Does America have an empire on its hands? In the years since Sept. 11, that’s easily the most vigorous debate among American writers and intellectuals. It used to be that only leftist ideologues accused American foreign policy of being “imperialist,” but as conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer argued in The New York Times, “People are coming out of the closet on the word empire.” A shy and bashful trickle has now become a flood tide of books and articles arguing the case for and against America’s imperial status— Imperial Hubris, American Empire, Colossus —while, in a cover story for The New York Times Magazine entitled “American Empire: Get Used to It,” Michael Ignatieff broke the news to the paper’s readers as gently as he could: “The 21st century imperium is a new invention in the annals of political science, an empire lite, a global hegemony whose grace notes are free markets, humans rights and democracy …. [It] is the imperialism of a people who remember that their country secured its independence by revolt against an empire and who liked to think of themselves as the friend of freedom everywhere.”
Needless to say, your average moviegoer could have told you this long ago. In June of 2002, just as President George W. Bush was addressing an audience of graduating cadets at West Point, assuring them that “America has no empire to extend or utopia to establish,” what were most of the nation’s youth flocking to see? Attack of the Clones, the second of George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels, which have long since abandoned Luke Skywalker and his band of merry rebels in order to tell the tale of Darth Vader and Senator Palpatine as they struggle to pull a faltering republic into fine imperial shape. Episode II found Palpatine conspiring in the Senate to exaggerate the outside threat to the republic in order to boost his own powers and build up the republic’s war machine, waging war on a series of ever-more-phantasmal enemies. Remind you of anyone? “Infinite Justice,” “Shock and Awe”—even the titles of Dubya’s wars sound like the titles of bad blockbusters.
Imperial stirrings may be at their strongest in Mr. Lucas’ pop-Homeric saga, but they’re everywhere in American movies at the moment, from the pomp and circumstance of Ridley’s Scott’s Gladiator, which revivified the whole ancient-epic genre back in 1999, to this year’s Troy, to the small army of Alexander the Greats waiting around the next bend (Oliver Stone’s version, starring Colin Farrell, and Baz Luhrmann’s, starring Leonardo DiCaprio—a fine face-off between cinema’s leading purveyors of grunting machismo and feathered exoticism). Put it down to the advances in digital technology, or the Oscar success of Lord of the Rings, but even an average summer-franchise flick like Vin Deisel’s The Chronicles of Riddick these days comes bedecked with vast hornet swarms of warring armies, English actors and noble speechifying—and this the sequel to Pitch Black, if you please.
The Empire has struck back, and this time it’s no bad thing. Time was when audiences trooped along to Spartacus to root for Kirk Douglas’ band of renegade slaves as they dared oppose the might of Rome. Now we have Gladiator, in which Russell Crowe does much the same, but with one important difference: No lowly slave, he’s in fact a deposed Roman general, seeking only what was taken from him. No opponent of imperial Rome, he simply wants his fair share. He wants in. It’s not too hard to see what the Hussein family so liked about the movie: According to his translator, interviewed in The Boston Globe, Saddam’s son Uday was “going mad” to find a bootleg copy of the sword-and-sandal epic three days after it was released in the United States. His father, meanwhile, was more of a Mel Gibson man, favoring the sword-and-shaggy-hair of Braveheart. “If I had such a worthy opponent like that man,” he was said to have commented, “I could not bring myself to kill him.” No guesses as to who the evil empire was, in the Husseins’ reading of those movies. Hollywood’s anti-imperialist parables have been turned on their head and are boomeranging back to the point of origin. American audiences used to watch such martial epics and boo and hiss the evil empire for the facsimile of Britain that it normally was, but the current crop of sword-and-sandal epics are deliberately angled to catch a resemblance to the new world, not the old.
