1980s, Action-Adventure

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

The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film

Director: Richard Marquand

By Roderick Heath

George Lucas’ Star Wars : Episode IV – A New Hope (1977) is, for better or worse, one of the defining films of the modern era. Splendiferously entertaining, it’s also a stylistically powerful film, one that rarely gets praise as such, as if it all sprang fully formed out of the head of the Zeus of nerds. Star Wars has been since its release the first step most any young film fan takes—including, yes, me—towards a love of the medium. It also is usually the first target for the budding film snob. I admit to having made both steps, and then come back again. The essential glee of the original trilogy is in its conceit of taking the kids from American Graffiti (1973) and sticking them in spaceships to go tearing about the galaxy fighting The Man, only to confront the ultimate terror: perhaps one day, they’ll be The Man. Watching the first film again recently, I was struck by how much Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Han Solo look and sound so very, very ’70s, and how strong the semi-satiric tint is. It’s not hard to imagine the whoop of good-humoured knowing in the first preview audience’s appreciation of this hunk of old-fashioned corn, invested with disco-era wit and pizzazz, purveyed for their entertainment, after the more dour turns of ’70s cinema. Lucas tried to avoid that sort of specificity and self-mockery in his prequels, which have far more of the formalism of chivalric romance to them, and laid himself open to intense criticism in the process.

Return of the Jedi has consistently remained my favourite of the original trilogy. Don’t get me wrong: The Empire Strikes Back (1980), often cited as the best of the series, has some formidable qualities. With an eye for scenery and touch with actors, experienced filmmaker Irvin Kershner proved an uncannily good choice to lend deeper stylistic and thematic reflexes to Lucas’ Roy Lichtenstein-meets-Hugo Gernsback model. The sheer immensity and beauty of the scifi vistas on display in the second episode are indeed the most lovingly detailed and tactile, answering the gritty, technocratic zeal of the opener with a stylisation that blended vivid Technicolour Expressionism with Amazing Stories covers. Add to this the intelligent expansion of having Luke (Mark Hamill) trained as a Jedi by the diminutive Yoda (Frank Oz), and the genuinely brilliant twist of Darth Vader (James Earl Jones/David Prowse) proving to be his father, and you have a model middle episode. But I’ve always found the episode inert on a story level, and the subplot of Han (Harrison Ford), Leia (Carrie Fisher), and the rest of the familiar Millennium Falcon crew, whilst witty, essentially treads water for most of the running time. In contrast to the impressively malefic vigour of Luke and Vader’s light saber duel, the action for the other characters sinks to a level close to lesser Doctor Who episodes where people run through corridors firing badly aimed rayguns. Return of the Jedi, on the other hand, is if anything almost too busy: it wraps up the outstanding plot strands, offers a final battle of tremendous scope, introduces the real villain of the saga, Ian McDiarmid’s palpable Emperor Palpatine, and fulfils the mythic overtone the series had strained to reach from the start.

Jedi also has Ewoks, a point usually counted against it as a sign Lucas was giving in to excessive juvenile appeal, planting seeds for his later concession to it with Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999). That knock is probably fair, and yet the Ewoks have never bothered me. I have to admit that a certain amount of the charge this episode carries for me lies precisely in the simultaneously funny and slightly horrendous sight of the furry little beggars taking on the imperial forces, and giving a good enough account of themselves to make the victory of others a possibility. The Ewoks, superficially silly little furballs, actually prove to be jokers in the deck who help turn a well-laid trap into a double-edged blade. The Ewoks, almost unbearably endearing as they are, simply exacerbate the basic appeal of the series—the little guys take on the overwhelmingly powerful and come out on top.

It’s tempting to stress some of the peculiar, countercultural synergy invoked by the Ewoks’ place in the story as pseudo-indigenous warriors who use guerrilla tactics to bring down an unstoppable superpower: parallels with Vietnam and the shift of empathy around to Native Americans in the Western genre are not inappropriate, but could easily become laboured. Much more immediate credulity was given to the same “weird yet handy aliens as metaphorical version of aboriginal populaces” pitch when they were rendered as giant cat-people in Avatar (2009). Another major strike listed against the film, but again one that doesn’t bother me as much as it might, is the fact that the plot boils down to a replay of the first film, with the rebels trying to take out another Death Star. Perhaps it’s the fact that the script introduces some neat variations on the theme, as the Emperor deliberately suckers the rebels into trying to repeat the past, or the sheer scale and vivacity of the imagery in play, but Jedi succeeds in painting an equally enjoyable portrait of techno-fascist blitzkrieg versus outsider bravura.

The visual and aural drama achieved by Lucas and his design team, including concept artist Ralph McQuarrie, production designer Norman Reynolds, and cinematographer Alan Hume (replacing Gilbert Taylor and Peter Suschitzky), plus John Williams’ rich and inspired scoring and the teeming brilliance of the special effects, formed a large part of the film series’ capacity to rip a practically Pavlovian response from so many viewers. Yet, none of it would have mattered much if the sense of epic wonderment was not backed up on some level by a genuine love of story: the drama and characterisation of the series are always elemental, and yet always leavened by a care for detail, no matter how fleeting, even down to bits of throwaway humour that offer surprises, like the trainer weeping over his dead pet, which seemed to everyone else like a voracious hell-beast. The brightly coloured, but scuffed, tactile, even degenerating technocratic sheen of the first film shades into a darker, cleaner aesthetic, with the Nuremberg-via-Swedish-Moderne beauty of the Empire’s architecture. This contrasts vividly with the wastes of Tatooine and the forest purity of Endor, the name of which retains a biblical echo, and the look of the films echoes the thematic tensions based in the gap between technology and humanistic values, control and freedom, destruction and repression. The manichaeism of the conflict between the “dark” side of the Force and its counterpart is reductive, yet it also accounts for much of the nagging power of the series, in how it consistently invests the surface drama with an undertow of primal psychological anxiety, overt action always flowing in counterpoint to a nearly unseen battle for mastery over the forces of creation and annihilation themselves, the difference between them never farther apart than a choice.

