Last month, I began exploring the concept of evil in Star Wars. This series began by examining how evil was portrayed in the prequels. In the prequels, “evil” is fluid. The galaxy is split between the Republic and the Separatists, but the movies made clear that “evil was everywhere.” When all factors were balanced, the Separatists and the Sith came out far more evil than the Republic. Now I turn to the original trilogy and Rogue One. The portrayal of evil is far more focused in the original films. However, Rogue One shows that desperate times call for desperate measures. Finding the evil in these movies isn’t as hard as in the prequels.
A New Hope
The presence of evil is much more apparent in the original trilogy. The opening crawl to A New Hope declares that the Rebellion recently won their first victory against “the evil Galactic Empire.” From there, the Empire does little to alleviate that perception it is evil. In A New Hope alone, agents of the Empire choke Captain Antilles to death, murder Owen and Beru Lars, torture Princess Leia, and destroy the entire planet of Alderaan with the Death Star.
Perhaps the difference between the way evil is handled in A New Hope and the prequel trilogy has to do with the goal of the films. A New Hope was a risky proposition for a studio back in the 1970s. George Lucas sought to make a space opera. In this movie, unlike the prequels, the Empire was already in control. How that came to be wasn’t an issue. Audiences witnessed a classic tale of good versus evil. A New Hope ignored the details of the Empire’s ascension. The films took for granted they just did.
A New Hope focused on 1) rescuing the Princess, and then 2) stopping the Empire’s super weapon. After that, Grand Moff Tarkin and his council of Moffs stood in for the Emperor in proclaiming the doctrines of the Empire. The Empire would rule by fear. Any trace of democracy died with the dissolution of the Senate. Empire simply exuded evil. It didn’t demonstrate any redeeming factors.
The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi
The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi don’t improve the perception of the Empire. To be fair, the Empire’s reputation for evil doesn’t get much worse in the subsequent movies. Certainly, they torture and freeze Han Solo, build another Death Star and wage war against the Rebellion, but their overall conduct is no worse than in A New Hope, but that isn’t saying much.
The bigger discussion in the original trilogy concerns Darth Vader. In The Empire Strikes Back, the big reveal is that Darth Vader is Luke’s father. Yoda confirms this in Return of the Jedi. Also, Return of the Jedi adds the theme of redemption to the mix. Luke firmly believes Vader can turn from the dark side. The depth of Luke’s belief is found when he attempts to convince his doubtful sister that there is “still good in [Anakin]” despite a complete lack of evidence that is so in the original trilogy. Ultimately, Luke was right. The lesson here is that love conquers evil.
The original trilogy is much more black and white than the prequel trilogy. Obi-Wan doesn’t hesitate to describe Darth Vader as twisted and evil. The Emperor disbands the Galactic Senate and assumes total control of the galaxy. Tarkin declares he maintains control through his Moffs and regional governors. Furthermore, the Emperor intends to rule his Empire through fear. A prime example of this is the Death Star, which Grand Moff Tarkin decides to demonstrate on Alderaan at least in part because it will make a more effective demonstration.
Interestingly, Rogue One doesn’t change the perception of the Empire, but it makes an interesting statement about the Rebellion. First, Cassian Andor demonstrates that even the Rebellion must resort to less than honorable methods to accomplish its goals. He may not have an evil intent, by Cassian doesn’t hesitate to kill an informant rather than let him fall into the hands of the Empire. Although it caused him grief, Cassian accepted General Draven’s order to assassinate Galen Erso without a hint of objection at the time. Later, Cassian admits that he and others have done terrible things for the Rebellion. He needs to make it count for something when he volunteers for the mission to Scarif.
However, there are methods of warfare the Rebellion won’t endorse or condone. In Rogue One, Saw Gerrera illustrates the line the Rebellion is unwilling to cross. The Rebellion disavowed Gerrera and his Partisans. Their methods were simply too much. Although Rogue One doesn’t provide many examples of the atrocities the Partisans were capable of committing, they were not afraid to stage a battle in the middle of Jedha and put the lives of countless innocent civilians at risk. The tactics of the Partisans were expanded upon in novels such as Greg Rucka’s Guardians of the Whills and Beth Revis’s Rebel Rising.
Concluding Thoughts on Evil in the Original Trilogy and Rogue One
Perhaps different creative processes explain the difference between the Rebels and Rogue One and those in the original trilogy. Rather than focus on antiheroes, the original trilogy instead looked at the hero’s journey of Luke Skywalker and the growth of Han Solo, a self-interested scoundrel with a heart of gold that ends up doing the right thing. The difference is that Han Solo didn’t commit any atrocities, such as cold-blooded murder. Meanwhile, Rogue One told another tale of desperation. It also added the element of sacrifice and how far heroes might go to fight evil.
Join me next month when I will take a look at the portrayal of evil in the sequel movies.
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