Saraumanic Heroes: the Ethics of Star Wars
by Gwydion M. Williams
- The Bad and the Half-Good
- Sympathy and duty.
- Jedi Callousness and Dishonesty
- ‘It was true in a sense’
- Based on Rome?
The Bad and the Half-Good
Star Wars opens as if C-3PO was going to be the main character. This is in line with the original inspiration, a Japanese film called The Hidden Fortress, which begins by follows two ordinary soldiers on the losing side. Only later do they join up the sort of characters whom you’d expect to be heroes. It remains mostly with the two ordinary soldiers, who are not nice people and who contemplate treachery on occasions – not at all like the unthinkingly loyal droids.
I’m talking here about the Luke trilogy, of course. To avoid confusion with later and earlier, I shall speak of the 1977 to 1983 films as the Luke Trilogy. The remaining three films deal with earlier events but were made later, so if one calls them the Anakin Trilogy then it should be clear enough. Technically you could say that Anakin continues as Darth Vader, but as I’ll show later, the story Ben tells Luke about Vader being a traitor and killing Luke’s father was true according to the ‘back- story’ as it stood at the time. If one can trust the account given at J W Rinzler’s The Making of Star Wars, at various stages of scripting Luke’s father might be alive and Luke might have younger brothers, but there was no question of his father being on the other side.[A] This was probably added to Empire Strikes Back by its director Irvin Kershner, the second of three amazing plot-twists that give the Luke trilogy its remarkable power. I was highly disappointed that Anakin trilogy lacks any major plot-twists, beyond the unexpected starting-point of finding the future Darth Vader on Luke’s home planet Tatooine.
I think the Anakin trilogy works less well because the heroes start off in the position occupied by villains in most space operas – officially in charge but defeated by cleverer rivals. If they were hoping to make another C-3PO from Jar-Jar Binks, they neglected to give him heroic elements at the time his character was being established. C-3PO is a coward in the face of immediate danger, but he also self-sacrificing at times. He offers to be left behind when he’s damaged after Ben rescues Luke from the Sand-People. Interestingly, they do nearly forget him and have to be reminded by R2-D2.
Ursula Le Guin says somewhere that Frodo, Sam and Gollum like three aspects of one person. It is also true of Niggle and Parish in Tolkien’s Leaf by Niggle. In Star Wars, C-3P0 and R2-D2 also function as that. C-3P0 panics in the face of danger but has heroic aspects, he is loyal and ready to sacrifice himself. R2-D2 rushes in blindly and often loses or gets hurt.
Looking at the overall tone of the films, you see a lot of callousness by the ‘side of light’. And all six films show strong overtones of ‘war as fun’. Generally the characters you care about are still alive at the end, despite amazing dangers. This is of course breached with the death of Obi-Wan, which seems to have been a late idea and variously explained. It’s not kept up, apart from Qui-Jon being killed during what is otherwise a triumphant victory in The Phantom Menace. You also have large numbers of Jedi dying at the end of Revenge of the Sith, which has to happen in terms of the overall plot. But that’s not otherwise the norm. Minor characters die, for instance Jek Porkins in the attack on the Death Star, but you barely notice them before they are gone.
Star Wars is often called a ‘battle between good and evil’. I’d sooner call it a battle between over-the-top evil and some not-so-bad rivals, with the first of the Luke trilogy setting the tone. Ben’s motive in recruiting Luke seems mostly a hope of getting back at Darth Vader, his disloyal former student. Luke is looking mostly for adventure. You can’t blame him for the deaths of his Aunt Beru or Uncle Owen: neither he nor Ben have reason to think the Empire are actively seeking the droids. But he seems content to leave them unburied, and Ben likewise, despite giving the Jawas a crude cremation and despite Ben seeming to know Owen and Beru. You could imagine a good reason for this callousness – they must get away quickly on a mission to save millions of lives – but it gets overlooked.
This is also one of many cases of the Imperials being astonishingly dim. They know the droids went to Luke’s home and also that they were not there any more. It would be elementary to keep watch so as to capture or kill anyone else who lives there or might be returning the droids. This can’t happen, otherwise the adventure would end very prematurely. But it is a plot hole.
