Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Ewoks, Warfare, Alliances, and Modern Parallels (or: Stop Hating on Return of the Jedi)

Okay, so let me begin by stating that this post is a bit wacky. Even for me. The title by itself probably has most of you wondering what the hell is going on. This past weekend was the 30th anniversary of the release of the brilliant Star Wars sequel, The Empire Strikes Back. I love that movie, but it got me thinking about the following one (as did the continuous showings of the trilogy on TV - I can watch parts of the original Star Wars trilogy anytime), The Return of the Jedi (RotJ). This is a much-maligned movie that I actually always liked (not as much as Empire, of course) much more than most people. One of the common criticisms of Jedi was the presence of the Ewoks. Among sci-fi nerds, movie buffs, and the rest of us, the common criticism was: they're too damn cute. Having these koala-like cuddly things in the movie just killed it - you can't take it too seriously, and it was all an effort by George Lucas to get the kiddie dollar at the theater, the video store, and the toy store. Now, there's some truth to that - no doubt the Ewoks helped get more money from younger audiences. But, I think there's something much deeper to it. The Ewoks were not "cute" in the classic definition of cute. The Ewoks were victims of power politics, and were pretty courageous guerrilla warriors. Yeah, that's right. I said it. Stop hating on RotJ because of the Ewoks!

Let's review this. The Empire lands on the moon of Endor, the Ewoks home. They intrude on them and run operations on the planet. The second Death Star was built there, and the deflector shield for the infrastructure was based on the planet. So, while they weren't quite subject to an occupation, the Ewoks did have a foreign force run operations on their home planet. In other words, their sovereignty was taken away. Enter the Rebels. Under most circumstances, the Ewoks probably had no dog in the fight. However, they had foreign troops on their soil. The alliance with the Rebels was seemingly the only way to get out of this precarious situation, as they couldn't not align with a side here, like the states in the Non-Alignment Movement did during the Cold War. The Empire already violated their sovereignty, and they couldn't get that back on their own, so they needed to join with the Rebels. Thus, they had to choose sides. This isn't unlike many of the alliances formed during the Cold War, though in this case, the Ewoks had more in common with their ally, the Rebels, than did many allies during the Cold War. But the larger point is, they, like many of those states, didn't have a lot of real options.

The Empire's role in the Ewok story is not dissimilar from the controversial U.S.-led drone attacks in Pakistan, or the presence of the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba. Neither are occupations, but both cause some serious sovereignty issues. The Empire wasn't (as far as I know) calling the shots on Endor. They didn't install a puppet Ewok regime. Yes, I know, this is getting a bit silly, but stay with me. However, the Ewoks were no longer able to fully function in their homes. If the area they needed to get crops from was being used by the Empire for the deflector shield, its not like they could negotiate with them over that. Even though it was their home, another party was exerting its sovereignty over the land. Just like Pakistanis don't support the U.S. drone attacks that have killed many innocent civilians (ratios vary, but no matter what, many more civilians have been killed than militants in these attacks) on their own soil, they can't really do anything about it. The Pakistani government is actually probably in cahoots with the U.S. on these attacks, or is at least looking the other way, while using oppositional rhetoric to ensure that Pakistanis think they're on their side on this issue (when they probably aren't). Fidel is most certainly not down with Gitmo, nor are most Cubans, but the U.S. keeps the base, where it has held hundreds of people at a time in legal limbo, and in a world of torture and degradation. Castro can't do anything about it. Just like the Ewoks.

So, they basically had limited options and were dragged into the conflict. Power politics came into play to some degree, though so did ideology - the Empire was never their kind of bag, while the Rebels were. Now, they were fuzzy and cute. But that plays into the more impressive part of the story that apolitical people don't get - they battled like crazy. This was David and Goliath - a 2 foot tall koala taking on armed 30 foot tall AT-ST walkers. That they did it was impressive enough, and says something about courage to do the right thing. Many died in what should have been an easy fight for the Empire to win. Of course, the Empire didn't win. The Ewoks and the Rebels won. They won with primitive weapons. They won through guerrilla warfare, not dissimilar to tactics made popular by Che Guevara. Even when the odds looked very bad, they kept fighting, and triumphed in the end. These primitive, cute, fuzzy things beat a technologically-advanced, far more powerful Imperial force. In fact, this was a huge thing for Lucas. He created the Ewoks for RotJ specifically to show this story. It was also not that long after Vietnam. I don't know for sure, but I wouldn't doubt that helped him shape the story.

So, the "cute" factor is important in RotJ, but it's to show that these cute, primitive underdogs can be particularly courageous and fight a far-superior Empire. It's to show that these cuddly little things can mount a strong resistance to Imperial forces which have impeded on their home. It's to show that the massively under-armed and under-manned Ewoks can win. By creating such a ridiculous underdog, Lucas actually shows us that we can all be strong enough to stand up against injustice, and that we might actually succeed.

In summary...the Ewoks are cute, sure, but they're cute so as to show us to struggle against injustice in the world. Because, hell, if those cuddly little Ewoks did it and succeeded, what's our excuse? Cute in RotJ isn't about cute, it's about courage, resistance, willpower, and success. Couple that with the theme of redemption (Vader's turn back to the Force, even though it kills him), and you've got a great movie. Probably the most political of the three original Star Wars movies - as I've made clear, there are parallels between the Ewok situation and alliance issues during the Cold War, guerrilla warfare tactics, the Vietnam War (considering the timing, I have to believe that played a major role in how the script was written), and sovereignty problems (like the drone attacks in Pakistan, and the presence of Guantanamo Bay in Castro's Cuba). Is that to say RotJ is exactly like any of the above? Not exactly. But the fact that the Ewok subplot has so many similarities to these serious political issues says something. Namely, even though it may not be as good a movie as Empire, RotJ is a damn good movie, and particularly because of the Ewoks' struggles and eventual triumph. So stop hating!

1 comment:

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