The Japanese film magazine Kinema Shunhou (Cinema: Fresh Take) did a special cover feature on Rogue One and the general impact and significance of the Star Wars saga last December in the run up to the film’s release. One of the people they interviewed for this feature was Kazuo Koike, the famed manga writer of classics such as Lone Wolf and Cub as well as Lady Snowblood (which was adapted to film in the 1970s and paid homage to in Kill Bill by Quentin Tarantino). His answer to the interviewer’s final question provides some unique perspective on the saga’s place within contemporary Western culture today:
“It’s pretty much gone from a phenomenon to an established part of American legend and lore. America originally didn’t have its own form of myths or religions. Many claim to be Christian when pressed to name the religion with which they identify, but Christianity itself is a religion that was born elsewhere and brought to American shores. That’s why it makes sense to think of George Lucas as creating a mythology that America could call its own.”
George Lucas used his “galaxy far, far way” as a vehicle to explore many of the philosophical issues and themes that we as human beings have grappled with throughout our existence, creating a wide sweeping tapestry that weaves together religious thought from all across the world.
While his stage is set in the cosmos, Lucas drew upon the vast canon of cinema and its numerous genres to elicit the tools he needed to convey his story, and as Koike put it, “create a mythology that America could call its own”.
One specific genre that we find employed within the saga is the classic American Western. A perfect example of the Western influence is the scene of Anakin surveying the Tusken Raiders village where his mother is held captive in Episode II, which clearly draws visual references to the climax at the end of John Ford’s masterful The Searchers. Going beyond the saga films and into the highly acclaimed animated series The Clone Wars, we find other examples of this influence channeled into the storytelling process. One episode which drew heavily upon this Western influence was episode 15 in Season 1, “Trespass”.
In the episode “Trespass”, a force of Republic troops led by Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin Skywalker, and Captain Rex are dispatched to the icy planet of Orto Plutonia to investigate the disappearance of the local garrison. They are accompanied by C-3PO and R2-D2 as well as a group of Pantoran dignitaries from the nearby moon, including Senator Riyo Chuchi and Chairman Chi Cho. The latter declares rather emphatically that Orto Plutonia, seemingly void of inhabitants, is Pantoran territory because it lies within the Pantora system. The Republic-Pantoran contingent begin their investigation and ultimately discover that both the Republic garrison and nearby Separatist forces both met their demise at the hands of a mysterious force.
Obi-Wan and Anakin decide to follow up on the droid garrison’s plans to investigate the valleys to the south, and ultimately come in contact with a race of beings known as the Talz. Thus, the stage is set for conflict between the local inhabitants who merely want to be left alone and their expansionist-minded neighbors, with the Jedi intermediaries and Republican Senator caught in the middle. This clash between civilizations is very reminiscent of what transpired in the Americas and later Africa as European powers expanded overseas and competed for global domination.
As a kid growing up, my two main passions were Star Wars and Native American culture and history. Considering that we only had the original three saga movies in the late 80s and early 90s, I spent a lot of time watching old John Ford westerns and other classics that portrayed the Native American in a fairly positive light (though unfortunately the main Native American lead characters were often played by white actors).
John Ford’s films were probably the best of the lot, and one that I particularly loved was Fort Apache. In behind-scenes-featurette about this episode, Dave Filoni claimed that George approached him with the idea to do something based on a “circle and wagons” western. While he did not name any specific film, I believe their main point of reference was indeed Fort Apache, starring John Wayne and Henry Fonda along with a grown up (and very beautiful) Shirley Temple. The New York Times provides a nice overview of the film.
In the behind the scenes feature about the episode “Trespass”, Filoni mentioned that George gave him some bleached-out photos of the Badlands in the Dakotas. The first short of the episode with the gunships flying in shows a desolate environment with land formations that closely resemble the buttes and mesas seen not only in the Badlands but also Monument Valley, which is where Fort Apache and other films made by John Ford were shot. Being originally filmed in black and white, the shots of the desert in Fort Apache do look rather bleached out, which I believe made it easy for Filoni and his team to adapt in creating the snow-wiped surface of Orto Plutonia.
The film Fort Apache juxtaposes two completely different personalities in the characters of Captain York, played by John Wayne, and Colonel Thursday, played by Henry Fonda. The conflict between these two really drives the film. York has extensive experience on the frontier, and is sympathetic to the plight of the Apache. He has fought against the Apache numerous times in the past, but he respects them as a people and does not hold them in low regard. More importantly, Captain York is pragmatic, and knows that going by the book is not always the best way to deal with the unexpected that circumstances that tend to arise on the frontier.
Colonel Thursday is the antithesis of Captain York. He has no respect for the Apache, whom he refers to as “diggards”, and does not feel they need to be afforded the respect given to “civilized peoples”. He is also very rigid and by the book, and has almost no room for flexibility. It is essentially his way or the highway. A similar clash of views can be seen between the Jedi (Obi Wan and Anakin) and Chairman Cho of Pantora, and it acts as the main driver behind this Clone Wars episode.
One of the first main parallels we see is the conflict between a native people, who just want to be left live their traditional way of life on their hereditary lands, and a group of intruders who claim the land is rightfully theirs. When the Jedi realize they are dealing with an intelligent life form with a society of its own, they go out to negotiate with them and see that their interests are served.
Dave Filoni and his crew proceed to faithfully adapt many of the cinematic elements we see in Fort Apache to produce one of the true gems of Season 1 in The Clone Wars. In their search for Apache leader Cochise and his band, Captain York and his interpreter pause to share a drink from York’s canteen and survey the enclave of rocks in the distance. They suddenly notice flashing mirrors from opposite sides of the valley, alerting them to the fact that the Apache are well aware of their presence. In the episode “Trespass”, we see almost the exact same shot. Obi-Wan and Anakin pause in attempt to catch their bearings and decide where to go when they notice flashes of light in the blizzard from opposite ends of the valley. The two Jedi get back on their speeders and then enter the canyon passage the leads to the Talz stronghold.
