Return of the Jedi Had a Great Story, it Just Misframed Key Moments

The other day, I got stoned and started thinking about Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi in a new way. I haven’t heard anyone raise these specific observations before, so I would like to put them out there now.

Empire Strikes Back: Han is Luke’s Father

Now, I’m of the unoriginal opinion that ESB is by far the best Star Wars movie ever made, mostly because Han’s story is so mature and heartbreaking. He is the best execution of the “gruff rouge with a heart of gold” archetype I’ve ever seen, and Harrison Ford really sells how much he loves his friends. Whenever I rewatch the film now, I get chills when he gasps “Luke!” with audible fear upon realizing his best friend is the target of Vader’s wrath. The fear of being unable to escape the consequences of your past, and being helpless to protect the ones you love from harm, those are primal instincts hardwired into all men. When Han alone is unable to escape Cloud City with the others, it feels like a much bigger blow to the rebellion than if it had been anyone else in his place. Why? Because he has been the guy saving everyone else’s ass time and again since the first movie. How are the two people who had to get rescued twice by Han (plus the big walking carpet) going to be able to save him in turn when they’ve been so helpless up to this point?

I knew all of that already, but it was only during this recent smoke session that I realized Han was much more than the most competent, strong person on the team. He was also a pseudo father figure to Luke, the last one Luke had left in the flesh, the older man he could turn to in order to make it all better. I don’t think this interpretation is a stretch either, considering the framing of the scene in which they say goodbye to each other. Notice that Han is positioned higher than Luke, looking down on him with paternalistic love and concern. Luke looks up to Han, literally and figuratively, like a young boy to a respected elder. It’s Han’s example of recklessly throwing himself into danger for others that Luke emulates in the film’s climax. While the vague descriptions of his Jedi father are certainly an inspiration, Han is the most tangible ideal in Luke’s life who represents what a man ought to be. Alongside Obi-wan as the Jedi Knight, Han embodies the bold adventuresome hero whom Luke aspires to become.

When Vader reveals that he is Luke’s father, it destroys the role model Luke created in his mind as well as his trust in Obi-wan (a father figure in spirit.) When Vader sells out Han to Boba Fett, he further robs Luke of the one mentor figure whom he could still rely on. On that terrible day, Luke lost all three masculine role models upon which he based his entire sense of self. He’ll have to forge his own identity in order to face the challenges ahead, and there’s no one to show him how. Even worse, his love interest (at this point in the story) found him completely beaten down and literally begging for help. She will never see him as a real man again, especially contrasted with the far more capable Han Solo. (Whose only weakness was the trust he placed in the wrong guy.) To be emasculated in front of women is, in its own right, a significant hindrance to any guy’s sense of self-worth. I’d daresay it can be a traumatic experience all by itself, to say nothing of the other traumas Luke has endured. Somehow, the humiliation of that particular moment never resonated with me before, since I can’t “un-know” that Leia was rewritten into his sister.

Luke at the end of ESB is perhaps the most thoroughly defeated, disillusioned and demoralized protagonist in any story. That’s another part of Empire’s lasting appeal for me, even as the other Star Wars movies have lost their luster over time. (In my eyes at least.) This reframing of his relationship with Han only further cements how heartbreaking it really is.

My favorite understated moment in a film full of spectacle and bombast. Regardless of whether you agree with my interpretation of their relationship, Han’s concern for Luke is so touching in this moment. There is a reason I named my entire blog after his tragic fate in Empire, despite not being a huge fan of the overall franchise.

Return of the Jedi: Luke’s Subsequent Daddy Issues

Re-contextualizing Han as a second on-screen father figure has the added benefit of making ROTJ a more interesting film too. It ties the two separate plot arcs–saving Han from Jabba & finishing off the Empire–together in a way that I had previously thought impossible. The earlier side-quest now represents the resurrection of one father, foreshadowing Luke’s high stakes redemptive mission in the second act. This newfound link between the two has gone a long way toward redeeming Jedi in my eyes, for I had previously dismissed it as a sloppy hodgepodge of loose ends that just wants to get itself over with.

