conceptualisations of history in george lucas’ ‘star wars’ saga

•June 27, 2007 • 8 Comments


George Lucas’s Star Wars saga is one of the most successful series in western cinema history. According to Brabazon it “has been a primary popular cultural social formation for a[n] [entire] generation.”[1] Set in a futuristic, past tense “used universe” Star Wars is deeply imbued with historical understandings and conceptualisations in nearly all facets of its construction ranging from its narrative portrayal of the archetypal political cycles of tyranny and rebellion[2] to the simulated weathering effects that stain the rebel spaceship models used in the production of the special effects shots. The derivate nature of the films further contributes to this sense of history as it reveals a deep historical understanding of narrative construction and formulation incorporating American and European narratives whilst also showing a predilection for psychological and anthropological notions of folklore and myth. Despite the nostalgic dimension inherent in the films they are also engrained with modernist anxieties regarding the moral and immoral uses of technology and thus conceptions of alienation within a western hyper-capitalist order. In addition, Lucas has also included within his saga an historically informed critique of the nature and dangers of human interaction within spheres of political and economic power. This essay will survey some of the historical dimensions inherent in Lucas’s Star Wars Saga in relation to its deployment of historical imagination and understandings as well as some of the broad historical features and influences that informed the creation of the text.



To begin here it will be useful to reconstruct and fathom some of the key features of the social and artistic climate that Lucas was emersed in when he first penned the Star Wars universe, that being, early 1970s America. This will be helpful as it will facilitate a deeper understanding of some of the saga’s content and cultural resonances. In relation to context as well as artistic intent Geraghty claims that Lucas’s:

“vision was to resurrect myths and legends that had once defined society but had since been forgotten because people had more pressing social problems to deal with: the economy was at an all time low, the Vietnam War had just finished with no clear victor, and Watergate caused scandal within a government that had already lost public confidence. America was in definite need of a cultural tonic…”[3]

This view is reinforced by the narrative that accompanies the documentary Empire of Dreams: The Story of the Star Wars Trilogy (2004) which states that during the early 1970s:

“Americans felt deeply mired in the present. It was a time of economic inflation and rising oil prices and the nation had grown cynical about its heroes and its leaders…On the big screen Hollywood’s view was equally grim. The films of the 1970s were gritty and often downbeat: a reflection of America’s social and political upheaval. Instead of old fashioned heroes the screen was dominated by hard-nosed anti-heroes who broke all the rules.”[4]

Although this documentary’s account, like the preceding explanation, contains a favourable predisposition which seems to favour Lucas’s “vision” it does suggests that he was working against a backdrop of disparagement, social critique and general uncertainty. The cultural revolution of the post 1960s period where traditional power structures had been challenged, America’s involvement in the Vietnam conflict which as McMahon states was/is “[a]rguably the second most traumatic, contentious, and problematic event in U.S. history”[5] after the Civil War, a tumultuous economic downturn and the Watergate scandal compounded to produce a broad artistic milieu of confused, concerned and sometimes violent reactionary ideals.[6] Murray explains that “film in the ‘70s became a canvas on which writers, directors and actors translated national concerns (Vietnam, Watergate, sexual politics) into personal works of art.[7] It must have thus appeared to some of these artists of the period, to borrow a statement from Hill, that, the world had been “turned upside down”[8] as a new breed of character: the anti-hero, like Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry (1971), set about reordering the perceived racial and sexual urban chaos within their representational milieu. The “passing of the west”[9] thus seemed to have brought the old gunslinger of Wild West mythology into the modern cityscape. Another example of this violent reaction to the erosion of pre-1960s moral “boundaries” can be found in the depiction of the degenerate pill popping, pornography watching, vigilante character Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese’s neo-film noir Taxi Driver (1976). Travis proclaims in voice-over narrative: “listen you fuckers, you screw heads, heres a man who would not take it anymore, who stood up against all the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit, here’s someone who stood up.”[10] Travis declares he is going straight, starts working out, buys guns and then goes on a one man mission to save a twelve year old prostitute from the clutches of her pimp. It is intriguing that he proceeds to do this after receiving some inspiration from a character, played by Scorsese (=the artist) himself, who enters Travis’s taxi and states that he his going to shoot his wife in the head with a Magnum pistol for sleeping with a “nigger.” We can thus see that Lucas was embedded in a culture where a backlash to black civil rights, feminism, reordered sexual politics, new left ideologies and a general fear of government “internal conspiracies”[11] mixed with perceived notions of economic uncertainty and socio-political confusion to produce a pessimistic artistic/cinematic milieu. In addition, early 1970s films also proliferated dystopian visions which evoked images of the apocalyptic. Movies like Planet of the Apes (1968), Towering Inferno (1974) and Earthquake (1974) amongst others inspired audience dreams of chaos and Armageddon. With reference to the nuclear age and the era under discussion Franklin eloquently suggests that:

“[a]midst a planet of revolution, America’s leaders, equipped with pushbuttons to annihilate civilization, seemed ignorant of the past and oblivious to the future…Our only hope for salvation seemed to lie outside ourselves, perhaps the godlike aliens [of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) could] remould…us.”[12]

Thus in some cases science fiction seemed to potentially offer an audience something hopeful perhaps something beyond the trappings of the pessimistic hyperrealist cinema of the early 1970s.



So, it was in a climate of anti-heroic, neo-Wild West vigilantes and apocalyptic visions described above that Lucas set about reinvigorating classic myth and some perceived lost morality from the past in an attempt to influence the discourse of the present through a historically contextual reordering of “the traditional pattern of the mythological hero’s quest.”[13] Although Lucas’s first feature film THX 1138 (1971), discussed briefly below, is primarily dystopic there is some of the more positive mythological ethos inherent in his second feature American Graffiti (1973) which can also be read as an attempt to document the American mating ritual of “cruising” and the changes in Rock ‘n Roll culture that occurred at the beginning of the 1960s. Lucas states that in the early 1960s “Hippie culture [and] drugs [had arrived] cruising was gone and I really felt compelled to document the whole experience of cruising and what my generation used as a means of meeting girls.”[14] In Graffiti radio Disk Jockey Wolfman Jack anticipates Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda as the wise guru and the quest revolves mainly around the character Curt Henderson[15] who leaves small town USA to go to college and see the “great big beautiful world.”[16]



It is this mythological dimension that is also inherent in the Star Wars sequence that is one of the most apparent historical elements as the saga’s highly derivative construction alludes to and draws from a wide, varied body of myth[17] which in itself must entail an historical understanding. Whilst drawing from a mythic corpus Star Wars incorporates universalist, western and particularly American modes of story telling. Collins refers to this mythic amalgam as a “pastiche of myth.”[18] With regards to this Braudy explains that:

“when Lucas was writing the script of Star Wars he was heavily interested in Joseph Campbell. What Joseph Campbell was interested in was to see the connections between myths; the myths of different cultures…[to] try to find out what were the threads that tied all these very disparate cultures together”[19]

In an interview Lucas himself acknowledges that he:

“did research to try to distill everything into motifs that would be universal. I attribute most of the success [of Star Wars] to the psychological underpinnings which have been around for thousands of years. People still react to the stories the way they always have.”[20]

Reflecting this ethos the films take place “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” or as often stated at the beginning of fairy tale narrative “once upon a time.”[21] Collins argues that the controlling myth which Lucas utilises is the European legend of King Arthur. This is, in part, because Luke Skywalker has a dynastic heritage to the ancient and noble Jedi order and is released from the false identity as a mundane farm boy because he accepts the “magic sword” (=Excalibur) from Obi-wan Kenobi in A New Hope[22] which the old Jedi describes as “an elegant weapon for a more civilised age…before the dark times; before the Empire.”[23] In addition, Collins notes that Lucas also draws heavily from twentieth-century American adventure fiction especially pulp science fiction and the frontier stories of the Wild West. Certainly, the world of Coruscant which appears in Episodes I-III and the end of Episode VI in its latest cut; an “entire planet [that] is one big city,”[24] seems to resemble Asimov’s Trantor in the Foundation series and Han Solo appears to be straight out of the stock western as he “handles his laser gun with all the skill of Wyatt Earp in a number of shoot-outs.”[25] Furthermore, the space battles between Imperial and Alliance ships evoke “earlier cinematic depictions of World War II aerial dogfights between fascist and allied forces.”[26] However, at the core of the films there is a more fundamental historical conceptualisation of myth and its (re)generation. Lucas claims in the voice over commentary to A New Hope that:

“my original inspiration on…[Star Wars] was…to use mythological motifs to create a whole new kind of myth that was very updated and contemporary so I used the Saturday Matinee serial as my vessel to put this barrel of mythological motifs together.”[27]

Consequently, Luke’s and his father’s journeys can be interpreted at an elemental level which, in part, promulgates a static view of human nature, although, as Lucas notes above, the stories rely on a modern matrix which seems also to acknowledge the fluidity of human nature over time. These elemental heroic journeys are ones of “initiation (through ordeals/trials), and recovery and return (to a triumphant victory).”[28] One could also include redemption in the case of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader as he is restored to his previous good self by destroying the Emperor at the saga’s climax. These journeys are historically related to ancient narratives of “internal human maturation, with emotional and psychological battles…expressed in terms of obstacles such as monsters to be tamed and military combats to be won.”[29] The Star Wars saga can hence be read as an attempt to revitalise elemental notions of narrative and reassert them through a modern vehicle in order to bring fragments of some perceived lost past into the discourse of the present. There are both psychological and anthropological dimensions to Lucas’s myth generation yet it also relies heavily on historical understandings as it borrows from a disparate and varied corpus of narratives that span large sections of history. That the films were/are so popular attests to Jameson’s view that there is an American yearning to return to more innocent times.[30] However, as Jameson also notes this cultural engagement with nostalgia maybe indicative of an inability “to focus on…[the] present.”[31]



Yet, the saga is more than just a reinvigoration of old stories or an attempt to commodify the past it is also an historically informed left-leaning political critique. One of Lucas’s primary kernels of inspiration for Star Wars came from an historical interpretation of the Vietnam War as he states in the audio commentary to the Phantom Menace that:

“having grown up in the shadow of the Vietnam War the issue of a primitive society confronting a technologically advanced society has fascinated me because that was the main event that was going on…during my college years and the fact that human determination and human spirit could overcome these vastly superior armies actually I found to be rather inspiring as a human being. I think that is one of the main themes that has gone through all of the Star Wars films.”[32]

So during the creation of Star Wars it was this primary theme: one that explores the spaces of collective American trauma,[33] the Vietnam conflict, which became intermixed with a larger political critique that according to Lancashire involves a:

“commentary on American and international politics and economics, past as well as present, and on the rise and fall of political empires in…an ongoing, cyclical process in human history, based on greed/appetite, aggressiveness, hatred, and fear.”[34]

