40 Years Ago, Star Wars Dropped A Huge Twist That You Barely Remember
Sure, Darth Vader said Luke was his father. But when did we start believing him?
In what year did you learn the true name of Luke Skywalker’s father? Are you sure? Although the character of Anakin Skywalker (AKA Darth Vader) is burned into the brains of countless older millennials who loved Hayden Christensen, the fact is, for the previous generation of Gen-Xers, Anakin Skywalker didn’t exist until 1983. 40 years ago, on May 25, 1983, the concluding chapter of the Star Wars trilogy hit theaters for the first time and was possibly the most fun film in the entire franchise. But, thanks to a mountain of Star Wars content since then, we’ve all collectively forgotten the most pivotal moment in Return of the Jedi.
Although Jedi is known for many things — Ewoks, speeder bikes, a great space battle, the revelation that Leia is Luke’s sister — what we tend to forget is that this movie invented the character of Anakin Skywalker, very quickly. The biggest plot twist in Jedi isn’t when Luke takes Vader’s helmet off at the end, it’s when Yoda and Obi-Wan confirm what Vader told Luke in the previous film was true. After the release of The Empire Strikes Back in 1980, Star Wars fans were actually torn as to whether or not Vader was telling the truth when he said “I am your father.” So, from 1980 to 1983, there were several wild predictions (which we’d now call fan theories) that even appeared in the magazines of the time. And yes, half of these predictions boiled down to: Vader was lying and Luke’s real father was still out there. But, of course, after Han gets rescued, Return of the Jedi switched to full info dump mode, as we were rapidly given the real backstory of Darth Vader.
Again, because there have been four decades of Star Wars stuff since this moment, it’s natural that these scenes between Luke and Yoda, and then, the scenes between Luke and Obi-Wan’s ghost don’t feel more shocking. Nowadays, we accept the backstory of Anakin and Obi-Wan’s words as just part of the story of Star Wars. But, in 1983, this was very rapid, and very fast tap-dancing. Darth Vader had not been designed to be Luke Skywalker’s father from the beginning and was a retroactive decision made by George Lucas during the writing process of Empire. Add to that, nobody ever mention the name “Anakin Skywalker” in the previous two movies at all, meaning Jedi had to quickly establish the sense of backstory that seemed to be in place the entire time, but totally wasn’t. (The 2004 DVD re-release altered the scene in which the Emperor appears and speaks to Vader in The Empire Strikes Back. It was at this point, that the name “Anakin Skywalker” appears in that film. But nobody says “Anakin Skywalker” in 1980 in Empire, which was also true of the 1997 “Special Edition.)
In all versions of Jedi, starting with 1983, after Yoda tells Luke that Vader is his dad, Yoda dies, and then Luke complains to Obi-Wan’s ghost: “Why didn’t you tell me! You told me Vader betrayed and murdered my father!” Luke is right, and if we wind back the clock, at this moment in 1983, the audience was confused. Nobody knew Obi-Wan was such a huge liar, until this point. And that’s because this scene, in which Obi-Wan says, “What I told you was true, from a certain point of view,” essentially rewrote the entire backstory of the previous two movies in the blink of an eye. Suddenly the entire saga was about the redemption of Anakin Skywalker, even though nobody had heard that name before. Later in the movie, Vader says “That name no longer has any meaning for me!” Which is weird, because that name had zero meaning to the audience about an hour prior. This is the magic of Return of the Jedi. With one quick scene, our entire perceptions of the most important characters were changed. It’s almost like somebody waved their hand and pulled a Jedi mind trick on us.
Return of the Jedi is a three-act movie that feels like it only has two acts. After the rescue of Han is complete on Tatooine (which lasts about 40 minutes!) the movie essentially transitions into what becomes the finale: destroy the shield generator, and defeat the Empire. The only real moment of character development, where the movie isn’t relentlessly going forward is on Dagobah, where Luke finds out the true story of his father. Everything that happens in the movie after this rests on these brief scenes, and everything that happened in the entire saga after this point was impacted, too. There are no prequels without this scene, no sequels, no Kylo Ren, and no Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen on Disney+ in 2022. Obi-Wan’s moment of saying “About your dad, well, actually...” is in many ways, the defining point in all of Star Wars.
So, as you’re celebrating the 40th birthday of Return of the Jedi, and you’re thinking about all the complicated questions of parenthood throughout all of Star Wars, take a moment to linger on these scenes. Yes, the first appearance of Anakin Skywalker in the flesh was in this movie. The late actor Sebastian Shaw played the man under the mask, and famously, Anakin’s spirit at the end of the movie. In 2004, for the DVD release, Shaw’s spirit was retroactively changed to Hayden Christensen. But, in truth, that’s peanuts compared to the impact this one scene had in 1983.
Because without Obi-Wan’s ghost Jedi-splaining the story of Anakin Skywalker, nothing about the rest of the sprawling saga would make any sense. The stakes for the most famous dad in all of Star Wars were created quickly, effectively, and boldly. And, if you look back, it seems like it almost shouldn’t have worked. Forty years ago, Return of the Jedi presented an alternate point of view of the entire story of Star Wars. And it stuck.
Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi is streaming now on Disney+.