So yesterday was Star Wars Day.
I’m a day late, but I spent most of yesterday getting back to my foremost passion in life – defending the genius of George Lucas and trying to explain that he created one of the greatest and most under-appreciated works of art in all history.
I could apply that statement to the six-film Star Wars saga as a whole, but in this instance I refer specifically to Revenge of the Sith – the 2005 magnum opus that concluded Lucas’s original saga.
As fun as it may have been, never mind The Force Awakens – Revenge of the Sith is still (and probably always will be) the greatest thing that will ever come out of the Star Wars franchise. I always go further, in fact, and say that it’s the greatest thing that will ever come out of big-budget, action/fantasy cinema at all. George Lucas’s final contribution to his Star Wars legacy – 2005’s final prequel offering – was not only an artistic, cinematic and operatic masterpiece, but it was the ultimate, consummate manifestation of everything Star Wars was capable of being and, for that matter, everything that big-scale cinema is capable of being.
It literally does not – and probably can’t – get better than this ever again.
Lucas, who himself pretty much set the standard and invented the genre in 1977, had now taken us to the absolute zenith of what that genre of film-making could produce.
Epic, ambitious, stunning, moving, nuanced, and everything else, it was the glorious completion of Lucas’s original Star Wars saga that I had been waiting for – and something for which I will always be immensely grateful George Lucas came back to film-making to give us. I have already made the case at length for why Revenge of the Sith was an absolute masterpiece of staggering proportions, so I’ll refrain from re-stating here all the gushing, over-enthusiastic fan-boy reasons I eternally bow at the altar of that film and its unfairly maligned architect.
People who didn’t get it or still don’t get it probably never will get it.
I’ve given up arguing with those on the tedious backlash bandwagon, those who join in with the hipster Lucas-bashing for the sake of YouTube channel views, or those who, like a spoilt, First World child throwing a tantrum, bitterly disavow George Lucas and whine about how the prequels ‘ruined Star Wars’.
Someone who did get it, however, was the noted feminist author and social critic Camille Paglia: she of course famously declared a few years ago that George Lucas was the greatest artist of his time and specifically that Revenge of the Sith was the greatest work of art in the last thirty years.
The respected, if often controversial, academic, Paglia didn’t argue that Episode III was merely the best movie of the last thirty years… but the best work of art in any genre and in any medium.
For the record, Paglia is hardly a pop-culture junkie or action-loving popcorn muncher. In 2005, the journalist and former lecturer was ranked #20 on a Prospect/Foreign Policy poll of the world’s top 100 public intellectuals. Predictably a lot of people either assumed Paglia was being sarcastic or they simply pooh-poohed her conclusions. Paglia, however, was not trying to be ironic, and she has reaffirmed and defended her position over and over again and with a passion – Lucas’s final Star Wars film, she maintained, is the greatest work of art in the last three decades.
See her at the Chicago Humanities Festival, enthusing at length about the film, in the video clip below.
I of course don’t disagree with her.
I cannot think of any film in any genre that has been as absorbing or as immaculate (or as ambitious). Even just conceptually, what Lucas tried to do with the prequel trilogy was staggering and is without any parallel. And while we could argue that the execution was off-the-mark in certain places, the sheer visceral power and broad artistic value of what he did manage to create – even with its various failings – puts Lucas’s saga (and ROTS in particular) into a different stratosphere entirely.
In her own view of it, Paglia especially focuses on the final act of the third prequel – the climactic finale centering on the extended Anakin/Kenobi lightsaber duel against the dramatic lava backdrop and the extraordinarily powerful way that the birth of the Skywalker twins is juxtaposed with the ‘death’ of Anakin and ‘birth’ of Vader. That latter sequence, by the way, in which the death of the mother coincides (and even feeds into) the birth of the ‘dark father’, all of it underscored by John Williams‘ haunting, gothic choral/hymn composition, is just one example (among many) of Lucas’s extraordinarily acute and nuanced levels of vision.
