I’m writing this coming up on it’s 40th anniversary!
Growing up on the original trilogy, this was my hands down favorite even though as a kid, I wasn’t sure what moved me so strongly. It left me speculating on who Anakin Skywalker was before his fall and I was eager to see it. It was a long wait until the prequels and they not only did not disappoint, but they actually gave Return of the Jedi even greater impact for me. Looking at it now, I’m also realizing that this final chapter is a desperately needed example to society that should never be altered or have it’s meaning reframed.
It was very hard waiting for Return of the Jedi. After all, Han had been left in carbonite and I still remember my shocked disbelief as Vader told Luke he was his father. My natural reaction was it couldn’t be! My relatives didn’t seem in nearly the rush I was, given that even after Return of the Jedi was released they kept putting off going to see it. I had the Random House story book before I saw the movie but was afraid to even glance at pictures since I knew something big would happen.
Finally the amazing event arrived and I was left awed. Something huge moved in me and it had to do with Vader’s redemption. Darth Vader, master of evil, loved someone enough to stop being evil. The Random House storybook even used that word “love”. My mind was blown and while I was a fan before, now I was obsessed. It took me years to realize that there was something in me drawn to that whole forgiveness thing. I think as a kid I didn’t want Luke to go to Vader. Looking back now, that is the most courageous moment of the whole Star Wars saga.
But now thanks, to the prequels and world events, it has even more of an impact.
The In Between
I speculated for decades on who the Anakin Skywalker I’d glimpsed in Return of the Jedi had been, on Luke and Leia’s mother. I knew there were supposed to be three more movies, prequels and waited, with my nose buried in every Star Wars cartoon, TV movie, book and comic I could find. I had no gadget for playing the games beyond the old arcade ones at the time. My first discovered Star Wars adult book was the Return of the Jedi novelization. I had no idea there were novelizations before that and for all it’s flaws, I read it half to death.
As soon as the Lucasfilm fan club was reborn I was in. I was there looking at every article in the Star Wars Insider and watching every trailer on TV I could find, and spending hours on dial up internet going through the Star Wars website, from behind the scenes, paid for Hyperspace subscriber sections and stories, to blogs and forum posts. I got to see a lot of the making of the movies, including announcements on actors, pictures of behind the scenes, sets and costumes.
The Prequels enhanced Return of the Jedi
The movies didn’t disappoint. Well, I was disappointed Qui-Gon died, but I wasn’t quite surprised, given Obi-Wan had to be the one to train Anakin Skywalker. What had happened to this bright child and the young Jedi who became his Master to break their initially fragile, but later powerful, bond? The Phantom Menace left me eager for more.
They gave me a great look at the child with dreams, the young man torn between love and ideals and his chosen life, and how those very strengths were used to destroy them. I already knew what would happen in Revenge of the Sith, just not how. And to this day I cry every time.
Return of the Jedi is part of the Symbiote Circle
All of Return of the Jedi now is the fullfillment of Anakin Skywalker’s legacy. When it first came out, though I’ve always loved it, the rescue of Han and the battle of Endor felt rather disconnected. Now they form a whole. Instead of the start with the battle with Jabba being disconnected with the end battle with the Emperor, even the start of the movie hints at the restored legacy of Anakin Skywalker.
“I had a dream I was a Jedi and came back and freed all the slaves.”Anakin to Qui-Gon, The Phantom Menace
This dream started to derail when Anakin was drawn from his Jedi duties to rescue his mother, but failed. Not only did he fail to rescue her, but he lost control and slaughtered the sand people. It wasn’t a wholesale acceptance of the Dark Side, but it was a slip. He regretted it when he confessed to Padmé, though his emotions were still confused. He even regretted when we find he confessed to Palpatine (the worst person he could’ve told!) But so far as we can tell in the movies (the books and comics go more into it) he didn’t confide in Obi-Wan and therefore, got no counseling on overcoming that part of himself.
But now, we start Return of the Jedi with the evil Darth Vader’s legacy, having frozen Han Solo in the previous chapter, now his friends must rescue him. And in the process, Leia, his secret daughter, is enslaved in an even worse way than Anakin and his mother were, and his son nearly fed to a monster. But then Anakin’s legacy, which of course on first viewing in the ’80s no one could know, rears up. Leia and Luke kill that Hutt (Leia directly, Luke through the diversion) and thereby put a major crimp in the slave trade on Tatooine. Since the Hutts who were it’s biggest backers, his children therefore fulfilled his dream as a child!
At the middle of the movie, we see Kenobi and Yoda have given up on Anakin, but Luke still feels he can be saved in spite of everything. Now this echoes his mother who felt the same even as she died. For all for all of the ‘attachment is forbidden’ I can feel Obi-Wan’s bitterness and loss at losing his friend and apprentice. He hasn’t given up on him lightly.
