The Themes in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi

by Todd King, contributing writer

Return of the Jedi is a film that keeps on giving. In my default state of daydreaming, the movie comes back and swirls in my thoughts from time to time. The more I contemplate it, however, the more its themes and subtext surface. Watching it again—which is always at my fingertips now with Disney+—something new about it seems to constatly appear.

As the conclusion to the original Star Wars trilogy, Return of the Jedi had a lot to live up to—especially with the massive hype leading up to its release. It's quite possibly the most-anticipated movie of all time. The Empire Strikes Back left us with so much wonder and so many questions… for three years! Nothing could live up to that much expectation. For me, it blew my young mind and surpassed any expectations I could dream up. In my later years, I've continually reassessed the Star Wars movies, and Return of the Jedi continues to impress me as I discover new treasures of insights even after that initial hype (from 38 years ago) died down.

This movie exemplifies two great themes: Faith in your friends, and the revealing of truth. From Han, Leia, and Lando trusting each other in the great battle, to Luke pursuing the truth in his father and in himself, Episode VI shows us the value in those themes in splendid and even subtle ways.

Han trusts Lando with his most-cherished possession, the Falcon. © Lucasfilm.

Han's True Self

The reason Han is frozen in carbonite at the beginning of the movie is because of his checkered past. He was being hunted by bounty hunters even when we first met him and one finally caught up to him off-screen in a foreshadowing moment of Empire. On planet Ord Mantell, he was being followed and that meant danger for him as well as the Rebels; if they could find Han, they would find the secret base. Luke, Leia, and Lando have "faith in their friends" and consider Han family; they don't leave him behind. He is worth saving. So they all go to save him from Jabba the Hut's clutches.

When Han is saved, he's changed—he's no longer a scoundrel. Now he's all-in on the rebellion. He tells them, "Thanks for coming after me." He's now on the straight and narrow. Being firmly on that path may make him a less-interesting character in fiction, but it does make him a grown-up hero. His past is purged and erased. All is forgiven. He realizes his own value and even volunteers to lead the strike team in the great battle. When he did so, he told nobody he would. It was his choice alone! We even see in a moment on Endor, he almost walks out on Leia—but because he's changed, he immediately thinks better of it and goes to her, even later admitting he'd step out of the way to be sure Leia was happy. That's when he truly wins Leia's heart.

He used to only imagine money and business for himself, but now, he finds something greater than he imagined because of his friends. Finally, with a kiss from Leia, he welcomes the new life completely. The appearance of Wicket the Ewok in the scene means Han will welcome a third (a child). Han's true identity is that of a leader. Leia had already called him "a natural leader" before, but Han didn't see it yet. Eventually, he came to accept others into his life, thereby accepting his true self in this new life. And to think that at the beginning of the film he was a man (damsel) in distress! He needed rescuing.

Leia's heart is never in disguise. © Lucasfilm.

Leia's Disguises

Leia was in disguise at the beginning of Jedi. She soon reveals her true self when she takes off the bounty hunter disguise's mask. Her true self is no disguise, it is a person of action. In Jabba's dancer outfit, we know that isn't her true self, but in that same getup, she strangles Jabba to death with her bare hands! That is feminine power! Later, she's the first to befriend the Ewoks. We see that she's a person ready to allow others into her life by offering friendship. That friendship comes so fast that when Wicket's new friend Leia is in danger, he helps save her. They work together as a team all because she began with friendship. Princess Leia forms bonds that uplifts both parties in her relationships.

Leia also learns something about her true identity: she's Luke's sister and also Vader's daughter. Although she was adopted by the Organas, she remembers "her real mother" in images and feelings. The bonds of family are already dear to her. When she learns that Luke is her brother, she instantly wants to protect him, telling him to "run away" from Vader to save himself. Still, she lets him go. Through the Force, she had already heard Luke's cries for help in Episode V. At the end of Jedi, she could feel his presence, knowing that he was still alive after the battle. It's not just about a Force connection, it's how well she knows her family.

The roles from Vader and Luke's previous duel are reversed, but only for a moment. © Lucasfilm.