“In those days, there were huge factories that manufactured arms, oil, weapons, artifacts, decorations, fabrics,” said Ridley Scott of Gladiator. “You name it, they had it. And they had endorsements—you would have a gladiator endorse oil or endorse wine. They were the Michael Jordans of the day. You have management, and the gladiators could actually buy his way out of his contract. He buys his freedom and becomes more famous than he was as an athlete. So he becomes lord of his own domain. It’s very similar to what happens today.” When Troy was released earlier this year, German director Wolfgang Petersen said something similar: “It’s as if nothing has changed in 3,000 years. People are still using deceit to engage in wars of vengeance. Just as King Agamemnon waged what was essentially a war of conquest on the ruse of trying to rescue the beautiful Helen from the hands of the Trojans, George Bush concealed his true motives for the invasion of Iraq.” This is more than just a slick top spin of topicality, applied post-9/11, by filmmakers angling for a buck. The scene in Mr. Petersen’s epic in which Achilles (Brad Pitt) drags the body of his enemy, Hector (Eric Bana), behind his chariot reduced New York’s audiences to a chastened hush, and to real tears when Priam (Peter O’Toole) begs Achilles to return Hector’s desecrated body: “I do what no man has done before—I kiss the hands of the man who murdered my son.” It was the week of the first Abu Ghraib photos.
Hollywood’s empire-building instincts are nothing new. Nowhere has America’s fascination with the trappings of imperial power been given greater play than at the movie theater—those modern-day pleasure domes. “The Paramount Theatre stands at the Crossroads of the World wherein the Aladdin Lamp of the Camera, and the magic carpet of film, have built an Empire of Delight, and its boundaries are the limits of the earth,” proclaimed the New York Paramount when it opened in 1926. From its inception, Hollywood drew audiences with visions of imperial splendor, preferably at its last gasp— Quo Vadis?, The Last Days of Pompeii —seeking high-brow historical dressing for its destructo-fests: “Lava flowing! Houses crumbling! Villages burning!” ran one breathless ad for The Wrath of the Gods (1914). The precise degree to which American audiences were being invited to revel in the glory of empires past, censure them for their hubris, or simply dig the special effects, is hard to determine, although the failure of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance in 1916—whose images of Babylonian hellfire reached audiences, with spectacularly bad timing, on the eve of the First World War—suggests that they were not much in the mood for a chastening lesson in How the Mighty Fall.
It was the coming of sound which spelled doom for the genre, dispatching it into a middle-brow marshland from which it has been struggling to escape ever since: In the films of Cecil B. De Mille, a generation of American actors were encouraged to abandon their natural speaking rhythms for a style of diction suggesting they had just been hit around the head with a small, pointy miracle. But like Christ (not to mention De Mille himself), the genre had a second coming, in 1949, when Samson and Delilah sparked off a second pass at the grand historical epics of the silent era: another Ben Hur, another Quo Vadis, another Ten Commandments and Stanley Kubrick’s version of Spartacus —although this time with better production values—making mincemeat of the audience’s moral allegiances: American audiences may have been ethically joined at the hip to Kirk Douglas and his gladiator rebels, sensing a replay of their own country’s origin myth, but thanks to the cool symmetry of Kubrick’s compositions, the film was more in love with the empire it opposed than many would care to admit. Kubrick’s was the old journey: Hollywood may have set out decrying the tyranny of Ancient Rome, but it always ended up digging its Doric columns. The traditional take on these 50’s historical epics is that Hollywood was trying to combat the influence of TV with eye-stretching epic, but another is that in the wake of the Second World War—flush with the military and economic success that war brought—America was seeking out a meet and fitting image of itself. Here, amidst all these splashy colonnades and polished marble, amidst all those orating senators and swishly buckled generals, was the type of film America deserved: world-beating drama for world-beaters.
What brought the genre to its knees for a second time was not just the internal economic dynamics of the overstretched studios, brought to a symbolic head by the $10 million indulgence of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra (1963), or the threat of TV, but Vietnam, its attendant social upheavals and the routing it administered to American self-belief. At the 1976 Bicentennial celebrations in Boston, protesters dumped packages marked “Gulf Oil” and “Exxon” into the harbor and hauled a Nixon effigy about the bay. When official re-enactors cried “Down with King George!”, the shout came back: “Down with King Richard!” An official report into the incident concluded: “We entered the Bicentennial year having survived some of the bitterest times in our brief history. We cried out for something to draw us together again.” But how? How could the nation celebrate its youth as a scrappy rebel republic when all around it sat all the signs—Vietnam, Exxon, Nixon—that it had transformed into the very empire it once opposed?