There is also the issue of how the droids are treated, throughout the series. They clearly do have wills and wishes of their own, but no one seems to care and no one ever raises the matter. (I think it gets mentioned in some of the novelisations, along with the much more blatant abuse of using the clone soldiers, but I’m talking here about the films.)
Step forward to the cantina scene. In the 1977 film, it’s notable that the aliens seem a dirty and dangerous lot. Chewbacca is a partial exception – dangerous, but very much subordinate to Han, almost a pet. The model for him was a hybrid of our best-love pets, dog-like but with a cat-like nose. ‘My cat is my co-pilot’, you might say. The other aliens are just a source of danger. This was changed in the later films, just as they included at least one Afro-American character on the ‘side of light’ in all subsequent films, though I don’t think that any other ethnic group got included except as background. That’s progress, but when Luke runs into trouble you also see the Jedi idea of ‘conflict management’ – anyone they can’t control with mind-tricks they tend to cut down. Remarkably, it is the Sith who have the less-lethal weaponry – both the force-choke and Sith lightning would kill if applied for long enough, but seem to do no long-term damage if stopped in time. Whereas Obi-Wan cutting off someone’s arm is distinctly over-the-top – as well as blowing their cover.
Why not a flying cosh? Or a net or baffle?
The next incident – Han shooting Greedo – has obtained some notoriety because it got changed in later editions. Originally Han shoots from under the table after trying and failing to negotiate with Greedo, who has declared his intention to kill Han. I don’t see any moral problems with that: it is self-defence. But later versions changed it so that they fire simultaneously, with Greedo improbably missing at point-blank range. He is made to be an idiot, anyway, neglecting the simple rule ‘keep your hands where I can see them’, but that is really too much. The topic has become a subject for debate, with ‘Han Shot First’ t-shirts and also a page on the topic at the Wikipedia.[B] My own view is that it was the wrong sort of change to make.
Now let’s consider the wider matter of smugglers, ‘spice’ and desert planets. Lots of people have noted similarities between the desert planets Tatooine and Arrakis in Frank Herbert’s Dune. But there are a whole cluster of borrowings that may once have been more extensive, in the early scripts that have still not been published in full (at least not anywhere I have access to). The ‘Sand People’ or Tuskan Raiders where body-suits like the Fremen of Arrakis. Both groups have the habit of going in single file to conceal their numbers and both are hostile to outsiders.
From what has been published, we know that in the May 1974 draft script the Jedi are ‘Jedi Bendu’, reminiscent of the Bene Tleilax and Bene Gesserit (whose name always makes me think ‘Bunny Jesuits’. At this stage the Jedi served an Empire, not a republic, though there is also a New Empire and rivals called the Knights of Sith.
Dune had been famous for a decade when Star Wars was being made, and no one then could have known how big Star Wars would be. Rinzler makes the comparison to Disney’s The Black Hole, which if you’ve not seen you’ve missed nothing.
The later film of Dune is a clunker. They missed one of Star Wars best tricks, the Dune universe does not look lived-in. Of course it’s not always so in Star Wars: Leia on the Death Star looks surprisingly lively for someone who’s just withstood the best efforts of a ruthless torturer. (There is also Dune mini-series, followed by Children of Dune. This is much better, even though it takes liberties with the plot. You can get it on DVD.)
Comparing Dune and the start of the Luke trilogy, I have to wonder if ‘spice’ once play a larger role. It would explain the continuing non-publication of the early scripts. In Dune, former Arteries retainer Gurney Halleck joins a band of smugglers trading in ‘spice’ or Melange, which is highly addictive and has fatal withdrawal symptoms. He had served Paul Muad’Dib’s father and Paul nearly kills him before recognising him when they meet again. Compare this to Han Solo, ‘spice’ smuggler. We’re not told where the stuff comes from, but if Jabba the Hutt controls it and is based on Tatooine, so it would make sense for it to come from there. Jabba is not seen till Return of the Jedi – Lucas filmed a sequence in which he was to appear but didn’t finished it till the re-release years later, with Jabba’s physical form apparently undecided. He appears as a worm with arms, reminiscent of the evolved form of Leto in God-Emperor of Dune, the book appearing in 1981 and the film released in 1983. Maybe the borrowings and the drugs aspect were originally a larger part of the plot. Maybe a connection between Han and Luke’s father before concepts were switched and Vader took over that role.
