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Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi (1983)


Some time after the events of The Empire Strikes Back, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), and the droids C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) assemble on Luke's home planet of Tatooine, where their old friend Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is being held captive. Solo is still encased in carbonite, and displayed in the palace of the massive slug-like crime boss Jabba the Hutt. Our heroes plan to infiltrate Jabba's palace in order to rescue him.

But the rescue mission is just the prelude to a far greater challenge. The Empire is building a new Death Star, protected by a force field generated from the forest moon of Endor. To enable the Rebels to mount a successful attack on the Death Star, a small commando team, including Luke, Han and Leia, is sent to Endor to deactivate the force field generator. Meanwhile, Luke intends to confront Darth Vader (Dave Prowse) with the hope of turning him away from his loyalty to the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) and the dark side of the Force.


Han Solo, Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker on Endor
Han (Harrison Ford), Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Luke (Mark Hamill)

Much of the team behind The Empire Strikes Back returned for Return of the Jedi, the third and final film in the original Star Wars trilogy. Screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, composer John Williams and designer Norman Reynolds were among those retained by George Lucas, the film's executive producer and creator of Star Wars.

But there were also some significant changes in personnel. Lucas and Gary Kurtz, his producer on Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and American Graffiti, parted company after ten years. Lucas was unhappy with the ballooning budget and cost overruns on The Empire Strikes Back, and Kurtz professed himself unenthusiastic about the direction Lucas was planning for the next Star Wars film.

Kurtz had wanted to continue the darker, more melancholy tone of The Empire Strikes Back, and he favoured killing off one of the main characters, Han Solo. He also felt that Lucas was repeating himself, with another film climaxing with another assault on another Death Star, and was suspicious that merchandising concerns were taking precedence over artistic ones. That was an opinion shared by others, including Harrison Ford, who believed that his character was allowed to live because there wouldn't be much of a market for “dead Han toys”.

Kurtz went off to work with Jim Henson on his puppet fantasy The Dark Crystal (1982), and Lucas replaced him as producer with Howard Kazanjian, who had worked on The Empire Strikes Back. Lucas also hired a new director, Richard Marquand and new cinematographer, Alan Hume.

Irvin Kershner, the director of The Empire Strikes Back, was apparently not interested in repeating the Star Wars experience, although, given the overruns and spiralling budget on Empire, he probably wasn't seriously considered. Steven Spielberg apparently offered his services to Lucas, who demurred, and David Lynch and David Cronenberg were both considered as possible directors. According to some sources, Lynch was actually offered the film but turned it down. Presumably that wasn't because he was worried about the logistics of making a huge and expensive space opera, because his next film was a sprawling and incomprehensible version of Frank Herbert's novel Dune (1984) for Dino de Laurentiis.


C-3PO and R2-D2 make their way to Jabba's palace
C-3PO and R2-D2 make their way to Jabba's palace

Lucas's eventual choice, Richard Marquand, was a former television director who had made a couple of films in Britain, the horror film The Legacy (1978) and WWII thriller Eye of the Needle (1981) as well as the 1979 TV film Birth of the Beatles. But nothing in his background suggested he was ready for a film of the size and complexity of Return of the Jedi, and perhaps that was the point. After the overruns on The Empire Strikes Back, Lucas seems to have wanted to take more of a hands-on role and Marquand doesn't seem to have enjoyed the leeway that Irvin Kershner had on that film. Kershner was more experienced and had been a tutor at the UCLA Film School when Lucas was a student, something that probably gave him an advantage when dealing with Lucas.

There's some debate as to how much influence Lucas had over Marquand, with some seeing visual differences in Marquand's style compared to Lucas's and others arguing that the film was effectively directed by Lucas. That's unlikely, but there's no doubt that Lucas's was the unseen hand on Return of the Jedi, much more so than on The Empire Strikes Back. The film is more attuned to his tastes and interests, although he was probably happy to have Marquand work with the actors, something Lucas had always struggled with. Marquand himself described the experience of making Return of the Jedi as “rather like trying to direct King Lear, with Shakespeare in the next room”.

