By Drew Taylor | The Playlist May 24, 2013 at 12:00PM
Imagine it: you've taken off from school and waited in line all day to see "Star Wars: Return of the Jedi," the last installment (ever!) in the "Star Wars" saga. You're wearing your favorite "Star Wars" shirt, have your bucket of popcorn and jumbo-sized soda, and a primo seat in the auditorium, the best possible vantage point from which to watch the end of the trilogy unfold. No more than twenty minutes into the movie the lovable rogue Han Solo (Harrison Ford) dies fighting the evil Galactic Empire, sacrificing himself for the good of the Rebellion. The shockwaves from his death ripple through the audience and a very clear warning is issued from the filmmakers: no one is safe. Co-screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan fought for this to be a reality. So did Ford, who had grown weary of the character. But series overlord George Lucas said no. As Harrison Ford put it in 2010: "George didn't think there was any future in dead Han toys."
This was one of a number of decisions that George Lucas made while constructing "Return of the Jedi" that would forever alter the spirit and tone of "Star Wars." What had been a rollicking throwback to Saturday morning serials had, with the sequel, "Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back," become deeper, darker and more spiritual. It was, in short, a downer; a profoundly brilliant, meditative downer. Lucas wanted to turn that around with the third film, so he did everything he could to make it lighter, brighter and more acceptable for families. It was the beginning of the end of "Star Wars" as we know it.
When filming began on 'The Empire Strikes Back,' Lucas was distracted. The massive amounts of money that the first "Star Wars" had brought in turned him from a filmmaker into a company; he had to oversee and manage his own Galactic Empire. Unlike the original film, which Lucas both wrote and directed, 'The Empire Strikes Back' was being handled by a creative team that consisted of director Irvin Kershner and screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett. They were able to experiment and take chances, which they did, with gleeful abandon. The film doesn't end with some huge battle sequence, the Rebels taking another hard fought victory from the Empire. No, it ends with one hero being incased in a liquid metal ice cube, another character betraying his friends and another getting his hand sliced off by a murderous madman that moments before was revealed as his father. Now that's entertainment.
By contrast, all accounts suggest that Lucas haunted the set of 'Return of the Jedi.' Director Richard Marquand was relatively inexperienced when it came to the film's complex visual effects, so Lucas hung around and was at the very least a second unit director and at the very worst a legitimate co-director, with Marquand saying in 2005 that the experience was "like trying to direct 'King Lear' with Shakespeare in the next room."
The indigenous race that populated the forest moon of Endor was originally conceived as a slithery band of reptilian lizard creatures, which would have served the story well – the evil Empire being brought down by something equally scary and slimy (but fundamentally misunderstood.) Lucas got skittish, though, and changed them to the lovable Ewoks – essentially Native American teddybears, ready to be snapped up and snuggled by countless children the world over. The laws of 'Return of the Jedi' weren't governed by art or common sense or the needs and requirements of the screenplay – the revenue generated from action figures, boxes of novelty cereal and pajamas governed them.