The job of directing Return of the Jedi was actually offered to David Lynch before production, but he passed to do Dune (1984) instead: the thought of Lynch tackling Star Wars material is a fascinating what-if of cinema history. Coscreenwriter Lawrence Kasdan might have made a good choice to step up to the plate, but he was already moving off in his own direction. The job was eventually given to relatively unsung Welsh filmmaker Richard Marquand, who had displayed a talent for blending realism and theatrical passion in the context of pulp material and lending a contemporised edge to old-fashioned storytelling, in his spy thriller Eye of the Needle (1981). Marquand’s subsequent output was highly uneven, with the Joe Esterhasz-penned Basic Instinct prequel Jagged Edge (1985) notable between two weak pop romances, but his death just four years after making this film was still a sad loss. Marquand displayed formal gifts for keeping the elements of action on a colossal scale, which perhaps demand much more attention than they’ve ever been given. One telling aspect of Return of the Jedi’s influence is that it’s still pretty much the go-to point of reference for staging for franchise climaxes, with the likes of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), The Matrix Revolutions (2005), X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007), and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two (2011), all taking some cues in story and style from Marquand’s film. Also telling is how few of them manage to reproduce its economy and intricate, deceptive blend of complexity and naivete.

One element of the series that was commercially daring at the time, though it now seems relatively familiar, was the scruff-of-the-neck approach to hurling the audience back into the storylines, which the iconic opening explanatory scrawls only partly mitigated. There is only the plunge into stories already in motion, with a handful of expository remarks to give a context. Return of the Jedi relies on knowledge of previous episodes to make sense of it and also to give it power. Far from limiting its appeal, however, this touch helped make the series as pop-culturally pervasive as it is, engaging the audience in the serial-like dynamic (“Stay tuned for the next exciting episode of…!”) over a longer period of time than usual, but all the more intense for that reason, whilst also looking back to the ritualised, in media res structuring of classical epic poems. The oedipal death battle between Luke and Vader is gripping for having watched Luke’s evolution from a bright and eager farm boy to a baleful figure of fate, and supped on Vader’s blackly humorous poise as bringer of wrath and cruelty. The film’s first movement wraps up one of the major dangling threads of Empire, as Luke, Leia Organa, C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), R2D2 (Kenny Baker), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) infiltrate the palace of grotesque Tatooine gangster Jabba the Hutt, where Han Solo, frozen in carbonite, is kept as a trophy on the wall.

One particular reason why I love Jedi is because it’s the episode that’s most in touch with its pulp forebears, quoting from a broader range of such models with humour and a solid, physically concrete lustre. The film’s first third is essentially an extended riff on pirate flicks and Orientalist adventure sagas, with Jabba as a particularly caricatured Sydney Greenstreet-esque sheikh, with his dancing girls and court of sycophants fugitives from some particularly overworked id. Those tropes are blended with some monster business, as Jabba drops those who displease him into a pit with the ferocious Rancor, in the most successful of the series’ many hat tips to Ray Harryhausen. The familiar, oversized grandiosity of the Fritz Lang-esque sets and the proliferation of bizarre alien faces here is invested with defiantly dark humour and an edge of weirdness more intense and psychological than anywhere else in the series: for example, C-3PO and R2D2 are ushered into a robot dungeon where unruly fellow droids are being tortured, and Jabba’s gremlin pet laughs in mockery at the humiliations doled out to those who incur his displeasure. The crypto-S&M edge reaches an apotheosis when Leia, caught in the act of trying to extract Han from his hibernation, is chained to Jabba’s throne as his latest harem girl, reduced from a heroine hitherto defined by independence and asexual power to a scantily-clad pet abutting the distinctly penile monster. It’s an image that provoked a million adolescent fantasies; rumour has it the whole concept was concocted in riposte to Fisher’s complaints she never looked like a woman in the earlier episodes. In the context of the series’ elemental logic, it’s practically a rape fantasy, and interesting as just about the only overt element of eroticism. The creative team leaven it by giving Jabba’s comeuppance to Leia herself, who strangles her would-be enslaver with her own chains, a surprisingly potent image of female self-reclamation riding on the back of soft-core sexploitation.

Meanwhile Luke’s appearance to rescue the crew from Jabba and annihilate his power takes the form of a sequence of pure, scifi-tinted swashbuckling. Gone are the postmodern quotation marks of Star Wars, when Luke and Leia made their swing across a vast airshaft. In Return of the Jedi, that self-doubt is gone, and pure adventure is in, as Luke and Leia flee Jabba’s sail-barge on a rope, and the barge crashes and erupts in fire, a climactic flourish and a promissory signature that the bad times are ending. Jedi is, indeed, distinguished structurally by the destruction of corrupt regimes, first Jabba’s, and then the Empire. Whilst moral shading of the enemy is hardly a priority of the series, in this case, there is a distinct and purposeful schism set up with the wickedness of Jabba, and the malignant, fascist-chic technocracy of the Empire. Whereas Jabba suggests a caricature of lascivious greed, an emanation from the subconscious, the Empire is a polar opposite, a projection of the superego and a deracinated obscenity on a cosmic scale. The eroticised domination Jabba assert over Leia and Han is rendered on a far more grandiose scale by the Empire over everything, but finally twinning back to the Emperor’s weirdly sexual desire to possess Luke, son of his own “seduced” underling Vader, a note the insistently underscores the final confrontation of Luke, Vader, and the Emperor and erupts when it becomes plain that Luke’s sister Leia could be similarly subsumed.

