As with The Empire Strikes Back before it, Return of the Jedi was the most anticipated movie ever made at that time. After three long years of conjecture and passionate argument, audiences would at last have an answer to the burning question of the age. Is Darth Vader truly Luke Skywalker’s father? No matter how that answer came down, it would lead to more questions, each potentially more destructive than the first.
In 1983, I was nine years old. By this point I was a bona fide “monster kid,” having begun my long education on weekend afternoons immersed in the greatest (or goofiest) science fiction and horror films ever made. If it had a spaceship, an alien, or some kind of monster in it, I was all in. My horizons had even expanded in ways that perhaps primed me for my Return of the Jedi experience. For example, in 1981, two movies were released the same day that would forever shape me: Raiders of the Lost Ark and Clash of the Titans. A year later, I learned about loss from E. T. The Extra-Terrestrial, and I learned about death and sacrifice in a big way when Dad scored preview tickets to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That was a lesson I immediately applied to Obi-Wan Kenobi and to Han Solo (because no one was certain he’d come back from carbon freeze). Everything comes back to Star Wars, especially back then. It shook me to the core and made me nervous about who would come out of the next film alive. Based on all the things I’ve previously discussed about how Star Wars influenced me, I’m sure you can draw the immediate connections here.
The difference is that by this point, I was becoming aware of how movies were being made, and who did the storytelling. Names like Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill now meant something to me. The magic wasn’t just on the screen, it was behind it. I wanted to know how spaceships could fly, how people could get their faces melted off by ancient artifacts, and how something like Medusa could move on its own and turn people to stone by looking at them. It all looked unnatural and yet somehow completely real to my young mind. I learned where I could about such things, with some books being available in the local library about older films such as Dracula or Frankenstein. Karloff and Lugosi, Cushing and Lee, Lucas and Spielberg… I was starting to put it all together. I learned of Jack Pierce, of Ray Harryhausen, of Lon Chaney, Sr. and Jr. I learned, and my appetite was insatiable. In 1983, I got my first pair of glasses, and while my classmates were mocking me, I was admiring the vision of another man with glasses. Somebody just like me made Star Wars.
The same could be said on the musical front. In our elementary school’s music class, we were allowed to bring our own music from home to share with the class on Fridays. A friend of mine had the Star Wars soundtrack, and I was jealous. In this era between films, I learned the name John Williams, and I got my first record album: Raiders of the Lost Ark. The first of many such soundtrack recordings, I might add. I learned also about knock-off recordings, such as Meco’s Star Wars and Other Galactic Funk, which had burned up the charts in the pre-Empire disco years. I became aware of classic vs. kitsch, of the storytelling potential of instrumental music, and of how to separate original recordings from those made by other orchestras.
Doors were blown wide open in my young mind, and I owe much to the notion that my parents had no problem stoking that fire. I did my chores, earned an allowance, and saved up enough money to become a member of The Official Star Wars Fan Club. With it came all manner of promotional glossy photos, posters, patches, and… the newsletter, Bantha Tracks. This is where I learned more about the cast and crew making what was then called Revenge of the Jedi. It was here that I learned about the name change to Return because Lucas felt revenge was not a concept worthy of a Jedi. It was because of that statement that I first learned about the concepts of honor and chivalry, of the moral defining lines between heroes and villains that my parents now reinforced through Star Wars.
And it was through Bantha Tracks that I first learned about what would later be called spoilers. They called them “sneak previews.” No internet in those days meant I had the inside scoop, and I wasn’t afraid to share it with anyone who would listen. My friends listened with great interest. Their parents were calling my parents, furious because they didn’t want to know these secrets. I couldn’t understand that. I was the kid that peeked at his Christmas presents and was still excited anyway. And why not? They were Star Wars toys! What’s not to be excited about? What Bantha Tracks couldn’t tell me, I quickly became adept in filling in the gaps. And sometimes my version of the story was even correct, which only served to make other parents even angrier after they saw the film for themselves. I never understood that. Surely, the sheer joy of seeing the movie was enough. And you could brace yourself for who was going to live or die if you knew in advance.