Kaveney suggests that Star Wars fails to engage interestingly with the historical process arguing that for Lucas “history is entirely a function of biography – the Republic falls and is replaced by the Empire solely…because Palpatine is, and Anakin Skywalker becomes a bad man.”[35] However, Kaveney’s statement fails to account for the historical knowledge of politics that is imbued within the films and the metaphorical significance of personal political corruption as it relates to the political system as a whole. Star Wars presents an “archetypical political situation (rebellion against tyranny)”[36] which resonates loudly with the American history and the American self-image myth of it being a “freedom loving nation which originally established itself by rebelling against an oppressive British Empire”[37] Yet, the films also depict the shift from democracy to dictatorship and the (dystopic) role of corporations within in the sphere of political influence. Discussing the politics of Star Wars in the audio commentary of Revenge of the Sith Lucas notes the anxieties which inform his political critique stating that they were:

“based on history. All of Star Wars is reasonably political…sometimes the politics are confused and muddled in terms of the way people see it which is the way most people see politics but it is because people are confused and muddled people don’t want to have anything to do with it. Of course if they don’t want anything to do with it that’s why they end up turning to somebody to take over and clean it all up. So the involvement here of the Trade Federation and the Commerce Guilds and all these corporations who are basically having too much influence over the Senate which…[prevents] them…from being…able to do their job is actually what starts this whole mess and Palpatine is able to utilise that corruption and that greed on the part of the Trade Federation to further his purposes. He is the one that is encouraging the Trade Federation to separate from the Republic and take a bunch of the systems with them…but all that doesn’t really become apparent till you see that he has been using everybody and everything to…achieve the ultimate power.”[38]

Furthermore, in the commentary which accompanies Attack of the Clones Lucas elaborates on the tyrannical seeds that potentially exist within democratic state formations where democracy can transform into dictatorship. Lucas claims that:

“this idea of democracy being given up…in a time of crisis; you see it throughout history whether its Julius Caesar or Napoleon or Adolf Hitler. You see these democracies under a lot of pressure…in a crisis situation who end up giving up a lot of the freedoms they have and a lot of the checks and balances to somebody with a strong authority to help get them through the crisis…its not the first time a politician has created a war to stay in office.”[39]

This situation resonates clearly with our time however it also reflects the milieu of the text’s original conception when Richard Nixon was trying to amend the American constitution in order to stay in office. More generally though, it alludes to the potentiality of fascism and totalitarianism emerging in all strains of political formation and thought even within a liberal sphere. One of the key messages in Star Wars, which is based on historical precedent, relates to this connection between political naivety, disinterest and complacency and the danger it may present for a democratic order in times of “crisis:” a situation which itself may be manufactured and/or utilised for political expediency by an authoritarian demagogue.




The politics of Star Wars is also imbued with a critique of “unrestrained economic or political greed.”[40] The new prequels in particular, Episodes I-III explore the dystopic nexus between “the intergalactic Banking Clan”[41] the Trade Federation, the Commerce Guild, the Techno Union and the Corporate Alliance and the representational political sphere of the film. These space capitalists, whose greed is manipulated by Palpatine/Darth Sidious, are represented by sick and dilapidated looking aliens. Even though it should be remembered that Lucas himself is now the head of a large corporation, the inclusion of this critique of human greed resonates with contemporary and historical concerns about the escalating power and influence of big scale Capitalism and the immorality/amorality of self-interest as a primary mode of cultural organisation. Greed as an antagonistic force however has always been at the centre of the Star Wars saga. Han Solo, totally “fixated on financial reward,”[42] is a self-interested character in Episode IV as is Lando Calrissian in Episode V, however these characters are ultimately redeemed when they reject the value systems of their old selves. The texts are also populated with other greedy figures like scavenging Jawas, unrestrained Tusken Raiders, Bounty Hunters and the obese, slug-like Jabba the Hutt (=greed/lust incarnate).[43] The culmination of this is that that the films, as Lancashire suggests, provide us with a reflection on the:

“dark-side profit/appetite emphasis of contemporary First World democracies: with the focus on an America whose leaders emphasize corporate profit making as an ultimate good and rely for security and power on innovative and massive military technology.”

Thus, there is a strong left-leaning economic and political critique about greed both personal and systemic which is at the heart of the Star Wars message. This political view however is also inherent in another of the saga’s main thematic concerns: technology.



Much like Lucas’s first feature THX 1138 (1971), a film which depicts a future subterranean world of humans living in an oppressive and alienating technological milieu,[44] the Star Wars movies also explore the thematic binary of humanity and its relationship to machinery. In doing so the films speak to modern post-capitalist concerns regarding the place of technology (=the human creation) in relation to the human (=the creator) in a hyper-industrialised world order where:

“[o]wing to the extensive use of machinery and the division of labour, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character…He becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous and most easily acquired knack, that is required of him…”[45]

Within this framework that Marx describes, that being the “state of society in which the process of production has the mastery over the man, instead of being controlled him,”[46] the figure of Darth Vader comes to embody humanity ultimately estranged from any authenticate, whole self. This is because Vader represents an unearthly interface between decayed/damaged partial humanity and technological life support apparatuses and prosthetic appendages, or as Kenobi’s character declares to Luke: he is a being “more machine than man; twisted and evil.”[47] In the novelisation of Return of the Jedi this depiction of Vader’s estranged humanity is echoed in the third person narration as it states that “Vader felt complete at the Emperor’s side. Though the emptiness at his core never left him.”[48] Furthermore, in the voice over commentary that accompanies The Phantom Menace Lucas elaborates on his interest in his continued exploration of the humanity/technology binary claiming that:

“I like technology, I use technology, but at the same time I understand the failings of technology. You can’t rely on technology for everything so I have this dual nature in the movies: the friendly human good technology of Artoo and Threepio and the evil technology of the battle droids…I am constantly playing with those two ends of the dilemma…I am trying to promote the human spirit even if it exists in a droid.”[49]

Although, the films are themselves highly technological constructions which in their own respective contexts relied on the most advanced technical knowledge available in order to represent their artificial universe, as Meyer notes, the texts “explicitly and implicitly criticize faith in technology at every possible turn.”[50]



A clear theme that emerges is that “technology is not to be trusted, for it corrupts human capacity and judgement.”[51] Consequently, the technology utilised by the Rebel forces appears inferior to the Empire’s super weapons. Indeed it is the small, battered and filthy rebel fighters that destroy the Empire’s apocalyptic Death Star in Episodes IV and VI. It is Luke who turns off his computerised targeting device in A New Hope and instead “trust[s] [his] feelings”[52] to aim his proton torpedo at the two metre wide exhaust port. Meyer also notes that:

“[t]he Empire’s equipment never fails; its weapons never misfire, the scanners never report false information and the faceless stormtroopers (also part of the machinery of oppression) never disobey. Yet the Empires forces are always frustrated by the smaller forces, less sophisticated weapons…”[53]

The film’s protagonists seem to invest time and care in their technology incessantly modifying it to suit their requirements. In The Empire Strikes Back one of the rebel soldiers says that they are “adapting [their speeders] to the cold.”[54] The shots that depict the rebel hangers often reveal them to be hives of maintenance and work, Chewbacca attempts to reconstruct the dismembered C3-PO in Empire, and R2-D2 who is identified as a “malfunctioning little twerp”[55] is rebuilt after being damaged in A New Hope. Han Solo’s Millenium Falcon is described by Luke, when he first sees it, as a “piece of junk”[56] and is “constantly beset by all kinds of technological failures,”[57] like its faulty hyper-drive. However, the Falcon is utilised to escape Imperial pursuit on a number of occasions through innovative, human improvisation like entering a dangerous asteroid field and landing on the back of the command tower of an Imperial Star Destroyer in order to avoid detection. This contrasts sharply with the mass production ethos inherent in the Empire’s and Trade Federation’s technological epistemology as all of their equipment appears brand new, or lacks the weathered appearance of the rebels paraphernalia, is produced en mass and is endlessly utilised with an expendable throw away mentality like the Imperial commanders who themselves “function as replaceable cogs in the Imperial machine,”[58] murdered by Vader for their failures and replaced in battlefield promotions by “terrified underlings.”[59]


The films thus explore a modern philosophical, post-capitalist concern relating to the moral use and place of technology in relation to its human creators. The Empire is depicted as subsumed by its technological constructions; the epistemologies of their mass production ethos have become embedded in their own hierarchies and ways of knowing and the objects of their creation have thus come to subjugate them whereas the rebel forces utilise technology as an appendage to their own innovative ends: their aging used technology is ample to achieve the ends that they require of it. The rebels, at least in part, appear to have mastery over their creations whereas figures like Vader are lost in a dehumanising interface with the machine that Marx describes in the aforementioned quotation.




So it has been argued here that the Star Wars saga contains many historical understandings. Firstly, the films, relying on historical knowledge, draw heavily on a varied body of myth, incorporating American elements of the western, the war film and pulp entertainment with older European narratives as well as conceptualised/theorised universalist threads. It has also been suggested that the artistic milieu which Lucas was operating in when he first conceived Star Wars was one of pessimism, uncertainty and reaction which must have partially influenced the saga’s apparent nostalgic ethos which entailed an intention to restore/reinvigorate some elements of a past order in the realm of the contemporary. However, it has also been argued that these films contain reasonably left-wing criticisms about our own context because of the content of the political and economic critique which is encoded in the films. Also, the metaphysical aspect which explores the relations between humanity and its technological creations can be read as Marxist as it brings into question notions of the philosophical regarding the relationship between humanity and its own systems and creations.



[1] In Tara Brabazon “We’ll Always Have Tatooine? Star Wars and Writing a Popular Memory,” Australian Journal of Communication, vol.26, no.2, 1999, p. 1. Will Brooker argues that this “endurance is due partly to an extension of the ‘official’ narratives, most obviously through the sequels, director’s cuts and prequels, but also through secondary texts such as CD-ROMs, comics and novels, which often bear only a quasi-canonical status due to their sanctioning by a production company but lack the director’s ‘personal’ authorial stamp.” See “Internet Fandom and the Continuing Narratives of Star Wars, Blade Runner and Alien,” in Annette Kuhn (ed.), Alien Zone II: The Spaces of Science Fiction Cinema, London: Verso, 1999, p. 50.

[2] See Anne Lancashire, “Attack of the Clones and the Politics of Star Wars,” The Dalhousie Review. vol. 82 iss.2, 2002, pp. 235-253, <;, (accessed 25 August 2006).

[3] In Lincoln Geraghty, “Creating and Comparing Myth in Twentieth Century Science Fiction: Star Trek and Star Wars,” Literature/Film Quarterly, vol. 33, no. 3, 2005, pp. 196-197.

[4] Empire of Dreams: The Story of the Star Wars Trilogy, dirs. Edith Becker and Kevin Burns, Twentieth Century Fox, 2004, on Star Wars Trilogy: Bonus Material, 20th Century Fox, 2004.

[5] Robert McMahon, “Contested Memory: The Vietnam War and American Society,” Diplomatic History, vol. 26, iss. 2, 2002, pp. 159.

[6] Geraghty, “Creating and Comparing Myth,” p. 197.

[7] See Steve Murray “Television Review: Movies of the ‘70s Swept Away Old Hollywood [Home Edition]” Atlanta Journal – Constitution, 20 August 2003, <; Fmt=3& VInst=PROD& VType=PQD& RQT=309& VName=PQD&>, (accessed 25 August 2006).

