Sunday, 7 January 2018

Assassin's Creed Protagonists Ranked


From left to right: Altaïr Ibn-La'Ahad, Ezio Auditore De Firenze, Bayek, Arno Dorian, Shay Cormac, Evie Frye, Jacob Frye, Arbaaz Mir, Edward Kenway,  Ratonhnhaké:tonAveline de Grandpré, Nikolai Orelov, Shao Jun
Credit for the image goes to santap555 on Deviantart

I've been looking for stuff to do on this blog, and I seem to be a bit burned out with detailed film analysis. Plus I think that recently it's been causing me to overthink stuff. I need some fun stuff to do.

So I got to thinking that I could try making lists. Lists are fun. Everybody likes a good list, and they're a bit more straight forward to make.

I might have mentioned that I'm kind of a big fan of the Assassin's Creed series of video games, and I've been playing a lot of it recently. The full franchise is extensive, and has given us a wide variety of different characters and settings.

If you're not familiar with the lore of Assassin's Creed, it's basically a series of games that combines historical facts with science fiction and conspiracy theories. The concept is that it revolves around an ongoing conflict between two secret societies. One is the Templar Order, which believes that world peace can be only be accomplished through total control of humanity. The other is the Assassin Brotherhood, which believes peace can still be achieved while preserving free will.

Most of the time you play as an Assassin but exceptions do exist (III, Rogue, and Unity all have playable Templars). the games are set across a variety of different historical eras including (in order of appearance) the Crusades, the Italian Renaissance, the American Revolution, The Golden Age of Piracy, the Seven Years War, the French Revolution, the reign of Queen Victoria, and the Ptolemaic dynasty of Ancient Egypt, and that's just from the main series!

Unsurprisingly, they also  feature a variety of different characters (though not without small continuity-based rewards for long-time players). With the exceptions of the "Ezio Trilogy" each game has a unique protagonist (starting with Black Flag, they humorously started including a feature where the player can dress the current protagonist in outfits from previous games). These characters come from a variety of different backgrounds and all have their own personalities. Having played a bunch of the Assassin's Creed series, I thought it would be interesting to try and rank their various protagonists.

It should be noted that this list is based only on games in the series I've actually played, and only focuses on playable characters. Installments that I have not played I am not as fit to comment on. For instance, I have not included Altaïr Ibn-La'Ahad on the grounds that I have never actually played the original Assassin's Creed (I know), making it hard to judge how good he was as a character. The same is also true for Chronicles.

Additionally, I  will not be including individuals from the present-day sections in the games. This is mainly due to the complications that would occur (between Black Flag and Syndicate, the player themselves is made a character within the game during the modern sections). I am also sticking to characters who are playable in the main storyline which is why I have, for instance, omitted Lydia Frye.

So here is my countdown, from worst to best, of all the protagonists in every Assassin's Creed game I've played so far. Which of the games' numerous protagonists will take the #1 spot? Read on to find out!

11. Shay Cormac (Assassin's Creed: Rogue)


Honestly, I never could get into Rogue. A lot of people like Shay but I found him to be more frustrating that engaging. This is the one game in the series that tries to flip the usual perspective by focusing on the Templars and making the Assassins the bad guys. Shay is supposed to be an Assassin who grows disillusioned with the Brotherhood and joins the Templars, but it seemed to me the result of being too impulsive and hotheaded rather than a moral choice. 

Shay goes on one mission that goes wrong, then immediately jumps to the conclusion that the Assassins knew it would result in a massive Earthquake but sent him anyway (no evidence in the game supports that conclusion). He then proceeds to yell at his mentor, doesn't listen to any attempts at reason, and steals from them before trying to commit suicide. Even before this he has a tendency to argue with his fellow assassins, ignore advice, and generally be more of a frustration for them than a useful ally.

10. Ratonhnhaké:ton/Connor (Assassin's Creed III)


A lot of people like Connor, but to be totally honest I found him rather flat compared to some of the other characters who have appeared. Although I do applaud the new perspective his character brings (which is able to better look at the moral uncertainties of the American Revolution and how it affected Native Americans), he had very little depth or personality. Also I feel like they could have found a much better voice actor to play him. He sounds very monotonous.

9. Jacob Frye (Assassin's Creed: Syndicate)


Of the two Frye Twins, I would say that Jacob was the weaker character. He was very much depicted as a man who values brawn over brains, while Evie had considerably more depth. While enjoyable, his character was largely quite arrogant and foolish (several plot points involve Jacob rushing into an Assassination only to later reveal negative long-term consequences that Evie has to clean up). He is not exactly great at being an Assassin as a result, which makes Evie fit the gameplay much better.

8. Haytham Kenway (Assassin's Creed III)


To be honest, for the small portion of Assassin's Creed III in which he is playable, Haytham Kenway was actually a far more engaging character than Connor. He also marks the first playable Templar in the series, though this is not revealed until the end of the first act (followed by his modern-day descendant ranting about the sudden plot twist). Yet Haytham did what no Templar before him had done: he added a layer of moral ambiguity to the series. Although he is technically the main antagonist of the game, Haytham is a remkably deep character and a man who easily earns respect.

Admittedly, this is not without a more extreme side (i.e. his habit of ending interrogations with the occasional spot of murder) but we see that there is actually a cold logic to his actions. Haytham actually has genuine concern for maintaining order (even if he believes the ends justify the means) and fully believes in the cause, a huge departure from the antagonists of previous games such as the Borgias (who believed the Templar Order was about power at any cost). He even makes a point of trying to respect the people under his command.

7. Aveline de Grandpré (Assassin's Creed: Liberation)


The first female protagonist in the series, and possibly also one of the first LGBT characters to be introduced (come on, don't tell me you never saw it between her and Elise), Aveline certainly makes an impact for the short duration of her appearances. She is tough but also noble, and manages to keep a clear head even when everything falls apart around her (given she is both betrayed by her former mentor and discovers a few shocking family secrets along the way, that's no easy feat). The fact that she never loses sight of her goal to find the elusive "Company Man" overseeing the Templar Operations is admirable.

6. Arno Dorian (Assassins' Creed: Unity)

Arno is an interesting figure for his somewhat unusual storyline. Unlike many of the other characters on this list, Arno doesn't firmly gravitate to one side or the other. If anything, much of the story revolves around shattering the Assassin/Templar binary that usually drives the games. This comes most notably in the Romeo and Juliet-esque romance on which the story hinges- namely that he is an assassin who happens to be in love with the Templar Elise, though it is a little more complicated than that.

What makes Arno interesting is that he ends up exposing flaws on both sides. He and Elise both end up being cast out of their respective factions and have to navigate a web of deceit, lies, and betrayal by both Assassins and Templars (all set against the backdrop of the French Revolution). Amidst all this, he is actually more interested in a parley between both sides (which he spends much of the game doing) and somewhat ironically avenging his Templar step-father. The fact that he is still able to maintain a strong connection with Elise even after it comes out that they are on opposite sides is impressive.

5. Aya (Assassin's Creed: Origins)


Talk about a good marriage! Though she is not playable as often as her husband, Aya has an important role to play in the origins of the Assassin Brotherhood, and she knows how to balance her priorities. This is a lady who can go from showering her husband with affection one moment to captaining a ship against Ptolemy's navy the next. One can hardly doubt the love she has for Bayek, but it is not her only driving force. It used to be a common assumption that marriage for a women meant giving up her career and turning to domestic chores: this is not Aya. She is a woman who has managed to find and balance both sides and remains content with doing so.

4. Ezio Auditore De Firenze (Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood)


I might be slightly biased here as Ezio does have a certain personal significance to me: it was through him I was first introduced to the Assassin's Creed series. Ezio was a fun character to play as, with his constant optimism and wit. He can be tough when he needs to be but also has a clear compassionate side. He had his faults, but he also managed to overcome them (case in point: likes to promote himself as a ladies' man, but has no trouble working with female assassins).

