The Star Wars saga combines a number of different genres to craft it’s mythology. it’s got the knights, wizards and princesses of the fairy tales, the robots and space ships of sci-fi, and even the gun-slinger of the American Western with his trusty sidekick in the form of the smuggler Han Solo. Like the heroes of the old West, Han is introduced in a sleazy saloon, engages in a shoot out with a two-bit bounty hunter, and as we learn has a thing for gambling and beautiful women. His heritage in the Western film is connected further by the fact that his costume was inspired by the one Gary Cooper had worn in the classic film High Noon.
Han doesn’t take any lip from any one, especially a certain princess. He has some of the
best one-liners in the series, largely because actor Harrison for ad-libbed a number of his scenes. Because of his spontaneous attitude and his cynical mind he also grounds the franchise in a level of realism, or at least as realistic as you can get in a movie series filled with lightsabers, planet smashing super-weapons, wise sages that sound like a member of the Sesame Street gang, bickering droids, and a mystical energy Force. Everyone else in the galaxy tends to be in awe about this “Force”, but not Han. As he says in the original Star Wars movie,
“Hokey religions and ancient religions ain’t no match for a good blaster at your side…. Kid, I’ve been from one end of the galaxy to the next. I’ve seen a lot of strange things, but I ain’t seen anything that makes me believe in some all-powerful Force that controls… everything. It’s a lot of hocus-pocus and superstitious nonsense. There’s no mystical energy field that controls MY destiny.”
Han’s attitude shows just how far the galaxy went since the fall of the Jedi Order and the rise of the Empire in Revenge of the Sith. During the Prequel Trilogy, the Jedi are looked up to and admired almost like a cross between superheroes and police. In the Republic, showing a lightsaber is like flashing a badge. When on Naboo in Attack of the Clones the Queen even asks Anakin Skywalker’s opinion on Padmé’s security, despite him being a Padawan, as in her eye’s he is still a Jedi and that means he has authority. However times changed between the age of the Republic and the time of the Empire, among them Palpatine not only sought to exterminate the Jedi but besmirched their entire legacy, and declared them criminals. When asked why some in the galaxy see Jedi as fairy tales in the TV show Star Wars Rebels, set 15 years after the fall of the Jedi in Revenge of the Sith, LucasFilm story group editor Pablo Hildago noted in an interview for the web-series “Rebels Recon”,
“The thing is that it is very easy for us to forget as Star Wars fans that we know everything about the Jedi , we follow their adventures, they’re our heroes, that for the average person in the galaxy, they don’t know much about the Jedi. Even at the height during the Clone Wars there were 10,000 of them. 10,000 across an entire galaxy. That means that the average galactic citizen has never seen a Jedi, and has only kind of heard of them. So, it has only been kind of this abstract concept for most people. Ad a result it’s much easier for the Emperor to shape and twist that image , and that’s kind of what he does when he ended up in charge of everything.”
Even Anakin in Phantom Menace displayed a sense of wonder when he met both Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, having heard stories about them, just as he heard deep space pilots talk of Angels. At that point he even believed that no one could kill a Jedi. In contrast, Han thinks Obi-Wan appears to be a fool and in his words, “an old fossil”. Luke seems all too naive and just a bit suicidal going off on these quests to save the galaxy. The Force, as far as Han knows doesn’t exist. He’s not convinced that these guys with their fancy glow sticks can actually be any good in a full on fight against the Empire. Like the doubting Thomas in the Bible, he requires some form of definitive proof. In fact Han doesn’t believe in much of anything past what he can see, hear, touch or experience in some tangible way. Destiny, The Force, it’s all hogwash to him. The only things he believes in are his own personal brand of luck, his ship, his first mate, his skills, and a trusty blaster. So what makes Han Solo so appealing? As Anthony Breznican notes in the Entertainment Weekly article, “Star Wars: Episode VII: Harrison Ford and Han Solo bury the Lightsaber”,
“Luke is the easy one to figure out – naïve and noble, he longs to venture forth and do the right thing, no questions asked. Leia is another born hero, brave and ready to show up those who underestimate her. Han Solo …? He’s not so sure he wants to be with the good guys. Good guys get stomped on by the Empire. You know who survives? The one who shoots first…Han Solo’s enduring appeal stems back to that part in every one of us that feels a tug of selfishness that’s as strong as the tug of selflessness. He’s every malcontent, every loser, every *smartalec* who was told by someone they weren’t good enough, and believed it. Luke Skywalker was born to attack the Death Star, but Han Solo flies back into that battle by choice. We love him because he’s not one of the good guys. He’s just good enough.”