The mythic quality of the Star Wars series was apparent from the start, but perhaps more apparent in terms of its specific imagery and wide story arcs rather than in the serial-like zest of the actual storytelling. Lucas’ reading of Joseph Campbell had encouraged him to create a web not only generic but also of cultural influences, and the retro-futurist society he dreamt up blended elements of the Western, Asian wu xia and jidai geki genres (the word “Jedi” derives from the latter), Arthurian and Norse sagas, early scientifiction romps like Burroughs’ Barsoom tales, Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, and more sophisticated space operas like Lensman and Dune. In this episode, the fact that the films had evolved into an active expression of a mythological tradition, with roots in tribal campfire tales, acknowledged when C-3PO recounts the team’s adventures to a thrilled audience of Ewoks for whom C-3PO has become an ironic kind of god-shaman (with the real god-shaman Luke behind his apparent miracles), inculcating wisdom and stirring the tribes to action. The saga here takes a humorous meta-narrative glance at its own storytelling zest as a ritual of immeasurable legacy. Even the accidental edge of incestuous attraction that had flitted between Luke and Leia in the earlier episodes, before plot loops were closed by making them prove to have been siblings, links with a strange neatness to the way that theme is always linked to questions of mysterious roots and family, taboo and heritage, which constantly resurface in the mythic pantheon, from Oedipus and Jocasta to Siegmund and Sieglinde’s romance in Wagner’s version of the Nibelungen myth, whilst Luke’s battle with the father figure takes on Freudian overtones, hinted at in Empire, as Luke sees his own face in a decapitated Vader’s helmet, the paternal figure swathed in anonymous alienation.

In the previous episodes, and particularly in Empire, Vader’s faceless malevolence had been perhaps the series’ most remarkable coup, fearsome and alien, blackly comic in his casual violence and psychopathic wrath, and always weirdly charismatic in his towering, contemptuous brand of evil. Jedi does to a certain extent rob him of this stature, though that’s not incidental, as the Emperor wants and needs Vader to be beaten down in order to replace him. But it’s a peculiar sop to our sensibilities—the need to feel that anyone so attractively wicked has to be redeemable, even pathetic, on some level. Yet one of the sleights of Jedi is how the Emperor hardly seems paltry next to him. On the contrary, thanks to McDiarmid’s terrific performance (one that would withstand pressure in the prequels), he is even more insidiously, penetratingly effective, but crucially, without charm: he’s like a sleazy uncle just released from prison for unmentionable acts, now completely and utterly devoted to his own malicious pleasures, goading Luke with glee over the seeming cast-iron trap he’s set for the rebels. By comparison, the actual forces of the Empire, represented by the likes of Admiral Piett (Kenneth Colley), seem effetely castrated, in spite of wielding colossal starships, forever walking on eggshells with puckered anxiety over displeasing the almost godlike wrath of Vader and the Emperor.

The pseudo-spiritual edge with which Lucas imbued his tales—the mystique of the Force and the Jedi—was the most significant innovation he brought to the cinematic space opera, and taken most clearly from the element in those Asian genre films where the hero ascends on both a physical and metaphysical journey. The journey is here expressed through Luke’s slow development from callow farm boy to a new member of the resurgent breed to which his father once belonged. Marquand’s Eye of the Needle and Jagged Edge had both posited the fascinating attraction and repulsion of evil in immediate erotic terms, whereas here it’s slightly more distanced, though no less potent. In spite of the fairy tale politics and deliberately remote settings, the fundamental reflexes of the series always lay in specific post-1960s questions of personal liberty and identity. Easy enough to see in Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) and Yoda—the echo of the yearning of the counterculture era for enlightened figures of new-age mysticism—and the Emperor as their evil, Mansonesque flipside. But is Luke’s confrontation with his evil father an emblem of specific generational conflict over giving in to the compromises and cynicism of age, a by-product of the series’ flower-child underpinnings, or a confrontation with a Freudian nightmare of the self and the chain of creation that always binds together the sex and death urges? Both, more, and none.

Still, the evolving conflict that leads to the confrontation between Luke, Vader, and the Emperor is the touch that has proven the most fascinating element Lucas and his cadre of cocreators, including veteran screenwriter Leigh Brackett and Kasdan, were to give to their take on the mythic form. The narrative impulse is strained by contradictory needs, between the urge toward grand action and the necessity of pacific self-control that finally moves, like the deepest heroic myths, into the realm of mysticism, even religion: a conquest of the interior duality that is a greater triumph than conquering a foe, and yet also key to besting that foe. Thus, Luke’s experience runs in counterpoint to such forebears as Siegfried/Sigurd who, in the Norse version of his mythology, defeats monsters but only learns fear in awakening the cursed Brunhilda; or Percival’s shedding of his armour to find the grail; or even Jacob’s wrestling with the angel who visits him. But Luke’s attainment of enlightenment, exemplified by the capacity to step back from wrath and prostrate himself before cruelty, is a Christlike gesture, and the only one that can liberate his father from the totality of evil. Whilst the battle continues, the real climax of Jedi is the moment of Vader’s confrontation by a choice, as the Emperor tortures Luke to death, his inhuman visage swinging between his son and his overlord with an intensity sharpened to Wagnerian heights by Williams’ scoring.

The smashing of the malignant machines of the Empire (Lang’s long shadow again?) is nothing compared to the simple act of Vader picking up the leathery old bastard who has perverted his life and hurling him into a pit. If the prequel trilogy achieved anything at all, it is that this action is even more palpable. Like much of the rest of the series, the power of this moment lies in its emotional directness and storytelling savvy: in spite of the wealth of special effects on hand, it’s achieved by the rapid alternations of close-ups between Luke’s agonised face, the Emperor’s sadistic glee, and between them, Vader’s unreadable mask covering emotional reflexes that are titanic. The journey from Luke’s discovery of his slaughtered foster parents in the first film by the forces Vader seems to represent most purely, to the moment in which Vader, so long the angel of death, expires in his arms as a wheezing, pathetic old ruin, finally disassembles the seemingly simplistic moral divides of the series. Luke attains manhood at last both by killing and redeeming his father, and whilst the other rebels get down with the Ewoks in a moment of goofy triumphalism, it’s Luke who stands out from the crowd, giving his father’s body a Viking pyre funeral, and gazing into the night and seeing the shades of the men who made him.

