Episode IV: A New Hope
“The circle is now complete.”
– Darth Vader
Part I: A Long Time Ago…
On May 25, 1977, those words marked the American public’s first entrance into George Lucas’ galaxy far, far away. Much ink has been spilled trying to account for the film’s success – its innocence was a welcome alternative to the predominantly cynical cinema that surrounded it, American audiences were particularly hungry for escapism – but no single explanation can quite justify Star Wars’ staying power, or how exponentially Lucas’ saga has grown since that first film. Its two-hour runtime is now only a fraction of the hours of cinematic material that have been produced over the last forty years – nearly eighteen hours’ worth of films at the time of this writing, not to mention almost two hundred episodes of animated television and apocryphal materials like the infamous Holiday Special or Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure. Yet for all this, the original 1977 film remains uneclipsed as the lynchpin of Star Wars. Thus far, Disney’s additions to the franchises have circled it closely, with Rogue One acting as a direct prequel and The Force Awakens widely (and unjustly) decried as a direct rip-off. More crucially to this series of essays, it is the centerpiece around which Lucas’ six-film saga is built.
I’ve never written an essay specifically about Episode IV: A New Hope (as it was retitled by Lucas shortly after its release), but I feel like I’ve already gone over it many times in my writings on the franchise. The original film is so foundational to Star Wars that all the later films refer to it, whether explicitly (inverting or reversing it, as in the prequel trilogy and the Disney films) or implicitly (building off the concepts it introduces, as in its sequels, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi). None of the others would exist without this original film. Not only that, they might not make any sense. The core building blocks of Lucas’ galaxy are all established here: the Force, the Empire, spaceships and lightsabers, droids and aliens. Perhaps even more crucially, almost all of the saga’s thematic concerns are present, albeit distilled to a pure and simple form. The ideas presented here are clean and largely straightforward, though not without mystery or ambiguity. Throwaway lines that mean little in the context of the individual film take on resonance when placed side by side with Lucas’ project as a whole – for instance, C-3PO’s proclamation that he is proficient in the “binary language of moisture vaporators.” Even small details seem to be weighted with a far-reaching gravitas. Episode IV is the kernel from which the rest of the mythos has grown. Perhaps that simple presentation is key to the film’s success; it works so well as entertainment because it is not trying to make particularly complex claims. The overall effect is quite unlike that of the prequel films; while those almost beg to have their unwieldy expressions interpreted, Episode IV speaks for itself so perfectly that it’s almost difficult to say anything about it. Thematically, A New Hope is free even of the complications that would be introduced in its two sequels, which expand on its ethos, deepening and questioning its fairy tale simplicity. Instead, we are left with a simple story of good vs. evil and what it means to grow up.
In my last three essays, I’ve devoted great attention to the films’ color symbolism, but even the colors here are much simpler. The film’s color palette is mostly white, grey, and black, with blue and red lightsabers trotted out sparingly at crucial points. There is almost no green to be seen, apart from some laser bolts; it is my suspicion that Lucas’ color symbolism was not clearly defined until later films. (The Death Star laser is green, which seems to conflict with the color’s connotations in other installments.) While the prequels involve complicated political maneuvers, A New Hope immediately sets its central conflict in stark, easily understood terms: the good Rebellion and the evil Empire. Moreover, it casts the good guys as underdogs, instantly outmatched in the opening shot by the viscerally depicted might of the Imperial leviathan.
Yet the film has a light touch and an innocent, old-fashioned quality rendering it appropriate for and appealing to all audiences. The violence is exciting but bloodless. There are stakes, and actions matter, but the tone is never overbearingly gloomy or dire. The more awful tragedies are glossed over, operating mostly on a conceptual level; we are told that the destruction of Alderaan and the millions of lives who lived there is an unspeakable tragedy, but because we have not seen the planet, we do not feel the full impact of such an event. Similarly, the most traumatic death in the film – that of Luke’s surrogate parents – happens offscreen.