More than anything, Han is just an ordinary guy, trying to make a living in the universe through whatever means necessary. Whether it’s honest or dishonest doesn’t matter to him as long as he gets a paid and lives to tell the tale. Han even says this during the events of Brian Daley’s Star Wars Legends novel Han Solo At Star’s End that explores the adventures of Han Solo and Chewbacca before the events of the original film. The roguish Smuggler and the Wookie are contacted by Han’s old girlfriend Jessa to help springs someone from the infamous prison Star’s End when one of their band, a scholar named Rekkon, has read up on Han and knows someone like him could be formidable foe for the Empire. Han tells him,
“Rekkon, you’d better take it easy; you’ve got me and Chewie confused with somebody else. We’re just driving the bus. We’re not the Jedi Knights or Freedom’s Sons.”
Even in terms of how he is dressed in the original Star Wars film, Han seems to blur the lines between the good guys and bad guys. While Luke and Leia are dressed in pure white and Vader is dressed in black, Han is in white and black symbolizing his ambiguity. Han is first and foremost, a mercenary. He doesn’t care who is right or wrong as long as he collects a pay check. Normally, most people don’t care for mercenaries as we like our heroes and villains to have some kind of motive beyond just money.
Despite his cocky, arrogant and cynical attitude Han Solo is a surprisingly dynamic character. At one point actor Harrison Ford reportedly had asked George Lucas to kill Han off in Return of the Jedi because he felt that it would help the character’s narrative arc. He felt that after everything Han went through with Luke and Leia he should sacrifice himself to save them. It would make sense, as despite what it may seem, Han Solo is a deeply principled person who does care for his friends.
Not much is known about Han’s past. Even in universe stories about him are said to be embellished upon largely by Captain Solo himself. Han has a reputation as a braggart, claiming that his ship can make the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs (which elicits an eye-roll from Obi-wan Kenobi, perhaps because the great Jedi Master knows that a parsec is a measurement of distance relative to the observer, not time), so he would alter his story if it suited him, especially if it gets him hired.
What is known about Han is that he was an orphan from the planet Correlia. To an extent, he was like a space Age Oliver Twist, as he fell in with a guild of smugglers and crooks like Lando Calrissian and Tallon Karde, like Oliver with the artful Dodger. Like Mark Twain’s Huck Finn, Han has a tendency to get himself into sticky situations and come out on top. He may not have a lot in terms of book smarts or money but he can think fast and that helps keep him alive.
For a time in his young days he served as an Imperial TIE fighter Pilot. This is how come in the movie, The Empire Strikes Back, he knows about the protocols of the Imperial Navy, such as the fact that they dump their waste before jumping into hyper speed, as he has had experience on the Star Destroyers. He was one of the best in the navy, having earned numerous commendations. However all that changed when his squadron took down a slave ship.
He found the slavers dead and the slaves gone, and only one creature was left alive. The Wookie Chewbacca. Han was ordered by his commanding officer to kill Chewbacca, skin him and bring his hide to his commanding officer and Han refused. To him that was uncivilized as he did not believe in kicking an enemy when he was down, and for his insubordination, Han was drummed out of the Imperial Navy .
He describes this much later to a woman named Jessa in the book Han Solo at Star’s End, who is surprised to see Han make a good moral decision, and jokes that maybe he will develop a moral compass at some point later on. Han responds by telling her his story, leaving out his own name,
“I already know all about morality… A friend of mine made a decision once, thought he was doing the moral thing… he was….He lost his career, his girl, everything. This friend of mine, he ended up standing there while they ripped the rank and insignia off his tunic. The people who didn’t want him put up against the wall and shot were laughing at him. A whole planet. He shipped out of there and never went back… His commanding officer committed perjury against him. There was only one witness in his defense, and who’s going to believe a Wookie?”