‘The long finale of Revenge of the Sith has more inherent artistic value, emotional power, and global impact than anything by the artists you name,’ she said in this interview with Vice. ‘It’s because the art world has flat-lined and become an echo chamber of received opinion and toxic over-praise. It’s like the emperor’s new clothes – people are too intimidated to admit what they secretly think or what they might think with their blinders off.’
Speaking to FanGirlBlog, Paglia continued her celebration of Lucas’s final masterwork, saying, ‘I have been saying to interviewers and onstage, “The finale of Revenge of the Sith is the most ambitious, significant, and emotionally compelling work of art produced in the last 30 years in any genre – including literature.”
Paglia’s assertions flowed from her 2012 book Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars, which in part addressed the problem of modern cultural ignorance and the author’s worries that 21st century Americans are overexposed to visual stimulation by the “all-pervasive mass media” and must fight to keep their capacity for contemplation.
In the book, Paglia discusses twenty-nine examples of visual artwork, beginning with the ancient Egyptian funerary images of Queen Nefertari, and then progressing through various artistic works, including creations from Ancient Greece to Byzantine art and Donatello’s ‘Mary Magdalene’.
She explained, ‘Lucas was not part of my original plan for Glittering Images, which has 29 chapters crossing 3000 years. My goal was to write a very clear and concise handbook to the history of artistic styles from antiquity to the present. When I looked around for strong examples of contemporary art to end the book with, however, I got very frustrated. There is a lot of good art being made, but I found it overall pretty underwhelming. When I would happen on the finale of Revenge of the Sith, I just sat there stunned. It grew and grew on me, and I became obsessed with it. I was amazed at how much is in there – themes of love and hate, politics, industry, technology, and apocalyptic nature, combined with the dance theater of that duel on the lava river and then the parallel, agonizing death/births. It’s absolutely tremendous.’
Paglia also entirely recognised the sheer scale of Lucas’s creation and the value of even its various constituent parts as important or worthy works of art. ‘The fantastically complex model of the Mustafar landscape made for the production of Revenge of the Sith should be honored as an important work of contemporary installation art,’ she argued. ‘And also that Lucas’ spectacular air battles, like the one over Coruscant that opens Sith, are sophisticated works of kinetic art in the tradition of important artists like Marcel Duchamp and Alexander Calder. No one has ever written about George Lucas in this way -integrating him with the entire fine arts tradition.’
The problem is that Lucas and the prequel trilogy have become so widely misrepresented as ‘bad’ that most people don’t know how to deal with someone like Paglia sincerely proclaiming “Nothing in the last 30 years has been produced – in any of the arts – that is as significant or as emotionally compelling as Revenge of the Sith…”
It isn’t a problem for me – as I didn’t need any convincing.
Again, as I’ve already posted quite emphatically as to why Revenge of the Sith is an utter masterwork, I’m refraining from listing all the reasons again or all the great moments or elements that fill the movie – there are just too many and I’ll sound like an over-excited child.
In fact, contrary to widespread misconceptions about how the Star Wars films are viewed, a Rotten Tomatoes poll last October found that Revenge of the Sith (and not Empire Strikes Back) scored as the best-regarded of the movies according to aggregation of archived reviews. So the idea that everyone dismisses the prequels seems like a misconception; but it is fair to say that a substantial body of people – including a lot of people who, rather incongruously, regard themselves as Star Wars fans – do completely dismiss this film along with its two predecessors.
As I said at the start, people who didn’t get it or still don’t get it probably never will get it.
But what has always struck me as pitiful about the whiny ‘Lucas Ruined Star Wars’ attitude is that it seems to flow from the premise that Lucas – a man whose stubborn commitment to his own singular vision gave an entire generation from the late 70s and early 80s unparalleled joy – somehow ‘owes it’ to those same people to do things precisely how *they* deem acceptable. That’s essentially what it comes down to – that he, as the artist, should make the art that the fans or the public want and not follow his own creative vision.
What people don’t realise, however, is that if he had done that from the beginning, there never would’ve BEEN an original Star Wars trilogy at all – and arguably all of these huge blockbuster SF/fantasy films that people spend their money seeing today wouldn’t exist either. What a lot of people also don’t realise is that Lucas was never setting himself up to be a populist or even mainstream filmmaker. On the contrary, he was the avant-garde film geek, the rogue, the outsider. The fact that Star Wars spiraled into a billion-dollar behemoth was an accident; and when the first Star Wars movie was released in 1977, it was an oddity that no one in the film industry understood or believed in.