Also interesting is the choice to thoroughly subvert the usual image of Renaissance-era nobles as corrupt and greedy. Ezio is a man of wealth who works for the people, and never gives up this view even when the odds are hopelessly against him. This was after all the guy who started a one-man revolution against the Borgias (arguably one of the most powerful families of the Renaissance) and won. To start with practically nothing and end up overthrowing a tyrannical regime is a pretty amazing accomplishment.

3. Bayek (Assassin's Creed: Origins)


Assassin's Creed: Origins tells the story of how this whole mess between the Assassins and the Templars got started, so it's not surprising they needed an interesting character to introduce as the founder of the Assassin Brotherhood, and they certainly delivered. Bayek is a somewhat enigmatic but very compelling character. He is a man trying to do the right thing in a world rife with corruption and greed. 

As a medjay (the Ancient Egyptian equivalent of a cop) Bayek seeks justice in an unjust world, but his motives go beyond a mere sense of honor. Beneath his skill with a blade he is still a human being, and a man who struggles to find his way. As we also learn, he must balance his desire for justice with a burning anger towards the mysterious Order of the Ancients responsible for the murder of his son, while trying to save a divided Egypt along the way.

2. Edward Kenway (Assassin's Creed: Black Flag)


Edward Kenway stands out as a notable departure from the more idealistic Assassins of previous games. In fact, he doesn't even become an Assassin until late in the story (though he has many of their unique skills from the get-go). Instead, Edward is an anti-hero who starts off as a simple fortune seeker looking to get rich only to find himself in over his head when he ends up killing and impersonating an Assassin who (of course) just happened to be defecting to the Templar Order. Kenway's character arc is largely one of self-discovery and redemption. 

He first appears to be a fairly cold anti-hero more interested in fortune than anything else, which becomes problematic early on when he unwittingly sells out the entire Assassin Brotherhood to the Templar Oder, and then has to spend the rest of the game trying to undo his mistake. But beneath this facade is a far more complex individual who eventually discovers his real interest to be liberating humanity from tyranny. The close friendships he develops with Stede Bonnet, Edward "Blackbeard" Thatch, and Mary Reed James Kidd also reinforce this notion. 

1. Evie Frye (Assassin's Creed: Syndicate)


Of the two playable heroes of Assassin's Creed: Syndicate, Evie was definitely the more interesting character, and generally the one I preferred playing as. Her brother Jacob was okay but I felt like Evie had a much more complex personality. She also provided a more interesting gameplay experience due to her range of skills. Playing Jacob is  based mainly on combat, getting into big brawls, while Evie has more room for stealth and ingenuity (more fitting to the tone of Assassin's Creed).

She is also a very strong character in her own right. She can hold her own in a fight but she's also witty and intelligent, and knows how to balance this with compassion. Even the romantic plot that occurs between her and Henry Green is handled carefully to ensure it doesn't overshadow her skills as an Assassin and her role in freeing London from the Templars. Evie might just be one of the best characters in the series.

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

How Far Would You Go?: Understanding Military Ethics in Rogue One



How far would you go to fight for what you believe? Would you be willing to die for it? Would you be willing to put aside your own values and goals if you thought it would allow a positive long-term outcome? Would you be willing to lose yourself in the process if it meant a better future for others? These are difficult questions and not ones easily answered. The fact of the matter is that fighting for anything is a difficult line of work, one that requires sacrifices, wit, and the ability to make difficult choices under pressure, choices which don't always have a clear moral path.

These are the issues at play in Gareth Edwards' Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The backdrop is a simple conflict-a tyrannical regime and an idealistic Rebellion that seeks to overthrow it, but underneath that seemingly simple conflict the world is not so easily black and white. Both sides are strife with inner conflicts, challenges, and tests of their commitment to their cause. Both factions ultimately clash and play a dangerous game, but ultimately it is a test primarily for the Rebellion. How far can they go? Where does one draw the line?

The question of where a freedom fighter ends and a terrorist begins is not unique to Rogue One even for the Star Wars universe (the discussion had previously appeared in The Clone Wars and has since come up in Rebels), but the moral difficulties of war are brought to the forefront here. From the beginning, characters are forced to make difficult choices based on what they think is right.

In the opening moments, we are introduced to Galen Erso, a man who has put himself and his own family in danger to prevent the Empire from weaponizing Kyber Crystals. This man has risked his own life and continues to rebel even after he is recaptured. Meanwhile his wife Lyra Erso also chooses death over being recaptured. Jyn ends up in the hands of Saw Guerrera, who recruits her into the Rebellion, yet even this is a difficult situation. As we later learn, Saw ended up abandoning Jyn to prevent her family background (the daughter of an Imperial Science Officer) from being exploited and used as leverage by other Rebels.

Both the leading roles of Jyn Erso and Cassion Andor are depicted as being somewhat anti-heroic in their own way. Jyn has apparently led a busy life of crime under different aliases, and initially has no real interest in aiding the Rebellion. She only gets involved with them after they rescue her from an Imperial prison transport (and even then, she tries to ditch them as soon as her restraints are removed). When Jyn is brought before the Rebellion, her only reason for accepting their mission is on the grounds that they will make it easier for her to disappear. She also tries to leave as soon as her job is finished, even claiming to be okay with submitting to the Empire's authority. Only with a message from her father is she willing to reconsider.

Cassion, by contrast, is a lifelong member of the Alliance yet he also proves himself to be an anti-hero. His introductory scene sees him confronting an informant, not even from the Empire but from Saw's Renegade Rebels, about recent developments (Cassion is stated to work in "intelligence," a job that likely requires a level of deception and trickery). Although he is working for the good guys, Cassion is shown to be hard on the informant, refusing to accommodate his needs and trying to intimidate him into talking. This scene also climaxes with Cassion murdering said informant when he is unable to escape from the approaching Imperial forces.


Although we are introduced to several different Rebels, it is largely Jyn and Cassion who clash for much of the narrative. Yet we also see division among the Rebellion brought about by conflicting values in other ways. This starts to emerge when we are introduced to Saw Guererra, who is described as an extremist by Senator Mon Mothma. His methods are shown to be so unethical that he was cast out of the Rebellion and leads his own separate faction. When he meets with the defecting Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook, his first instinct is to resort to mental torture even though his prisoner was willing to co-operate.

Guererra is a man who has lost himself in war, both literally (as he himself states, "there's not much of me left") and figuratively. The man has been through several different resistance groups and fought in several different wars. His lifelong experience is reflected in his appearance. His body has largely degraded. Both legs are replaced by prosthetic and he appears to sometimes have trouble breathing. By this point in his life, he knows nothing else but fighting. He continues to fight because that is what he knows, but he has long forgotten the reasons why he fights.


It is fitting therefore that Guererra should choose to die on Jedha, even when an escape his possible. Galen Erso's message is a reminder of what the Rebellion stood for, but Guererra is so far gone that he no longer has a place in it. His only possible futures are death or endless meaningless fighting. He finally decides he is finished running, and allows himself to die. This is also why he tells Jyn to "save the rebellion, save the dream" hoping she will not lose her way like he did.

On the flip side of the conflict, we see similar division happening within the ranks of the Empire. The character of Bodhi Rook provides a small reminder of the fact that the Rebels are still fighting people. Rook is depicted as a fairly average and well-intentioned man who just happened to be on the wrong side of the conflict. He is not one of the high-level officers we are used to seeing, he is a low-level cargo pilot who just wants to do the right thing.

The theme of humanity in the Empire also comes up once again on Eadu, when Krennic threatens Galen Erso's engineering time. Although we don't know them personally, we are given the sense that they are people just doing a job. We see their expressions as they hear Krennic announce the presence of a traitor, and their worries as they try to figure out who it might be. Although the men were working on a devastating super-weapon capable of destroying entire worlds it is hard not to respect Galen's attempt to save them by confessing, or to feel sympathy when the Engineering team is executed anyway.


