Post #33: The Ewoks, the Viet Cong, and American History in 'Return of the Jedi'
"You're a jittery little thing, aren't you?" --Leia Organa, Return of the Jedi
Last semester I prepared to teach my film class about how even the blockbuster-iest films can contain subtle messages and how it’s important to listen to commentaries (on DVDs, Blu Rays, etc.) whenever possible. I thought that this would be amply demonstrated by the comment of Star Wars creator George Lucas that the furry Ewoks in Return of the Jedi (Marquand 1983) are metaphors for the Viet Cong. In the same way that the technologically superior United States was beaten to a stand still by the North Vietnamese Army in 1975, in ‘Star Wars’, and especially Return of the Jedi, the technologically superior Galactic Empire is defeated by the technologically inferior Ewoks. Whereas imperial forces use blasters, Ewoks use spears (see header image). When I went to find the source of Lucas’ comparison, however, I ran into trouble.
Many of the websites that I consulted to find the source of the comparison either doesn’t list a source or gives an erroneous citation, and none of them directly quotes Lucas. Moviepilot.com states, “According to George Lucas's commentary on the 2004 re-release of Return of the Jedi, the Ewoks were directly inspired by the forces that successfully defeated the US and South Vietnamese forces during the Vietnam War - the National Liberation Front, or Viet Cong.” An article on history.com by Christopher Klein similarly states that “[Lucas] said in an audio commentary on the 2004 re-release of “Return of the Jedi” that the Viet Cong served as his inspiration for the furry forest-dwelling Ewoks…”
Lucas establishes his interpretation of the Ewoks in contrast to the empire at about the 1:03:00 mark of Return the Jedi (chapter 22): “I needed to come up with a primitive creature that was still using sticks and stones and spears--or weapons--and that lived in a primitive society that would be forced to take on the highly technological Empire.” In chapter 29 at about the 1:26:00 mark he remarks, "See, this film was written during the Vietnam War where a small group of ill-equipped people were able to overcome a mighty power.” This comment plays over a scene of the Rebel strike team doing some reconnaissance (see figure 1).
Lucas continues, “It’s not a new idea. Attila the Hun was able to overrun the Roman Empire. The American colonies were able to overrun the British. And it’s always the same story. The Roman Empire had huge mechanical and training advantage over the Huns, but the Huns were still able to overwhelm them with enthusiasm and their human-ness and their belief if what they were doing. And that was the main theme for the overall downfall of the empire--that it was basically overcome by humanity in the form of cute little teddy bears." He makes a similar comment around the 1:46:00 mark in chapter 38: “…the story really is of a primitive society--apparently a weak society--who is able to overcome a very technological society.” Lucas here is speaking over scenes of the Ewoks using rocks and ropes to defeat imperial forces (see figure 2). I was struck by the absence of any specific reference to the Viet Cong in these statements. I can see how people have interpreted his words to mean that the Ewoks are the main referent (and make the further interpretive leap that they represent the Viet Cong). But the fact that Lucas’ first comment is triggered by Rebels sneaking up on the imperial base on Endor, and not just the Ewoks, suggests that the Ewoks’ struggle against the Empire is a mirror of the Rebels’ own.
In an article on moviepilot.com Kit Simpson Browne argued that if the Ewoks are the Viet Cong, then the United States is the Empire. A version of that second correspondence has also been made by Lucas; in the same history.com article that I mentioned previously, the filmmaker is reported on two separate occasions to have identified Emperor Palpatine with the disgraced U.S. President Richard Nixon (see figure 3). And yet, Lucas’ comments could equally apply to the Rebellion. Throughout episodes IV-VI, the Rebels have far less resources than the Empire, and in ‘Return of the Jedi’ particularly, it takes a guerilla ground force to infiltrate the imperial shield generator and destroy it so that the Rebel fleet can attack the Death Star. But there is always a sense that the Rebels are far outmatched in terms of resources and technology by the Empire. Furthermore, Lucas’ comment quoted above demonstrates that in his mind the story of the Ewoks/Rebellion versus the Empire parallels the American Revolution.
The equation of the Ewoks with the Viet Cong and the Empire with the U.S. is reductive, then. In episodes IV-VI of ‘Star Wars’ Lucas poses different ideas of what America represents (see also post #30 in which I looked at the connection between ancient Rome and the U.S. in Star Wars). It is alternately and simultaneously the corrupt imperialist power of Nixon, the Watergate scandal, and the Vietnam War, as well as the idealistic republic of rebels taking up arms against the corrupt imperialist power of King George V. Both visions of what the United States has been and can be exist in Star Wars, providing a nuanced view of American identity to its audiences.