Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about movies and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the Movie urban legends featured so far.
MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: Alec Guinness came up with the idea for Obi-Wan Kenobi to die in Star Wars.
An interesting but often misunderstood part of Star Wars lore is Sir Alec Guinness’ distaste for the Star Wars film franchise. The Academy Award-winning actor was the most famous member of the cast when the film was originally announced. Clearly, though, while he felt that the film would be a financial success, he never imagined that it would become so successful that later in his life he would be better known for playing Obi Wan Kenobi than for doing dozens of acclaimed films and many years of acclaimed Shakespeare productions on the stage (on top of his Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Actor for playing Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai, Guinness also won a Tony Award playing Dylan Thomas in the play Dylan). He was certainly critical of the film (especially the dialogue) but he also praised it. When he first saw the film, he wrote in his diary:
It’s a pretty staggering film as spectacle, and technically brilliant. Exciting, very noisy and warm-hearted. The battle scenes at the end go on for five minutes too long, I feel, and some of the dialogue is excruciating and much of it is lost in noise, but it remains a vivid experience. The only really disappointing performance was Tony Daniels as the robot — fidgety and over-elaborately spoken. Not that any of the cast can stand up to the mechanical things around them.
In addition, he was thoroughly grateful to George Lucas for the financial windfall Guinness received from the film’s success. After all, he did return for both sequels. So it was not like he abhorred the films. His true ire seemed to be directed at people who couldn’t seem to see him as anything other than Obi-Wan Kenobi. In 1997, he wrote in his diary, “Was unpleasant to a woman journalist on Telegraph, who wanted to know how much I earned on Star Wars. Oh, I’m sick of that film and all the hype.”
That said, it is true that Guinness had a hard time on the actual filming of the first film. He wrote to a friend of his, Anne Kaufman, about the film:
Can’t say I’m enjoying the film. New rubbish dialogue reaches me every other day on wadges of pink paper — and none of it makes my character clear or even bearable. I just think, thankfully, of the lovely bread, which will help me to keep going until next April . . . I must off to studio and work with a dwarf (very sweet — and he has to wash in a bidet) and your fellow countrymen Mark Hamill and Tennyson (that can’t be right) Ford. Ellison (? — no!) — well, a rangy, languid young man who is probably intelligent and amusing. But oh, God, God, they make me feel 90 — and treat me as if I was 106 — Oh, Harrison Ford, ever heard of him?
This has led to the legend that Alec Guinness was so sick of filming the movie that he came up with the idea that George Lucas should kill off Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Guinness himself claimed it to be true in 1999, noting that he convinced Lucas that it would make Obi-Wan a stronger character, adding “What I didn’t tell Lucas was that I just couldn’t go on speaking those bloody awful, banal lines. I’d had enough of the mumbo jumbo.” Actors asking to be killed off is a popular area for possible legends, as we’ve already detailed in past Movie Legends Revealed whether Leonard Nimoy asked to be killed in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and whether Harrison Ford asked to be killed in Return of the Jedi. So what is the truth here – did Alec Guinness come up with the idea to kill off Obi-Wan Kenobi?
Simply put, no.
The script for the film that would become the first Star Wars movie went through many different drafts and Obi-Wan Kenobi went through a lot of different iterations, as well. For a time there, General Kenobi was a bigger player in the film and he ended the film alive. However, in the fourth draft of the script, with a revised date of January 15, 1976, there is the following sequence:
They start for the Millennium Falcon.
Ben sees the troops charging toward him and realizes that he is trapped. Vader takes advantage of Ben’s momentary distraction and brings his mighty lightsaber down on the old man. Ben manages to deflect the blow and swiftly turns around.
The old Jedi Knight looks over his shoulder at Luke, lifts his sword from Vader’s then watches his opponent with a serene look on his face.
Vader brings his sword down, cutting old Ben in half. Ben’s cloak falls to the floor in two parts, but Ben is not in it. Vader is puzzled at Ben’s disappearance and pokes at the empty cloak. As the guards are distracted, the adventurers and the robots reach the starship.
Luke sees Ben cut in two and starts for him. Aghast, he yells out.
The stormtroopers turn toward Luke and begin firing at him. The robots are already moving up the ramp into the Millennium Falcon, while Luke, transfixed by anger and awe, returns their fire. Solo joins in the laserfire. Vader looks up and advances toward them, as one of his troopers is struck down.
Come on! Luke, its too late!
Blast the door! Kid!
Luke fires his laser pistol at the door control panel, and it explodes. The door begins to slide shut. Three troopers charge forward firing laser bolts, as the door slides to a close behind them… shutting Vader and the other troops out of the docking bay. A stormtrooper lies dead at the feet of his onrushing compatriots. Luke starts for the advancing troops, as Solo and Leia move up the ramp into the pirateship. He fires, hitting a stormtrooper, who crumples to the floor.
Run, Luke! Run!
When Lucas wrote that draft, Guinness had not yet accepted the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi, although he was close to doing so (they doubled their initial offer, giving him a fee of $150,000 plus two percentage points from the producer’s profit.
However, it is worth noting that just two weeks earlier, Lucas had written a draft of the film where Obi-Wan survives. Therefore, as filming began, Lucas was unsure of whether he was going to go through with the death of Obi-Wan. Guinness wrote in his diary, “Irritated by Lucas saying he hadn’t made up his mind whether to kill off my part or not. A bit late for such decisions. And Harrison Ford referring to me as Mother Superior didn’t help.”
On the commentary track for the first Star Wars film, George Lucas recalled that Guinness was angry when Lucas confirmed that Obi-Wan was going to die in the film. So Lucas says he was mad about dying while Guinness says he came up with the idea to kill off Obi-Wan. I think that these similarly opposing takes can be reconciled pretty easily. As Guinness notes in his diary, he was irritated at Lucas, but over the uncertainty of whether Obi-Wan was going to die or not. Similarly, it is very possible that Guinness told Lucas at one point that Lucas should kill Obi-Wan. So Guinness would be recalling correctly that he asked to be killed off but Lucas would also be correct in recalling that Guinness was angry at him over being killed off.
But the actual IDEA to kill off Obi-Wan appears to clearly have come from Lucas himself, as it predates the filming of the movie (not to mention Guinness’ official casting in the film) so therefore the legend is…
By the way, just for kicks, you should really check out this 1986 Alec Guinness interview on Late Night With David Letterman. It captures the dual nature of Guinness’ view of the film. He notes that getting the role was one of the luckiest breaks in his career but then you can see the visceral disgust when Letterman asks him to say “May the Force Be With You.”
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