The answer came one year later, in 1977. George Lucas’ Star Wars was a watershed moment for Hollywood and for America, a decisive convulsion in the country’s dream life. For audiences, it offered nothing less than virtual patriotism—flag-waving without any of the embarrassment that then clung to the Stars and Stripes, a chance for audiences to cheer on the scrappy rebels once again, boo the evil Empire and see their founding myth play out in the harmless vacuum of space. Mr. Lucas didn’t just give America a hit film: He gave the nation something of its youth, and at a time when it was feeling, if not its age, then certainly a little middle-aged spread. To most Americans in the mid-70’s, the sight of more Americans meant one of two things: 1) anti-Vietnam demonstrations, or 2) queues for gas. But the queues for Star Wars were probably the only form of benign mass congregation America had seen in a decade, outside of a sports stadium. In San Francisco, the manager of the Coronet on Geary Boulevard reported scenes that looked like outtakes from the film’s alien-cantina scene: “I’ve never seen anything like it. We’re getting all kinds. Old people, young people, children, Hari-Krishna groups. They bring cards to play in line. We have checker-players, we have chess-players. People with paints and sequins on their faces. Fruit-eaters like I’ve never seen before. People loaded on grass and LSD. At least one guy’s been here every day.”
With Star Wars, Mr. Lucas succeeded in summoning a note that was at once wholly American—a “jaunty, wise-ass, fast, very modern, sort of a teenaged thing, a polished chrome kind of feel,” as screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan put it—and wholly exportable at the same time. It was a pan-nationalistic imperial epic. It went down a storm in Russia, where, as one diplomat put it, “R2D2, whatever he speaks, it isn’t English.” In Britain, audiences could politely ignore the fact that the Empire sounded British and concentrate instead on the fact that they looked German; in Germany, the reverse. In Italy, critics found the film an allegory for communism, while in France, critics denounced it as “crypto-fascist”: The Death Star resembled nothing so much as Albert Speer’s models for Berlin, they pointed out; and even the rebel ceremony at the end was clearly modeled on the 1933 Nuremberg rally. “The effect, which was both solemn and beautiful, was like being in a cathedral of light”, wrote one British ambassador of Speer’s light show, thus confirming your suspicion not only that few were immune to fascism’s glint, but that there was probably no period of world history that so calls out for the tender ministrations of Industrial Light and Magic. “After a lapse of 21 years, I was struck by the resemblance to a Cecil B. DeMille set,” wrote Speer from his prison cell in Spandau, years later. “Designs of such scale naturally indicate a kind of chronic megalomania …. Perhaps it was less their size than the way they violated the human scale that made them abnormal.”
He could as easily have been talking about the next 25 years of American film, for, amongst the ranks of dead Nazi architects, none has had as big an impact on modern Hollywood production design as Speer. It would be Speer’s designs that Anton Furst aped when designing Gotham City in Batman (“Speer could have designed the Met and would have loved the Rockefeller Center,” he commented), and also Ridley Scott’s images of Rome in Gladiator (“We copied the Nazis copying the Romans,” said his set designer, Arthur Max), while Speer’s ghost has cast a suitably long shadow over the dizzying perspective and endless vanishing points of the Star Wars prequels, in which the Empire is now heading toward triumph under the stewardship of Darth Vader—the third installment, due for release next summer, may mark the first time that a mainstream Hollywood blockbuster has slammed the sympathies of a teenage audience into the side of fascist dictatorship.
