilogies establish a more complicated storyline. Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) is secretly the evil Sith Lord Sidious, the sworn foe of the Jedi. He comes to power by manipulating a war between the Jedi and the clone army of the Republic and battle droid-reliant Trade Guilds (later subsumed into the Separatists) To sow this chaos, Palpatine uses a number of evil agents: Darth Maul (Ray Park) in Menace, Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) in Clones and Sith, and General Grievous (voiced by Matthew Wood). Exploiting the political situation and fears of the power of the Jedi, Palpatine grabs power in the guise of offering order, thus becoming Emperor at the end of the trilogy.

The prequel trilogies have a darker tone as Palpatine also manipulates Anakin with tragic results. Qui-Gon believes that Anakin is the Chosen One, prophesied to bring balance to the Force. Ambitious, Anakin chafes under what he sees as the restrictive training system overseen by Jedi Counselors such as Yoda and Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson). Secretly wed to Amidala in Clones, Anakin has nightmare visions of his wife's death in Sith. Palpatine uses these fears to bring Anakin under his control. Anakin betrays the Jedi, leading a massacre at the Jedi Temple (a controversy among fans as the Temple had youthful trainees). Sith concludes on a very down note as Obi-Wan defeats Anakin in battle and a heartbroken Amidala dies giving birth to the twins Luke and Leia. The twins are taken into hiding, establishing the pretext of the original trilogy. The gruesomely injured Anakin is transformed, in a scene reminiscent of Frankenstein (1931), into the cyborg Darth Vader.

In 2008, The Clone Wars presented an all–CGI adventure set between Clones and Sith. An accomplished Jedi at this time in the stories, Anakin is given an apprentice of his own to train, the spirited Ahsoka (voiced by Ashley Eckstein).

The Force is an important spiritual concept that runs throughout all of the films. In Star Wars, Ben explains that the Force is an energy field that binds all living things. Certain individuals are more connected with the Force than others, allowing them to manipulate the Force. This manipulation grants a number of spectacular powers such as telekinetic and telepathic abilities. Although not antitechnology, the Force is presented as something more useful, and thus more ideal, than technology. The most famous example is Luke switching off his targeting computer and relying on the Force to destroy the Death Star.

The prequels added a more pseudoscientific, and for fans, a more controversial explanation for the Force by introducing the idea of midi-chlorians, microbes that allow the manipulation of the Force. Although not confirmed in the narrative, scenes in The Phantom Menace suggest that Anakin may have been a virgin birth, created by the midi-chlorians.

Although Anakin is presented as a messianic figure and the Jedi function in ways similar to the Crusaders in the prequels, the Force is not an orthodox religion along the lines of Western Christianity. In many ways the Force is more like Eastern religions in that it requires contemplative study to master. The Force operates on a simple dichotomy of good and evil. Students must constantly beware the seduction of the Dark Side of the Force, a fate that some, such as the Sith and Darth Vader, were unable to resist. To avoid this temptation, the practitioner must constantly master his or her emotions.

Interestingly, while the Force and the Jedi are important to the Star Wars universe, within the narrative most characters react with skepticism to the Force. Since Luke and Leia are born at the end of Sith, the time difference between the end of the prequels and the beginning of the original trilogy is only their age. Yet in that short time, many characters, notably Han Solo, are skeptical of the Force. In the prequels, Palpatine is able to use fear of the Jedi's power in order to scapegoat the group in his own bid for dominance.

Star Wars presents other political and moral arguments outside the Force, although the views are sometimes less coherent. In the original trilogy, the Empire is clearly evil and repressive, with the Rebel Alliance taking the role of heroic underdog. Leia's title of Princess also suggests a monarchy akin to those found in fairy tales. In the prequels both the Republic with its clone warriors and the Trade Guild/Separatists with their droid armies are manipulated by Palpatine. While the Republic eventually becomes the Empire, through most of the prequels the clone warriors are on the side of good due to their association with the Jedi. The political universe of the prequels is more demonstrably democratic, although the films are at pains to explain how Amidala is somehow elected queen. The Republic's demise models the shift from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire. The vulnerability of this democracy to Palpatine's ambitions is a contemporary warning on the fragile balance between freedom and security.

Personal morality is ultimately important in the Star Wars universe, where redemption is a powerful theme. Collectively the films may be read as Anakin Skywalker's tragic fall and salvation through self-sacrifice. Other redemptions can be seen in the films, such as Han Solo's renouncement of materialism when he returns to save Luke in Star Wars or Lando Calrissian's seeing beyond self-preservation when he joins the Rebels after betraying them in Empire Strikes Back.

Technology is another vital element in Star Wars, and there is no way this entry could begin to note all the examples. Although the Jedi teach that the Force is something more meaningful and useful in the universe, technology does all the hard work waging the wars in these stars. The Jedi aren't Luddites; they are best identified by their signature weapons, the lightsaber. Sword surrogates, lightsabers feature in many prominent duels throughout all of the films. Travel in the Star Wars universe, be it local or intergalactic, is accomplished easily by a dizzying array of vehicles and warships. Technology even provides important characters in the form of droids.