Yet in a very weird twisted sort of way one does sympathize with Krennic himself when he is faced with an even worse opponent: Grand Moff Tarkin. For all of Krennic's talk of peace and order, much of the Imperial sections of Rogue One revolve around the squabbling of these two officers. Tarkin ends up not only usurping Krennic's position running the Death Star but also steals credit for overseeing its construction. We start to realize that while Krennic is a dangerous threat who needs to be stopped, Tarkin is something far worse.

For all their talk of peace and order, the Empire in Rogue One functions in many ways as the architect of its own destruction. Its system is a prime example of the inherent flaw in authoritarian rule: submission is only ever a temporary solution. Sooner or later the people will break and fight back. No matter how many times the fight is suppressed the government will never earn their respect, and eventually will face its own downfall. Meanwhile a leader who earns their followers' respect (note how much more committed the Rebels are) is more likely to succeed.

Tarkin believes in control through force, as does Krennic, but far from a successful system of government the Empire is made up of different people struggling for power. Tarkin immediately uses his political influence to take over command of the Death Star and shows complete disregard towards Krennic. He even goes on to indirectly murder Krennic (along with probably thousands of other Imperial personnel) by firing the Death Star's laser at the Imperial base on Scarif. Tarkin's ambitions even overshadow his own loyalty to Darth Vader (who is more interested in completing the station than dealing with the infighting of his subordinates).

Ironically, this action will have dire consequences- had he not fired so quickly Krennic might have had time to report the Death Star's sabotage. Krennic also destroyed the archives containing the Death Star plans leaving the Alliance as the only ones with access. This move keeps the Empire from learning right away of Galen Erso's sabotage and indirectly allows the Rebels to find and exploit the weakness, leading to the Death Star's destruction and Tarkin's own death.


The Rebel Alliance is also struggling with the same issues, and the question arises of how far they will go. The primary voice of reason in this conflict comes from the Senator Mon Mothma, a politician who constantly struggles to reconcile the values of the Rebel Alliance with doing what needs to be done. Underneath her, we also have a general who issues Cassion orders behind Mothma's back- trying to turn an extraction mission into an assassination. This choice proves problematic as it ends up not only endangering his own people but also deprives the Rebellion of valuable intelligence.

The division that complicates the Rebellion is further reinforced with the introduction of the council. All its members voice different views on the issue of how to respond to the Death Star causing a heated debate. Jyn's account is doubted by several members, and a decision on whether to act becomes a concern. Though some of the issues brought up by politicians are not entirely invalid (i.e. questioning whether the Alliance has the military means to stand up to the Death Star) many of the politicians insist that they can avoid conflict if they don't engage. On the other hand, Admiral Raddus is immediately determined to charge into the fight not knowing entirely what he is dealing with. Mon Mothma has to balance both sides, even though her conscience tells her war is inevitable.


This brings up a question of loyalty that emerges throughout the film. The Empire is built on the expectations of blind loyalty, but the Rebellion's structure sometimes leaves room for moral conflict. Cassion in particular is frequently left to choose between his own values and his loyalty to the Rebellion first with Galen Erso (especially after receiving conflicting orders) and later in his decision to approach Scarif after being specifically told not to.

In these instances, the Rebellion's flaws are exposed. The pacifism of the council makes the majority of them (aside from Mothma and Senator Organa) blind to the threat posed by an Empire who presumably will not negotiate. Mothma herself is unable to do much more than prepare the few resources she has available to her. The only problem is that fulfilling the council's wishes would have had devastating consequences. Krennic was already inspecting the Death Star plans to check for sabotage. If Jyn hadn't disobeyed when she did he might have actually had time to find the structural weakness Galen had slipped into it, in which case the sabotage could have been fixed destroying the Rebels' chances.


Friday, 15 December 2017

Twelve Wars to Christmas: Gettysburg (American Civil War)


Mel Gibson's Braveheart presented the story of William Wallace, but provided an account that was largely fictionalized and at best a distortion of what really happened (for one thing, I found out that Queen Isabella would have been 2 years old at the time the film takes place; that romance never happened). Gettysburg, released in 1993 and directed by Ronald F. Maxwell, is exactly the opposite. From its opening moments, the film stresses its thorough research and intricate attention to detail. We see this first emphasized in the opening credits (and later returns during the epilogue), during which photographs of real historical figures are compared with photos of the actors portraying them. The resemblance is not always identical (one might note for instance that some actors have shorter beards than the actual people), but it shows an attention to detail not always seen in historical dramas, and certainly one not present in Braveheart.

Gettysburg chronicles the events leading up to and over the course of the famous battle which turned the tide of the American Civil War. It is easy to forget that in its early years, the Confederate Army was actually winning. They were claiming town after town and pushing their way towards Washington. For many it seemed only a matter of time before Washington surrendered and independence was granted to the South. That all changed as soon as both sides converged on the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Three days of intense fighting a mountain of casualties on both sides ended up turning the tide for the Union. From there, they pushed the Confederates back until they had no choice but to surrender. Put mildly, there is a reason this remains one of the most famous events of the war.

Gettysburg chronicles the events of the battle on both sides, with a huge cast to fill the roles of its participants. At just over four hours long, it is a fairly comprehensive account of the battle and one of the most authentic depictions of the Civil War you can get. But it is more than just a mere dramatization of the battle. It is also a complex look at the intricacies and unpredictability of military leadership. Among the huge cast, most of the focus is on the roles of officers, particularly Generals.

The generals' games is a dangerous one. Vast armies, unfavourable conditions, and trying to give yourself the upper hand. It takes a certain amount of skill to be a general, to be able to take risks and out-smart an opponent of equal intellect. This makes up much of the film's first act. We move back and forth between the two sides. On the one side we see the frequent tension between General Robert E. Lee (Martin Sheen) and Lieutenant General James Longstreet (Tom Berenger). On the other, we have the Union generals. Both work against one another.


More interesting is the decision for the Union portions to focus primarily on Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a respectable commander trying to carry out his orders in a difficult situation. Chamberlain is made into a respectable figure from the beginning. His introductory scene shows him struggling to get out of bed, giving us a sense that he is not a particularly unusual figure. He then addresses a group of deserters by giving them the situation but promising not to mistreat them (even inspiring many of them to rejoin). We also see Chamberlain spending much of the film trying to balance out two interests: the well-being of his men and fulfilling his obligations as a soldier.


This is not to say that the Union is wholly glorified, nor the Confederacy wholly condemned. Throughout the film we get momentary interactions between Union and Confederate soldiers (usually POWs) that remind us both sides are human: the soldier who talks about his life in Tennessee, the captured officer at Little Round Top who simply asks for water, General Armistead (Richard Jordan) requesting to see an old friend who happened to end up on the Union side. In fact, on both sides the subject comes up repeatedly that the war has been going on and on, both sides hoping it will soon end. They also frequently bring up the divided American society, specifically the idea that soldiers on both sides have people they know, often very old friends, among the enemy.


Thursday, 14 December 2017

Twelve Wars to Christmas: Braveheart (Medieval Warfare)



Braveheart remains a fairly iconic rendition of medieval warfare despite its inaccuracies and the questionable choice to cast Australian Mel Gibson as a Scotsman. This film is in many ways a product of its time, and watching it I can definitely see many ways it would have been done differently if it were made today. I also suspected influence from Spartacus, from which Braveheart draws several parallels, right down to the theme of the hero choosing to die a free man than live as a servant.

As we are told in Braveheart, the story begins with the death of the Scottish King and the usurping of the English Throne by Edward Longhanks, who despite his silly name is determined to own Scotland. The Scots aren't so happy about being told what to do, and as with many dictatorships the people are pushed to their breaking point and finally rebel. Wallace sets this rebellion into motion and eventually dies, but the Scots earn their freedom by remembering his name.