[8] An allusion to Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution, London: Temple Smith, 1972.

[9] James M. Curtis describes this passing of the old Wild West as it is represented within Lucas’s American Graffiti. See “From American Graffiti to Star Wars,” Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 13, iss. 4, 1980, pp. 595-596.

[10] Taxi Driver, dir. Martin Scorsese, Columbia Pictures, 1976.

[11] In Fredric Jameson, The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System, Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1995, p. 19.

[12] In H. Bruce Franklin, “Visions of the Future in Science Fiction: Films From 1970 to 1982,” in Annette Kuhn (ed.), Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema, London: Verso, 1995, p. 19.

[13] Lancashire, “The Politics of Star Wars.”

[14] The Making of American Graffiti, dir. Laurent Bouzereau, Universal Pictures, on American Graffiti/More American Graffiti: Drive in Double Feature, dirs. George Lucas and B.W.L Norton (1973, 1979) 2004.

[15] In Curtis, “From American Graffiti to Star Wars,” p. 592.

[16] “Chapter 43: The Wolfman,” American Graffiti.

[17] Fredric Jameson notes that Star Wars pays “homage to a great number of films and film types.” In “Postmodernism and Consumer Society.” Hal Foster (ed.), The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, Port Townsend: Bay, 1983, p. 105: cited in Geraghty, “Creating and Comparing Myth,” p. 198.

[18] See Robert G. Collins, “Star Wars: The Pastiche of Myth and the Yearning For A Past Future,” Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 11, iss. 1, 1977, pp. 1-10.

[19] Leo Braudy, in Empire of Dreams: The Story of the Star Wars Trilogy.

[20] See, Ibid.

[21] Collins, “Star Wars: The Pastiche of Myth,” p. 2.

[22] Ibid., p. 3.

[23] “Chapter 14: Your Father’s Lightsabre,” Star Wars: Episode IV, A New Hope, Twentieth Century Fox, (1977, 1997) 2004.

[24] “Chapter 27:Arrival on Coruscant,” Star Wars Episode I, The Phantom Menace, dir. George Lucas, Twentieth Century Fox, (1999) 2001.

[25] In Collins, “The Pastiche of Myth,” p. 6.

[26] Lancashire, “Politics of Star Wars.”

[27] “Chapter 4: Artoo’s Mission,” Star Wars: Episode IV, A New Hope.

[28] See Lancashire, “Politics of Star Wars.”

[29] In Ibid. Northrop Frye claims that “the quest-romance is the search of the libido or desiring self for a fulfillment that will deliver it from the anxieties of reality but will still contain that reality. The antagonists of the quest are often sinister figures, giants, ogres, witches and magicians, that clearly have a parental origin; and yet redeemed and emancipated paternal figures are involved too; as they are in the psychological quests of both Freud and Jung.” See “Third Essay: Archetypal Criticism,” Four Essays, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957, p. 193.

[30] Jameson, “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” p. 116: cited in Geraghty “Creating and Comparing Myth,” p. 198.

[31] Jameson, “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” p. 117: cited in Ibid., p. 197.

[32] In “Chapter 36: Wipe Them Out,” Star Wars: Episode I, The Phantom Menace, (1999) 2001.

[33] McMahon notes that “[t]he persistent conceptualization of the Vietnam War as a haunting, tragic event for the United States has become a staple of…retrospectives…” In “Contested Memory: The Vietnam War and American Society,” p. 160.

[34] See Anne Lancashire, “Politics of Star Wars.”

[35] Roz Kaveney, From Alien to the Matrix, London: I.B. Tauris, 2005, p. 113.

[36] Lancashire, “Politics of Star Wars.”

[37] Ibid.

[38] “Chapter 34: Birth of the Empire,” Star Wars: Episode III, Revenge of the Sith, dir. George Lucas, Twentieth Century Fox, 2005.

[39] “Chapter 37: Emergency Powers,” Star Wars: Episode II, Attack of the Clones, dir. George Lucas, Twentieth Century Fox, 2002.

[40] Lancashire, “Politics of Star Wars.”

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Geraghty’s description of this film is succinct and applicable here. He states that THX 1138 “depict[s] a future dystopian world where humans were reduced to bottom-line budgetary numbers…” See “Creating and Comparing Myth,” p. 197.

[45] Karl Marx, “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” The Communist Manifest, ed. Frederic L. Bender, New York: W.W. Norton, 1988, p. 61.

[46] Karl Marx, Capital: A New Abridgement, David Mclellan (ed.), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 50.

[47] “Chapter 15: A Certain Point of View,” Star Wars: Episode VI, Return of the Jedi, dir. Richard Marquand, Twentieth Century Fox, (1983, 1997) 2004.

[48] See James Kahn, “Return of the Jedi,” Star Wars Omnibus, London: Warner Books/Little, Brown and Company, 1997, p. 398.

[49] In “Chapter 36: Wipe Them Out,” Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.

[50] In David S. Meyer, “Star Wars, Star Wars, and American Political Culture,” Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 26, iss. 2, 1992, p. 106.

[51] Ibid.

[52] “Chapter 45: Assault on the Death Star,” Star Wars: Episode IV, A New Hope.

[53] Ibid.

[54] “Chapter 4: The Rebel Base,” Star Wars: Episode V, The Empire Strikes Back, dir, Irvin Kershner, Twentieth Century Fox, (1980, 1997) 2004.

[55]Chapter 6: Lost in the Desert,” A New Hope.

[56] “Chapter 25: The Millenium Falcon,” A New Hope.

[57] Meyer, “Star Wars, and American Political Culture,” p. 107.

[58] Ibid, p. 106.

[59] Ibid.


Author: Canaan Perry

Suggested citation: C. Perry, ‘Conceptualisations of History in George Lucas’ ‘Star Wars’ Saga’, Space Zoetrope: Commentaire Filmique, Litteraire et Culturel, Available URL:
-in-george-lucas-star-wars-saga/, 2007.


time, memory and time travel in chris marker’s ‘la jetée’

•June 25, 2007 • 10 Comments


Chris Marker’s 1962 photo-roman La Jetée utilizes the well established science fiction narrative convention of time travel as a vehicle for exploring dimensions of the human psyche and condition. The text can thus be read as a personal and psychological journey through portrayed conceptualisations of reoccurring traumatic memory and subjective, temporally displaced imaginings. However, La Jetée also explores and evokes notions of cultural time and social remembering by utilising aspects of the documentary film form, in conjunction with its more experimental French New Wave techniques, to appeal to broader societal traumas and memories. In this essay I will survey some of the content and techniques employed in the film in relation to the ideas it projects regarding memory, time and time travel.


Set mainly in a 1960s derived extrapolation of Paris La Jetée could be described as a documentary from the post-apocalyptic future. The text is a portrayal of the journeys of a man “marked by an image of image his childhood”[1] through time, who, in experiments conducted by the scientific proprietors of the network of underground tunnels that the survivors inhabit attempts to: “call the past and future into the rescue of the present.” Despite this science fiction flavoured dystopian backdrop Hagopian notes that La Jetée may be Marker’s only fiction film however it is just barely that.[2] Ffrench also suggests that the text is “much closer to the documentary than to fiction.”[3] These views can be explained in part because in the text there is a portrayal of archival still images, in a montage of dissolves, of European cities and buildings in varying states of ruin during World War Two encouraging the viewer to (re)witness and recall the now photographically frozen horrors of the civilian bombing campaigns over Europe during the war. The melancholic yet grandiose choral music that accompanies the sequence further encourages the audience’s feelings of terror and dismay. The text also employs the sounds of muttered whispering in German in conjunction with the images of the scientists who perform the time experiments in an endeavour to evoke the audience’s memories of the German occupation of France and the Vichy collaboration.[4] In addition, it is important to consider that Marker was working in the context of the Cuban Missile Crisis: a milieu that generated rampant ideas and anxieties with regards to the apocalyptic.[5] Thus, as Hagopian and Ffrench suggest, La Jetée is not only a work of (science) fiction but it is also an attempt to construct something akin to a documentary: a kind of artefact from the future. With regards to this, the text can be interpreted as a venture to induce socially contextual memories from a near past and elucidate their potential reoccurrence in the near future.



Marker’s employment of the photo-roman or cine-roman filmic form[6] leads to La Jetée being almost entirely composed of filmed still photographs, dissolved and cut together, complemented by a voice over narrative and music; Uroskie, conveniently for my purposes here, describes it as a non-chronological, differential or irrational montage.[7] The grainy black and white photographs and the slightly shaky format of the stills projected at twenty-four frames per second[8] summons a nostalgic quality paradoxically imbuing this “documentary” with a future past tense characteristic which seems to drain “away [nearly] all spatial movement”[9] further complicating the audience’s conceptualisations of memory and time. The sequence which portrays the traumatic, circular founding and ending moment of the protagonists existence: the image of a woman’s face and his own death on a pier at Orly airport that he was “granted to see as a child” makes the viewer aware of the correlation between still photography and human memory in the modern, industrial world where human inventions, like the camera, have led to modified/altered ways of being. In particular, the text draws to our attention the phenomena where still photographs have come to be incorporated into and consequently interlinked with the human memory process. The text thus expounds an apparently Marxist understanding of subject and object arrangements within the confines of the modern domain where the objects of industrial productive processes have come to demonstrate “a mastery over man,” or the subject, “instead of being controlled by him.”[10] Or as Ffrench eloquently notes, in relation to the use of the still image’s deployment in La Jetée: it is “as if our subjective histories were thus determined by the memory-life of the image itself, carrying and expressing history.”[11]



Within the confines of this framework La Jetée has a thematic concern with the concept of stillness which functions as a figurative template for further exploring perceptions of memory, time and mental ordering. The text is heavily populated with statues and stuffed animals[12] and the narration at the beginning of the film refers to the images of the protagonist’s traumatic memory as being “bound to the sight of a frozen sun.” The museums in the film function as a metaphorical construct for the subjective momentary ordering of memory, time and meaning as the protagonist’s own memory is likened to that of a museum.[13] As the narration notes: “more images pour out and mix: a Museum, perhaps the museum of his memory.” The sequence which transpires in the natural history museum corresponds with the successful mastering of the time travel experiment in the narrative as the scientists “hit the bullseye” and the protagonist may stay in the past “without trouble.” The taxonomical ordering inherent in the museum display and its deployment in this sequence signifies to the audience that the protagonist’s memory and sense of time, at this point, is organised in some sort of coherent fashion.[14] Additionally, this state of mental ordering overlaps with the relationship that he has with woman where time is described as stopping, as, the narration declares that “they have no memories, no plans [and] time builds itself painlessly around them,” and the natural history museum is described as being filled with “ageless animals.” The prevalent utilisation of stillness in the text can hence be interpreted as another means of exploring the realm of human memory. In particular, it makes the audience aware of the frozen or timeless moments of one’s own life, or what Callenbach calls the moments of “ordinary life [and] the ordinary loves of our present”[15] which like the film’s protagonist are framed by the past and the future, or more specifically, life and death.

