May 25th, 1983. The Pueblo Mall Cinemas. First showing, opening day. I’m literally on the edge of my seat. It’s my very first movie without my parents. I’m 47 days from my fifth birthday and I couldn’t be any more excited than I am at that point. I’m “sitting” next to my older cousin, Chris, and his friend. The action is really picking up and we can’t help ourselves. We HAVE TO be a part of the awesomeness unfolding on the screen. So, with the theater seat in the folded-up position and the three of us perched precariously on the top edge of the cushion in the very front row, we slam ourselves down into a full seated position as Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) zoom around the forest on speeder bikes chasing a pair of Scout Troopers. We were right there with the rebels on Endor, battling the evil Galactic Empire in the climactic episode of the original Star Wars trilogy. It was at that moment that I became a fan for life.
Filming began on Return of the Jedi in January 1982 and would last over four months (although, that was six weeks shorter than for The Empire Strikes Back). As with Empire, creator George Lucas once again decided against handling directing duties but remained very much involved in an executive producer role. Among some of the directors considered were David Lynch, David Cronenberg, and even good friend Steven Spielberg (they all passed), before settling on relatively inexperienced Welsh director Richard Marquand.
“I’ve got to find a director who’s willing to give up some of his domain to me and is willing to work with me and accept the fact that he’s essentially doing a movie that’s been established, that ultimately I’ll have the final say,” Lucas explained in a July 1983 Rolling Stone interview.
Shooting locations for Jedi included Elstree Studios in England, the Yuma Desert in Arizona (Tatooine), and the Redwood forests near San Francisco (Endor). In order to maintain security on set, the production operated under the fake title Blue Harvest (with a tagline of “Horror Beyond Imagination”). Shirts and hats with the faux Jedi title were even printed up and distributed to cast and crew to further add to the illusion.
Return of the Jedi was the defining Star Wars film for many members of my generation. It wasn’t the first Star Wars movie I watched. I had seen A New Hope on HBO and The Empire Strikes Back upon its re-release in 1982. But up until high school, it was my favorite film in the trilogy. Empire would eventually replace it, as I grew to appreciate the darker tone and more adult themes present in it. But in many ways, Return of the Jedi was the most Star Wars-y of the three. Really, it had everything! Jabba’s Palace, Slave Leia, Undercover Lando, the Rancor, the Sarlacc Pit, Yoda’s death, the Battle of Endor, Luke’s confrontation with Vader and his father’s subsequent redemption, the Emperor’s demise, Vader’s funeral pyre, and, of course, Ewoks!
“I’VE GOT TO FIND A DIRECTOR WHO’S … WILLING TO WORK WITH ME AND ACCEPT THE FACT … THAT ULTIMATELY I’LL HAVE THE FINAL SAY”
Yes, the Ewoks are a divisive topic among Star Wars fans. Personally, I have no issue with the furry little guys, but I realize that they are a bit too saccharine for others. As has become common knowledge for many fans of the series, it was originally planned for Wookiees to be the aid to the rebels in Return of the Jedi before Lucas decided to go with the pint-sized fuzzballs (the Wookiees would get their chance to shine 22 years later in Revenge of the Sith). “The idea was just a short Wookie. In the original film (the trilogy began as a single, 300-page script), the giant end battle was the crux of the whole movie: a sort of primitive society overcoming this huge technological society. In the early versions of the script, those primitives were Wookiees,” Lucas recalled in the Stones interview. “So in this one I said, ‘I can’t make them Wookiees, so I’ll make them short Wookiees and give them short hair and give them a different society and make them really primitive, the way it’s intended.’” I think it was the right call, as it would have devalued Chewbacca’s heroic efforts in the film and trilogy overall to be just one of a myriad of Wookiees. Who can forget Chewie triumphantly popping out of an AT-ST and surprising Han and Leia near the end of Jedi?
