For secrecy purposes, the producers told the crew that the movie’s name was Blue Harvest. Fans and the press fell for an early fake-out when they believed the film would come out with its rumored title, which began with ”revenge.” But when the blockbuster opened in 1,002 theaters on May 25, 1983, there was no disguising the pop-cultural sensation known as Return of the Jedi.
The final chapter in George Lucas’ first Star Wars trilogy opened to unprecedented scrutiny. The original Wars had been the surprise hit of all time in 1977, and 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back became the highest-grossing sequel ever. All of which made Jedi arguably the most anticipated movie in history.
The prerelease hype took its toll; critics in particular were not kind. Newsweek said Jedi was ”more cluttered and muddy-looking” than Empire, while Variety lamented that ”the human dramatic dimensions have been sorely sacrificed.” The New York Post simply said: ”Enough is enough.”
Not that any of it mattered to fans. Die-hard devotees began setting up camp outside theaters days before the film’s release. Boatloads of tie-in merchandise — an industry that Wars all but kick-started — had made Jedi a presold success. (Among available items: Jedi cookies from Pepperidge Farm, Jedi bubble bath, Jedi bedsheets, and no fewer than 17 toy figures.) When the movie finally opened, it grossed a then record-breaking $6.2 million on the first day, on its way to $252 million domestically. (The 1997 rerelease added $57 million to the tally.)
Production on the $32.5 million project had begun in January 1982, with executive producer-cowriter Lucas also directing second-unit photography of the cuddly Ewoks. The director was Richard Marquand, a Welshman whose previous credits were The Legacy and Eye of the Needle. (After Jedi, he would go on to direct three other films, most notably Jagged Edge, before dying in 1987.) Marquand helmed a four-month shoot that went from England’s Elstree Studios to the Arizona desert to California’s redwood forests. A full year of postproduction ensued at Lucas’ effects house, Industrial Light & Magic.
But despite leaving the details of the film to Marquand, Lucas, then 37, sounded worn-out when caught on Jedi‘s California set in ’82. ”I’m not having fun,” he said. ”I’d rather be home in bed watching television. I’m only doing this because I started it and now I have to finish it. The next trilogy will be all someone else’s vision.” Sixteen years later, the next trilogy — and Lucas’ next vision — is poised to conquer the multiplexes all over again.
Time Capsule: May 25, 1983
In music: David Bowie’s ”Let’s Dance” displaces Michael Jackson’s ”Beat It” from the top of the charts
On TV: the Gloved One triumphs as 19 million viewers tune in to NBC’s Motown: Yesterday, Today, and Forever to catch Jackson’s performance.
In bookstores: Norman Mailer’s stab at Egyptian mysticism, Ancient Evenings, holds at No. 6 on the New York Times best-seller list.
And in the news: Surgeon General C. Everett Koop declares the fight against AIDS America’s ”No. 1 priority.”