But Lucas had stuck to his own creative vision – a vision that was largely incomprehensible to everyone else at the time the film was being made – and his singular vision hit the mark big-time and accomplished something unprecedented.
By the time of the endlessly-maligned The Phantom Menace in 1999 and everything that followed, Lucas was still doing exactly the same thing – following his own vision, trying to create something extraordinary and largely ignoring contemporary trends or opinion. The only difference was that the vast fan-base he had acquired from the original films were older now, far more jaded and over-saturated with blockbuster movies (most of which were influenced by Lucas’s pioneering work in the 70s) and they essentially didn’t *want* something new, creative or challenging – they just wanted the same thing they’d had when they were kids.
In effect, they weren’t interested in Lucas the artist or Lucas the pioneer – they only wanted Lucas the Popcorn Movie dispenser. But Lucas the Popcorn Movie Dispenser had never existed – he was simply an illusion created by the extraordinary commercial success of the Star Wars Trilogy.
What Lucas had in fact envisioned – and created – with the prequel trilogy, especially Revenge of the Sith, was something that transcended the whole summer blockbuster ennui, transcended genre, transcended the very medium of film itself, and could be discussed in the same breath as Shakespeare, Virgil and the Aeneid, Julius Caesar, and a number of equally fascinating and endlessly debatable works of serious and complex gravity.
But there was an audience of millions who were instead looking for something that could be discussed alongside Jurassic Park or Terminator 2. Which is fine – Star Wars of course can also be discussed just as validly in that latter context too; but it also exists in a stratosphere beyond it. And because Lucas’s process and vision was in that higher stratosphere a lot of the time, there was a frequent disconnect that occurred, whereby a lot of people were unable to meet him halfway or relate to the films on those kinds of levels.
But Lucas pushed on with his long-envisioned trilogy; and by the time the final installment of his Star Wars saga arrived in 2005, a sizeable proportion of the old fan-base had either departed or were by now just coming to the party for the thrill of seeing Darth Vader one last time. Some dismissed the film the same way as they’d dismissed its two predecessors, some were full of scathing mockery, while others were ambivalent. Some were suitably entertained, but didn’t take it much further than that.
Another group, a smaller minority – myself included – had just seen something of epic, overwhelming proportions and had the greatest cinematic experience of their lives.
But great art is like that.
Great works of art divides people, provoking endless debate – the debates around the prequel trilogy and ROTS are still going now – just look at how many podcasts are still arguing back and forth on the subject. An argument could be made that the greatest artist will go all-out to create something special and substantive, even if it won’t appeal to everyone. Said artist would follow his own creative vision and not compromise it to the committee of consensus or demand.
Lucas, it should be borne in mind, never made ANY of the Star Wars films with film-critics in mind – even the Original Trilogy movies were not critically approved, despite becoming cultural landmarks. And interestingly, the hang-ups of many of those who were scathing about the prequel movies – ROTS included – were virtually identical to the hang-ups of the critics in the early 80s who either just didn’t get those original Star Wars films or were unwilling to praise a rogue filmmaker who was rebelling against Hollywood at the time and who was making something entirely out-of-step with contemporary trends and sensibilities.
Fittingly enough, the Lucas who was out-of-step with the sensibilities of the time during the late 70s and early 80s is the same Lucas who was equally out-of-step with sensibilities and trends at the time of the prequels too. In both eras, Lucas rebelled against the sensibilities of contemporary cinema and carved out his own piece of utter magic according to his own stubborn vision – the difference is that so many of the same people who adored what he had done in the first instance couldn’t understand what he was doing in the second instance.
Even though what he was doing was essentially the same thing.
For that matter, I always suspected that one of the main reasons so many people failed to appreciate (or in a lot of cases, to even understand) this film is precisely because it isn’t contemporary. That’s a key thing to understand about the Star Wars prequels – they were not made in a contemporary style.
