How Imperials Are British, But The Empire Is America

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George Lucas with Peter Cushing (Tarkin) and Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia) during the filming of Star Wars (1977). (Source: starwars.com)

Most fans would have noticed that Imperial officers in Star Wars speak with British accent. Not so many are aware of George Lucas’s original intentions as to what the Empire was meant to represent.

The British Accent Is Evil…

Having people on different sides of the galactic conflict speak with different accents (for the most part) was an intentional pick on George Lucas’s part. In the original trilogy, the Rebels tend to speak with American accent while the Imperials speak with British accent. Even the sequel trilogy made use of this concept, leading Domhnall Gleeson to answer in an interview after being asked whether General Hux was evil: “He’s British. So, yeah.”

Using different accents was just another way to say something about the characters. Unlike a book, film can use also visuals (such as Imperial uniforms resembling old German military uniforms) and sound. The British accent carries numerous associations with it. One is that Tarkin and the Imperial officers are the cold “aristocrats” as opposed to the farmers and gunslingers on the Rebel side. Another distinction is that of the British Empire as opposed to American democracy. Americans are easily reminded of the beginnings and the rebellion that led to their independence from the British crown. The government of the “Rebels” who had freed themselves from the “Empire” is represented by individuals elected by the people as opposed to a single ruler.

Democracy vs Dictatorship

George Lucas was even clearer on the theme of democracy versus dictatorship in the prequel trilogy. The same themes were present already in the original saga, but here, characters like Obi-Wan or Padmé speak on the issue openly.

Of course one notices that there is a bit of dichotomy. Leia (and later Padmé) is, in fact, a princess (queen). This element is obviously a relic of Lucas’s attempt to evoke a classic fairy-tale setting. Apart from princess, we have (Jedi) knights or an evil “sorcerer” (as Vader is being called in the film). As opposed to the Emperor, however, Leia is not showed to possess any real power (and her planet gets blown up anyway). And in the prequel trilogy, Lucas, clearly aware of the contradiction, decided to make it explicit that the queen of Naboo was an elected position – underlining the ideal of democracy.

…But The USA Are The Empire

This does not, however, mean that Lucas equated the Empire with old-time (or even modern-day) Britain, or USA with Rebels. Lucas was clearly not thinking about countries, but about people, and about political ideologies. And it may be surprising to many, but for him, it was actually USA that was the Empire.

The reason for this was because he wanted to illustrate what he perceived as evil at the time he had written the original script. He was, for example, very unhappy with USA’s role in the Vietnam war. But that was no one-time issue. Many of Lucas’s ideas that did not make it into the original film reappeared in 1999 in The Phantom Menace and the subsequent episodes. All that was because Lucas felt that reminding people about the importance of democracy, and threats against it, was always relevant.

One of Lucas’s notes for very early drafts of Star Wars (1973) included this outline of the setting:

“The empire is like America ten years from now, after gangsters assassinated the emperor and were elevated to power in a rigged election… We are at a turning point: fascism or revolution.”

This idea was maintained, in spirit, in the prequel trilogy and especially Revenge of the Sith. Palpatine, promising order and security, used the emergency situation for a power-grab, and so the Empire was born.

In the second draft of the script from 1975, the opening crawl starts in a similar manner:

The REPUBLIC GALACTICA is dead.
Ruthless trader barons,
driven by greed and the
lust for power, have replaced
enlightenment with oppression,
and “rule by the people”
with the FIRST GALACTIC EMPIRE.

“Ruthless trade barons” are clear predecessors to the Trade Federation. However, as we know, Lucas eventually opted for the idea of a single despot. That further underlined the conflict between free people as a group on one side and the tendency towards dictatorship on the other.

Lucas has said on numerous occasions that one of the issues he always wanted to explore was this recurring theme in history: how people in democratic regimes (revolutionary France, ancient Rome, pre-WWII Germany) voluntarily elected a dictator. Palpatine’s story is a perfect example of a coup thus orchestrated, first using the conflict with Separatists as an excuse to procure himself an army, that he later uses to eliminate his own personal enemy – the Jedi. As we see, generic outline of this idea was present in Lucas’s mind from the beginning. And while his notes indicate that when writing his 1973 draft, he was afraid that such a thing might legitimately happen in his America “ten years from now”, he certainly considered the topic relevant enough to bring it back even decades after.

The origins of the Star Wars story are full of similar interesting details. Many became lost, while some reemerged in later episodes. They had, however, always been present in spirit.

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Rostislav Kurka
Rostislav is a Protestant theologian and a self-trained Sith, counting Jan Hus, Dorothee Sölle, Darth Revan and Darth Traya among his main influences. He hails from the hundred-towered city of Prague, where he had spent a large part of his life creating worlds and inspiring young generations to roleplay. His involvement in organising children's camps led him to accidentally writing a Lord of the Rings musical, which made him temporarily famous, and a Three Musketeer-Jedi fanfilm, which didn't. He has recently moved to the frozen waste of Finland, because that's it, the Rebels are there.