As the Star Wars saga reaches its conclusion with the release of The Rise of Skywalker this month, Nick Davies speaks out in defence of an oft-maligned episode in the movie franchise, champions its Welsh director and argues that in spite of the derided Ewoks – in fact, because of the Ewoks – it’s one of the most satisfying blockbusters in decades.
It was June 1983, I was a week short of my eighth birthday. My dad packed me and my two brothers into our Ford Escort and off we went to see something for which we had waited for three long years. Finally, finally… the culmination of George Lucas’s original triptych of Star Wars films: the opening night of Return of the Jedi. And, for me, it was the greatest film I had ever seen.
Today, as we reach episode nine of the protracted Skywalker story, and with it the inevitable lists of all the Star Wars films ranked in order, Return of the Jedi rarely makes the top half. Empire magazine recently called it “the most disappointing of the original three episodes” and Rotten Tomatoes berated it for failing to “reach the cinematic heights of its predecessors.”
It’s a seemingly inarguable assertion among critics that The Empire Strikes Back (1980) was the pinnacle of the series. Dark in tone with a stunningly downbeat ending, Empire has long been considered the coolest in the canon. If the original Star Wars (1977) exploded into the zeitgeist like a cheerfully dazzling supernova, its sequel was an ominous black hole swallowing up the optimism. It was like the Doors hitting the scene after the Beatles. If one were to continue the analogy, then Return of the Jedi would be the Monkees. A breezy, refreshingly unpretentious delight, but bearing an emotional depth that’s unfairly dismissed.
Directed by Welshman, Richard Marquand (born in Llanisien, the son of Labour MP Hilary Marquand), it’s an unrelenting thrill-ride. From Luke and his friends freeing Han from ice-cold incarceration in the palace of Jabba the Hutt (the pirate-style rescue on Jabba’s barge best epitomises Lucas’s obsession with the Saturday morning serials of his childhood), through to a moving reunion with an ailing Yoda, and onto an hour-long climax that balances a triad of parallel storylines as skilfully as in any movie before or since. A space battle around the Empire’s new Death Star and a land duel on the forest moon of Endor are intercut with the resolution of the entire saga’s emotional core: the final confrontation between Luke, Darth Vader and the previously barely-seen Emperor, a maniacal figure who attempts to coerce father and son into an indomitable alliance of evil. Thanks to The Empire Strikes Back’s oblique cynicism, a happy ending was by no means guaranteed.
Despite its obvious storytelling qualities, Jedi is a movie that it seems uncool to love, even more so as time passes and retrospective lists are compiled. I’m guessing angsty 1980s teenagers would have lapped up The Empire Strikes Back (and I wager they’ve grown into the compilers of these ‘best of’ lists), but I was just five years old when I saw that picture, and utterly bereft that a film could end with unanswered questions. But why is the 1983 follow-up less revered?
The Hollywood Reporter recently placed Return of the Jedi at number seven in its rankings of films in the franchise, giving one main reason, one that’s echoed in most other analyses: “Obviously. Ewoks.”
The Ewoks are the tree-dwelling, cuddly teddy bears who help our heroes overcome the Imperials with an impressive range of guerrilla warfare techniques. Critics hated them, citing the inclusion of their improbable exploits as a shameless ploy to sell kids’ toys and pyjamas. And they’re probably right. Yet, as the movie’s target audience, I loved them (and, admittedly, begged my parents for pyjamas and Kenner action figures). But to berate them solely as a marketing decision is to miss the point of a fun family film. As a seven-year-old, smaller than most, the Ewoks represented what happens when little guys collaborate with nothing more than some ingenuity and an unquenchable spirit. Toppling the technologically superior stormtroopers with lassos and a few chopped logs demonstrated we could all be heroes. As the film’s screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan would later comment: “The thing I always loved about Star Wars is that it’s goofy… in the best way.” And nothing is as goofy – in the best way – as the Ewoks.
Kasdan’s script delivers plenty of humour throughout, recalling the sunnier tone of Lucas’s 1977 original (when asked how to avoid the evil Empire’s radar in a stolen spaceship, Han Solo advises: “I dunno… fly casual.”). Kasdan later complained he wanted to add a touch more darkness, chiefly killing off fan favourite Solo – a bold move vetoed by Lucas, but which Kasdan finally achieved when penning 2015’s The Force Awakens. And metaphorically achieved when writing the flop spin-off, Solo (2018).
Richard Marquand’s direction deserves much credit for deftly balancing the tone. He later discussed the film as being theatrical, even operatic, not least when Luke and Darth Vader face off in the Emperor’s throne room. For me, the moment when Vader is tortured by the decision to either side with the wicked Emperor or to relinquish all evil and save his son, is a masterclass in filmmaking. “There is nothing blanker than a close-up of Darth Vader,” said Marquand. “But you realise you have someone under (…the mask), and that is why emotion does get through, if the movement is right.” An almost imperceptible zoom on the black-masked villain’s face, a slight turn of his head, the flash of lightning reflected in his visor – Marquand remarkably communicates the character’s inner torment without the canvas of a human face.
Vader makes his choice and his final sacrifice is as gloriously redemptive as anything I’ve seen. Similarly, Yoda’s death (and, almost in passing, the disarmingly heartbreaking demise of one of the Ewoks, along with his furry comrade’s grief) demonstrates a flirtation with tragedy rarely seen in a family film. Yet, for all this, the story’s overarching message is one of compassion and forgiveness.
Return of the Jedi may not be as cool as its older siblings but it’s every bit as powerful. One of Wales’s most overlooked movie talents, Richard Marquand died in 1987 aged just 49. He was rightly proud of his work on concluding the original Star Wars trilogy: “I was probably the right guy for the third film, because I like the great virtues: I love loyalty, friendship, love… and I love happy endings.” I couldn’t agree more.
But, before you ask – no, I will not defend George Lucas’s later trilogy of prequels.