The beautiful tragedy of Revenge of the Sith

Much is said about the Star Wars prequels that strikes me as a little unfair. I once conceded to the narrative by casting the Prequels as ‘political’ and ‘philosophical’, and the Originals as ‘artistic’ and sometimes ‘poetic’. But I think the prequel trilogy is its own form of poetry, one which echoes the golden age of Shakespearean acting that once dominated Hollywood, but is not dominated by Stanislavsky’s naturalist method. But the idea that acting is ever ‘natural’ is a dangerous distraction from the core task of acting: to hold, as it were, a mirror up to nature (to echo Shakespeare’s Hamlet). This mirror both reflects and distorts the temporal stream in which we are entangled, compelling us to go beyond the present and look to the depths of the past in order to pave the way for the future.

The last battle.

The standard Hollywood format depicts time as either ascending towards a utopia or following a straight line towards purgatory. Revenge of the Sith instead echoes Dante’s Inferno, as one hell gives way to another. The dream of heaven gives birth to the reality of hellfire, as is shown by the concluding battle on the fiery planet of Mustafa.

There is more than visual beauty in this filmatic tragedy. John Williams’ score echoes his best work on Schindler’s List, whose lead actor Liam Neeson plays the mentor of Obi-Wan and Anakin in the opening film of the trilogy. The second film springs the trap, the ‘Clone War’, in which the third film finds its poetic flight to ‘darkness’ of philosophic pride. Anakin’s enslavement in his youth combines with romantic confusion, frustrated ambition, and the devastating loss of his mother to lead him into the sinister embrace of the Republic’s Chancellor, who is revealed as a Sauron-like figure whose only desire is Hobbesian pursuit of ‘power after power’, to no end.

Confused by the Jedi Council’s hypocrisy and oceans of self-doubt, Anakin places his faith in an external object. This faith is misplaced, and leads to terrible violence. His self doubt generates excessive faith in others that confuses him and distorts his judgement. His belated attempt to reclaim control of his live results in the suffering of many and his own return to a form of slavery. It takes episodes IV to VI of the Saga to free himself from the shackles of his newfangled identity, at which point death is the only escape.

In the narrative of Episode III, the descent is inevitable — every move is met with a countermove, accelerating the death spiral. It is true that only a miracle could avert the descent — as is the case in the protagonist’s resurrection in Harry Potter, or the fortuitous self-destruction of the One Ring by the creature Gollum in Lord Of the Rings. External circumstance and internal constitution are one, and the two must align for good to prevail. Ultimately, the fates must align, and the attempt to control destiny will merely accelerate demise. To let go of what we wish to hold onto — this is the way. To accept the unacceptable without excusing it — this is the only path from the vain wars of revenge: forgiveness, and the eternal peace it promises. Be at peace.

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