Although many have attributed the success of the Star Wars franchise to cultural factors, and it’s undoubtedly true that the original film squarely hit some kind of cultural zeitgeist, the saga likely never would’ve attained such prominence in the cultural eye if it weren’t built on the firm foundation of one of the greatest films ever made. A New Hope stands side by side with Casablanca, Citizen Kane, and 2001: A Space Odyssey as a masterpiece of American cinema and a watershed moment for the medium in general. It’s a work of genre pastiche so effective that it’s become more ubiquitous than its inspirations. I’ve argued in the past that Lucas’ unique strength is his ability to pull from different sources in surprising ways, and here at the beginning, he draws from a wide range of influences to construct something strikingly coherent, at once novel and familiar. World War II films inform the overarching struggle of the scrappy Rebellion against the iconically fascist Empire, and the climactic trench run on the Death Star is heavily influenced by 1955’s The Dam Busters. The early passages on the desert planet Tatooine pay homage to the western genre, with the Tusken Raiders filling the role of Indians and the burning homestead sequence lifted from The Searchers. Yet they also recall David Lean’s eye for capturing the vast emptiness of the desert in Lawrence of Arabia (a connection made more explicit by the presence of Alec Guinness), along with the classical composition and storytelling construction of Akira Kurosawa’s films. Much has been made of the film’s shared DNA with Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress, from which Lucas lifted the idea of entering the plot through the perspective of two lowly characters, and the general contours of a story where a band of heroes (including an older general and a princess) must move undetected through enemy territory. Star Wars even winks at its spiritual predecessor; an Imperial officer decries Darth Vader’s (James Earl Jones) failure to find the Rebels’ “hidden fortress” before he is cut off mid-sentence by the Force.From L to R: “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962), “Star Wars” (1977)
Although there are similarities between the two works in terms of basic character types and structure, the more important and substantial contribution from Kurosawa is Star Wars’ gentle humanism and empathy. A New Hope is famous for its effects and world-building, yes, but its enduring popularity is perhaps best attributed to its memorable cast of characters, each of whom fills a familiar archetype. Luke (Mark Hamill) is an idealistic and well-meaning but immature hero. Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is a scoundrel who purports to be self-interested but has a heart of gold (comparable, for instance, to Humphrey Bogart’s Rick in Casablanca). Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) is a wise old sage and warrior. Kurosawa’s films are often populated with similarly broad character types, but like Lucas, he is never content to simply rely on these kinds of sketches, instead insisting on shading them in with humanity and nuance. Kurosawa characters will often have one defining trait, which is then subverted or expounded on in an affecting way. For instance, consider Toshirô Mifune’s Kikuchiyo in Seven Samurai: he is initially positioned as comic relief, with his humorously unfounded boasts and wild temperament, but over the film’s runtime, a deeply human backstory reveals the emotional truth behind this façade.
Similarly, Star Wars relies on familiar types, but its characters are iconic for the way they (and the actors who play them) fill in those outlines with idiosyncratic personalities. As with so many Kurosawa characters, C-3PO’s constant complaining is ultimately revealed to mask a genuine respect and love for his counterpart, R2-D2. A New Hope allows its characters to be rough around the edges and even unlikable, but again and again, pettiness falls away to reveal unexpected goodness. Luke’s idealism can be grating, but his sincere desire to do good is ultimately validated by the film. Han claims to be motivated only by the desire for money, but he returns to save the day at the film’s end, in one of cinema’s great climactic reveals. Perhaps more than in any of the other Star Wars films, here Lucas demonstrates a sense of affection for his characters, extending a luminous warmth even to literally inhuman characters like R2-D2 and Chewbacca, whose beeps, whistles, roars, and growls somehow convey deeply endearing personalities.