Braveheart really isn't that great a film, and from what I can dig up it's hardly an accurate rendition of what happened. Unfortunately I struggled to find much good material for this one to discuss.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Twelve Wars to Christmas: Spartacus (Ancient Warfare)


Stanley Kubrick's 1960 epic Spartacus remains one of the most iconic retellings of the classic story about a gladiator who breaks free and tries to end slavery in the Roman Empire. This intense epic chronicles the life of Spartacus from his early days as a slave to his defeat at the hands of the Roman Empire, and it has proven extremely influential. The film made a huge splash in its day for making the controversial decision to openly challenge the blacklist by giving a credit to screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (who for the past few years had only been able to work anonymously).

Additionally its famous scene of the slaves refusing to surrender has been parodied and homaged so many times ("I'm Brian and so is my wife!") and its story would be the inspiration for a later Roman epic: Ridley Scott's Gladiator. Spartacus himself would be a major inspiration for Russel Crowe's portrayal of soldier-turned-slave Maximus (alongside a few other historical and legendary figures). But what of the film itself and its themes?

Spartacus focuses its three-hour running time on the practice of slavery in the Roman Empire. It is hardly subtle about this emphasis, as is made evident in the opening lines of the film. The film opens with narration that compares the role of slavery in the Roman Empire to an epidemic, a line of thinking that is later reinforced when Julius Ceasar (John Gavin) refers to the uprising as an "infection." We are told that Spartacus "dreamed of the death of slavery 2000 years before it finally would die" (presumably the narrator is referring to Abraham Lincoln).

These initial scenes place Spartacus and his fellow slaves in a series of mines, and Kubrick takes great care to show the senselessness of their operations. Note that although they are supposedly mining, one never gets the sense that anything is accomplished by the workers. They are shown futilely bashing the ground with pickaxes that seem to uncover nothing, carrying large baskets of rocks, and otherwise performing unnecessarily grueling chores with no real purpose. One of Spartacus's first actions is to try and aid a fellow slave only to be whipped by the Roman soldiers guarding him, who then sentence him to execution.


It is this bleak opening that sets the stage for everything to come. Spartacus works hard to undermine the supposed glory of the Roman Empire. It  is exposed not as an invincible force of military might but a flawed dictatorship run by corrupt politicians more concerned with gaining power over each other than actually guiding the people they claim to lead. For all their talk of glory, triumph, and "order" the Roman Empire is chaotic and divided, and shamelessly engages in the practice of buying and selling human beings as property.

In this opening scene alone, we are given a glimpse of these contrasting lifestyles when we are introduced to the slave trader Lentulus Batiatus, and he isn't even very high in the Roman social hierarchy (certainly not compared to the Roman senators who try to manipulate him). While Spartacus is almost naked and shown doing hard manual labor in what appears to be a very hot environment, Batiatus enters on horseback with his own personal servant to hold an umbrella over him.

After walking past several exhausted slaves, he then dismounts and complains about the heat, never once considering how much worse it must be for the slaves he has come to purchase. Instead, he simply begins inspecting them and eventually chooses to purchase Spartacus because his fitness makes him good material for a gladiator. Along the way he dismisses some of the slaves offered to him and claims to not like Galls. He even performs a quality inspection, treating the slaves like products.

The first act largely follows the experience of Spartacus in gladiator school, where we are quickly given a clear view of the miserable conditions that slaves live in. While Batiatus is entitled to a busy social life, the gladiators are kept in dark underground rooms. They also face both external and internal pressure that prevents them from even finding comfort in each other. On the outside, the guards routinely tell them not to speak with each other while on the inside none of them wants to know their colleagues personally in case they have to fight each other to the death.

Additionally, a gender dynamic starts to emerge in the distinction between male and female slaves. The men are commodities to be advertised and sold. The women are, at most, tools to develop those commodities. Female slaves are given the menial chores- cooking, cleaning, and occasionally visiting the men. Ostensibly their visits are for companionship and a reward for hard work, but in reality it is for the perverse entertainment of the slavemasters (who watch through windows in the roof). Spartacus notably yells out the phrase "I am not an animal" while leaping at the cage-like bars of his window.

The attraction between Spartacus and Varinia (Jean Simmons) is also one that is mocked by the guards, yet their love becomes a twisted form of freedom and escape. The two are constantly kept apart by the guards, with one of the masters even going as far as to brag that Varinia will be given to someone else, then throwing her into a neighboring room probably knowing that Spartacus can hear her. Love then provides a twisted moment of freedom whenever they manage to find some small way to rebel: a momentary touch, a brief glance.

The first act climaxes with the arrival of the Roman noble Crassus and his family, who think that two gladiatorial fights to the death are the perfect activity for a wedding. Already we start to see some of the flaws in the Roman social system, particularly in the way that it seems to be the two women who have much of the power. They are the ones who request the fights and pick out the gladiators they think are the most handsome to take part. This marks the first real fight to the death for Spartacus, and it is handled carefully.

One detail of note is that during this scene we are initially restricted to Spartacus's own point of view, at least until his match begins. We remain in the small waiting room while the first duel takes place, and only perceive what Spartacus is able to, either through off-screen diegetic sound or through glimpses between the wooden panels. During this moment, he exchanges glances with his opponent, creating an awkward silence as the two anticipate their match. They both know that either they will die, or they will kill the man sitting across from them.

When Spartacus is released, we see the spectators acting fairly casually to the fight. Crassus and his friend Glabrus (John Dall) even get distracted from the two men trying to kill each other for their supposed entertainment when they discuss politics. The scene is treated more like they are watching a picture on a screen, rather than two men in a real battle to the death. When the political discussion is shushed by one of the women, it is only because she does not want to get distracted from the action. They only directly interact with the contestants when Spartacus is overpowered but spared, and his opponent attempts to plea with the nobles only to be killed himself.

 The shot composition here makes the nobles look like they are in a theater, watching the action on a screen

This in turn sets up the big moment when Spartacus and his friends make their escape. By this point, he has been pushed as far as he can possibly get. It is a frequent problem with authoritarian control- intimidating people in submission may work for a time, but sooner or later they are inspired to rebel. Meanwhile, as the school is trashed by a mob of people who are justifiably angry about being treated as slaves, Batiatus reveals himself to be a coward. He immediately takes the first excuse he can find to leave the building for his own safety while abandoning his own staff to face the gladiators' mercy.

It is here that we start to get introduced to the politics of Ancient Rome. Although several scenes take place in the senate, the two main figures are Lentulus Batiatus Crassus and Gracchus (Charles Laughton). These two men are shown to have been locked in, to provide a very appropriate metaphor for a Kubrick film, a deadly Chess game. Both men are interested in power and profit, and are willing to do whatever is necessary to achieve it. This includes trying to profit from the crisis caused by Spartacus, which provides both parties an opportunity to steal control of the military.

Crassus claims to be "restoring order" while Gracchus opposes the "dictatorship" his rival is enforcing, thought he audience is left to wonder how his authority is any different. Of the two men, Gracchus's agenda is more beneficial to Spartacus, but this only makes him the lesser of two evils. Gracchus has no interest in freeing the slaves, only how the outcome of Spartacus's actions can benefit him politically. He is more than happy to purchase human beings (especially women) and only frees Varinia because he knows it will hurt Crassus. Meanwhile, Crassus talks at length about how he needs to crush the rebellion and claims that suppressing the slaves will make for a better Rome. Ultimately, it is Crassus who wins this feud and defeats Spartacus, ironically reducing Graccus to essentially becoming his own personal slave (albeit one with a somewhat cushier lifestyle). It is fitting then that, like Spartacus, he chooses suicide over this fate.


Throughout the film, the Romans show complete disregard for the well-being of their slaves. Spartacus's deeds are exaggerated to the senate to describe him committing war crimes that didn't happen. Spartacus remains consistent in his goal, going to extremes many wouldn't think of such as releasing the slaves who bring in the Cicillian Ambassador and refusing an offer to be taken away before the Romans can capture him. His followers show an unwavering loyalty that is contrasted with the senate.