Chewbacca would become his first mate and best friend, and the two would go into business together in the smugglers guild. Han would soon earn, though some would say that he actually cheated, the Millennium Falcon in a game of Sabbac against Lando, Tallon and Jabba The Hutt. Jabba was angered by Han winning as he wanted he ship for himself. However Han agreed to carry a shipment of spice for him, a shipment he dropped when an Imperial patrol captured him and was about to be boarded.
For losing the shipment, Jabba demanded that Han Solo repay him. After all, the Hutt may be a gangster, but he was a businessman. His business would fall apart if he was lenient with very pilot who dropped his shipment at the first sign of an Imperial star cruiser. This would later lead to a galaxy wide hunt for Solo in which Jabba contracted every Bounty Hunter in the system to numerous bounty hunters after Han in order to get his money back.
Han’s fortune seemed to change when at the Mos Eisley Cantina he met up with Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker. The two of them were looking for safe passage to Alderaan for themselves and the droids, and no questions asked. Obi-Wan also emphasized that because of the importance of their mission they had to avoid Imperial troubles. Han told them it would cost extra, which they would pay once they reached Alderaan.
Han gladly took the job, knowing that this would give him more than enough money to pay back Jabba The Hutt. However, he soon found himself taking part in a rescue operation to save the princess. Initially’ he wanted no part of it, even if they were going to kill her. However, Luke managed to talk him into it by mentioning that the Princess was rich and powerful and if he saved her, he would get more wealth then he could imagine. Han was in, and before long this rag-tag bunch of heroes were engaged in a daring escape from the Death Star. On a couple of occasions during the escape, Han made his feelings on fighting for the Rebellion abundantly clear stating,
“Look, Your Worshipfulness, let’s get one thing straight. I take orders from just one person: me…Look, I ain’t in this for your revolution, and I’m not in it for you, Princess. I expect to be well paid. *I’m* in it for the money.
However, Han had to admit there was something he liked about Leia. She may be a princess, but she was not the kind to sit back during the rescue. She was ready to fight for a cause and even die for it. She could handle a blaster well, and she could put Han in his place. He had to admire that.
Han also didn’t think very highly of Luke on the outset. That changed after fighting side by side in the Death Star he comes to respect the kid. Luke is good not only with a blaster, but with the lightsaber. Just before they seemingly part ways, Han tells him that he and Chewie could use him on board the Falcon, and asks the boy to come with him. It’s a very sincere offer, one that Luke refuses. Luke urges Han to come with for the run on the Death Star but Han refuses, saying, “Besides going up against that thing ain’t my idea of bravery, it’s more like suicide.”
Han knows the chances of winning in this are slim to none, and as such he doesn’t want Luke getting himself killed in a foolish mission. He’d rather see him live to fight another day. The two part ways, but not before the skeptical Han can tell Luke “May the Force Be With You”, deeply hoping that this Force the boy believes in will protect him.
The Battle of Yavin does not go easily. Many pilots die, including Luke’s childhood friend Biggs Darklighter. Soon it is just Luke alone in the Death Star trench with Vader bearing down on him and Artoo disabled. Even worse, the Death Star is getting closer to the Rebel base. At that moment, Han returns, shooting the fighter nearest Vader, and sending the Dark Lord spiraling way, giving Luke a clear shot. Han jokingly tells Luke after the battle that he couldn’t let him hog all the glory but deep down Luke and Leia know differently.
