Guest Talker: Andrew
A few weeks ago while watching Return of the Jedi, I was struck by a particular scene. In fact not a scene per se but a small section of a scene that lasts for just over ten seconds in total. It occurs in the middle of the film just after Luke Skywalker contemplates his father (now Darth Vader, formerly Anakin Skywalker) and pronounces, “then my father is truly dead“. Luke is led away by Imperial Stormtroopers and as the doors shut one senses a distinct lapse in Vader’s demeanour as he places his black gloved hand on a steel girder in the corridor where the scene takes place. Although Vader is masked, one is left with little doubt as to the turmoil boiling within him which his son has sensed only moments before being escorted away.
This is a scene that I am extremely familiar with and it’s no exaggeration to say that I have viewed it hundreds of times at this point. Many of you reading this will be in the same position. An interesting point of note however, is that as time progresses in Lucasfilm’s new canon, layer upon layer of light and shade is gradually being cast onto erstwhile familiar scenes. What made this particular scene reverberate once again for me was both the advent of a sequel within the cinematic saga – namely, The Force Awakens, and the work on Anakin/Vader’s back story that we are now aware of from the new canon (the novel Lords of the Sith, and television series The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels).
Now I’m no neuroscientist, but I’m in no doubt that some neural connection (figuratively or otherwise) fired within me during my recent viewing of this “Vader scene” in Return of the Jedi. I think that having been shown evil and vulnerability co-existing so obviously on screen in the character of Kylo Ren, I may now have increased sensitivity towards those traits within Vader. One can’t help but note the incongruity of Kylo Ren seeking strength in Vader’s artifact (his Mask), when Return of the Jedi shows us, particularly in its last scenes, that Vader himself obviously harbored tensions between internal light and shade. Indeed, those tensions within Vader would have occurred not just in that scene but presumably at other points that George Lucas did not show us. Our insight into Kylo Ren has shown us that witnessing a character purveying violence and atrocities, does not mean that they aren’t conflicted. We know that Ren seeks strength from his Sith relics, erroneously viewing Vader as a pillar of pure, un-tempered dark power.
Ironically it is actually Ren’s insecurities that heighten his ability to strike fear in the viewer. Vader’s representation of ultimate martial strength may have been underpinned by the portrayal Lucas chose to focus upon in episodes III, IV, V and VI. Importantly though Lucas also spoke of the need to use Vader sparingly so as not to dilute his impact on the viewer.
Consider for a moment your perception if all you had seen of Kylo Ren was the Battle of Jakku, the interrogation of Poe Daemeron, and the killing of his father Han Solo. You would in all likelihood take the view that Ren demonstrated darkness and nihilism on par with Vader. As it is, due to the different approach to character portrayal within Episode VII, we have been given an insight with a wider focus as plot device. In turn that insight sends us back to what we have seen before and makes us wonder if the same kind of internal conflict occurred in Vader’s early years, only to be buried deep before ultimately being released by his son Luke in advance of his final hours at Endor.
In The Force Awakens itself we see Kylo Ren, formerly Ben Solo, also struggle with a pull towards the light, the draw of his family, and the effects of surprise dissent and challenge. Vader’s struggle, although less obvious, is sensed by Luke and is driven by his son’s appeal to the traces of the Anakin Skywalker that his father once was. What adds a further dimension to the scene in question from Return of the Jedi, and shades of gray to Vader’s portrayal in the overall saga, is the fact that we now know so much more about Anakin than we once did.
It’s worth noting in this context that I write this article after the broadcast one of the most heart-rending moments in the Star Wars canon, the confrontation between Vader and his former Padwan learner Ahsoka Tano. Forged in The Clone Wars series, their relationship as Anakin and Ahsoka reached its cessation (for the time being) in the Rebels Season 2 Finale, “Twilight of the Apprentice.” Like the scenes within that finale, this scene in Return of the Jedi is rendered so powerful through a contextual knowledge of the Star Wars saga. We now watch such scenes while projecting both forwards and backwards in our Star Wars knowledge. This isn’t compulsory for viewer enjoyment, but it will significantly enhance it.
Unlike a viewer of the Return of the Jedi scene in 1983 we are now aware of a cinematic portrayal of Anakin Skywalker, the innocent young boy from Tatooine, and his desire to assist the stranded Qui-Gon Jinn and Padmé, we are aware of his later awkwardness as a teenager, and his ultimate seduction by Palpatine towards the ways of the Sith immediately in advance of Mustafar. We know of the Shakespearean tragedy of Anakin’s fall in Episode III Revenge of the Sith, and his becoming the symbol of terror known as Darth Vader. Likewise, we know that those events occurred due to a desire to save and preserve family, and in some respects as a response to loss of family, both his mother Simi and his wife Padmé, and his unborn child (in fact his unborn twins although he didn’t know this).
