I described last week how the first time I saw A New Hope, it was just another movie, albeit a good one. And albeit the fact that we watched it again the next day, around 10 AM on a Thursday during the school year — unheard of! — and that I was in to it enough before the next two films that Mom let me watch Oprah to see Artoo and Chewbacca with Billy Dee Williams. I’m probably the only person alive who heard Billy Dee interviewing about his experiences as Lando (driving his kids to school and being yelled at by schoolchildren because he betrayed Han) before I even got close to seeing the movie.
But Return of the Jedi made me fall in love. Unlike A New Hope — it took me years to see the 1977 theatrical cut of that — we didn’t own ESB and ROTJ. Mom rented them, actually going into the actual video rental place to get them. I remember this clearly, sitting in the car while she ran inside and came back with the cataract opaque box holding the VHS tape. Just one. See, she hid the fact that she got Jedi at the same time — after we watched ESB, I was freaking out over having to wait until next week’s trip to town to see ROTJ. Playing The Island of Dr. Brain that afternoon, I called Mom in to look at one of the Sierra company’s click-jokes — when you right-clicked on Dr. Brain’s hut on the island level, it popped up saying, “Don’t mess with Jabba the Hut!” And I said, “I never got that before!” And Mom got a downright mischievous look on her face and said, “You want to see what he looks like?” And she brought the ROTJ tape out of the closet where she’d hidden it! Eleven-year-old MIND BLOWN.
Return of the Jedi just somehow took over my heart in a way the others had not.
When it got to the final showdown, the Emperor’s form revealed, Luke’s unconditional love for his father and determination to save him despite Vader having done nothing to warrant the saving . . . I don’t know if I was on the edge of my seat, but my pulse was probably racing by the end. Maybe it’s because I’d never watched a trilogy before, or even a movie where everything didn’t get tied up by the credits. The resolution was so drawn out, and the happy ending so out of reach — and I knew all about Greek myths and probably unconsciously recognized the signs. Greek myths don’t end well. Did I really think Luke was going to die? I don’t think so, but I really thought Lando and the Falcon were.
ROTJ has everything, but the last 45 minutes are what really did it for me. Most specifically: there’s that part, right after Luke stops short of killing Vader, and he looks at his hand and realizes Vader’s hand was also mechanical. He sees the road he is on, and he stands up and throws away his saber. It makes the most incredible, final clunking sound. “No,” he says, with the weight of every world in the universe in the word. “You failed, your highness. I am a Jedi. Like my father before me.” And he indicates Vader as he says it. His father is a Jedi, he affirms, not the irredeemable machine-monster his teachers told him Vader was. Luke stands, defenseless, prepared, adrenaline filling his eyes with brightness, and the Emperor just looks at him with enough cold hate to fill a black hole. “So be it, Jedi.” He spits each word as though it is a hot coal. The scene cuts back to Endor, the tension almost at a breaking point.
That — that was the moment. There was no escape from that point, from being a dedicated Star Warrior for life. After the credits started, I remember going to walk back upstairs and stopping to look at the moon, just coming up over the horizon at the end of our front acreage; I looked at it through the cut glass of the front door, and then — we had the telescope in the living room with the green filter on — I went and just stared at the moon for a long time, unable to stop thinking about the movie. It took me close to a year to love Luke (like every fanboy, I spent my early obsession on Han before realizing he was too unreachable), but even without my knowing or understanding, it was Luke in the last 45 minutes of Return of the Jedi that made me fall in love with Star Wars — not all that it is, but all it could be.