“I’d wanted to make it much bigger than it was,” said Mr. Lucas of his saga, “much more out there in terms of creatures and aliens and the environments and all that stuff, and I had to really restrict my imagination to a very, very thin line that I could make work …. I was forced constantly to write something very, very small—even though Star Wars seems very big, it was an illusion, it’s technically very small: I was always going, ‘I wanna do this; oh, I can’t do that.’” By the time of the second film, Luke had been revealed as the son of Darth Vader, his connection to the saga no longer accidental; it had been seeking him out all along. The democratic offer of adventure to audiences was subtly rescinded; the Force, previously open to all, was now merely a matter of good breeding. By the time of the third film, it had changed again; Luke was now revealed as not just the son of a lord, but the brother of a princess; the Force was now by royal appointment only. And so the saga became less American, more European and dynastic in tone, more hermetically sealed from outside interference. As Han Solo, always the voice of reason in the series, says, “I’m out of it for a little while, and everyone gets delusions of grandeur.” These delusions are given the rule of the roost in the prequels, which feel firmly planted in the old world, not the new, what with their faux neoclassical architecture, their flurry of honorifics (“the Princess,” “your honor”) and their obsession with dynastic pedigree: Anakin Skywalker’s immaculate conception revealing the Force, previously open to all, then by royal decree only, to be exercised by divine right alone.
“I’m a big history buff,” said Mr. Lucas, “and one of the things that fascinated me was how certain republics, certain democracies, don’t get overthrown, which is sort of how we think of it today. They are given up to a tyrant. The people vote the tyrant in and then leave him there. That happened with Augustus Caesar, Augustus, it happened with Napoleon, it happened with Hitler. You can see very easily the frailties of a democracy, and how the people ultimately have the psychological need for a father figure just to tell them what to do, and there are a lot of machinations that go on behind the scenes, where the people in power are manipulating the people, like Hitler did. You can actually see there’s a lot of similarities going on today.” So now we know: The evil galactic Empire turned out to be not Britain, though they sounded British, nor German, though they looked like Nazis, but America itself.
Mr. Lucas’ gifts as a filmmaker may have atrophied, but his skills as a popular-pulse-taker clearly have not, for the prequels’ problems with plot are wholly representative—good guys who are too invulnerable to be interesting and a set of villains too phantasmal to snap into any shape: asymmetrical plotting for the era of asymmetrical warfare. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that with the prequels, Mr. Bush’s America has in a way gotten the Star Wars movies it deserves: otiose, confused, landlocked by their own scale. If there’s a single problem besetting American movies right now, it’s the implications that being global top dog have on a film culture that’s geared, right down to its last molecule, towards singing the praises of the underdog. The late 70’s may have been the last time when audiences could cheer on a tiny X-wing as it took on and defeated the vast Death Star, or a leaky boat as it battled a Great White. Now, we have the equally matched combatants of the Spider-Man or Matrix movies, where Agent Smith just keeps replicating and Neo simply downloads whatever skills he needs—resulting in perfect deadlock, complete dramatic stasis, infinitely restageable and endless war. Hollywood has seemingly lost the fine art of presenting the unequally rigged battle that drove its blockbusters in the 70’s and early 80’s. This may be due in part to the dizzying ease afforded its superheroes by digital technology, which has gradually snipped away at American audiences’ instinctive feel for the underdog, but it also has an uncanny echo in the predicament America found itself in after Sept. 11, when the nation found itself playing on the world stage the role usually meted out to the dastardly Brits or Nazis on the big screen. Al Qaeda versus America, funnily enough, is a story America is used to telling, but from the opposite angle—from the point of view of David, not Goliath—and for the moment, at least, it has left Hollywood’s moral gyroscopes spinning.
“Look at where we are right now,” said Mr. Scott, “where for the first time we have someone who is so literally, physically powerful—the U.S.—in terms of their hitting power, and they’re suddenly no longer able to say, ‘We’re the police force of the world’—because they’ve found a new enemy, and that new enemy doesn’t care if it lives or dies. That’s unique—and therefore all your policies have to be much, much more carefully thought out. You’re talking about a new enemy; you’re dealing with a world that’s expanding out of its frustration and fury.”
The real question for Hollywood, as for America, is not whether the empire can strike back, but how.
Tom Shone’s Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer will be published by the Free Press in December.