This week George Lucas’ “Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi” turns 30. The conclusion to what was then imagined to be the end of the “Star Wars” saga concerned the Rebellion going up against the evil Galactic Empire, which has constructed a second, planet-destroying Death Star that is about to go online. It had a whole bunch of thrills, chills, and fussy robots, but, as we look back on ‘Return of the Jedi’ (and look forward to whatever J.J. Abrams’ “Star Wars: Episode 7” will be,) it’s interesting to note what the sequel might have contained under different conditions– and how it could have ended up being much, much cooler (This as the companion piece to that ran earlier today btw.)
The Ewoks Could Have Been Creepy
As originally envisioned, the inhabitants of the forest moon of Endor weren’t the cuddly, ripped-from-Toys-R-Us stuffed animals. Instead, they were creepy little lizard folk, who you wouldn’t want to hug even if a very large space gun was pointed at your head. Clearly, this would have been a lot cooler – imagine how much more interesting it would have been for Leia (Carrie Fisher) to befriend a creepy little lizard instead of an easily awwwwww-able Ewok? It would have made Endor a far more dangerous place, for both our heroes and the invading Galactic Empire, instead of it being a heavily forested teddy bear’s picnic. Keeping the original Endor inhabitants, too, would have added something that none of the “Star Wars” movies have done particularly well, which is given things a sense of truly scary menace. Yes, there are goosebump-y moments in all of the original films, but imagine watching one of these creatures skitter into an Imperial walker (and just think about what those creatures would have done when they got inside! Splat!) Lucas was more concerned with toy sales than narrative efficiency or inventiveness, so the original Endorians were replaced by Ewoks. And the rest is adorable history.
Han Solo Died First
Perhaps the most celebrated bit of what-if miscellany is the idea that, early in ‘Return of the Jedi,’ Han Solo (Harrison Ford,) the rugged rapscallion who had reformed as part of the Rebellion, would have sacrificed himself selflessly for the good of the cause. Can you imagine that? Forget about Janet Leigh getting offed a third of the way through “Psycho,” this would have made every fanboy and fangirl in the audience shriek in absolute dismay. It would have been a bold proclamation by the filmmakers that no matter how beloved your hero is, they could very well end up on the wrong end of a blaster (and he wouldn’t be coming back as a shimmery Jedi ghost either.) Producer Gary Kurtz elaborated on the plan more specifically in 2010: “The original idea was that they would recover [the kidnapped] Han Solo in the early part of the story and that he would then die in the middle part of the film in a raid on an Imperial base. George then decided he didn’t want any of the principals killed. By that time there were really big toy sales and that was a reason.” Both co-screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan and Ford himself fought for this plan to be implemented, but Lucas wouldn’t budge, holding steadfast that Han should survive (and thus minimize much of the dramatic potential for the installment,) something that Ford still seems sore about. In 2010, in an interview with Peter Travers for ABC News, Ford commented that, “As a character, he wasn’t so interesting to me. I thought he should have died in the last one.” When Ford was asked what Lucas thought of this plan, Ford shot back (deadpan): “George didn’t think there was any future in dead Han toys.” Once again: commerce trumps creativity; The Dark Side beats out the light.
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The Spaghetti Western Ending
At the end of ‘Return of the Jedi,’ the Galactic Empire is defeated: the Emperor is dead, the second Death Star has been reduced to shimmery space dust, Darth Vader has found redemption in his final moments and the cosmos have been liberated (in the “special edition” version of ‘Jedi’ you see celebrations on multiple planets.) Back on Endor, our heroes Luke (Mark Hamill,) Han and Leia have been reunited along with C-3PO and R2-D2 and a bunch of annoying Ewoks, and everyone is insanely happy. But in the original, emotionally resonant ending, the rebel forces were in tatters following a high casualty rate in the battle for the second Death Star, Leia is nervous about taking on duties as the new queen, and Luke would, according to Kurtz, have walked into the sunset alone, “Like Clint Eastwood in the spaghetti westerns.” (Kurtz was then quietly asked to leave the production, shortly after he objected to there being a second Death Star, a plot point he rightfully found to be far too derivative.) This ending would have been really amazing, but it would have also robbed us of the Ewok celebration song, and really, are any of us willing to give that up?
Some fascinating “Star Wars”-related documents that were recently released showed that Lucas’ original conception of the Force, even going into ‘Return of the Jedi,’ was that it was something that any mortal could tap into. “Like yoga,” Lucas explained, some people were just better at utilizing that ability than others. (Clearly Lucas changed his mind; in the prequels it’s treated more like a blood disorder than a spiritual ability.) This is a pretty interesting detail, and leads to the larger issue of Yoda in the third film. Originally, Luke was not going to make the return trip to Dagobah, and in pure narrative terms, it makes very little sense that he would break away from the chaos erupting across the galaxy to commune with a little green Muppet. If Yoda wasn’t a part of ‘Jedi,’ it would have deepened the mystery to the character and suggested, as Lucas did previously, that Luke had already tapped into his yoga-like Force abilities; he didn’t need his old master and he was ready to kick ass all on his own. At the time though, director Richard Marquand fought for its inclusion, stressing that “that audiences would feel cheated if there was no scene with Yoda because the importance of Luke’s return to Yoda to complete his training.” Lucas also felt that Yoda needed to reiterate that Darth Vader was, in fact, Luke’s father, because he consulted with a child psychologist who deemed that children thinking that Vader had lied to Luke could be potentially damaging. Because filmmakers should obviously take script notes from head-shrinkers.
Directed By… David Lynch?
Eventual ‘Jedi’ director Richard Marquand did a workmanlike job on the film, juggling complex visual effects, multiple storylines and the constant creative interference by George Lucas. But the movie could have gone down an entirely different path, directorially, one that would have been much, much more interesting. Lucas’ first choice for the gig was David Lynch, who had just come off the critical and commercial success of “The Elephant Man.” Lynch, who would go on to make his own space saga in the wildly divisive “Dune,” recounted the meeting in 2010. “I was asked by George to talk to him about directing ‘Return of the Jedi.’ I had next to zero interest, but I always admired George. He’s a guy who does what he loves. And I do what I love,” Lynch said. “The difference is what George loves makes hundreds of millions of dollars.”
Lynch was issued a special key and given a map, and when he went to Lucas’ office he was shown illustrations of “Wookies” (probably Ewoks) and “other creatures,” which gave Lynch a headache. Lucas then took Lynch for a joyride in his Ferrari and they ate a restaurant that exclusively sold salads. “That’s when I got almost a migraine headache, and I could hardly wait to get home,” Lynch said. The director then “crawled into a phone booth” and called his agent, telling him, “No way can I do this. No way!” Lynch felt that Lucas should direct it and officially took himself out of the running the following day. Lucas had also offered the job to David Cronenberg, who noted: “Then it was called ‘Revenge of the Jedi.’”
Do you think these additions, changes, or substitutions would have actually made “Return of the Jedi” cooler? Do you enjoy ‘Jedi’ more as a fascinating game of what-if than an actual movie? Sound off below, and may the Force be with you.