Another important new member of the crew was the cinematographer Alan Hume. Hume worked on three of the 1980s Bond films – For Your Eyes Only (1981), Octopussy (1983) and A View to a Kill (1985) – but had come up through the unglamorous ranks of the low budget Carry On comedies and the 1970s Amicus fantasy adventures, including The Land That Time Forgot (1974) and At the Earth's Core (1976). Lucas probably chose him because he assumed, no doubt correctly, that his previous experience meant that he could work quickly and economically with a minimum of fuss. Although there are nicely photographed bits and pieces here and there, the film is the least visually attractive of the original trilogy and often lacks the visual panache of its immediate predecessor.

It seems that Gary Kurtz had a point about the influence of merchandising on Return of the Jedi. The film is packed with new creatures, new ships and new minor characters, all of them ready to be turned into toys or action figures. As with The Empire Strikes Back, there is a clear delineation of the film's locations although, disappointingly, they are mostly ones we've seen before.


Four Ewoks from Return of the Jedi
The Empire trembles at the sight of the fearsome Ewoks

We have to get this out of the way but, yes, this is also the one with the teddy bears Ewoks. The cuddly Ewoks are resident on Endor and help the rebels in their battle with the Imperial troops stationed there. It's the inclusion of the Ewoks, more than anything else, that has tended to cast a shadow over the good points of Return of the Jedi. They are seen as just too cute, too juvenile, and too obviously intended to be turned into soft toys in time for Christmas. But the Ewoks' origins were not entirely discreditable.

The Vietnam War cast a long shadow over the US in the 1970s and, while the subject was assumed to be box office poison until late in the decade, the war crept into the edges of American film and TV and turned up in the most unlikely places. One of those places was Star Wars, and George Lucas acknowledged that the concept of a smaller, less sophisticated guerrilla army defeating a bigger, more technologically advanced superpower was an influence on his fictional space opera.

Lucas had in fact wanted to make a Vietnam War film with Gary Kurtz, a project that would be taken over by Francis Ford Coppola and turned into Apocalypse Now (1979). But there was still scope for Lucas to make the Vietnam allegory in Star Wars more explicit. So the idea of a primitive planet defeating the might of the Empire was born, although the inhabitants of that planet were originally mooted to be Chewbacca's race, the Wookies. But in the development of Return of the Jedi, the primitive army were turned into the oh-so-cute Ewoks.

No one involved in the film seems to have much liked the Ewoks, thinking they looked too obviously like teddy bears. No one that is except for Lucas, who loved them, even going as far as making two Ewok spin-off TV films, The Ewok Adventure (1984), also known as Caravan of Courage, and Ewoks: The Battle for Endor (1985). Warwick Davis, who made his film debut as the Ewok “Wicket” in Return of the Jedi, played the same character in the two Ewok spin-off films, and Lucas would keep him in mind to play the hero of his fantasy film Willow (1988).

Something that becomes clearer when you watch the films in the Star Wars trilogy fairly close together, is that each film within it is pitched at a slightly different age group. Star Wars had particular appeal to children, but was recognised as a film that would appeal to all ages, the perfect “four quadrant” movie. The Empire Strikes Back, though, was aimed at a slightly older audience, and is the most adult film in the original trilogy. Return of the Jedi, then, sits uncomfortably between the two. At its best, it has the exuberance of Star Wars combined with some of the darker elements of The Empire Strikes Back. But it's a bit of a bumpy ride and it has the least consistency in tone of the original trilogy. At its worst, it's also easily the most juvenile of the three. With its menagerie of monsters, its cuddly Ewoks and not one but two burp jokes, it often feels like the film is aimed more squarely at children, certainly more than its immediate predecessor.