Many other fun facts about the making of Return of the Jedi have emerged over the years. For one, the title of the film almost wasn’t: it was originally going to be Revenge of the Jedi. Lucas realized this title would be inconsistent with the motivations of a Jedi and changed it, but not before a slew of marketing materials emerged with the old title, including a teaser trailer and poster. ’80s rock band Toto was considered for the Max Rebo Band tunes in Jabba’s Palace (their future lead singer, and Star Wars composer John Williams’ son, Joseph Williams, wound up writing their music). And one of the most famous lines in Wars history, uttered by Admiral Ackbar (you know the one), was initially scripted “It’s a trick!”
“I thought the best utility of the character would be for him to sacrifice himself to a high ideal”
Perhaps the best bit of trivia is the tidbit that Harrison Ford, who had to be convinced to come back by Jedi producer Howard Kazanjian (Ford was only contracted for the first two movies), had requested that Han be killed off in the film in self-sacrifice for his friends, thereby completing Solo’s character arc in the trilogy. In a 2015 interview on Conan, Ford revealed “I thought the best utility of the character would be for him to sacrifice himself to a high ideal and give a little bottom, a little gravitas to the enterprise.” Although sound in reasoning, it may have put too much of a damper on the otherwise joyful Jedi and would have further deprived us of Han’s heroic reemergence in 2015’s The Force Awakens, where his original idea would come full circle.
Jedi was originally planned for a Friday, May 27th, 1983 release, but it was moved up to Wednesday, May 25th to coincide with the May 25th, 1977 release of Star Wars (A New Hope). According to Box Office Guru, Return of the Jedi opened at #1 that Memorial Day weekend with $30.5 million over the long holiday frame, $41 million including Wednesday and Thursday grosses. It would go on to gross $252 million during its initial run and $309 million when including the re-release in 1985 and Special Edition in 1997. That may not sound particularly impressive these days (Avengers: Infinity War made nearly that much in its first five days of release), but adjusted for inflation, that $309 million jumps up to $861 million, good for 16th place on the all-time domestic chart.
The VHS version was released in February 1986 (I remember being incredibly thrilled to rent it the day it came out) and many other home versions would follow over the years. And we should probably talk, briefly, about that horrible Special Edition that came out in 1997. I watched it upon its release and I’ve refused to watch it since. Gone were the Max Rebo Band and Sy Snootles performance of “Lapti Nek” in Jabba’s court, replaced by a wretched CGI dance number that makes any sane viewer want to jam a rusty screwdriver into their temple (in retrospect, that should have been a giant flashing neon sign harbinger of what was to come two years later). Also jettisoned was the iconic “Yub-Nub” song in the Ewok village, now swapped with a crappy pan flute score and another CGI-heavy galactic celebration. And the less said about Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors now residing inside the Sarlacc Pit, the better.
Like many other kids around my age, I assumed we would be getting a new Star Wars movie every 3 years. After all, these three films were only Episodes 4, 5, and 6. Surely, we’d be getting right into those first three episodes or, more likely, the follow-up chapters, right? They were just too fantastic to simply go away. We needed more! How did Anakin Skywalker become Darth Vader? What happens to Luke now that the Empire has been defeated? Do Han and Leia get married and start a family? And yet, the years rolled by and there were no answers to these questions, no prequels or sequels to speak of. Millions of Star Wars fans, myself included, began to lose hope.
It wasn’t until 16 years later, in May of 1999, that the first brand new Star Wars flick hit theaters, Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. Now, with Disney releasing new Star Wars films at breakneck speed, we’ve become accustomed to a new Star Wars event on a regular basis. Solo: A Star Wars Story, the latest entry in the series, is the fourth new Wars film in the last two and a half years!
Coincidentally (or maybe not so), Solo is being released exactly 41 years after A New Hope and on the 35th anniversary of Return of the Jedi. We’ve now had seven new movies since Jedi’s release and there have been some really good ones and a few stinkers. And I realize that it’s virtually impossible for any new installment of Star Wars to re-capture the pure wonder I felt as a 4-year-old virtually zipping through the forest moon of Endor. Yet, I still journey to the theater for every opening day of the latest installment of the saga, now with my wife and children in tow. I still get butterflies every time I see that “Lucasfilm, Ltd” logo flash on the screen. I still lose myself in the moment when John Williams’ score crashes into our ears and the opening crawl begins. But most of all, I’m still grateful that our journey into a galaxy far, far away didn’t end that summer.