Third, a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… There was a jungle moon…
A glimpse at the original Episode VI, its iterations and context in the wake of The Force Awakens glorious boosting of Hollywood’s mightiest space franchise.
Black shirt Jedi
IF NOTHING ELSE, RETURN OF THE JEDI BROUGHT SOUND TO CINEMA IN 1983. IT WAS THE FIRST ENTRY OF THE STAR WARS SAGA TO EMPLOY THX TECHNOLOGY. But more importantly, it was a closing chapter on the saga that had sent palpable shockwaves across Hollywood… And would influence film-making forever more.
It’s the one with the Ewoks, the one with the Emperor. The one that simply can’t live up to the promise of its two predecessors. Return of the Jedi completed what is no enshrined as the original trilogy exactly six years to the day after the first film’s release. And it was here that Star Wars became ever-so-slightly self-derivative; ruling out any similar accusations against the latest instalment, The Force Awakens. While the majority of the film is dedicated to completing the story in a huge multi-set-piece final act, it was happy to pick up the familiar and convenient elements of the Death Star and space dog fights from the first film. It continued the process of focussing the epic space opera through one bloodline that had been set by the conclusion of The Empire Strikes Back and Jedi took to some strange if strangely satisfying conclusions.
Unsurprisingly, the pressure on the production was immense. The Empire Strikes Back had built on the success of its predecessor, claiming around $450 million at the world box office and critical acclaim with it. The risk had been there, with maverick creator George Lucas financing the film himself, but he recouped his investment in months and had bona fide proof that his epic space opera was no mere flash in the galaxy.
Much like the Death Star, if you could solve a few technical issues, why not recapture that Force lightning?
Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (1983)
Vader’s early arrival and purpose is an unwitting mirror of the film’s production.
Waiting three years for a resolution to The Empire Strikes Back? How on Endor have we explained that to the generations that followed? After the vapid and rather obvious developments of the prequel trilogy, The Force Awakens provided the experience closest to that long wait between 1980 and 1983, even if we’re waiting for jaw dropping revelations. If the new sequel trilogy manages to match the saber-dropping, hand-lopping twists that the original films managed, they’ve done very well indeed.
The sheer quality of Episode IV had managed to set Star Wars on an even greater course to immortality than the tremendous performance of the first film had managed. Having seen the Rebellion on the run after their unexpected victory and prematurely triumphant ceremony at the close of Episode IV, the odds seem even more stacked against the “small band of rebels” Jedi’s opening scrawl refers to. So, how surprising that at the head of the film we encounter a near completed new Death Star. The message is clear, despite the loss of ships, strategy, limbs and friends that battered our heroes in the film before, the real risk is that all their efforts might be in vain.
There’s also the unmistakable sight of the Imperial Shuttle that brings Darth Vader to the fast constructing Death Star. What an entrance it is, straight into the action of a lean film that harked back to the original more than its multi-narrative predecessor. Out of the three original trilogy directors, it’s Richard Marquand who handles this pomp the best. From the wonderful build up to the immortal trouble-shooting explanation for the Dark Lord’s presence: “I’m here to put you back on schedule”. Four minutes in and there’s even the promise of the Emperor, who is “Not as forgiving” as Vader.
And Vader’s arrival and purpose is an unwitting mirror of the film’s production.
Finding no need to break the model of the second film’s production Lucas set about financing the sequel once again; he began scripting and the search for a director. For all the creator’s rewrites, Leigh Bracket who contributed a classical line to the middle instalment had died shortly after handing in her draft. And having spent the best part of three years occupied by Empire, Irvin Kershner declined to continue with the franchise. With not only the king of space franchises on his hands, but the success of what turned out to be just the first Indiana Jones just behind him, Lucas’ search was a little more avant garde than might be expected. David Lynch and David Cronenburg would be seen as far more off the wall contenders a few years later, but were approached at the time on the strength of The Elephant Man and Scanners respectively. Lynch deferred to direct Dune, an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s great influence on Star Wars, an experience that would steer him away from space opera forever. Cronenburg instead embarked on a career defining quest (for 20 years or so) with Videodrome. And so Lucas’ focus and offer finally fell on Welsh Director Marquand, an accomplished documentary maker who had following 1977’s children’s film, Big Henry and the Polka Dot Kid with his 1981 feature Eye of the Needle. That was a film that had caught the Star Wars owner’s attention. World War II runs through much of Lucas’ works, from the dogfights of Star Wars to the setting of Indiana Jones and what’s mooted as his final large-scale film, 2012’s Red Tails. And Marquand’s Eye of the Needle, a quiet and quite unsettling spy film that aped back to British war classics and starred an enthralling Donald Sutherland in the central role is an underrated classic.