Of particular note is the appearance Julius Caesar, who is a close friend of Gracchus only to betray him near the film's end. He is a politician in his own right (although one with less screen time than the two main ones) and develops his own ambitions. He claims that Gracchus's methods (bribing Cicillian pirates) are dishonorable, only to then betray him to a man who does the exact same thing in the opposite direction. This betrayal is also politically beneficial to Caesar, who will go on to become the first Emperor of Rome. His betrayal also becomes ironic when one considers that Julius Caesar's downfall came when he himself was betrayed by a trusted ally: Marcus Brutus.


Monday, 11 December 2017

Twelve Wars to Christmas


Wow, it's been a while since I last posted here. I'm sorry for my absence. I've just been preoccupied with a lot recently and haven't had as much to say on my blog. It would be nice to find some stuff to say again.

I've been thinking about doing an activity for the Christmas Break this year. It gives me something to do and provides me with some semblance of structure. So here is what I've come up with.

The format for this is pretty straight forward, and I've organized it as a kind of Advent Calendar marking the Twelve Days until Christmas, with the final day being on December 24. At the start, I provide a list of categories for each day, each unique but joined together by a common theme. In this case, I've used the theme of war as my driving force.

Each day, I watch a selected film based on the current theme. The challenge is to watch the film and then I have to write something about it. What I write can be anything, but I must post something by the end of the day.

Now you're probably wondering why I use war films for this activity. While it can work in other areas (I previously did this same activity with crime films, for instance), war films lend themselves to a timeline. I have organized them so I am moving forward in time through different eras of warfare, beginning with ancient civilizations and moving into the present day before reaching into the future. This works with the countdown aspect of the event as it allows a clear sense of linear progression.


I am including below the list of the categories I have chosen.

Ancient Warfare

Medieval Warfare


American Civil War

British Imperialism

World War I

World War II- Western Front

World War II- Pacific Theater

World War II- Eastern Front

Cold War

Vietnam

Modern Warfare


Future Warfare

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Taking Down Wong Kar-Wai: A Polished Turd is Still a Turd


There are three categories of auteur filmmakers. There are the great artists like Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock. Then there are others, like Federico Fellini, who know what they are doing but whose styles don't agree with everyone. Then there is the final category: the pseudo-auteur like Jean-Luc Godard. This is the director who has deluded themselves into thinking they are a super-genius but produce garbage. This is not the same thing as just being a bad director like Michael Bay or Irwin Allen. Bay and Allen are at least honest about the quality of the films they make. A man like Godard, on the other hand, has the balls to consistently produce crap, pretend its art, and then delude his audience into thinking that his lazy hack films are something deeper.

Yes, as many of my readers can testify, I still maintain that Jean-Luc Godard produces nothing but garbage. And I'm not alone in that regard. Two extremely well-regarded filmmakers: Orson Welles and Ingmar Bergman, also despised his lazy films and his incompetence as an artist. But I'm not here to rant about Godard. I'm here to take down another one of these pseudo-auteurs thanks to my class. This man is none other than the critically-acclaimed Wong Kar-Wai, a director who has received an international reputation, known for films such as As Tears Go By, Days of Being WildAshes of Time, and In the Mood For Love.


A lot of people seem to think this guy is some sort of genius. My prof seems to think so. So does Wimal Dissanayake, from wrote an entire book on Ashes of Time. So far, I've seen nothing to convince me. It seems like every film of his I get forced to watch only makes me hate this man even more. This is a man with no direction or any idea what he is doing. He doesn't even bother to write scripts; he literally just shoots a bunch of random footage, basically making it up as he goes along, and then hopes it will all come together in post-production. His films are incoherent and impossible to follow. His characters are one-dimensional at best.

Wong Kar Wai's biggest issue, aside from not being very good at telling coherent narratives, is his inability to recognize the blatant misogyny that carries through his work. Many of his films, including Days of Being Wild, Ashes of Time, and to a lesser extent Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love, reduce women to passive supporting roles. His men are always active figures, and the women are generally dependent on a man, rarely being entitled a role in the main action. His men routinely fail to treat women with respect, and in many cases it would seem they have never heard of consent as they often display repeated attempts to have sex after the girl has refused.

We see this with the protagonist in Days of Being Wild, Yuddy (Leslie Cheung), a man who routinely mistreats women, apparently seeing them as nothing more than sex objects. The character of Li-Zhen (Maggie Cheung) repeatedly refuses his advances, but these are ignored. Instead, Yuddy only continues to have sex with her while she laughs even after failing to consent. This includes a scene where, for absolutely no reason and no obvious causal motivation, Yuddy tries to reach under her skirt and touch her vagina. This is a man who obviously fails to realize how consent is supposed to work, and yet we are supposed to relate to him?

In the film, Yuddy seduces and abandons two women. The first of these is Li-zhen, a woman who is first seen working at a snack bar. After coercing her into dating him, Yuddy proceeds to take her to his apartment (apparently while also having another girlfriend over at the same time) and essentially proceeds to rape her. Li-zhen repeatedly refuses Yuddy's advances and yet he continues to force himself onto her. This continues throughout their section of the film. Keep in mind that Yuddy, who is sexually harassing a young woman (in one scene even trying to touch her vagina for absolutely no reason), is supposed to be the hero. This is the person Wong Kar-Wai expects us to relate to, which leaves open a lot of questions about what he was thinking when making this film.

Eventually, after multiple sequences glorifying Yuddy's unnecessary abuse of Li-zhen, she opts to leave. This would seem like a smart move, if not for the direction Wong chooses to take. After finally leaving Yuddy, Li-zhen instead becomes dependent on support from a male police officer (Although cops appear in several of his films, Wong Kar-Wai seems to have a peculiar aversion to showing women in law enforcement). The film also makes a bizarre narrative choice by leaving Yuddy, making Li-zhen and the unnamed police officer the center of attention for a large portion of the film, only to then ditch them both and return to Yuddy's perverse antics.


In Days of Being Wild, Li-zhen finally ditches the abusive protagonist, only to immdiately become dependent on another man.

Somewhat bizarrely, there actually seems to be a major contradiction in Wong Kar-Wai scholarship in that nobody can agree on what his third film was. Some say it was Ashes of Time. Others say it was Chungking Express. The main reason for this contradiction is because Wong quickly made Chungking Express during a break in the production of Ashes of Time but the former was released after the latter. Either way, both films present questionable depictions of women and continue to show the misogyny that has persisted through this man's filmography.

Ashes of Time only features two notable female characters, both of whom are needlessly dependent on men. The first of these is Brigitte Lin, who plays a mentally ill women that becomes dependent on protagonist Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung again). This illness manifests itself as a split personality, with her acting as the Murong twins Yin and Yang who are at odds with one another. Eventually she ends up living with Ouyang, and disappears. Frustratingly the film presents an opportunity to turn her into a strong character with the implication that she becomes a warrior... only to immediately forget about her. In other words, the films keeps her as long as she remains feminine, and abandons her as soon as she has a chance to do something worthwhile.


Even worse is the other major female character, who doesn't even get a name. She is literally credited as "girl with mule" and displays total unneeded dependence on men. Her first appearance consists of her explaining that her brother was killed by a gang of bandits, and she offers Ouyang a basket of eggs and mule to avenge him. Ouyang refuses, prompting the girl to do the logical thing... go to the edge of the village in the middle of the desert and just wait for a man to come and accept her offer. She becomes weirdly determined as well.

But why does she have to do this? Her entire story revolves around waiting for a man to come and do the job for her, which eventually occurs in the form of Hong Qi (Jacky Cheung). Once again, she is depicted as a passive victim at best, and depends on men to come to her rescue. Why can she not get her own revenge against the bandits who killed her brother. She literally sits around in the middle of a desert for days waiting for Hong Qi to accept her offer. Would it not have been a more interesting plotline for the peasant girl (Wong doesn't even allow her the dignity of getting a name) to take up the sword and then confront the bandits herself?

