BCMCR Event Series: The History and Politics of Star Wars – 24th April 2024

By Reuben Mount on May 10th, 2024

On 24th April, Dr Chris Kempshall joined us to explore the many ways in which the Star Wars franchise has drawn upon and utilised real-world events and history. Starting with George Lucas’ desire to tell a ‘Vietnam War in space’, Star Wars has always been focused on repurposing contemporary events into a science fiction setting. This talk will not just explore the films  but also cover material like books and computer games to show their responses to real world moments. It will also touch upon Kempshall’s own work producing ‘historical’ material for the Star Wars universe.


Event report from Dr Chris Kempshall:

Star Wars is both an entity and a franchise that is continually interested and invested in the past. As the opening crawl of the films tells us, the events of a ‘Galaxy far, far away’ that we have watched, read, and played in games transpired ‘a long time ago’. We, as the audience, are instructed right at the beginning that everything we are about to see has already happened and are a matter of historical record.

But Star Wars the franchise is not of the past. It is probably the biggest entertainment product on the planet and, as this talk aimed to showcase, has always been inspired by the events of our own history. From the very outset of conceiving of the idea that would eventually become Star Wars George Lucas was interested in creating a ‘Vietnam War film in space’ that would allow him to transmit his concerns about America’s slide towards authoritarian fascism to the movie-going audience.

The original trilogy of films released between 1977-1983 were heavily influenced by Lucas’ own politics and his understandings of the past. The same can be said for the prequel trilogy released from 1999-2005 with the last two films, Attack of the Clones (2003) and Revenge of the Sith (2005), both being released in the midst of the War on Terror that followed 9/11 and bear the hallmarks of Lucas’ critique of President George W. Bush.

However, Star Wars is not just composed of films, it is also found in countless novels, comics, and computer games. And each of these also feature different ways of understanding and rationalising the events of the real world be they from our own history or, alternatively, contemporary to the creation of each new product.

This talk aimed to show how Star Wars is a ‘cultural weathervane’ for the prevailing mood within America, particularly during the 1990s and early 2000s. It drew upon films, games, and novels to show how Star Wars reacted to the fall of the Soviet Union that left America as the lone superpower, to genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia, and to the events of 9/11. In all of these cases the different media that made up Star Wars were often able to react quickly due, in part, to the shared understanding of the ‘rules’ that govern the Star Wars universe and the centralised process of continuity control.

This presentation then, finally, moved on to explore the ways in which I have effectively jumped the fence from being an academic historian who analyses Star Wars to now being one who writes for them. As part of a team of co-authors I worked on the ‘in-universe’ book Star Wars: Battles that Changed the Galaxy and will shortly release Star Wars: The Rise and Fall of the Galactic Empire. Both of these books explore the history within Star Wars in ways which draw upon my own expertise but also my understandings of the construction of history, be it our own or that of a galaxy far, far away.


Video of Full Event: BCMCR Event Series – 24th April 2024


Speaker bio:

Dr Chris Kempshall is a public historian and author. He has published widely on the First World War and the portrayal of history in computer games. He is also the author of several books either about or for the Star Wars franchise. His book The History and Politics of Star Wars: Death Stars and Democracy (Routledge, 2022) gave a deep academic historical analysis of the Star Wars franchise. He also co-authored the officially licensed book Star Wars Battles that Changed the Galaxy (2021) published by DK. His latest book Star Wars: The Rise and Fall of the Galactic Empire will be published by DK Books in July 2024

He is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Exeter and a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Army Leadership, Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.


You can find more from Dr Chris Kempshall in his printed works:

– Star Wars: The Rise and Fall of the Galactic Empire (forthcoming, 2024) – https://www.dk.com/uk/book/9780241655047-star-wars-the-rise-and-fall-of-the-galactic-empire/
– The History and Politics of Star Wars: Death Stars and Democracy (Routledge, 2022) – https://www.routledge.com/The-History-and-Politics-of-Star-Wars-Death-Stars-and-Democracy/Kempshall/p/book/9781032318875
– Star Wars Battles that Changed the Galaxy (2021) – https://www.dk.com/uk/book/9780241418703-star-wars-battles-that-changed-the-galaxy/