Otherwise, the action-adventure element of Jedi is beautifully straightforward, and the zest of the set-piece action scenes, including the speeder chase through forest trees at unnerving speeds, are still technically impressive and entertaining, all the moreso for not being belaboured. The series appeal to a delight in nerdish detail is likewise as strong as ever here: the exactly designated spacecraft, the fleetingly glimpsed characters with striking, weirdly memorable looks and names, including Jabba’s underling Bib Fortuna (Michael Carter), Lando’s blithely introduced sidekick for the final battle, and the much-loved Admiral Akbar (Tim Rose), the rebels’ crayfish-faced commander. Lando’s evolution from shifty corsair to swashbuckling hero, clearly taking cues from many an Errol Flynn forebear, is completed as he leads the seemingly doomed attack on the new Death Star and refuses to buckle in the face of impossible odds, convincing Akbar to stick it out in a space battle that rewrote the book on special-effects spectacle. It’s tempting to state that special-effects arts had reached a kind of perfect mean with this episode, rendered with intricacy and more sophisticated than almost anything seen before and yet retaining a physical, tactile quality that CGI, with all its fancifulness, would lose: it’s the fearsome beauty of the battle scenes that has always gripped me, the sense of real, gigantic hunks of metal smashing into each other, the wild, frantic battles that wend between the great ships, and the final race of Lando and Wedge (Dennis Lawson) into the heart of the Death Star to destroy it. The three-tiered struggle of the finale—the space fight, the forest guerrilla war where the Ewoks try to buy the rebels under Han and Leia time, and the multiplaned duel of wits and will between Luke, Vader, and the Emperor—is sustained with a use of dialectic montage that’s a long way from Griffith and Eisenstein and yet linked, and it’s achieved with a deceptive ease that demands admiration: in spite of the rapid shifts of focus and tone, the action retains a seamless, associative integrity, with no shot that’s incomprehensible, no action that is poorly linked with another.

Most gratifying perhaps to the cinephile’s eye are Marquand’s knowing quotes from the panoply of antecedents that always lurked in the series, quoting the landing of Major Strasser in Casablanca (1942) in the early scenes of Vader arriving in the Death Star, Chewbacca swinging into action with a Tarzan howl, and the Ewoks blowing their horns in the call to battle reproducing the calling together of the tribes of Israel in The Ten Commandments (1956). The mythic, aspiring tilt of the series and its roots in knowing pastiche are in constant, balanced dialogue throughout Return of the Jedi. It’s hard to forget the slacker-era cynicism well summarised by the characters in Kevin Smith’s Clerks (1994) in dismissing Return of the Jedi as empty triumphalism in comparison to the “real” crappiness of The Empire Strikes Back’s end. That sort of cynicism is, for me, a reminder of the political defeatism that was so popular, and has proven so corrosive, in the late twentieth century. Whilst I would hardly argue that the Star Wars films radicalised a generation, nonetheless in a fashion similar to the ’30s Errol Flynn films and their possible formative influence on ’50s and ’60s radicals, I suspect the spirit of Star Wars, often dismissed by some as reactionary, lurks behind many a contemporary rebel weaned on such fare. We all need to remember that some regimes can, should, and shall be brought down by the plucky outsiders.


15 thoughts on “Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983)

  1. Christopher Potter says:

    So the Ewoks didn’t bother you at all, Roderick? Did you run out and buy one along with about a billion other kids and parents suckered in by this crass triumph of Lucas mercantilism? I’ll send you a longer comment later, but I need to say now that Return of the Jedi was and still is the most ignoble betrayal in the history of movie sequels. True, Lucas’s subsequent prequels helped smooth some of the rough spots plot-wise — in particular adding character and stature to the Emperor. Even so, Jedi remains a contemptible grab for the big bucks, nothing more. In retrospect Revenge of the Sith might serve as Lucas’s belated apology for this cheesy, piddling wrap-up.


  2. ROTJ was always my favorite “Star Wars” movie growing up, and to this day it’s still probably my favorite of the original trilogy. ANH is still great, and perhaps the only true classic of the six, but it’s only a great introduction by its very nature. ESB has become rather overrated in the past 30 years, and you do a good job of diagnosing the limp areas– the stuff with Luke, Yoda and Vader are top notch, but there’s a rote way to the Han and Leia scenes that really brings out the stiff recreations of old Hollywood romance from stuff like “Gone With the Wind” that makes the “quotation marks” nature of some of Lucas’ pastiche stand out (Kasdan and Spielberg’s work on “Raiders” is a good example of how to grow past that even while delivering self-consciously olf-fashioned fun). ROTJ is the first “Star Wars” movie that doesn’t need to establish itself or gain credibility by repeating the same success, and as such it has a winning lack of self-consciousness that makes all the mythic quality much purer. It’s no wonder I loved it that much as a youngling.

