16 January, 2017

Thoughts on Rogue One Part 1 (of Whatever)

(For the next few weeks, I'm going to be pumping out articles on Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Originally this was going to be one, big essay, dropped all at once, but as time went on, it became unwieldy. This is what happens when you don't have an editor. Or deadlines. Anyways, here is a portion of my thoughts. It's also one of the more important points that needs to be made about Rogue One, as well. Not that anybody asked me. . . )

Resistance, the Empire, and the DNA of Star Wars

The core of the Original Trilogy of Star Wars is based around the Second World War. As many other influences creep in (Flash Gordon, Akira Kurosawa, Sergio Leone, and Joseph Campbell, to name but a few), the iconography is clear. The language is clear. Star Wars is not just a war story, it's a World War II story.

Rogue One carries on that basic concept. It also, more importantly, moves it forward in several specific ways. Namely, Rogue One is based around a very specific kind of WWII movie. This is done deliberately and understanding where Rogue One comes from is to better understand what it's trying to say. At the very least, it can give you a better appreciation for the kinds of WWII movies that don't involve John Wayne hucking grenades at the Japanese (though, those are a lot of fun, too).

As David Edelstein mentions in his review at Vulture:

Instead, it rehashes the plots of about a thousand World War II and/or Western films in which a brave squadron — a Magnificent Seven, a Dirty Dozen, a Force Five — prepares to sacrifice itself in the name of a greater cause.

From the Imperial uniforms to the use of the word "stormtroopers" to ripping off shots wholesale from The Dam Busters and Triumph of the Will, the Big One is embedded in the DNA of Star Wars. What I find interesting about Rogue One is that it continues the legacy of Star Wars beings about WWII, but it also shifts that theme forwards in two ways.

One is the specific kind of WWII movie that Rogue One is drawing from. The second is that Rogue One is still about war, but it's moved forward into a different war (which is a point that I'll get into in a future entry. . . hopefully). Rogue One is a resistance movie. Even though it's science fiction, even though it belongs to a mythological saga, and even though it was created to pad out Disney's cash reserves, it belongs in the same pantheon as Army of Shadows and Carve Her Name With Pride* (though, admittedly, somewhere towards the back).

A New Hope draws from much louder and more bombastic World War II movies and events. It is as much The Battle of Briton as it is A Hero of a Thousand Faces. It even stars Alex Guinness who would probably be best known for his role in Bridge Over the River Kwai if it wasn't for George Lucas (to Guinness' chagrin).** It's a film that's much more rooted in more fun, more comforting war movies. That is in stark contrast to the kind of film that Rogue One is. By the nature of the genre that Gareth Edwards and his crack team of writers and producers chose, Rogue One has to be a different kind of film, even if it does share a common lineage.

Instead of pilots or soldiers, Rogue One is about resistance agents. Just as you could switch out most of Gold Squadron with anyone from 12 O'Clock High, you could pretty much swap out anyone in the eponymous Rogue One with anyone from Army of Shadows (except for the robot and Saw Gerrera, who is a character that I'll get to in the future, as well. . . ).

So, let's take a look at what makes a WWII movie into a resistance movie, and then let's see how Rogue One compares. Come on. Don't be shy. It'll be fun.

The protagonists aren't professionals.

First and foremost, resistance movies aren't about citizen soldiers. They're about people with their backs to the wall. It's about people that are either out to survive or people that are forced into a fight (which parallels films about collaborators, which is a whole other article).

That's exactly what Jyn Erso is. She doesn't have a choice. While the rest of her team kind of does, none of them are in a position to do the right thing. They have to do it or they'll die. Or somebody else will die. A lot of somebody elses. . . Even Rick in Casablanca fits this mold. None of these people want to be here. The drama comes from the fact that, unlike the American GI in WWII, there is no rear to fall back to. They have to be here, because:

The film takes place in occupied territory.

The enemy's ascendancy is a fait accompli. There's no stopping the invasion. It already happened. This is true of movies about Denmark, France, and Czechoslovakia (you could also get into Eastern Europe, but at that point, you're talking about partisans, which is slightly different. . . I'm getting off topic again. Sorry).

In A New Hope, as much as it takes place within the Empire, the main battle is on Rebel territory (Yavin IV, which appears in Rogue One, along with the B-roll of A New Hope). It also takes place on the frontier, which has Imperial soldiers, but you never get the sense that Tatooine is owned by the Empire. This never happens in Rogue One. They're under the Empire's flag from minute one. The Empire dominates every scene. Which leads to the fact that:

The deck is stacked.

Of course the deck is always stacked. Dramatically it has to be. It also has to be as a matter of course. The bad guys hold all of the cards. They can kidnap your dad, blow up a planet, put you to work in a slave labor camp. They're the Empire, fuck you. We have Darth Vader and a Dracula (we used to have two, but anyways. . . ). What do you have? That's right. Nothing. Fuck you.

The resistance (in this case the Rebel Alliance, not to be confused with the Resistance of The Force Awakens) doesn't have their shit together enough to put up an actual fight. As a result they have to chip around the edges. They have to recruit fighters. Assassinate important Imperial personnel. And when they do fight-- if they do fight-- it's an all-or-nothing proposition. This is true of both the command structure of the Rebels, as well as the individuals that have to go and do the actual dying and fighting.

And, speaking of fighting and dying:

People are going to die.

