Saturday, May 25, 2019

The Power of the Dark Side: Darth Vader

(This post is part of the Great Villain Blogathon hosted by Shadows and Satin, Speakeasy, and Silver Screenings)

"You underestimate the power of the Dark Side. If you will not fight, then you will meet your destiny." (Darth Vader, Return of the Jedi)

"Only a Sith deals in absolutes." (Obi-Wan Kenobi, Revenge of the Sith)

It was 42 years ago today that Star Wars (1977), later retitled Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope, was released. Forty two years later the film's villain, Darth Vader, remains not only one of the most famous movie villains of all time, but one of the most iconic as well. While other villains would appear in the Star Wars franchise, Darth Vader would remain the primary antagonist in the original Star Wars trilogy, the protagonist in the first two movies of the prequel trilogy and an antagonist in the last movie of the prequel trilogy, and has appeared as the villain in assorted Star Wars comic books, novels, video games, the animated TV series Rebels, and even the notorious Star Wars Holiday Special. If Darth Vader has had such an impact on popular culture, it is perhaps because of the character's complexity. Unlike many big screen villains, Darth Vader is not purely evil.

After failing to get the film rights to Flash Gordon, George Lucas began writing his own space opera in January 1973. Of course, every space opera has to have a villain.  For the villain's name George Lucas tried out various names based on the phrase "dark water," eventually coming up with the name "Darth Vader." It would be following the release of The Empire Strikes Back (1980) that Mr. Lucas would claim the name was based on homonyms in German and Dutch (German vater and Dutch vader) meaning "father", so that the name "Darth Vader" could be interpreted as meaning "Dark Father." That having been said, there are some good reasons for this explanation of the name to be doubted (see below).

Regardless, Darth Vader in the original script for Star Wars was very close to the character in the final film. As he would be in the film itself, Darth Vader was not only a Sith Lord, but a Dark Lord of the Sith. As originally conceived, the Sith would have been an organisation that serve the Emperor in much the same way that the Schutzstaffel (the "SS") served Adolph Hitler. It would be with The Empire Strikes Back that Mr. Lucas's conception of the Sith would change, becoming what we understand them to be today. Quite simply, the Sith Order is a group dedicated to the Dark Side of the Force, the polar opposite of the Jedi Knights. 

It was not only the conception of the Sith that would change with The Empire Strikes Back, but the conception of Darth Vader as well. Initially George Lucas hired Leigh Brackett, the legendary science fiction writer who had written the screenplays of such movies as Rio Bravo (1959) and El Dorado (1966), to write a screenplay based upon his story outline for The Empire Strikes Back. While George Lucas was disappointed with Miss Brackett's screenplay, she died of cancer before he could discuss revisions with her. Mr. Lucas then wrote the next draft himself. This draft would contain a major change in the character of Darth Vader. Quite simply, he claimed to be the father of Luke Skywalker.

There is no evidence prior to 1978 that Darth Vader was one and the same as Luke's father, and it does not seem to have been something that was even considered. In fact, in Leigh Brackett's draft of the screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back, Darth Vader and Anakin Skywalker appear as completely separate characters. In the screenplay, even as Darth Vader is alive and terrorising the galaxy, Anakin's ghost appears to Luke. At the time of the release of The Empire Strikes Back, the revelation that Darth Vader was indeed the father of Luke Skywalker would go down in history as one of the most shocking plot twists in the history of cinema, alongside the plot twists in Psycho (1960) and Planet of the Apes (1968). It would also mark profound changes in the character of Darth Vader. He would go from a malevolent and formidable servant of the Emperor to an altogether tragic figure.

Of course, bringing Darth Vader to the screen would be much more complicated than other characters in the original Star Wars trilogy. In the original trilogy it was bodybuilder David Prowse who played the character in the suit in everything except for the lightsabre duels, when stuntman Bob Anderson wore the suit. While George Lucas originally wanted Orson Welles to voice the character, he ultimately decided that Mr. Welles's voice would be too recognisable and went with actor James Earl Jones instead. For Return of the Jedi Sebastian Shaw portrayed the Force spirit of Anakin Skywalker. Hayden Christensen played Anakin in the prequel trilogy, and would even don the iconic Darth Vader suit after Anakin's body was seriously damaged in his climactic fight with Obi-Wan Kenobi. Yet others have provided the voice of Darth Vader in animated projects and video games.

