KAMAD Throwback Thursdays Special Edition 1983: Return of the Jedi

Throwback Thursday #TBT

Throwback Thursday on the KAMAD site will be a regular occurrence in the next year. As a motivational project, to make sure I am working on something, even in a week where I don’t see a new film in a theater, I am going to post on movies. This week only, we are taking a break from 1975 and jumping ahead almost a decade. This is the fourth day of May, and as many Star Wars fans refer to it, “May the 4th be with You”. I happened to have seen a Star wars film in the theater this week, and so in honor of May the 4th falling on a Thursday this year, I decided to post about it today.

Return of the Jedi

Since this is a #TBT post, there will be a lot of nostalgic story telling as well as an assessment of the film as it stands in 2023. I first saw “Return of the Jedi” in it’s opening engagement at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood California. 

It opened on May 25th, 1983 and there was a midnight show for everyone who wanted to get the jump on seeing it. My best friend Art Franz and I got in line at two in the afternoon the day before. The line went around the block and we sat on the sidewalk behind the theater for the day. Sometime after five pm, we were joined by our spouses who were equally excited to see the movie. Tickets did not go on sale until an hour before the show was supposed to start. Sometime around 11 pm, the rest of a local fraternity showed up and met with the one pledge they had sent to stand in line. Needless to say, there were a lot of people who were unhappy, and folks who had been there for ten hours already were being bumped from the first show. That included us. However, for the first weekend, the Egyptian was running the film on a 24 hour cycle. So we missed getting into the Midnight show, but there was a 3am screening and we all made it in for that. You would think we would all be fighting to stay awake from three to five in the morning, but the adrenaline was high for us, we had waited three years to see what was coming.  We were all quite stoked when the film was over, and we made arrangements to see Art and his wife Kathy, later that day to see the film again, out where they lived. Dolores and I walked out of the Egyptian, just after five thirty, and saw that the line for the six am show had already gone in, and the box office was open, so we bought tickets, walked in and saw a back to back screening of the film. When we got home at around 10 am, we collapsed for a few hours, and then headed to West Covina, to meet up with our friends for what was out third screening of the film in the first 24 hours. 

Six months earlier, I had gone Christmas shopping for a traditional gift at our house, movie posters. At the shop in Hollywood that I usually went to [Hollywood Book and Poster] I scored a copy of the poster for the upcoming third Star Wars film, “Revenge of the Jedi”. I paid a nominal price and went home happy with my purchase. Days later it was announced that the title had changed to “Return of the Jedi” and I now had a collectors item that people were paying a premium for. In 2014, I was able to have my item signed by artist Drew Struzan, the man who painted the famous image. 

Drew signing my poster while I chat.

Enough now with the history, let’s talk about the movie. This last week, “Return of the Jedi” has been playing on 475 screens in honor of the 40th anniversary of the film. It ranked number four at the box office as a forty year old film. I think I can tell you why. My screening was a four pm show on a Tuesday, there were maybe twenty people there. Three families with kids, a handful of thirty year old geeks, and three or four of us oldsters. This is a chance for the next generation to see the movies from a franchise they love, in their natural habitat. 

Unfortunately, the version of the film that is playing is the 1997 “Special Edition” which is where George Lucas tinkered with a few elements to tweak the film. I don’t think all of the changes are terrible, but I prefer the original version of a film like this, everytime. The two scenes that are most irritating in their revisionism include a music/vocal performance in Jabba’s palace, and a beaklike mouth extruding from the sarlacc pit. There is also one final change at the end of the film that makes no sense except for marketing the prequel films. In the 2004 video release, the actor playing Anakin Skywalker was replaced in his “spirit” form by Hayden Christenson, who played Vader at a younger age. It’s counter intuitive even if it is ridiculous in the first place.

“Return of the Jedi” is sometimes ranked as the least of the Star Wars films, at least by people who have never seen any of the prequel films. It is criticized for some clunky dialogue and performances that are not always as strong as they could be. Most people object to the Ewoks, as if they were a marketing tool for toys, rather than a twist in the story line. I can’t say that the dialogue issues are not there, they are. Han and Lando stumble through some exchanges that just sound awkward. Luke has to skip over exposition to keep the plot driving forward. Carrie Fisher does the best she can with some of the moments that she is given, but her character arc is a little light in exposition during the film.  On the other hand, I will defend the Ewoks, the idea of a primitive culture, fighting against a technologically advanced culture is intriguing.   The reason it is distracting is because the Ewoks themselves are just so darn cute, they look like teddy bears in most of the sequences. That appearance is part of the deception, and it also allows us to invest in characters that are not speaking a language we understand. When some of them go down in battle in the final act, we have to feel that loss and the way they look is a shortcut to those emotional points.

Regardless of the dialogue or the Ewoks, the film is technically amazing. The battle around the second Death star is complex with some spectacular moments. The three tiered battle conflict was managed very well, although the timing on the attack run on the reactor has to be forgiven for taking as long as it does. Meanwhile, there is a fun and effective ground battle sequence that has some clever moments, some comedy moments and a couple of moments to tug on our heartstrings. The best of all however, is the fight between Vader and Luke with the Emperor in the Death Star Throne room. Mark Hamill gets to do his best work in the series in this sequence, tipping between the light and the dark side of the force and finally finding the will to choose and sealing his destiny and creating a redemption moment for Darth Vader. John Williams score here is fantastic, with an ominous undercurrent and a chorus like refrain.   The moment that Vader takes to choose between Luke and the Emperor is played out with great patience and a couple of cuts that magnify the choice, even in the climax of the film. 

The opening sequence of the movie, with the rescue of Han from the clutches of Jabba the Hut is iconic. Han as wall art, Leia passing herself off as a bounty hunter was great, but of course later as a slave in a gold bikini, it is priceless. All of our favorite characters get a moment to shine in this section. The aliens from a thousand worlds are good background and make nice fodder for Luke and his Light saber. Although I watched the Boba Fett  streaming series, I’m just going to believe that he is still being digested inside the sarlacc. The sail barge was so much fun and it has the swashbuckling elements that make these films catnip for me.

I can see the seams and imperfections more clearly now, after forty years of reflection, but the story arc is not a problem, and the characters followed the paths that seem most satisfying. The film looks great, and it does not need those “improvements” that have been added over time. I continue to hope that someday, Disney will find a way to restore the original films and release them on home media, but until then, I still have my Laserdiscs which contain the films in their original form.

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