Of all the movie installments of the Star Wars saga, originals and prequels both, Return of the Jedi has always been my favorite. Over the years, however, my reasons for liking it most have changed. There was a time when I liked it simply because it was the episode in which Luke Skywalker, hero of the Rebellion, is finally skilled and powerful enough to outlast the infamous Darth Vader in a duel of lightsabers and potent Force abilities. That pivotal struggle in the Emperor’s throne room is the part of the film I always look forward to the most, because who doesn’t like seeing good decisively defeat evil?
There is so much more to this event, however, than the clashing of sabers. An emotional, psychological war is being waged between the unrelenting hope of truth and virtue and the pessimistic resignation to the chains of one’s sins.
Flashing back to the fight on Cloud City from The Empire Strikes Back, Luke is confronted with the shocking revelation that his father, and the man who supposedly murdered him, are one and the same. Darth Vader, twisted agent of the dark side, is in fact a fallen Jedi by the name of Anakin Skywalker.
“No. I am your father.”
And now Luke understands; the man he previously wanted to kill is the man he has to save. He also sees that the Force and a lightsaber are not the only weapons that can defeat evil, and not even the most powerful. If Luke is going to break Emperor Palpatine’s deep influence over his father, he must arm himself with hope and compassion.
In Return of the Jedi, it is Luke’s firm belief that there is still good in Vader that leads him to willfully surrender himself into the custody of the Empire. He is on a mission: bring Anakin back to the light, or die trying. Upon their first meeting since Cloud City, Luke wastes no time enacting his plan. But he is met by a wall of stubbornness and pessimism.
Vader: “It is… too late for me, son. The Emperor will show you the true nature of the Force. He is your master now.”
It is clear that Palpatine and Vader have plans of their own. They mean to turn Luke to the dark side, and they nearly succeed. The Emperor provokes Luke into taking up his lightsaber, but his attempt to kill Palpatine is thwarted by Vader and a duel ensues. Luke remembers himself, and refuses to kill his father, using his weapon only for defense. He continues his efforts to persuade Vader to renounce the dark side, but Vader knows all the right buttons to push.
Vader: “Give yourself to the dark side. It is the only way you can save your friends.”
“Do what must be done, Lord Vader. Do not hesitate. Show no mercy. Only then will you be strong enough with the Dark Side to save Padme.”
– Darth Sidious (Palpatine), from Revenge of the Sith.
Vader has learned well from his master. He uses the people that Luke cares about to try and incite him to fearful anger, and when Vader threatens to corrupt his sister, Leia, Luke descends into a rage-induced flurry of mindless violence. Vader is easily overpowered by Luke’s fury, but when Luke realizes that he is in danger of becoming the monster that Vader turned into, he relents once again. Before a frustrated Palpatine, Luke spares his father and casts aside his weapon, refusing to submit to the Emperor and making a determined declaration of devotion to the ways of the Jedi. Luke is then overwhelmed by a merciless attack by Palpatine in the form of Force lightning emitting from his fingertips.
This is where things really get interesting, especially when you have the insights of the events from Revenge of the Sith to draw upon.
In Revenge of the Sith, Palpatine turns Anakin to the dark side and the Sith ways with the promise that they can save his wife from a death that Anakin has seen in a haunting premonition. Palpatine reminds me much of Satan. He tries to convince us that corrupt means and actions can be justified by good intentions. But we’ve often heard that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions,” and “sin will take you farther than you want to go, keep you longer than you want to stay, and cost you more than you want to pay.” And Anakin pays a steep price for his evil conduct. He loses Padme, his wife, the very person he desired to save.
As Vader witnesses his son’s torture at the hands of his master, he hears his son’s pleading cries. He looks from Luke to Palpatine, and back to Luke again. You can see the wheels turning in his head. As his son is writhing on the floor in agony, I cannot help but think that Vader is remembering the beloved wife he lost. He went to the dark side to protect the ones he loved, but here he is now, watching the maniac who promised to help him as he is in the act of murdering his son! The dark side has not helped Vader. It has only ruined him and harmed his loved ones.
The fog is lifted. The evil of Darth Vader dies, and the Jedi, Anakin Skywalker, returns! He seizes the Emperor and sends him plummeting to his death, but his efforts leave him on death’s doorstep, having been fatally wounded by Palpatine’s lightning. Luke manages to haul his considerably weakened father from the throne room of the Death Star to its hangar bay, where he removes his helmet, at Anakin’s bidding, so that he can see him with his own eyes. When Anakin tells Luke to leave him and go, Luke protests.
“No, you’re coming with me. I won’t leave you here. I’ve got to save you!”
“You already did, Luke. You were right… you were right about me.”
At the end of his life, Anakin Skywalker understands what true sacrifice looks like. He sees it in his son, who was willing to give his life for the hope that his father could be whole again. Anakin had once sacrificed the well-being of others on the altar of power and selfishness, but now, inspired by Luke’s love and heroism, he’s done the opposite, allowing him to die as a Jedi, rather than a monster of the dark side.
Once more, just like in The Empire Strikes Back and other Star Wars films, we are left to question the validity of the Jedi doctrine. Revenge of the Sith presented us with the idea that attachment is dangerous. However, is it not attachment that pulls Anakin from the shadows of the dark side just in time to snatch Luke from the jaws of death? If Luke had heeded the traditional “wisdom” of the Jedi, would he have gone out of his way to give Anakin a chance, and would Anakin, in turn, have saved his son? Considering the alternative leads us to believe that an aloof attitude could potentially be more damaging than attachment. Luke chooses hope and love instead, and in this he demonstrates more wisdom than even the revered Master Yoda. His compassion has a rippling effect; it helps Anakin to find his own compassion again.
The greatest bane of evil is love, and the power of hope can inspire even the vilest of human beings to cast evil aside. I believe that Return of the Jedi is the best of the Star Wars films because it serves as a powerful reminder that the fallen can rise again. No one is beyond saving. So no matter how lost the soul of an erring brother/sister may seem, never give up hope that they can come back to God. Your influence and Christ-like example could be the difference. Just take care that in your efforts you do not endanger yourself to succumbing to apostasy, too. The devil is a wily adversary.