Unfortunately, the script somewhat bungles the execution of the story, so it doesn’t hit quite as hard as it should. Assuming George Lucas still plotted the major story elements like he did with Empire, that means some blame has to fall on screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan and director Richard Marquand. They failed to utilize the characterizations and themes established in Empire, which would have tied the plot beats together in a meaningful narrative for Jedi. It almost feels like they didn’t realize the potential depth of the material they were working with. Or else, the scripting process and possibly the entire production itself were rushed. We can’t let Lucas off the hook entirely then, considering he was the producer, supposedly pushed for the unambiguously happy ending, has a screenplay credit for ROTJ that he didn’t have in ESB, and was supposedly looking over Marquand’s shoulder all the time.

For example, after all the abuse that Luke took at the end of ESB, he ought to be traumatized by the start of Jedi. We need to feel the emotional desperation of this lost boy trying to reclaim the one pure mentor he has left, his only father who remains uncorrupted by cruelty or deception. If his getting everyone captured one by one was really part of some master plan (as the film and EU material seems to imply) then we need to feel the weight of his methodical realpolitik strategy. We need to see Luke grapple with the questions: “How far would you go to save the one man you still believe in? Would you sell your droid friends into slavery? Would you let Chewie die in his place? Would you let your love interest (or sister!) be gang raped by a bunch of criminals? Would you kill a hundred men with your sword?” We need to understand the disturbing magnitude of these actions, the sacrifices Luke was willing to put others through as well as himself to have a father again. There ought to have been a “devil tempts Jesus in the desert” element to this narrative, except instead of holding firm in his values, Luke sells them out one by one. There needs to be consequences for his ruthlessness, like Leia getting shaken up by her ordeal and/or everyone losing a bit of the reverence they once had for Luke. We need to see their perspective on Luke change from a virtuous childlike Jedi-wannabe to a cold, calculating man that gets results no matter the cost. As is, I don’t feel like ROTJ drives this point hard enough.

To be fair, they somewhat set this up by having Luke appear in black robes when he first enters the palace, looking like the Emperor. He also chokes out two guards as was Vader’s MO from the previous film. Clearly the filmmakers wanted to imply some kind of moral ambiguity, but the idea is never allowed to fester in the minds of the audience. In my opinion, Luke is played as far too stoic and his actions are never questioned by the script itself. If Luke’s reached a point where he’s killing a whole palace full of people (“bad guys” or no) there needs to be a moment where the moral implications are discussed. This is especially true when the motivation of our antagonists is in convincing Luke that the dark side is more effective, trying to convert him to evil. Having Luke grapple with his “short cut” of sacrificing others and use of deadly force to get what he wants would have perfectly set up the confrontation with the Emperor. It would have provided stakes and a sense of “what if” regarding the dark side’s temptation over him.

If this setup is too dark for the intended audience, then it should have been made clear that the rescue of Han was another reckless gambit instead. Either an adhoc series of errors as Luke sends his people in one by one until he finally got lucky, or his friends acting on their own and getting captured before he is forced to mount an improvised rescue of his own. In the latter of these two scenarios, Luke’s anger/hate fueled tactics would still be a factor going into the finale but he’d come off as more sympathetic, assuming that’s what they were going for. His brief foray into the dark side would then arise out of desperation rather than Machiavellianism. In the previous scenario, Luke’s character flaw (and the basis for his arc in the film) would remain what it was at the end of Empire. IE, his reckless abandon almost got himself and everyone killed, now for the second time. I think this particular scenario is much weaker, but still better than the big fat nothing we got in the finished product. (Where the whole film starts over again after leaving Tatooine as though the previous 45 minutes were a completely separate story.)

Any of these three setups would have added far more urgency in Luke’s desire to finish the training with Yoda. As is, he just nonchalantly goes back to “visit an old friend” and the entire scene feels like yet another rushed obligation rather than a major source of tension. Imagine if Luke has tasted the dark side and likes it but knows that’s wrong, when he comes back to find a dying Yoda? Suddenly, this previously momentum-killing detour instead serves to ratchet up our anxiety on Luke’s behalf. He’s relied on brute strength without finesse and/or enjoyed the dark side, and is about to go up against the Emperor with nobody to reaffirm the light. That would also explain his passivity during the early stages of his duel with Vader, it’s a desperate ploy to do nothing so as not to risk the wrong course of action. He only knows how to fuel his powers with anger because he never learned to do it any other way.

