“Scruffy looking nerf-herder.” The Kessel Run, in less than 12 parsecs. Who shot first?
We all know who he is, without even hearing his name. Just these simple quotes and references are all that’s needed to conjure an image of a tall, roguish smuggler, swaggering through a galaxy far, far away – with a twinkle in his eye, and a Wookie by his side. But how did George Lucas turn a character on a page into one of the biggest icons in pop culture history? What strange alchemy delivered to us a film hero who made such an impact in his few franchise appearances that his story is about to be revisited in his own movie – Solo: A Star Wars Story?
A pinch of this, and a dash of that – added to a simple, basic dough – is what gave rise to the upcoming, highly anticipated Star Wars Anthology film – which has already been packed with drama, before it ever reached the theaters. But, it’s a recipe for success that’s rarely been seen anywhere else, since that magical May 25th, back in 1977.
Indeed, the character of Han Solo stands as a masterclass in the capturing of audience imagination. How do you make an icon that transcends the confines of his cinematic origin, though? Well, these are the ingredients you’ll need…
A Strong Introduction
We don’t meet Han Solo until we’re a third of the way in to Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. The characters of Princess Leia Organa, Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, C-3PO, R2-D2 and Obi-Wan Kenobi have already been established – as has the central plot of conflict between the Empire and the Rebellion. With his home and family destroyed, Luke travels to Mos Eisley with Obi-Wan Kenobi, in search of a pilot willing to help them get to Alderaan while avoiding “Imperial entanglements.”
Luke and Obi-Wan get into a fight almost immediately upon entering the Mos Eisley Cantina, and are soon face-to-face with Captain Han Solo of the Millennium Falcon. They find him lounging in a booth, with his co-pilot – a Wookie – nearby and, when they explain the requirements of the task at hand, he quotes a fee of 10,000 credits, while rattling off his curriculum vitae in arrogant fashion. After haggling, Luke, Obi-Wan and Han Solo reach an agreement, and Solo is left in the Cantina to settle the bar tab. It’s at this point that we really learn about Han Solo’s character.
He’s approached by a bounty hunter named Greedo, who’s in the employ of the crime lord Jabba the Hutt. Through their conversation, we discover that Solo has been working as a smuggler for Jabba, and is in debt to him due to an incident in which he dumped a cargo after being boarded by the Imperial Forces. When Han Solo tells Greedo that he has Jabba’s money, Greedo suggests that Han Solo might like to pay him off, instead of giving it to Jabba. As the situation escalates, and Greedo makes veiled threats against Solo’s life, a blaster shot rings out, and Greedo is dead. Solo pays the tab and leaves.
Thus, in what amounts to just a few minutes of screen time, a legend is born. Here’s a man who believes he answers only to himself, but discovers that by associating with criminal enterprise, he’s often weighed down by the consequences of his actions.
He sells his services to the highest bidder, and chooses to avoid politics and ethics wherever possible. He’s had many fascinating adventures, but we hear only snippets about them – and the overall effect of that’s to leave us wanting to know more about this person. Where does he come from? Who else does he know? And, most importantly, can he be redeemed?
Four decades on, it’s now the stuff of legend that Harrison Ford was never meant to be Han Solo. Having worked together on a previous production, George Lucas hired him only to read through lines with other actors during the casting process – but, this proved to be one long audition in itself, and Lucas cast him as Han Solo on the strength of those line readings. This meant that, not only did Lucas have a great actor in the role, but he also had the chemistry between the three leads – Ford, Fisher, and Hamill – that had been evident during line readings. It’s this casting that really adds the flavour to what’s an otherwise well-trod, classic plot.
By mixing this casting with the strong introduction to Han Solo, the mystery of his past combines with the element of throwing contrasting personalities together in an extreme survival situation – which is what helps keep the first-time audience on the edge of their seat. While Luke, Leia and Obi-Wan have motivations ranging from personal tragedy to saving the galaxy, Han Solo is initially motivated by the needs of whoever pays him the most credits – which makes him a wild-card when the chips are down.
But then, as the franchise progresses, we see the character change as he commits to helping his friends, as opposed to gaining profit. This is brought into stark relief when Lando Calrissian is introduced in Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back. The casting of Billy Dee Williams is key here, because he’s able to play his character in such a nuanced fashion, that he can call back to the history he shares with Han Solo before he developed a sense of loyalty to the Rebellion, while giving us a glimpse of what Han might have been had he chosen a different path.
A Team Of Characters
It’s the contrast between characters that creates tension outside of that caused by the central conflict that’s the foundation of the plot. As the Empire and the Rebellion jostle for victory, so do Han, Luke and Leia jostle for leadership of their little group. Each of them has a sense of entitlement – Luke, because he’s a whiny teen, raised as an only child, who wants to pursue adventure through the stars and has been told that it is, essentially, his destiny; Leia, because she’s an actual Princess who has been raised as a planetary leader; and Han, because he’s spent years living and working as a law unto himself.
As they each reveal their motivations and histories, it’s the mysterious life of Han Solo that makes him stand out amid the trio, however. Luke may have a growing connection to the Force, and Leia may have an understanding of politics and strategy, but it’s Han who’s got experience of dealing with Bad Guys on a regular basis – because he’s spent years treading a fine line between profit and crime.
They each believe themselves to be right, though, and make great sport of highlighting when the others are wrong. While this builds in tension, it also provides the common ground from which the bonds of friendship and intimacy spring.
