Star Wars is a franchise with a lot of history, and not just in universe. Since the release of the very first movie in May 1977, the franchise secured its place in film history. It’s not hard to argue that the original trilogy is one of the most influential film series of all time, having inspired a multitude of imitations, as well as birthing a love for cinema and storytelling in thousands of fans and creatives. Even before the trilogy had come to a close it had become one of the biggest film series around; as such, bringing that story to a close in 1983 with Star Wars: Return of the Jedi must have been a daunting prospect.
After the runaway success of the first film, and the critical acclaim of the second, it seemed like series creator George Lucas would have to create the perfect film in order to please fans. Seeing what modern Star Wars fans are like, and how quickly fandom can turn into a rabid mob at even a slight dislike, it’s not hard to imagine that similar discourse was happening at the time, and that Lucas knew he had to create something special.
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Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi picks up just a year after the events of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, a film that is still held up as one of the best sequels of all time. Thanks to Harrison Ford having only signed onto two movies, in contrast to his co-stars’ three, Han Solo was carefully put away into the closet at the end of the second film, his fate uncertain, so that he could either be written out for good, or brought back if a deal was made. It’s strange to think that there was very nearly a movie without Ford in it, and that the character would have been lost forever, but even with the success of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back there were no certainties for the final Star Wars film.
Those uncertainties also took place behind the scenes, with multiple directors being approached to helm the movie, including Steven Spielberg, David Cronenberg, and David Lynch. Not even the film’s name was safe, with the title changing to Revenge of the Jedi, with thousands of posters being distributed and a teaser trailer with that name being released (you can find it on YouTube if you’re interested in a bit of cinema history), before Lucas decided to change it back to the original title, stating that a Jedi wouldn’t be interested in revenge (a good decision that absolutely dodged a muddled legacy of fan discourse and disagreements). Despite these initial teething difficulties, the film was soon on track, with Ford returning.
Star Wars: Return of the Jedi was split across two parts, with the film’s opening having to deal with the issue of Han Solo’s capture at the end of the last movie. Having to get their friend back from gangster Jabba the Hutt, Luke (Mark Hamill), Leia (Carrie Fisher), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), Lando (Billy Dee Williams), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) hatch an intricate plot to infiltrate Jabba’s palace and free him.
The opening for the film becomes a swashbuckling adventure movie, complete with daring escapes, action and explosions, and a menagerie of new aliens and creatures to astonish the audience. The opening of Return of the Jedi is perhaps the best example from the original trilogy of the creativeness of Star Wars. The first film introduced the universe but kind of kept things small, the second was a darker tale about loss and the power of the Empire, but this movie opened with a showcase of special effects, creature design, and heroes being victorious. It set a tone for the film that would continue on to the conclusion.
The rest of the film would deal with the Rebel Alliance coming together to combat the threat of a second Death Star weapon, launching a two pronged assault against the half built facility in order to destroy it, and kill both the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) and Darth Vader (James Earl Jones/David Prowse), who are overseeing the final stages of construction. From here the film becomes part war story, with the Rebels fighting a guerrilla fight against ground forces, and the biggest space battle of the franchise to date, whilst Luke enters a final confrontation against his father.
I’ve seen it argued that Return of the Jedi is the worst film of the three original ones, though people will tend to say ‘least good’ as they still enjoy it. Some of the criticism that gets levelled against it is that it feels more like a ‘kids’ film thanks to the inclusion of the Ewoks, and some of the stuff at Jabba’s palace. I’m not going to try and argue that it’s not the least good of the three, or that it’s the second best, I’m going to suggest that it might be the best one. When looked at in the context of the entire franchise and where it is now, with several other films across different eras, live action and animated series, novels, comics, and games that have all added to and expanded the universe, I think that Return of the Jedi feels the most Star Wars of those original three.
A New Hope takes a relatively small look at the universe, having to establish everything brand new, and The Empire Strikes Back tells the story of a loss for the Rebels, but from the point of view of Luke and his friends. Those first two films feel small, insular, focused on just a handful of people. Return of the Jedi brings in the entire Rebel Alliance for the final fight, a fight that’s bigger than anything we’ve seen before. The Emperor is finally here in person, and we learn more about the Jedi and the Sith than before, and see the kind of evil that Palpatine embodies and how important Luke’s fight is. And when they win we see (thanks to the Special Editions) the galactic scope of that victory, with celebrations across the galaxy. Return of the Jedi turned this story into one that changed the entire Star Wars universe, and it felt grand in scale.
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More importantly, it felt the most hopeful. The entire Rebellion came together for one last shot at winning, in a fight where a loss would have meant the loss of everything. People from dozens of races and hundreds of worlds stood up against fascism and evil and said enough is enough. When Luke fights his father he refuses to kill him, he refuses to give into his anger and fully embraces what it means to be a Jedi. And when all hope seems lost a father’s love for his son ultimately wins through. Return of the Jedi is the most hopeful of the original trilogy, and it makes the message of those films incredibly clear: that standing up against evil and hate is the right thing to do, and that that fight can be won. So yeah, it might have been more aimed towards younger audiences thanks to things like the Ewoks, but it taught those younger viewers a hell of an important lesson. Plus, the Ewoks are cool, and I won’t apologise for thinking that.
For almost two decades Star Wars: Return of the Jedi would be the last Star Wars film. It was how that story ended for a lot of people who didn’t explore the expanded universe, and it was a wonderful way to put a pause on that franchise for a while. Whilst the prequel trilogy would end up closing on an almost exact opposite note, with evil winning the day and hope seeming lost, the final film of The Skywalker Saga, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker would in many ways feel similar to Return of the Jedi; echoing similar sentiments, with ordinary people coming together to fight back evil, the embracing of Jedi ways to defeat the Sith, and scenes of celebration and hope across the galaxy. Return of the Jedi crafted the perfect end to the trilogy that it would be felt again decades later. Like George said, “It’s like poetry, it rhymes”.
Star Wars: Return of the Jedi was released in the UK on 25th May 1983.