The Return of the Jedi We Should Have Seen

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Ever since Disney bought Lucasfilm, the (30-something dork) world has been asking: will they rehabilitate Star Wars? Can they? We only have a month before we find out.

Still, there’s one thing that’s impossible to fix: the irreparable damage done to Return of the Jedi. The first act is fun (even if the plan to rescue Han makes zero sense), and the final showdown between Darth, Luke, and the Emperor is a satisfying payoff. The problem with ROTJ is that it was manhandled very early in its development — by its own creator. Lucas was hellbent on two things: making a sure-fire hit, and ending Star Wars once and for all.

The Empire Strikes Back was, of course, a huge hit, even if the box office return was a little less than its predecessor’s. In a 2002 interview with IGN, producer Gary Kurtz recalled Lucas saying to him, “we could have made just as much money if [Empire] hadn’t been quite so good, and you hadn’t spent so much time.” If Lucas was going to avoid the ulcers and panic attacks of 1979, he needed Revenge of the Jedi, as it was then known, to be a can’t-miss, on-time, on-budget crowd pleaser: his personal loans that financed Empire were causing a real strain on his bank account, not to mention the state of Skywalker Ranch. The only man he trusted to fix the problem and save himself was, well, himself.There is no single version of ROTJ I can point to as the superior alternative. But certain plausible differences can be gleaned from statements by Kurtz and Episode VI screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, and descriptions of the Jedi story conferences.

Han and Lando would die.

star wars, return of the jedi, script, behind the scenes, making ofIt is almost certain that, but for Lucas’s stubbornness, one or more of our heroes would die. Kurtz, Kasdan, and even Harrison Ford wanted Han Solo to die shortly after being rescued. And it makes sense: once Han is rescued (note the diagram, made by yours truly; the rescue plan is bonkers), his story is complete — he’s gone from a murderous drug-smuggler to a selfless hero. Lucas allegedly explained that when he was a kid, he hated it when the heroes died. So instead, Han hangs around doing nothing important, stealing Leia’s last remaining chance to be the action hero.

Lando and the Falcon were originally meant to be engulfed in the Death Star II’s explosion, hence Han’s vocal suspicion that he wasn’t going to see his ship again. Test audiences allegedly balked at Lando’s death, and new footage was shot to show that Billy Dee made it after all. As for Luke, Kasdan at one point suggested that he be killed and avenged by Leia, perhaps as a way of giving her new “other Skywalker” status some actual story value, but it seems this was never seriously considered.

Leia wouldn’t be Luke’s twin.

This is something that Lucas added, totally on his own, to his Jedi rough draft. The sister revelation was only in the final movie because Lucas wanted to make it clear that the “other” Yoda alludes to at the end of Empire is definitely not a new character to be introduced in a later episode. Why such a tiny loose end drove Lucas to contort his backstory even further is completely beyond me. It raises far more questions than it answers: back in Star Wars, how could a powerful Jedi like Darth fail to realize he was torturing his own daughter?

Darth Vader would go rogue.

This is the one I’m least sure about, because Lucas seems to have come up with, then abandoned it on his own. The earliest ROTJ drafts start by revealing that the Darth has fallen out of favor with the Emperor since failing to capture Luke in Empire. The Emperor flatly states (in true Lucas-written style) that he intends to kill the dark lord and replace him with Luke. In the final movie, Darth Vader is completely subservient to the Emperor and seems perfectly willing to die so that Luke might be turned.

This keeps with Lucas’s “sad old man” concept of the character, but it flies in the face of Darth’s earlier join-me-son-and-we’ll-kill-the-Emperor sales pitch to Luke at the end of Empire. The earliest drafts of Jedi follow through on that pitch: Darth Vader is revealed to have spies within the Emperor’s court, who tell him when Luke has been captured. Darth then murders his way into the Emperor’s underground throne room, only to be struck down and humbled by the surprisingly powerful Emperor.

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Darth Vader’s rampage diminished to the point where he briefly threatened this guy, then it was cut entirely. (Deleted scene from Return of the Jedi.)

The Ewoks wouldn’t be teddy bears.

The Ewok stuff would have made it into Return of the Jedi no matter what, although nobody seemed to approve of Lucas’s decision to make them aboriginal teddy bears. Artist Nilo Rodis-Jamero’s initial designs were spindly gremlins — far less toy-worthy — which reflected his belief that Ewoks would be muppets scurrying between trees, not fighting storm troopers head-on. Gary Kurtz has speculated that the cute Ewoks were created solely for merchandising purposes, though the storm-troopers-versus-primitives concept was recycled from earlier drafts of Star Wars, which itself was recycling Lucas and John Milius’s original script for Apocalypse Now — back when it was a Vietnam movie told from the perspective of the North Vietnamese. That’s right, the Ewoks are direct descendants of the Viet Cong.

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Artists went crazy with Ewok designs of all shapes and sizes. One of these designs included teddy bear ears sticking out of a leather hood. Lucas loved it and decreed it final. (Concept art by Ralph McQuarrie.)

The ending would have been bittersweet.

