Galactic gasbag

By Steven Hart

By Salon Staff
Published April 18, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

Read Steven Hart's original story here.

Congratulations, Steven Hart. It's about time that someone exposed this supposed link between George Lucas' tepid storytelling and the theorizing of self-promoting proto-fascist Joseph Campbell.

I remember watching the nauseating conversation between Campbell and Bill Moyers about "Star Wars" and myth making, which has been canonized as a videotape series often used in college classes. After explicating Campbell's myopic theory through constant reference to scenes and motifs in the "Star Wars" films, they then "proved" the adequacy of Campbell's ideas by applying them to "Star Wars." Amazingly, neither Moyers nor Campbell was cuffed and strip-searched by the Methodology Police. No wonder serious scholars have always classed Campbell's work as both fanciful and dishonest.

Lucas, on the other hand, is a filmmaker and is therefore expected to be fanciful and dishonest. That's still no excuse for making boring, pretentious films.

-- Tony Gerard

I greatly enjoyed Steven Hart's salubrious debunking of the supposed literary origins of "Star Wars." The similarities between the Lensmen series and other pulp SF show that they were an influence on George Lucas' thinking, and that understanding is critical. Steven Hart's article, while showing more clearly the origins of "Star Wars," does not address its immense and continuing popularity. "Star Wars" is a rollicking good story with heroes and villians that viewers can readily connect with. Its epic sense of story provides a backdrop that is absorbing and entertaining. The development of the characters and their endearing qualities has kept the original trilogy popular, and it continues to gain new audiences. Although the roots of "Star Wars" are not the noble classics, its strengths of an epic and entertaining story remain, and it is those strengths that make it such popular entertainment.

-- Bryan Quinn

Steven Hart's puncturing of the mythos that Lucas (with the willing cooperation of others) built around the creation of the "Star Wars" movies was quite entertaining. I especially appreciated his emphasis on the much neglected Leigh Brackett's writing of the "Empire Strikes Back" screenplay. However, there's another inspiration for the "Star Wars" saga that he did not mention: J.R.R. Tolkien. The similarities between Tolkien's work and Lucas' can't be ignored. The corrupting power of the dark side of the force is similar to the corrupting power of the One Ring and has much the same effect on those who fall to its allure. Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda are clearly inspired by the wizard Gandalf. The innocent everyman hero Luke Skywalker has Sam Gamgee's naiveté and faith and Frodo Baggins' compassion and resistance to temptation. Palpatine strikes me as a one-off of the wizard Saruman, believing only in power and willing to do anything to gain it. And Darth Vader shares Gollum's conflict between his evil and good sides and his search for redemption; but while Vader finds redemption through Luke Skywalker's love, Gollum's redemption is derailed by Sam Gamgee's hatred.

-- Nancy Marie Ott

Steven Hart seems to have some chip on his shoulder about the admittedly fundamentalist culture that has grown up around the "Star Wars" movies. While he is somewhat justified in his criticism of Lucas' efforts to mythologize his own works, Hart is unjust and misguided in his attacks on the mythical content of the stories. Hart attempts to diminish the mythical content of the "Star Wars" movies by pointing out possible places where Lucas was lifting and grafting from existing science fiction books. In effect, this proves the very thing that Hart is trying to disprove -- namely, that there are "universal" stories being told in the "Star Wars" movies. It also strikes me as reactionary and willfully oblivious to the actual plots and characters that Lucas employs (as opposed to "creates," as I am inclined to agree with Hart that Lucas is not the most original of thinkers).

-- Ezra Goodnoe

I think Mr. Hart -- and many others -- miss the point of what Campbell talks about.

The relationship between "Star Wars" -- and indeed most traditional science fiction -- and mythology does not lie in surface elements, like props, character names, etc. The relationship between science fiction and myth -- both of which are included in a genre known as fabulist literature -- is at a structural level.

