It has been well established by critics and pop-cultural scholars is that at its core the Star Wars films are a modern day mythology meant for children. However, it’s not to say that the films are without their nuances. The Emperor may be a cackling evil mad man, but he is a wonderfully Machiavellian master manipulator. Jar-Jar Binks may be the most reviled character in the Star Wars saga by longtime fans yet he fills the roll of the Shakespearian fool. Yet few characters are as nuanced and intriguing as Lando Calrissian an old friend and former partner in crime of Han Solo.
Lando was a game changing character for the Star Wars saga. For one thing, Lando Calrissian was one of the first characters in Star Wars to be played by a person of color, a rarity for science fiction. Save Lt. Nyota Uhuru on Star Trek, there tended to be very limited rolls for African Americans in Science Fiction. For example, the only character of color in the original Planet of the Apes movie lasted ten minutes before he was caught by the apes and lobotomized.
Some are quick to point out that Lando doesn’t seem “black” in the way he acts and even accuse him of being a token. However, actor Billy Dee Williams said in an interview with People Magazine at the time Empire Strikes Back was released,
“The reason I was attracted to the roll was because it wasn’t written for a black person. I pretty much took what they had and decided to create this character who was devoid of the whole racial, ethnic kind of a thing. I really wanted to create a guy that was far beyond that kind of thinking. I wanted to make a really kind of epic hero out of him. That’s generally what I do with most characters I play. And of course, when I got the cape that really did it for me. That was like the key.”
However, Lando was not introduced with the best reputation that a hero could ask for. After all in Empire Strikes Back, Lando welcomes his old friend, along with Chewie, Threepio and Princess Leia into Bespin Cloud City with open arms, only to later reveal he struck a deal with Darth Vader. He then hands his friend over to Vader to be frozen in Carbonite and allows the bounty hunter Boba Fett to take him to Jabba the Hutt. Then the deal he makes with Vader continues to go south as the Dark Lord alters the deal at every turn, frustrating him until he has no other recourse but to take matters in his own hands.
A child watching this sees Lando as a traitor, and that is understandable. To children, there is nothing more important than loyalty to your friends. You don’t rat them out to an authority, you look out for them, and if it is possible you try and help them out of trouble once they’ve gotten into it. The actor couldn’t even shake it, as Williams recalled in a video interview interview with Wired Magazine that was conducted 2011’s Comic-COn International in San Diego, that he was rushed by kids on the playground when he’d go to pick his daughter up from school and have kids yell at him for betraying Han.
Yet, while he may have betrayed Han Solo, that is barely even half of Lando’s story. As Cam Clark noted in the essay “A Defense of Lando” on 4 Letter Nerd.com,
“When I say the name Lando Calrissian what do you think about? A traitorous, less-than-scruffy looking nerfherder, who betrayed his best friend and then inexplicably wore said friends clothes as he piloted said friends spaceship, with that same friends girlfriend and Wookiee companion? Or do you think of the most morally courageous figure found in the Star Wars saga?”
One of the many reasons Empire Strikes Back is a fan favorite Star Wars film, is because of deals more in shades of grey then the original film. This is especially true with Lando. Like Han Solo, he comes from the murky, seedy, underbelly of the Empire starting out as a smuggler and a swindler. This is something most young viewers don’t fully take notice of when it comes to Han or Lando. Han wasn’t running medicine to sick kids on Tatooine before meeting Luke and Obi-Wan. Han and Lando were criminals, with underworld ties, trying to avoid the Empire as best they could.
Not that Lando would ever admit to any criminal activities. This is seen in the Star Wars: Rebels episode “An Idiots Array” when he manages to swindle one of the crew members of the ghost out of their droid. When the Twi’lek freedom fighter Hera refers to him as a smuggler, he tells her, cranking on the usual charms.
“Oh, you’re quite the pilot. That’s the smoothest takeoff I’ve had in years… “Smuggler”? Such a small word. I’m more of a galactic entrepreneur.- That means businessperson.”
