The Darker Return of the Jedi Ending That Would Have Completely Changed Star Wars
Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, and the film saga as a whole, would have turned out very differently had George Lucas used his original idea for the ending.
As the story goes, George Lucas at one point planned to make a Skywalker family epic consisting of 12 movies across four trilogies, with Episode XII serving as the true grand finale of the saga where our heroes would finally face the dreaded Emperor. But then he cut that outline down to nine films, with Luke’s sister (not originally Leia) joining the fray around Episode VIII, just in time for the final battle in Episode IX, according to Gary Kurtz, who produced the first two Star Wars films.
Then, in the early ’80s, Lucas decided to cut down the story further. He pushed up the final battle with the Dark Lord of the Sith to Episode VI, the initially titled Revenge of the Jedi, which would also reveal that Leia had been Luke’s long-lost sister all along (despite their famous smooch in The Empire Strikes Back). Lucas is something of an unreliable narrator himself when it comes to what’s true and what’s myth about the early behind-the-scenes history of Star Wars — the story changes depending on which interview you’re reading. But if the Maker truly did originally plan 12 and then nine movies to tell the complete story, he’d clearly run out of gas by 1983.
In fact, there was a lot in flux about Revenge of the Jedi itself, as Lucas cut and reshuffled his outline and shaped a trilogy closer that would tie up all remaining plot threads. According to former Lucasfilm fan relations officer Craig Miller, Boba Fett was initially set up as the big bad of the film, which would have largely focused on Luke and Leia rescuing Han from the bounty hunter. Meanwhile, Kurtz claimed that Lucas considered killing off Han in the movie, concluding with a final confrontation between Luke and Darth Vader sans Emperor.
Renowned film historian J.W. Rinzler shed further light on Lucas’ creative process in The Making of Return of the Jedi, digging through transcripts from story meetings between the Maker and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan. It’s here that we learn that Lucas and Kasdan once envisioned a much darker ending to the trilogy, one that would have completely altered the future of Star Wars.
As revealed by Rinzler (via Gizmodo), it was Lucas who suggested that Luke should give in to the dark side as the film’s status-quo-shattering finale twist. The scene in question would play out much as it did in the film: after defeating the Emperor, Luke takes Vader’s helmet off, but instead of sharing a loving moment with his father, he would instead put on Vader’s mask and declare himself the new Dark Lord of the Sith: “Luke puts it on and says, ‘Now I am Vader.’ Surprise! The ultimate twist. ‘Now I will go and kill the [Rebel] fleet and I will rule the universe.'”
“That’s what I think should happen,” Kasdan agreed during the story session. Of course, that would have been a pretty grim way to end a trilogy of movies primarily aimed at children, and Lucas quickly abandoned the idea. Still, the moment remains an excellent window into how many directions Star Wars could have taken on the path to closing out the Original Trilogy. Certainly, the Sequel Trilogy would have had to approach the legacy of Luke Skywalker a bit differently…
Interestingly enough, the original Star Wars Expanded Universe of books and comics did eventually go down this path, from a certain point of view. The 1991 comics series Dark Empire by Tom Veitch and Cam Kennedy saw Luke temporarily become the new apprentice of a resurgent Emperor, although Palpatine’s many clones were ultimately destroyed in the years after Return of the Jedi. With Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn books now influencing upcoming Star Wars shows and movies, it remains to be seen if Dark Empire could one day form the backbone of another chapter in Luke’s story on the big screen, even if The Rise of Skywalker already used up the Palpa-clones.
For now, we’ll always have Lucas and Kasdan bro-ing out on tape during the formative years of the Star Wars saga.
Star Wars: Return of the Jedi turns 40 on May 25.