The structure of fabulist narratives follows several types of patterns, some of the most common of which are a journey undertaken by a young hero that results in the hero's fight with evil; the presence of a helper figure who assists the hero in his fight against evil; the initial fight with evil, in which the hero is marked or scarred; the use of magical objects picked up along the journey; a transformation of good/evil characters into their opposites; the presence of a princess/queen as the hero's reward, etc.

The specific props, settings, costumes, language, etc., that Mr. Hart talks about are the "clothes" these traditional structures wear that make them interesting and relevant to different audiences through the ages.

Before reviewing other science fiction movies or books, perhaps Mr. Hart should look more closely into the characteristics of fabulist literature. I think it would give his reviews more depth and would allow him to analyze popular works from a broader perspective.

-- Deb Salkind

Jesus, does Steven Hart actually like any movies? In the course of this article, he directly or indirectly rags not only on the "Star Wars" trilogy, but also on "The Wizard of Oz," "Solaris," "The Matrix" and, bafflingly, "The Searchers." Unless there's an irony at work I'm not getting, his description of cinephiles who worship Ford's "silly" masterpiece yet have no time for sci-fi is just plain uninformed. How about "2001," "Blade Runner," the original "Planet of the Apes" or "The Day the Earth Stood Still" -- all classic sci-fi films worthy of the critical attention they receive.

Hart makes some good points about Lucas' not being forthcoming concerning his influences. But the bile spewing forth from this article is a little unfathomable -- Hart asks us to discount all of Lucas' focus on mythology simply because Hart himself doesn't buy it. His assumption that Joseph Campbell went along with the story just so make a little more money is more than just shallow. It feels like a desperate attempt to force the facts to fit his one-sided diatribe.

-- Matt Buchholz

Steven Hart missed "Star Wars'" most obvious antecedent, and one that George Lucas (at least in the past) has proudly pointed to: Akira Kurosawa's underappreciated 1958 samurai classic, "The Hidden Fortress."

The plot is almost identical to that of the first "Star Wars" movie: A willful and rather obnoxious princess must escape through enemy territory with a secret cargo that will restore her defeated clan to power. She is accompanied by her lone surviving general (Toshiro Mifune, handily doing the work of both Luke Skywalker and Han Solo), and a pair of bumbling, bickering sidekicks that clearly inspired C3PO and R2-D2.

Kurosawa hardly needed to read Joseph Campbell. Japan's Warring States period provided all the necessary political/historical context, as it did for so many of his films. The substance of the story itself, as with all great storytelling, is simply a matter of getting the protagonists into trouble and then thinking up ingenious ways of getting them out of it.

Lucas, like Sergio Leone, proved that you can't go far wrong borrowing from Akira Kurosawa. Lucas' mistake was not borrowing enough.

-- Eugene Woodbury

I am an ardent fan of Joseph Campbell's work and a fan of Lucas' "Star Wars" saga (or at least the first two movies in the series). Nevertheless, I found Steven Hart's article right on the mark.

While Hart stretches to make his point in some instances (carping about the useless nature of Obi Wan Kenobi's advice to Luke -- arguably, he could have acted differently, but his approach is not without some semblance of wisdom), he very accurately points up the difference between the superficial application of ideas after the fact and a true and tightly integrated intention to render those ideas.

J.R.R. Tolkien once characterized the difference between allegory and applicability, saying that allegory was fueled by the intention of the author and that applicability was the province of the reader.

Clearly, Lucas' work is not allegory based on mythic themes. What Hart has shown is that in many instances, Lucas has even failed to provide his viewers with the tools for useful applicability.

I'm only disappointed that I didn't recognize it sooner.

-- David Bringhurst

Steven Hart could have elaborated the many obvious influences on "Star Wars," such as Leigh Brackett's husband, pulp-era planet-smasher Edmond Hamilton. An extract from Hamilton's 1933 Weird Tales story "Kaldar, Planet of Antares," reprinted in a 1965 Ace paperback: "The sword seemed at first glance a simple long rapier of metal. But [the hero, Stuart Merrick] found that when his grip tightened on the hilt it pressed a catch which released a terrific force stored in the hilt into the blade, making it shine with light. When anything was touched by this shining blade, he found, the force of the blade annihilated it instantly. He learned that the weapon was called a lightsword."

