Sunday, 21 July 2013

Chapter 7, Part 2 - Harrison Ford: Contract Player No More


By January 11 1982, the Return of the Jedi cast and crew were safely ensconced in EMI’s Elstree Studios just outside London, and shooting began. The production was using all nine sound-stages. Sets were put up and torn down with alarming speed as the juggernaut movie careened through its paces. Down came the gate of Jabba’s Palace, up went the Death Star docking bay. Jedi technicians built an impressive redwood forest inside one hangar-like sound stage, then built the Ewok village among the trees.

Studio shooting forged ahead at break-neck speed and was completed in an amazing 78 days. From there, Marquand and his team flew to America and spent the next eight weeks filming the Tatooine scenes in the blazing heat of the Arizona desert. The Endor scenes were shot in the cooler redwood forests of Northern California.

Return of the Jedi was shooting under the fake title of "Blue
Harvest" in the North Californian redwood forests.

In an effort to keep the curious at bay, and the prices of the local shop-keepers down, the Arizona filming was conducted under a cover title of Blue Harvest – ‘Horror Beyond Imagination’ said the crew’s tee-shirts. ‘Is that what the film’s about?’ asked somebody of George Lucas, ‘No,’ he replied wryly, ‘that’s the making of the movie.’

Marquand explained his directing technique to the American magazine Prevue in an interview published just before the release of Jedi. He admitted that he rehearsed the actors, ‘but not in their moves. I like to show them the sets, give them an idea of the action and go through the script with them very carefully. I can’t stand it when an actor walks on the set saying he cannot deliver a line that a writer, a producer and a director spent eight months working on. I won’t have it.’ 

Yet Harrison Ford is well-known in movie circles for the amount of input he likes to have into the script. Marquand was aware of this preference and had no criticism of Ford in this area. If Ford wanted dialogue changes, Marquand was prepared to accommodate him because, ‘he’ll have good reasons and he’ll say it a week before shooting. He’ll explain why, and you’ll either agree, in which case you’ll go to the producer and the other actors and express his points, or you’ll explain why the line is there. If you can explain it to him, he’ll do it because he’s a professional.’

Ford and Fisher clown around on the Endor set, while
Anthony Daniels and Peter Mayhew take a breather
with their masks off.

Overall, Marquand’s aim was to create ‘real relationships and real action that stem from real emotions.’ He was wary, rightly so, of allowing the dazzling special effects to take control of the film. But if he needed aid or advice, he felt secure in the knowledge that George Lucas would always be on hand to help him out.

‘Having George Lucas as an executive producer on this film is like directing King Lear with Shakespeare in the next room!’ said Marquand.

Lucas himself had sufficient confidence in his Star Wars movies to put his money where his mouth is. Unlike other major movie productions, which borrow money from wherever they can get it, then insure their borrowings like crazy in case the film flops, Lucas was using his personal fortune to finance Jedi.

‘I decided,’ said Lucas, ‘I had the most faith in my own films. I’m using my profits to make more films.’

And Lucas’s secret was to incorporate into his movies something that most contemporary filmmakers forget. ‘One of the most important things is to create an emotion in the audience,’ says Lucas. ‘The movie can be funny, sad or scary, but there has to be an emotion. It has to make you feel good or laugh or jump out of your seat.’ Whether Lucas had injected enough emotion into Jedi would be left to the critics and, more importantly, the audiences to decide.

Carrie Fisher and her stand-in relax between takes on the Tatooine set.

In the meantime, Ford had taken time out between the completion of principle photography on Jedi and the film’s release to go house hunting. Sun Valley, Idaho was considered but abandoned as it was already full of Hollywood ex-pats. Harrison and Melissa then looked at Wyoming and settled on the town of Jackson Hole, where they were shown an 800 acre property. Ford had found his paradise.


It’s unlikely that George Lucas was really worried that Jedi would turn out to be a clunker. The film opened on the traditional date of May 25th, 1983 in America, followed by the British release on June 2nd, 1983. Although the reviews were, in the main, favourable, a few harder-to-please folk managed to find fault with the film.

‘Taken on its own terms,’ ventured Time magazine, ‘Return of the Jedi is a brilliant, imaginative piece of film-making.’ Time then went on to say that Jedi sacrificed the human element for its fascination with dazzling special effects, a familiar complaint of the up-market magazines of the Star Wars films. ‘The other flaw,’ said Time, ‘is the ending: in all three films, Lucas has almost entirely avoided the rank sentimentality to which his story is vulnerable. In the final minutes of Jedi, he succumbs, however, and ends his trilogy with one of the corniest conclusions in recent years.’