Now I know what you're thinking, and I've heard it before. Yes, I have had people try to refute my statement by pointing to Wong Kar-Wai's most recent film The Grandmaster. It is true that this pseudo-biopic of Bruce Lee's mentor actually has women taking part in fight sequences. That said, this is at best one exception. Keep in mind that Wong has made nine feature films so far and this is the only one to break the pattern. If an artist spends most of his career producing bigoted work, then turns around and makes one comparatively progressive piece, does that excuse the bigotry that is otherwise consistent? I would say no, it doesn't. The Grandmaster is one exception produced by a man who has otherwise consistently produced works glorifying misogyny.


Friday, 27 January 2017

Strength of Character in Leia


Science fiction has always been a male-dominated genre, but that hasn't stopped a few notable women from taking the lead on several occasions. We've seen this more recently with characters like Ryan Stone in Gravity. Ellen Ripley of the Alien films has become something of a role model for strong female characters, and with good reason; being one of the greatest examples of a strong female lead one can get. Yet Ripley was not alone in her influence. It is true that Ellen Ripley was a strong character. She was intelligent, resourceful, and knew how to handle her emotions in the face of danger.

Yet only three years before the introduction of Ripley, another woman made a huge impact. In 1977, George Lucas released Star Wars (later re-titled Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope), which introduced another icon of the science fiction genre: Princess Leia Organa. Leia was a huge deal in her time, and to an extent still today. Across the original films made by George Lucas, Leia was the lone female lead in a cast otherwise made up almost entirely of white men (and one black man who appeared very late into The Empire Strikes Back). But it is true that some aspects of her character have not aged well.

Let's face it: when she first appears in A New Hope, Leia's primary role is that of a damsel. It is also obvious that George Lucas originally conceived of her as a love interest for Luke (even if he later changed his mind and decided they were twins, resulting in lots of jokes about incest). The very first scene of the movie has her overpowered and captured by Stormtroopers. She then spends most of the film as a prisoner until she is finally rescued by a party consisting of three white men and a walking carpet. She then becomes a fairly passive character, observing from behind while Luke gets to blow up the death star.

Leia was slightly more active in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, but even this was limited. In the former, Leia spends the first act on Hoth by herself mostly comforting Luke. We do get to see her taking part in organizing the evacuation, but she still mainly serves to provide instructions while it is men who do the actual fighting. She then spends much of the movie being dragged alongside Han Solo in a broken Millennium Falcon before reluctantly following him to cloud city. There she mostly ends up being pressed into watching Han get frozen.


In Return of the Jedi, Leia takes part in Han's rescue but also (notoriously) gets captured by Jabba the Hutt resulting in her infamous bikini. This iconic moment has been interpreted many different ways. On the one hand, the fact that it is the lone female character who gets forced into this situation could be taken to have some negative connotations, as it could be seen as unnecessary sexualization. On the other, the film doesn't exactly glamorize her outfit. The bikini is treated as humiliating and also functions as a symbol of Leia's imprisonment (note that this is literally the only time in any of the films she wears such an outfit, and that in every subsequent scene she wears less revealing clothes).

Another important detail to note is that while Leia gets captured, she does is not dependent on the men to save her. During the battle which climaxes Return of the Jedi's first act, most of the fighting is done by men. That is with one major exception. While Han, Luke, Lando, and Chewie spend most of the battle outside moving between skiffs and taking out thugs, Jabba himself is saved for Leia. She is the one who takes the initiative and opportunity to kill him, and does so with extreme prejudice. It is Leia who frees herself. Of the two male characters who play into her escape, one of them (R2-D2) functions as a tool (cutting her restraints) while the other (Luke) only provides her with an exit strategy after Leia's already released herself.

In Return of the Jedi, Leia kills Jabba, but only after being captured and forced to wear a bikini.
Return of the Jedi also tries to show Leia taking a more obvious leadership role in the battle of Endor, but she does spend much of the early stages of the battle hanging out with the Ewoks while everyone else is in the thick of the action. The film also alludes to Leia being force-sensitive, but refrains from having it occur through anything more than observation. One could counter these arguments by noting that both developments end up saving her (male) partners. Her force-sensitivity, while not given much focus, becomes important when it allows her rescue Luke under Cloud City. Later on, Leia's friendship with the Ewoks is what eventually allows them to be recruited as allies during the final battle.

Leia's roles across the original three films is obviously complicated, and there are a variety of different positions one can take. From a modern perspective, the damsel aspects of Leia's character have not aged well, as has her role being largely overshadowed by male protagonists. One could also note that this is true of George Lucas's prequel films as well, in which the primary focus is once again on relationships between men. Although we see several female Jedi among the extras, the ones who are actually given a role in the story are all men.

This could easily be seen as a shortcoming on the part of Lucas himself. After all, the entire prequel trilogy was made with huge casts and yet across three films there is a grand total of one female character who even gets so much as an identity that appears in the films themselves (nearly every other female character who appeared only got named by reference material and the expanded universe; basically material not written by George Lucas). Even though George Lucas could have taken the opportunity to give us an awesome female Jedi or at least work to diversify the main cast, the only woman who actually plays a notable role in the films is Padme Amidala.

In the prequels, Padme, played by Natalie Portman, is supposed to be Leia's mother; and she could have been a great character. There does seem to be an effort to make her a strong figure but Lucas has an unfortunate tendency to be extremely inconsistent and skew his priorities. In The Phantom Menace, Padme is established to be the elected Queen of Naboo (don't ask, I don't get it either) and ends up taking charge when her efforts to get support from the Republic are unsuccessful. Yet instead of actually taking the time to play up Padme's strengths, George Lucas instead opts to make her the subject of the viewer's gaze by repeatedly placing her into passive situations and overly convoluted costumes.


Padme gets a few moments of her own, but across the trilogy these are greatly overshadowed by men. The Phantom Menace arguably comes closest to making her a strong character. Starting with Attack of the Clones, Padme gets pushed to the side and instead is used as a motivation for the (male) protagonists who often go on adventures while leaving her behind. One of the very first developments is an attempted assassination that leads Obi-Wan and Anakin on a big chase through Coruscant while Padme remains in her apartment.

Later on, while Obi-Wan is uncovering a conspiracy Padme is running around in fields with Anakin with only the occasional political remarks occasionally shoved into love scenes in a desperate attempt to make her seem intelligent. The only strengths she gets to display as a character are near the end, when she takes part in the Battle of Geonosis, but even this is limited. She is the only one of the protagonists to get injured, and eventually gets knocked out of a republic gunship, a move which keeps her from playing any role in the film's climax.


Revenge of the Sith takes Padme to a new low. She doesn't even get the one or two action scenes she did in the previous films. Instead, she is cast entirely as a motivation for Anakin. The entire narrative is driven by his fear of losing her. Nearly all of Padme's scenes relate to her relationship and secret marriage with Anakin, with almost nothing to follow her political career. This also leads to the infamous resolution of her story. Because Leia mentioned in Return of the Jedi that her mother was dead, George Lucas contrived the whole situation that she "loses the will to live?"

Really? That's the best explanation you could come up with? First off, this doesn't even line up with Leia's statement because the latter claims to remember her mother, and her description sounds more like Padme died when she was a child, old enough to have vague memories; not remembering the five seconds she glimpsed her mother as a baby. Second, losing the will to live seems a tad extreme for the situation. It is true that she was just betrayed and nearly killed by her secret husband, and in that regard she would have every right to be upset, even traumatised by the experience. But even if a person could die just by losing the will to live, it seems extreme.


Personally, if I were writing this, I think I'd take a different approach. Instead of contriving a silly death scene, I think the logical thing to do would be to have her death occur between Episodes III and IV. While she would easily be emotionally affected by Anakin's betrayal and could experience psychological trauma (especially after nearly being strangled by him), I would think she would still be concerned about her children and protecting her values. Instead of having her die there, what would probably make more sense is to have Padme, alongside Bail Organa and Mon Mothma, go on to set the groundwork for the Rebel Alliance. This would also have the effect of making Leia's "princess" title even more meaningful. Additionally, I would want to imagine Padme's death as something heroic, perhaps dying to protect the alliance.