Vader Unmasked

Darth Vader's true identity is revealed in more ways than one. His mask is removed, figuratively and literally. He doesn't give it up easily, however. Throughout the story, he continues to be drawn to the power of the dark side. When he is nearly struck down by his own son, the rebels in the fight declare "the shield is down" at that same moment. Vader's shield is down. He became vulnerable and that made him human again. His machinery and his power couldn't save him. His Emperor, his supposed ally, won't save him. At the movie's climax, the phrase, "Return of the Jedi," is revealed in several layers: Luke returns to Tatooine, he returns to see Yoda (as he had promised), and he returned to face Vader again--likewise, the title could refers to Darth Vader's turn to the light side of the Force as he became Anakin again, the Jedi Knight inside him had returned. Even Luke vindicates him saying, "I am a Jedi, like my father before me." In the end, Vader, now Aanakin, wants to see his son with his "own eyes." He wants to see the true world again, not one from behind machines and masks. He confirms his humanity by not relying on falsehoods like hate and technology anymore. Finally, he is redeemed as he accepts death--the very thing the Emperor promised he could avoid. That was a lie. Now he can rest in the truth.

The Emperor only ever acted on his own hollow self regard. © Lucasfilm.

The Emperor's Nature

The Emperor's true identity is revealed in the moment Luke overpowers his father. "Take your father's place!" he says. He doesn't really care about Vader at all. He just wants the winner of this duel to be his new apprentice. Palpatine only cares for himself and we saw in the prequels that he sacrifices his apprentices left and right to serve his own needs. That's how truly dark he his. He doesn't care for friendship even when he calls Vader his friend ("Rise, my friend." "Patience, my friend.") It's all a lie! And he's got it all backwards! He tells Luke that his weakness is his "faith in his friends." He truly believes that, but the movie goes out of its way to show us that it isn't a weakness, but a strength!

Wedge, as the new Red Leader, exemplifies the fighting spirit of the Alliance. © Lucasfilm.

The Rebels and the Force

Yoda once said that the dark side of the Force is more seductive. That doesn't mean it's tue. It makes promises it can't keep. Like the attack on the Death Star, the Dark Side is a trap! It's a false sense of security. What breaks that falsehood? Those with friends, those who believe in family, those with faith in others close to them. The Imperial officers sure trust the Emperor; they've given up their own free choice. By doing so, by abandoning their central morality, it seals their doom. The Rebels take down their sheilds ("we've lost our bridge deflector shields") and the Imperial officers are destroyed by a Rebel sacrifice. The Rebel fleet love each other and trust each other. Admiral Ackbar is amazed that the Super Star Destroyer is gone, but he also laments that it took a sacrifice by one of his own to do so. All the while in the battle, fighters like Wedge are saying stuff like "Good shot!" and Lando is saying "Look out, 3 from above!" They keep helping each other! It's like something else Yoda said, "The Force is for knowledge and defence, never for attack."

The true nature of the Empire is revealed: they get defeated by Ewoks! That shows just how flimsy this Empire really is. They have tech and power, but they can't take true grit, heart, creativity, a fighting spirit, a reason to fight. The Empire saw no threat from the Ewoks whatsoever—wouldn't even waste time to enslave them. That's how insignificant the Empire saw the Ewoks. It was the same feeling the Emperor had for the rebellion and for the light side of the Force.

Lando shows unwavering belief in his friends and their shared cause. © Lucasfilm.

Lando's Faith

Lando exemplifies faith in friends. He trusts Han to complete the mission and is vocal about his belief. "Don't worry, my friend's down there." "C'mon Han old buddy don't let me down." "Han will have that shield down we gotta give him more time!" He believes, he won't give up. Lando also had a scountrelish background, but wanted to fix it. He risked his life to infiltrate Jabba's palace and setup the rescue. He freed Han! Then Han freed Lando from the Sarlaac! Han lets Lando use the Falcon! That is a true testament of faith and trust between the two of them. They've been through ups and downs with each other but by the time we see them here in Return of the Jedi, they are true friends. Han doubts he'll see his beloved ship again, but he doesn't rescind his offer to his friend. Lando may have scratched the Falcon but treated it much better than Han did in Solo. The scratch isn't even brought up, because it doesn't matter anymore to them. The friendship matters. Lando's faith paid off, and it helped the entire galaxy. Again like Han, Lando now may be a less interesting character, but he's reached his true self, he's a General in every sense of the word. The Rebel Alliance has faith in him. Then Han is made a General and they both lead to the two-pronged ultimate attack against the Empire. Neither could succeed without the other.