(Number I saw at the cinema then: 1. Number I have seen now: 7)
Return of the Jedi
Terms of Endearment
When I was six, my older brother took me to see Return of the Jedi.
I grew up in Peterborough, a new town in the East Midlands. As with many British towns then, there were two cinemas in the city centre in this case, the Odeon and the Canon (otherwise known as the ABC and the 123, although I’m not sure which way round it went). Even though I was pretty small, we were easily able to walk in. Later, an out of town multiplex opened and drove both of these out of business. Today, there are no cinemas in the city at all which seems appalling for a city of its size (now about 200,000 people, according to Google). I no longer live there, perhaps partly for this reason.
I loved the film. Like most people I would now agree its the weakest of the three original films but it has more memorable set pieces than, say the Empire Strikes Back and better special effects. I enjoyed the bit with Jabba the Hut, the chase through the woods and, of course, the Ewok stuff towards the end. I remember Yoda dying.
As befits a film saga which started with Episode IV, I’m pretty sure I’d never watched the first two films properly at that point, so presumably didn’t understand a lot that was going on. The first film came out when I was a baby and the second one when I was just three. I didn’t watch them properly until the 1990s. My brother was 17 then and I get the impression he’d already seen all three films more than once.
That December, I was lucky enough to get the Millennium Falcon, Jabba, Admiral Ackbar and other related toys for my Christmas and birthday presents, in addition to the CP3PO and Luke and Leia toys which I’d apparently inherited, presumably from my brother. I also remember owning a Return of the Jedi comic. Not everyone shared my enthusiasm for the franchise at this point, however. I think many people had lost enthusiasm through overexposure. This included George Lucas himself who said he would not make any more films. This contradicted earlier suggestions that he might make three prequels.
Welshman Richard Marquand directed Return of the Jedi incidentally. The importance of the Welsh sci-fi scene is often overlooked.
Otherwise, it must be said, that’s a pretty unimpressive top ten. I don’t think I’ve seen 7, 8 and 9 (I may or may not have seen Sudden Impact). I doubt Mr Mom was even shown at cinemas in the UK. Otherwise, Octopussy (which was actually partly filmed near Peterborough) is the worst James Bond film ever. Trading Places and WarGames are great ideas, poorly executed. Terms of Endearment was okay, I suppose, but surprisingly poor for a Best Oscar winner. I’m surprised Superman 3 didn’t make this list. Not that that was great either.
It should be mentioned the mid-1980s represents the absolute nadir of post-war cinema attendance. Only the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021 have been worse so far. Having peaked in the late 1940s, numbers declined steadily in the 1950s as TV and car ownership rose and went into absolute freefall in the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s. Numbers recovered after 1985, helped no doubt, by the opening of the multiplexes I was moaning about earlier. I’m not sure how typical I was, as I was only a child but until about 1989, I often only went to the cinema once or twice myself.
Part of the problem, of course, was video. My family got their own first video player in 1983. The first films we rented were both time travel-related: Time Bandits and the 1960 Time Machine. I’m not sure what prompted my Dad (who generally dislikes sci-fi) to rent either. But I still love both films.
I also loved Return of the Jedi. Thirty years later, I would get to write the Star Wars Clone Wars annual. I’m glad I got to see one of the original Star Wars films on the big screen. This wouldn’t happen again until I was in my twenties.
The first film, initially entitled just Star Wars is released. It is an unexpectedly big hit, easily beating its nearest rivals Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Smokey and the Bandit to become the biggest US film of 1977. Taking inflation into account, as of 2021, it is the second biggest grossing film of all time, after Gone With The Wind. None of the younger members of the cast are well known at the time of the film’s release. Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia)j is the daughter of actors Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. Harrison Ford (Han Solo), an ex-carpenter had appeared in director George Lucas’s second film American Graffiti and was due to be in the then unreleased, much delayed Vietnam War epic Apocalypse Now (1979). Mark Hamill plays Luke Skywalker, a character Lucas once envisaged being called “Luke Starkiller”.
Star Wars is nominated for the Best Picture Oscar but loses to Woody Allen’s acclaimed comedy, Annie Hall. No other Star Wars films have been nominated for Best Picture his in the years since. In fact, no science fiction film has ever won the Best Picture Oscar (although James Cameron’s Avatar appears to have come close in 2010).
The first toys and novelisations of the saga appear. Some of the books contradict things which occur later in the films. Some feature Luke and Leia marrying, for example.
The famously terrible Star Wars Holiday Special is broadcast on US TV.
Star Wars Episode V The Empire Strikes Back is released. The first film is now dubbed, Star Wars Episode IV A New Hope (in 1981) and prequels are clearly planned for the future. The Empire Strikes Back is directed not by George Lucas but by Irvin Kershner. New characters include Yoda, Lando Calrissian and Boba Fett. Debate continues to rage as to whether A New Hope or Empire is the better film.