Drugs have always been part of Hollywood culture. Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia in Star Wars) writes interestingly about drugs in Postcards From The Edge. Rather, the first couple of chapters are witty and interesting, but when it gets off drugs it goes onto total trivial and becomes boring, at least for my tastes. The film version I found rather better.
Now step forward to the Death Star. We see the Empire as obviously criminal. Also hopelessly inefficient – if you wanted to punish a whole planet, the simplest method would be to put a screen between it and the sun, for a few hours or days or as long as you want. A total solar eclipse is dramatic and frightening – I’ve been an eclipse-chaser in a small way and seen four totalities, one of them clouded out. Anyway, that is probably how a real Galactic Empire would do it, but it would not make good cinema. That much is part of the plot.
But consider what the Death Star is, besides being a weapon. It seems to serve as a prison, outside of whatever law the Empire has retained from the Old Republic. Not just for a few prisoners: it seems quite extensive. Princess Leia is in Detention Block AA-23 – the Imperials helpfully put their deepest secrets in a form that can be cracked in about 10 seconds, and don’t even bother with a code name, which would make tracing almost impossible. But it’s also interesting that there are at least twenty-three Detention Blocks, maybe many more. Luke and Han trick their way in by claiming Chewbacca is a “prisoner transfer from Cell Block 1138″ – this being an in-joke reference to Lucas’s first film THX-1138. But it also indicates a very extensive prison system. We’re not told how large the blocks are, but Leia is in cell 2187. One can also suppose that anyone there is an enemy of the Empire, nor a regular criminal who could be sent somewhere cheaper and more open. But there is no thought of releasing anyone else. And nor is there any thought about the matter when it comes to destroying the Death Star. Granted, there is probably no choice. But all through, there is a distinct lack of concern about fighting for a decent cause by bad methods.
One other little detail – what happens to the Stormtroopers whose armour they take on board the Millennium Falcon? They seem to get forgotten about, which is rather against the normal rules in Space Opera, where it is made clear that the ‘side of light’ avoid killing people whenever they have a choice. Not in the Star Wars films, or not that I can think of. You see the same errors that Tolkien supposed as the start of Saruman’s downfall: being concerned just with your own goals and not with any wider goals or obligations.
The Death Star seems run wholly by humans, though the appearance of a Wookiee as an apparent prisoner also causes no surprise. In later developments, mostly the novelisations, the Empire is presented as human-chauvinist and having reversed the relative equality of the Old Republic. But that’s a later concept. In keeping with the initial attitude to non-humans, Leia refers to Chewbacca as a ‘big walking carpet’. Not a nice attitude to someone who’s rescued her, albeit with a promise of a cash reward.
Do the Jedi set a better example? Not really? Han gets offended when Ben ignores his achievement in shaking off the pursuit after leaving Tatooine, and on that occasion he is definitely right. Obi-Wan cannot be tempted by evil, but there is a cold and bloodless nature to his virtue.
Obi-Wan is short on sympathy, both as shown by Alec Guinness and Ewan McGregor. In Empire, when Luke is intent on going to rescue his friends, Obi-Wan’s comment “that boy was our last hope” rather than “my pupil is likely to get himself killed”.
None of Alec Guinness’s film characters were that sympathetic. (No idea how relates to actual person, nor care.) But Ewan McGregor continues this and it is quite unlike some of his roles. Whereas Yoda comes across as more sympathetic, telling Luke he may benefit from what he’s learned. (Incidentally, Yoda also departs from own grammar by saying “There is another” rather than “Another there is”, which ridiculous would sound. Why it would be so I can’t figure but it is definitely right. He too is calculating, though. He knows that Luke has been mislead and chooses not to correct the falsehoods spread by Obi-Wan.