    One of the things that impresses me about the film is how well it used mythic storytelling to reduce complex moral and ethical themes to as simple a form as possible– the stuff between the Emporer, Luke and Vader is about as good as the series ever gets. Yeah, it’s juggled with the Ewok circus down below, but I never really took seriously the notion that they compromised the series with any kind of commercial goal. News flash– everything in “Star Wars” is geared to merchandising. If anything, the Ewoks represent one of the sole self-conscious aspects of ROTJ, a winking admission of the franchise’s toyetic qualities in the form of a teddy-bear army. Do they aim for a younger crowd? Yeah, and that’s probably the reason people complain about them, to this day. I’m reminded of how somebody credited the success of the Sony PlayStation over the more juvenile Nintendo– older kids want to play more mature games, and younger kids look up to their older siblings. But one of the refreshing things about “Star Wars” from the beginning is that they don’t need to be overly mature to impress– even ESB at its darkest was really only about as adult as Marvel Comics during the code-era. And who cares if merchandising’s in effect, really– if it was good enough to save Studio Ghibli (Totoro stuffed animals keeping them afloat after the ludicrous notion to release that film as a double bill with the fatalistic “Grave of the Fireflies), it’s good enough to keep Lucasfilm from going the way of American Zoetrope.

    A few things I’d point out in this essay– Marquand’s involvement as director has always been called into question given Lucas’ strong hand during the making of this picture (it’s pretty well known that he directed a lot of it himself, including the stuff with the Emperor and Vader’s death). But even with Lucas ghost-directing much of the film over his shoulder, Marquand deserves credit for at least two brilliant additions to the film– the idea for Yoda’s death scene, and the casting of Ian McDiarmid as the Emperor. Generally there’s a lot of flack criticism that tries to distance Lucas’ hand from the OT nowadays– ESB especially getting a lot of attention in that sense. Kerschner did work with the actors a lot better than Lucas has proven in the past, but let’s be honest, ESB is the one good movie to his credit (and I say that as somebody who’s sat through “Eyes of Laura Mars” and “RoboCop 2”, to my regret). Even Leigh Bracket’s contributions to the script are overestimated– if memory serves, she wrote a draft that was never seriously entertained for production (probably written before Lucas came up with the Vader twist) and wound up passing away before she could work on a second (the fact that she was given a credit on the film, ensuring her kids beaucoup bucks, is a nice gesture, even though it robbed Lucas credit for co-writing his own film). The real hero on ESB was cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, whose work on that film would motivate David Cronenberg to recruit him as DP for all his projects from “Dead Ringers” on.

    Anyway. I will admit that ROTJ works a lot better after getting the backstory of the Prequels– Palpatine is more interesting as a Mabusian mastermind than he is a cackling Wicked Witch cribbed from Disney’s vault. It’s interesting to see how much of the original vision for ROTJ found itself transplanted into the Prequels, actually– the planetwide capital city of Coruscant, a very Langian metropolis; the lava planet as the site for a Miltonian duel; Wookies instead of Ewoks gone to war, etc. By the time of ROTJ Lucas’ imagination was outpacing the capabilities of his effects teams (probably more due to layer upon layer of compositing than the lack of digital effects– ROTJ pushes it to the max for 80’s tech, and each of the Prequels all wound up having more practical miniatures than all of the OT combined). Had ILM been more advanced, would less of ROTJ have felt repetetive, perhaps, and more transcendent? Perhaps, but what’s there is strong enough in the good parts to more than make up for where it sags.


  3. Wow, a spectacular essay by Roderick Heath and a stupendous comment by Bob Clark.

    All I can do at this point is play cheerleader, as I am out of my element, though I hung with every word on this post. I am a moderate fan, and can certainly nod my head at many well-thought observations and fascinating insights. As far as adding something, I’m not quite sure where to start. Ha!


  4. Christopher Potter says:

    To Bob Clark: If, as you say, “Everything in ‘Star Wars’ is geared to merchandizing,” then how could you even like the series, much less love it? I would conclude that you’re exceedingly easy to please.
    More later.


  5. Chris, I’ll reiterate the “Totoro” comment, and expand that to my love of anime as a genre. So many of the best films and shows are merchandized to an extent and in ways that would make Lucas look like a communist. At least he hasn’t made body pillows with Carrie Fischer or Natalie Portman on them (I love Hideaki Anno’s work and “Neon Genesis Evangelion” in general, but I’ll admit he likes to have his cake and eat it to as far as “fanservice” is concerned).

    At any rate, “Star Wars” is just naturally filled with things that can be merchandized, which is what I’m saying. I don’t buy the idea that anything in the films is put there just to be a toy– I just think that most of the stuff Lucas likes making films about naturally lend themselves to it. Same as Miyazaki’s movies.


  6. “I would conclude that you’re exceedingly easy to please.”

    Chris, if I may re-enter here for a sec, I did get a good laugh at your speculation that ‘Bob Clark may be exceedingly easy to please.” Bob Clark is a supreme intellect and he’s a good friend, but easy to please is alien to his existence. In nearly six years of blogging I have not met anyone more difficult to please. Not a single person. He haas no use for Hitchcock, the silent clowns, and tons of other things that most adore. He is his own man and I respect him greatly, but “easy to please?” No. Not remotely true.

    I am not making this statement to stir up any trouble,so please please please do not take it the wrong way. I am only trying to clarify a point based on long and fruitful association to enhance the discussion.


