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Remembering Return of the Jedi – 30 Years Later

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In 1983, I bought a copy of Time magazine just for the exclusive first photo of Jabba the Hutt and took it to school to show it off to my geeky pals, long before the film premiered (this was wayyyy before the convenience of the internet, kids).

My small group of friends and I were obsessed with Star Wars back in middle school. We gobbled up every bit of information we could get our hands on. The Sears Christmas catalog was porn to us before we knew what porn was (the toy section, not the bra section). And while our early teens saw us pretty much growing up and away from playing with action figures, most of us still collected what we could get our hands on at the local Boscov’s or Hill’s department stores. And since cable TV and VHS copies of the movies weren’t available to us just yet, all we had were the toys and our imaginations, the occasional exploitative “sci-fi” magazine playing with our hearts (supposedly filled with smidgens of story secrets), the Marvel comics series, and the official Lucasfilm “Bantha Tracks” newsletter. Going three years between movies is excruciating for a kid who measures time in action figure release waves.

While I’ll readily admit that it’s the weakest of the three films in the original trilogy, Return of the Jedi still holds a special place in my heart. It was the end of an era. Back then, we had heard rumors and hoped that there could be more films down the road, but even in a pre-internet age, where the rumors were delectably rare and precious, they were still just rumors. And George Lucas gave us every indication that he was done with the series for good after wrapping up our heroes’ journey and simultaneously redeeming and killing off the biggest, bestest bad guy in the galaxy: Darth Vader.  It truly was a wonderful/sad day when Return of the Jedi hit theaters.

Not surprisingly, the original Star Wars trilogy represents a lot of movie milestones for me. Return of the Jedi was the first film that I got to see on opening night. The Empire Strikes Back had been the first movie I had gotten to see twice in the theaters during its original run and without parents coming along for the ride (I was… young). And Star Wars was probably the first kids movie I saw that adults seemed to like too (plus it had swears: at least two “damns” and a “hell” by my fuzzy count). In the small Pennsylvania town where I grew up, we had exactly 5 movie screens in 3 theaters total. Four were owned by the same company in two different locations with 2 screens each, the Fox and the Howard theaters. And the single screen theater where I had seen Star Wars when it was originally released was now a porno theater.

That meant there was only one screen showing Return of the Jedi where I lived, with Blue Thunder, Doctor Detroit, Valley Girl, and probably something much more adult taking up all the other screens. But I soon found out that I wasn’t going that fateful night, at least according to my mom. It was a Wednesday night – a school night!  That this could actually be happening seemed unfathomable to me as I was THE STAR WARS GUY! Nearly all of my friends were going. There was just no way I was going to miss out on this historic moment. I wasn’t about to go into school the next day and have any of my friends spoil the big answers we had been waiting 3 years to learn:

  • How was Han Solo going to escape his carbonite prison? Would he?
  • Was Darth Vader really Luke’s father or was he just messing with the kid?  Dads don’t cut off their sons’ hands!
  • And if the bad guy was telling the truth, why was Obi-Wan such a liar?
  • And who was this “Other Last Hope” that Yoda was going on about?

But here we were, less than an hour before the big premiere and my mom wasn’t budging. Eventually, I must have made all sorts of deals and promises, pulling out all the bratty stops that night because, somehow, with minutes to spare, my mom and I were in the car on our way to the theater (god bless her generosity and mercy). I somehow got a ticket for just me (she would come back for me later). But I don’t know how. It should have been sold out. I didn’t have much time to ponder it or grab anything from the concession stand (other than a souvenir book that I dared not open until after the film was over), before racing into the theater to find a seat. It was packed. I had never seen the theater so full. Or ANY theater so full.  There shouldn’t have been a good seat left in the place, but there it was, 3 rows from the back of the small-ish theater, dead center, right next to my best Star Wars fanboy friend, Kenny Brown. We had played out our own Star Wars adventures with our action figures countless times over the years, creating entire worlds in the yard, in the snow, on his front porch, and anywhere we could build upon the stories of Luke, Han, Leia, Chewie, R2, and 3PO. And let’s not forget Darth Vader and that badass new guy, Boba Fett. There was no better person to share that moment with, now that the real story, not the one in our heads, was about to come to a close before our very eyes.

*SPOILERS* In the end, it turned out Ben was a liar (“from a certain point of view”), Darth was the daddy and the tragic hero, true love thawed Han from his blocky prison, Boba Fett died an inglorious death (or did he?), the Emperor had it all planned out from the start (those poor Bothan spies!), man-eating teddy bears saved the galaxy, and we had to uncomfortably deal with all the times we saw Luke and Leia make out.

No matter how it ended, though, it was how the film began that brought us home to the galaxy far, far away. Seeing the seemingly abandoned R2-D2 and C-3PO wandering the Tatooine deserts again, only to be callously given away via hologram to the slimy gangster, Jabba the Hutt, at the same time took us home again to the original film and sent us off in a whole new direction. What was going on?!?!?  Was Luke now an evil jerk sending holo-voicemails and ditching his droid pals? But all of that was quickly forgotten when Carrie Fisher helped us leap headfirst into puberty. Nearly every teenage boy in that room that still played with action figures shifted in our seats the moment we set our eyes upon the always beautiful but always buttoned up Princess Leia decked out in that skin-baring gold bikini. Star Wars suddenly got sexy and all grown up.  What kind of movie did my mom just let me go to by myself? This wasn’t the porno theater, was it? Years later, I realized that that moment was probably George telling us, “Let go of your kids’ stuff. It’s time to grow up. And even though the toys made me a millionaire, there’s something else pretty awesome out there worth checking out: Girls (hopefully in gold bikinis).”

Alright, no, I’m sure he would have never said that, but that message got through to some of us anyway. Within a year later, I stopped playing with my Star Wars toys, but not without a gloriously choreographed cliffhanger ending involving the Millennium Falcon tumbling through a wormhole (after a battle to the death with a rightfully resurrected Boba Fett), leaving the fate of our heroes undecided until I could pick it up again one day with my kids.

But listening to John Williams’ taut and teasing score play as we watched a now all-grown-up Luke Skywalker stand above the sarlaac pit was enough to make us feel like kids again (more than we already were). To this day, Luke bouncing off the skiff plank, flipping through the air, and catching and igniting the GREEN lightsaber that R2 blasted his direction seconds before, still gives me goosebumps. It was that moment in the theater, sitting with friends and devoted fans that I knew I was back in the Star Wars universe… and I’ve never left since, even 30 years later.


What was your first experience with Return of the Jedi like? Tell us your story in the comments below…

And may the Force be with you… always!

Image: Lucasfilm

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