I had loved Star Wars for quite awhile before I ever realized this was sad. I bought the trilogy — special edition, the gold box — from Sam’s Club on October 25, 1997. It cost $30, or six washing the cars for Dad. (Interestingly enough, wash #6 was the last time I washed a car for Dad. He thinks it’s because I got lazy, but actually it was because I couldn’t cope with the stress of his washed car standard; in the words of Han Solo, “No reward is worth this!”) So it must’ve been sometime after that, at least my seventh or eighth time watching ROTJ, that I realized how sad this moment was.
The memory is very clear. I was home alone, it was after dark, probably autumn sometime. I had watched Little Women earlier that evening, and then spontaneously put ROTJ in. I’m not sure what made me watch these two back to back, but I remember it was the only time I ever cried over Beth’s death, so I was apparently feeling somewhat emotional that night already. I remember I was watching in the dark, because it didn’t bother my eyes back then, and with the volume up extremely loud, because that’s what I did when I was home alone. I was sitting on the mission oak couch, curled against the denim cushion against the arm, my entire existence the 36″ TV screen.
I never cared much that Vader died. I’ve always been a pragmatist about it — what else was he going to do? The new provisional government probably would’ve subjected him to an embarrassing and lengthy trial and a showy execution for crimes against the galaxy. Provisional governments are not notoriously interested in the last minute redemption of people who committed mass murders with official sanctions. But on this night when I watched it — and I feel like it was raining — I was suddenly overwhelmed by the pain, the sense of loss, the tragedy tucked into all the surrounding triumph. And then this.
Luke lifts his head as Vader falls back, the breath in his lungs silent at last. And his face is wet and streaked with tears, silent tears. He has been battered, emotionally and physically, and fought the fight of his life — not to kill the emperor, which was never his goal (though it is what Yoda wanted of him), but to save his father. In the end, he succeeded, but he would never get to know Anakin. He could see him behind his mask, but he would never have his father. This is victory and tragedy. His head sinks, and for an instant he is perfectly still. And then, so easy to miss, his shoulders shake as he exhales his tears. Luke is crying for Vader.
Oh, I lost it, I could barely see the rest of the movie as tears streamed down my face. I’d only cried over two movies before, and somewhere in the back of my mind I was aware of just how insanely dorky it was to cry over Vader’s death. Actually I was crying over Luke’s tears. But this scene only grows more and more touching and poignant as time goes on.
Watch the following video — really wonderfully edited; I know you can’t really hear the dialogue but it’s not important to — and I challenge you not to feel tears.