Bringing Star Wars to the Screen: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi

In the third of a series of articles examining the various screen incarnations of George Lucas’ Star Wars saga, we focus on the final instalment of the Imperial trilogy, Episode VI – Return of the Jedi…

Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi, 1983.

Directed by Richard Marquand.
Starring Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams and Anthony Daniels.

Return of the Jedi poster

Luke Skywalker returns to his homeworld of Tatooine to rescue Han Solo from the clutches of vile gangster Jabba the Hutt. Meanwhile a second and more-powerful Death Star is under construction, which the Emperor plans to use to crush the Rebellion. As the Rebel Fleet prepares for a full-scale assault on the battle station Luke must confront Darth Vader and the Emperor, with the fate of the galaxy resting on the outcome.

Return of the Jedi gold bikini
As with The Empire Strikes Back creator George Lucas personally financed the $32.5m budget of what would become the final instalment in the Imperial trilogy, and once again sought the talents of Lawrence Kasdan to help develop his original outlines into a workable screenplay. Kasdan – who had made his directorial debut in 1981 with the well-received Body Heat – agreed as a personal favour to Lucas, using the third act of Lucas’ mammoth 1976 story treatment as a template for the script. Also contributing (albeit uncredited) was Blade Runner co-writer David Peoples, who would later receive an Academy Award nomination for his Unforgiven screenplay (which he had originally written in 1976).

Lucas was keen to follow the same process used on Empire, overseeing the production from his omnipotent position of executive producer. He approached Eraserhead and The Elephant Man director David Lynch to helm the project, but Lynch refused the offer citing lack of creative control. David Cronenberg was also considered for the position along with Steven Spielberg, but having quit the Director’s Guild of America during the production of Empire, Lucas was unable to hire his close friend and instead turned to Welsh director Richard Marquand. Speaking on the Return of the Jedi DVD commentary, Lucas explained that he selected Marquand because he “had done some great suspense films and was really good with actors”, an area that Lucas freely admits to finding difficult.

Once Marquand was officially on board he sat down to revise elements of the screenplay with Lucas and Kasdan. Kasdan offered some radical suggestions for the climax of the film, such as Luke succumbing to the Dark Side or dying at the hands of the Emperor, although these ideas were shot down by Lucas in favour of his original vision for the ending. He also had reservations about Return of the Jedi as a title and persuaded Lucas to alter this to Revenge of the Jedi (although rumours persist that the name change was merely a tactic designed to combat bootleggers). Marquand also sought input from the film’s lead stars as to how their characters should develop, with Carrie Fisher’s desire for Princess Leia to shed her tomboy image ultimately leading to the iconic imagery of her sporting a gold bikini. Harrison Ford – who was not under contract to reprise his role – lobbied for a heroic, self-sacrificing death for Han Solo, although Lucas was firmly against the idea.

Lucasfilm began pre-production working from concept art and the first draft of the screenplay while Kasdan spent time tweaking and refining the script. Cinematographer Alan Hume (who had worked with Marquand on Eye of the Needle) was hired as DOP and Elstree Studios was once again fully occupied by the production. The giant ‘Star Wars Soundstage’ was used to construct the entrance to Jabba’s Palace (and later served as the Ewok Village and Death Star docking bay), while his throne room was designed to hold a cast and crew in excess of 150. Shooting commenced on 11th January, 1982, with eleven weeks of filming at Elstree before eight more on location (Buttercup Valley, Arizona was selected to replace Tunisia for the Tatooine scenes, while the vast California redwoods served as the Forest Moon of Endor) under the secretive title of Blue Harvest, a supposed horror film.

The filming schedule was considerably shorter than that of The Empire Strikes Back, with Lucas aiming to avoid the budgetary problems of its predecessor and allow maximum time for special effects work. Lucas had earlier given serious consideration to taking on full directing duties at Marquand’s expense, although he rejected this idea based upon the amount of work involved. While Marquand later denied that Lucas was responsible for much of the on-set direction, he did spend the majority of the shoot on set in his official capacity as executive producer (which in his terms involves a good portion of second-unit work), while estimates as to his total involvement vary considerably. Whatever his input, Lucas was responsible for directing the final funeral scene for Darth Vader, which was filmed near Skywalker Ranch months into post-production, while in-house effects company Industrial Light & Magic – who were looking to raise the bar set with their earlier work – soon found themselves operating 20 hour shifts across six days in order to complete the near-thousand visual effects shots to schedule.

Return of the Jedi opened on 25th May, 1983 – marking the sixth anniversary of the release of Star Wars in North American cinemas – and easily marched to the top of the year’s box office. However, despite a world-wide gross close to $400 million (later increased in 1997 with the Special Edition to stand currently at $475m), critical reaction was mixed. TIME Magazine described Jedi as “more satisfying” than The Empire Strikes Back and Roger Ebert awarded the film four-stars in his own review, whereas Gene Siskel commented in the Chicago Tribune that it failed to capture the humanity and rich characters of Star Wars, and Variety felt that the formula was becoming tired in the years following the release of the original movie. Nevertheless most were impressed by the state-of-the-art special effects and the film received a Special Achievement Award at the 1984 Academy Awards for its visual FX, in addition to four nominations in the categories of Original Music Score, Sound, Sound Effects Editing and Art and Set Direction.

Lucas himself was displeased with a number of aspects and extensive alterations were made for the 1997 Special Edition, such as a completely new musical sequence in Jabba’s palace, a reworked Sarlaac monster, the insertion of a number of planetary celebrations at the film’s conclusion, and countless tweaks to editing and scene transitions. Furthermore, Hayden Christensen replaced Sebastian Shaw as Anakin Skywalker for the final shot of the three Jedi spirits in the 2004 DVD release, which led to much fan-criticism towards Lucas and his constant tinkering.

For a number of years the Ewok-heavy Return of the Jedi was considered by many to be the low-point of the saga (a view that has softened somewhat in light of the later prequel trilogy), yet it does manage to tie the original movies together nicely and bring about a satisfying conclusion to each strand of the story. It would also prove to be fans’ last chance to witness a new big-screen adventure set in a galaxy far, far away for the best part of the next two decades…

Bringing Star Wars to the Screen: Episode IV – A New Hope
Bringing Star Wars to the Screen: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back
Bringing Star Wars to the Small Screen: The Star Wars Holiday Special
Bringing Star Wars to the Small Screen: Caravan of Courage – An Ewok Adventure
Bringing Star Wars to the Small Screen: Ewoks – Battle For Endor
Bringing Star Wars to the Small Screen: The Ewoks and Droids Adventure Hour

Gary Collinson