Rancor monster in Return of the Jedi
The rancor monster. In reality this was an 18 inch rod-operated puppet

But there's still a lot that's praiseworthy in Return of the Jedi. The production values are high, there are many nice bits of costuming and design, and the music, by series regular John Williams, is very good. Not all of these elements are quite up to the standards of the first two films, but still, they are good in their own way.

John Williams introduces some new themes, including a melancholy, introspective theme for Luke and Leia, jaunty music for the Ewoks, and sinister wordless chanting for the scenes with the Emperor. He also scores the climactic battle scenes with great skill, even if his score lacks the epic sweep of his music for The Empire Strikes Back.

The scenes with Luke, Darth Vader and the Emperor work well, and the spider's web backdrop to the Emperor's throne is a masterpiece of totally unsubtle set design. Ian McDiarmid, playing a wizened old ghoul, despite being the relatively sprightly age of 39, is splendidly malevolent as the Emperor, playing the most powerful man in the galaxy as a cackling old crone. McDiarmid hams it up with glee, being given the near-impossible task of playing a character more evil and more threatening than Darth Vader, and just about managing it. He is especially good in his mock sympathetic taunting of Luke, as in “Oh dear, your plan is going to fail and all your friends will be killed. Heh heh, what a pity!” Or words to that effect.

The climactic three-way battle scene, inter-cutting the assault on the Death Star with the ground battle on Endor and the light sabre duel between Luke and Darth Vader, makes for an effective all-action finale, and is almost enough to make you forget that you already saw a Death Star being blown up at the end of the first film.

The scene where Leia rescues Han Solo from the carbonite is nicely atmospheric and works well as a pay off to their dramatic parting in The Empire Strikes Back, and Luke's encounter with the rancor monster in the dungeon below Jabba's palace is a classic man vs monster scene with hints of the Ray Harryhausen movies of old. And once it gets going, the action sequence at the sarlacc pit is lively enough, with Luke, Leia and the others leaping from ship to ship with the alacrity of Errol Flynn or Douglas Fairbanks, in a scene seemingly inspired by the swashbucklers of the 1930s and '40s.

The speeder bike sequence on Endor is also quite good, with typically excellent sound work (always a strong point in Star Wars), although you can't help thinking that these high speed vehicles are almost comically unsuitable for such a densely forested environment. Apart from some obvious back projection in this and a couple of other scenes, the special effects are up to the standard set by the first two films, especially the space sequences and the Death Star battle.


C-3PO, Leia, Jabba the Hutt, Bib Fortuna and Luke Skywalker
A hooded Luke (far right) arrives in Jabba's palace, while Leia models the latest slave girl fashions

For many, the best special effect of all was Carrie Fisher in her golden slave girl bikini, the not-quite-a-costume that launched a thousand cosplay outfits. Supposedly Carrie Fisher had complained about the unflattering and unfeminine outfits she had previously been given, making this an example of “Be careful what you wish for”. Or perhaps it's just a simple case of “If you've got it, flaunt it”.

One other nice bit of costuming is the Emperor's sinister guards, clad in red masks and cloaks. This splash of red, when added to the serried ranks of black and white uniformed Imperial troops, makes the Nazi origin of the Imperial aesthetic all the more obvious.

Not so great is the poor pacing in the first part of the film, when Luke, Leia, C-3PO et al all try and infiltrate Jabba's palace. These scenes are ponderous and repetitive and Jabba and his menagerie look like small beer compared to Darth Vader and the Empire. It's almost impossible to see how the rescue plan is supposed to work and it seems to make little sense, except as an excuse to assemble the main characters together in the same place and give them all something to do.

The sight of a scantily-clad Leia posing in front of Jabba and his menagerie is also an awkward illustration of the film's uncertainty about who its audience is exactly. Is it for kids who like monsters and goofy creatures and stuff, or for adults and adolescents who like seeing Carrie Fisher not wearing very much? And Jabba's slobbering over Leia raises horrible questions about just what his interest in her is that I don't even want to think about.