    • Roderick says:

      Bob: your own passion for the subject is readily apparent. I maintain a touch of cynicism about arguments about who directed what in well-known movies ever since Saul Bass claimed to just happen to direct the most famous bit of a Hitchcock movie for him. That said, I wouldn’t dispute Lucas direct contributions to the episode, nor his close involvement in the film, or his essential auteur ownership over the series; the contiguity of tone and the consistency of the creativity clearly indicates the depth of the controlling intelligence asserted over them. There’s certainly a lot of shit talked about Lucas just because many didn’t like his prequels much; in the 1970s, he directed three excellent films in a row. That said, I still feel no need to downplay Marquand’s touch either, which I see quite clearly sustained from Eye of the Needle, one of my favourite retro-pulp films of all time. Marquand offers distinctive visual touches – his fondness for offering inverted shots with busy foreground elements but with the actual focus of the action in the mid-distance is quite different to both Lucas and Kershner’s illustrative simplicity. It’s sort of like another film I love which has a complex authorship, Hammett, which Francis Coppola reportedly reshot much of, and indeed throughout there are traces of his overflowing compositional elan, but overall it still looks, feels, sounds like a Wim Wenders movie. Brackett’s contributions are indeed often overstated, although as my own memory serves it was in Lucas’ story meetings with her that the idea of making Darth Vader Luke’s father first germinated. I also suspect Brackett’s influence as a Golden Age sci-fi writer helped knit a tighter genre frame around the series. I definitely agree that Peter Suschitsky’s photography on TESB is a tremendous source of that film’s power, and indeed I’m a touch embarrassed that I didn’t mention it above. I’m much less inclined to agree about Kershner, whose early works like Hoodlum Priest, The Luck of Ginger Coffey, and A Fine Madness, are excellent early semi-indie films that establish Kershner’s strong roots in actor-based cinema, although yes, his later output is startlingly uneven. That said, I’m fond of his stylish non-canon riff on the James Bond mystique, Never Say Never Again, where he again displays a capacity to invest the pulpy stuff with wit and solid characterisation. I love your characterisation of Palpatine in the prequels as “Mabusian mastermind”, which is quite perfect. Indeed, one quality of the prequels which a surprising number seem pretty blind to is the portrait of Palpatine insidiously playing both ends against the middle, until his trap snaps shut. It’s natural that the episode of the prequels that works best, Return of the Sith, revolves properly around him, and is actually McDiarmid’s movie in many ways. Also, I agree with this entirely: “One of the things that impresses me about the film is how well it used mythic storytelling to reduce complex moral and ethical themes to as simple a form as possible…”

      Mr Potter: whilst you of course have the right to disagree about the worth of individual movies and state your feelings in that regard to your heart’s content, please keep personal inferences and denigration out of discussions. It is unnecessary and counter-productive. Your opinion is no more holy writ than mine or that of anyone else who comments here.


  7. Rod– I’ll try to address your points in whatever order I can recall them (we are going pretty dense with our text). Brackett’s draft doesn’t include the Vader twist– in fact, there’s a scene where Luke communes with the ghost of his father, clearly showing him a seperate character. Maybe Lucas came up with the idea ahead of time and didn’t share it with her, maybe they came up with it together and decided to keep their cards close to the chest and not reveal it until the final draft (Lucas kept the actual pages for that scene a secret until the day of shooting). But odds are the idea wasn’t there until she was gone from the project. Her script’s out there, and it’s a weird, rather surreal sounding thing at times, quite at odds with what’s in the film– I honestly think her credit’s just there as a sign of respect and to help her family (at least it’s not just there as a contractual obligation, like David Mamet’s name on the “Hannibal” credits).

    Kerschner’s best films are probably the smaller, character studies you mention there, but the more visual-spectacle stuff he tried directing are all over the map. “Eyes of Laura Mars” is really a sad movie to consider, because you can see traces of something really interesting there with John Carpenter’s “giallo in New York” script and the whole 70’s fashion world millieu. Even the cast is peppered with great oddballs. But the combination just doesn’t work at all– everyone’s overacting like the outtakes of an Altman movie, and the cinematography is either dead-in-the-water plain or artsy to the point of distracting. He just doesn’t know how to “show off” in the ways the genre demands there– in the hands of De Palma, it’s easy to imagine the movie being just the right type of bad. But here, it just doesn’t work. It’s hard to fathom it’s the movie that convinced Lucas to hire Kersh in the first place.

    “Never Say Never Again” is another movie that on paper should be great. It’s Connery as Bond. It’s a director hot of a spectacular hit and with the cinematographer of another one (Douglas Slocombe, from the Indiana Jones flicks). The cast is cool, and even the conceit of treating Bond as middle aged is fun. Unfortunately, it’s remaking the lamest of the original Bond movies, and while it’s probably nominally better than “Thunderball” on its own, that’s nothing to brag about, really. And as good as Kersh may be with his actors in low-key movies, in blockbuster mode he tends to encourage a kind of hamminess I’m not fond of, and it comes off particularly strong in a Bond film, which are already hammy enough.

    The way you’re talking about Marquand sounds right, in parts. The Jabba and Ewok portions of the film have a different feel than the Vader/Emperor ones, which have a much more THX-esque two-dimensional graphic sensibility to them. Lucas’ hand is definitely most palpable in the scenes that take place on the Death Star, the rest of the movie having a more laid-back feeling, though there are a lot of accounts from actors and crewmembers placing him on the set and personally helming a lot of stuff throughout (unlike Bass, Lucas hasn’t really tooted his own horn himself). Who knows– at the end of the day even with Kersh and Marquand directing, Lucas maintains the auteur-position as you say, a bit like so many Alexander Korda productions. At the very least, one thing I’m glad about with the Prequels is that he directed them himself, so we don’t have to have any debates over authorship there (he did want to have David Hare or somebody co-direct and handle the actors, though– at least the man knows his limitations).

    On Palpatine, Der Speiler– I actually prefer TPM and AOTC over ROTS precisely because it’s in that third movie that we see the trap actually spring. I enjoy seeing all the pieces fall into place over the first two, like an elaborate Rube Goldberg contraption of action set-pieces and political maneuvering. It’s a bit like how I prefer the first hour of “Fantastic Voyage”, where it’s all planning and preparation to miniaturize into the patient’s body, rather than the second act and its unconvincing effects (I wonder if that movie had an influence over Lucas he hasn’t spoken about– there’s hints of it in THX and ESB). Also, something like “JFK”, where I have a lot more fun watching the dots of Operation Mongoose, Oswald’s life history and Mr. X’s epic info-dump than I do seeing Costner connect said dots during the courtroom scenes at the end (though those are still rivetting). But that’s just my personal inclination, and a big part of why I like the political nature of the Prequels– it’s fun to see laws and sausages get made when lightsabers are involved.