As Empire Magazine says in the article on the 30 Greatest Star Wars characters,
“But the crime isn’t what makes Lando memorable. It’s his aplomb, his way with the ladies …and his wide-ranging competence. He does, after all, destroy the second Death Star. And the accusations of tokenism or, worse, racism? The suggestions are apparently founded on his devil-may-care attitude, or possibly his overt flirting…But Lando’s another Han – his brother from another planet if you will – and shares his characteristics exactly, down to his taste in women…”
However, despite their similarities, the two are very different people in terms of their methods and personalities. While Han acts like the Western gun-slinger shooting first and asking questions later, Lando acts like the space-age Prince Charming, complete with his castle. Han tends to be more rough and rugged around the edges, but Lando is smooth and suave. Han has a grungy look to him, while Lando has a dapper look to him. Han Solo prefers a more direct approach, Lando likes subtly. Han lacks social graces, while Lando is the Casanova Han thinks he is.
As comic book writer Charles Soule notes in an interview regarding his upcoming Lando Calrissian mini-series for Marvel comics,
“Is Lando Calrissian the coolest character in all of Star Wars? Depends on who you ask, probably. But if you ask me, the answer is yes, and I plan to prove it with this story…Before Cloud City, before his glorious Death Star run…Lando Calrissian was just a man trying to make his way through an uncaring universe determined not to recognize that he was undeniably the coolest man in the galaxy.”
His greeting to Princess Leia is certainly indicative of this. While Han is annoyed with her and immediately begins a verbal sparring match upon meeting the Princess, Lando smiles at her, waltzes over, takes her hand, and kisses it, saying,
“Hello. What have we here? Welcome. I’m Lando Calrissian. I’m the administrator of this facility. And who might you be?”
Despite any prestige he may attain, Lando likes to be friendly, personable and informal. It’s another trait he has in common with Han Solo, as is established in the Legends universe of novels and stories. Neither man is all too comfortable with titles or honors, seeing them too stuffy, unless its’ a title they chose for themselves. As he says in the Star Wars Legends novel Lando Calrissian and The Mindharp of Sharu,
“Please, call me Lando. ‘Captain Calrissian’ sounds like the one-eyed commander of a renegade Imperial dreadnought.”
Han and Lando go way back, and in fact it was from Lando that Han won the Millennium Falcon in the first place, a slight that Lando never fully got over. The Falcon was a good ship, and both men loved the old bird. The two also would go on one hair brained scheme after another, usually getting themselves into more trouble than it was worth. However, deals would go sour, money would be lost, and sometimes they would never get paid. Han would even fail to split the money as promised.
As anyone trying to run a business, even a less then reputable business knows, it is generally a good idea to pay people for services rendered when you promise to do so. However, Han could rarely meet his financial obligations and as such this lead to a falling out between the two of them. Add to it the fact that in Lando’s eyes Han cheated him out of his own ship; there were plenty of reasons for Lando not to like Han, even justifiable ones for selling him out to the Empire.
As Lando told him in the Star Wars: Legends novel Rebel Dawn,
“Get this through your head, Solo…We’ve been friends in the past, so I’m not going to do what you so richly deserve and blow your head off. But don’t ever come near me again!”
One would think that this animosity would mean Lando hated Han. However, in the few intervening years, it had caused Lando’s anger at Han would somewhat cool. As Lando explained to one of their accomplices in their Oceans 11 style caper in the Star Wars: Legends novel Scoundrels,
“I don’t hate him….not exactly. There was a deal- a couple of deals-where he ended up stiffing me out of what he’d promised…I don’t hate him… the more I’ve thought about, the more I think about it, it probably wasn’t his fault. That he was stiffed along with the rest of us. But that doesn’t change the fact that he was the one who pulled us in and made all the big promises…I don’t hate him, but I don’t want to work with him anymore….if he hadn’t specifically asked for me on this job, I wouldn’t have come. ”
All the more reason for Chewie to express concern over going to the Cloud City, leading Han to only hope he’s forgotten it. Han might not have even gone to the Cloud City if not for the fact he, Leia, Chewie and Threepio needed safe harbors to fix the ship, and ran across his name. Initially, Leia thinks Han’s talking about a planetary system, but Han informs her,
“Lando’s not a system, he’s a man. Lando Calrissian. He’s a card player, smuggler, scoundrel .You’d like him…He’s got no love for the Empire, I can tell you that.”