Darth Vader would make his first appearance in the classic Star Wars in 1977. Seen today it is surprising how little Darth Vader actually appears in the movie. We learn that he had been a student of Obi-Wan Kenobi who had turned to the Dark Side. It is Darth Vader who captures and interrogates Princess Leia, who we would learn in later movies was his own daughter. We get to see Darth Vader display quite a bit of the power of the Dark Side, most notably when he uses the Force to choke Admiral Motti for being insolent towards him. 

Of course, it was with The Empire Strikes Back that we learn Darth Vader is indeed Anakin Skywalker.  What is more, we learn that Darth Vader has his own ideas quite separate from those of his master Emperor Palpatine. It is in the lightsabre duel between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader at the climax to The Empire Strikes Back that Vader reveals to Luke that he is indeed his father. What is more, he tries to tempt Luke over to the Dark Side. He tells Luke that he can destroy the Emperor and together they could rule the galaxy as father and son. It is in The Empire Strikes Back that we get the first indications that Vader's love of his family may be greater than his loyalty to the Emperor. 

While many in the audience might have doubted Darth Vader's claim to Luke's paternity in The Empire Strikes Back, it is Yoda himself who reveals that Vader is indeed Luke's father in Return of the Jedi. It is the Force spirit of Obi-Wan Kenobi who further reveals that Leia is Luke's twin sister and also Anakin Skywalker's daughter. Luke also learns that he must once more confront Darth Vader and put an end to the Empire. To this end, Luke surrenders to Imperial troops so that he will be taken to Darth Vader. While Darth Vader is still plotting to lure Luke over to the Dark Side and takes him to Emperor Palpatine in hopes of accomplishing just that, things do not quite go according to his plan. Luke himself senses the conflict within Darth Vader, not only informing him that he senses the good in him, but that Vader cannot bring himself to kill him. As it turns out, Luke is right. Not only is Darth Vader unable to bring himself to kill his son, but when the Emperor tortures Luke with Force lightning it is Darth Vader who kills the Emperor, sacrificing himself for his son. In the end, Emperor Palpatine not only overestimated the power of the Dark Side, but he underestimated the love that Darth Vader had for his family.

It is with the prequel trilogy that we see Anakin Skywalker's transformation into Darth Vader. In The Phantom Menace (1999) we see how Anakin was a nine year-old slave who is brought into the Jedi Order to be given training as a Jedi. Attack of the Clones (2002) sees Anakin being trained as a Jedi, as well as falling in love with Padmé Amidala and marrying her in secret (the Jedi are not supposed to form attachments). It is also in Attack of the Clones that we see the groundwork laid for Anakin's fall from grace. In The Empire Strikes Back Yoda notes that there is much anger in Luke, like his father. Anakin's anger is on full display at times in Attack of the Clones. Anakin learns that Tusken Raiders had abducted his mother only to have her die in his arms when he finds her. He then proceeds to wipe out every single Tusken Raider there. 

This brings us to Revenge of the Sith (2005). Anakin begins to have visions that indicate Padmé will die in childbirth. Unfortunately, the Jedi Council assigns Anakin to keep an eye on Chancellor Palpatine. It is then that Palpatine begins tempting Anakin with the power of the Dark Side, claiming that it can even overcome death. Eventually Palpatine reveals to Anakin that he is a Sith Lord and that he can save Padmé. It is because of his love for Padmé and his fear of losing her that Anakin eventually turns to the Dark Side. Sadly, when Anakin, whom Palaptine has dubbed "Darth Vader" turned to the Dark Side, he really turned to the Dark Side. He massacres the entire Jedi Temple, including the younglings. He then went to the planet Mustafar to murder the Separatist leaders there. Worse yet, when Padmé tries to bring Darth Vader to his senses, he Force chokes her. Following this is Obi-Wan's climactic lightsabre duel with Darth Vader, in which he severs his former pupil's limbs and leaves him to die on the bank of a lava flow. Of course, Vader is rescued by the Empire and rebuilt as the cyborg familiar from the first trilogy. The transformation from Anakin Skywalker to Darth Vader is then complete.

Upon his debut in Star Wars (1977) Darth Vader was already an impressive villain. Clad in black armour and speaking in the ominous voice of James Earl Jones, he would have remained memorable even if  there had never again been another Star Wars movie. It is with The Empire Strikes Back that Darth Vader truly became an iconic villain. Quite simply, Darth Vader became a tragic figure. Unlike many villains he was not  motivated purely by a desire for power, nor was he mentally unbalanced or evil simply for the sake of being evil. Instead Darth Vader was initially motivated by something that the average person can easily understand.