Hamill also appears in Sam Fuller’s World War II drama The Big Red One this year, in a largely futile bid to escape typecasting.
Star Trek II changes its name from The Vengeance of Khan to The Wrath of Khan, to avoid any confusion with the forthcoming Star Wars film which is expected to be called, Revenge of the Jedi. In the end, the Star Wars sequel’s name is itself changed to Return of the Jedi anyway.
Episode VI Return of the Jedi directed by Welshman Richard Marquand is released. It is fondly remembered for the Ewoks and for Jabba the Hutt but is usually considered narrowly the worst of the original trilogy. It is still a smash hit though. There will be no more official Star Wars films for another 16 years. Indeed, at this point, Lucas seems less keen on the idea of ever producing episodes I-III at any point at all.
President Reagan, a Star Wars fan, calls his new ambitious (and ultimately unworkable) Strategic Defence Initiative, “Star Wars”.
TV movie Caravan Of Courage: An Ewok Adventure is released. A follow up Ewoks: The Battle For Endor is released in 1985.
The Ewoks, an animated series aimed at younger children, runs for two series.
Animated series, Droids starring C3P0 and R2D2 runs for one series, with Anthony Daniels reprising his role as C3PO. It is set somewhere before A New Hope but after the three as yet unmade prequels.
Ten years on from Star Wars, George Lucas seems to have abandoned plans for any Star Wars prequels and is distracted by Indiana Jones and Star Wars related projects as well as the aftermath of his divorce.
Star Wars has also trigged a sci-fi boom at the movies since 1977.
Carrie Fisher begins a career as a successful novelist with her semi-autobiographical novel, Postcards From The Edge. Despite a troubled personal life, she enjoys smallish roles in The Blues Brothers, Hannah and Her Sisters and When Harry Met Sally during the decade. Harrison Ford is now one of the biggest stars in Hollywood thanks more to Indiana Jones and well-received roles in the likes of Witness and Blade Runner than specifically due to Star Wars itself. Hamill, stung after being rejected for Tom Hulce’s role in Amadeus (1984) has taken a break from acting.
Mel Brooks releases his rather belated Star Wars spoof Spaceballs. Featuring Pizza the Hutt and the catchphrase “the Schwartz be with you,” it receives mixed reviews.
Jedi director Richard Marquand dies suddenly, age 49.
Now in his forties, Mark Hamill begins voicing The Joker, for Batman The Animated Series. It proves to be probably his most successful non-Star Wars role and leads to lots of other voice work.
Lucas announces plans to make three films set before the 1977-83 trilogy, after all.
Peter Cushing (Grand Moff Tarkin) dies, aged 81.
To mark the franchise’s 20th birthday Special Editions of all three films are all released. Although many fans are keen to see the films on the big screen, many are annoyed by the sometimes intrusive changes Lucas inserts into these and later new editions.
Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is released. It is directed by George Lucas and is his first film as director since 1977’s Star Wars. He also directs the two subsequent sequels Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. The cast (with the exception of newcomer Jake Lloyd who plays young Anakin) are, unlike the 1977 film, mostly quite well known already: Ewan McGregor , Natalie Portman, Liam Neeson and Samuel L. Jackson.
The Phantom Menace makes more money than any of the first six Star Wars films (ignoring inflation).
The film disappoints many however, criticism (now often on the newly established internet) largely centring on, the racial stereotyping evident in the character of some of the alien species, the character of Jar Jar Binks and the apparent overuse of CGI (and many other things). The character of Darth Maul proves popular, however.
Sir Alec Guinness (Obi-Wan Kenobi) dies age 86. He did not enjoy the production of Star Wars (Harrison Ford dubbed him “Mother Superior” on set) but liked the finished product when he saw it. The role did make him very rich but he disliked the fact that he was soon better known for it than anything else in his forty years on screen.
Episode II Attack of the Clones is released with Hayden Christiansen (then largely unknown) joins the cast as the older Anakin. A light sabre fight featuring Yoda proves popular and generally the film is slightly better received than Phantom (although does much less business).
Genndy Tartakovsky produces Clone Wars, an acclaimed animated series set between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.
Episode III Revenge of the Sith, the third and final prequel is released. It is much more popular than either Phantom or Clones with fans and is the second highest grossing SW film thus far (ignoring inflation). Most fans prefer the 1977-83 trilogy, however. There are to be no more proper Star Wars films for another decade.
Star Wars: The Clone Wars, an animated film is released. It is panned by the critics and flops at the box office. Despite this, a new Star Wars: Clone Wars TV series begins. Tartakovsky, who was behind the first Clone Wars series is not involved.
Empire Strikes Back director Irvin Kershner dies aged 86.
