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Sun Tzu and Hollywood

How Sun Tzu's Art of War has appeared on the big and small screen.

Star Wars Trilogy – 1977 to 1983

Is Revenge of the Sith Anti-Bush?

Yoda, the wise old Jedi Master introduced in the first Star Wars trilogy, is partly modeled after a Chinese philosopher named Lao Tzu from 2,500 years ago.  Lao Tzu is a contemporary of Sun Tzu, and his philosophies, recorded in the Chinese Tao Te Ching (Way of Life), form a cornerstone of Sun Tzu’s Art of War.  The influence of both Lao Tzu’s and Sun Tzu’s philosophies on George Lucas’ descriptions of the Jedi Warrior philosophies is deliberate.  For example, George Lucas’ invention of "the Force" borrows directly from the Tao Te Ching’s concept of "the Way."  Both Lao Tzu and Sun Tzu discuss "The Way" in their text as a force that connects all life and represents the how things are. 

To illustrate the commonality of ideas, switch the words "the Way" with the words "the Force" in the following sentence:

 “Those who act in accord with the Way/the Force, will succeed; those that act against the Way/the Force will find only peril.” 

This sentence could logically appear in any of the Star Wars movies, The Tao Te Ching, or The Art of War.

When Hollywood released the first Star Wars Trilogy, very few Americans had any familiarity with either the Tao Te Ching or Sun Tzu’s Art of War.  At the time, Jedi ideals seemed all the more new and profound.  However, like the underlying story about heroes and villains itself, the philosophy the Jedi bring to the screen is a philosophy from the ages.

Wall Street – 1989

In the movie Wall Street, Bud Fox says, “Sun-tzu: If your enemy is superior, evade him. If angry, irritate him. If equally matched, fight, and if not split and reevaluate.” 

Gordon Gecko says, “I don't throw darts at a board. I bet on sure things. Read Sun-tzu, The Art of War. Every battle is won before it is ever fought.”

This double mention of Sun Tzu by characters from an iconic movie of American power results in a surge in popularity of the Art of War in the U.S.  The Art of War soon afterward becomes a staple title for business readers, made relevant all the more by Japan’s preeminence as a business powerhouse in the 1980s, the year the movie was released.  Sun Tzu's philosophies have long been a part of the Japanese business world.  His philosophies proved, and continue to prove, highly applicable to the dynamic style of American business as well.

HBO’s The Sopranos – 1999

In The Sopranos, Tony Soprano says “Been reading that-- that book you told me about. You know, The Art of War by Sun Tzu. I mean here's this guy, a Chinese general, wrote this thing 2400 years ago, and most of it still applies today! Balk the enemy's power. Force him to reveal himself. You know most of the guys that I know, they read Prince Machiavelli, and I had Carmela go and get the Cliff Notes once and -- he's okay. But this book is much better about strategy.

The Sopranos is one of the most popular shows on television in 1999, and his comment leads to a major upsurge in Sun Tzu book purchases to the point that the publishers of the Ralph Sawyer edition change their back cover copy to leverage the show.  Over 200 Sun Tzu titles are on the market.  The majority of these titles appear after 1996, though many older titles from Asia, more readily available in Singapore and other Asian markets, have also made their way to the U.S. (Prior to 1996, the older Griffith, Cleary, and Sawyer translations, plus James Clavell's edited edition of Lionel Giles translation predominated the market for Sun Tzu books.)


The Sopranos Effect?


[The large number of Sun Tzu titles has led people to ask me why yet another Sun Tzu book with my title Understanding Sun Tzu on the Art of War.  Answer: other authors concentrate on presenting new translation, interpretations, or ties to Sun Tzu ranging from leadership, which makes sense, to parenting, which seems a bit of a stretch.  No other title has significantly attempted to help readers understand Sun Tzu’s text in order to make it useful.]  To see Understanding Sun Tzu on the Art of War on Amazon.com, click here.

The majority of the 60 plus new titles that appear after 2003 are actually the original 1910 Lionel Giles translation with the respective publishers' covers.  The Lionel Giles translation is available free off of the internet. 


The Art of War – 2000


Despite the title, the movie The Art of War has little to do with Sun Tzu’s Art of War other than that it is set in Hong Kong.  The use of the recognized Art of War title is actually Hollywood’s exploitation of the Sun Tzu market in reverse.  Sun Tzu serves to promote the movie The Art of War instead of the movie promoting Sun Tzu.  The Art of War is "proof Hollywood" that Sun Tzu firmly belongs to the American cultural mainstream.


James Bond: Die Another Day – 2002


In Die Another Day, James Bond fights a North Korean villain who considers himself a student of Sun Tzu's Art of War.  The Art of War takes a bullet in this movies, literally, during a critical fight scene.  Die Another Day has no significant effect on the Sun Tzu marketplace.

Golden Harvest: Sun Tzu movie by Jackie Chan - (Originally slated for 2004)


In May 2001, it appeared Jackie Chan might star in an actual $38m Sun Tzu epic.  Filming was to be done in China in 2004 and, unlike present Western films that use computers for the purpose, Golden Harvest in Hong Kong intended to use some 100,000 extras for the battle scenes.  (I actually show up in a couple of battle scenes in the movie God’s and Generals, where perhaps one thousand American Civil War extras appeared on any given day, so I have a little bit of appreciation about what so many extras could mean.)  This project fell off the Hollywood radar screen, and so may no longer be in motion.  My question: Did Jackie Chan plan to do this film as a serious historical epic, or would Sun Tzu have kicked some butt literally?



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