This month marks the 40th anniversary of Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, the last of George Lucas’s original Star Wars trilogy, and some would say, the end of the classic Star Wars era. It’s seen by many as the least of the first three films, but it is still revered for its great action sequences, especially the climatic Battle of Endor, as well as for its final confrontation between our hero the young Jedi Luke Skywalker and the Rebel Alliance’s sinister nemesis, Darth Vader. Even now, 40 years later, the film is still celebrated and considered to be one of the better Star Wars films.
The story starts out with Luke returning to his home world of Tatooine, not seen since the first film, to rescue smuggler and friend Han Solo. The smuggler was captured by the bounty hunter Boba Fett in the cliffhanger ending to Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, and sent to Jabba the Hutt to pay for his debts to the vile gangster. Luke is aided by iconic Star Wars heroes, Princess Leia, Chewbacca and Lando Calrissian, as well as the lovable droid duo R2-D2 and C-3PO. Their rescue of Han and escape from Jabba’s palace is thrilling and sets a great and exciting tone for the movie.
Afterwards, Luke returns to the planet Dagobah for final training as a Jedi with Jedi Master Yoda, who soon dies of old age. The wise old mentor’s subsequent death after 900 years of life is sad to see. After encouraging words from the spirit of his other mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi, Luke returns to his friends in the Rebel fleet for the final assault on the Empire’s new Death Star weapon.
Return of the Jedi introduces a new villain, who has captivated audiences ever since, the evil Emperor Palpatine, played to perfection by Ian McDiarmid. His terrible old visage and cackling laugh instantly made him a fan favorite. His plan along with Darth Vader to bring Luke to the dark side of the Force almost succeeds, as he goads Luke to kill Vader. But good wins out in the end as Vader is unable to allow Palpatine to kill his own son after Luke rejects the Emperor’s temptations, and he kills Palpatine while suffering fatal injuries of his own.
This is preceded by a fantastic lightsaber battle between Luke and Vader with a haunting soundtrack by film composer John Williams in the background. Luke’s unmasking of his father as he was dying is a famous moment in Star Wars history, as we finally get to see the man behind the terrifying mask, a scarred and sad man haunted by his actions. His message to Luke that he was right about Vader having good in him in the end is in some ways the culmination of both the original and prequel trilogies and brings Anakin Skywalker’s story to a sad but fulfilling end.
All of this happens at the same time as the Rebel fleet led by Lando and Admiral Ackbar, attacks the Death Star, but is ambushed by a waiting Imperial fleet. The subsequent space battle is still arguably the best space battle seen on film with swarms of star fighters hurtling through space among massive star destroyers, numerous Imperila TIE fighthers, and Rebel Mon Calamari cruisers.
Despite the odds, the Rebel ships are able to penetrate and destroy the Death Star thanks to the ground efforts of Han, Chewie and Leia. They infiltrate the forest moon of Endor, and aided by the native Ewoks, are able to annihilate the Empire’s shield generator protecting the Death Star. Seeing the diminutive Ewoks, who look like teddy bears defeat Imperial stormtroopers is somewhat silly, but the action is still exciting to watch, especially the speeder bike race through the woods, as well as Chewie stealing an AT-ST walker and using it on the Empire’s forces.
Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi ends with a triumphant celebration in the forest with the Rebel heroes and their new friends after Luke burns the remains of his father in a haunting scene. In the so-called “Special Edition” of the film that came out in the ’90s, extra scenes were added to the celebration which showed other parts of the galaxy celebrating the defeat of the Empire. This included the planets Coruscant and Naboo, which help tie in the prequel films to the original trilogy and being that the prequels had not come out yet, helped increase fans’ anticipation for the prequels. This enhanced the feeling of elation as we saw how wide the scope of the war was in the galaxy.
These closing scenes are also the last time we see the trio of Luke, Han and Leia in their prime, so to speak, and the last image of them all together with their friends having finally ended the Empire’s reign of terror. It is something fans will remember for all time given that we never saw the trio reunited in the sequel trilogy of films that came out in the last decade, although they made appearances in those films. The ending of Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi is basically a variant on “they lived happily ever after”, which is appropriate since George Lucas intended Star Wars to be a fairy tale, and the film definitely has that feeling to it. It doesn’t quite live up to the standard set by the first two films, which are basically masterpieces, but it’s still a very good film that is remembered four decades later for its iconic moments and is a great sendoff for some of cinema’s most revered characters.