This isn't always true (I already mentioned Casablanca). But, it's usually true. Resistance members die. It's what they do. You can't build a cause without martyrs and you can't have martyrs without bloodshed.***

There is a lack of romance to a lot of these films. This is perhaps because many of these stories are based on real events. Carve Her Name With Pride is the most obvious example that I can think of. It's the real-life story of Violette Szabo, a British widow that was married to a French soldier. After her husband was killed in combat, she was recruited by the Special Operations Executive to help, as Churchill put it "Set Europe ablaze." She was caught in occupied France and summarily executed by the Germans. Not exactly blockbuster material.

The same goes for other resistance heroes (and secret agents) like Noor Inayat Khan (who doesn't have a movie. Guess why that might be).

In Rogue One-- spoilers-- everybody dies. That's because of who they are. They aren't Star Wars heroes. They're resistance members. You can't beat city hall. And you sure as shit can't beat the Death Star. But that's hardly the point. Which, leads me to the last qualification:

Sorry, but the good guys don't win.

Rogue One is firmly planted in the tradition of Army of Shadows, Uprising, and Carve Her Name With Pride. It takes its influence from those that fought the good fight and lost. In these movies, our heroes don’t end up killing Hitler (usually). They die and not just the veteran on his last tour or the machine-gun loader with a heart of gold or the guy with a girl back home. The heroes will die. All of them. Hard.

Again, this reflects reality (or, at least, the reality of film). For a lot of the resistance, victory wasn't something that they got to see. While equating Star fuckin' Wars with the real-life sacrifices of the men and women of various resistance organizations is glib, it does at least show that the writers behind Rogue One know what they're doing. Violette Szabo was killed. Noor Inayat Khan was killed. So were many others that don't have books or movies based on them.

These people died in the hope that others would outlive them and see their wishes fulfilled. They took risks and died so that somebody else could finish the fight. Rogue One isn't about victory. It's about hope. If there is an untapped vein of WWII sentiment it is that even in the darkest night, at some point dawn will arrive.

Another quote from Winston Churchill, that speaks to the end of Rogue One (and the beginning of Star Wars):

"This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end, but perhaps it is the end of the beginning."

There is only glory in death. In myth. They don't build legends around people that stick around long enough to disappoint you. The real heroes are dead. In that way Rogue One ties in with Joseph Campbell even more than the Original Trilogy. It's a film that is not only about the legends that Campbell talked about. It's a film that is about the myths that we've built up around WWII. . . It might even be a film that's based around the myths that we've built up around George Lucas.

So, go watch some of these old movies (and some of the new ones) and let me know what you think. Or just skip over me and go watch Rogue One with a slightly new appreciation of the movie. Or, you know, the biggest war ever fought for human liberty.

There's another quote I saw today. It doesn't quite fit into all of this. Maybe it's the wrong place for it, but I couldn't pass it up. Because it has to do with how fiction can give us a key into wider experiences. We'll never fight in WWII, but maybe watching movies-- even fantasy films like Star Wars-- can help us understand what that's like. Even a little. That's important. That, arguably, is what art is about.

So, here it is, from President Barack Hussein Obama:

"I found myself better able to imagine what was going on in the lives of people throughout my presidency because of, not just a specific novel, but the act of reading fiction."


*Fun fact: Carve Her Name With Pride is one of Michael Caine's first screen roles. He plays a POW. He has no lines.

**I'm not sure what the cinematic parallels are for The Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi, but I'm sure I won't have to dig for long to find something. Funnily enough, the first movie I can think of that compares to the events in Empire is Dunkirk, which isn't even out yet. Huh. Then again, we also have Atonement, which features the Dunkirk Evacuation and that of course starred-- that's right-- Queen Amadala's stunt double. IT'S EVERYWHERE YOU JUST HAVE TO LOOK FOR IT!

***Strangely enough, this made me think of the Zealots. Resistance movies are almost always WWII movies. This is a result of the fact that rarely in the past two-thousand years have white people (or white-adjacent, like the Jews) ever been in the position of being an underdog except in the case of WWII.

They were a resistance to an evil empire. And the more I think about it, the more badass I think the Zealots were. . . Not that anyone should get carried away about that sort of a thing.

Also, there's a lot of crossover between movies about resistance and movies about spies. There are also a whole of differences that goes beyond what I want to talk about here. The one main difference that I'll make-- and this might not matter with Rogue One-- is that movies about resistance are almost all

Where as spy movies can take place during any era (and just about any era can involve spies), you don't often

Speaking of related sub-genres, I mentioned movies about collaborators and movies about partisans. Again, there's a lot of similarities and saying that one isn't the other is what the Dutch would call "ant fucking." It's almost too granular of a point, even for me. Even right now. But, since we're here, I think it's important to say why these films are different (if not how). This is simply because WWII, as being one of the most dramatic events in all of world history, is a rich and complex series of world events. To lump movies about the French resistance with movies about French collaborators and to then lump it in with Danish royalists and lump them in with Belorussian partisans is to run roughshod over the actual real-world events that these people went through. As important (or self-important) as films can be, they're often our view into a world that we don't understand. So, even though most people aren't ever going to see Lacombe, Lucien or Come and See, if they do, they can see them knowing that there's a lot more to world history and the human experience than The Guns of the Navarone (which, incidentally, is boring as shit).

Hold on, I’m looking something up. . .

Yup, some asshole used the phrase “Rogue One puts the WARS in Star Wars.” Fuck that guy. And fuck his editor. The weaklings.

James Kislingbury is a writer, a podcaster, and a collector of very specific arms and armor from 1941-1945. If you like this and want to support things like this, take a stroll on over to his Patreon. It supports his podcast and, in turn, supports him. Think about it, why don't you?