Rather than end with what Kurtz famously called a “teddy bear luau,” the movie was originally meant to close with Luke and Leia parting ways. Having lost the man she loves, Leia uncomfortably assumes her duties as the queen of what’s left of Alderaan. There are other reasons to believe this was the originally intended ending, the big one being the movies that inspired Star Wars in the first place. Luke and the Jedi Knights were based heavily on the heroes of samurai movies and westerns. Remember that Luke has not only watched his father (who, let’s not forget, is Space Hitler) die, but he’s also been tasked by Yoda to “pass on what you have learned” as the last of the Jedi. In movie land, Luke has become the kind of scarred, lonesome warrior who rides off into the sunset while others beg him to stay.

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Not every discarded idea was a good one. (Actual concept art that really exists by Nilo Rodis-Jamero.)

Would Return of the Jedi have been better with these original plans? Possibly. In my opinion, the final version of the movie is indeed “good enough,” as Lucas was fond of saying in the prequel days. Knowing this background info has convinced me that Lucas’ real mistake was staking so much of his life on the film series that was destroying him internally. What if he had taken a few years off instead of rushing right into this movie? He might have gotten absorbed by one of his many other successful ventures and felt better about leaving the future of Star Wars in the hands of people like Gary Kurtz and Irvin Kershner, people who were still excited by the possibilities in this strange galaxy.

Hopefully, that’s just what we’re about to get.

Article by contributor sexrex.

11 thoughts on “The Return of the Jedi We Should Have Seen

  1. I personally love every part of Return of the Jedi, so I don’t know how making it all a massive downer with dead Han and topless Twi’leks (wow) would’ve improved matters. It’s a Fun Space Adventure, and as much as the Western influenced the series and as much as every fan wants the series to go as dark as possible I can’t imagine any of the scrapped ideas improving the final version. Because they’re not fun.

    Okay, at a pinch we could’ve done with 20% less Ewoks. And 100% less Special Edition/DVD/Blu-Ray altering.

  2. I’m so glad they didn’t have all those deaths in Return. I hate when movies kill off characters for “emotions” when a good story can accomplish the same emotions without killing favorite characters.

    Return isn’t perfect but it was my favorite Star Wars (and arguably still is) and I’m fine with how it turned out. Sure Ewoks may have been made to make money (yet few things AREN’T made with the idea of making money) but I like their role in the movie. I don’t mind making Leia his sister as it does close up that hole that otherwise would have just been there people would have criticized for years.

  3. Totally with you. There seems to be a trend to look at our favorite movies in “gritty, post 9/11” hindsight. Do we really want this fun, uplifting space adventure to be so dark? Especially when we were kids? Hell naw.

  4. When I was younger, ROTJ was my favorite. I was 1 when Star Wars came out and 4 when I saw ESB in the theater so I barely remembered it back when you could only see them again during the few times they were on HBO or broadcast TV.

    I wish I could take out the special edition musical number and would have liked Boba Fett to have a better death, but I still like it better than any of the prequels. I do think back then, too many deaths would have been rough for the audience to handle. I like the Darth Vader idea though and it kinda goes with what is happening in the Darth Vader Marvel comic.

    I have no idea what is happening in the new movie so I don’t want this to be seen as some sort of spoiler, but I wonder if Abrams picked up on the lone warrior concept and that is why Luke is not around and seems to only have a minor part in this Episode compared to Han (who seems to have a big role, which has me worried) and Leia.

  5. Thanks for the feedback! I’ll go to bat for Kurtz and Kasdan here and say I don’t think they wanted a darker film, per se. They were just being good storytellers. Think about it: Han, Luke, and Leia all end ROTJ no different than they were in the beginning. Luke ends ESB defeated and disillusioned, but he starts ROTJ courageous and resolute. He’s stoically abandoned his budding romance with Leia even before he learns she is his sister. How did he get to that point? Why not make ROTJ about that journey? Same goes for Leia, who begins and ends ROTJ as a princess who is in love with a drug smuggler and has no second thoughts whatsoever. Why? How? Because nothing unexpected happens to Luke and Leia, there’s no chance for them to grow. Killing Han wasn’t the only way to develop Luke and Leia’s characters, and it might not even have worked. But it WAS an attempt at character development; and Lucas vetoed it without offering anything in its place.

  6. I love Return of the Jedi, both as a film, and because it makes “true” fans of the series explode with nerd rage, as I fell out of love with it long ago, but in a galaxy incredibly close. Still, I see why fans give it grief, as it was the first clear case of Lucas’ mishandling the darling he ended up having custody of, and doing so in a way that seems typically Hollywood.

  7. hm… Han dies. That would have made a serious impact on the story. Over all, I like Jedi, it was the only one I actually went to the theater to see. I’m not sure all those changes back to the original ideas would have made it a better movie, but they certainly would have made for an interesting one. but, we got what we got. and this article clearly got people thinking and talking. good work!

  8. Man, I never really thought about how much of a lapdog Vader was in Jedi after his plans of galaxy conquest in Empire. It’s actually pretty jarring for such an ambitious character once you think about it, good call.

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