Heaven knows I have fought the good fight against the Jedi — not in the name of evil, of course, but on behalf of a cranky adulthood hobbled by doubts and fears about the human condition and the social contract. The record speaks for itself: I was never stirred by Star Wars; I was never enthralled by The Empire Strikes Back. Thus it is perhaps fitting that Return of the Jedi has arrived on the eve of 1984, and that, like Orwell’s battered hero, I have surrendered to the Force emanating from the myth-making factory of Big Brother George Lucas. The first sign that I was abandoning critical autonomy in this matter came with my taking my young, intelligent, trend-setting godson Ross to the ritualistic screening of Return of the Jedi. His critical verdict for which I waited with a pathetic mixture of humility and dependency was clear and lucid: Return of the Jedi was even better than Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. Now that I have thought about it, I tend to agree. Lucas and his collaborators have managed to sustain the psychic tensions in their mythological world through three films over eight years, and by the time the final returns are in from around the world, the gross receipts for Return of the Jedi should exceed the national debt of Nigeria.
There is already some grumbling over this latest joust of the Jedi, to be sure. With the critical crime of sequelitis, one is presumed guilty until proven innovative. One of my cranky adult editors has been heard to complain that Return of the Jedi is cutesier and furrier than its predecessors. The Ewoks, a tribe of Teddy bears with traces of both jungle savage and third-world instincts, may seem a bit much at first glance, as if the Star Wars series had been gobbled up by the Muppets. Ultimately, however, Return of the Jedi is less callow than Star Wars and less turgid than The Empire Strikes Back. Part of the difference can be attributed to Lucas’s shifting of the directorial reins from anti-genre director Irvin Kershner, who strained to inject complexities into the simplicities of the Star Wars formula for The Empire Strikes Back, to very straight-faced genre director Richard Marquand, who had poured the lushest World War II romanticism through Eye of the Needle, and who has thus managed to blend the Oedipal stirrings of the characters with the moral symmetry of their universe.
What is most remarkable about Return of the Jedi, however, is the canny exploitation of the fact that Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher have aged eight years since Star Wars, and can thus no longer convincingly impersonate Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys in outer space. Rather than resort to the painful younger-than-I-really-am masquerade of Diana Ross in the unlamented The Wiz, Lucas, Kasdan, and Marquand unveil Princess Leia’s legs at long last for a nifty harem routine in the evil lair of a globular intergalactic gangster right out of Lewis Carroll. The spectacle of Princess Leia in the evil clutches of a libidinously misshapen monster struck even this graybeard as more of an erotic shock than any of Nastassja Kinski’s ridiculous fashion mag poses in Exposed. This only goes to demonstrate that whereas Lucas and Company are always one step ahead of Leslie Fiedler, poor James Toback is always one step behind. My aforementioned godson Ross, for example, has grown up on the Star Wars trilogy. All the young fans of Star Wars are now eight years older, and thus are prepared to accept some of the pettier, subimperial forms of grossness to which the Princess Leias in their own midst may be exposed. What is important, however, is that Luke Skywalker and Han Solo do not make any fuss over what has presumably occurred to Princess Leia. They are still the same people with the same feelings toward each other. Indeed, the revelations of hidden family ties in Return of the Jedi take on the incestuous amplitude of Shakespeare’s late novelistic plays. By the end, however, all the loose ends left dangling in the deliberately open-ended The Empire Strikes Back have been tied so firmly together that it seems impossible for Skywalker, Solo, and Leia to reemerge in anything but a Proustian recollection of the Jedi trilogy.
It should be noted that Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia preexisted Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher in Star Wars. As is not the case with the big-star movies, the iconography of the players was completely subordinated to the mythology of the characters. When kids talked about the movie, they used the names of the characters rather than the actors. By contrast, when pop theoretician Lawrence Alloway asked some years ago what was the name of the character Marilyn Monroe played in Niagara (or in Some Like It Hot or The Misfits, for that matter), his question was clearly rhetorical. One might ask to the same point the names of the characters Robert Redford and Paul Newman played in The Sting. On the other hand, we have the reverse iconography of Rocky and poor Sylvester Stallone, who will probably have to be buried in his boxing trunks after playing a geriatric Rocky IX for the senior citizens circuit. In Return of the Jedi, we are at an in-between phase in the relationship of icon to character. Hamill, Ford, and Fisher have not become big enough stars to transcend their roles, but they are more recognizable presences with the ability to modify the characters they play with behavioral accretions acquired from other films. They seem more comfortable with each other, and with their increasingly bizarre environments. For the first time I was aware of three distinctive personalities, not the most overwhelming I have ever encountered, to be sure, but likable withal.
This does not mean that I have surrendered unconditionally to the Force. Max Ophuls’s Liebelei at the Public Theater (May 31–June 6) and Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums at the Film Forum remain infinitely closer to my notions of grown-up sublimity than Return of the Jedi. Yet I must concede that Lucas and his associates deserve their huge success because they genuinely respect and understand the children in the audience, in themselves, and in all of us. As I watched Ross completely consumed by the absorbing spectacle of a son reaching out Christlike for the mercy of his father, I was reminded of a time almost 46 years ago when my very little brother George screamed in terror at the sight of the evil witch in Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The link jumped into my mind through the eerie resemblances of Ian McDiarmid’s Emperor to the animated witch. Lucas has learned his lessons well from old movies. Nonetheless, he has also covered the few vulnerable positions on his ideogrammatic flanks. To the imputations of racist and colonialist overtones in Star Wars, he has responded by bringing Billy Dee Williams aboard again from The Empire Strikes Back, and striking a chic Viet Cong-Sandinista pose with his outgunned but not outfought Teddy Bear brigades. All in all, the commercial colossus strikes again, and this time it can claim me as one of its prisoners, that is, if it even bothers to take prisoners.
As to where the Jedi are going from here, all I can think of is a growing ideological rupture between the collectively-oriented conscience of One-Worlder Luke Skywalker and the rugged individualism of confirmed Reaganaut Han Solo. Princess Leia would find herself torn between these two divergent ideologies and manifestations of manhood. I’ll tell you what, George. Mail me a little front money so that I can take a leave of absence from the Voice to bat out a treatment. Say a cool million or so. After all, when I surrender, I like to surrender in style. ■
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 19, 2020