Still, a litany of sources doesn't get at the magic of the phenomenon. Hart's point about Lucas' spotty record outside "Star Wars"/"Indiana Jones" could more justly apply to thousands of obscure creators who adapted Shakespeare, the Bible and, yes, Campbellian hero-myth, but got nowhere interesting. The sources aren't the creation; the map is not the territory. Regardless of where the lightning issued from, Lucas caught it and bottled it. That's hard, and few have done it as well as he has.

-- Allen Varney

Wow. False dichotomy city.

There's a phenomenon one may observe among science fiction fans: The person who believes they're well read because they've read a lot of science fiction. And pretty much only science fiction.

So, does "Star Wars" owe a lot to the pulps? Sure. Does that therefore necessarily mean it doesn't owe anything to the kind of story structures Campbell looked at? Only if one thinks science fiction was a-borne all on its own and isn't related to anything else.

Sure, Tattooine looks a lot like "Dune." Funny how "Dune" looks a lot like David Lean and Robert Bolt's "Lawrence of Arabia," or Lawrence's own "Seven Pillars of Wisdom," or any other Mad Prophet in the Desert myth of the last three millennia or so, eh?

Yes, Coruscant is an obvious ripoff of Trantor from the "Foundation" trilogy. But then, Trantor owes a lot to Imperial Rome, and Asimov pretty much 'fessed up as to how he was recycling Gibbon's "Decline and Fall."

And let's not even talk about H. Beam Piper, or James Blish's broad-canvas rework of Spengler in "Cities in Flight," or Lester Del Rey's "Lest Darkness Fall" or ...

Pulp science fiction pretty much falls into well-established Campbellian forms, Lucas or not. Whether Lucas knew this intellectually when he started, or whether he jumped onto the bandwagon later, is kind of beside the point.

It's not as if those structures don't exist. Hart asks the question, "If this is the level of analysis at work, then why should this myth-mongering stop with Lucas? The original 'Rocky,' released the year before 'Star Wars,' follows Campbell's mythic template much more closely than 'Star Wars.'" Hart means this pejoratively, but he's absolutely right. Why stop with science fiction?

Or, why with Campbell? Take a look at any of the template mongers in Hollywood, notably Syd Field. You've seen screenplays written to Field's templates dozens of times. He's not an academic like Campbell; he sells his methods purely on the basis of lucrative practicality. But those templates of his fall easily into Campbellian structures. And they make lots of money.

Hart reads to me like a guy who's noticed that "Star Wars" owes a lot to other science fiction without ever examining -- or knowing -- the debt science fiction owes to other genres.

-- Hal O'Brien

Steve Hart is absolutely on the money in his comments on "Star Wars" (cf. my own review of the first movie, originally called "Star Wares" and retitled "3.2.1 Rip Off" in the UK's New Statesman). Leigh Brackett was a good friend of mine, and her account of the job matches Hart's. My experience of working with Kershner about three years later also echoes Hart's view. Kershner was a nightmare to work with, and all his ideas were derivative. I eventually wound up giving him an unfilmable script in an effort to extricate myself from the project (cf. my memoir "Letters From Hollywood"). Leigh was a great, original screenwriter. She told Hawks that he might as well use her script for "Rio Bravo" and just change the names for "El Dorado," since he was asking her to write exactly the same script over again. He told her to shut up and take the money. I was delighted to read Hart's excellent piece and am glad there is at least one other voice saying very similar things to what I've been saying since 1977. I would add that Lucas and Spielberg between them hijacked adult science fiction and put it, as Tolkien put fantasy, straight back into being identified as a juvenile form. Literary science fiction has still not entirely recovered from their out-of-context borrowings.