It also illustrates the series' decreasing interest in Leia as a character, from a brave and feisty princess in the first film, to love interest in the second, to bikini babe in the third. She does get to take part in the speeder bike chase and is later given a revelation about her identity that should be important, but just doesn't feel like it is. Probably because it's obvious that it's introduced solely to wrap up loose ends from the previous film and doesn't stem from any particular desire to develop her as a character. The revelation about Leia's background increases the sense that Star Wars is in danger of turning into a giant soap opera, as well as making the film's fictional universe seem so much smaller and less interesting.


Imperial stormtroopers capture the rebels on Endor
Imperial stormtroopers capture the rebels on Endor

As for Han Solo, well he's present but, like Leia, feels like a slightly diminished figure, as if Harrison Ford's disappointment at not being given a dramatic death scene has drained most of his interest in the character. He seems to know that he shouldn't really be here and his character is a bit more buffoonish and a little less charismatic than before. Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) is also reduced to the status of an extra body, there mostly to fill Solo's seat in the Millennium Falcon. His rapid change of allegiance to the rebels is now complete, with the rebel alliance now having made him a general, an unlikely choice given his recent betrayal of the rebellion's leading lights. Solo is now a general too, although it's not clear what caused this rapid promotion either, as he can't have done much for the rebels while he was frozen in carbonite. Among the bad guys, the bounty hunter Boba Fett is dispatched as unceremoniously as possible, as if in confirmation that Lucas really couldn't think of anything to do with him.

And those Ewoks, yes everything people say about them is true. Some of the earlier stuff is tolerable, especially as it's played for laughs. But they are just too deliberately cute, too obviously designed with the toy shop in mind. And the film's implication, that the all-powerful Empire was defeated by a gang of teddy bears, is meant to be ironic but just seems imbecilic.

The film's script, by Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan, is the weakest in the original trilogy. The Empire Strikes Back left Return of the Jedi with some major plot points to clear up, but it feels like no one is all that enthusiastic about doing so. This may be because, at the time The Empire Strikes Back was going into production, Lucas was thinking of making many more Star Wars films. So new story elements and the hints of new characters in The Empire Strikes Back were probably intended to be explored over several more instalments. But the production problems and spiralling costs on that film put Lucas off making any more Star Wars films for the foreseeable future, so the story elements all had to be wrapped up in only one more episode. For that reason, Return of the Jedi sometimes has the sense of a contractual tying up of unresolved plot points, and some of it inevitably feels unsatisfactory.

One important element established in the previous film was that Luke had to abandon his Jedi training to go and save his friends held prisoner in Cloud City. Luke walked into a trap, confronted Darth Vader in a duel, and found that he wasn't yet ready to do so, just as Yoda (Frank Oz) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) had predicted.

Disappointingly, when Luke returns to see Yoda in Return of the Jedi, he is told that he has completed his Jedi training after all and that the only thing more he needs to do is to confront Darth Vader, the thing he just did at the end of the previous film.


The Emperor watches Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker's light sabre duel
The Emperor watches Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker's light sabre duel

There are also random idiocies, like the scene where a droid is being tortured with hot plates on its feet, or when Luke and Ben Kenobi have a chat on Dagobah and Ben's ghost has a nice sit down to rest his legs. And in the battle on Endor, stormtroopers' armour turns out to be vulnerable not only to laser blasts, but to wooden bows and arrows as well, making it clear that their cumbersome gear really is totally useless.

The script also has the unfortunate tendency to repeat lines of dialogue from The Empire Strikes Back in a way that tries to be cute, but just seems a little lacking in imagination. This includes a repeat of the “I love you” / “I know” exchange between Leia and Han, only reversed with each saying the other's line, Darth Vader again telling Luke that “Obi-Wan has taught you well” and Luke pleading with Vader to “search your feelings”.