Now we see Vader facing his only son, a son who senses a residual light within Vader through the Force. Luke is certain that there is good left in him. Let’s watch the scene in question, paying close attention as the scene builds towards its conclusion:
The scene begins with an exchange where Luke acknowledges his father and Vader notes his acceptance of the familial relationships. Luke qualifies this however. His first move in this meeting of minds is to state “I have accepted the truth that you were once Anakin Skywalker…”. Note how quickly Vader interjects, instantly snapping that, “that name no longer has any meaning for me!”. The reaction of Vader is instinctive; Luke has sparked a reflex triggered by Vader’s most private of ruminations. Luke persists however stating that, “It is the name of your true self you have only forgotten” and concludes “that’s why you won’t bring me to your Emperor now.” Watch Vader closely in the background behind Luke. He marginally but notably withdraws. Crucially there is no sense of aggression or loss of control. Instead Vader’s eyes, or at least his direction of vision indicated by the direction of his Mask, turns towards Luke’s new lightsaber. One senses an indication of remorse, regret, or contemplation. The crisp ‘snap-hiss’ of the lightsaber igniting then throws us, and immediately breaks any sense the viewer has that Vader doubts his position in any way. The noise, one of the many unique sounds in the Star Wars universe, snaps the viewer back into focus on the peril Luke is facing.
Vader says to Luke “your skills are complete – indeed you are powerful as the Emperor has foreseen.” In doing so he brings the conversation back to Luke as the focus. Luke in turn again attempts to persuade and this time we start to anticipate a much more noticeable thaw within Vader. Crucially we are given our first verbal indication of the doubt conveyed earlier only by discrete body language. Vader speaks to Luke and states “Obi Wan once thought as you did…”and the soundtrack theme softens. The viewer is now thinking of the brothers in arms that Anakin and Obi Wan once were. Luke tries to persuade but Vader eventually concedes, “it is too late for me Son“. There is a marked sincerity in Vader’s voice and as he utters the words “The Emperor will show you the true meaning of the Force – he is your master now” one is left wondering if the warped mind of what once was Anakin Skywalker now actually believes that Palpatine will do the best for his son, and the best for the galaxy.
Then comes the highlight of the scene. Luke responds with the words “then my father is truly dead.” Luke’s tone highlights his disappointment but also his courage given what lies in wait for him. It shows the strength of Luke that he is not cowed in this situation. He is confident that his path lies in his Jedi teaching, and his compassion towards his father.
Vader tracks Luke’s withdrawal with the Stormtroopers and this to me is critical. At 3:19 on the video, watch Vader and wonder what is going on behind that Mask, knowing as we now do that Luke was right. What are the thought processes that occur? The door of the elevation capsule closes, and Vader turns and looks out the window of the corridor, there are almost ten seconds that pass while the viewer listens to Vader’s mechanical breathing apparatus and looks into the depths of his blank stare.
Projecting forward, and as noted above, we are at the time of writing exploring the legacy of this scene and the events immediately thereafter. The Knights of Ren in the new sequel era have a false understanding of both this event and those immediately surrounding it. They view Vader as a quasi-Divine figure. We are not quite sure of their relationship with the Sith at this point. What is certain, however, is that Ren seeks strength from the ultimate in Vader artifacts, his Mask, indeed literally Vader’s death Mask. Ren seeks strength to overcome the same emotions that trouble Vader in the scene we are contemplating, and then tragically uses the inspiration obtained from that relic to do what Luke refuses to do: kill his own father, Han Solo.
The reason that I now view this section of Return of the Jedi as one of the critical scenes in the saga is because from it we see the linkages that span from the opening scenes in The Phantom Menace and trace the repercussions those events still have around 70 years later. We see how Luke’s relationship with his father is having a direct effect in the sequel era on a misguided Ren’s relationship with his own father. We see the death of one of the saga’s most beloved characters and the hero of the New Republic slaughtered because of a false impression of strength that has cascaded from the myth of the grandfather to the reality of the grandson. We see Luke’s beliefs and Luke’s obvious failure to impart his own beliefs, and their wisdom, to his nephew who has become corrupted.
This is what is beautiful about these films and why the latest developments in the saga and new canon have enriched and embellished films that we have known and loved for nearly 40 years. With the developments in the beautiful animation found in The Clone Wars and now in Rebels, and the love and passion brought to such works by people like Dave Filoni, we can probably look forward to another 40 years of thoughtful and inspired mythology.
Writer’s note: I know that others will have different takes on these cinematic events and portrayals. As always this is part of the enjoyment of these films and I look forward to exchanges with fellow fans on these issues. Find me on Twitter @PartisanCantina and check out my site (Partisan Cantina).