A New Hope sets up its characters and their dynamics with marvelous efficiency. The early banter between R2-D2 and C-3PO establishes them as an aptly matched comedic duo, constantly juxtaposing R2’s silent competence with 3PO’s blundering verbosity to reliably hilarious effect. Or consider the initial exchange between Luke and Uncle Owen (Phil Brown), which tells us everything we need to know about their relationship. Luke whines, “I was going into Tosche station to pick up some power converters!” Owen responds, “You can waste time with your friends when your chores are done.” Luke’s desire for adventure and freedom is immediately contrasted with Owen’s pragmatic disdain for his nephew’s youthful activities. Indeed, this is one of the key strengths of Episode IV – its ability to suggest so much with so little. Many fantasy films get bogged down explaining the details of their worlds and the relationships of the characters who inhabit them. As the first installment in a complex mythos, A New Hope has a great deal to establish, but it does so briskly and efficiently, creating a universe that feels real and rich with possibility even as its plot moves at a breakneck pace through its series of set pieces (following the tradition of movie serials, where one twenty-minute reel had to act as its own contained installment while also feeding into a larger overarching story). The scene in the Mos Eisley Cantina, a “wretched hive of scum and villainy” filling the screen with a plethora of aliens, is particularly emblematic of this ability to suggesting a living, breathing world.
Part of what allows the film to function so well in this way is the fairy tale simplicity of its plot. The movements are straightforward and easy to grasp, as are the characters and their motives. Like its two predecessors in Lucas’ filmography, THX-1138 and American Graffiti, the essential story of A New Hope is that of the bildungsroman or coming of age narrative. Luke’s desire to “transmit his application to the academy” recalls the teenage angst of Graffiti’s cast of characters, adolescents straining towards an uncertain future. Like those characters, one suspects that Luke is a somewhat autobiographical character for Lucas, who butted heads with his father on what to do with his life before pursuing his dream of filmmaking. A New Hope quickly sketches the psychological factors that have shaped Luke; idealistically, he wants to follow in his father’s footsteps, but he has internalized the pragmatic philosophy of his uncle. “It’s such a long way from here,” he demurs to Obi-Wan when confronted with the possibility of leaving home. “That’s your uncle talking,” the old Jedi astutely points out.
Lucas’ interest in child psychology and the formation of young people makes sense of his preoccupation with this archetypal coming of age narrative. Much has been made of the fact that Star Wars follows Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey,” which is believed to be the basic arc of every mythic tale throughout the ages. In A New Hope, Lucas uses a mythic bildungsroman as the backbone of his story without fixating on his youthful protagonist. Instead, he constructs the hero’s journey in such a way that the other characters do not feel like mere props along the protagonist’s path to self-realization. The original Star Wars trilogy is centered on Luke’s journey from childhood to adulthood, but it is also always an ensemble piece, and even the small parts are invested with personality. The way the film opens by following the droids’ point of view is crucial to establishing the humility of Lucas’ perspective. Star Wars is an intensely personal project, but by refusing to fix it on Luke’s semi-autobiographical journey, Lucas reveals he has a wider view in mind. Star Wars is about his own experience, yes, but it is also about so much more.
Part II: Before the Dark Times
In American Graffiti, which was released four years before Star Wars, Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss) – another Lucas protagonist and possible autobiographical stand-in – spends the film’s runtime considering whether or not to depart for college, leaving the comforting familiarity of his small hometown. Curt is a young, often passive man, torn between past and future, comfort and uncertainty, weighing his options with quiet awkwardness. In one striking scene, he wanders silently through the darkened, empty halls of his old high school. Everyone else is at the dance or cruising the streets, but Curt is alone. He is pensive, reflecting. He tries to open a locker. He can’t. The expression on Dreyfuss’ face is a perfect, wistful smile. The past is locked, beyond our reach, but we try to get at it anyway, until we can’t, and we’re swept along half-willingly into the future, watching old dreams fade away behind us.
In previous essays, I’ve made special note of the nostalgic quality of Lucas’ films, and his penchant for mining history and tradition in his own work. This has been evident in the construction of the Star Wars films, with their synthesis of different cultural sources, but here at the beginning of the saga, it is also built into the story itself. Both THX-1138 and American Graffiti are narratives of personal awakening and the movement into a “larger world,” as Obi-Wan Kenobi puts it. Whereas THX must escape his dystopian prison by violently shedding its cultural signifiers, and Curt must overcome his nostalgia in order to live his life, Luke and other characters in Star Wars find direction for the future by looking backwards into the past. When we meet him, he pines to leave home, but the direction of his life is unclear; he says that he wants to transmit his application to an academy of some kind, and we learn that all his friends have already gone, but the overall impression is that he simply wants to get away from his current surroundings. While Owen has spent his whole life on the moisture farm, Beru insists that Luke “can’t stay here forever… Luke’s just not a farmer, Owen. He has too much of his father in him.”
