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: George Lucas initially planned on killing Darth Vader off in the first sequel to Star Wars.
A while back, I talked about how in 1976 George Lucas had Alan Dean Foster write a screenplay for possible sequel to the first Star Wars film. This was when Lucas wasn’t sure what kind of box office numbers the film would do. There was a chance that the film could bomb, but there was also a chance that the film might do just “okay” business. Good enough to merit a sequel, but not good enough to merit a big budget sequel. So Foster worked out a screenplay for a low-budget sequel to the film. Obviously, the film became a big hit, so Foster’s screenplay was not necessary, and it instead became his Star Wars novel, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye.
One of the fascinating things that we’ve seen come up in a number of Star Wars legends over the years (like whether Darth Vader was always going to be Luke’s father or whether Luke and Leia were always going to be siblings) is that George Lucas was a lot looser with the Star Wars canon at the time. That was quite logical, of course, as he did not yet know that he had created a blockbuster film franchise. He just knew that he had made a film that he was hoping would be a hit but was fully prepared for it to not be a hit (he had even made a bet with Steven Spielberg that the film would not be as successful as Spielberg’s next film!). One of the great pieces of historical Star Wars information are the story conferences that Lucas, Foster and Lucasfilm Vice President Charles Lippincott had back in 1976. The great Star Wars historian J W Rinzler transcribed the conference and they revealed a great many things – including Lucas’ desire to move on from Darth Vader as soon as he could!
Read on to see what Lucas’ problem was with Vader and why he wanted to kill him off!
The biggest thing impression that you get from Lucas’ interaction with Foster is that Lucas is really not tied to a whole lot of the Star Wars concept. He’s obviously quite taken with Luke as a character, but for the rest of the characters, he seems like he’s willing to take or leave them.
This comes up clearly when they are debating how to work Princess Leia into the story:
LUCAS: Well, another thing we could do is to go one step beyond the simple and move into the love story plot, where you have them kind of vying for each other. She is a spry little snappy kind of girl and he’s sort of liking her, and in the process of the movie, they fall in love and have a wonderful relationship and in the end she gets killed. it’s one of those tweaked ideas, but it’s one of those things that works. What I wanted to when we were shooting the other movie is have the princess run off with the Wookiee. But it sounds perverted.
LIPPINCOTT: I think that somebody else has got to be killed.
LUCAS: I wouldn’t mind killing her off.
Dude! He wouldn’t mind killing Leia off? For serious?
Lucas then continues into explaining his problem with Darth Vader as a villain:
LUCAS: The other thing we haven’t dealt with is Darth Vader. But Darth Vader, as we discovered in this picture, tends to be pushy; he’s not strong enough as the villain to hold the villain role. he doesn’t have the persona that you need. You really need a Cushing guy, a really slimy, ugly….
LIPPINCOTT: What if you unveiled him, unmasked him? Since he isn’t strong enough to hold up. Unmasked him and started building up a new villain who could continue into the next?
LUCAS: That’s an idea.
It is really astonishing to see Lucas so casually criticize his own work. He goes even further when he and Foster are working on the end of the story, where Luke will KILL Vader!
LUCAS: A real problem that we have in the first one is creating a threat out of Vader. I mean he never does anything to anybody, I mean he chokes one guy.
FOSTER: He talks tough.
LUCAS: Yeah, but he really doesn’t do anything. So it’d be good that we actually see him do some evil things….Luke gets trapped…A big rock comes down on his toe or something and he’s straining to pull himself loose. And then Vader shows up and says, “Oh now I’ve got you.” And the princess is forced to fight Vader. Luke is standing there trying to pull his toe out and Vader knocks her down..
FOSTER: He’s playing with her really…
LUCAS: I think she could desperately fight him but he is really overpowering and beats her up pretty bad…Although it wouldn’t be too good to have a bloody freak in the movie. But she’s pretty much battered up…
LUCAS: Yeah, she’s really beat up, desperate. She’s sort of dragging herself around on the floor in really bad shape and finally Luke jumps down and starts on Vader. And Luke kills Vader in the end. I was thinking of the last image of having her be this bloody, battered, beat-up babe. Not very romantic. I don’t know whether I dare do something quite that extreme. We could have the last image be them getting into the spaceship and taking off, flying into the sunset.
Obviously, just seven months after this conference, Lucas saw just how much the American public DID enjoy Darth Vader, so clearly, it altered his view of the character going forward, but it is amazing to know that for a time there, he was ready to ditch him.
The legend is….
Thanks to Miken A. for suggesting this one! Thanks to Tim Pelan for posting the transcribed conference! And thanks, of course, to J W Rinzler for doing the initial transcription and thanks to Lucas, Foster and Lippincott for keeping records of their story meeting!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.