A Complicated Romance
The original trilogy of Star Wars films – A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return Of The Jedi – saw the attempted construction of a vague love triangle. There was never any real competition, though, as it was always clear that the real romantic connection lay between Leia and Han Solo. Of course, the reveal that Leia and Luke were siblings brought some finality to that fact – but even in the beginning, the attraction was glaringly obvious.
It’s almost a mutually male and female fantasy – which is one of the reasons why it’s become so legendary. Oftentimes in movies, romance is presented as either appealing to the male or female fantasy – but rarely both at once. With Han and Leia, we have an independent, capable woman with her own agenda and an independent, roguish pilot who is initially uninterested in anyone’s agenda. They cross paths, have adventure, and fall in love.
But – and this is crucial – neither is reduced by that romance. As individuals, they add to the life of the other, rather than becoming a reason to hold back from life. Neither one ever asks the other not to follow a particular path, but instead, offer help and support in the name of friendship and loyalty. They save each other – literally and metaphorically – and this means that they both allow themselves to be vulnerable, instead of one being vulnerable while the other is not given that opportunity.
Those vulnerabilities are embraced by the other person, and this adds to the intimate bond between them, before they ever positively acknowledge their connection. This is never more clear than when Han is about to be encased in carbonite. Leia finally tells him she loves him, and he replies, “I know.”
It was always a frustrating heartbreaker, though. In those first three films, there was always something getting in the way. Initially, it was their respective pride and ego, while Han being frozen in carbonite and used as a room decoration also put things on hold for a time. But then, Leia and Han continued to save each other, and finally embraced their relationship whole-heartedly right there in the Ewok village – for a while at least.
Make no mistake, it was that initial trilogy that sealed Han Solo’s iconic status – just three movies, charting a plot arc and some character development. So, when he returned to the big screen in The Force Awakens in 2015 – 32 years later – it was a breathtaking moment. We’d seen him find his happily ever after with Leia and had dreamed, in the intervening years, that they were off among the stars – saving each other and saving the galaxy, forever and always. But, here was Han Solo and Chewbacca, boarding the Millennium Falcon and surprising our new heroes – Rey and Finn.
“Chewie, we’re home.”
That’s certainly a movie icon’s entrance but, in true Star Wars fashion, it telegraphs far more in what it doesn’t say, than in what it does say. We had hoped that Han found his “home” in Leia – but clearly not. Just like his strong introduction in A New Hope, we’re suddenly itching to know more. Where’s Leia? What happened between them? What’s he doing here? Where has he been?
Story, Story, Story
It’s the way in which the story is woven that keeps us on the hook through the original Star Wars trilogy, just as it’s the way the story is woven that makes us excited to see Solo: A Star Wars Story. It’s a prequel, so it’s not trading on the charisma of Harrison Ford. It’s trading on the fact that we want to know more about this character. It’s trading on the iconic status of Han Solo – not the actor that made him famous.
The beauty of Star Wars is that it’s designed to be a universe that’s ongoing – regardless of which part the audience is watching, or which character has their interest. It’s never been linear in nature. George Lucas literally kicked the whole thing off with an action-packed scenario that was already in motion, in a film that was then retrospectively titled Episode IV – making us wonder, what happened in the previous three episodes? And what happens in Episode V?
His style, with Star Wars, was always to drop us into the middle of something – and it was our job to catch up. This is why the films usually have an ‘opening crawl.’ But, the characters do not come with their backstory neatly typed out. We have to pay attention, and put the pieces together. So it was with Han Solo’s introduction in Episode IV, and the tease of his past with Lando Calrissian in Episode V, and his evolution into a bona fide hero in Episode VI. So it was with his return in Episode VII.
As the film unfolds, we learn that he and Leia had a son together, but that their family disintegrated when they allowed Luke to take Ben Solo and train him as a Jedi – only for Ben to succumb to the Dark Side, and evolve into Kylo Ren, protégé of Supreme Leader Snoke of the First Order. With Leia now being a General in the Resistance, this proves to be quite problematic for everyone involved.
When Leia and Han come face-to-face again after years of being apart, their connection is still clearly there – and it’s both beautiful and heartbreaking. It’s evident – without it ever being said – that the pain of their experience of parenthood has led to Han Solo returning to the mercenary lifestyle he once left behind. So, when he faces Kylo Ren on an isolated bridge – at the behest of Leia – and begs him to turn back to the Light and return home, Han Solo is also begging for his happily ever after back. And then he’s murdered.
In dying at the hands of the son he helped give away to Jedi training, Han is literally killed by his past. Though he always – eventually – landed on the right side of events, Han was a flawed hero. This was made clear in his introduction, back in 1977, in the scene that gave rise to the never-ending question, “Who shot first?” George Lucas himself has returned to this scene repeatedly with re-releases of the film, seeking to clear up the ambiguity caused by that first version.
In later years, Lucas altered the scene so that Greedo shoots at Han first in the Mos Eisley Cantina, because he was not happy with the idea of Han Solo being seen as a cold-blooded killer. He also altered it again to suggest that the two mercenaries shot at the same time, but only Greedo was hit. But, it was the first version of the film that made Han Solo an icon – and it was not because it made him seem like a cold-blooded killer.
It was because Greedo was clearly threatening Han’s life, and essentially backing him into a corner. This means that, along with teasing past adventures, and current criminal entanglements, he gives us a glimpse of how he reacts to being under threat, and under pressure – and, as it happens, that’s exactly what Luke and Leia need.
And that’s how you make an icon.