Thus far, I have argued that the text is imbued with notions of cultural time, evokes an awareness of the modern correlation between photographs and memories and appears to show a predilection for the theme of stillness in its content and form. However, I would like to further elucidate here how the text explores ideas of human memory as a mode of exploring the existential. Consequently, I will suggest here that the trans-temporal voyages of the unnamed protagonist in La Jetée can be read as a purely metaphorical construction[16] for exploring the movements of a person through varying temporal dimensions of their own memory, imagination and subjectivity. The time travel technology is given no exposition in the film and the voice over narration on several occasions calls into question the material validity of the protagonist’s journeys alluding to them as if they were fantasies or dreams. The narration states that “he often wondered if he had ever seen” the woman’s face “or if he had dreamed a lovely moment” and that he was unsure “whether he…made it up or whether he [was] only dreaming.” Also, the future that the protagonist visits is an imagined abstraction represented by a cryptic map and series of faces against a dark background: a world the protagonist rejects preferring to be cast back into the realm of his memory. The text thus plays on the modern conventions of time trave narratives by displacing the object or device that would allow travel through time, such as H. G. Wells’s time machine,[17] and instead invests in the subjective human mind, with its potential network of memories and imagined abstracted futures, as the ultimate vessel for time travel. With regard to this Marker has perhaps located the original vessel of time travel narrative: the human mind per se. Although we as a modern audience may associate time travel narratives with a set of sub-generic conventions which exist within the speculative fiction super-genre (=science fiction, horror and fantasy) the idea that one could go into the past or future, I suspect, probably has its origins in the beginnings of human narrative itself. I assume this because humans have the ability to project their own present psyche, in temporally complex ways, into their own memories and their imagined futures. There is some evidence of this ability for subjective temporal displacement in language as future events can be talked about in past tense terms.[18] Thus, the cerebral movements through time, as opposed to space, which the protagonist performs in the text, are an attempt to arouse awareness in the viewer of something that is a component of the human condition that is probably not often consciously thought of. Furthermore, La Jetée brings to the audience’s attention the idea that time travel itself is perhaps only a modern encoded variant of this human ability to cognitively displace one’s self in a temporal sense.



It has been argued here that La Jetée may appear to be a science fiction film however its relationship with this genre is not straight forward as the text encapsulates techniques that are more akin to a documentary than to a fiction film. It has also been stated here that the text is in part an exploration of social memory, particularly with regards to its evocation and portrayal of European, particularly French, societal traumas during World War Two. Furthermore, I have claimed that the text demonstrates a fascination with the theme of stillness or frozen time within the confines of its content and its photo-roman form. In addition, I have suggested that Marker has displaced the modern mechanical device as the means of time travel and replaced it with what I believe is the progenitor of time travel narratives: the temporal displacement ability which is inherent in the human mind.


[1] Quotation from La Jetée and Sans Soleil (Sunless): Two Films by Chris Marker (Chris Marker, Nouveaux Pictures, England, 2003). All subsequent quotations are derived from this release.

[2] Kevin Hagopian “Film Notes,” Penn State University, (accessed 9/08/06).

[3] Patrick Ffrench, “The Memory of the Image in Chris Marker’s La Jetée,” French Studies, vol. 59, no.1 (2005), 32.

[4] Hagopian explains that “Marker…remembered the ideological inconsistencies and bloody paradoxes of the Vichy years with special clarity. Marker was a youthful fighter with the Resistance…” Also see Ffrench, 36 who states that: “[o]ne could also ask why the proprietors of the post-apocalyptic underground tunnels, referred to as a ‘camp’, whisper in German. The reference to an underground network of caves beneath the Palais de Chaillot (which hid a Resistance re´seau during the Occupation), and the thematics of imprisonment, establish a resonance with the Occupation.”

[5] Noted in Ffrench, 35.

[6] Eli Friedlander notes that: “The film…identifies itself as a cine-roman, thus as belonging to a low and popular genre.” In “La Jetée: Regarding the Gaze,” Boundary 2, vol. 28, iss. 1 (2001), 79.

[7] Andrew V. Uroskie, “La Jetée en Spirale: Robert Smithson’s Stratigraphic Cinema,” Grey Room, iss. 19 (2005), 62.

[8] Ffrench states in relation to conceptions of movement in the film that: “[t]he withdrawal of the images of the film from the illusion of continuous motion induced by shooting and projection at twenty-four frames a second serves to emphasize, not to deny, the dynamism inherent in cinema.” See, 34.

[9] In Uroskie, 62. Furthermore, in the film itself the voice over narrator explains that “space was off limits.” For additional discussion on movement in the film, particularly regarding the movement of the women’s eyes, see Chris Darke, “Eyesight,” Film Comment, vol. 39, iss. 3 (2003), 49-50.

[10] See Karl Marx, Capital: An Abridged Edition, ed. David Mclellan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 50. This relates to Marx’s theories on the fetishism of commodities, pp. 42-50, in which items of production take on mystical and transcendent qualities which seem well beyond their apparent “use- value.”

[11] Ffrench, 33.

[12] Noted in Ffrench, 33.

[13] Ffrench, 33.

[14] Contrary to my understanding Uroskie argues that “in [the] vision…[is] the quintessential image of man’s futile attempt to classify, order, and understand a history of the world outside his own making.” See 63.

[15] Ernest Callenbach, “Review: La Jetée,” Film Quarterly, vol. 19, no. 2 (1965-1966), 50.

[16] This is adapted from Matthew Ruben’s analysis of Terry Gilliam’s film 12 Monkeys; a text which is derivative of La Jetée. See, “12 Monkeys, Postmodernism, and the Urban: Toward a New Method,” in Keyframes: Popular Cinema and Cultural Studies, ed. Amy Villarejo (London: Routledge, 2001), pp. 314-315.

[17] H.G. Wells’s technological mechanism in The Time Machine (1895) is an archetypical example. However, Wells’s machine is also limited to travelling through time and not space. For an historical overview and argument about the modern development of time travel in narrative see Paul Coates “Chris Marker and the Cinema as Time Machine,” Science Fiction Studies no. 43, vol. 14 (1987), 307-315.

[18] Derived from a definition in Eugene E. Loos, Susan Anderson, Dwight H. Day Jr, Paul C. Jordan and J. Douglas Wingate (eds.), Glossary of Linguistic Terms, (2004) LinguaLinks
(accessed 04/09/06).


Author: Canaan Perry, 2007.

Suggested citation: C. Perry, ‘Time, Memory and Time Travel in Chris Marker’s ‘La Jetée’, Space Zoetrope: Commentaire Filmique, Litteraire et Culturel, Available URL:
-in-chris-markers-la-jetee/ , 2007.

mental states and narrative line in ‘brief encounter’ and ‘the red shoes’

•June 20, 2007 • 3 Comments




Although films have other significant properties, most prominently sound and music, they are by nature a visual medium[1] which can be utilised to graphically depict mental and psychological states. However, much like the way we perceive our own lives, through forms of narrative, film relies on some sort of story telling in order to make sense of the collection of disparate images. The images are thus forced into a narrative context: film directors and their collaborators attempt to structure the disparate pieces as to generate a story and a particular audience response. Despite this however, because of film’s reliance on visual montage it can be perceived as dream-like in nature which makes it technologically suited to an exploration of representational mental modes and frameworks. But can these technologically perpetuated mental transgressions function as a paradigm outside of the narrative structure of the story? Are the depictions of mental states in film more important than the narrative line per se? In this essay I will explore some of the complexities which arise in the light of these questions in relation to two 1940s British Films: David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945) and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948). I will attempt to ascertain here whether these films demonstrate a predilection for mapping representations of the human mental state which is more prevalent or important than the narrative line alone.


Brief Encounter is the story of “a doomed, and ultimately unconsummated, extra-marital love affair between Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) a middleclass housewife with children, and local married doctor, Alex Harvey (Trevor Howard).”[2] Although tempted by the possibility of a transcendent romantic relationship, Laura ultimately resists and returns to the certainty of her dreary domestic realm and Alex takes his family to South Africa in order to end the affair. Within the film’s diegetic confines, the nodes which stem from the modern transit network, such as the tea rooms of train terminals and the city structures which house cafes and escapist entertainment like the movie theatre come to represent a space where new possibilities and chance meetings can occur but may never be ultimately realised. In The Red Shoes, Powell and Pressburger show the audience how the female domain of expression is limited by patriarchal forces and structures. The female protagonist Victoria Page (Moira Shearer), a ballerina, who has been adopted by Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) to dance in his elite ballet group, is forced to choose between the totalitarian and misogynistic desires/demands of Lermontov and the requirements of her domestic life with her husband Julian Craster (Marius Goring) who is an aspiring composer. The film alleviates this narrative complexity by depicting Vicky committing artistic suicide, as she jumps off a balcony and damages her body, presumably beyond the point of repair. These essential narrative structures, which are in essence constraints, that I have outlined here, actually promote the filmic exploration of the characters mental states in both texts. It is these cerebral depictions which I am interested in here.


In Brief Encounter the settings, which primarily revolve around a network of railways, come to be imparted with psychological significance. The film begins with an image of a speeding locomotive and it is trains that bring the lovers together and also drag them apart. The film’s depiction of the transit system with its interconnected nodes of potential encounters echoes Berman’s statement regarding the modern human condition with its forms of “vital experience – experience of space and time, of the self and others, of life’s possibilities and perils.”[3] The system of railway networks which stretch like a multi-pronged leviathan throughout post-industrial England are a by-product of modern discourses of mobile consumerism and function within a realm of strict time constraints and cartographic spatial epistemologies. Within the confines of the text these modern discourses which underpin the transport system and the rail system network itself, come to metaphorically represent Laura’s mental state of potential freedom and actual entrapment.


Frankfurt School thinkers Horkheimer and Adorno note that Enlightenment discourse offers, on the one hand, a potential for human emancipation but, on the other hand (and in practice), a new mode of human enslavement and control. They state that the:


[S]ystem as a whole tends to evolve towards destruction and domination. Moments of triumph for the ideas of freedom are atypical, and act as temporary barriers to this overall trend. This is how and why the liberation of the individual from feudalism only leads to a new enslavement.[4]


Brief Encounter is laden with evidence of a similar dialectal pattern, as Laura is granted certain freedoms via her use of the rail network. She is able to shop, have lunch and see films by herself and engage in potential social and/or intimate human relations because of her mobility which is primarily generated by her utilisation of rail within the film’s diegesis. Laura could not have met her secret (potential) lover if she had not travelled on rail to escape the docility of her domestic realm. These events tend to exhibit an emancipated state. However, the film also demonstrates how the modern world of networked transport affirms her social ensnarement. Rail constructs a space of new possibilities and altered subjectivities, but at the same time limits them because the strict temporal constraints of the train timetable. The ringing of the bell in the station always signals to the characters that their meeting is over. In one of Laura and Alex’s planned encounters, Alex does not show up till very late and is running to catch his train. Laura says frantically “Your train you’ll miss it…Quickly, quickly; the whistles gone,”[5] and Alex briskly runs up the platform and onto the carriage. As soon as Alex is on his train Laura hears the announcement that “the train to Ketchworth is about to leave from platform three” and she quickly runs to catch it. If she does not go home she jeopardises her economically stable/safe marriage: “we’re a happily married couple” Laura states in the first person voice over narration that runs throughout the course of the film (discussed further below). The metaphorical significance of the rail network thus parallels Laura’s mental sense of freedom and enslavement. It represents her potential to develop a new romance, on the one hand, and her inability to ultimately realise its potential because of the social taboos regarding adultery. The depiction of Laura’s mental state in this regard seems to serve as an adjunct to the narrative line rather than as something that stands alone as the dilemma of choosing between the known and safe and the unknown and exciting lie at the heart of the story.