The scene with Obi-wan would also be greatly improved if instead of having his cake and eating it too (“from a certain point of view”) he just owned his decision without reserve. “I told you what you needed to hear to confront the biggest threat to the galaxy without reservation, for Vader certainly won’t show you any mercy. You don’t have to like it, but I did what I thought was best so that you could complete your mission without a troubled conscience. I did a bad thing for good reasons.” As is, the dialogue in this encounter almost feels like a haphazard apologism for the ethical implications of his deceiving Luke. The reveal that even a proven Jedi Knight sometimes toes the line of morality would further add to the weight of Luke’s temptation. It would also plant the seed of his ability to forgive Vader, as he now realizes the line between good and evil isn’t always so clear cut. As is, Luke’s conversations with Yoda and Obi-wan are dull and drag the film’s pacing to a screeching halt. It just feels like a necessary but joyless exposition dump from the screenwriters. You can practically hear them going “let’s just get this over with” behind the camera.

Wouldn’t the Emperor’s threats and temptations work so much better if the movie DIDN’T casually sidestep the fact that Luke just slaughtered a hundred people in close combat? I mean, that kinda thing traumatizes normal troops in war, let alone those tempted by the immense power of the dark side.

Conclusion

These very minor but significant adjustments in the framing of certain key scenes would already put Jedi on a higher tier of filmmaking than it currently is. It’s important to note that, thus far, I haven’t even proposed adding or subtracting scenes. The building blocks for an emotionally dynamic and thematically compelling narrative were already there, it’s just the execution that’s lacking. The story is great but the script is terrible. I am willing to bet money that had these changes been in the finished film, nobody would even bother complaining about the stupid ewoks. (Which defenders of the movie have always unfairly boiled the criticisms down to.)

As long as I’m discussing ways in which ROTJ could be improved upon, I would add/change a few details with Han’s arc. (Or lack thereof in the finished product.) We really needed a scene between him and Lando, man to man, and not where Han is feebly offering up his most prized possession to the guy who sold him out. We needed Han and Lando to have a moment of apology, hurt and forgiveness. It should have been Han who piloted the Falcon, dying in the effort (as Harrison intended) and thereby justifying the immense sacrifice of getting him back. As is, Han’s role in leading the ground assault presumably could’ve been accomplished (and done better) by someone else. Like, I don’t know, an actual military commander with experience coordinating troops in battle. (What a thought!) With the film as it exists now, the rescue mission seems somewhat superfluous, since they just brought back a guy whose role was ultimately replaceable in the big battle. Flying is Han’s skillset and this should have been his last, best moment to shine with it. A real, drawn out scene with Leia where he says goodbye would have been far more touching than their forced callback to a better line from Empire.

This is just my opinion, and the film’s been completed for 40 years so it’s all a moot point. Perhaps if Disney would allow for the creation of a “Gary Kurtz cut,” complete with the omission of the pointless “Leia is my sister!” reveal and a bittersweet ending… Then we’d really have something cool, a fresh adult take on what has been (somewhat fairly) dismissed as a lackluster and dumbed down finale. Have the last shot be Luke riding off into the sunset to find his missing sister. He has lost all three father figures again, but this time on his own terms and after proving his ascension into manhood. He has Leia all to himself but lets her go, knowing he can’t compete with the ghost of Han. (A real man concerns himself with his own affairs, not chasing after women for external validation.) His new role in life will be that of a protector and mentor to someone who needs him, as opposed to the lost boy looking up to others. I don’t know, that just seems to work better as an arc for everyone if you ask me, which admittedly nobody did.

1 Comment

  1. Another well written essay by Cassandra. You told me all of this in our telephone conversation the other day. But I’m still glad to see it written down. I always learn from your media analysis and get so much more out of movies after listening to your ideas and view points on them. You are a wonderful writer! Keep up the good work!

    Like

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