Disney buys the Star Wars franchise off Lucas for $4.05 billion or £2.5 billion. Plans for a new trilogy, the first directed by J.J Abrams, then at the helm of the two recent Star Trek films.
Clone Wars is cancelled as focus shifts towards the new films.
Star Wars Rebels, a 3D CGI animated series set between Revenge of the Sith but before A New Hope begins.
Rogue One, a spin off Star Wars film is due for release in 2016, followed by another spin-off film based around Han Solo’s early years.
Ford, scheduled to feature in The Force Awakens is slightly injured in a light aircraft crash. His 73rd birthday is in July.
Christopher Lee (Count Dooku in the prequels, though better known for many other roles) dies aged 93.
Few greater changes can occur on a movie’s production than the leading man being replaced at the last minute.
But what if history had played out differently? Yes, it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Harrison Ford playing Indiana Jones now, but it almost happened.
HARRISON FORD Vs TOM SELLECK
The role: Adventurer/archaeologist Indiana Jones in Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
The first choice: Tom Selleck, star of TV’s Magnum PI.
The replacement: Harrison Ford. Despite small parts in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation and Apocalypse Now, Ford was not actually a big star in 1981. Even his role as Han Solo in Star Wars had not in itself assured him widespread and enduring fame, any more than it did for his co-stars Mark Hamill or Carrie Fisher.
The switch: After struggling to receive serious attention from the industry into his mid-thirties, Selleck landed the role of Magnum in 1980. Although a big success, contractually Selleck found himself unable to take the role of Indiana Jones which went to Ford instead. Annoyingly, a strike on the set of Magnum meant that Selleck could probably have performed both roles anyway.
The result: The film was a box office smash and an all time classic, winning an Oscar nomination for Best Film and spawning three sequels.
What happened to the new star?: Relatively late in life, Harrison Ford became one of the biggest movie stars of all time and for close to twenty years had a reputation for never being in a flop (although, in truth, the critically acclaimed Blade Runner and Mosquito Coast both failed commercially). In addition to the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises he appeared in the highly regarded “grown-up” films Witness, Frantic, Working Girl, Regarding Henry and Presumed Innocent. Despite never winning an Oscar, he is one of the biggest Hollywood stars of all time.
And the first choice?: Selleck stayed in Magnum – a big success in its day – until it was cancelled in 1988 (the character was killed off). He appeared in one or two transparent attempts to emulate Indiana Jones such as High Road to China and Lassiter during the Eighties as well as Quigley Down Under. He played the King in Christopher Columbus The Discovery (for which he received a Razzle) but aside from Magnum is probably best known for his role alongside Ted Danson and Steve Guttenberg in the comedy Three Men And A Baby and as Monica’s older lover Richard in Friends.
Conclusion: I’ve no desire to compound Tom Selleck’s misery on this subject but from what we’ve seen during his career, it’s hard to imagine he would have a) been as good as Indiana Jones as Harrison Ford was anyway or b) had the same career Ford subsequently enjoyed. Would Selleck have taken up a half-arsed role in Cowboys and Aliens? Would Selleck have married Calista Flockhart? Would Selleck’s second wife have written ET? We must assume not.
Crumbs of comfort: Tom Selleck is still a household name. And he has arguably demonstrated more of a flair for comedy than Ford has. And before we get too sympathetic: Selleck is a vocal supporter of the National Rifle Association.
The winner?: HARRISON FORD
MARTIN SHEEN Vs HARVEY KEITEL
The role: Captain Benjamin Willard in Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now (1979).
The first choice: Harvey Keitel, then best known for his roles in the early Martin Scorsese films, Mean Streets and Taxi Driver.
The replacement: Martin Sheen, previously the troubled James Dean-alike Fifties hoodlum in Terence Malick’s Badlands.
The switch: Keitel was fired and replaced by Sheen early in the troubled production. Coppola felt Keitel struggled to play Willard as a “passive onlooker”.
The result: Keitel must initially felt like he’d had a narrow escape. Apocalypse Now was soon christened “Apocalypse When?” by critics as the production overran, the crew in the Philippines were hit by a bout of food poisoning, director Ford Coppola grew increasingly power-mad and co-star Marlon Brando arrived much fatter than expected and delayed production still further while he took time out to read the Joseph Conrad novella, Heart of Darkness upon which the film is loosely based. Although only in his late thirties, Sheen, then struggling with alcohol, also suffered a heart attack while filming. Despite these issues, the film was a critical and commercial success and is rivalled only by Platoon (starring Martin’s son Charlie Sheen) as the best ‘Nam film ever made.
What happened to the new star?: Despite quitting the booze and keeping busy, Sheen didn’t choose particularly great film roles during the next two decades. Indeed, the period saw him slightly eclipsed by his sons Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen. However, his role as President Josiah Bartlet in Aaron Sorkin’s long-running TV drama The West Wing put him back on the map. Now in old age he appeared recently in the new Spider Man film and generally plays small “elderly father” roles.