In The Red Shoes Victoria Page is torn between two male figures who limit her freedom. Like Laura, who is caught up in the metaphorical web of the railway junctures and literal social mores, Victoria is caught in the web of patriarchal expectations and demands. Her employer Boris Lermontov initially appears in the film as a benevolent father figure for all of his staff but is later revealed to run his ballet company like a totalitarian dictator, seeking to “ignore” the limitations of human nature. He becomes obsessed with making Victoria dance the ballet of The Red Shoes based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale in which a female victim is danced to death by the devil’s red shoes. It is as if Lermontov embodies a misogynistic fantasy were women are physically punished or destroyed by supernatural forces for the sake of the male viewer/admirer. When confronting Victoria about her relationship with his apprentice composer Julian Craster, Lermontov states: “you cannot have it both ways. A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love can never be a great dancer. Never.”[6] When Victoria leaves the ballet company to support her husband’s burgeoning career she is, however, drawn, like Laura into the mundane realm of domesticity.


The Red Shoes explores Victoria’s psychological torment which emanates from this bipolar diegetic context. In the film’s fourteen minute depiction of the ballet of The Red Shoes the spectacle of colour cinema represents Victoria’s journey through the cerebral pathways of her trauma. Buscombe notes that the introduction of colour to film “was not accepted [by contemporary audiences] as connoting reality”[7] rather it came to be associated, in general, with the unrealistic or the fantastic. Popular films like The Wizard of Oz (1939) may have played a role in this perception, as its fantasy world setting is depicted in colour and the banal diegetic “real” world of Kansas is black and white. Certainly, the ballet section of The Red Shoes seems surreal in nature and achieves fantastical, visual marvels that could not be achieved in a regular stage production. For example, Victoria sees a photographically imposed motion image of herself wearing the red shoes in the shopkeeper’s window. During the part of the ballet where we see the shadow of the devil pulling at her feet the film cuts between images of the devil shoemaker, Lermontov and Julian which represents Victoria’s mental anguish about the situation she is involved in within her diegetic life. It is as if the forces of male control are pulling her back and forward and she has come to be torn and compartmentalised by the love she feels for dancing, an arena controlled by Lermontov, and the realm of intimate love she shares with Julian where she is unable to dance. As the ballet continues the painted backgrounds become more abstract and impressionistic.[8] Wild streaks of blue, sparsely detailed structures of black and pools of red suggest that Victoria is dancing within a realm beyond the sphere of diegetic reality. The mise en scène thus comes to embody the audience perception of colour that Buscombe describes above: one of fantasy outside the realm of reality. Thus for the viewer the ballet evolves into a mental and emotional journey into the afterlife for the character Victoria is playing but it also tends to mirror Victoria’s own psychological frame of mind where the many social forces are pushing her towards choosing between her art and her domestic duties as the wife of Julian. Once again it is difficult to say that these effects that map some of the complexities of human thought and emotional conflict are more important than the narrative per se, rather they seem again to compliment the story rather than fully depart from it.


Another more literal exploration of the psychological that is woven into Brief Encounter which we may discuss here is portrayed through Laura’s voice over narration. Unlike The Red Shoes where the ballet and its colourful pastiche seem to represent the character’s thought processes it is Laura’s melancholic utterances that intimately involves the audience in her mental torment. At the beginning of the film, which is also temporally the end, Laura is on the train with another verbally active character that has no insight into what Laura is feeling. The voice over narration says that:


This can’t last. This misery can’t last. I must remember that and try to control myself. Nothing lasts really, neither happiness nor despair. Not even life lasts very long…I want to remember every minute, [of the affair] always.


Although there is a particular focus here on sound, the close up image of Laura’s face which fills a large proportion of the lens, in conjunction with the voice, provides the audience with another, more literal, representational of a mental state. The focus on the head does not just reveal the still facial image of the actor, it also emphasises that this voice emanates from the “head” (=the mind) of the character. However, what we should be alerted to here is how the narrative is mediated through a representational mental state. We as an audience come to understand the diegesis and narrative through Laura’s thought patterns. The other woman who talks “nineteen to the dozen” on the train is actually drained out by the voice over narration. This indicates that the medium of thought is utilised by the film to generate a coherent narrative rather than being a stand alone effect.


Another feature of both texts that alerts us to a psychological emphasis revolves around the conflict between the film’s diegetic realities and the character’s ideals. In this regard the narrative and the depiction of mental states can be seen to be clearly connected. In Brief Encounter, for example Laura begins to tell herself that there is a potential future for her and Alex. As we see her face peering out of the train’s window she says in the voice over narration that she:


Felt quite wildly happy. Like a romantic schoolgirl, like a romantic fool…he said he loved me and I said I loved him…I imagined him holding me in his arms; imagined being with him in all sorts of glamorous circumstances.


As Laura’s fantasy unfolds the image of her face in the train carriage window dissolves into a blurry dream sequence of Alex and her dancing, attending an opera in Paris, rowing in Venice, travelling in cars and leaning together on the rail of the ship. Her visions, however, “dissolve” as she arrives at her stop in Ketchworth and all her “silly dreams” disappear. For Victoria, the dream of living to dance, as she describes to Lermontov when he hires her, is also an ideal which cannot be realised in her diegetic context. This is because the patriarchal forces which figuratively pull her back and forth force her to choose between domestic obscurity and fame. The shattering of her body in the fall from the balcony is a physical manifestation of her inner turmoil which is a direct result of the psychological conflict she feels between her idealistic individual desires and her socially constructed notions of husband and state servitude. As Geraghty notes a common theme which arose in post-war British cinema relates directly to this “problematic split between women’s social role and their individual needs.”[9] The desire to explore one’s own requirements as opposed to what was believed to be good for the state is clearly encoded in the narrative dilemmas of these films. The conflict between self and society which Victoria and Laura face are indeed depicted as mental in nature in both films but these effects are proponents of the narrative line. This is because the complexity of their diegetic situations and the movement towards resolution are in fact essential narrative elements. It is the mental complications they each encounter that the narrative seeks to resolve/correct. Thus, it is difficult to argue that the two film’s depictions of mental and psychological are of more important than the narrative flow of the texts.


Thus far it has been argued that the films actually utilise representative mental explorations as adjuncts to the narrative. However, one of the initial questions I asked related to whether the mental components could stand alone outside of the story structure. Do these depictions threaten the narrative line in any way? Certainly, the ballet section in The Red Shoes could be read as a solitary text which in, some regards, I have done here although I have attempted to state that it is connected to the overall narrative structure of the film. In Brief Encounter the hold on diegetic reality is perhaps a little more tenuous. Unlike The Red Shoes with its ballet section we do not have another level of performance inside of the story. Rather, we are given a temporally looped narrative in which the outcome of Laura’s love affair is shown as ending tragically right at the beginning of the film. So, we as an audience already know from the outset that this love affair is doomed. Laura as narrator, at times, may seem untrustworthy as she retrospectively seems to be reliving the emotions of the events. The dream sequence which I have outlined above gives a good example of the narrator’s excited tone as she talks almost maniacally about satisfying her romantic desires with Alex. In this regard the mental mode comes to dominate the logic of the narrative line, as it begins to suggest to the viewer that the consummation of the affair may actually transpire, although it does not. Brief Encounter’s utilisation of a more subjective narrative mode make it subtly more psychological in its depiction than the more omnisciently conceived narrative which we see in The Red Shoes where the ballet section is a kind of departure from the diegetic reality of the rest of the film. If we consider too that Laura is narrating an account of some events which have just transpired over the last few weeks the film comes to look like an edited dream sequence that has been transferred to film and which she has overdubbed her voice on top of. Although, an exploration of this is beyond the scope of this work this idea that the film is a documented memory sequence suggests again that it is a text with a number of representational psychological components.


In this essay I have attempted to explore some of the problems which arise when one encounters the representation of psychological states in cinema. Although, the two texts I have discussed here are both rich in mental explorations, they are also structured narratives in which filmic technique and experimentation is often an adjunct to the story itself. Certainly, it appears at times that the narrative of Brief Encounter could collapse because of the extreme emphasis on the main character’s subjectivity which is projected through representations of traumatic emotion and memory. However, the narrative tends to reassert itself throughout the course of the text, particularly at the end when she “returns” to her husband. It can thus be said that the exploration of mental states is not really of greater importance than narrative line but they are effective tools of narrative embellishment. In The Red Shoes I have argued that the ballet section is impressionistic and becomes an important mode for exploring the female protagonist’s mental dilemma but it is interwoven with the story rather than being something the overrides the narrative line per se. The greater social issue however, that underpin this essay relates to the alienation of the two protagonists. The miserable outcomes for the two female protagonists within their diegetic realities seems to highlight a post-war social trend which encouraged women to put aside their individual desires for happiness in order to fulfil more mundane social functions. This is not to say that films necessarily promote these ideologies but they do seem to document it.



[1] Gregory Currie suggests that “[f]ilms, like other kinds of pictures, are meant to be seen. The cinema…is a visual medium. A work in the cinematic medium is an artefact with certain properties accessible to sight, and no one has made appropriate contact with the work unless she is visually acquainted with these properties.” See Image and mind: Film, philosophy and cognitive science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 3.

[2] In Claire Langhamer, “Adultery in Post-War England,” History Workshop Journal 62 (2006), 87.

[3] Marshall Berman, All That Is Solid Melts into Air (London: Verso, 1982), p. 15: cited in Christine Geraghty, British Cinema in the Fifties: Gender, genre and the ‘new look’ (London: Routledge, 2000), p. 22.

[4] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, (London: Verso 1979), p. 224.

[5] Brief Encounter (David Lean, Park Circus, UK, [1945] 2006). All subsequent references are to this edition.

[6] The Red Shoes (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Carlton, UK, [1948] 2001). All subsequent references are to this edition.

[7] See Edward Buscombe “Sound and Colour,” The Film Cultures Reader, ed. Graeme Turner, (London: Routledge, 2002), p. 81.

[8] It is interesting to note that Sheila Benson describes the entire film as impressionistic. “It’s hard, looking back from our ultra-realistic era of movies, to imagine the impact of that audacious, impressionistic film of 1948.” See “The Red Shoes 1948,” Film Comment 26, 3 (1990), 39.

[9] In Christine Geraghty, British Cinema in the Fifties: Gender, genre and the ‘new look’ (London: Routledge, 2000), p. 82.


