“I thought the best utility of the character would be for him to sacrifice himself to a high idea… and give a little bottom, a little gravitas to the enterprise. Not that there wasn’t some already, but I just wanted in on that part of it.” —Harrison Ford
The day I stopped loving Return of the Jedi was the day I finally agreed Han Solo should have died.
Though I hesitate to give excess credence to behind-the-scenes backstories of popular movies—jeers to extra-textualism, marketing disguised as gossip and mythmaking, etc., etc.—that particular kernel of insider’s gossip has stuck with me. I don’t quite remember the first time I’d heard the debates from Jedi’s creators over the ultimate fate of the series favorite, if least essential, major character. But in the years since the generally accepted narrative is that George Lucas entertained lobbies from his screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, his producer Gary Kurtz, and star Harrison Ford that, to heighten the story’s emotion and stakes, “someone had to go,” and that somebody was Han Solo. “He’s got no future,” Ford had said. “He has no story responsibilities at this point. So let’s allow him to commit self-sacrifice.”
The fallout merely suggested by this change is enticing. Kurtz has since suggested he’d had in mind a more bittersweet conclusion, evoking a Rebel Alliance in shambles, with Leia left alone to begin a new reign and Luke departing “like Clint Eastwood in the spaghetti westerns.” Victory, but at a cost. It’s a bit harder to envision Kathleen Kennedy picking up that thirty-year-old mantle.
Needless to say Lucas resisted. Whether it was out of affection for his now-iconic characters or, as Kurtz has speculated, of some more cynical truth that the toy business began to drive the [Lucasfilm] empire, Han Solo does survive Jedi. He successfully blows up the shield generator, paving the way for his good pal Lando Calrissian to destroy the Death Star, and he wins a semi-competitive love triangle by default (this ain’t Westeros after all). The rest of the story, of whose draft pages I know little, matches Han’s story for uncomplicated joy. Luke reconciles with his father, Anakin. (Though as an aside—am I alone in finding his final words, “Tell your sister you were right [about there still being good in me],” a little insensitive, considering he helped butcher the only family she’d ever known? But hey, anything goes in space opera!) Lando saves the galaxy, fully earning forgiveness post-#CarboniteGate. Leia seems happy enough, though you’d think the movie might have more to say about her feelings now that she’s emerged victorious from the battle that’s cost her so much. And everybody chills out with a nice teddy-bear luau.
Return of the Jedi made for an uncomplicatedly happy finale. And when I first saw it, it made me uncomplicatedly happy. A fairy tale ending to a great modern fairy tale, and a pleasing coda to, as I understood at the time, cinema’s great science fiction achievement. A chance to break out all my Star Wars action figures—including Han, a fact I hope comforts Lucas—and envision their post-Endor adventures. A chance to read an extended universe of novels, envisioning Han and Leia married and raising a family, about Luke Skywalker fulfilling his destiny to start a new Jedi Academy.
Some things stayed eternal. As the French say, “Moins ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” That’s what they say, right?
The older I got, less regularly did the toys come out. Less rigorously did I keep up with those increasingly convoluted extended universe stories. Replacing these fancies was my burgeoning interest in movies. As my appreciation grew for how the cinema could tell a story, the Star Wars movies never disappeared. How could they? Not long after my toys went into storage did a new trilogy enter culture, as did the feeling of Star Wars calcifying permanently, inescapably into movie culture.
I’ll address my specific experience with nostalgia qua the Star Wars monolith in a future essay. But Return of the Jedi, a movie that’s never quite been allowed to fade away, dutifully has remained part of my bi-annual rewatch of the series. As my knowledge and appreciation films and art have deepened, exponentially, it only stands to reason that my feelings on any of the dozen most-watched movies of my lifetime would evolve. Jedi was not invulnerable to this scrutiny, nor were its two predecessors.
The trouble with Jedi is how less well it holds up as a cultural touchstone. Its progenitor, which plopped in every possible archetype of Cambellian storytelling, concocted a tribute to the timelessness of storytelling that itself feels timeless, and bolstered by some of the most talented artists and technicians imaginable, certainly did. And the first sequel, Empire, thrives by interrogating, subverting, and even upending all our expectations of the journeying hero.
These observances aren’t exactly notes taken from my childhood screenings. Unless you were the smartest kid on the planet—which I certainly wasn’t—they weren’t yours either. These are unearthed revelations of a beloved work that has endured, that have evolved as the young viewer’s evolved, that offer something sweeter in the years since, beyond the simple marveling of onscreen aliens and robots.
What Return of the Jedi seems to offer, in the years since I first smiled at that triumphant teddy luau, is reassurance. Reassurance that, no matter how bad things get for you or your heroes, things will eventually turn out well. Reassurance that even if you commit betrayal and atrocities, you’ll be redeemed. Reassurance that the cost of war—or really, any worthwhile struggle—is but a temporary setback, and you’ll still see your friends again.
Don’t get me wrong, reassurance can be great! But it is a sentiment that doesn’t age especially well, particularly when the best of storytelling—yes, even stories originally geared for young audiences—welcome more complex responses as you choose to revisit it. Whether you sought it out again for true affection, critical inquiry, or even unexamined nostalgia almost doesn’t matter. Not if it endures.
Putting aside Lucasfilm’s output post-Disney, which seems to confirm every iota of Gary Kurtz’s suspicion their flagship stories have became hollow merchandising vessels, the series seems terrified of failing to endure. In Lucas’ more ambitious, if formally less competent prequels, Lucas interrogates the descent of a good man to evil. Whether that interrogation succeeds is another question entirely, but it’s hard not to consider the depths seen of that descent—he kills children, among others—and feel in retrospect his redemption comes too easy. And for all its conservatism, the very premise of The Force Awakens hinges on the fact that victory cannot be earned so easily, and that the fruits of their labors—and, in the case of Han and Leia, their loins—demand some kind of cost.
This renders the cultural value of Return of the Jedi as more precarious than almost any other movie in this series of eight (going on nine, going on infinite) installments. While hardly the worst of the series—despite everything I’ve said, it remains a fun watch with some genuinely spectacular sequences—it is the first of the movies nakedly, shamelessly invested in its status as a wielder of cultural, and therefore financial, capital. It’s a status, it bears emphasizing, it inherited from two vastly richer film experiences.
The more this series goes on past Jedi, the more it complicates and falsifies an ending Lucas forced on his producer, his writer, and his actor. More tempting it is, then, to imagine Han Solo having bit it well before the teddy luau. Because the more the series continues, the more each individual movie will need to make their necessity felt. Otherwise they run the risk of obsolescence. Jedi might have provided that for itself, had it conveyed some kind of human toll for everything the original trilogy had worked toward. It politely declined. And for that cynicism, it’s aged to become this series’ least essential tale.
This is the third in a series of film essays on the Star Wars film series. The schedule for the series and links to all posted essays can be seen below:
- It’s the Sound that Defines Star Wars (1977)
- Darth Vader is a Terrible Boss in The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
- Essay on Return of the Jedi (1983) — TODAY’S ESSAY
- Essay on The Phantom Menace (1999) — Saturday, December 9
- Essay on Attack of the Clones (2002) — Sunday, December 10
- Essay on Revenge of the Sith (2005) — Monday, December 11
- Essay on The Force Awakens (2015) — Tuesday, December 12
- Essay on Rogue One (2016) — Wednesday, December 13
- Final Thoughts — Thursday, December 14