Front Row Seat: Most heartfelt 'Star Wars' movie turns 40

"Return of the Jedi" completed the "Star Wars" trilogy. While it wasn't as groundbreaking as the original, or as revered as "Empire Strikes Back," it holds a special place in fans' hearts.

Four souvenir "Return of the Jedi" glasses sit in front of a few books related to that "Star Wars" movie.
The copious merchandise accompanying the release of "Return of the Jedi" (1983) included souvenir drinking glasses and various book tie-ins.
Jay Gabler / Duluth News Tribune

DULUTH — How do you feel extremely basic as a participant in a national arts critics' workshop? Show up wearing a "Return of the Jedi" T-shirt.

Young white boy sits on bright, sunny beach in front of various Star Wars toys arrayed inside a moat and around a sand tower.
Jay Gabler on Madeline Island in summer 1984, with "Star Wars" toys portraying fantastical creations, including a few seen onscreen in the previous year's "Return of the Jedi."
Contributed / Gabler family

So I learned last summer. In retrospect, I might have packed a couple more button-downs and left some of my "Star Wars" swag at home, but what can I say? I'm the product of my upbringing. If you were 7 years old in 1983, you may never be convinced that "Return of the Jedi" isn't cool.

Forty years after "Jedi" hit theaters in Duluth (where I first saw it) and around the globe, the glow of that first viewing experience hasn't faded. My mom took me to the theater along with some friends, and we were all starstruck by the sheer scope of the experience.

A shameless crowd-pleaser, "Jedi" had something for everyone. Before we even left the mall, I was recounting the scene where Han Solo thought he was cornered by an Imperial Scout Walker, only to discover it had been hijacked by his loyal copilot, Chewbacca.

Having been too young to appreciate the original "Star Wars" (1977) and "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980) in theatrical release, I essentially came to the franchise through "Jedi." Relatively speaking, there weren't a lot of us in that situation: I was born in the mid-1970s demographic dip as Gen X births petered out, before the boom of '80s babies who would become known as millennials.


Since it was the first "Star Wars" movie I was old enough to anticipate, "Jedi" was probably bound to remain my favorite. Still, it's also endeared itself to me as the original trilogy film least afraid to wear its heart on its sleeve.

The acerbic Princess Leia whips off her bounty hunter helmet for an unashamed declaration of love. Han Solo, whose cynical secularism balanced Luke Skywalker's breathless faith in the first two films, becomes a believer. He loans his ship to fellow scoundrel-turned-hero Lando Calrissian, who reciprocates by trusting Solo's ability to outfox the Empire and take down the shield generator.

It's also the movie where the franchise's penchant for recycling first became apparent. J.J. Abrams took flak for reprising the meme of a planet-killing planet that must be destroyed in "The Force Awakens" (2015), but George Lucas himself did it first.

Theatrical re-release poster for "Return of the Jedi," featuring Luke Skywalker standing with lightsaber in front of Darth Vader's helmet.
Theatrical re-release poster for "Return of the Jedi," featuring an illustration by artist Matt Ferguson.
Contributed / Lucasfilm

After considering a range of ways to force his characters into climactic confrontations, Lucas settled on a scenario where the evil Emperor was ensconced on a duplicate of the fearsome Death Star from the first film. He also brought us back to the desert planet of Tatooine and to Yoda's swamp world of Dagobah — and then, most controversially, adapted his original concept for the towering Wookiees. The resulting furballs were called Ewoks.

As a kid, I understood that the Ewoks were there for my benefit, and I appreciated it. I filled my Ewok Village playset with Chief Chirpa and Logray and Wicket W. Warrick action figures, and imagined that I'd be as brave as young Wicket (played by Warwick Davis, a child himself at the time) if called upon to defend the northwoods from stormtroopers.

In commercial culture, "Return of the Jedi" had a long afterlife. After a decade of solid "Star Wars," George Lucas declared the saga complete. That put an extra squeeze on Lucasfilm's licensing team to make the most of what was ostensibly the franchise's final film, and the divisive Ewoks got their own live-action TV movies as well as a Saturday morning animated series.

Disney, which acquired the "Star Wars" franchise in 2012, has now dumped all that content onto its streaming service — perhaps, in part, to remind fans how good they have it now that high-budget series like "The Mandalorian" and "Obi-Wan Kenobi" are the norm.

What you can't see on Disney+, and likely won't be able to see in the foreseeable future, is the version of "Return of the Jedi" that hit theaters in 1983. Lucas remains absolutely wedded to the 1997 "Special Edition," with its cringe-inducing musical number ("Jedi Rocks," a misnomer if there ever was one). While Lucas no longer owns the rights to the film, it might be impolitic to go against his wishes and restore the original cut; what's more, a proper restoration would at this point be a huge project for the studio to undertake.


My bet is that someday it will happen, but in the meantime, all indications are that a weeklong theatrical re-release — the first for "Jedi" in over a quarter-century — will involve the '90s version with the agglomeration of additional tweaks it's acquired in subsequent releases. Those tweaks include, most visibly, the substitution of prequel actor Hayden Christensen as the Force ghost of Anakin Skywalker, a role originally played by Sebastian Shaw.

The re-release will run from Friday through May 4, popularly known as Star Wars Day. (May the fourth be with you. Get it?) No Twin Ports theaters have booked the re-release, so locals will have to turn to streaming or dust off their DVDs.

Newspaper advertisement for "Return of the Jedi," featuring hands holding lightsaber. The words "STARTS WEDNESDAY" flank poster.
A teaser for the third "Star Wars" movie, as seen in the Duluth News Tribune and Herald on May 22, 1983. Once "Return of the Jedi" opened on two screens, the only other movie playing at Miller Hill Mall was "Joysticks," a teen sex comedy set in a video arcade.
Duluth News Tribune archives / Duluth Public Library

When "Jedi" was originally released, on May 25, 1983, it played on two screens at Miller Hill Mall. At the time, that was a rare distinction. It required theater manager Bill Olson to book two prints of the movie, which he told the News Tribune he'd only previously done for "The Deep" (1977) and "1941" (1979).

The latter was already infamous as a rare Steven Spielberg flop. "We didn't need two prints as it turned out," Olson told the News Tribune, with a laugh, about that movie.

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Going big with "Jedi," on the other hand, was a good call. "People have been calling the theater for months," said Olson. "It's all they've been talking about since 'The Empire Strikes Back.'" Movies at Miller Hill Mall added staff, and stocked extra concessions.

If Rotten Tomatoes can be taken as reflective of the critical consensus, "Jedi" is today regarded as the least compelling of the original trilogy — and is thought to be inferior to Disney-era films "The Force Awakens," "Rogue One" (2016) and "The Last Jedi" (2017).

Forty years ago, though, "Jedi" was all a Duluth kid and his green plastic lightsaber could hope for. Gene Siskel, in a Chicago Tribune review republished in the News Tribune, agreed that "Jedi" was "terrific fun, a most satisfying ending to this chunk of the 'Star Wars' saga."

Siskel, citing earlier comments by Lucas, correctly predicted that the original trilogy would ultimately be followed by first a prequel trilogy and then a sequel trilogy. "The bad news," noted Siskel, was that "it may be the end of this decade before we get to see another 'Star Wars' movie."


More like the end of the next decade, but who was counting? Oh, that's right, me. In the meantime, at least there were Saturday morning cartoons.

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Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; he's also a member of the National Book Critics Circle and the Minnesota Film Critics Alliance. You can reach him at or 218-279-5536.
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