In a key difference with the narratives of Curt and THX, though, Luke’s journey is shaped not by a need to distance oneself from the past but by the drive to take part in a tradition. He does not define himself in opposition to his father, but wishes to become a Jedi just like him. In their early scenes together, Obi-Wan Kenobi is instrumental in guiding Luke by directing his focus to a story that began before he was born and revealing truths about the past. The young man eagerly accepts his father’s lightsaber – “an elegant weapon for a more civilized age.” He is tantalized by Obi-Wan’s stories of an era “before the dark times… before the Empire.” When Obi-Wan gives his idealized account of Luke’s father, he is presenting a model for the boy to follow as he enters adulthood. Obi-Wan, too, is called to action by remembrances of the past: Leia’s message refers to him by his old title, “General Kenobi,” and emphasizes that “Years ago, [he] served [her] father in the Clone Wars.” American Graffiti looked at nostalgia critically, giving equal attention to its fleeting joys and inescapable melancholy. A New Hope, on the other hand, is about something more than just the longing for a simpler time. It is about returning to truths one’s culture has forgotten. The Rebel base is located in some kind of ancient temple, which acts as a hangar for its starships – suggesting a synthesis between old and new.
Luke’s unironic sensitivity to archaic moral codes is key to his heroism, especially as contrasted with the skepticism of Han Solo and his disdain for “hokey religions and ancient weapons.” Later Han, referring to Ben, asks derisively: “Where did you dig up that old fossil?” Luke is defensive: “Ben is a great man.” To American audiences upon the film’s release, the very idea of undergoing a quest to rescue a princess would seem as old-fashioned as it does to Han Solo. Nostalgia and traditionalism are an animating force for good from early on in the film, expressed primarily through the shifting dynamics between Luke, Han, and Obi-Wan. Obi-Wan is the representative of a bygone time, and he urges Luke to follow the same path, while Han scoffs. Adherence to tradition – the Jedi, the old Republic – is tied to the belief in something larger than oneself, and the capacity to act selflessly and virtuously. Obi-Wan’s mentorship rarely consists of teaching Luke actual skills; he primarily acts as a storyteller, shaping Luke by inspiring him to greater virtue and faith. Even his death at the hands of Darth Vader is staged for Luke’s benefit. Before he sacrifices himself, Obi-Wan looks slyly at Luke, and Lucas frames the scene through a door that makes it look like a theater. Obi-Wan’s death is a real event and a testament to a real truth, but it is also, in many ways, a performance for the benefit of others.“I was once a Jedi Knight, same as your father…”
Han’s actions as a pragmatist only concerned with self-preservation are tied to his disbelief in a higher power – in contrast to Obi-Wan, whose belief in the Force as something greater than death prepares him for the ultimate act of self-sacrifice. This moral schema plays out in Han’s arc: his moral awakening by the film’s end corresponds to his acceptance of something greater and his delivery of the religious phrase, “May the Force be with you.”
As Luke follows Obi-Wan’s guidance to follow the old ways of the Jedi, he also continues to refer his experiences to his childhood and adolescence. “It’ll be just like Beggar’s Canyon back home,” he famously proclaims of the climactic attack on the Death Star. Through the character of Luke Skywalker, Lucas presents a vision of adulthood where maturity and virtue are not inherently opposed to childlikeness and innocence. Luke’s affinity for things of the past is not constraining, instead giving him a framework through which to progress into the future.