Obi-Wan’s character would be expected to have a predictably bad effect on Anakin, making it wildly implausible that the Jedi would have sat back and let it happen. Qui-Jon actually cared about Anakin, Obi-Wan accepts him as an obligation. As Anakin says, he’s as much of a father as he’s got. A man doing necessary control function, but badly and with a lack of sympathy. That’s role in story, someone strong on duty and proper manners but no real warmth. Something like the proper role of sympathiser and encourager – though obviously no good intent – is performed by Palpitane, the future emperor.
As those who’ve followed the saga will know, Anakin as Darth Vader kills both these father-figures, Obi-Wan on the first Deathstar and Palpitane on the new model. Clearly, the lad has trouble with his relationships. It seems a bit odd that he’s viewed as vindicated and sanctified at the end.
Sympathy and Duty.
In The Empire Strikes Back, when Luke goes against the advice of Yoda and Obi-Wan, he turns out to be wrong. He is walking into Vader’s trap. As Yoda later points out to him, his friends manage to escape by themselves. He is ignoring his duty, which should tell him that he can’t risk himself when there is no one to replace him.
Things are different in Return Of The Jedi: As far as Luke knows, he is only risking his own life when he tries to redeem his father. One might argue that he should try to kill Vader if Vader cannot or will not change. But he is an orphan and has lost three sets of substitute parents: his uncle and aunt, then Obi-Wan, finally Yoda. So while you might argue he has a duty to preserve himself for a higher purpose, you can hardly be angry that he yields to sentiment
Note also, things go wrong for the Emperor at the very moment when Luke rejects killing and anger. This in fact damages the prospect of a Sith future, since he is the best prospect of its continuance.
When I first watched it, I felt that Return Of The Jedi taught quite a good moral lesson. You see Han learning love and responsibility. (Love you/ I know – but does not mean it so.) Han also is willing to give up Leia when he realises how close she is to Luke – only for this to be You’d not expect better from a Hollywood film, at least not one where there wasn’t a clear moral from the novel, and they’ve messed around with a lot of those. Notably the 1958 version of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, in which they chose to reverse his message rather than listen to it and realise that their war in South Vietnam was un-winnable. (One move in an elaborate web of lies that killed more than fifty-eight thousand US citizens, plus several million Vietnamese, Cambodians etc. A system of dishonesty that came close to losing the Cold War for the USA.)
Jedi Callousness and Dishonesty
I was expecting someone in the Anakin trilogy to say that the Jedi had made mistakes. Yoda could have realised it, or Senator Organa might say it, or the dying Padme might. They chose to be manipulators and got drawn into a war. But the films leave the whole thing up in the air – were the Jedi foolish or just defeated?
I noticed the general coldness of Jedi – I’d expected this to be condemned, or at least noted, and it is not. Someone should have said, “the Sith are a multiplication of your own errors”. They fail to make an ethical appeal to a Galactic Senate that is clearly not doing its job.
Meantime Qui-Jon sees rules as something to be worked round, he seems to be lying to the Jedi Council. Was this a moral error? It’s left ambiguous.
Interestingly, in the first of the Luke trilogy, Vader seems not to want the confrontation with Obi-Wan, saying “you should not have come back”. This doesn’t seem to reconcile with the Anakin trilogy as it worked out. But there is room for an interesting spin-off – could Vader at some point have intentionally decided not to track down Obi-Wan, despite the tremendous resentment he’d have felt about his injuries?
Looking more widely, there is minimal sympathy for the enemy, apart from Vader. And that is ‘small-group’ sympathy, concern where there is a personal link, a lost father. It might easily have been done – maybe you see a Stormtrooper without his helmet and he is not just a bad fellow. (We assume they are all male, though in that get-up you could not be sure.)
Contrast this to Tolkien – not just the mercy shown to Gollum, but also in the Two Towers, where Sam feels sorry for the Haradrim on the run-away Oliphant. Peter Jackson actually did a nice adaptation which is true to the spirit of the original, though having the man dead and Faramir make the remarks that Sam thought. Sadly, it got cut out of the cinematic release and you only see it in the Extended Edition. I’d see that as disappointing but hardly surprising. In view of the current intellectual fashions, surprising that the films have as many good features as they do.