Special effects are a hallmark of the films. Lucas's companies have been on the cutting edge of developing this movie magic for decades. The original films pioneered the use of models and stop-motion animation. In the rereleases Lucas used computer technology to add more effects to complete his vision. The prequels embraced CGI wizardry, creating whole environments and characters electronically. Two notable examples of this transition are the characters of Yoda and Jabba the Hutt. Puppets and animatronics in the original films, the characters appeared in the prequels as CGI animation.

While human characters abound in the Star Wars universe, one signature element of the franchise is the inclusion of nonhuman characters. In fact, in some crucial ways the narratives of all the films are structured around the adventures of R2-D2 and C-3PO. The duo has a knack for being in just the right place at the right time. Star Wars' Cantina Band scene presented an array of aliens hanging out in a bar on Tattoine, and the trend continued from there. From trusty Wookiee co-pilot Chewbacca to Jedi master Yoda, alien beings abound. Although there is some evidence of droid prejudice in the original trilogy, the Star Wars universe is truly diverse. Nonhumans hold important positions and roles. A few problems do exist, most notably in Jar Jar Binks, a character that skews painfully close to minstrel show stereotypes.

Music and sound are two more signature aspects of Star Wars. Just as the films promoted visual effects, they have also advanced sound effects. Composer and conductor John Williams created the music for all six of the live-action films. Many of the musical leitmotifs have become well known in American culture, particularly the Star Wars theme itself and the Imperial March that often accompanies Darth Vader's appearances. In addition to its official releases, Star Wars music has been recorded by a number of orchestras in a bid to raise revenues.

Although this entry has by design focused on the films themselves, Star Wars is much more than a cinematic experience. From the beginning, Lucas has licensed this franchise into a wide variety of products such as T-shirts, posters, costumes, and lightsabers. Most notable of these are the Star Wars action figures. These figures changed the nature of children's toys by promoting a collectible line of characters, vehicles, and play sets that children could use to reenact scenes from the movies or to create their own adventures. Although the toy company Kenner was unable to produce action figures in time for the 1977 holiday season (instead selling IOUs for the figures), these toys have been sold at every holiday season since, with the line expanding to include new elements from all the films.

Star Wars is also an important force in publishing. Alan Dean Foster's 1978 novel Splinter of the Mind's Eye was the first original adventure set in the Star Wars universe. Countless other books have followed, fleshing out the events between the movies and recounting the further adventures of characters after the films. Marvel Comics produced Star Wars comic book adventures during the original trilogy, but the rights have moved on to other companies. There are also many reference books for the series.

Star Wars was also a source for a number of television programs. The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978) centered on Chewbacca's family, but although it featured most of the main characters it is not accepted as canon. Never rereleased, the special is a kitschy prize of collectors everywhere. Saturday morning cartoon Droids (1985) chronicled the R2-D2 and C-3PO's adventures before the original trilogy, while Ewoks (1985) followed the lives of the fuzzy aliens from Return of the Jedi. The Clone Wars carried directly into an all-CGI show on Cartoon Network in 2008. Star Wars is referenced in many other media products. Two prominent cinematic parodies were Hardware Wars (1977) and Spaceballs (1987). Some programs, such as Robot Chicken and Family Guy, have produced entire parodies of Star Wars with the permission of, and occasional participation by, Lucas.

Not surprisingly, Lucasfilm's video-game divisions have also produced a number of games in the Star Wars universe. There is a massive multiplayer online Star Wars game. Various platforms have allowed players to reenact battles from the movies (Star Wars Battlefront) or pursue narrative adventures within the spaces of the films (The Force Unleashed).

Finally, Star Wars was referenced politically when President Ronald Reagan unveiled the Strategic Defense Initiative in 1983. SDI planned to use satellite and Earth-based weaponry to destroy incoming ballistic missile attacks. There are no scenes in the Star Wars films that display such moments, so the label was merely an attempt to popularize the idea with the American public.

Few movies have won a place in the hearts and imaginations of viewers the way the Star Wars films have. While generations of fans can and do bicker over the movies' narrative inconsistencies, the ubiquity of Star Wars in American popular culture and the continued success of their associated products are a testament to the loyalty of those fans.

See also: Lucas, George Science Fiction Film, The

  • Belton, John. American Cinema/American Culture. 3rd ed. McGraw-Hill Boston, 2009.
  • Lawrence, John Shelton, and Robert Jewett. The Myth of the American Superhero. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Grand Rapids, MI, 2002.
  • Seabrook, John. “Letter from the Skywalker Ranch: Why Is the Force Still with Us?” New Yorker, January 6, 1997: 40-53.
  • Robinson, Michael G.
    Copyright 2011 by ABC-CLIO, LLC

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