Additionally, storytelling within the story is used as a device to lend weight and meaning. This, I suspect, is key to the staying power of Star Wars, and its expansion from a single self-contained story into a vast mythology. Some of the most effectively magical scenes in A New Hope consist of characters simply talking about offscreen events and history. For instance, there is the early conversation between Obi-Wan and Luke in the Jedi’s hovel, in which the story of the fall of the Republic and the Jedi is told. Alec Guinness delivers this backstory with such conviction that it practically begs to be embellished in later installments. When the film was produced in 1977, Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Luke were surely not intended to be brother and sister, but when Obi-Wan sees Leia for the first time, you can almost see the wheels turning in his head as he thinks about the impending reunion between the children of his old protégé. Episode IV is marvelously effective at suggesting more than it depicts outright; the way characters tell stories of past times makes Lucas’ galaxy feel fraught with history. It’s little wonder that people were disappointed by the prequel films; everyone who saw A New Hope imagined their own version of what happened beforehand.“Obi-Wan? That’s a name I’ve not heard in a long time… a long time.”
The film itself, of course, is an act of nostalgic storytelling, cobbled together from the flotsam and jetsam of Lucas’ youth, probing back into his own childhood and the kinds of stories he enjoyed and learned from. Luke’s journey to become a Jedi and reclaim something from the past mirrors Lucas’ own journey in the production of the films – his attempt to bring back something that had been forgotten by the culture around him. Star Wars is a bid to preserve storytelling traditions that seemed to be going out of style. However, while A New Hope is a throwback in many ways, it is also a groundbreaking technical exercise. Lucas is a traditionalist, but he is also an innovator, and his ability to hold these forward and backward drives in tension is key to the success of Star Wars, which blends the elements of ancient mythology with the trappings of modern popular culture.
Part III: Technological Terror“What a piece of junk!”
The emphasis on tradition and revival of old ways might suggest a Luddite mindset, but a science fiction movie as vividly, lovingly rendered as this one can hardly be straightforwardly anti-technology. Lucas wants to preserve and continue ancient traditions, but he is always looking to do so in new ways, with new iconography. Even if the bad guys often end up being more heavily industrialized than the good guys – the climactic battles of The Phantom Menace and Return of the Jedi both pit technology against nature, with the latter being good and the former being bad – one can hardly claim that technology is demonized in Star Wars. How would we then make sense of the heroic droids, or Han Solo’s affection for the Millennium Falcon? He refers to the ship as his “baby” in A New Hope, and his relationship with his craft recalls the pride the teenagers of American Graffiti took in their cars. The film itself was groundbreaking in its visual effects, and Lucas continued to push the envelope with every subsequent entry in the saga. He is an innovator and a pioneer, but his zeal is tempered and directed by his roundly developed sense of virtue. He loves technology, but fears the way it may be used for ill, and what we may lose when we become dependent on it.
As such, the heavily mechanized Galactic Empire is not evil because of its reliance on technology. Instead, it represents a kind of industrialization that eschews humanity for progress. The villains in A New Hope are those who ignore the past and try to move forward without regard for tradition or history. Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) informs the other Imperial officers that the Galactic Senate has been dissolved offscreen: “The last remnants of the Old Republic have been swept away.” Tarkin and the others seem to believe that their Empire is better than the old Republic – more efficient, probably, and more effective at controlling the galaxy. When one officer questions how the Emperor will maintain control without the bureaucracy of the Senate, Tarkin responds that “fear will keep the local systems in line.” The appeal of a fascist government is its unfettered and direct power, to be used without the troublesome interference of red tape and debates. The Empire, as depicted here, is hubristic and power-hungry, and these very flaws are the fatal weaknesses that allow it to be destroyed. “The more you tighten your grip,” Princess Leia says, “The more star systems will slip through your grasp.” In Lucas’ moral universe, the Empire’s attempts at control are reassuringly doomed to failure. “You’re far too trusting,” Tarkin gloats to Leia in a wonderful bit of moral hypocrisy. When she proves to be more canny than he realized mere minutes later, he is outraged: “She lied! She lied to us!”