Lucas doesn’t make contemporary cinema. Both of Lucas’s Star Wars trilogies are written and designed specifically to NOT be contemporary, but to have a more timeless quality, steeped in traditions from the past.
Lucas, you have to remember, has never been a contemporary or generic filmmaker, but a more avant-garde artist and experimenter who foremost specialises in tone and impressionism. The fact that he invented modern blockbuster cinema is purely an accident. As he himself once said, “None of the films I’ve done was designed for a mass audience, except for ‘Indiana Jones.’ Nobody in their right mind thought ‘American Graffiti’ or ‘Star Wars’ would work”.
And I’m not even going to go into the wonderful complexities of Mike Klimo‘s ‘Ring Theory‘ (which explores/explains some of the extremely intricate, even hidden, complexity of Lucas’s film structure for his six films – I hardly needed convincing of Lucas’s storytelling and filmmaking genius but Klimo’s Ring Theory expands our understanding of Lucas and Star Wars to a whole new level); but even just on a basic level, none of those three prequel films was designed to conform to the way films were being structured, written or acted at the time (or even now).
They were not contemporary or generic at all – consequently, a lot of people didn’t understand or relate to what they were watching: because they couldn’t find a point of comparison in popular culture.
To really understand those films, you have to go back to some of the historical epics of the fifties and sixties, particularly films like Ben-Hur, Cleopatra or Spartacus. If you watch any of those films (and all three are timeless, truly marvelous cinematic works) and then watch the three Star Wars prequels, it will suddenly make much more sense. The acting style, the dialogue style, the themes, the epic scope and settings, the vast mythologizing, the way the films are scored, even the intricate costume design – all of it.
There’s nothing surprising about that. After all, it’s easy to overlook the fact now from our current vantage-point, but the original Star Wars trilogy movies weren’t contemporary in style either – they were stylistically based on things like Kurosawa, Flash Gordon and the Saturday matinee serials of the 1930s and 40s. The original trilogy films made no stylistic sense in terms of contemporary cinema or sensibilities in the late 70s or early 80s – they were, in style, a homage to a long-gone era.
So too were the prequels – just a different homage to a different era.
And with that in mind, and in the context of her views on Lucas and Revenge of the Sith, it is interesting to note that Paglia participates in the poll of film professionals conducted by Sight & Sound which asks participants to submit a list of what they believe to be the ten greatest films of all time. According to her responses to the poll in 2002 and 2012, the films Paglia holds in highest regard did in fact include Ben-Hur, along with Lawrence of Arabia and films like The Godfather and Gone With the Wind, and also Citizen Kane (also interesting, given the obvious parallels between George Lucas and Orson Welles, as well as parallels between Welles’s fictional Charles Foster Kane and the real-life story of Lucas – Xanadu/Skywalker Ranch?).
I cite Welles and Kane not as an insult, by the way. Welles, like Lucas, was a genius and an absolute pioneer; and like Lucas, he had world-changing success too early in his film career and spent the rest of his life in the shadow of Citizen Kane.
When you look at everything that makes up Revenge of the Sith, the scope of vision along with the degree of artistic nuance and juxtaposition is breathtaking.
There’s lots of action, yes, as you’d expect; but the action, like so much of what Lucas was doing by this stage, is almost transcendent. Sure, the acting or delivery is off in a few places; mostly due to some of the actors having to perform in non-existent CG environments – remember Lucasfilm and ILM were breaking new ground technologically in these movies, which we take for granted now with all our CG and digital filmmaking, but which at the time were bound to cause some teething problems. But Ewan McGregor is superb in this film, while the maligned Hayden Christensen is nowhere near as bad as people choose to think and in fact does a solid job in any number of key scenes.
And there’s everything else. The special effects aren’t just good, they’re actually often beautiful in a way that most special effects don’t aspire to be. The level of detail and artistry in the visuals mean you could turn the sound off and still be captivated. Some of the backdrops could make extraordinary paintings that could hang convincingly in art galleries. And Lucas is the absolute master of the establishing shot and the scene transition, turning it into an art every bit as nuanced as in a piece of music.
