The way I carry on about every one of these being so difficult, and the way I go on about ROTJ being my favorite everything in the whole world, you’d think that this one would be the hardest part of the challenge to date! But no, it’s not. I know exactly what scene to give you. Because not only is it the best moment in Return of the Jedi, it is the best scene in the entire saga.
I mean, yes, I’ve never talked about what I call “the bridge scene,” and you were probably expecting me to say “when Luke gets Force lightninged,” because, let’s face it, Force lightning is the coolest thing ever. But there’s so much to this scene, and I love absolutely every part of it.
I call it “the bridge scene” because the thing they’re standing in looks like a bridge, okay? It’s situated below the landing platform and is apparently where troops load onto AT-ATs. It is deep night; an Imperial shuttle lands, Vader emerges. We already know that Luke is intending to face his father, so this must be the awaited confrontation. What will happen? What does Luke mean when he says he must face Vader? The last time they met, Luke flung himself into battle.
An AT-AT docks with the bridge and this time, perhaps unexpectedly, Luke enters in binders — he is, for the moment, a willing prisoner of the Empire. Flanked by troopers, vastly outgunned for a man who brought only a peculiar cylindrical weapon, Luke stands in silence but there is challenge in his eyes as he takes in the sight of Vader. This sight is almost for the first time, for now he knows who he is, who they both are.
The officer hands over Luke’s lightsaber. This is what I mean about Star Wars being a coloring book, the outlines that allow the willing viewer to plug in whatever they want — I can all but picture the moment of Luke’s “capture.” The young Jedi steps out of the trees, out of the darkness to flag down a patrol, maybe an AT-ST. “I surrender,” he calls. “No, I’m alone. There’s no one with me.” They summon Vader. How long was he on the AT-AT? Did they question him, or was he left to sit in silence?
Luke’s mouth opens just slightly when he steps toward Vader, as though he might say something. But then his expression changes; he closes his mouth and waits in silence. The Dark Lord of the Sith, his father, may make the first move.
Vader and Luke are left alone on the platform, this island of light in the forest. Luke looks up into the emotionless face of the dark mask and does not see Vader, the murderer of his father and Obi-Wan. He sees Anakin Skywalker, somehow, through all the armor. He is confident. He knows exactly how this will turn out. When Vader speaks, the young man calls the towering man in black armor “Father.”
But Vader doesn’t bend. There is shock in Luke’s eyes; you can catch it. He thought this would work! But turning Vader from a lifetime of hate will be much more difficult than reminding him of his name. Luke grows more desperate. They go back and forth, Vader quite possibly probing the depth of the young man’s resolve, to see how he can work this situation for his own good even as Luke struggles to find the magic word that will free Anakin Skywalker from his prison of hate. Vader has spent more than a quarter of a century trying to get someone to take out the Emperor with him — ever since his first impassioned plea to Padmé, “I am stronger than the Emperor, I can overthrow him!” — and he hasn’t given up yet.
But Luke gives up. When he says, “Then my father is truly dead,” his eyes have grown cold, his features slack with disappointed failure. Was Obi-Wan right? Is there nothing to reach out to in Vader’s black heart?
But Luke does not know that Vader stays on the platform, meditating over the green saber — green like Qui-Gon’s, green like the first blade he ever saw.
What do they think about, father and son, Vader looking out over the forest with Luke’s words ringing in his ears — it is the name of your true self, you’ve only forgotten! Luke, sitting in the shuttle, Leia’s words echoing in his mind — Luke, run away! Far away! No doubt, Luke prepares himself for imminent death, not knowing that he has already driven a wedge into the slowly developing fractures of Anakin Skywalker’s prison.
As you can see, there is so much not said in this scene, and that is why I love it. It really is one of the best scenes in the trilogy. And it leads to this, one of the most iconic moments of ROTJ in my opinion —