Author: Canaan Perry

Suggested citation: C. Perry, ‘Mental States and Narrative Line in Brief Encounter and The Red Shoes‘, Space Zoetrope: Commentaire Filmique, Litteraire et Culturel, Available URL: <
r-and-the-red-shoes/>, 2007.


an exploration of time and memory in george lucas’ ‘american graffiti’

•June 18, 2007 • 4 Comments

George Lucas’s American Graffiti (1973) is a film that was made in the wake of popular American movies like Easy Rider (1969) which was about and for a young audience. After the closing of the big American film studios in the 1960s and their acquirement by corporations, a “new wave” of young film makers, many of who had just graduated from film schools on the West Coast, were given the opportunity to create motion pictures for what was seen as an economically lucrative youth audience:[1] Lucas was among this new generation of filmmakers. His second feature film, American Graffiti, was in his own words an attempt to document “cruising” culture in small town America before the supposed loss of innocence brought about by the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and the proliferation of Hippie culture and British Invasion rock music.[2] The film thus functions as an impressionistic type of nostalgic, and partly reactionary, cultural memorabilia which invites its viewer to recall and witness, in filmic terms, a bygone, but apparently naïve, American generation at the crossroads of social transition. At least some of the film’s original target audience may also have been a group who, like Lucas, lived in both the late 1950s and early 1960s at the nexus of the two cultural epochs described above. In this essay I will explore how the aesthetic form of American Graffiti shapes audience perceptions of time (in terms of the past) and cultural memory. I will begin here, however with a brief critical overview of the text for the sake of establishing a context for my further discussion regarding the past and cultural memory.


American Graffiti is set in 1962 in small town U.S.A and is filmed almost exclusively at night. It is aurally accompanied by a late 1950s and early 1960s rock ‘n’ roll sound montage and also the bizarre verbal ramblings of radio Disc Jockey Wolfman Jack. The text follows the fragmented quests[3] of four male youths at the tail end of this 1950s style youth culture before the advent of America’s full involvement in the Vietnam War, the rise of new left radicalism and spread of the Hippie movement. The small town, or “neon wasteland,”[4] could be an impressionistic remake of Lucas’s own home town of Modesto. Although, as James M. Curtis notes, we do not know for certain where the narrative actually takes place only when and the setting is a sort of universal after hours “High School U.S.A.[5] Steve Bollander (Ron Howard), last year’s class president, and the more philosophical/introspective Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss) are set to leave town and go to college the next morning. They spend the film within the confines of their separate narratives deciding whether they will go or not. Steve has issues he tries to resolve with his girlfriend, head cheerleader Laurie (Cindy Williams) about his desire to see other people while he is away. Curt spends the night trying to find out the meaning of a blonde woman he briefly sees in a white Thunderbird who mouths through a car window that she loves him. The two other characters, tough guy John Milner (Paul le Mat) and the nerdish 17-year-old Terry Fields (Charlie Martin Smith), nicknamed the “Toad,” who are in fact going nowhere in the immediate future outside of narrative, spend the night traversing the town streets (=the cruising circuit) trying to pick up girls and flaunt their cars in a repetitive loop. Milner, who accidentally picks up a 12-year-old girl named Carol (Mackenzie Phillips), is challenged to a drag race by an out of town stranger in a ’55 Chevy called Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford). Within the depictional hierarchy where cars types are encoded with social standing,[6] Terry the Toad has been promoted from Vespa rider to car driver, as Steve leaves him his ‘58 Chevy to look after when he goes to college. Trying to flaunt his new social status, Toad spends the night with a girl he picks up called Debbie (Candy Clark). The film closes with Curt’s character leaving for college and Steve staying behind to be with his girlfriend who is distressed at the idea of him leaving. The visual plates at the end of the film which are composed of black and white photographs that conjure up a nostalgic image of a high school yearbook tell us that Steve becomes and insurance agent in Modesto, while Curt becomes a writer who lives in Canada. Milner dies two years later in a car accident and Terry the Toad goes missing in action while serving in Vietnam in 1965. The main females in the film, Laurie, Carol and Debbie do not receive any mention in these plates that precede the final credits of the film which underscores the male-centric nature of this text.[7] Although, Laurie and Debbie’s characters are revisited in greater detail in the sequel More American Graffiti (1979) which Lucas did not direct.




An obvious surface aesthetic in the film that helps shape an audience’s conception of the recent past is related to the settings and music which adorn the mise en scène. The first shot we see in the film, in which the opening credits roll, is of Mel’s Drive in Restaurant; a preserved 1950s style “burger joint” adorned with neon lights. This shot is aurally accompanied by Bill Haley and the Comets’ Rock Around the Clock (1955); a song which carries with it the significance of helping to spark the 1950s rock ‘n’ roll consumer trend. These initial visual and aural frames, in combination with the music, and the majestic but darkening blue sky in the background with clouds of tinged purple, immediately inform the audience that this text will be partaking in a kind of nostalgic but fantastic time travel. The setting encourages an audience to recall a possible past life at the end an epoch before the massive cultural shifts which occurred in 1960s America. Early in the film Milner says that:


The pickin’s are really gettin’ slim. The whole strip is shrinking. Ah, you know, I remember about five years ago, take a couple of hours and a tank full of gas just to make one circuit. It was really something.[8]


Later when he “picks up” Carol, a Beach Boys song comes on the radio and he switches it off in disgust saying, “I don’t like that surfing shit. Rock ‘n’ roll’s being going down hill ever since Buddy Holly died.”[9] The film thus entertains a certain degree of longing for this apparently lost past. Milner’s statements seem to reflect knowledge of an impending change which his character is unable to accept. Lucas himself states that:


Like most kids who grew up in the valley I had a strong interest in cruising. When I got to college and started studying a lot of anthropology I realized that that was a uniquely American mating ritual involving automobiles. When I came up with the idea of doing the movie, it was in the ‘60s, [there]…was the Hippie culture, drugs – cruising was gone. [So,] I really felt compelled to document the whole experience of cruising and what my generation did as a way of meeting girls, and what we did in our spare time.[10]


The main thing which we can see here in Lucas’s statement regards his interest in documenting the era. Most certainly there are documentary elements inherent in the film, in particular Lucas’s choice of techniscope film stock, which is “one step up from 16mm, in terms of negative size.”[11] The utilization of this adds a certain degree of realism to the appearance of the film. Ron Howard, who is well known today as a film maker, states that techniscope is:

…wide screen, but it uses only half of the 35mm frame. The effect is all the grain and desaturation of 16mm. So in a way it has this documentary 16mm look, yet the wide screen scope.[12]

In addition to this, Lucas also allowed the actors to improvise their lines. The inclusion of these improvised performances in the final assemblage of the text leads to a few less than perfect verbal pronunciations in the actor’s performances.[13] For example, there is a scene where Debbie’s character waits in the car as Toad goes into the drug store to try and by some liquor without an identity card. As Toad walks toward the car she says “did you get it?”[14] a number of times and on the final part of the utterance she makes an obvious mistake with her pronunciation. The inclusion of these imperfect utterances has the effect of lending a certain degree of realism to the narrative and to the simplistic archetypical characters which will be discussed further below.




Yet, as he claims in the quotation above, by the time Lucas came to make this film in the early 1970s what he wished to document no longer existed which actually makes any discussion of text’s reality problematic. The consequence of this is that Lucas reconstructs a bygone era out of his own glorified memory through visuals, musical montage and perhaps some distilled cultural expectation of what the period should look like on film. In doing so, the text takes on a kind of hyperreal representation of the era rather than that of a documentary which potentially leads to an audience constructing an odd version/vision of the past. This distilled past world appears like a highly decorated and carefully assembled scrap book collage of cultural iconography and sounds. Marcel Proust notes that a voluntary recall (in this case a filmic representation) of memory can be “prolonged at will, for the voluntary memory requires no more exertion on our part than turning over the pages of a picture-book.”[15] This particular quote seems pertinent in relation to this film which utilizes aspects of cinema to construct a particular assemblage of the past that is largely visual and aural in nature.




An aspect to consider here, with regards to assemblage and the recreation of the past, relates to the cars themselves, many of which would have already been collector’s pieces by the time this movie was being made. One reviewer writing just after the film’s release notes that Lucas demonstrates a predilection (or “super cool”) for “marshalling all the hardware”[16] of the era as a means of signifying the period he is representing. These cars used for the street shots and the sites for character’s narratives in the text are all heavily waxed and polished, and appear very well cared for. Although, this could relate to the social status with which the cars are imbued with in the movie’s diegesis, it does also underscore that there is a worth that these vehicles enjoy beyond their own context and immediate use value. The shiny luster of the cars is further amplified by the overhead lighting in the dark streets where a large proportion of the movie is filmed. The automobiles glow luminously against the non-specular backdrops of the drab brick work shops that border the streets of the cruising circuit. Moreover, many of the shots in the film are taken from cameras mounted on the cars themselves or another car which is driving parallel to it. For the sake of the camera operators who could not obtain sufficient depth of field with the regular street lighting at night there are lights on the floors of the cars which point upwards[17] towards the people inside and subtly, but nonetheless oddly, illuminate the drivers during the car sequences of the film. The filmic illumination of internals and the externals of the vehicles imparts an odd hyperrealism, perhaps even surrealism to the text, as the cars come to be endowed with both a fetishized and an alien aura. The effect of this is both a romanticized notion of 1950s vehicles and also one of technological domination as the vehicles are imbued with a visually applied signification that transcends their use value as items of transportation. Walter Benjamin notes something akin to this in his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936), in which he states, “in photography, process reproduction can bring out those aspects of the original that are unattainable to the naked eye yet accessible to the lens, which is adjustable and chooses its angle at will.”[18] This notion seems particularly relevant to the depiction of the cars in the movie as the text reveals or highlights something alien about them.[19] Furthermore the film puts the car at the forefront of this past era and gives it an historical significance beyond that of anything else. Consequently, the viewer is encouraged to see the cars as being a major signifier of the entire epoch.




Another way the text engages with and shapes an audience’s conception of time and memory is through its thematic exploration of the teenager at the dawn of adulthood just after finishing high school. In this way the text asks us to consider this moment in our own lives when we left the certainty of the school environment for the uncertainty of post-adolescence with its culturally expected shift to maturity and independence. This is much like the theme Lucas utilizes in his first feature THX-1138 where the protagonist THX-1138 (Robert Duvall), who is living in an underground, dystopic, drugged-up, totalitarian society, leaves the “ant hill” to see what is on the surface. The theme is also carried on again in Lucas’s next feature film Star Wars (1977) where farm boy Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) leaves his mundane environment to have planetary adventures. American Graffiti deploys archetypical characters to explore this particular theme and uses the fragmented narrative style to contrast some generic choices that different people may have made in their own life. Jan Dawson notes that the text is like a:


…typical evening of adolescence remembered, but also one which marks the ending of an age of innocence – one which decisions are made which will irrevocably determine the course of the characters’ adult lives. After the affectionate nostalgia comes the moment of reckoning, when we as spectators are invited to recognize that yesterday’s ephemera shape tomorrow’s destinies.[20]


When considered in this way, the film can be seen as utilizing the characters allegorically as a means of exploring the social shift between the “innocent” fifties and the tumultuous sixties. So our own experiences are drawn into the thematic concerns of the text as we are in some ways asked to consider some generic period of uncertainty with relation to our social and historical context(s).


