Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Images of Power Part I: The Empire (and Palpatine's wardrobe)

How the Emperor got his clothes...
Unfortunately, there isn't much scholarship about Star Wars by political scientists. Over the next couple of weeks, we'll engage with one of the brave few. Our "Images of Power" mini-series will use Professor Jeffrey A. Hart's "Images of Power in Hollywood Films: The Example of Star Wars" conference paper as a springboard for discussion about the imagery of power in the Star Wars movies. Hart identifies several strains of power-based imagery throughout the Star Wars saga, most of which focus on the conflict between good versus evil. Today, we begin with: Part I: The Empire (and Palpatine's wardrobe).
As I'd pointed out in a previous post, both the Sith and Nazis had similar philosophical approaches towards power. In his discussion of imagery, Hart also points to how Lucas patterned the imagery of the Sith on the Nazis, from Darth Vader's helmet, which resembles a Nazi battle helmet, to the uniforms of Imperial officers, which are the same shade of grey as those of SS officers. Moreover, the Empire's colors are black, red, and white, the same as the Nazi flag.

This last observation actually helps clarify some of the creative choices Lucas made in the prequels. Over the course of the prequels, Palpatine/Sidious' wardrobe changes color tones. In The Phantom Menace, Senator Palpatine wears bright blue/purplish robes with a quilted pattern with yellow highlights. This outfit looks more like the garments of medieval courtier or royal, especially the purple tones. In Attack of the Clones, Chancellor Palpatine wears black robes over a dark yellow vest. The robes still have some quilting, but clearly his clothing - and the character - has become darker. In both movies, Palpatine's clothing remains the same - he apparently doesn't change clothes often.

Given this progression, one might have expected Palpatine's clothes to become even darker in Revenge of the Sith. However, not only does Palpatine change clothes several times, but he also wears several lighter colors than he did in Attack of the Clones. When we first see him, Palpatine wears a light grey one-piece robe. When we next see him in the chancellor's suite, Palpatine wears maroon robes (pictured). He wears this bright red through his revelation of Darth Sidious and during his speech before the Senate. Again, after it is clear that Palpatine is Sidious and therefore evil, one might have expected him to wear all black. However, Palpatine only dons the familiar black robes when he duels with Yoda.

Black as a black hole...
Palpatine's wardrobe in Revenge of the Sith becomes less confusing in light of Hart's observation. In visual imagery, red is often associated with evil. The colors of Palpatine's wardrobe approximate that black, red, and white of the Nazi flag (or at least light grey - of course, pure white is reserved for the good guys). Of course, red is also associated with other image of evil, such as Satan and blood. When Palpatine is at his most evil as a politician, he most resembles Adolf Hitler or Satan. During his speech before the Senate, the massacre of Order 66 takes place in the background, showing that both Palpatine's garments and his New Order are bathed in blood. 

In that sense, black isn't the color of ultimate evil, which means that the fact that Palpatine wears black in Revenge of the Sith and Return of the Jedi must symbolize something other than simply evil. I suspect then that black shows Palpatine has reached a point beyond redemption. Moreover, it is the point at which Palpatine stops pretending to be anything other than a Sith. His evil nature has been revealed and can no longer be hidden. It is interesting to note that while Darth Vader wears black, he wears shiny armor that reflects light. Moreover, Vader's suit is like a box surrounding the humanity in him. While it is integrated with Vader's biology, the mask can be removed. By contrast, Palpatine's robes absorb all light, like a black hole. Thus, unlike Palpatine, Vader can be redeemed for there is still light in him.

To be honest, I'm a bit surprised Hart didn't cite Sidious' infamous "Unlimited power!" meme from Revenge of the Sith. Despite this omission, his discussion of the imagery of the Empire is quite interesting and helped situate Palpatine within the broader imagery of evil in Hollywood movies. 

1 comment:

  1. I quite like the point about Vader's suit reflecting light and thus there is still some light in him somewhere, unlike Palpatine who wears robes which absorb all light that touches them. Showing how he is removing the light and hope from the word around him !