Elsewhere, the Empire’s blind spot is its failure to consider fools and individuals who rise up against the system. At a military briefing, a Rebel leader states that the Death Star’s defenses are designed around a large-scale assault, which allows the Rebels’ small, individually manned fighters to destroy it. “The Empire doesn’t see a small, one-man fighter as a threat,” he says. The word “fool” is used often in the film by pragmatists like Han and Owen, to describe idealists who take action based on archaic beliefs or codes – Obi-Wan, primarily, although Anakin is also described as a “damn fool.” As in Shakespeare or countless other classic mythologies, the “fools” in Star Wars are often the wisest people in the room, despite appearances to the contrary – the ones who follow a higher logic that others can’t see.“Who’s more foolish, the fool or the fool who follows him?”
American blockbuster cinema tends to venerate the lone hero. This penchant for lionized individualism can be seen throughout the western genre, or in the Dirty Harry films that were being produced when A New Hope came out. Throughout Star Wars, Lucas has a tight grasp on the necessary balance between individualism and community. The Empire, with its totalitarian regime and visual emphasis on conformity with its ranks of identical Stormtroopers and uniformed officers, is a dark vision of a society that crushes and fears individual thinking. Yet the correct course of action in response to such an authority is not radical independence, but alignment with those who have come before (the Jedi) and those who are virtuous in the present (the Rebellion).
Technology, as used by the Empire, also supplants the role of nature. “That’s no moon,” Obi-Wan famously says upon first seeing the Death Star. “That’s a space station.” Note how in the film’s climax, as the Death Star orbits the planet Yavin in order to destroy the moon where the Rebel base resides, the planet is being orbited by two moons: one artificial, new, and evil, the other natural, old, and good. (The Rebel base is housed in an ancient temple overgrown by foliage.) In Revenge of the Sith, Yoda posited that death is a natural part of life, but in the hands of the Empire, it has been weaponized in horrifying ways. (Note also how Obi-Wan, in Episode IV, puts his hand on his heart when he senses the destruction of Alderaan – mirroring the way Yoda puts his hand over his heart upon sensing the massacre of the Jedi in Episode III.)
More importantly and strikingly, the Death Star, as the pinnacle of the Empire’s technological achievement, is pitted against the mysticism and spirituality of the Jedi and the Force.“This station is now the ultimate power in the universe,” one officer proclaims of the Death Star. “I suggest we use it.” Addressing Vader, Tarkin says: “The Jedi are extinct. Their fire has gone out of the universe. You, my friend, are all that remains of their religion.” Although the film doesn’t give us a thorough sense of the galaxy at large, those denizens we do see don’t seem to believe in the Force. “Don’t try to frighten us with your sorcerer’s ways,” scoffs one officer, before proceeding to deride the lack of tangible results produced by Vader’s “sad devotion to that ancient religion.” The Rebellion, in contrast, has leaders who send troops to battle with religious exhortations: “May the Force be with you.”
The military conflict in the film doesn’t boil down to nature against technology, but it can be read in the terms of religion against godlessness. Spirituality is denied by the evil faction (by and large – Vader is an interesting anomaly) and embraced by the good. In the end, we see that those who place their faith in technology are ultimately defeated, despite their seeming invincibility – and those who place their faith in the invisible are rewarded with victory against overwhelming odds. “Don’t be too proud of this technological terror you’ve constructed,” Darth Vader counsels. “The power to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.” (In my essay on Rogue One, I posit that Gareth Edwards took this line as the thematic thesis of his prequel film.) In the end, the film proves him right. The Rebel pilots who rely on their targeting computers are unable to destroy the Death Star. Only Luke, when he lets go and surrenders to the will of the Force, can overcome the destructive power of technology harnessed for evil. He does not eschew technology altogether, but refuses to become dependent on it, and by letting spirituality guide him instead of pragmatism or materialism, he is able to master the machine and use it for good.