  8. Excellent piece, and great discussion in the comments. I don’t really share your or Bob’s preference for Jedi although as a kid it was also my favorite (as a teenager it was the darker and more angsty Empire). Today, far and away my favorite is Star Wars (don’t like calling it a New Hope) which to my mind not only makes the other films, but pretty much every other blockbuster of the past 35 years, feel slightly redundant. But that observation is also predicated on growing less comfortable with the overt mythologizing of the other five films over the years and suspecting that Lucas’ particular approach is not the best platform for its Oedipal aspirations. Star Wars ’77 seems purer in this regard; yes there’s an element of pastiche to it yet it also seems goofily, charmingly sincere – today I find this combination more refreshing than the somewhat smug overt self-awareness of Indiana Jones, where Spielberg always seems anxious to let us know he’s in on the joke.

    Anyway, when expanding the film to a franchise Lucas was wise to pursue a mythological route as the pure-fun quotient was tapped out by the first film, which just has such a different feel than the rest of the saga. (Side note: I don’t much believe Lucas’ opportunistically shifting claims of how the saga was planned out all along – in “The Making of Star Wars” doc Lucas says it was intended as a stand-alone, although Vader’s otherwise dramatically unsatisfying survival certainly leaves room for a sequel; at any rate Lucas was either lying in ’78 or now so I’d take all of his claims with a grain of salt from Kesseba (sp? My nerd credentials are rusty).

    I agree entirely with your assessment of the weight + ingenuity of Jedi’s effects though I think the first two films, along with Close Encounters and 2001, hold up just as well even if they are less complex. Bob is probably right that the weakest link is the compositing (I remember those fuzzy, muddy areas around the fighter ships on the old videotapes) but the convincing borderlines of CGI is a weak trade off for its intangibility. It never ceases to amaze me how an entire generation – really, several generations given the apologia of critics who should know better, have been hornswaggled by computer animation which, except in extremely small doses (like Jurassic Park, still to me its best use) or as a kind of finishing/stylistic detail (like, I dunno, Fight Club or maybe the fight scenes in The Mattix) does not have convincing weight or depth and even when it’s artificiality is heightened and focused in (as in Avatar, a New Age Roger Rabbit to my thinking), a healthier approach, there’s still something about that evaporates after you leave the theater, something that just won’t stick – with this viewer anyway. I just watched The Dark Crystal the other day and I would take its sense of living tactility over the deadening spectacle of Lord of the Rings any day. But moving on…

    I’m glad you note the in media res quality of Jedi. When I first sampled the film, not having seen the others yet, I hated this: it made me feel left out because everyone else watching already knew the characters. Of course later, when I familiarized myself with the rest of the trilogy, this (plus the fact that it’s so action-packed, that it ties up the story, and maybe that the hairdos seemed the least dated?) helped make it my favorite.

    Today what sticks out for me the most are the decadent sleazy fun of Jabba’s palace and the still-powerful redemption of Vader’s/Anakin.

    I wrote about watching all six films back to back (as well as growing up with the first/last? three) here: http://thedancingimage.blogspot.com/2010/07/notes-on-star-wars-saga.html

    There’s a link at the top to a same-day screencap digest of Anakin’s decline into Vader’s and eventual redemption which you might also find fun.

    One last note: way machine several fantasy films lately, I was reminded how, despite its machine-age trappings (which, given Lucas’ mechanically-inclined fondness for hardware, shouldn’t be dismissed) the Star Wars saga really belongs in their company rather than with sci-fi/sci-fi stuff like Star Trek or whatever. Bob will probably disagree with me here (especially since I know he doesn’t like fantasy much) but really there was a strong, brooding, almost primal fantasist tinge to the early Reagan years which Jedi dovetails with nicely. I wonder if one of the reasons the spin-off area (particularly all those novels) need quite seemed authentically Star Wars. Maybe the authors’ sensibilities were too s/f rather than fantasy? Though this is pure speculation, and I’m sure at least some of the dozens of writers had a fantasy background.

    More interestingly, I wonder if this s/f-fantasy divide gets at why (aside from technology and too much time passed culturally and personally for Lucas) the prequels feel so different from the OT. They are much more cerebral beasts, more focused on the typical intellectual headgames of s/f, they are anchored by the ultimate s/f city/planet, Coruscant, and Lucas’ digital flexibility gives Ep. 2 and 3 particularly (Ep. 1 still has something of the fantasy about it) a small-world feel. Even as I type this I can see various holes in the argument (after all is zipping through the universe really a mark of s/f given the lost-in-space vibe of 2001, Alien, Star Trek, and, well, Lost in Space) but still, it’s interesting to ponder.


  9. I agree that to a certain extent the original trilogy isn’t as hard a brand of sci-fi as other things. But I wouldn’t call it all-the-way fantasy, either. There’s long been a perfect sub-genre in sci-fi for what “Star Wars” is, and in many ways it stands as the perfect story told in that form– the space opera, same as Burroughs “Barsoom” books, the “Flash Gordon” comics or the “Buck Rogers” serials. The only other space opera that’s equal to “Star Wars” in the ways that it uses the genre in its own medium would be the “Dune” series– if you really look at those books, they aren’t hard sci-fi by a long shot either, and arguably are even more into the mythical, mystical side of fantasy than anything Lucas did, but they’re groundbreaking and stunning works. Space opera is something people tend to distance things from as a definition, when really it’s there in a lot of other stuff that aims for the sci-fi pedigree– let’s not kid ourselves, most of the “science” that people talk about in things like “Star Trek” is pure bullshit, and that franchise has thrived on just the same kind of adventurous spirit as any other fantasy.