Despite his words, Han does care about his friends and their cause as Joseph Campbell argued in The Power of Myth,
“Solo was a very practical guy, at least he thought of himself, a materialist. But he was a compassionate human being at the same time and he didn’t know it. The adventure evoked a quality of his character he hadn’t known he possessed. “
Further, as Dan Rubey notes in the essay “Star Wars: Not So Long Ago, Not So Far Away” from the journal Jumpcut: A Review of Contemporary Media,
“Han’s withdrawal from the final battle serves two purposes. First, it functions as a criticism of real individualism, the kind of individualism which threatens society because it rejects society’s values and imagines the possibility of a life outside its approval, a possibility that romance invariably rejects. Han’s decision to take the money and run places him in an inferior position to Luke within the value system of the film, reversing their previous places in the hierarchy. Secondly, since Han leaves the collective pool of cannon fodder, he can avoid the deaths of the other pilots and return at the last-minute to support Luke by keeping Darth Vader off his back while Luke scores.”
Despite Han’s surname, there are no “lone heroes” in Star Wars. The story of Star Wars is at its core about community. There is no reason for Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and Han Solo to fight side by side, anymore then there is for Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor in The Avengers or Legolas and Gimli in The Lord of the Rings. Individualism works, until there is a threat to the greater good, such as tyranny or total eradication. Luke may be the only fighter left standing in the Death Star trench, but he wouldn’t have been able to make it without Han’s help.
Later, in The Empire Strikes Back, he stays around on Hoth longer than he should, claiming that it’s not for Leia’s revolution but to help her and Luke get the new base set up. He even heads out into the freezing cold to save Luke. Not even the warnings from a deck officer can dissuade him from going to get his friend. When the base comes under attack he hurries the Princess out to the Falcon before she can be taken captive by Vader and his forces.
It’s during their daring escape that Han and Leia begin to grow closer and sparks of love fly in their relationship. The pairing of two of them was so popular that Joss Whedon played with this type of relationship in his short-lived series Firefly with the character of Captain Malcolm Reynolds and The “Companion” Inarra Serra. Like Han, Mal is a smuggler, a rouge, and a bit of a scoundrel, who will take any job so long as it pays well and he can keep fuel in his boat. Inarra, like Leia is feisty and opinionated and can banter with him like no ones business.
Yet there is something about that couple, and the chemistry between them and the fact that deep down they do love each other that makes you root for them. Much of it comes from the fact that deep down the viewers want to see that scoundrel straighten up, fly right, and clean up his act. Somehow, you know that if he got his act together then maybe, just maybe he could rescue that girl and be worthy of her love. Already, for Han Solo, his transformation is beginning. As it is noted in the book Star Wars: The Power of Myth ,
“An important stage of the hero’s journey is a mystical union with a woman. First though, the hero must prove himself worthy of her. After meeting Princess Leia, Han Solo begins his own journey and is gradually transformed from a selfish individual to a compassionate fighter for the Rebellion. Luke’s hero quest is a spiritual one; Han’s is to become a lover.”
However, in the midst of their escape and the world wind romance for this couple that could only be described as a lady and a tramp, Han’s decisions catch up with him. With the hyper drive malfunctioning, Han knew he needed to get the ship down in a safe haven for repairs. Scanning through the nava-computer he stumbled across the Bespin Cloud City, which is operated by an old friend of his, Lando Calrissian. Han made the decision to stop off at Bespin Cloud City where his old friend Lando Calrissian was the chief administrator of a mining colony.
It’s while they are at the Cloud City that Vader and his forces spring their trap. Han is tortured, though Vader doesn’t bother to ask him any questions. To their great disgust, they learn they are bait for Luke. Then in order to test the carbon freezing chamber to see if it will work for Skywalker so he can deliver the young Jedi to the Emperor, Vader has Han frozen and given to the bounty hunter Boba Fett to deliver to Jabba.
Just before being frozen, Leia declares her love for him, to which Han smugly replies, “I know.” This iconic scene was actually ad libbed. In the original script George Lucas had Han give this nice stirring heartfelt speech. But actor Harrison Ford and the director didn’t feel it suited the character. A short, quick, defiant “I know” is the kind of thing Han will say when the woman he loves admits her love for him. Han is more of a Rick Blaine in Casablanca type, a man of few words, and less of a Romeo spouting love poems to woo his girl. Han knew, that deep down, Leia loved him. Han in turn didn’t even need to say anything about how he felt with her.