Although, I have documented here to some extent the nostalgic strands that run through the film there are certainly threads which are difficult to describe as purely conservative. As described above, it is Curt who breaks out of the small town to go to college and later takes up the romantic role as a writer. After he goes to the Freshman Hop (=the dance or prom) Curt begins his quest to find out whether he should or should not go to college. In search of the mysterious woman he sees in the white T-Bird he eventually encounters the disc jockey Wolfman Jack at a secret radio station who tells him to “get his arse in gear…[and see] the great big beautiful world out there.”[21] It is Curt’s decision to leave and go to college that seems to be the most privileged in the text, as, he has the luck of meeting the Wolfman, whom no one else in the text’s diegesis has ever seen before. He is also granted an ethereal/spiritual type of vision in the form of the woman in the white T-Bird and addition is also given a romantic future as a writer. This is not the case for the other characters. Steve and Laurie are represented as the archetypical popular kids of the school, with Steve being class president and Laurie being the head cheerleader. At the Hop they dance together while the rest of the teenagers form a circle around them. They seem to be at the social apex of high-school. Yet, they are depicted as unhappy and bicker constantly under their breath while the other students watch on with no knowledge of their conflict as Steve says to Laurie the he “can’t believe he ever asked her out.”[22] That Steve becomes an insurance agent in small town Modesto seems to indicate to the viewer that he personally amounts to nothing of any real interest. That Milner described as wanting to be “seventeen forever”[23] dies in a car accident two years after the narrative is the text’s punishment for his inability to accept change of any sort, although, his death could also be read as an embodiment of the passing of cruising culture per se. Toad who ends up serving in Vietnam and is ultimately reported missing in action seems again to mirror Steve in his uncritical acceptance of social mores. Thus, it is Curt’s decision to leave which we, as an audience, are most encouraged to empathize with. But perhaps it is only the decision that many in an audience wish they had made at the crossroads of youth and adulthood, as, we can safely assume here that many probably ended up in the more mundane and practical trappings which Steve becomes locked into.



It has been suggested here that George Lucas’s film American Graffiti is a work that engages in the field of cultural nostalgia. In this regard, the text has some reactionary threads which lament the passing of 1950s and early 1960s cruising culture. I have also made the suggestion that the representation we are confronted with here pays some homage to realism but ultimately is an assemblage made after the era had passed and consequently is imbued with an odd, almost hyperreal depiction of the time period, in which the car is the dominant feature. I have also stated that the film personally invites us to recall aspects of our own past through the utilization of archetypical characters whose generic features allows them to be easily aligned with people and experiences we have encountered in our own lives. Finally, and despite the texts obvious deployment of nostalgia, I have also argued here that Curt who adopts difference and change is the character most privileged by the text, particularly in relation to the reactionary John Milner who is punished for his inability to grasp the unknown.



[1] For an accessible overview of this history see A Legacy of Filmmakers: The Early Years of American Zoetrope (Gary Leva, US, Warner Bros., 2004), on THX-1138: The George Lucas Director’s Cut (George Lucas, US, Warner Bros, 2004).

[2] See “Chapter 1: Genesis of the Project,” in The Making of American Graffiti.

[3] The mythological dimension s of the text are well articulated by Alice Sodowsky, Roland Sodowsky and Stephen White in “The Epic World of American Graffiti,” Journal of Popular Film, 4: 1 (1975), 47-55.

[4] Sodowsky et. al. “The Epic World of American Graffiti, 47.

[5] Curtis states that “American Graffiti has no definite milieu. We know when the action takes place, but not where. The [films promotional] posters asked, ‘Where were you in ’62?”…[and] the music remind[s] us that the time is the early sixties, that awkward transitional period in popular culture between the death of Buddy Holly in 1959 and the Beatles’ first American tour in 1964.” See “From American Graffiti to Star Wars,” Journal of Popular Culture, 13: 4, (1980), 590.

[6] Jan Dawson notes this point by stating that: “It’s the automobile which determines the hierarchy here, and the uncontested king is John Milner, driver of a ’32 custom Ford duce coupe, at 22 still patrolling high-school territory. At the bottom of the heap is Terry Fields, a 17-year-old with pimples, spectacles and an ignominious Vespa.” In “Film Reviews: American Graffiti,” Sight and Sound, 43: 2, (1974), 116.

[7] Lucas states in The Making of American Graffiti that the film was always “about these four guys,” and actor Cindy Williams states in response to this that his decision to leave the female characters out of the epilogue “smacked of the times.” See “Chapter 5: Production Stories” (Laurent Bouzereau, Universal, US, 1998) on American Graffiti: Drive-In Double Feature (Universal, US, 2003).

[8] In “Chapter 3: Mel’s Drive-In,” American Graffiti (George Lucas, Universal, US, 1973).

[9] “Chapter 16: Driving is Serious Business,” American Graffiti.

[10] In “Chapter 1,” in The Making of American Graffiti.

[11] Described by Haskell Wexler, the lighting consultant on American Graffiti, in “Chapter 4: Production Begins,” Making of American Graffiti.

[12] See “Chapter 4,” Making of American Graffiti.

[13] Described in “Chapter 5,” Making of Graffiti.

[14] In “Chapter 23: At the Liquor Store,” American Graffiti.

[15] Marcel Proust, Time Regained, trans. Andreas Mayor, (London : Chatto and Windus, 1970), pp. 231-232.

[16] Richard Combs, “Feature Films: American Graffiti,” Monthly Film Bulletin, 41: 480/491 (1974), 23.

[17] Haskell Wexler who was a lighting consultant of the film describes this and the overhead lighting employed in the street shots in “Chapter 4,” of The Making of American Graffiti.

[18] Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” (accessed 24/05/07), 3.

[19] With reference to Lucas’s previous film (a dystopic science-fiction narrative entitled THX-1138 [1971]) Richard Combs argues that Lucas substitutes “the homely merchandise of the past for the electronic clutter of the future.” See “Feature Films: American Graffiti,” Monthly Film Bulletin, 23.


[20] Dawson, “Film Reviews: American Graffiti,” Sight and Sound, 16.

[21] “Chapter 43: The Wolfman,” American Graffiti.

[22] “Chapter 18: The Last Dance,” American Graffiti.

[23] “Chapter 2: You Can’t Stay 17 Forever,” American Graffiti.


Author: Canaan Perry

Suggested citation: C. Perry, ‘An Exploration of Time and Memory in George Lucas’ ‘American Graffiti’, Space Zoetrope: Commentaire Filmique, Litteraire et Culturel, Available URL: <
and-memory-in-george-lucas-american-graffiti/>, 2007.

elements of masculine myth in two british films from the 40s

•June 18, 2007 • Leave a Comment

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and The Third Man (1949), directed by Carol Reed, are two films which incite elements of male-centric myth as a template for their narrative generation. The Third Man utilises the genre of the western and the detective crime thriller as a mode of existential exploration which culminates in a kind of narrative dead end, at least in terms of generic audience expectations. Whereas, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp begins with a well known caricature and uses it as a means of documenting the decline of an older mode of male military behaviour and the romantic notions, and narratives, associated with the high stage of British military conquest and imperialism. In this essay I will interrogate how these two texts critique and/or endorse the male-centric narratives on which they are based.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp has been described as a “Technicolor epic which chronicles the military career of Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey) from the turn of the century to World War Two.”[1] The introductory sequence immediately makes the viewer aware of its major thematic concern. This is the contrast between a more contemporary pragmatic mode of British warfare, brought about by the total military ethos precipitated by the outbreak of World War Two, and the apparently gentile codes of past conflicts in which Britain was entangled. In a depicted military exercise, in which the Home Guard, headed by Candy, is supposed to defend London against the regular army, led by Lieutenant ‘Spud’ Wilson (James McKechnie), the younger Wilson decides to launch a pre-emptive strike which is reflective of the contemporary period of war that was characterised by the unannounced German invasion of Poland in 1939 and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941. “Captured” by the younger forces in the Royal Bathers Club, Candy and the younger soldier verbally and then physically fight and fall into a Turkish bath, which instigates a flashback sequence that makes up the majority of film beginning with Candy’s experiences just after his service in the Boer War up till the present encounter already described. The text follows Candy’s life and his close friendship with a German officer called Lieutenant Theodore Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook), focussing on their male bonding over their shared interest in a more gentile military modus operandi and their adoration with the image/appearance of a woman which the text expresses in triplicate form through three characters all played by actor Deborah Kerr; Edith Hunter – Theo’s wife, Barbara Wynne – Candy’s wife, and Angela ‘Johnny’ Cannon who is Candy’s driver. There are disputed interpretations regarding whether the film actually laments the passing of the old mode of warfare or celebrates it and this is intertwined with its historical context in which the British government, and Winston Churchill himself, became concerned with film’s content.[2] At the very least, I would argue that Colonel Blimp documents a shift in military mentality from the romantic pre-modern mode to a more functionalist modern method which became more prominent in Britain at the outbreak of World War Two.

The Third Man presents the audience with the moral complexities inherent in a nihilistic environment. This is what Nicholls describes as “a city up for grabs.”[3] Set in post-war Vienna divided between the presence of four “governing” military powers amidst the social, political and economic wreckage of World War Two, the naive American pulp fiction writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) arrives to meet his childhood friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles), who has offered him work, only to find that Harry is dead. After, discovering there was a mysterious third man present at the time of Harry’s death Holly sets about applying his simplistic black and white morality template from his cheap western fictions to the chaotic milieu in which he has become entangled and seeks to find the true circumstances of Harry’s death. After encountering a number of desperate Viennese citizens and developing some type of relationship with Harry’s girlfriend Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), Holly discovers that Harry is a racketeer who has been profiting by selling watered down penicillin which has caused a number of people to die. Furthermore, Holly discovers that Harry is, in fact, alive and being sheltered by the Russian forces in their occupation zone. After an encounter with Harry, in which Harry reveals his nihilistic fantasy to profit at any cost, Holly is denied the usual happy ending we associate with widely consumed American fiction, like Holly’s own western pulp literature, and Hollywood film productions. After a chase scene through the sewers of the city in which Harry really dies the audience is only granted an ambiguous narrative cadence with the final scene of the film denying Holly “the girl.”