In this connection I’d mention the 1964 film The Fall of the Roman Empire, which has Alec Guinness again as Marcus Aurelius, probably played right as virtuous but cold. Stephen Boyd pretty hopeless as the ‘true heir’ – not an historic character. The same plot is rehashed rather incoherently as Gladiator, which also borrows from Spartacus but looses the mildly radical aspects of Spartacus. The film ‘Gladiator’ seems to see gladiators as such as fine.
The actual destruction of the first Death Star also raises issues of sympathy and morality. I mentioned earlier, the place is clearly serving as a massive prison as well as fortress – a common combination. All of them die, as well as any non-prisoner innocents who may be on board. (Novelisation – one group get away.)
Now consider the treatment of the droids. Surely C-3PO has several times earned the right to a safe position, rather than being continuously being dragged back into danger. If they want to keep the character, he could be offered the choice and choose to stay, but he never is. And in the second of the Luke trilogy, he gets treated very contemptuously by Han, with Leia doing nothing.
On this matter, there is an interesting experiment that someone could try with an audience not very familiar with Star Wars. Dub the film to remove any effect of Anthony Daniel’s vocalisations, which are very skilled acting that make the character. Dub either a male or a female voice for the robot, not telling the audience who these are. I assume that people would be more hostile to Han if the voice is female.
(In the first of the Anakin trilogy, you do get a female version – she is silver, and comes out of gas-filled room saying ‘oh dear, oh dear’. It is notable she’d not hurt or intentionally mistreated – poison would not hurt a robot, obviously.
This is not the worst. In the second film of the Anakin trilogy, the Jedi find that clone soldiers have been created in their name. Most Jedi seem just to use as if they were droids. Yoda being a bit more paternal but says nothing about refusing to use them. The Jedi have been the first to violate morality by using these clone soldiers. And it will be very hard to prove this was not intended, with the Kaminoans apparently believing that it was the Jedi Council. Regardless, there is the totally immoral decision to accept the clone army, not just as an emergency measure but regularly.
The films lack strong morality. No one actually makes any good moral choices.
But I think there was never any concern with morality. Lucas was ‘inventing his own Flash Gordon‘ after they wouldn’t let him work on the real thing. The Jedi philosophy stuff is no more than a line of patter, and shows it.
What is the sound of one bullshitting?
I think talk of The Force was never more than window-dressing, part of the norm for Space Fantasy. The May 1974 draft had a prototype, the ‘Force of Others’. By the time of the January 1975 draft, it has become a Galactic Republic that the Jedi served. Darth Vader appears, 7 foot tall but with just a partial mask, not seen as a relative. Its use is increased by something called the Kiber Crystal (described as being similar to Tolkien’s ring, though no moral problems are mentioned). But already Force has a ‘dark side’, two elements, ‘Ashla’ and Bogan, the bad side. And it seems that the deeper cause of the wars are ‘ruthless trader barons’ – like those in the Anakin trilogy, though taxation is also blamed as the start of the problem. In the August 1975 version, Luke’s father was General Kenobi’s superior, not his pupil. One of Ben Kenobi’s pupils went over to the Sith. At one time it is Ben who is part machine, before that became Vader
Note also the discrepancies between the two trilogies. There also seems to be only one Clone War – another indication that the background story changed a lot and was never treated very seriously. Some fans worry a lot about it: I long ago decided that logic was being sacrificed to whatever George Lucas thought would play well.
But why does it work, despite the faults? Significantly. the Imperials are enclosed in their technology and cut off. It’s not anti-technology: I’m surprised this is said of a film where robots are the initial hero. The Jedi and other positive characters use a lot of machine. I suppose the theme is that this is technology in balance, used to make life better rather than to dominate.
