“Modern fantasy began with the release of George Lucas’s ‘Star Wars’, in 1977, which paid homage to the ‘Flash Gordon’ and ‘Buck Rogers’ serials of the thirties”

Modern fantasy began with the release of George Lucas’s “Star Wars,” in 1977, which paid homage to the “Flash Gordon” and “Buck Rogers” serials of the thirties. The project drew Wagner comparisons almost from the outset. Susan Sontag had coined the term “pop-Wagnerian” to describe Nazi-era German films; Pauline Kael applied it to the second “Star Wars” installment, “The Empire Strikes Back.” As in the serials, the sci-fi future of “Star Wars” is given neo-medieval, chivalric features. Lightsabres stand in for swords; Darth Vader is a Black Knight with a hidden identity. The critic Mike Ashman has noted various similarities to the “Ring.” When the hero Luke Skywalker seizes his father’s lightsabre, he is like Siegfried mending Siegmund’s sword. And when Yoda, the wizened Jedi master, trains Luke in a swampy forest the scenario recalls the dwarf Mime’s relationship with Siegfried, except that Yoda is on the side of good.

A more unsettling echo comes at the end, when Luke, Han Solo, and Chewbacca, having led the Rebellion to victory, are honored at a temple ceremony. Fanfares give way to a vigorous march version of John Williams’s “Force” theme, which recalls Wagner’s Siegfried motif. Lucas chooses a curious visual design for this scene. The camera watches from behind as the trio proceeds down a long stone walkway, with troops arranged in rigid rows, toward a dais behind which imposing pillars rise. The shot has two clear cinematic predecessors: the hero Siegfried’s entrance into Gunther’s court in Fritz Lang’s silent epic “Die Nibelungen,” and Hitler’s march through the Nuremberg parade grounds in “Triumph of the Will.” Although Lucas has denied that Riefenstahl influenced the scene, the likeness seems too close to be accidental. To be sure, his heroes break out in goofy grins, undercutting the solemnity of the tableau. But this aw-shucks appropriation of Fascist style makes the allusion no less strange or disturbing.

Alex Ross, “Wagner in Hollywood”, The New Yorker (31 August 2020), 24.