Interestingly, as soon as Lucas himself is taken out of the equation, we start to see more diversity. The  original expanded universe offered a variety of female characters, including female members of seemingly all-male organisations from the films. The Clone Wars made Padme into a far more active character than she was in the films, focusing primarily on her political career over her relationship with Anakin. Rebels makes a strong point of including a variety of regular and recurring female characters on both sides. Most recently, both The Force Awakens and Rogue One have emphasized female protagonists and avoided romantic plot threads. This information would suggest that gender issues in the original films and the prequels are mainly linked to ignorance on the part of George Lucas more than anything else.

Part of Leia's reputation could be linked to revisions that have come from other appearances elsewhere in Star Wars lore. The original expanded universe timeline had Leia going on to become both a significant figure of the New Republic and a Jedi Knight. In the new timeline, Leia has also been an important figure. She made a guest appearance on Rebels (set before A New Hope) where she used her position as a major political figure to discreetly provide the alliance with ships. The same episode also went into her psychology (she delivers a speech about how she often wonders if it is worth fighting but manages to keep going anyway) When Carrie Fisher returned to the role in The Force Awakens, Leia had become the most prominent leader of the resistance with the new title of "general" (though one could argue that this position is technically a downgrade from princess).

Leia's guest appearance in Rebels

Even so, the fact remains that Leia was a hit as early as 1977's Star Wars. So what was it that made her so popular a character. One could argue that Ripley was a much stronger character and she only came out three years later. Lucas's films are riddled with problems of gender representation that have, thankfully, been addressed with more recent entries to the franchise. One can easily notice, for example, Lucas's aversion to depicting female soldiers in the rebellion (going as far as to re-dub an actress with a man's voice for the climax of Return of the Jedi) or female Imperial officers. In the prequels most of the female characters amount to background roles, and even The Clone Wars tends to favor showing the adventures of male Jedi when there are plenty of female characters who could be used.

Yet Leia still made an impact, which leaves an interesting question open: what exactly was it that made her so popular? Why is she still not just one of the most iconic sci-fi heroines, but female characters in general? It can't be only because of how other people have treated the character. There is something less obvious going on here. Leia has become one of the most iconic female characters ever. Even her double-bunned hairstyle has become instantly recognizable. That alone is odd seeing as Leia appears in five of the eight movies (six if you count her as a baby in Revenge of the Sith) and only displays her buns in two: A New Hope and her cameo in Rogue One (which leads directly into A New Hope). A lot of the improvements that affected Leia have been in more recent installments, many of which came after George Lucas stopped working directly on Star Wars. In order to understand why Lucas treated her the way he did, it may be useful to understand his thought processes.

While it was a huge hit, Star Wars wasn't exactly original when it came out. Lucas borrowed from a wide variety of different sources in order to bring his vision to life. To list them all would be futile, but there are a few big names. Star Wars was heavily inspired by 1930's serial films, especially science fiction adventures like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. There was also a lot of influence from Star Trek (making the imagined rivalry between fans of the two extremely ironic).

Lucas also borrowed a lot from World War II propaganda films, especially those dealing with the air force, most notably in his depiction of space combat. The various battles depicted across the saga often tend to play out more like World War II aerial dogfights or naval warfare than actual space combat. This was another detail that was changed in The Clone Wars, with The Force Awakens placing the action on a planet with an atmosphere to more realistically allow conventional dogfights.

It's also no secret that the Empire was inspired by Nazi Germany. Palpatine's rise to power in the prequel trilogy was intentionally made to parallel that of Adolf Hitler. Even the word "Stormtrooper" is not Lucas's own. When used today, it is often associated with the white-armored henchmen who frequently tried to thwart our heroes. In fact, its use goes back as early as World War I. But more famously, the name was used in a particular branch of the Nazi military. Specifically, "storm troopers" were soldiers serving in a kind of Nazi Secret Service known as Sturmabteilung ("Storm Division" in English). It is no accident that George Lucas adopted this name for the soldiers representing his fictional dictatorship.


So where am I going with all this? Well, it is very likely that a lot of the gender-based issues are connected to the material which inspired George Lucas. This is likely one of the main reasons he only shows groups of men taking part in the dogfights- the same was true for the World War II air force films he was drawing on. Luke Skywalker was borrowing a lot from the (usually male) heroes of sci-fi serials from the 30's like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. Lucas was borrowing heavily from these old films which likely shaped how he made a lot of his story, including Leia's characterization.

On the surface, Leia as she appears in A New Hope seems very much a classic archetype: the princess who needs to be rescued and eventually falls in love with the male protagonist. She is the Maid Marian to Luke's Robin Hood. Comparing Star Wars to the various stories of Robin Hood is nothing new. It is also not unreasonable to assume that Lucas got ideas from the various films Hollywood has made about the classic hero. In particular, George Lucas probably borrowed a lot from 1937's The Adventures of Robin Hood, which has arguably become the most iconic treatment of Robin Hood.


Comparisons to Robin Hood are nothing new, but Leia's role in A New Hope does bear some resemblance to Lady Marian in The Adventures of Robin Hood. In the 1937 film, Marian serves mainly as Errol Flynn's love interest. Most of her character is based around her love for Robin, and she generally takes on a fairly passive role which includes getting captured in the film's climax while it is the men who take part in the main action. She also ends up getting captured by the bad guys and has to be saved by Robin Hood. But she does get a few small moments, which include providing information to the Merry Men and organizing a plan to save Robin Hood from execution (though it is actually carried out by men).

These are small but notable traces of Marian's character in The Adventures of Robin Hood. Some of this passes on to Leia. Unlike Marian, Leia spends most of the film getting captured, but the moments she does get are more prominent than those used by Marian. It is established early on that she is an important figure of authority in the Rebel Alliance, even if these aspects of her character didn't get much focus prior to The Force Awakens. She is also not totally defenseless. She does get captured at the start of A New Hope but only after fighting a group of stormtroopers.

She also manages to perform one important act prior to being taken: getting the Death Star plans off the Tantive IV. It was already a hopeless situation. We already saw that the Rebel soldiers who had so far tried to hold the ship had been largely wiped out. Leia was probably going to be found regardless of what happened, but the one thing she does manage to do ends up being crucial. That is to leave the Death Star plans with R2-D2. It is this one action that allows the plans to end up reaching Ben Kenobi and ultimately the Rebel Alliance.


Interestingly, one perspective that could be taken comes when considering the sequence of events that come from Leia's brief interaction with R2. It is entrusting him with the plans that results in them ending up on Tatooine and (accidentally) in the possession of her brother. This in turn results in Luke bringing the message to Ben Kenobi and joining him on a mission to Alderaan. This same expedition results in Luke, Han, and Ben being brought aboard the Death Star, allowing them to rescue Leia. In short, Leia could be seen as rescuing herself, if unknowingly and in an extremely roundabout way, as her one act of entrusting the Death Star plans indirectly results in her escape later on in the film.

There is still the matter of Leia being trapped on the Death Star for the majority of A New Hope. Yet here Leia seems to be more complex than a typical damsel in distress. During her scenes, she is repeatedly seen as a valuable source of information by the (all-male) Imperial forces. Grand Moff Tarkin goes to great lengths to get her to reveal the location of the Rebel Base. Leia is also the only known person aboard the Tantive IV alive (we do see some rebels being captured, but what happened to them is never stated), and Vader seemed to consider it important for Leia to be taken alive. These facts to work to create the impression that she is a high-value target.

More important is the various tactics Tarkin attempts to use against Leia prove unsuccessful. It is suggested that Leia is tortured and resists. Tarkin later attempts to blackmail her, threatening to use Alderaan as a test for the Death Star's weapons if Leia fails to give him the information he wants. This is perhaps the biggest psychological test Leia faces in A New Hope, where she is forced to make a difficult choice with no obvious right answer. She is also the only major character to face such a situation. Although there are high stakes involved, most of the men seem to have an obvious moral choice for dealing with every problem. We never see Luke or Han being faced with a difficult or morally ambiguous choice.