The plot developments of Return of the Jedi also conclusively reject the possibility of a Luke-Leia romance, something that was hinted at in the first film. Star Wars fans often see the suggestion of a Luke-Leia-Han love triangle in Star Wars and the early scenes of The Empire Strikes Back as icky and misjudged in light of the revelations of Return of the Jedi. But it's better to see these as story elements that were considered but left undeveloped or abandoned. Contrary to Lucas's later claims, there was never a grand design for Star Wars and story elements, including the relationships between the characters, were developed as the films progressed.

Arthurian legend was one of the many influences on Star Wars, and Star Wars even has its own Merlin figure in Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Luke his own version of Excalibur in his trusty light sabre. In Arthurian myth it's the affair between one of the Round Table's finest knights, Sir Lancelot, and Arthur's Queen, Guinevere, that imperils the kingdom, and it's possible to see the bones of this idea in the script for Star Wars and the early scenes of The Empire Strikes Back. In this scenario it would be Luke and Leia who develop a romantic relationship, but Solo would come between them. This plot line seems to have been flirted with but obviously never developed, but it's more interesting than the revelations of Return of the Jedi and is the more adult kind of storyline that Gary Kurtz was interested in developing in the Star Wars sequels.


Luke Skywalker pointing a gun in Jabba's palace
Luke Skywalker in Jabba's palace

Lawrence Kasdan had also been in favour of a darker ending for Return of the Jedi, originally suggesting that Luke should die at the end of the film or that he should even be tempted to the dark side and take Darth Vader's place at the Emperor's side. These ideas, along with the possibility of Han Solo being killed off early in the film, were ultimately vetoed by Lucas.

Like its two predecessors, Return of the Jedi was filmed at Elstree Studios in England, where interior sets including Jabba's palace, the Emperor's throne room and the Ewok village were created. Unlike the first two films, though, much of the location filming took place in the USA, as if to confirm that Lucas wanted to keep firmer control of the costs this time and avoid difficult location shoots, like the one on the Norwegian glacier in The Empire Strikes Back.

Tatooine was now played by Arizona instead of Tunisia, and American audiences will probably recognise the landscape of Endor as the Redwood National Park in California. The funeral pyre scene was a last minute addition, filmed on Lucas's Skywalker Ranch in Marin County. The location filming of Return of the Jedi took place under the fake title “Blue Harvest”, to discourage the press and curious Star Wars fans and to avoid price-gouging by local suppliers. If anyone asked, they were told that the crew were filming in Germany.

The film was originally titled Revenge of the Jedi, until Lucas decided that revenge wasn't a becoming motive for a Jedi and so changed it, although not before posters and merchandising had been produced under the original title.

Contemporary reviews were generally positive, if a little jaded. Some critics lauded the film's spectacle and excitement, while others felt they had seen it all before. The film won the Academy Award and the BAFTA award for its visual effects, and was nominated for Oscars for best score, sound, sound effects editing and art direction.


The Millennium Falcon attacking the Death Star and Imperial fleet
The Millennium Falcon under attack from the Imperial fleet

As with the other films in the original Star Wars trilogy, a “Special Edition” version of Return of the Jedi was released into cinemas in 1997. Richard Marquand had died 10 years before, something that seems to have made Lucas feel that he could change the film completely to suit his own tastes. A crass new musical number with CGI characters was added in Jabba's palace, the sarlacc creature was given a giant beak and tentacles, and a new montage of different planets celebrating the fall of the Empire was added to the end. The cheerful Ewok song was also replaced by a warm but more ambiguous instrumental piece, in an arguable improvement. For the DVD release came the most controversial change, with the original force ghost of Anakin Skywalker (Sebastian Shaw) being replaced by Hayden Christensen, the actor who played the younger Anakin in the Star Wars prequels Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005).

If The Empire Strikes Back was the bold sequel that threw away the rule book, then Return of the Jedi is the retreat to safety, the play-it-safe sequel that tries to tie up the loose ends from the other films and give the audience reruns of the stuff they liked from its predecessors, from another Death Star to another menagerie of monsters on Tatooine. Return of the Jedi wraps everything up relatively neatly, if not entirely satisfyingly, and gives a happy ending for our heroes. That even includes, in its own way, Darth Vader, previously seen as the nastiest bad guy in the galaxy, but now just a mixed up dude who took a wrong turn and so, apparently, deserves a happy ending too.