And the first choice? Keitel slipped into near obscurity in the Eighties before enjoying a comeback towards the end of that decade playing Judas in Scorsese’s controversial Last Temptation of Christ and securing an Oscar nod for a role in Warren Beatty gangster film, Bugsy. The Nineties were very good for Keitel with hard hitting acclaimed roles in Thelma and Louise, Jane Campion’s The Piano, Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn and Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant and lighter roles (although again as a gangster/criminal type) in the likes of Sister Act. His profile has fallen in the 21st century though.
Conclusion: Hmmmm. Sheen has starred in two classic films Badlands and Apocalypse Now and one great series The West Wing. Harvey Keitel has starred in two classic films, Mean Streets and Reservoir Dog and had notable support roles in three others Taxi Driver, Thelma and Louise and Pulp Fiction. Sheen is perhaps the slightly more famous of the two men, thanks partly to his sons. But oddly, as huge a deal as Apocalypse Now must have seemed at the time, in the long run, neither actor has been obviously more successful than the other. Both have kept busy, done some great stuff and both have done hell of a lot of stuff you’ll never see.
The winner?: A DRAW
MICHAEL J. FOX Vs ERIC STOLTZ
The role: Marty McFly in science-fiction rom com Back To The Future (1985).
The first choice: Eric Stoltz, then best known for his role alongside Cher in Mask (no, not the Jim Carrey one).
The replacement: Michael J. Fox then the star of US sitcom Family Ties. The ‘J’ incidentally, doesn’t stand for anything. Michael Fox’s middle name is Andrew but he reasoned Michael A Fox might sound silly or even a bit conceited.
The switch: Brutal. Filming had commenced when Eric Stoltz was fired for playing the role too much like it was a drama rather than as a comedy. Fox – unlike Tom Selleck on Magnum – was lucky to be able to work around his Family Ties schedule although endured a punishing timetable with many scenes being filmed early in the morning. Stoltz – who was physically similar to Fox although eight inches taller – remains in some shots used in the finished film.
The result: The film was a box office smash and is still much loved. There were two sequels, both big hits despite being slightly less good.
What happened to the new star?: Fox became a huge star overnight as the film coincided with the release of Teen Wolf, a film disliked by Fox personally but which nonetheless did well. Fox appeared in the BTTF sequels and the weighty Casualties of War but his star waned in the early Nineties, probably in part due to Fox struggling to come to terms with the private news of the diagnosis of his Parkinson’s disease in 1991. He enjoyed an impressive comeback in 1996 with his role as a youthful looking political adviser (based on Bill Clinton’s own George Stephanopoulos) which led in turn to a triumphant return to sitcom in Spin City. He announced his illness in 1998 and has become a vocal spokesman for the disease since, as well as voicing Stuart Little. He’s also enjoyed recurring 21st century TV roles in Boston Legal, The Good Wife and Curb Your Enthusiasm.
And the first choice?: Poor Eric Stoltz must wish he could time travel and change history himself sometimes. But he did get to stab Uma Thurman through the heart in Pulp Fiction and directs Glee sometimes.
Conclusion: Although not cursed by the ill-health of Michael J. Fox, fame wise, sadly Stoltz isn’t even really a household name.
The winner? MICHAEL J FOX
JOHN TRAVOLTA Vs RICHARD GERE
The role: Several: the leads in Days of Heaven, An Officer and A Gentleman and American Gigolo
The first choice: John Travolta, already a huge star after Saturday Night Fever and Grease.
The replacement: Richard Gere, who ironically had starred in the original London stage production of Grease in 1973.
The switch: Travolta foolishly turned down all these roles. Gere took them all instead.
The result: All the films did well. Days of Heaven was more of a critical than commercial hit.
What happened to the new star?: Richard Gere became a star. He is still probably as much admired for these early roles as anything he has done since although enjoyed another massive hit with Pretty Woman in 1990. His career has had a few ups and downs over the years and may have been harmed slightly by his pro-Tibetan stance but he has never vanished from view. He returned to musicals for the Oscar winning Chicago in 2003, a role also turned down by John Travolta.
And the first choice?: Travolta’s career endured a dramatic fifteen year slump relieved only by the success of Amy Heckerling’s Look Who’s Talking in 1990. By 1994, however, with the Seventies becoming fashionable, turns in Pulp Fiction and Get Shorty suddenly made him very cool again and he returned to stardom. Occasionally, he’s made bad career choices since (the Scientology inspired Phenomenon and Battlefield Earth) and he’s not exactly “cool” anymore. However, he remains a star.
Conclusion: Gere to some extent owes his career to John Travolta’s early poor career choices. Yet as with Keitel and Sheen, the decades have evened the score somewhat.