Han told Chewie to save his strength and worry about protecting Leia. Han knew he was cornered and was more concerned about Chewie and Leia’s safety then his own. If this was his end, he was going to face it head held high. Then he was lowered into the chamber and frozen in a block of solid carbonite .
Later Luke Skywalker, Lando, Leia and Chewie embark on a rescue mission to save Han. This is a dramatic reversal for Han’s character. In Star Wars, he takes part in a rescue mission to save Leia. In Empire Strikes Back, he braves the cold to save Luke and evades the Empire to protect Leia. Now, it is Han’s turn to be saved. While Leia was a prisoner to the Empire, and Luke had been attacked by a beast, Han’s captivity was brought upon by his own personal sins from his past. For once, he can’t shoot his way out of his problem, and there didn’t seem to be a viable solution. After being thawed out of carbonite by Leia in disguise, Han was placed in a cell with a now captured Chewie. The Wookie informed him of the plan to which Han said,
“Luke? Luke’s crazy! He can’t even take careful himself much less rescue anybody…. A Jedi Knight? I’m out of it for a while and suddenly everyone gets delusions of grandeur.”
Despite his captivity Han remains defiant. When Luke’s negotiations with the crime lord go south after he slew the Rancor monster, Han, Luke and Chewie are sentenced to death by a slow gradual process of being digested over a thousand years by the sarlaac beast. When Threepio, who is serving as a translator, Jabba says he will now have the pleasure of hearing their pleas for mercy, Han replies,
“Threepio, you tell that slimy peace of worm ridden…filth…he’ll get no such pleasure out of us.”
That’s when Luke’s plan springs into action and with the aid of Leia, and Lando, they defeat the crime lord and get free. As they fly away Han not only thanks Luke for saving him, but tells him that now he owes Luke one. As far as Han is concerned, any debt Luke owed him is null and void, now he is in debt to Luke, one that can never fully be repaid. The novelization for Return of the Jedi notes that Han realizes,
“Luke and the others had saved him—put their own lives in great peril at his expense, for no other reason than… he was their friend. This was a new idea for the cocky Solo-at once terrible and wonderful…Once, he was alone; now he was a part …That realization made him feel indebted, a feeling he’d always abhorred; only now it was a new kind of bond, a bond of brotherhood. It was even freeing, in a strange way… He was no longer alone.”
Freed by his friends from his debt to Jabba, Han is now able to become who he was meant to be. He was a good friend, and also a natural leader, both Princess Leia and General Rieekan attest to this when he tries to leave before the Battle of Hoth. Clever, resourceful, and quick on his feet he was the kind of guy the alliance needed to help lead their battles. He could sneak in and out of a dangerous situation with limited time for prep and get the mission done, and think on his feet and improvise if the situation required him to adjust the plan.
However with the death mark on his head he wasn’t able to step up into any bona-fide leadership position as paying off that debt came first. Now, Jabba was dead, his criminal empire in shambles, and Han could begin to live again. He had a cause to believe in and friends who were willing to fight and die for him and he in turn was ready to do the same. He even volunteered to lead a strike team to take down the shield generator on the forest Moon of Endor that was protecting the second Death Star.
It is during the battle that he finally admitted his own love for Leia. Initially he was ready to back off and even told her as much. They watched as the Death Star exploded and Han assured her that Luke was probably not aboard. The man who once took whatever he wanted was ready to stop aside for Leia’s happiness.
Much to Han’s delight, Leia reveals that she is Luke’s sister. The rogue got the girl after all and Han become part of their family through his marriage to Leia. Not half bad for a scruffy looking nerf-herder. But none of that would have been possible had he not undergone his own journey. It is because of his experiences fighting the Empire, his struggles against Jabba and his friendship with the Skywalker Twins that caused him to rediscover what really mattered and what was worth fighting for.
It was something he knew all along. As he tried to explain to the Ewoks in the novelization of Return of the Jedi,
“But that’s not why they should help us. That’s why I used to do stuff, because it was in my own self interest. But not anymore. Well, not so much, anyway. Mostly I do things for my friends, now-‘cause what else is so important? Money? Power? Jabba had that, and you know what happened to him. Okay,okay, the point is- your friends are… your friends. You know?”
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