That was my biggest fear, you see, that the hero would kill the villain. I didn’t want Darth Vader to die! I understood it was going to happen eventually, but to kill him meant no more movies. Besides, there was a personal stake in all this, which I’ve previously explained ad nauseum in other posts. After Empire, there was a rumor going around that there would be more Star Wars. The rumor went something like this. In the new movie, we were going to see the Emperor — Darth Vader’s boss — die. He was going to be killed by Vader himself, who would in turn become the new Emperor for… Episodes VII, VIII, and IX. Wait… what? It got better. Luke would then quit the Rebellion and dedicate his life to turning his father (this rumor confirmed the father connection to be true!) back to the Light side, bringing down the Empire that way. So whatever happened, Vader would bring down the Empire in another trilogy, either by his turn or by his death. We didn’t know which, but I had three or possibly even six more films to find out, depending on which rumor you wanted to buy into. The rumor mill didn’t stop there. We were told we’d get to see the Wookiees in this next film. The Empire had rounded them up as slave labor to build the Death Star, and they were finally going to rise up and wreak havoc. We were told we’d get to see The Clone Wars play out in Episodes I, II, and III, resulting in the origin story for Darth Vader. And…
Bantha Tracks confirmed none of it. They avoided the topic entirely. This led to my first confrontation between rumor and official sources, truly a life lesson. From production photos, we saw all the new aliens, we confirmed the Emperor, we saw the return of Han Solo. This last point is important. From this knowledge, that means we learn he’d be freed from Jabba the Hutt, which meant we’d finally see Jabba, and more importantly, Han wasn’t dead after all. But that opened to another rumor, that Han would die flying the Falcon in the film’s finale. Well, it didn’t appear in the photos that he was flying the Falcon. It also didn’t appear that we’d see an army of Wookiees. Come to find out later, these were points from early drafts that were changed later.
We got… Ewoks.
There’s an episode of the sitcom How I Met Your Mother where Barney Stinson explains the Ewok Age Divide. As he tells it, if you were nine years old or younger, Ewoks were awesome. If you were ten or older, they were demonic abominations that destroyed Star Wars forever. It’s a simple enough idea, and largely true… from a certain point of view. I was nine, as I say. I both loved them and hated them. I loved them because they were funny and clearly vicious. I didn’t understand how they were to stand up to the Empire, but they were tough enough to beat up on stormtroopers. I wanted to know more. I hated them because they weren’t Wookiees. I loved Wookiees. I wanted Wookiees, dammit! But I made my peace with the absence of Wookiees and decided I’d give Ewoks their due opportunity to impress me.
I’m sure you’ve noticed by now, I haven’t even talked about the movie itself or its plot. This is all behind the scenes, rumor, and how I engaged with it all. This is how deep it got for me at only age nine, without the aid of anything resembling the internet. Fandom knows no bounds. There is no limitation. There is only the power of the Force. Somehow actually seeing the film had become secondary to the fandom experience for me. Between Empire and Jedi, the world changed, and I changed with it. Only when the movie opened did I become fully aware of by how much.
Lines out the wahzoo. People in Star Wars t-shirts as far as the eye could see. In 1983, we were all Star Wars fans. I was a part of the world, and for the first time I was aware of it beyond people at school. I couldn’t know it would be the last time I’d feel that kind of connection. From this point, fandom would splinter, and in the Dark Times to come, it would fade into obscurity and nostalgia. I’m aware of how good it was for a brief, shining moment. By the time it comes out, due to a great many different rumblings, I’m also aware of something else that has filled me with dread anticipation:
This is the final chapter in the Star Wars saga.
Something happened behind the scenes, and no one was talking. Years later, I’d learn it was because Star Wars had forced a rift between George Lucas and his wife, and they were now heading towards divorce. Combined with further studio pressure for even more of what killed his marriage and his sanity, Lucas had had enough, rewriting things on the fly, and bringing the story to a conclusion. But I didn’t know any of this. After all the rumor, after all the hope, and after all the personal investment of my meager allowance to join the Star Wars fan club, this was it. The end of the story. Once I come out of that movie theater, there would be no more Star Wars, ever. Bantha Tracks had already told us Lucasfilm had shifted gears. We were already seeing stories of the upcoming Indiana Jones sequel. No more Star Wars. No one would tell me why. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I didn’t want to. But I was determined to embrace this experience. If this is all there was and would ever be, I’d enjoy it to the fullest… even if it meant saying goodbye to Darth Vader and all of the great Rebels who opposed him. I knew I was going into this to say goodbye to a lot of friends.