The visual language also has a useful compression of ideas, meaning that the audience doesn’t get lost with a fast-moving plot. When Luke suddenly has a new light-sabre, the light-sabre is green, so obviously not the one he lost. The new Death Star is half built, evidently a replacement for the one destroyed in the first film. The rival forces have utterly different uniforms and equipment, which is convenient for the viewer, as well as realistic. (Very different from the pathetic John Carter, where the rival Martian forces are easily confused and just fly small flags of different colours.)
Attempts to copy the formula have failed. There was one 1978 film that might sound like it would be good, an heroic female protagonist with a friend who turns to light when wounded. Its English title is Starcrash,[C] and crash it does, unfortunately. It is dross, I watched it once and would not recommend it to anyone. It includes dialogue like the following:
Elric: My lord!
Zarth Arn: What is it, Elric?
Elric: [incredulously] A floating spaceship is about to crash into us.
Zarth Arn: Sultaan! Destroy the floating spaceship approaching us.[D]
This film appeared a couple of years after Star Wars: A New Hope and tries to re-mix the same elements, but without much success. It has a few good images, including a floating head in a tank that passes judgement. It has been compared to Plan 9 from Outer Space, particularly Christopher Plummer’s performance as the benevolent Emperor. Unless you are amused by truly bad SF you’ll be disappointed.
The Star Wars films merit their success: what I complain about is the lack of any concern for the life lessons they may be teaching. [As of June 2015, Disney’s The Force Awakens looks hopeful, but is unlikely to say anything ethically coherent.]
‘It was true in a sense’
Even though ‘Darth Vader’ could be taken to mean Dark Father, it seems he wasn’t originally viewed as more than a convenient villain. Not the father of Luke or any other character in the plot. In some drafts, he’d have died in the defence of the Death Star. There are also stories that Luke’s dead father was due to appear as a ghost in the second of the Luke films, before plot shifted
It seems likely that there was a re-thinking of their relationship within the Luke trilogy, and perhaps related to how the actors had performed. David Prowse, the original man in the Darth Vader mask, does look enough like Mark Hamill that you could plausibly make them father and son on the screen. It would have been different with James Earl Jones, who did the Vader voice. Even if you changed the skin-colour with special effects they would just not look remotely alike. But Peter Prowse was ‘Darth Blabbermouth’ as far as George Lucas was concerned. Of various leaks, it is said he did an excess share. So it’s not so surprising that someone else’s face was found when the famous helmet was finally lifted.
But the main point about the man in the helmet is that he might not be the man the Emperor thinks he is. This was an option after the second film: to say Darth Vader and Anakin Skywalker had always been two different people. The Emperor speaks of ‘the son of Skywalker’, not ‘your son’, which would be more natural. Also Vader is already playing his own game wants Luke to kill the Emperor, after which they will share rule. All of this is consistent with Vader being someone other than Anakin. We might suppose that they fought and then Anakin posed as Vader to infiltrate the enemy, only he got corrupted by power along the way. On this basis, Obi-Wan and Yoda were telling the truth as they knew it, and correctly reckoning that Darth Vader was a committed enemy, not realising that this was Anakin in disguise. Luke followed his instincts and was correct. That, I feel, would have been a much better plot, as well as resolving the matter of Obi-Wan and Yoda both engaging in gross dishonesty. You could have had it that when seeks the truth in the third film, Obi-Wan in his Force-Ghost form might have explained:
“I told the truth as far as I knew it. We all thought that when Anakin and Vader fought, Anakin died while Vader was left maimed and masked.
“What we know is that medics from the Empire found two unrecognisable bodies, one dead and one alive. By their equipment they were recognised, but perhaps Anakin deceived them.
“He also became an enemy of the Jedi.”
Of course the Luke trilogy began in 1977, at a time when cynicism and debunking had become the norm. The various retellings of Robin Hood reached a moral low in 1976 with Robin & Marian, in which Robin Hood has no social concerns and has almost forgotten Marian. It is quite a well-made film, but it says nothing much overall. Since then there has been a partial reversion to the older picture. No one seemed to want a coherent alternative. You could do a different take, showing the man according to the first written versions, in which he helps a knight against some monks and has no interest in the poor. You could have someone else be concerned with social justice, Robin doing good only by accident. But that is not the current ethos.