Until the forthcoming Rogue One breaks onto the big screen under the stewardship of Gareth Edwards, Marquand remains the only non-American director to have helmed a Star Wars film, and will remain the only one to have taken on a major trilogy entry for some time. It’s a status he earned thanks to the suspense and energy of Eye of the Needle. Impressed, and seeing a director who could work well with the actors as the space saga neared its fifth hour. Implicit in that skillset: Marquand wasn’t a director at all used to special effects.
“It is rather like trying to direct King Lear – with Shakespeare in the next room!”
That’s how Marquand wryly spoke of the process, as Lucas spent a considerable amount of time on set, and potentially took charge of some second unit photography as the production swelled over schedule. Marquand was to some extent a hapless admiral on the Lucas Star the minute the great beard walked on set.
On the scripting front, there’s one of the greatest links to the bold new sequel trilogy as Lawrence Kasdan was commissioned to pen the script alongside Lucas. Kasdan had stepped in to assist Lucas with Empire’s script after Brackett’s death, so was well placed. Filling in would be Marquand and David Peoples, the latter basking in his scripting of 1981’s Blade Runner. It was another collaborative effort, although unlike the previous film, this was intended to close the chapter.
As Kasdan had worked on Raiders of the Lost Ark in the interim, Peoples had travelled to 2019 tech-noir with Ridley Scott and Lucas had failed to contract him for more than the original film, Harrison Ford was the common problem in the writers’ room. With his new whip cracking persona a box office success, Ford had risen to the A-list and proposed a noble death for his character in the other Lucas franchise, which Kasdan supported. Allegedly driven by the need for a merchandise-boosting happy ending, Lucas objected and of course, won. The essence of plain drifting solitary cowboy and wandering Ronin, existences empowered by depth and no end of potential tragedy, which had fed so strongly into the space opera roots of Star Wars, was wound back in the pre-production of Return of the Jedi. It a step to the inevitable kids-spin of the prequel trilogy that appeared two decades later.
It’s no surprise that come the third instalment of one of, if not the, greatest film franchises of the 1970s and 1980s, the pressures had mounted. While script decisions and plotting were at the whim of merchandising, the production as a whole was at a whim of the technological innovations of the other parts of the Lucas empire.
Howard Kazanjian had come into the fold halfway through Empire, ultimately taking over the production duties from Gary Kurtz who became one of the high profile casualties of the difficulties of shooting two Star Wars films. Neither had been smooth, but with Jedi, Kazanjian pushed for a shorter shooting schedule than Empire in order to buy as much time as possible for Industrial Light & Magic to work their FX wonder. The three main writers, including Marquand, had discussed storyboarding during construction of the shooting script, but it was Lucas-produced boards that the cameras rolled on. From the start there was a slightly ruffled and underprepared feel to the production.
Perhaps Kazanjian’s greatest legacy came with the creation of one of the most famous fake names in Hollywood history: Blue Harvest. Designed as a cover that would limit cost escalation and ensure secrecy, from that idea grew all manner of intrigue and scheming. It saw the conception of a whole horror film and merchandise top match. It was a deceptively calming name. While all the time Marquand had an up-hill struggle.
Straight off, Return of the Jedi is an odd-beast. And its oddness has only increased since its release. The opening introduction of Vader and the Empire’s new great weapon of planet-size destruction, is wonderfully constructed, but not a patch on the pursuit and space boarding that opened A New Hope. Still, when the interior of the new Death Star swipes to two familiar droids on Tatoine, this time in the form of Death Valley California rather than the landscape of Tunisia, it’s hard not to think it’s aping the original Star Wars film. Perhaps that’s wise after the iconic snow-setting that backed Empire’s classic opening, but there’s no brewing assault here, nor space piracy here. Jedi starts with a heist.
The efforts to bring all parties scattered during the events of Empire back together, highlight their differences. Concessions to the passing of time, desperate measures and the arrival of the end-game. Not that there isn’t an odd mix to be found, or backward steps in the saga’s concession to acknowledging time.
C3PO confirms his status as a poor translator (“de wanna wonga”), but then he’s confronted with the wonderful design of Bib Fortuna. That repulsive make-up, alongside everything on offer in Jabba’s palace of lechery, defines Star Wars’ alien culture. The universe is dangerous and strange. It’s a frontier and really, the make-up would never be that disgustingly solid again. But despite some of the strange antics in Jabba’s world, a strange detour at the start of the film, it’s been further undone by the 1997 Special Editions. The addition of Jabba in the remastered Episode IV sought to add a sense of time to the trilogy, one that wasn’t needed. The slimmer Jabba, presented in that comedy scene (intended at the time of shooting the original to be human), sits very uneasily with the repulsive, overweight slug of Jedi. More a Nero than a fearsome gangster, if there’s a clue to the reach and convenient blind eye of the Empire, it doesn’t shine through. Things were worsened by the Hutt’s cameo in Episode I: The Phantom Menace.