For that matter, the music is extraordinary – and actually if you look at how underwhelming or non-existent the music is in the post-Lucas ‘The Force Awakens’, it becomes clear that Lucas and Williams had a collaborative process that really influenced how these films were scored (and which is now no longer the case). Lucas himself said that the music was 50 percent of what mattered in these films and that is certainly evident.
Much of it, particularly the climatic Kenoni/Skywalker duel and that final act with the birth of the twins, death of Padme and creation of Vader, almost isn’t cinema at all – but opera. This could’ve been something Wagner was composing if he had ever existed in the cinema age.
In fact, the final few scenes of the film don’t even have any dialogue, but are purely musical and visual. Even some of the most stirring parts earlier on in the film are without dialogue; take, for example, the breathtakingly beautiful sequence of Anakin and Padme trying to silently sense for each other across the exquisite, sunset cityscape – it’s all visual, tone and subtle music, pure emotion with no dialogue. A scene like that could almost be part of a silent movie; and it’s also like an impressionist painting in motion.
Even that Kenobi/Skywalker duel itself is more than just an action sequence. With Williams’ epic, stirring, choral score, it too is opera. But it’s opera married to performance art: the level of intricacy, fluency and speed of Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen’s dueling is insane, having required an immense amount of prep and practise. The choreography takes it onto the level of dance; of true performance art as opposed to disposable cartoon violence or cheap blockbuster action.
Everything here – to the last detail – is choreographed like a ballet and it is spellbinding.
Yet while other filmmakers would try to sell an entire movie on such an exquisite centerpiece, for Lucas all of this – all of this poetry, opera, dance, music, visual art and everything else – is ultimately mere constituent part to a greater whole: a Shakespearan epic of a tortured fall from grace and a Greek tragedy about the dangers of loving someone too much; and that too wrapped within an even larger epic about the fall of a Republic, the fallibility of religion and the genius of the Devil and failure of the angels.
Evoking everything from the fall of the Roman Republic and birth of the Roman Empire to the eradication of the Templars, the rise of Hitler and Fascism to the corporate takeover of American democracy, Lucas concludes his epic story about politics, corruption, war, false-flag plots, the occult, religion, and of course love, obsession, friendship, loyalty, betrayal.
It’s a story about how democracies fall, yet equally about how empires become inevitable. And about how religions and orthodoxies become stagnant and ineffective. It’s a story about death and birth and rebirth. And about both the destructive power of obsessive love, and yet also the redeeming power of unconditional love. It’s a story too about fallibility, a story in which every one of the Good Guys is in error and no one emerges from the story without being full of regret. It’s a story about predestination paradoxes.
It is also bleak as fuck; and yet ends on a note of bittersweet – almost religious – hope and optimism. It is the conclusion of a story, yet also the prologue to a story we all know like the backs of our hands.
What Lucas created in fact was the ultimate expression/culmination of the art of the epic itself – fittingly enough, in order to conclude the defining epic of our modern times (what Brian Blessed once described as the Shakespeare of our age). The Shakespeare comparisons aren’t trivial. The evident Star Wars/Shakespeare resonance has even prompted things like Ian Doescher’s book William Shakespeare’s Tragedy of the Sith’s Revenge: Star Wars Part the Third – a retelling of Revenge of the Sith as if it had been written by William Shakespeare for real. It also led to Joe Nussbaum’s cult independent film George Lucas in Love, which is a humorous riff on the film Shakespeare in Love.
Various observers, including academics, have noted the obvious fact that Lucas’s story is also a retelling of the fall of the Roman Republic and birth of the Roman Empire. Lucas himself admitted this, pointing to how Revenge of the Sith in particular is partly a story about democracies become dictatorships and citing the historical stories of Caesar and Augustus. You can quite easily watch the prequel trilogy alongside I, Claudius or something like HBO’s brilliant Rome series.
But none of those references or allusions are the important part. Even the fact that the prequel trilogy – and again, ROTS in particular – is quite clearly in part a story about false-flag wars, banking conspiracies, the corporate and military-industrial complex, the Bush administration and the Iraq War, etc – isn’t particularly relevant to the issue of why it’s such an epic work of significance.