Based on Rome?
“You have the personal issue of Anakin and his turn to the dark side, but then the children later bring him back to being a human being,” Lucas says. “But the larger issue is that you’ve given up your democracy, and that the bad guys never took it — it was handed to them. That theme was there 30 years ago which came out of the Vietnam War and Nixon wanting to change the rules so he could get a third term.
“I’m a big history buff and I was really into Caesar at the time,” Lucas recalls. “I always wanted to know why the Roman Senate gave Caesar’s nephew a dictatorship after they had gotten rid of Caesar. Why after the revolution in France did they create an Emperor? Why did the Germans after they had a Democracy after World War I, turn it into a dictatorship? Those were my initial questions 30 years ago.”[E]
Lucas doesn’t seem to know much history. The point about Republican Rome was that it was never a democracy, even in the limited sense that Athens and other places were. Athens had theoretical equality for all citizens, though this was men-only and excluded slaves and resident foreigners. The Roman Republic had a very heavy bias towards the rich, whose votes counted for a lot more. And though Senators got into the Senate by being elected to some public office, they remained there for life. Like most old people, they hated change. But Rome was not working as they ran it.
The Roman Senate was an overgrown Town Council mostly concerned with its own privilege. It was the Emperors who extended citizenship to wider proportion of the population, eventually most who were not slaves
There had been also been a whole run of civil wars before Julius Caesar, who started the civil war after being obstructed from running for Consul, where it was assumed he’d be elected. Arguably it began with Sulla’s March On Rome in support of the Optimes faction. Caesar won a decisive victory for the Populares, but then tried forgiving his enemies and restoring them to senatorial power. Caesar hoped to avoid the various massacres of the wars of Marius and Sulla, but the very people he’d forgiven then murdered him, precipitating a new round of civil wars which ended with the supremacy of Octavius/Augustus. Clearly, this isn’t the model Lucas is using, Roman republican government was not suitable for an Empire.
There was a very apt Roman comment, the senators are worthy men, the Senate is an evil beast. If you watched the TV series ‘Rome‘, you’ll get some idea, simplified and vulgarised. Among other good points, it made Rome look ‘lived in’ and in fact very grubby, as it was, especially before the Emperors.
There was never any Roman democracy at risk of overthrow. The Republic was an oligarchy. Both Julius Caesar and Octavian / Augustus were highly popular among the ordinary citizens, who were hampered within the Republic’s structures by various biases in favour of the rich. At no time was it ever ‘one man, one vote’. And the Republic in its final period had destroyed its original basis, small property-owners. The generals and then the Emperors represented a popular authoritarianism, but based in large part on conquest.
My own suspicion is that the fall of the Republic began when they chose to rule Sicily as a ‘province’ with an autocratic ruler whom they would appoint. This set a pattern that was eventually extended back to Rome itself.
The Anakin Trilogy covers the fall of the Galactic Republic, but none of it makes much sense. You see a single schemer overthrowing a largely sound system, thanks to superior Sith powers and the Jedi failing to tell the Senate ‘watch out, there’s a Sith about’. The whole is rather different from the early versions of the novelisation of the first film, which speaks of several relatively weak Emperors and Vader seeing them as a better alternative.
The Luke trilogy has repeated references to the Clone Wars, but in the Anakin trilogy there is a single war against Separatists. Yoda says “only just begun, are these Clone Wars”, but it seems to be a single war ending with the creation of the Empire.
Why does this war happen? Have the various planets of the Old Republic a right to secede? It would also be odd that in a Republic with no right of secession, anyone who can pay seems entitled to form their own army but the central government has none.
This is based on a talk I gave at Oxonmoot in 2009. I have made quite a few changes, reordering material and making a few additions.
[A] Rinzler, J W. The Making of Star Wars, Ebury Press 2008
[B] [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Han_shot_first], as of 14th September 2009
[C] The original Italian title was Scontri Stellari Oltre la Terza Dimensione. The Adventures of Stella Star in the USA, Starcrash in the UK.