And that brings us to the movie itself.
To my young mind, if there was one flaw in The Empire Strikes Back, it’s that it takes so long for Vader to show up. To have him in the opening scene for Jedi was just sheer joy for me. But this is where I realized something was different. He was bigger somehow. Shinier. The voice was deeper. Close examination over the years would allow me to spot all the differences across all of his appearances. When he announced the Emperor’s impending arrival to Death Star II, I immediately started wondering if maybe the rumors of this being the last movie were wrong.
Jabba’s palace. Every monster kid’s dream come true. Vile, disgusting, strange… and my little mind immediately started wondering how I’d ever save enough money to buy all those action figures since by this point I knew Santa to be bogus. Turns out that was the biggest criticism about this entire film, that everything from Jabba’s palace to the Ewoks were merchandising grabs to secure the Lucasfilm independence once and for all. I didn’t mind one bit at the time, and looking back, I think it’s sheer genius. I can hold no grudge, especially in light of how that little empire would continue to delight my imagination for the rest of my life.
At the time, Jabba was the largest puppet ever created for film, and even today it holds the #2 spot behind the Queen Alien. Thanks to movie magic, we all thought the Rancor was bigger, and so help me, that thing scared the life out of me. I love it! As a kid, you never really stop to think about how this stuff is made. Even though I was becoming aware of it, it wasn’t until the documentary From Star Wars to Jedi came out that I really got a look at the puppeteering.
As an adult, I see the genius of Luke’s rescue, getting the Hutt out in the open, away from his defenses. At the time, I didn’t know what was going on, nor did I care. It was monsters, action, and… why is Luke’s lightsaber green? These things come in red and blue. Everyone knows this. It’s even blue on the movie poster! (Then again, the Revenge of the Jedi teaser poster had the sabers blue and red, using a scene from Empire, but they were backwards.) Bantha Tracks was printed monochrome, so none of the preview photos were in color. The green saber bugged me just long enough (and never again after that), but then I became distracted by something more important: Leia killed the slug! She jumped in there and choked the life out of Jabba with the very chain he tried to enslave her with. I’d always liked Leia as “one of the gang,” but I think that was the moment I made a real connection with her. She was more than a pretty face with a sharp tongue. That was the moment she became my princess.
Even today, the marketing of the “Slave Leia” merchandise causes all manner of controversy for somehow weakening Leia. Please forgive me for a moment while I grumble a bit. I can’t believe this is even an issue. The metal bikini was meant to do that, and Leia herself proved she was having none of it. She bided her time, waited for the plan to unfold, and picked her moment. Intelligent, tough, beautiful, and brave beyond words. Female empowerment of the most magnificent example. I have zero tolerance for those who try to argue otherwise. Quit focusing on the costume and actually see the heroine wearing it. Look at her actions. Look at her motivations. You want to blame someone for the bikini, blame Jabba. From a storytelling perspective, it makes perfect sense. The entire point of Star Wars is overcoming oppression in all its forms. Well, there you go. Leia did just that, and people want to complain?
The problem isn’t the bikini. Nor is it the writing nor the characterization. As I say, it’s the marketing. That’s the sloppy part that people are having issue with, and that I get. Righteous indignation has clouded judgment. Let’s take a step back and see what’s going on. It was originally marketed as “Leia Organa (slave outfit),” which is accurate. She’s wearing the costume of a slave, but she isn’t one. This got shortened to the inaccurate “Slave Leia” that’s driving people nuts. It’s faster to say, so it became part of the zeitgeist, like it or not. As Carrie Fisher herself explained, she should be marketed not as “Slave Leia,” but as “Hutt-Slayer Leia.” The freedom fighter persona is still very much intact. I hear no cries of indignation for the Twi’lek slave dancer Oola, who ended her tortured life in the Rancor pit for her captor’s amusement. Jabba’s evil. He does evil things that people are not going to like. That’s storytelling 101. Leia made things right using the weapon at her immediate convenience. Can we please put this to rest now?