    Anyway. Even with those asides, what you’re saying about the Prequels are all reasons that I really have come to prefer them over the originals, for the most part. They do have a more cerebral nature to them, as opposed to the pure emotionalism of the original trilogy. They do veer a lot closer into hard sci-fi territory, with a special emphasis on science run amock with the body throughout (changlings, human cloning for war, cyborgs with grisly pumping organs). Even the whole advent of midichlorians in episode 1 hammers this home, and was a really welcome treat for an anime fan like me– that bit where Obi-Wan looks at a reading of Anakin’s blood on a computer screen and is amazed by the reading is something straight out of “Akira” or “Evangelion”. The kinds of movies being homaged in Lucas’ pastiche throughout the films signals a more purposefully sci-fi bent, too– obvious nods to “Metropolis” and “Blade Runner”, as well as a design crew that seems to be drawing as much inspiration from anime sensibilities as old-fashioned movie serials. The use of the city-planet of Coruscant also helps make the whole Mabusian nature of Palpatine feel much clearer as a Lang/Feulliade gambit, another mastermind-in-disguise orchestrating a campaign of terror in the big city. At the very least, I would say that Lucas plays the Mabuse card a hell of a lot better than Nolan’s attempts in the Dark Knight films.

    On CGI– I really just think that’s a generational thing as much as anything else. We grew up with models, so that’s what we’re used to. Also, some of us grew up mostly with models on movies watched on home video, as opposed to seeing them on the big screen, and I can tell you that some of the best model work on VHS looks a lot faker in a theater. Anyway it’s mostly a non-issue for the Prequels, because they contain a whole lot of model work, anyway. LOTR does look a hell of a lot faker, but they have a big reputation for mixing models and digitals as well, so who the hell knows, really. I’m reminded of something Guillermo Del Toro mentioned during some interview for “Pacific Rim”– he made a big deal about how at ILM, they treat digital effects like traditional animations, key-framing everything, while at Weta they rely heavily on motion capture.


  10. 2 points:

    1. Just to clarify, I think the cerebral nature of sci-fi (or at least what I mean by it) is less about science than philosophy – so much sci-fi seems to have a point to make, or at least to explore (a category the OT at least really just doesn’t fall into, though the PT does to a certain extent). Fantasies seem to more about a mystical experience; to put it crudely, sci-fi is rational, fantasy is irrational.

    2. Re: CGI, yeah but Bob it’s not like we’re old men; lots of people our age seem to dig CGI (don’t you, to a certain extent)? I honestly think there’s just something inherently, aesthetically wrong with it. I can’t shake that feeling. I just don’t enjoy it as much as models, I don’t get the tactility that has always been a huge part of why I enjoy movies, that delightful sensation that what you’re seeing is simultaneously real and and an illusion. With CGI, it mostly just seems like an illusion.


  11. 1– Again, I don’t take issue with this, vis-a-vis the Prequels. In fact, it’s more reason for me to find them so interesting. They are more concerned in making a point, and an explicitly political one at that. I wonder if partly this is to prevent an unfortunate by-product of the first trilogy, that its mythic universalness was so easily scooped up by Reagan and used as speech material. This time, Lucas is tilting markedly from the left.

    2– The generational thing isn’t 100 percent determinative, but it’s definitely an element. What you’re talking about, however, imposing a moral reading on the different aesthetics, is something that’s really only there and common with a certain generational landscape, basically the Gen X crowd and maybe a bit of the Millenials. I enjoy model and CGI work about the same and recognize they’re both well suited to different things. I also acknowledge the fact that both at times can look stunningly awful. As for the “simultaneously real and an illusion bit”– I’ve honestly never really seen any model work in a movie that I didn’t know was an effect, and never took any of it as real. The closest I’ve come is some of the modern era’s “bigature” work, where miniatures are built on a vast scale to produce whole landscapes of imagined worlds (this is present everywhere in the Prequels, which also use a lot of matte paintings for background plates, and in Christopher Nolan’s big films) rather than merely smaller, individual elements like spaceships. Most of the model effects of the 80’s can impress me for their craft, but you can always tell just from the resolution of the image that you’re looking at something small that’s 20 feet away, rather than something huge that’s a mile or so away (you’d have to be shooting your effects at 70mm and putting it onto 35mm for it to work a little better, and that’s likely prohibitively expensive).

    End of the day, the basic thing is that model effects, photographed from real elements, is something that draws from puppetry and other stage craft. CGI, on the other hand, painting new images digitally pixel by pixel, draws from animation. They’re different disciplines, and yeah it might be a matter of taste, but they also boil down to the strengths and weaknesses of their particular mediums.


  12. Jeremy says:

    For me, the rage the fans of the franchis’e directed towards the Ewoks and subsequently Jar Jar Binks was evidence that they had become a little too wrapped in Lucas’s alternative universe. Though I didn’t see it that way, I sense that they felt peeved that what they saw as the infantilisation of the films devalued their investment in them. On a related note, can you imagine expending significant effort learning Klingon rather than, say, the guitar. Elvish on the other hand…

    I think the manifest erooticism of the scantily clad and chained Princess Leia stands out less in its own right than in contract to the sexlessness of the the rest of the franchise. Women barely figured in “LOTR”, but for me, they didn’t feel chaste or adolescent in the same way that “Star Wars” did.


  13. Jeremy– very good point on Ewoks and Jar Jar. Maybe that’s part of why they’re there, to remind viewers that it’s just a big space-opera adventure they’re watching and not to take it too seriously. Arguably the droids make that point better, but hey. I can dig teddy-bear aliens and space-Yoshi.

    On manifest eroticism– the Prequels have Natalie Portman, and have her wearing a dominatrix-dress and battle-damage mid-riff baring no less. That’s good enough for me.


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