Quite simply, much of the impetus for Anakin Skywalker's fall from grace was the same as Darth Vader's saving grace. It was love. To a large degree Anakin's destiny was determined the moment that he fell in love with Padmé. It was because he feared her death that Palpatine was able to lure him to the Dark Side. Even before Anakin was completely lured to the Dark Side, it was clear that he loved deeply and completely. It was because of his love of his mother that he committed what can be considered a most evil act prior to becoming a Sith: the massacre of an entire Tusken tribe. While anyone with any decency would condemn many of Anakin's actions, at the same time we can sympathise with him. After all, only the strongest of us would be able to resist doing anything, even if it was immoral or unethical, to save those we love. 

Of course, there were other factors beyond love that led to Anakin's fall from grace. As Yoda observed, there was much anger in him. One can even see Anakin's temper flare during the various lightsabre duels in which he engages prior to falling to the Dark Side, particularly his fight with Count Dooku. Sadly, Anakin's anger is never greater than when someone he loves is involved. The catalyst for Anakin slaughtering an entire group of Tuskin Raiders was his mother's death. It is certainly true that some Jedi have displayed anger from time to time. Mace Windu displayed something of a temper when he fought Palpatine. Even Obi-Wan Kenobi, known for being level headed, displayed anger in his battle with Darth Maul. Unfortunately, while other Jedi might have occasional bouts of anger and try to keep their tempers under control, all too often Anakin gives into his anger, as well as fear, and lets it take him over. As Yoda said in The Phantom Menace, "Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering."

While it was a combination of love, fear, and anger that would ultimately lead to Anakin's downfall, it would be love that would lead to his redemption. In the original Star Wars trilogy Darth Vader can never bring himself to kill Luke Skywalker. He is even willing to defy the Emperor to keep his son alive. When push comes to shove, Darth Vader ultimately decides to sacrifice himself in order to save his son from Emperor Palpatine. For all that Darth Vader claims in Return of the Jedi that the name "Anakin Skywalker" no longer has any meaning for him, he is still Anakin Skywalker and the love he has for his family remained far greater motivation for him than a desire for power or loyalty to the Emperor.

Ultimately Darth Vader remains one of cinema's greatest villains because he is a tragic figure. He was an essentially good person who simply turned evil for reasons that the average person can somewhat understand. Tempted by the power of the Dark Side to save the woman he loves, at the same time it would be Anakin Skywalker's love for his son that would redeem him in the end. It would seem Palpatine was able to lure Anakin to the Dark Side, but in the end he was never able to corrupt him completely.


Silver Screenings said...

Bravo! Excellent analysis of Darth Vader. So much has been written about this character, but your essay feels fresh, as though we're looking at Darth Vader for the first time.

Like you said, Darth V has very little screen time in the original Star Wars movie. But what an impact! They were right to hire James Earl Jones and not only because he has such a distinctive voice. Darth V SOUNDS like the smartest and the more terrifying person in the room.

Thank you, thank you for joining the blogathon and for writing about Darth Vader. I enjoyed this very much so, that I might just watch the original film again this evening.

Caftan Woman said...

A villain of such depth is essential for a series to grow as Star Wars has, and to maintain and constantly create new fans. You gave me a new respect for the character and his place in the movie universe.

Unknown said...

I enjoyed your insightful write-up, Terry! I will have to share it with my brother -- he's a HUGE Star Wars fanatic. Thank you so much for joining our blogathon this year and sharing this great pick with us.

John V said...

Wonderful article on this unforgettable character! Like all the best villains, there are hidden depths and dimensions to the Dark Lord of the Sith, and you did a great covering the genesis & history of Darth Vader!

Kristina said...

We had a running joke for the first few Villain-thons that nobody wanted to touch Darth Vader, I guess he's just that terrifying. Anyway an iconic, complex and unforgettable character indeed, thanks for this great write-up and taking part again, love to have you along.

Silver Screen Classics said...

How can anyone NOT love the dark evil of Vader? An intense character with such a fascinating character arc - one of the greatest villains of cinema!


Great post. If Darth Vader wasn't a tragic figure, he wouldn't be so iconic.
I was very surprised with how little Vader appears in the first movie, and how he grows as a character in the following two.
Thanks for the kind comment!