I was still on the “kill the Hutt” high when we returned to Dagobah. Yoda’s passing was a gut punch for me then. It remains so to this day, even though I know he’s one with the Force. It says so much that a Muppet can do this to a person. I credit Yoda with kickstarting my spiritual studies a few years later. Through him, I was able to transcend religion and dogma and focus on the bigger picture, to realize religion and spirituality weren’t necessarily the same things. That’s probably what helped me to better appreciate the reasons for the fall of the Jedi Order in the prequels.
Obi-Wan’s confession to Luke is a journey for me. When I first heard his explanations, I was too young to appreciate nuance. All I heard was that he lied from the start. I fixated on that. It’s true what they say about hate clouding everything. It wasn’t until I’d worked my way through the entirety of The Clone Wars before I was able to truly understand and forgive. Someday I should blog about just that.
In counterpoint to these ideas, the Emperor arrives at Death Star II. It’s the big bad guy rally, and I’m thinking they need to start selling stormtrooper figures in gift packs. Maybe, buy a figure, get four troopers free, that sort of thing. I’m blown away by the scale of this. Then the royal guards make their appearance, and I immediately want to know more about them. The Emperor… not so much. I see Vader take the knee, and it does nothing to inspire me. In the back of my head, I still think that idea about Vader killing him and taking his place is going to happen, so I’m thinking it’s a lot like what Leia just pulled on Jabba. Even at age nine, I’m starting to think like a writer, though I have no idea of this at the time. I just see these connections, and I don’t have time to think further on them. Why I still remember this, though, is anyone’s guess. Still, this is the guy that runs the Empire. The proverbial big red X is painted on his head. Dead man walking. At no time did I get invested in him the first few times I saw this movie. That was a mistake that would eventually be rectified.
When the Rebels gather to plan their siege, I’m overtaken again by the scale. So many ships. So many fighters. And as I’d sent off for the early bird mailaway figure of Admiral Ackbar, it was just cool to see this guy on screen. As I’ve grown over the years, I’ve come to better appreciate the arc for Han Solo in particular, from mercenary to freedom fighter. I’ve certainly come to respect Mon Mothma as one of the central figures in creating the Rebellion. These sorts of things have made me appreciate the fact that Star Wars has never just given us all the information we need. They’ve never spoonfed the audience. We have to rise to Lucas’ level of storytelling to fill in the gaps, and those who don’t are usually the ones who rail on the internet about things that don’t make sense. They really do, if you allow yourself to see.
The Endor sequence is split across three stages.
First, there’s the ground battle with the Ewoks, and all that leads up to it. As I say, I was fully prepared to embrace the Ewoks at the time, and they made it easy for me. I was just old enough to appreciate them. As I got older, I appreciated the message, that even the little guys can protect their homes against a mighty Empire. In hindsight, I think had it not been for the over-marketing that would come in the next couple of years, they might not be so reviled by the general public. Or maybe they would. Some claimed the problem was they were “too cute” for Star Wars. Sure, if by cute you mean “willing to roast and eat your heroes.” Juxtapose this by the notion that they’ve clearly dealt with humans before — they gave Leia a new dress — and the sum of the parts doesn’t add up to the whole. This is the underlying thing that bugs me about them. Beyond that, I’m good with them and their place in the saga.
The sequence on the bridge where Luke reveals his secrets to Leia has some of the worst dialogue in the saga. It’s worse than “I hate sand.” It’s awkward, and it’s delivered as well as it probably could have been, so I cannot blame the actors here. It’s made worse by placement as it has to follow Threepio’s epic storytelling. As a radio guy, that bit never ceases to impress.
The ground battle itself was a lot of fun, though I find myself wondering how long it took to set those traps. Had the Ewoks been planning this raid long before the Rebels got there? I still wonder about that.
The second stage of the Endor battle is the fighter assault, easily the largest space battle on screen to that time. When you’re a kid, it’s truly a sight to behold, and I loved every minute of it. Still do, even with the heavily-mocked flaws of a “Millennium Falcon sized hole in the Death Star.” The Emperor’s strategy was overconfident, just as Luke said, but it did work before the shield was lowered. I remember the theater erupting in surprise when the Death Star was revealed to be operational.
