This week George Lucas’ “Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi” turns 30. The conclusion to what was then imagined to be the end of the "Star Wars" saga concerned the Rebellion going up against the evil Galactic Empire, which has constructed a second, planet-destroying Death Star that is about to go online. It had a whole bunch of thrills, chills, and fussy robots, but, as we look back on ‘Return of the Jedi’ (and look forward to whatever J.J. Abrams’ "Star Wars: Episode 7" will be,) it’s interesting to note what the sequel might have contained under different conditions– and how it could have ended up being much, much cooler (This as the companion piece to that ran earlier today btw.)
As originally envisioned, the inhabitants of the forest moon of Endor weren’t the cuddly, ripped-from-Toys-R-Us stuffed animals. Instead, they were creepy little lizard folk, who you wouldn’t want to hug even if a very large space gun was pointed at your head. Clearly, this would have been a lot cooler – imagine how much more interesting it would have been for Leia (Carrie Fisher) to befriend a creepy little lizard instead of an easily awwwwww-able Ewok? It would have made Endor a far more dangerous place, for both our heroes and the invading Galactic Empire, instead of it being a heavily forested teddy bear’s picnic. Keeping the original Endor inhabitants, too, would have added something that none of the "Star Wars" movies have done particularly well, which is given things a sense of truly scary menace. Yes, there are goosebump-y moments in all of the original films, but imagine watching one of these creatures skitter into an Imperial walker (and just think about what those creatures would have done when they got inside! Splat!) Lucas was more concerned with toy sales than narrative efficiency or inventiveness, so the original Endorians were replaced by Ewoks. And the rest is adorable history.
Perhaps the most celebrated bit of what-if miscellany is the idea that, early in ‘Return of the Jedi,’ Han Solo (Harrison Ford,) the rugged rapscallion who had reformed as part of the Rebellion, would have sacrificed himself selflessly for the good of the cause. Can you imagine that? Forget about Janet Leigh getting offed a third of the way through “Psycho,” this would have made every fanboy and fangirl in the audience shriek in absolute dismay. It would have been a bold proclamation by the filmmakers that no matter how beloved your hero is, they could very well end up on the wrong end of a blaster (and he wouldn’t be coming back as a shimmery Jedi ghost either.) Producer Gary Kurtz elaborated on the plan more specifically in 2010: “The original idea was that they would recover [the kidnapped] Han Solo in the early part of the story and that he would then die in the middle part of the film in a raid on an Imperial base. George then decided he didn’t want any of the principals killed. By that time there were really big toy sales and that was a reason.” Both co-screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan and Ford himself fought for this plan to be implemented, but Lucas wouldn’t budge, holding steadfast that Han should survive (and thus minimize much of the dramatic potential for the installment,) something that Ford still seems sore about. In 2010, in an interview with Peter Travers for ABC News, Ford commented that, “As a character, he wasn’t so interesting to me. I thought he should have died in the last one.” When Ford was asked what Lucas thought of this plan, Ford shot back (deadpan): “George didn’t think there was any future in dead Han toys.” Once again: commerce trumps creativity; The Dark Side beats out the light.
At the end of ‘Return of the Jedi,’ the Galactic Empire is defeated: the Emperor is dead, the second Death Star has been reduced to shimmery space dust, Darth Vader has found redemption in his final moments and the cosmos have been liberated (in the “special edition” version of ‘Jedi’ you see celebrations on multiple planets.) Back on Endor, our heroes Luke (Mark Hamill,) Han and Leia have been reunited along with C-3PO and R2-D2 and a bunch of annoying Ewoks, and everyone is insanely happy. But in the original, emotionally resonant ending, the rebel forces were in tatters following a high casualty rate in the battle for the second Death Star, Leia is nervous about taking on duties as the new queen, and Luke would, according to Kurtz, have walked into the sunset alone, “Like Clint Eastwood in the spaghetti westerns.” (Kurtz was then quietly asked to leave the production, shortly after he objected to there being a second Death Star, a plot point he rightfully found to be far too derivative.) This ending would have been really amazing, but it would have also robbed us of the Ewok celebration song, and really, are any of us willing to give that up?