Part IV: The Ways of the Force
In the first act of A New Hope, we hear alternately of Obi-Wan Kenobi, the warrior being sought by R2-D2, and Ben Kenobi, a crazy old wizard and hermit who lives in the Dune Sea. “Of course I know him,” Ben says matter-of-factly when Luke queries him about the whereabouts of Obi-Wan. “He’s me.” The name Kenobi is so specific and ubiquitous that a modern viewer hardly has to work to piece together the connection between Obi-Wan and Ben, but Kenobi’s twofold nature is key to the film’s thematic discussion. Outwardly, Obi-Wan is one thing – a harmless old hermit – but inwardly, he is another. His true significance is hidden. This is a potent symbol for the way Obi-Wan introduces Luke to the idea of a spiritual dimension underlying the physical universe – a “larger world” that promises to fulfill the youngster’s deep-seated hunger for something beyond the materialistic worldview of his uncle and the moisture farm. (The very idea of farming moisture suggests a stifling dryness to the Lars lifestyle.)
Throughout Episode IV, Obi-Wan gives many of the most iconic proclamations regarding the nature of the Force. His initial explanation to Luke is perhaps the most memorable and oft-quoted: “The Force is what gives a Jedi his power; it’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us and binds the galaxy together.” Like Qui-Gon’s explanation of midi-chlorians to Anakin, Obi-Wan gives Luke a rather naturalistic account of the Force. In fact, the relationship between individuals and the Force sounds rather like the “symbiont circle” Obi-Wan talks about in The Phantom Menace: “You mean it controls your actions?” Luke asks, and Obi-Wan replies: “Partially. But it also obeys your commands.” In A New Hope, the Force seems to be regarded as an impersonal entity more than a deity – there is no discussion of the “will of the Force” here – but it is never simply a power to be used or controlled, nor is it something to be considered abstractly. The starting point of Luke’s journey, according to Obi-Wan, is that he must “learn the ways of the Force and come with [Obi-Wan] to Alderaan.” Learning about the Force here is not a conceptual pursuit, but is necessarily accompanied by tangible actions. And although the “will of the Force” is never explicitly discussed, Obi-Wan and Luke seem to act according to a kind of providence, a higher power that is not disinterested in the outcome of events. “In my experience,” Obi-Wan says, “There’s no such thing as luck.” And of course, in the end, Luke must trust the Force to destroy the Death Star – indicating that, in some sense, the Force actually wants good to triumph and evil to be destroyed.
Here we see that Obi-Wan, in his exile, has learned and corrected some of the faults of the Jedi Order from the prequel films. While the Jedi of the prequels were brash and too eager to solve problems with violence, Obi-Wan is wily and only uses it as a last resort; “You can’t win,” he counsels Han, “But there are alternatives to fighting.” Indeed, much of Obi-Wan’s screentime in the second half of the film is spent sneaking around the Death Star’s corridors, unseen by the Stormtroopers, in order to deactivate a tractor beam and allow his allies to escape. In Attack of the Clones, he exhorted Anakin to think, placing too much focus on rationality; in A New Hope, he tells Luke, “You must do what you feel is right, of course.” (Emphasis mine.) At the end of Revenge of the Sith, Obi-Wan learned from Yoda that, in exile, he would commune with Qui-Gon from beyond the grave. When we meet him in A New Hope, we see that he has become more like his old master than ever. While the Jedi of the prequels took Anakin from his mother and isolated him from the rest of the world in a monastery, Obi-Wan takes Luke to a spaceport where he comes into conflict with the roughness of the world.
While the prequels emphasized the problems of the Jedi’s idealistic philosophy when taken to extremes, A New Hope is more straightforward in emphasizing what is good and proper about that philosophy. When we meet him, Luke is adrift in a world without ideals; Owen is concerned only with the harvest, and Luke is merely seeking amusement. According to Obi-Wan, Owen doesn’t want his surrogate son to go on some “damn fool idealistic crusade.” Elsewhere, he tells us Luke’s uncle “didn’t hold with [his] father’s ideals.” Pragmatism and detachment are a wrong response to evil. “It’s not that I love the Empire,” Luke protests when Obi-Wan presents the opportunity to leave Tatooine. “I hate it, but there’s nothing I can do about it right now.” Ideals are necessary to spur individuals to right action – but, as we have seen in the prequels, the head must be aided by the heart. The Jedi vision of a spiritual component to the universe, something beyond the physical, is key to their pursuit of virtue. “Your eyes can deceive you,” Obi-Wan teaches. “Don’t trust them.” The Jedi, unlike Han and Owen, are not reliant on sensory data.
