One of the first movies I remember going to see in the theater was Return of the Jedi. It came out in 1983, which means I probably saw it when I was four years old. Most of what I remember about that first time seeing the film was, of course, the ewoks – the little mobile teddy bears that lived in a primordial redwood forest and somehow managed to take down the Evil Empire despite hardly even having opposable thumbs. I know they were the 1983 version of Jar Jar Binks, and I’m sure the teenage boy contingent hated them, but to a little girl the Ewoks were the best part of Return of the Jedi. They were cute! They kicked ass! They stole speeder bikes and sang the chub yub song! And I’m glad there was something to appeal to four-year-old me in the film, because there sure were a lot of scary parts.
I don’t have much memory of what scared me about Jedi, although having seen the movie dozens of times since then, I can probably guess. Jabba and many of the creatures at his palace; the saarlac pit; Yoda dying: all would have been quite frightening to a four-year-old me. But the scariest part of all, and the only other real memory I have of that first viewing of Jedi, was Darth Vader.
Darth Vader is the best bad guy ever. He’s got a deep, frightening voice, and his breath is all HOOOOOOH HUUUUUR, and his head looks like a shiny insect carapace. That beetle helmet slowly descends onto his scarred head, with a hiss of smoke or steam, and he looms. Scary music follows him wherever he goes. He can choke people with his mind! People who aren’t even in the same room! (Though, now that I think about it, why didn’t he just force choke Obi Wan when he thought about him during the time interim between Revenge of the Sith and Jedi, while Obi Wan was still on Tattooine?) Darth Vader fights with a red laser sword and everyone is afraid of him, and did I mention the HOOOOOOOH HUUUUUR?
That’s the part I remembered the most, for several months after I first saw Jedi. I had nightmares about hearing the breathing and seeing the shiny black helmet-clad bad guy coming after me. I think Darth Vader played my own personal boogeyman until I saw the Rankin-Bass animated version of The Hobbit and then it was Gollum for years and years, or maybe it was Gollum first but he got a break for a while and Vader took his place. My memories of early childhood aren’t especially clear.
What is clear, though, is that Darth Vader holds up as a great bad guy all the way until George Lucas has to go and show us why he became the monster that he did with Episodes 1-3 (and Episode 2 goes a long way; I mean, the guy obviously had some anger management issues and wasn’t especially good with people even before he betrayed everyone he loved and murdered a bunch of children) and we get 2 movies of whiny Hayden Christensen. It’s hard to see Episode 3 and then watch Star Wars again and still feel the same twinge of fear or apprehension when he orders the hit on Alderaan, since the previous time we saw him groveling and sniveling, limbs charred and face half-gone, after his big lava planet fight with Young, Hot Obi Wan. He is, however, still good for this. (Use it wisely. I’ve found many occasions where it came in handy.)