Leia too, does some echoing here: she can fly that speeder bike almost like Anakin did a podracer (we’ve not seen her fly at all in the movies until now, or even drive a vehicle), and she can negotiate with those Ewoks like her mother did with the Gungans. Both bring to fruition needed allies, who may not directly defeat the enemy but create a diversion that prevents disaster. She has matured, is no longer just angry and snarky (a tendency she actually seems to gets from Anakin.)
Finally, Luke is in the place of Mace Windu and Padmé. Luke is dying as he refuses to fall, struck down by the Emperor’s lightning, yet he still believes even while dying, just as his mother did. He still cries out for help. Mace didn’t so much ask for help, as simply underestimate the dangerous crossroads that Anakin was at, focusing almost entirely on the Emperor as he was. That was a fatal mistake. But now we have come full circle, Anakin has a choice again, to live a slave to evil as Darth Vader or die a free hero as a Jedi saving the family he’d once been loyal to above all else.
Return of the Jedi’s climax is the death of the Emperor and his giant Death Star. In the prequels, the only way Palpatine’s influence could outweight Padmé and Obi-Wan’s was to divide Anakin’s loyalty between the two. Save Padmé by betraying the Jedi, or watch her (as he thought) die, terrible choices. But Luke restored that shattered part of Anakin. He was a Jedi, like his father, and trained by Obi-Wan. He was Anakin and Padmé’s son, believing in him as she had. Luke helped Anakin defeat Darth Vader from within, as Darth Vader in turn had once defeated Anakin.
Now when I watch Return of the Jedi, I root Luke on all the more each time, knowing that deep under the armor, the man who fathered Luke was lost in there, betrayed not just by the weakness of greed but by the need for love. Now I know what was behind the body language of regret on the Endor moon landing pad, as well as the “It’s too late for me, son.”
The victory in Return of the Jedi is deeply personal, a redemption of a man many personified as the greatest evil. But it also had smaller ones, Han was no longer a loner driven by money. Lando was willing to risk his own life for a greater cause. And people who wanted to restore a Republic to it’s glory before it became corrupted by an Empire celebrated a new day. The Jedi have returned, through Luke Skywalker, no longer the impatient and angry young farm boy but now a mature, fully trained Jedi, who has redeemed his father’s legacy and the future is bright.
By Return of the Jedi the villain is obvious. He’s the one that seduces people to evil by convincing them it is good. He is the one who silences his enemies at all costs, even if it means blowing up planets of unarmed people. The hero is the one who resists this, the one who stands up even if it risks life, limb, and everything else. The hero negotiates whenever possible but won’t accept peace at the cost of freedom. Obi-Wan Kenobi may be called “The Negotiator” but he didn’t roll over and surrender in exchange for not being hunted, because he knew that the cost would be everything he believed in.
I suspect that is now why some didn’t like the prequels. They don’t like realizing that powerful villain, Darth Vader, was also a victim. Some of them also know they are the Palpatines who are grooming someone and trying to manipulate for an agenda and don’t like the sun shown on their activities, even if that light is coming from a fictional movie. They don’t want heroes that people may learn from because heroes aren’t something they can control, even if it’s just saying ‘no, you have no legal right to do that’ at a job, or standing up to someone exposing a child to harmful things they are too young for.
The very fact some didn’t like them is why we need Return of the Jedi to remain what it was always meant to be. About the redemption and sacrifice of a man willing to turn from evil, about a strong young man willing to face his worst enemy to save him. It’s a diverse group of heroes, and by diverse I mean from all backgrounds and cultures not just merely human skin tones and sexes, to overcome an evil that started out by pretending to be good.
Return of the Jedi is the ultimate movie because it isn’t really a movie at all. It’s the last chapter in a saga that is both warning and inspiration that right and wrong aren’t always with the status quo (everyone loved Palpatine at first) and they aren’t always easy to fight (in the end he had all the advantages). It takes courage and compassion and sacrifice and most of all, the willingness to never give up no matter how dark it seems. Society now more than ever needs that.
Return of the Jedi was released in theaters on May 25, 1983. The special edition was released in 1997.
There were various home video releases, a regular VHS (which wasn’t well adapted to fit the TV screen), a remastered THX version and the original Special Edition. It also had the regular released as Betamax before it lost the format wars.
It received a laser disc release. This was later included on one of the DVDs as an ‘extra’.
The DVD release included more tweaking to the Special Edition, with updates based on the prequel releases and the Blu-Ray took that a step further.
Personally I enjoy all of them at various times, for the story is amazing no matter the medium. Added or tweaked scenes are just that: tweaks, fluff, for better or worse they don’t change the impact of the story.