-- Michael Moorcock

As you must have heard from many others by now, one main and direct "subculture" influence on Lucas' "Star Wars" saga was the work of visionary comic book creator Jack Kirby. In the early '70s, burned out from his tenure as main artist and idea man at Marvel Comics (where he co-created "Fantastic Four," "Thor," "The X-Men," "Silver Surfer" and many others), Kirby launched an ambitious science fiction epic that he called "The Fourth World." Without boring you with the details, "The Fourth World" contained many of the key ingredients of the "Star Wars" story in suspiciously similar terms. Kirby's bad guy was Darkseid (pronounced "dark side"), a powerful, brooding giant cloaked in black, master of the evil empire of Apokalyps; the hero, Orion, turns out to be Darkseid's son, raised on another planet by the benevolent Highfather and the Jedi-like "New Gods." There's even a mystical field of energy that binds everything together, called "the Source" by Kirby and "the Force" by Lucas.

Comic fans have debated for years whether "Star Wars" was a direct ripoff of "The Fourth World," or if they were both based on similar sources in pulp SF. Lucas has, I believe, admitted he was familiar with Kirby's epic. That's not hard to believe, since it was pretty big news in the comics/SF world around 1971-2. Anyway, in an article that mentions Leigh Brackett and E.E. "Doc" Smith, it would not have been out of place to give props to Kirby as well.

-- Rob Salkowitz

You can tell there's a new "Star Wars" movie coming out soon because once again Salon has printed a hatchet job on George Lucas. Three years ago, Salon printed not one but two laughably stupid pieces by David Brin (auteur of classics like "The Postman") in which Lucas is all but accused of promoting fascism. This time, a certain Steven Hart takes a stab at Lucas, which can only mean David Brin is too busy working on a sequel: "Postman 2 With a Vengeance."

A few months ago, a few of the more dimwitted fans of "Lord of the Rings" tried to claim that "Star Wars" was so chock-full of motifs from myths and fairy tales that it had to be ripped off from J.R.R. Tolkien. Of course if these people had ever read anything other than "Lord of the Rings" or the "Dungeonmaster's Guide," they would know that both are based on ancient myths -- especially the Germanic myth "Ring of the Nibelungs." This is fairly obvious since both "Lord of the Rings" and "Star Wars" share many things in common with the "Ring" stories and little if anything with each other.

I bring this up because Steven Hart is doing what a few of the less intelligent Tolkien fans have done, which is to bask in his own ignorance by assuming that because he never read Flash Gordon comics, or watched Errol Flynn movies and old westerns, that George Lucas couldn't have either and that Lucas must have "stolen" "Star Wars" from Tolkien, Asimov, Herbert or someone else.

Here's an example: Part of the first "Star Wars" movie takes place on a desert world, "Tattooine." In the background of one scene is what looks like a brontosaurus skeleton. Now since so much of what takes place on the desert planet resembles old westerns from "cantinas" and the gunslinging braggarts and ruffians who hang out there (notice Han Solo's space cowboy vest and Wyatt Earp gun rig?) to hostile natives to dull whitebread farmers, it's pretty clear that the dinosaur-ish skeleton is just an over-the-top version of the livestock skeletons that are standard issue in the backgrounds of western movies. I guess Hart will soon claim that the way Solo keeps calling Princess Leia "sister" à la John Wayne in "True Grit" was somehow lifted from Philip K. Dick. It's obvious that Lucas owes more to Flash Gordon and Monument Valley than to Frank Herbert.

The rest of Hart's hit piece is clearly written by a man with no shame. He accuses George Lucas of being a derivative hack while a good part of his article is just the regurgitated ritual attack that has been chanted about Lucas for years. From the misquote of Harrison Ford's "You can type this shit" statement, to the accusations of cribbing, to trying to give credit for "Star Wars'" success to everyone but Lucas, it's the same nonsense that has been parroted about the man for years. I would say Steven Hart's article belongs in the Mike Barnicle Portfolio of Plagiarism, but his writing isn't good enough to be considered hackwork. You can type this shit Mr. Hart, but I sure can't believe it.

-- Lance Peppers

Salon Staff

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