This is Jabba’s big shot at the early threat, but with the immediate reveal of the new Death Star, he can’t possibly compete. As an arching plot to keep the core of the Rebellion busy, it was a long shot, but has successfully bought the Empire time. In spite of the aforementioned delays in its ambitious construction plans, the Empire still manages to be in its greatest ascendency. The laughing muppet, wonderfully real, is a throwback to Episode IV, but sets the tone for the allies of the final act. Unfortunately, along with the arrival of the Ewoks at the end, Jabba’s palace helps launch Jedi into comedy, and a tarnished reputation it’s never fought off.
The Bechdel collapse
Then, sat around it all is the unnecessary sadism. The gang’s back together, but a far cry from their greatest moments. Freed, Han is blind. Luke is powerless, and worse he’s lost the boyish charm that made him the audiences entrance to this strange new world. And then, the deception of Leia being behind the bounty hunter quickly leads to her enslavement in a gold bikini. Any attempt to assess the Bechdel test falls into the Sarlacc pit. It’s an incredible dive considering not only Leia’s role in the previous two films, even as she fell into the blossoming love plot in Empire, but her exceptional, defiant and strong entrance. Yes, she’s captured at the beginning of the first film, the classic damsel in distress princess that Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs had such fun aping in 1987. But it took a Star Destroyer, the Emperor’s apprentice and many people’s lives to land her in a cell. And when she’s rescued, hers is a brilliantly barbed escape with a succession of “Aren’t you a little short to be a Stormtrooper?” and “You’re who?” and then, withering, “Looks like you managed to cut off our only escape route.”
“It’s your choice, but I warn you not to underestimate my power”
Just as we first saw Leia recording a holographic message in A New Hope, Luke Skywalker first appears as a holographic message. An almost astral projection of a Luke far removed from the one we’ve seen before, it can’t help recall a Jedi ghost, particularly the ghost of Obi Wan Kenobi who packed Skywalker off for training at the start of Empire. Even in the odd distraction of Jedi’s bloated beginning, there’s a creeping dread in this new Jedi’s appearance. Far from the wounded orphan, failing in his awakening we left at the end of Empire, Luke is controlled, scheming and all powerful, or at least as much as he can be in a rather convoluted multi-part heist. With no previous reference could this be a Jedi at full power, even when he’s alone, even when the Hutt is immune to his mind tricks, even when he can’t muster fear from a muppet? A clever throwback to the first film’s insistence that the grip of the Jedi, of the Force in total, is long forgotten?
Well, no. Oddly, Luke’s donned a black costume. The subsequent enlargement of the saga has not only shown that to be distinct for a Jedi, but more like a Sith than even Vader or the Emperor’s tailors could suggest. His entrance to the Palace is deeply sinister, tinged by menace, particularly in his wave of the hand and strangely, the hint of a force choke.
Later, it’s Chewbacca who informs the temporarily blind Han that Luke’s become a Jedi Knight, the saga’s original Doubting Thomas. But Skywalker is no fully-formed Jedi ready to rock. As the first Jedi Knight in two decades you’ve got to get used to abuse, as you only really get to flex your skills against a rancor. His green lightsaber, constructed after his father’s blue saber was lost in the bowels of Cloud City, sticks out as a halfway point. Not the red of the Sith, but not the blue he inherited. Later, aboard the Death Star, the Emperor approves of his construction. “I see you have constructed a new lightsabre,” he says, implying this indicates a culmination in his skills. Somehow proof of the Skywalkers’ power, the familial link, it remains an odd observation when no indication of the Force’s role in the casting of a saber is ever confirmed.
The Hutt antics conclude with a ritual sacrifice, with all the chance for error that a Bond villain’s death trap can muster. The sarlacc pit almost feels like the abyss at the wrong moment. All but Han can stare into it, but this is where the posse gets to ride again. The sarlacc pit was subject to massive restoration in the 1997 remasters, adding unnecessary tentacles and a beak that take away from the stark desolation of the original dessert hole. In some way it makes it less credible that this beaked creature could eat so much. But the threat in the sands of Tatoine had arrived at last. And it amounts to little more than an over-the-top and all too easy punishment for Jabba’s henchman and fan favourite Boba Fett. Winding his way into the 1997 remaster of A New Hope doesn’t save the bounty hunter from his fate in the pits of the desert planet.