Although we learn least about the Sith and the Dark Side in A New Hope, we can glean intriguing information about the way they contrast the Jedi. The Empire is the main villainous force in the film, but Darth Vader is Obi-Wan’s mythic counterpart, as much a representation of evil as Kenobi is of good. “I find your lack of faith disturbing,” Vader says to one Imperial officer, and throughout we see that he, unlike the rest of the Empire, believes in the Force and is attuned to it in some sense. Pursuing Luke down the Death Star trench, Vader is able to note, “The Force is strong with this one.” Vader has a spiritual belief that the other Imperials do not share, but by aligning himself with the Empire, he seems to have tied himself to the physical world in a way Obi-Wan has not. Even the design of his armor and the sound effect of his raspy breathing suggests a dependence on technology over nature.
The conflict between good and evil is fought on a battlefield beyond the material universe, but evil in Star Wars weakens itself by its reliance on material things. The Empire seems to have the appearance of strength, but the will of the Force is against it. The Sith strive to prevent death, but the Jedi are unfazed by it, and can outlast it. “You can’t win, Darth,” Obi-Wan says as their duel comes to a close. “If you strike me down, I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” Indeed, Obi-Wan is the first Jedi we see continuing to exist after death; he continues to guide Luke after Vader strikes him down, and it is his guidance that allows Luke to destroy the Death Star at the crucial moment. Although we do not see him as a ghost until The Empire Strikes Back, his presence is felt, and it is instrumental in the victory of good over evil.
Obi-Wan’s last words to Luke when he is alive are “The Force will be with you, always.” They are also the last words he speaks in the film, as a disembodied voice bringing comfort after the destruction of the Death Star. The Jedi encouraged detachment, but this language of being “with” the Force emphasizes relationship. In Revenge of the Sith, Palpatine told Anakin to leave Obi-Wan in order to save himself. This beat is mirrored in A New Hope, when Luke deduces that Stormtroopers have attacked his home. He leaps into his landspeeder to rush to his aunt and uncle’s aid – ignoring Obi-Wan’s warning, “Luke, it’s too dangerous!” Both Anakin and Luke demonstrate emotional attachment to their friends and family, even though the Jedi discourage them. In both instances, the Jedi are wrong: Luke’s selfless concern for his aunt and uncle is a good trait, and it is part of what makes him admirable. At the same time, he is better than Anakin at surrendering control when he needs to. Twice in A New Hope, people tell Luke there wasn’t anything he could’ve done. The first is after the death of Owen and Beru; the second is after the death of Obi-Wan. Both times, Luke believes them, instead of taking undue responsibility on his shoulders as Anakin did. His mourning for the loss of his aunt and uncle doesn’t translate into a thirst for vengeance or a desire for more power to prevent future tragedies.
During the final trench run, Obi-Wan’s disembodied voice counsels: “Use the Force, Luke. Let go, Luke.” Luke, like Qui-Gon before him, and unlike Anakin, is able to let go and surrender to the will of a power beyond himself. Earlier in this essay I noted that it was unclear how much thought Lucas had devoted to color symbolism when A New Hope was released, but regardless of intention, one key moment in the climax dovetails with the use of colors throughout the other films: when Luke decides to let go and trust the Force, he presses a green button to disengage his targeting computer.
Yet his faith in the Force is not merely an abstract belief in an impersonal destiny; it is also a faith in his personal mentor. “Trust me,” Obi-Wan says. Luke, unlike Anakin, does not define himself as an adult by opposition to those older than him. He is youthful and impetuous without becoming rebellious or defiant. The cold rationalism of the prequels, which encouraged isolation and self-sufficiency, has become something much warmer. Instead of withdrawing from those around him, Luke matures by interacting with them, entering into community with the droids, Han, Chewbacca, and Leia. The film ends with this lonely young boy, whose friends had all left home without him, surrounded by a set of new friends. His journey to maturity is only beginning, but he will not be alone.
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