2015/10/28

Citizen Vader

Citizen Vader
Image by Red Letter Media
My post on books that informed Star Wars drew multiple calls to examine George Lucas' cinematic influences. The Star Wars saga borrows from and pays homage to so many films that covering them all in depth would require a lengthy series. You could probably sustain a whole blog on little else.

I'm going to resist that kind of scope creep and instead focus on one movie that left a deep impression on Star Wars--for good and ill. That film is Orson Welles' 1941 magnum opus Citizen Kane.

For those who haven't seen Kane, I highly recommend that you watch it. Even if you already know what "Rosebud" means, the movie is a brilliantly told character study in which Welles leads us on a journey that's far more than a mere setup for a plot twist. And contrary to most people's expectations for a 1940s drama, it features groundbreaking photography and special effects--another likeness to Star Wars.

At its heart, Citizen Kane is a haunting cautionary tale against drinking your own Kool-Aid; a warning about how idealism tainted by arrogance can ultimately cost you everything.

That synopsis alone probably gives you an idea of how Welles influenced Lucas. Let's explore the stories' similarities in depth.


Anakin Skywalker is clearly patterned after Charles Foster Kane.


Kand and Hitler
Darth Vader would be right at home on that balcony.
There are stark similarities between Kane and Vader, foremost among them is the similar trajectories that their lives take.

Birthplace: Charlie Kane was born in Colorado while it was still a frontier territory and technically part of the American Wild West. Anakin Skywalker hails from the planet of Tatooine in the Outer Rim Territories. This world on the fringes of the Galactic Republic/Empire has much in common with cinematic western settings, including its desert geography, sometimes hostile natives, and barroom shootouts.

Parental Relationships: Kane suffered a traumatic separation from his family when his mother placed him under the guardianship of a New York banker at the age of eight. Anakin is only a year older when he leaves his mother to begin his Jedi training on the city-planet of Coruscant. Both men develop severe separation anxiety that will dominate their destinies for the rest of their lives.

Idealism: Obi-Wan Kenobi comes right out and calls Anakin an idealist, and in context implies that this idealism contributed to Anakin's downfall. Kane's first act as a newspaper owner is to publish a declaration of principles which he states will govern how he treats his readers. (As a writer, I find Kane's almost immediate abandonment of this promise as personally distasteful--if not as downright evil--as any of Vader's sins.)

Corruption: Anakin's transformation into Darth Vader reflects his philosophical transformation from an idealist to an ideologue (or cultist). The dream of ultimate order and peace for the good of all becomes an absolute to which all supposedly lesser goods--including, eventually, people's lives--can and must be sacrificed.

Kane's fall is subtler and less spectacular than Anakin's, but in a way it is even more reprehensible. Vader's stated goal of universal peace through law and order is quite noble (and it's consistent with his character--the guy is, after all, a space cop). Kane's ruthless pursuit of love on his own terms is purely self-serving, and he willingly uses his readership, his family, and the electorate as mere tools in his doomed bids to get it.

Death: both characters' stories end with their deaths. But before they die, both men are reduced to crippled shadows of their past glory, isolated from the rest of humanity and stripped of the dreams they so desperately chased by their own evil choices.

Anakin and Luke Skywalker

Here we find a key difference. Kane's story is an unmitigated tragedy. Though he clearly comes to regret his loss of innocence, he never expresses remorse for the harm he's caused. Anakin's life ends with his redemption, as he rejects and triumphs over the hate that had dominated him for so long.

Of course, Anakin's salvation was only accomplished through his son's intervention. (Theologically loaded terms? You bet, but that's a subject for yet another Star Wars influences post.) In light of Luke's redemptive role, Welles' decision to kill off Kane's son rather early in the film takes on interesting implications.

Lucas dropped the ball.
Considering that the saga of Darth Vader is, in the final analysis, a redemption story (and thus potentially far more powerful than a pure tragedy), Star Wars had a rare chance to do in the science fiction genre what Citizen Kane did in drama--only better. There are brilliant glimpses of this potential in the original trilogy, which not coincidentally often joins Citizen Kane on lists of the best movies ever made.

Darth Vader's death and redemption were handled flawlessly. It fell to the prequels to chronicle the character's origin and fall in a way that reinforced his tragic yet sympathetic arc. Unfortunately, George Lucas' impatience with characterization and dialog got the better of him. Watch Red Letter Media's in-depth deconstruction of Episode III for more details.



From their humble beginnings to the early childhood traumas that set them on the path to the Dark Side, Anakin Skywalker and Charles Foster Kane have much in common. Orson Welles' superior writing and directing makes Kane's the better told story overall, but there's really no shame in finishing behind Citizen Kane.

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