It’s all the worst that the last words many of the victims hear are C3POs. A whole half an hour is spent on that destructive end to the Tatooine story, which says a lot about Return of the Jedi.
The dark side of the moon
“Everything is proceeding as I have forseen”
It’s not just the Empire’s construction plans that have shortened, but the Rebel’s lines of intelligence. The extended Tatoine scenes lead straight into a second arrival on the Death Star. In the absence of the first film’s Grand Moff Tarkin, there’s the glorious entrance of the Imperial Guard and the Emperor himself. Complete with cane. Again, it’s a glorious assault on the senses, but for all the high budget there’s less substance. It’s a strange hollow that accompanies the Emperor, like the contents of his mysterious, fully clad red guard. It’s a feeling enhanced by the impending sense of an endgame.
And while the Emperor appears in the flesh for the first time, on Dagobah there’s what appears to be a death for the sake of closure. The prequels show that grand master Yoda has aged badly in 20 years, which could very well be down to his damp surroundings. Given Yoda’s approach to kick-starting the Jedi order in the original trilogy, you might think that he sees death as a fine way of getting out of more work.
In fact, it was Marquand’s apparent insistence that brought the trilogy’s most famous muppet back. For the director it completed the themes of the previous film, for Lucas it provided a witness to confirm the truth of what his great villain had told Skywalker at the climax of Empire. Unlike the Jedi we’d later see, oddly comfortable in deceit and secrecy, Vader has little need of lies.
Still, Skywalker’s training seems as complete as it could be, and his returns to bid farewell a stragey part of Jedi lore. Two things are strange. That the Jedi’s agree that it is a confrontation with Vader that stands between Luke and his Jedi mantle – surely a trial no Jedi had to face before. And then that Luke, as the dialogue and the frank discussion about his father suggests, hadn’t returned to Dagobah to complete his training after Empire. Mirroring his portentous line of dialogue in the previous film, Yoda dies telling Luke that he is not alone. This film’s twist is close.
It’s so simple in dialogue, something that Lucas should have reviewed when he came to produce the prequel trilogy.
“Luke… Luke… do not… do not underestimate the powers of the Emperor or suffer your father’s fate you will. Luke, when gone am I… the last of the Jedi will you be. Luke, the Force runs strong in your family. Pass on what you have learned, Luke. There is… another… Sky… Walker…”
Kenobi’s explanation would be less contradicted. But the moral is an odd one. All parts of the force are in agreement: Luke has a destiny, and it’s all about death. His or his father’s.
In the Family
As if apologetic that it can’t compete with Vader’s jaw-dropping revelation at the end of Empire, Luke’s difficult chat to his sister takes place in the foliage of a remote planet. In the treetops, Luke quizzes Leia as the truth is stretched out. “The force is strong in my family…” dialogue makes a powerful speech, none more so than when The Force Awakens employed it in the early trailers that signalled the saga’s return to the big screen and full strength.
It had to be softer, gentler. Not least in context of the kiss the two had exchanged in Empire. A kiss in jest, but one that had caused author Alan Dean Foster’s jaw to drop, having developed the relationship in his 1978 novel, Star Wars: Splinter of the Mind’s Eye. A prose sequel to the original Star Wars film, it was intended to continue the saga should box office receipts not allow that on the big screen. Quickly consigned to non-canon status as George Lucas bank-rolled a sequel, Foster’s book sits as an uncomfortable reminder of how much the original trilogy’s famous storyline was assembled piecemeal.
It’s a revelation that may well feel a little embarrassed, and not just for its shallow roots. An undeniably powerful revelation, can only undermine the threat that the rest of the saga has built to. Should Luke fail in his ultimate challenge, there is indeed another.
The emphasis in the multi-part ending remains on the familial, the Skywalker bloodline that had quickly become the main artery of a story that crossed thousands of worlds, millions of lives, almost the entirety of that galaxy far, far away. It’s a bloodline that can repress and effect a Force that is desperate for an awakening. One of the few things that can stand in its way is a race of cuddly teddy bears.
Unlike the stark third act split of the first film, in Jedi Mon Mothma and Admiral Akbar have formulated a quick plan, and one that takes up the substance of most of the film. Solo’s arrival on Endor reunites the team just before the hour mark. Everything has been leading to the finale of not simply the film, but the trilogy. A huge narrative scrunching multi-part show-down. It’s a marvellous split that The Phantom Menace stole in earnest, and stole well.