Lucas is the author and architect of our preeminent modern mythology – as interviewer Bill Moyers asserted during his fascinating and revealing 1999 interview with Lucas (for the release of The Phantom Menace). Partly inspired by his friend Joseph Campbell’s thoughts on mythology, but moreover informed by his own careful distillation of elements from various cultures and civilisations (what he has referred to as our collective human ‘archaeological psychology’), Lucas is every bit as influential as Virgil, Homer or Shakespeare were in their respective times, and has crafted out the ultimate mythological saga.
Revenge of the Sith is the final, completing piece of that saga – the piece that gives the saga its full scope and true soul, and the piece that makes every one of the other films count for so much more.
And it does it so well – with such vivid and breathtaking quality – that, even having written an article as long as this one now is (and another before this), I still don’t feel like I’m adequately able to explain its full brilliance.
Neither could Lucas himself, I suspect. I’m not sure Lucas even realised how masterful it was; but, as Paglia and others note, the guy is so mild-mannered and self-deprecating that it simply wasn’t in his nature to boast about his own work. Instead he just took in all the abuse and mockery with mild bemusement, shrugged his shoulders and walked off into the twin sunset, knowing that with Revenge of the Sith he had finished what he’d come back to do.
In fact, what Lucas did was so extraordinary, so complex and so nuanced that it may take another decade or two for people to even appreciate it properly – assuming they ever do. As film experts like Mike Klimo have noted, some of what Lucas did in ROTS and the prequels may have been so sophisticated that he deliberately didn’t talk about it, but just left it there, not knowing that anyone would ever even notice.
This, as I said earlier, goes beyond cinema, and possibly even beyond Star Wars itself. Lucas genuinely outdid himself, and it is unlikely anyone will reach that height again – firstly because no one is going to be in the position Lucas was in again in terms of total ownership of a property, and secondly because no one is going to have that kind of ambition again, especially having seen how much of a backlash Lucas received from the legions of popcorn munchers, YouTube profiteers and ungrateful fans who were really looking for something much more in keeping with a generic, formulaic, standardized blockbuster formula.
Perhaps fittingly enough, what we’ve had more recently with the newly revived franchise and The Force Awakens is precisely the kind of film most people were wanting or expecting in 1999 when the prequel trilogy arrived – a safer, less ambitious and easier-to-process film much more like what Lucas put out in 1977.
While legions of fans and critics alike lavish great praise on Disney’s relaunching of the Star Wars franchise and on last December’s ‘The Force Awakens’, what they are essentially praising is a mere pastiche of or homage to Lucas’s original 1977-1983 trilogy – a film that essentially wasn’t trying to do anything but recapture something Lucas had already accomplished three decades ago. Which is fine; and I enjoyed The Force Awakens. But it doesn’t even enter the same ball park of what Lucas had tried to do with the prequel trilogy, especially Revenge of the Sith.
For sheer intent, ambition and willingness alone, Lucas should’ve been celebrated – regardless of any actual failings with the end product. And those prequels do have their failings; and so does ROTS.
But someone trying to build a Tower of Babel is inevitably going to experience more hitches than someone building a new Starbucks on the high street.
Lucas appears to have been fully at peace with that, having observed ‘I’ve worked hard enough and earned enough to fail for the rest of my life. And I’m going to do it’. But failings don’t equate to ‘failure’. And for whatever its various failings are, Revenge of the Sith remains an immense triumph of will, vision and multi-faceted artistic brilliance across the board.
The problem for me – and it’s been a problem ever since I first watched the film in 2005 – is that I doubt anyone will reach this sublime level of epic storytelling and filmmaking ever again; which makes it difficult to sustain any comparable excitement for anything that has followed in cinema. Or might yet follow.
Some recommended additional reading/viewing: ‘Star Wars: Ring Theory‘ By Mike Klimo, ‘Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars‘ by Camile Paglia, ‘The Mythology of Star Wars: Bill Moyers Interviews George Lucas‘ (1999).