The camera work in both Fort Apache and “Trespass” are mirror images of each other… literally. In the former, the camera is positioned at the top of the canyon looking down, panning from left to right as the two riders enter the canyon. As they approach, Ford cuts to shots of Apache warriors looking down and watching the riders as they head deeper into the stronghold. In “Trespass”, we see the exact same camera work, with the only difference being that the camera pans from the right to the left. It would be fascinating to do a split screen of these two shots, for visually we would see both groups of “riders” meet in the middle of the screen.
The conversations with the First Peoples (Species) adversaries in both instances bear fruit, and the emissaries return to their bases to bring tidings of what they believe will be peace between the two sides. However, when Captain York reports to Colonel Thursday that Cochise has agreed to cross back into American territory and discuss peace, his commanding officer orders him to assemble the regiment in preparation for marching out to subdue the Apache by force. Captain York quickly voices his objection, stating, “Colonel, if you send out the regiment, Cochise will think I’ve tricked him.” Thursday brushes off York’s protest and anger over having being made out to be a liar who does not keep his word, saying “your word to a breech-clouted savage, an illiterate and uncivilized murderer and treaty breaker… there’s no question of honor between an American officer and Cochise.”
We see essentially the same conversation play out when Obi-Wan and Anakin return and report on the success of their mission to Chairman Cho. The Chairman quickly rejects the idea of the Talz as sentient beings who deserve the opportunity to state their case, calling them murderers and savages. The Jedi protest when the Chairman orders Captain Rex to prepare the troops for battle, with Anakin’s response “we can’t send troopers, they’ll think we lied” echoing what Captain York says to Thursday. Chairman Cho retorts in much the same way that Thursday did, haughtily saying “these creatures are little more than animals… You can’t lie to animals.”
The respective parties set out to meet their native counterparts in equally harsh conditions: the US cavalry regiment marching under the sweltering desert sun, and the Republic troops fighting the snow and strong winds of a blizzard. Upon arriving at the meeting site, Chairman Cho orders Captain Rex to deploy his troops and prepare for battle. The Jedi quickly dismiss the notion and inform the Chairman that the Talz have been watching them and are already there. At that very instant the Talz emerge from the snow, revealing that they have the Republic contingent surrounded.
Again, I was surprised by how much this mirrors what we see in Fort Apache. Colonel Thursday commands Captain York to deploy the troops and prepare to press the advance against the Apache, but York claims that wouldn’t be necessary as the Apache where already there. Right on cue, the Apache forces appear on the nearby ridge, showing that they indeed have the cavalry right where they want them, just as the Talz do in The Clone Wars episode.
Despite the strong show of force by the First Peoples (Species), both Chairman Cho and Colonel Thursday stick to their guns and make it a point to show the other side how inferior they find them to be. They curtly address their interpreters to translate everything “exactly as (they) say”, and proceed to inform the native peoples that they view them as no more than savages who have no right to bargain with “civilized” forces.
Filoni and Co. seem to have reformulated the script, for the dialogue and tone of the scene in The Clone Wars episode sync up almost perfectly with what transpires in Fort Apache. The discussions end abruptly, with the Talz and Apache both frustrated that their willing overtures for peace have been so brutally rejected. Colonel Thursday and Chairman Cho arrogantly order their troops to pursue the natives into rocky passes, where they run headlong into carefully laid ambushes. Despite being clearly outmatched, Chairman Cho refuses to listen to Captain Rex’s advice to pull back and retreat, claiming that he will not run “from savages”. Colonel Thursday is also equally stubborn. Captain York rides after the battalion and finds the wounded Thursday lying at the entrance to the pass into which his battalion had charged. He offers him his horse and urges him to fall back, informing his commander that they have set up a defensive position. Thursday is too proud to admit his error, and haughtily marches back into the pass after he tells York to command the regiment as he sees fit when his time comes in the future. In the end, the arrogance of both Cho and Thursday and their refusal to acknowledge the other side as civilized peoples proves to be their downfall.
The end of “Trespass” provides one final parallel with Fort Apache. Senator Riyo Chuchi walks out to meet the Talz chief with C-3PO and plants a Talz spear into the ground in a gesture of peace. Upon hearing her plea via C-3PO, the chief signals his acceptance by planting his spear in the ground as well. This ending is a far more upbeat take on what we see following the battle in Fort Apache. Captain York walks forward from the defensive position he has set up to meet Cochise and his warriors. Cochise rides out to meet York, holding one of the battle flags that his men had taken from Thursday’s battalion. He defiantly plants it into the ground in front of his American counterpart, and then returns to his men and rides off over the ridge to fight another day.
The episode “Trespass” is a wonderful example of how rich the Star Wars saga is, and more importantly, how Lucas and now Filoni and the new saga film directors effectively draw from the vast canon of film history to craft tales that resonate with us.
I look forward to seeing how Rian Johnson incorporates elements from films such as Three Outlaw Samurai and The Bridge Over the River Kwai within The Last Jedi. As Star Wars fans, it behooves us to emulate the creators who captivate us with their take on that galaxy far, far away by exploring the films and pieces from which they drew their inspiration.
Fort Apache is a fantastic film that forces us to grapple with a dark chapter of American history and the subjugation of the First People’s in the name of “Manifest Destiny” and “civilization”. In paying homage to this film in the episode “Trespass”, Filoni and Co. use Star Wars as a medium to remind us of this history and encourage us to reflect upon it. That, I feel, is the underlying purpose shared by all great art.
With thanks to Dave from the patrons of the Partisan Cantina