Return of the Jedi (1983) is a wonderful movie. It has some flaws and while it may not be my personal favourite of the original Star Wars trilogy, it is the one that I think has the most emotional impact and depth. It certainly has the best score, in my opinon. Though it has its detractors, it’s hard to imagine a better ending to the Star Wars saga and I adore it.
I am, of course, speaking from the perspective of a man of 45 who saw them when they first came out. I understand completely that the films George Lucas set out to make were intended for an audience of 8-10. I was exactly in that range when I saw Return of the Jedi in theaters and had already spent all of my years since the age of 2 surrounded by the posters and toys that my older brother decked out his bedroom with. Although he was the premier fan of the family, being 10 himself when the first Star Wars was released six years prior, my sister and I could not help but become fans ourselves by osmosis, if nothing else. Of course, it helps that they were (and still are) high quality films enjoyable from many different points of view.
“…many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.”Obi-Wan Kenobi
That phrase is key to appreciating the Star Wars movies, or anything else, for that matter. In the scene where Luke accuses Obi-Wan of lying to him about Vader murdering his father, Obi-Wan’s reply is that when Anakin turned to the dark side and became Vader, the good man he had been was destroyed, “so what I told you was true, from a certain point of view.” It’s sublime. He then goes on to say: “Luke, you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view” and I really agree with that.
The Star Wars movies that George Lucas made were intended for children. I think a lot of complaints that people have about Return of the Jedi and the prequel movies is that they are too childish, but then what are you watching them for? I mean, would you moan about the lack of plot in a porn movie? No, because that’s not what you want to see. If you want complexity, look for it somewhere else. In the case of Star Wars movies, if you stopped liking them after The Empire Strikes Back, then I would bet good money you were of the target demographic in 1977-80 but had aged out by 1983. Many disgruntled fans I talk to point to the Ewoks as the boundary that defines what kind of fan you are and they almost always fit the age group.
“Greetings, exalted one.”Luke Skywalker
I think Return of the Jedi has a really fun energy to it which balances the gravity of Luke’s destiny. The rescue of Han Solo from Jabba the Hutt is a really good time, like a little heist movie within the movie, with just the right amount of comedy to leaven the action. I mean, the design of Jabba himself is just the perfect embodiment of greed and pettiness, a repulsive gangster of zero moral character surrounded by pathetic beings. “Exalted one” is a very sly way of putting it, Luke. I love the dragon-in-its-lair aspect of the Rancor sequence, which is brilliantly executed, and the battle of the Sarlacc Pit has echoes of a pirate movie underlying the visuals, complete with walking the plank.
The middle of the movie gives you time to breathe and figure out all the exposition, setting everything up for a big finish. It’s here that Luke has his confrontation with Obi-Wan, which is preceded by the death of Yoda, a moment of truly exceptional puppetry. It’s just a piece of rubber with a man’s hand inside it, yet you genuinely feel there is a life there ebbing away and then he quite literally fades out of existence. It’s a hell of scene, when you think about it.
The finale is awesome, with three big action set-pieces intercut superbly: the space battle, the forest battle and Luke’s climactic duel with Vader aboard the Death Star while the Emperor watches with sick glee. All of that throne room stuff is terrific, from watching Luke try to resist the Emperor’s relentless taunting to his unwilling fight with his father and especially to the moment when he snaps and turns on Vader, attacking him hard. The music in that scene has such a power to it I get chills every time I think of it.
I’ll never turn to the dark side. You’ve failed, your highness. I am a Jedi, like my father before me.Luke Skywalker
My favourite scene in the entirety of the Star Wars saga is that peak moment when Vader is down and the Emperor is telling Luke to finish him and take his place and Luke sees the stump of Vader’s severed wrist reminding him of his own mechanical hand, the realization that he is on the precipice of following his father’s fate checking him just in time. Faced with the impossible choice, he simply refuses to take part in the cycle of violence any longer. He switches off his light-saber, throws it away, and says the best line: “No. I’ll never turn to the dark side. You’ve failed, your highness. I am Jedi, like my father before me.” That is the most graceful “fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me” I’ve ever heard in a children’s movie.
Return of the Jedi has an amazing emotional power to it for what is essentially an updated Flash Gordon/Buck Rogers adventure movie for kids. I think one of the many qualities that makes the original Star Wars trilogy so exceptional is the level of craftsmanship and complexity in the execution surrounding what is a very basic and elemental storyline. There can be no doubt that the music in the films is a gigantic boon and George Lucas himself has said one of the few things that turned out better than expected in making them was the music by John Williams. And of the original trilogy, I think Jedi has the best score; not only do you get the familiar themes established in the previous two movies, but new pieces like “The Emperor’s Theme” or “Luke and Leia’s Theme”, as well as some of the most rousing battle music ever recorded, in my opinion.
Of course, nothing is perfect and, as someone who was so massively impacted by the movie as it was when it came out in 1983, I think some of the later changes Lucas made to it kind of detract a little from my otherwise unending adoration. I think I understand most of them, but the only one I truly miss is the closing music of the Ewok celebration. The original “Yub Nub” was a lot more distinctive and fun than the somewhat generic-sounding flute music that now plays out the end of the movie, in my opinion, but I do think the galaxy-wide celebration montage is a perfectly apt addition.
I love Return of the Jedi. I love the original Star Wars trilogy. Each one has its strengths over the other two, the first is pure fun, the second is darker and trickier, and the third strikes a fine balance and ends the story in an extremely satisfying way, but I think Jedi has the strongest emotional stakes of the trilogy and deserves to be recognized. It’s a great film.