Culture > Movies

Dark side of the force

Movies | Joseph Campbell, Star Wars, and Hollywood's new religion

Issue: "Welfare Reform on Trial," May 3, 1997

Audiences have thronged to the theaters and paid over one-and-a-half billion dollars for the replay of the Star Wars Trilogy. Industry experts hail creator/writer/director George Lucas as a filmmaking genius; retailers are giving him standing ovations; and sociologists claim he has changed the complexion of American popular culture.

While it's true that Mr. Lucas has been responsible for technical inventions that have advanced movie mechanics, in the department of cultural movers and shakers, the spotlight should fall upon the man whose work and opinions not only provided the literary and philosophical substance of Star Wars, but also the rationale for Hollywood's new religion: Joseph Campbell.

I was working in the industry and taking film classes at UCLA when the second film of Lucas's space opera, The Empire Strikes Back, was released. There was no mistaking the anticipation that had built up since the phenomenal success of the first film, and audiences were thrilled with the sequel.

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What those audiences would have been just as astonished to see was the transformation these films wrought inside the entertainment industry. Production executives were astounded at the success of George Lucas's story, with its unfashionably noble characters and religious tone.

Everyone from the head of studio productions to film school students wanted to know his &quotsecret" for success. Mr. Lucas gave credit for the universal appeal and classic structure of his story to his study of anthropology and, particularly, Joseph Campbell's book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Indeed, in 1978, Andrew Gordon of the University of Florida, Gainesville, published an article in Literature/Film Quarterly that traced the parallels between the plot points of Star Wars and the chapters of Mr. Campbell's book.

Here was the growth through trial of the hero, who must come to terms with his father and battle &quotthe dark side." That article and Mr. Campbell's book became the new &quotbible" for industry insiders. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Campbell's archetypes and their mythical potential were being used in story analysis of potential film scripts. Screenplays were evaluated according to how well they fit Campbell's mythical themes.

Combining Jungian psychology and New Age philosophy, Mr. Campbell's ambition was to construct a global theology based on the world's common mythological motifs. According to his theories, all human civilizations have told the same &quotmonomyth," with only minor differences in the details.

As he says in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, &quotThe heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world."

For all of his universalism, Mr. Campbell had little regard for the non-mythological religions of Christianity and Judaism. &quotWhenever the poetry of myth is interpreted as biography, history, or science, it is killed," he says, attacking the biblical insistence on historicity. &quotSuch a blight has certainly descended on the Bible and on a great part of the Christian cult."

As for Judeo-Christian worship, &quotSuch a monkey-holiness is not what the functioning world requires; rather, a transmutation of the whole social order is necessary, so that ... the universal god-man who is actually immanent and effective in all of us may be somehow made known to consciousness."

In an interview with Omni magazine shortly before his death in 1987, Mr. Campbell called for the &quotdissolution" of the three major religions of the West, namely Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. &quotThe future, if there's going to be one, has to be a dissolution of those three systems and an opening up of the horizons to the planet." The clergy, he says, must &quotbegin talking about humanity instead of their own little sect and, instead of saying, 'We have it,' say, 'It is through us, through our religion, that we realize that all people have it.'"

Thus, when Hollywood tries to promote &quotspiritual values," they are often in the Joseph Campbell pantheistic vein. Disney studios, a hotbed of Campbellism, followed his lead in Pocahontas and The Lion King. Even on the Christian-friendly TV show Christy, the Thanksgiving special had to give equal time to the turkey, with a Native American shaman teaching a boy to thank the spirit of the turkey for giving up its life for ours.


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