Now it is true that on a narrative level this infamous scene functions to reinforce the audience's disliking towards the Empire, which is especially evident with its resolution: the realization that Tarkin was going to destroy Alderaan regardless of Leia's response (as if his earlier speech about maintaining power through bully tactics wasn't enough). What does stand out is Leia's reaction to this incident. It is obvious that Tarkin is able to strike her on a psychological level, and this is the closest he comes to persuading her (though the emotional ramifications of her home planet's destruction are not explored beyond this one scene, likely another oversight on the part of George Lucas).

Leia is genuinely torn and faced with a difficult moral decision. This is the only instance in the entire original trilogy of a situation where there is no clear moral answer. Leia's two options, at least as far as she is aware are to either give up the rebel base, saving her homeworld but turning on everything she believes in; or withholding the information, protecting the alliance and her values but losing her home and presumably her family in the process. There is no solution that would prevent Tarkin from firing the laser at something. The most optimistic outcome Leia can find is to minimize casualties by trying to get Tarkin to fire at a more remote world, a move that would likely still get people killed.

Tarkin refuses to keep his promises, and infamously destroys Alderaan anyway. But Leia's reaction is an interesting one for her position. She still takes a huge risk by trying to provide false information (as we later learn, she only gave them the location of an abandoned base, not the one currently being used). This alone is a daring move, and a huge gamble. Tarking is momentarily convinced, but there was no guarantee that it would work. But he also blows up Alderaan anyway. Although Leia is clearly upset, she does display the interesting strength that even the destruction of her home planet fails to break her. By the time the information she gave turns out to be incorrect, she has proved so resistant that the Empire basically gives up even trying to extract information from her.


Leia's role as a sci-fi heroine is one of several in a transition, and a huge deal for 1977. In order to better contextualize Leia's significance, it would make sense to make reference to another science fiction film from the same year by a close friend of Lucas': Steven Spielberg. The same year Star Wars was released, Spielberg made his own science fiction adventure: Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Spielberg's film was very different, attempting to depict the changes faced by an everyman protagonist as the result of an extraordinary experience. More specifically, Spielberg focused less on action and instead opted to focus on the enigmatic nature of an alien visitor.

The important detail to note is Spielberg's women. There are two major female characters: Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon) and Veronica "Ronnie" Neary (Terri Garr). But the story is first and foremost about Roy (Richard Dreyfus). Of the two women, Jillian is the more prominent figure. Ronnie spends much of the film trying to run a dysfunctional family, and eventually leaves the narrative entirely when she abandons Roy. It's true that her maternal instincts could be seen as a strength, and she is arguably performing a smart move by leaving her seemingly abusive husband; but these aspects of her character are given little focus or depth.

Jillian is given much more focus compared to Roy, but even her role is overshadowed. While she gets her own close encounter, her role in the film is that of a companion who assists Roy in his adventure, rather than being an adventurer in her own right. Note for instance that it is Roy who figures out the location for the Alien Rendezvous. Roy is also the person who has the most detailed map of the mountain and how to reach the landing zone (information which Jillian explicitly lacks). This becomes especially notable in the film's ending. First there is a romance suddenly thrown in, when Jillian and Roy kiss even though there is otherwise no romantic chemistry between them. Second is the positioning of the characters.

At the very end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Spielberg finally allows the aliens to make an appearance, but he makes one notable choice in writing the script: only allowing one of his protagonists to meet them up close. Roy is brought to the center of the action, being able to witness the aliens up close and eventually being taken with them on some interstellar adventure. And while this is going on, where is Jillian? Watching from a distance on a cliff. Although she has worked hard to get to this moment, Spielberg still denies her what he is offering to Roy. Instead, Jillian's entire motive is based on maternal instincts. She loses her femininity by losing her son and regains it upon his return, remaining in a domestic role while the man gets a more interesting experience.


Jillian is placed in an extremely passive role for Close Encounters, one where she is able to observe but never to act, and her story revolves exclusively around Roy. Meanwhile, in Star Wars, Princess Leia is entitled to her own plotline. Although she is greatly overshadowed by the male protagonists, the film does allow the viewer to get to know Leia as a character. In fact, it is not until towards the end of the film that she and Luke directly interact. The small amount of screentime she gets does manage to show her taking some initiative: smuggling the Death Star plans off the Tantive IV, buying the droids time to escape, resisting interrogation, and aiding Han and Luke's escape. Even if these are not perfect by modern standards, they may seem a step up when compared to Spielberg.

Now it is also true that Leia will seem like a weaker character when compared to a later role. Only three years after Leia, we got Ellen Ripley who could easily be argued to be a much stronger character. Ripley is a tough and independent woman who manages to prove herself a very capable survivor. She very famously outlasts every male character with her resourcefulness and intelligence, but it's also worth noting that in the film's earlier stages no emphasis is placed on her gender. Ripley is just one of many different people on the ship, and only comes to stand out because she is the last one standing at the film's conclusion.


But if we are going to go into a history of science fiction heroines, it's a complex situation and one that has evolved significantly over the years. A likely precursor to Leia, and one easily could have influenced Spielberg and Lucas is the infamous sexploitation film Barbarella. This bizarre 1968 adventure was produced largely by men for male audiences, and its attempts at sexual appeal are barely subtle (this film literally has an orgasm death machine). On the other hand, if one is willing to look past the various sexual themes and Jane Fonda's minimal outfits, there are some interesting things to note about the character herself.

As blatantly sexualized as she is, Barbarella is established almost immediately to be an independent woman, and the film rejects the inclusion of a specific love interest in favor of allowing the character to explore her sexuality with different people. One thing to note is that after the opening sequence of Barbarella removing her spacesuit in microgravity, the first thing that happens is she is given an important mission. More specifically, she is given a task to, without any backup, find and apprehend Dr. Durand Durand on a high-risk mission and even gets entrusted with a variety of weapons. Though a lot of these go unused, this opening would seemingly suggest that the character is strong enough that she can be trusted on such a dangerous mission by herself. She does frequently take initiative as well, although her action scenes are minimal.


This likely wasn't intentional, but Barbarella was about as strong a sci-fi heroine as one could expect from 1968. Nine years later, Leia developed a few major upgrades. First, she lost the revealing outfits (not to mention being forced to wear a bikini is treated as a negative development). The few action sequences she does get are also more than can be said for Barbarella. Sexuality and relationships are also moved to the background of her storyline. Although she is obviously intended to be Luke's love interest in A New Hope, their romance is only alluded to and never given much focus.

This also would have been happening only a few years after the original Star Trek. Unlike George Lucas, Gene Roddenberry made a much clearer effort at diversity but there was also only so far he could go. In the 1960's the idea of a future without discrimination by race and gender was a radical concept (ironically, it was heavily influenced by the very conservative film Forbidden Planet). There were vast censorship networks that made his vision very had to put onto television. Yet the fact that he was able to do as much as he did ended up being crucial to social progress.

The character of Uhura was a background telephone operator but became an icon for Civil Rights just for being a black woman working as something other than a maid. The vast television censorship made it very difficult for Roddenberry to introduce racial and gender diversity, and there are plenty of stories about the difficulties he and the cast faced to make this vision happen. Roddenberry tried to have a strong female lead in the original pilot only to have everyone crack down on her. There was also the iconic moment when William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols took a huge risk in performing the first interracial kiss on American television.


If Barbarella is to be seen on the foundation for strong sci-fi heroines and Ripley is to be seen as the end result, than Leia is the framework that brings them together.It is Leia who laid the groundwork for women like Ripley to step into the forefront, and she herself was already building on what had been set up by Barbarella. Today, Leia's role in the original films may not seem to have aged well. She certainly may not seem like a strong character in A New Hope compared to her appearance in Rebels or The Force Awakens, yet it was this role that proved so crucial to shaping the sci-fi genre.