The speeder chase in the forests of Endor is an exhilarating and impossible feat under the stewardship of Marquand. It’s quite possibly the finest set-piece in the original trilogy even if it’s preposterously long. Above, there’s the And then there’s the huge space battle that even brings Wedge Antilles back into the fold, in lieu of pilot Skywalker.
In contrast, the Ewok diversion is overlong, a soft equivalent of pulling more out of the Rebel Alliance, and a failed attempt to demonstrate the belligerent effect of the Empire when the supreme, dark head is mere miles away. Even if the Rebel Alliance do boast a remote, shiny, white control room there’s a nagging shame in so many glorious high concept shots of the Empire sitting alongside next to the flora of a moon. There is action and plenty of it, alongside comedy to balance the early Hutt scenes, and some strangely touching pathos. But If it’s an attempt to pull back to the idea of the little guy, the underdog, then it fails against the simplicity of the first film. In fact, Lucas original intention was that the furry denizens would be Wookies. The scope, and intention, was lowered.
Star of Death
In space, it’s around the 90 minute mark that Skywalker meets the Emperor of calm seduction. Pulling out the brief exchange between dark lord and dark apprentice in Empire, the hubristic leader of the Empire makes no attempt to disguise the fact that he has a “great many” options. The handling of this climactic meeting may fall short of expectation, but it’s still infinitely better than the stalking flattery and coercion that the prequels prolonged.
Again, death is at the forefront. Both elderly mentors demand a death: The Emperor could exploit the demise of either Skywalker, but how much more tempting the promise of the younger Skywalker falling to Dark Side through patricide? On the other side, Kenobi is the chief will of the Jedi’s revenge, urging the destruction of Vader to complete Luke’s journey as a Jedi Knight. There’s an interesting choice there, and one the prequel trilogy completely failed to explore with any skill. Verging between the snap of “Yes, I know,” the prophecy of “His compassion for you will be his undoing” and the running commentary of ““Good, use your aggressive feelings, boy” – Emperor Palpatine plays cod Freudian psychologist. None more so than his overloaded “You are unwise to lower your defences”. There’s more Freudian overload with the calm assuredness of Vader’s steady, slashing but never hurried technique. If anything rules The Force Awaken’s Kylo Ren out as failing to follow in his grandfather’s robotic boots, its’ that.
“So be it Jedi”
While Han and Leia are reversing, but nowhere near beating the “I love you” “I know” exchange of Empire in the forests below, Luke gives into rage in the throne room of the new Death Star. Could it really be the shared experience of father and son, the same robotic arms, lost in similar circumstances, is the crucial link in their forging relationship? The camera doesn’t linger.
“Only now at the end do you understand”
Luke’s death looks certain, but so much carried in the reflection of faceless masks. The painful, ultimately fatal turn that sees Vader killing the Emperor defies significant analysis. It’s a just resolution, that when the reformed Sith is revealed to be old, hideously injured and wonderfully English, his words enforce.
“No. You’re coming with me. I can’t leave you here. I’ve got to save you.
“You already have, Luke. You were right about me. Tell your sister…you were right.”
Marquand was hired for suspense, but also his success with actors. That’s certainly not an accusation that could be levied at Lucas. But maybe it comes down to this brief, crucial scene with Sebastian Shaw’s Anakin Skywalker.
While outside his old friend Wedge makes it to the power regulator of this new, and less fault prone Death Star, he finally makes up for his failure during the first film’s Death Star run. The success is clear, although everyone has been there before, and Jedi can’t resist mixing some extraordinary tones.
Despite being the only one to make it away from the space station, there’s something distinctly ominous in Luke Skywalker piloting his father’s shuttle to safety. Suicide runs and mass casualties have been celebrated during the Battle of Endor, but the film ends in a gigantic party, backed by John Williams’ freshly retooled party music. While later print remasters may be forgiven for taking a prequel trilogy-centric spin through celebrating planets, including Endor, Naboo and quite surprisingly bothered Coruscant, the replacement of Sebastian Shaw’s Force Ghost with that of Hayden Christensen cannot. It makes absolutely no sense.
Still, maybe there was method in this imbalance. The battle of Endor was huge, one of a number of huge assaults on the Empire, from the ashes of which emerged The Force Awakens’ First Order. It’s from the pyre on Endor that Vader’s mask emerges, twisted and horrific to fuel his grandson’s wavering slide in that film.
But perhaps most importantly, it concludes the trilogy in a way that clearly guarantees that Star Wars saga would never be able to leave Vader behind. When the prequels emerged at the close of the 20th century, the long shadow cast over them was his.