Return of the Jedi is the episode of the original Star Wars trilogy that's the most captivated by its pulp origins and also the least able to transcend them. It's much more of a popcorn flick than its immediate predecessor, a film of space battles, chases and monsters, slave girls and stuff blowing up. That's not to say that it isn't entertaining, because it is, but it's also broader and less well thought out than its predecessors. And after the grandeur of The Empire Strikes Back, it felt like Star Wars was becoming something more ambitious. Instead Return of the Jedi is simultaneously a wrapping up and a rehash of scenes and ideas from the previous two films with mixed success. Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back are outstanding films. Return of the Jedi may not be that, but it's generally an entertaining one and, as a conclusion to the Star Wars trilogy, it's good enough.


Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi

Year: 1983
Genre: Sci-fi, Fantasy, Adventure
Country: USA
Director: Richard Marquand

Cast  Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), Harrison Ford (Han Solo), Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia), Billy Dee Williams (Lando Calrissian), Alec Guinness (Obi-Wan Kenobi), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), David Prowse (Darth Vader), Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca), Kenny Baker (R2-D2), Ian McDiarmid (Emperor), Frank Oz (voice of Yoda), Sebastian Shaw (Anakin Skywalker), Jeremy Bulloch (Boba Fett), Kenneth Colley (Admiral Piett), James Earl Jones (voice of Darth Vader), Michael Pennington (Moff Jerjerrod), Dennis Lawson (Wedge), Michael Carter (Bib Fortuna), Tim Rose (Admiral Ackbar), Dermot Crowley (General Madine), Caroline Blakiston (Mon Mothma), Warwick Davis (Wicket), Femi Taylor (Oola)

Screenplay Lawrence Kasdan, George Lucas, story George Lucas  Producer Howard Kazanjian Cinematography Alan Hume  Production design Norman Reynolds  Editors Sean Barton, Duwayne Dunham, Marcia Lucas  Music John Williams  Costumes Aggie Guerard Rodgers, Nilo Rodis-Jamero  Miniature and optical effects Industrial Light and Magic

Running time 131 mins (134 mins Special Edition)  Colour Deluxe  Widescreen  Panavision
Production company Lucasfilm  Distributor Twentieth Century Fox

See also:

Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope
Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back 


Comments

  1. Fantastic and in depth review. You're certainly right about the Ewoks. Somehow cutesy little teddy bears shouldn't be anywhere near a sci-fi/action movie. They became very irritating very fast. Looking it up on google everybody seems to hate them.

    However, as time went on I think the Lucas amped up the childishness with Jar Jar Binks. I don't know what he was thinking there.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh God yeah, Jar Jar Binks. Has a fictional character even been more hated? He was meant to be the character we were all going to love, they even put him on the cover of Rolling Stone!

      I actually watched The Phantom Menace recently and was thinking of writing something about it, but then I'd probably have to watch the other two prequels as well, and I don't think I could face that at the moment.


      Delete
    2. I didn't know Jar Jar was put on the cover of Rolling Stone. Slight misstep there.

      I'll never understand why Lucas insists on certain cutesy creatures or too much comic relief. For me it's like Walter Brennan or Gabby Hayes in 40s and 50s movies, their supposedly funny antics really grated on my nerves.

      Delete
    3. It's debatable how much it's because he likes that stuff and how much because he knows how much money can be made from tie-in toys. It's probably a bit of both. Star Wars really opened Lucas's (and everyone else's) eyes to how profitable merchandising could be.

      I agree about obvious comic relief characters generally. Several pretty good John Ford films were spoiled in this way. It's not just that the humour is so broad, but that it undercuts everything else.

      Delete

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