A common thread that is a feature of both texts relates to the complexity of expressing widely perceived masculine notions of morality against a backdrop of modernity. In other words, both films incite some form of male mythology but also express the difficulty of conveying such a narrative in an overly modern context, where rationality and functionalism are predominant modes of expressing value. As Chapman points out the origins of the Colonel Blimp character, which Candy represents in the film, are rooted in a cartoon character created “in 1934 by David Low, a left-wing New Zealand-born political cartoonist”[4] and this character was invented to “satirise the British ‘Establishment’ and the political outlook of the ruling élite.”[5] This caricature of a plump figure, garbed only in a towel with a large moustache in the 1930s and 1940s came to be a socially identifiable symbol of “political reaction and military incompetence.”[6] Also, the term ‘blimpery,’ more generally, embodied the same critique of an old military mindset which was publicly seen as having no utility in the modern world of total warfare where rules of conduct where not as paramount as survival. That Powell and Pressburger used this caricature which was associated with this critique of a British tradition where war was suppose to be conducted “by the National Sporting Club rules,”[7] at least initially, indicates to the audience that the text is going to ridicule Candy’s character. Chapman argues in his article that the “film was to urge commitment to the philosophy of total war.”[8] Considering the film as a whole, this is a difficult argument to make, as we, as an audience, see a montage of Candy’s entire professional life from his perspective, in which he treats even his enemies with a certain degree of humanity. Certainly, Candy’s view, where “clean fighting and honest soldering”[9] win the day does not change or develop throughout the course of the film, rather it is his quickly modernising environment that seems to make him obsolescent. When he is due to give a speech on the radio, in the wake of the Dunkirk retreat, the broadcaster states that the authorities think his views are “a little ill timed and might be better postponed”[10] which is really a polite way of saying that his old fashioned views have no place in the current context. By this point of the narrative we have already been exposed to a long montage of Candy’s career and witnessed his unbending dedication to his moral code and it is thus difficult for an audience not to lament the passing of what he represents. So, although the text does not necessarily endorse Candy’s world views it certainly makes us aware that he is committed to them which in itself is an admirable quality that could stimulate audience empathy towards his character and perhaps encourage us to question the immorality of a total war philosophy.

The Third Man also utilises a similar narrative style in that it places its character, who has a simple but clear sense of morality, in a chaotic, realistic modern environment where his presupposed ideas about good and evil are not so clear or easy to apply. When the protagonist Holly confronts Harry on the Prater Wheel in the deserted amusement park, Harry reveals the reasoning behind his opportunistic behaviour. Although Harry’s reasons may be conceived as inhumane and immoral (or amoral) by an audience, his explanation is laden with calculated rationality which is cold but not illogical. For example, in the text Holly, still drawing on his traditional template of morality, asks Harry to consider the victims of his scam and Holly responds, utilising a Bourgeois accountancy model:

Victims? Don’t be melodramatic. Look down there. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you £20,000 for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money? Or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax. It’s the only way you can save money nowadays.[11]

To further justify his position Harry attempts to “analogize himself and totalitarian governments”[12] where the masses are seen as malleable, saying that:

…nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don’t, so why should we? They talk of the people and the proletariat, and I talk about the suckers and the mugs. It’s the same thing. They have their five year plans and so have I.[13]

Finally, after discussing politics and economics Harry reveals his overly nihilistic world view from his demi-god like position in the cart of the Prater Wheel saying that:[14]

…it’s not that awful – you know what the fellow said…In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed – they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock. So long, Holly.

Dern, in an article where he compares the depiction of Harry Lime to that of Stoker’s Dracula (1897), suggests that Harry expounds a Nietzschean perspective vis-à-vis humanity because “he believes he occupies a privileged position that derives from superior ability.”[15] Confronted with this depiction of Harry Lime, Nicholls eloquently notes that:

Harry may be the perfect modernist character. After the shifting political alliances of the 1930s and 1940s, the ensuing mass murder, atomic destruction and genocide of the Second World War, popular narrative cinema could have little time for the by-gone simplicity of stories about good guys and bad guys. Harry Lime thus stands as a response to the cultural upheavals of the twentieth century; challenging notions of duty patriotism, loyalty and betrayal which found themselves hanging on by the thinnest of threads following the experience of European fascism.”[16]

Yet, Harry is not just there to challenge us, as we do get a sense in the text that he is an antagonist. After all he dies in the sewers of the Austrian capital, “beneath the feet of ‘those dots’”[17] which he mocks from the Prater Wheel. However, the audience is still confronted with a range of logical sounding arguments which may, at least marginally, justify his actions in a chaotic post-war environment, where modernity, with its utilisation of reason and rationality, played an integral role in the philosophical ethos of World War Two. Holly’s is confrontation with an antagonist who is not simply and irrationally evil, and who is also his boyhood friend, highlights the film’s rejection of Holly’s simplistic moral code which is derived from popular cultural productions. It is as if the text asks us to consider the complexities of applying presupposed and widely espoused notions of morality in a real life environment that has rejected philosophical concerns in favour of the pursuit of outcomes where the means are not as important as the ends.

Although the two films both highlight the complexity of applying morality to an amoral context which leads to narrative complication they are different in terms of their depictions of the protagonist acquiring the love interest. In Colonel Blimp Theo and Candy’s friendship is partly formed over their adoration of the image of the same woman. The trio of characters played by Deborah Kerr Edith/Barbara/Angela are in fact likened to a piece of art or a trophy acquired during hunting. Although, Theo marries Edith; the original incantation of the female character(s), Candy marries Barbara, who is a spitting image of Edith. After the deaths of the two women Candy confesses to Theo that he was in love with Edith. Candy also says that Edith was his “ideal” and all his life he has “been looking for a woman like her.”[18] Candy then takes Theo to his hunting trophy room where a painting of Barbara is the centrepiece among a large collection of displayed animal heads. Candy asks Theo if he “sees the resemblance”[19] between the image of Barbara and the memory of Edith saying that “she was exactly like her.” Moreover, in the car on the way home Theo is driven by Candy’s driver Angela, again another manifestation of the Edith image. Angela turns around to face Theo and says she was chosen by Candy out of “seven hundred girls.”[20] In a close up shot, which assumes Theo’s gaze, a red light illuminates her face from below further signifying that she is a piece of art to be adored by a male viewer. That the text presents Deborah Kerr in triplicate format highlights how the narrative values the male protagonist acquiring the love interest. Rather than design a narrative around the complexities of one protagonist “getting the girl” the text divides her amongst the competing interests to nullify potential character conflict. Her image thus serves as a bonding agent between Candy and Theo rather than one that would lead to them having irreconcilable differences.

The Third Man is much grimmer, or perhaps realistic, in its depiction of the male protagonist acquiring the love interest. The female character Anna is not equated with any artistic ideal as we see in Colonel Blimp. Rather, Anna, like nearly everyone else in the film, is forced to break the law in order to survive.[21] So, like all the other citizens that Holly encounters she is involved in the black market and she also holds fake identity papers. After Holly betrays Harry to the authorities which precipitates the chase scene through the sewers where Harry is killed, the final shot visually helps to promote any preconceived cultural expectations that assume Harry will acquire Anna. We see a scene with a camera facing the centre of a road that is adorned with deciduous trees dropping the last of their leaves and Harry is leaning on a cart at the side of the shot smoking a cigarette with his hands in his pocket. At the centre of the shot Anna walks slowly toward him while he waits looking at her approaching. All of the features of the shot initially tend to reinforce our expectation that she will embrace and kiss Holly which would signify romantic involvement and provide the expected resolution to the film. Furthermore, Holly has just been involved in helping to remove the antagonist, who was Anna’s boyfriend, thus leaving the path clear for them to be romantically involved. However, she walks right past him and denies him the simplistic narrative “right” to live happily ever after in the way that he may have written about in his own pulp narratives. Thus the text, in contrast to Colonel Blimp actually challenges simple, and expected, notions of a male protagonist becoming intimately involved with the female lead character simply because he has performed an act of moral goodness. The Third Man can thus be said to be more critical of tradition male orientated narratives in this respect when compared to Colonel Blimp which splits its female protagonist up among the two male protagonists to allow them both to “get the girl.”

In this essay I have argued that The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and The Third Man are two films which utilise male-centric narrative templates in the process of story generation but both highlight the complexities of telling these types of stories in a modern rational context. This is particularly so with regards to morality, as Colonel Blimp underscores how moral values can shift and become obsolescent in a short period of time and The Third Man highlights the problems of trying to apply simple black and white morality frameworks from popular culture to a real world setting. I have also argued here that in terms of the male acquiring a love interest the texts differ greatly, as Colonel Blimp triplicates the image of the romantic interest to satisfy the narrative requirements, and audience expectations, of the characters and associates her with hunting trophies and art. The Third Man rejects the concept of the male hero getting the girl on the simple premise of him performing some heroic activity and this forces us to consider the more ambiguous nature of our own lives.


[1] In James Chapman, “’The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp’ (1943) Reconsidered,” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 15:1 (1995), 19.

[2] The subject of this intervention is revealed by Ian Christie in his presentation of “The Colonel Blimp File,” in Sight and Sound, 48:1 (1978/1979), 13-14. The historiography regarding this subject is also outlined in detail Chapman “’The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp‘ Reconsidered,” 26-30.

[3] See Mark Nicholls, “The Third Man: Background and Context,” Australian Screen Education, 34 (2004), 93.

[4] In Chapman, “Colonel Blimp Reconsidered,” 24.

[5] Chapman, 24.

[6] Chapman, 24.

[7] “Chapter 2: War starts at midnight!” The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Rank Film Distributors, UK, 1943).

[8] Chapman also notes that a dedication in the shooting script which was omitted from the final film states that: “This film is dedicated to the New Army of Britain, to the new spirit in warfare, to the new toughness in battle, and to the men and women who know what they are fighting for and are fighting this war to win it.” See Chapman, 25.

[9] “Chapter 10: God bless you, Murdoch,” The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.

[10] In “Chapter 14: The Sunday night postscript,” Colonel Blimp.

[11] “Chapter 9: Exhumation,” The Third Man (Carol Reed, British Lion Film Corporation, UK, 1949).

[12] In John A. Dern, “The Revenant Vienna: A Critical Comparison of Carol Reed’s Film The Third Man and Bram Stoker’s Novel Dracula,” Literature/Film Quarterly, 33: 1 (2005), 9.

[13] “Chapter 9: Exhumation,” The Third Man.

[14] Joy McEntee argues that “Harry…is cast as a kind of god. He scales the heights of Vienna in two key scenes: The Prater Wheel scene and the scene in Café Marc Aurel square. Harry’s point of view from the top of the Prater Wheel is godlike. He has the power of life and death over many people, but it is power wielded without compassion.” See “Exalting in the Terribleness of Life: Suffering and Laughter in the Vienna of The Third Man,” Australian Screen Education, 30 (2002), 110.

[15] See Dern, “The Revenant Vienna,” 9.

[16] In Mark Nicholls,“’It’s Harry I’m Planning to Marry’: Oedipal Desire in Carol Reed’s The Third Man,Australian Screen Education, 33 (2003), 133.

[17] Dern, 9.

[18] “Chapter 13: I never got over it,” Colonel Blimp.

[19] “Chapter 13.” Colonel Blimp.

[20] “Chapter 13,” Blimp.

[21] Mark Nicholls states that: “The basic notion of the rule of law is…questioned in the film. The law as cornerstone of society is a concept which appears untenable because, at the very level of enforcement in post-war Vienna, the law has become a divided and compromised idea.” In “Citizens, Friends and Shattered Illusions in Carol Reed’s The Third Man,” Australian Screen Education, 32 (2003), 129.


Author: Canaan Perry 2007

Suggested citation: C. Perry, ‘Elements of Masculine Myth in Two British Films from the 40s’, Space Zoetrope: Commentaire Filmique, Litteraire et Culturel, Available URL: <
in-two-british-films-from-the-40s/>, 2007.