I suspect Time magazine was referring to this cheesey insert,
of the smiling dead jedi - the original release had Sebastian
"Humpty-Dumpty" Shaw as the late Anakin Skywalker,
the later re-release had Hayden Christensen

Playboy’s Bruce Williamson thought that Jedi was, ‘another rousing entertainment in George Lucas’s nine-part epic derived from Star Wars ... in its script, Return of the Jedi falls a bit short of its predecessors and director Richard Marquand doesn’t quite have Lucas’s magic touch ... Lucas continues to make movie-going the kind of innocent, awe-struck pleasure it used to be when we were all light-years younger.’

It should be explained that when this review was written, Lucas had intended producing a trilogy of Star Wars films that came after A New Hope, Empire and Jedi as well as the trilogy that later preceded them. Lucas announced those plans as abandoned after Star Wars III, but more recent reports indicate that the last trilogy of Star Wars movies is back on again, with Ford, Fisher and Hamill returning to there roles - presumably older and wiser.

Variety, the trade paper of American show business, seemed to fall into line with the criticisms that Time had made. ‘Lucas and Co have perfected the technical magic where anything and everything – no matter how bizarre – is believable ... the human and dramatic dimensions have been sorely sacrificed ... Harrison Ford, who was such an essential element of the first two outings is present more in body than in spirit this time, given little to do but react to special effects.’

I thought that Return of the Jedi was certainly the least successful of the original three Star Wars movies, artistically. Its worst failing was that it fell into the same trap as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – the filmmakers loaded it to excess with similar elements from its predessessors to the point where the overall effect was one of overkill. While there are some great sequences in the movie – the battle on Jabba’s barge and the chase on the speeder bikes through the forest of Endor – there are elements that simply jar. The Ewoks are probably my least favourite Star Wars characters ever and Jabba the Hutt’s gremlin-like pet Salacious Crumb is excedingly annoying though not, I suspect, in the way the filmmakers intended. It was as though Lucas was trying – none-too-successfully – to cater to the kiddie market.

One thing I could do without in Jedi was this character.
Wasn't wild about the way the Ewoks were handled either.

Audiences either didn’t read the reviews, or didn’t care what they said anyway. The film was safely into profit inside three months and, as the end of 1983 rolled round, Jedi was the number one grossing film of the year and nineteenth of the list of the top US box-office hits of all time earning a staggering $309 million. Worldwide, the gross was an even more impressive $572 million, $40 million more than Empire ...

The Academy nominated Jedi for four awards, in the categories Best Sound Effects Editing, Best Sound, Best Art Direction and Best Score, and awarded a Special Oscar to Richard Edlund, Dennis Muren, Ken Ralston and Phil Tippet for Achievement in Special Effects.

The Special Oscar for Achievement in Special Effects
was well-deserved.

Harrison Ford was not surprised that George Lucas had been proved right again and that most of the critics were out of touch with what the audiences wanted. ‘People want fairy tales in their lives,’ he told Time magazine. ‘I’m lucky enough to provide them. There is no difference between doing this kind of film and playing King Lear. The actor’s job is exactly the same: dress up and pretend.’


At the time, Return of the Jedi marked the final instalment in the Star Wars saga. It also marked the last screen appearances of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and Han Solo. Other stories in the epic tale would tell of the Clone Wars and the rise of the Empire in the first trilogy (filmed as The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith), while the story of the rebuilding of the Galactic Democracy was to be told in the then-abandoned final trio of movies. Harrison Ford was not entirely unhappy that his stint as an interstellar star appeared to be over. ‘The story that Han Solo was part of,’ explained Ford to Starburst’s Tony Crawley, ‘which is “The Adventures of Luke Skywalker”, in my guise of best friend is over. The story completes itself in this third film. I had a great time on Jedi. I’m glad I did it. I’m glad I did all three of them. But as well, I’m glad ... I don’t ... have to do any more. After Jedi, the saga goes back in time, so Solo’s not in the next three. There will be nine films in all. Just three for Solo. I assume they will not replace me with another person to play Solo ...’

Now that George Lucas has sold the sequel rights to Disney and the rumour-mill is saying that JJ Abrams will be in charge of the the final three movies of the originally-planned nine part story, it's possible Harrison Ford will return to the role of Solo as a kind of elder statesman of the Star Wars universe. It may even appeal to Ford’s sense of humour to do it.

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