The third stage, the final confrontation on the Death Star itself… this is what I was waiting for. I was ready to see Vader take out the Emperor and claim victory. I was ready for that proclamation of more Star Wars yet to come. The lightsaber duel was brutal. In my head, there was really no chance of Luke turning to the Dark Side. I just didn’t think like that. It wasn’t until the nuances of the prequels and seeing Anakin’s fall that I made that connection. But to see Luke actually beat Vader in single combat… that blew my mind. Sure enough, Vader rose up to kill the Emperor, but it was out of compassion for his son. It was an act that destroyed all possibility of future films, I just knew it as the mechanical breather wheezed. When Vader died, so too did Star Wars. Both went out on a good note. In 1983, nobody could have known we’d get more of both.
In the original film, there’s an award ceremony. Here, the galaxy celebrates, though before the Special Editions, all we saw was the local Endor party. The last sequence of the trilogy was a reassurance on some level for me. It wasn’t anything I could verbalize at the time, but it did me a world of good to see the friends reunited one last time before the end credits rolled. And then just like that, it was over. The emotional fallout is best left to the imagination as I mourned the loss of my favorite story.
I realize that was horribly long-winded, but hopefully the view askew from the perception of my nine year old self was worth it on some level.
As an adult, after multiple viewings and with the full weight of the prequels behind me, Return of the Jedi is a far better film than it was before the prequels were a thing. I’ll go into more of that when I get there, but for now let me just say the primary reason centers around the Emperor. As much as I didn’t appreciate this character as a kid, the older I get, the better he gets. The being we come to know as Darth Sidious more than earned his reputation. These days, Ian McDiarmid is my favorite part of this film. I love scenery-chewing villains that know how to do so properly. There’s just something about that cackling laugh…
Likewise, the tragedy of Vader resonates so much more for me, where before the prequels it just seemed sort of abrupt and out of nowhere that he should suddenly grow a heart. That’s the magic of long-play storytelling. It’s mythmaking. Multiple viewings across time reveal new understanding. I used to downplay this film as marketing and eye candy, but I had no problem telling people how much still enjoyed it at the same time. Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate how difficult it is to tell a proper ending to an epic, even when you know what has to happen and why. To be able to pull it off in a way that caps the prequels as well as the originals impresses me to no end.
The shortcomings of dialogue in the second half of the film have always bothered me. Part of is that I know they rewrote a great many things at the last minute to end the saga at that stage. It’s not as polished, and it shows. Han Solo going from sarcastic to somehow jokey never really worked for me, though I can appreciate how it works as he comes to grips with his new lease on life.
The reveal of Leia as Luke’s twin I think is better in the prequels. As presented in Jedi, it feels tacked on. Combine that with a developed lack of trust in Obi-Wan, even if he is finally coming clean here, it just seems underwhelming. In the prequels, they just rip it out of nowhere. What? She’s carrying twins? For this, for keeping the cliffhangers and story beats intact, and for so many other reasons, I advocate watching the prequels between Empire and Jedi. Before somebody says “machete sequence,” just know that I find that entire notion to be ridiculous. The Phantom Menace is necessary and has some great stuff in it. Read my post on prequel appreciation for my full argument.
The thing that haunts me most in this movie isn’t even tapped here. Knowing that Solo was not only alive but trapped in his own skull while in carbonite disturbs me to no end. It’s a lot like knowing what it’s like to be Vader, trapped in that suit. I think about these things. There’s a catharsis of release for both Solo and Vader in that regard. For the audience, there’s emotional catharsis when taken as the ending to the trilogy or to the six-film cycle. I think The Force Awakens undermines a good deal of what Return of the Jedi put into place as a necessary evil to continue the saga forward, and I’ll discuss that when I get that far. That undermining does serve to kick the rating down a notch because I cannot watch these films in a vacuum. The presentation and the meaning have changed over the decades. Like it or not, that’s the price of continuing the story. For a diehard like myself, it’s a small price to pay in that respect. The cost comes high for the band of Rebels I grew up with as surrogate friends, for they are now denied the happy ending they fought for and earned. For Vader, it makes things deeper and less one-dimensional. There are plenty of stories yet to be told, and as of this film’s original release, they could never again be told with innocent simplicity. For me personally, as a fan who became aware of the process during this time, Return of the Jedi became something of a touchstone for a variety of reasons, all of them bittersweet.