Like any good gambler, Lando came to be in charge of the Cloud City through nothing but sheer luck and wit, having won it in a high stakes gambling game of Sabaac against the former baron administrator, Dominic Raynor. Typically, people like Lando and Han tended to favor the get rich quick scheme, which as Lando knew could sometimes come to nothing. Accepting the position of Baron Administrator of Bespin Cloud City meant he would have a much more reliable income, and not have to worry about getting cheated out of a deal.
Lando was incredibly competent in the roll, making the business even more effacement then it was before he came. The sheer fact that he is a strong and capable leader for the colony on Bespin, is only proof that he is not the bad guy fans assume he is. As his right-hand man, a cyborg named Lobot, tells him in the Legends short story Lando Calrissian: An Idiot’s Array,
“The role of baron administrator can be a tiring and thankless task, with little opportunity to enjoy the amenities this complex offers. Perhaps that is why so many of your predecessors took to illegal pursuits to enhance their stay here. That you have not done so is a testament to your character; that you have brought about so many positive changes in Cloud City’s management proves you worthy of the title. Know that those of us who financed your final sabacc match against Baron Raynor feel more than compensated for our investment, and that I take no offense at your occasional emotional releases, for you will never be the cruel despot he was.”
It was a surprise to Han to see that his friend had become a businessmen, but not nearly as much of a surprise as it was when they were allowed to land at the Cloud City. To Han and Chewie’s relief they were greeted warmly by Lando. Like an expert card player, he calls Han’s bluff, making him think he may be angry, but then he quickly embraces his old friend, telling him,
“Why, you slimy, double-crossing, no-good swindler! You’ve got a lot of guts coming here, after what you pulled… ( laughs) How you doing, you old pirate? So good to see you! I never thought I’d catch up with you again. Where you been?”
After making polite introductions and agreeing to get his guys to fix the Falcon’s hyperdrive he leads them into the Cloud City, putting them up in a nice room. As par for these situations, he somehow manages to supply Leia a new set of clothes, since she has been traveling around in her fatigues. Whether it is her latent Jedi instincts, or simply intuition, Leia can tell something is up. While she and Han don’t trust him, Han is willing to believe his friend wouldn’t harm them.
Then after giving them a grand tour of the city and telling them a bit about his operations, he tells them he has made a deal that is sure to keep the Empire out of his hair forever. Opening the room to a grand dining room, Han and Leia are greeted by Darth Vader and Boba Fett, and the trap for Luke has been set.
In many ways, Lando is not unlike Boromir in Lord of the Rings another would-be traitor in pop-culture . Like Boromir Lando’s treason is born out of a desire to serve the greater good that is only exploited by evil. Boromir only wanted to take the Ring from Frodo Baggins in order to use it as a weapon to protect his people, just as Lando agreed to make a deal with Vader because it benefited his people. Further, like Boromir, Lando actually tried his best to rectify the situation when things went wrong and his friends were in danger.
No sooner after his friends are captured, Lando tries to explain himself to them. Lando has limited resources to take on the Empire, and if he crossed them, the consequences could be disastrous. This is seen in the Star Wars: Infinites version of Empire Strikes Back, an alternate universe take on the tale. In this version of the story, when Lando tries to double cross Vader, the Dark Lord orders his Star Destroyer fire upon the Cloud City. It is destroyed before anyone gets the chance to evacuate. According to the Star Wars Galaxy Guide 2, the Bespin Cloud City boasts a population of over 5,000,000. That’s roughly the population of a major city on Earth. He has to put their needs first over those of his best friend, or as Spock once put it in Star Trek, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.”
Lando not a bad guy, he’s just a charming, likable guy who was dealt a bad hand in the game he was playing that only got worse. Even Billy Dee Williams recognized this in “Among the Clouds” from the Star Wars Insider #38, saying,
“The audience was so enamored with Lando, they could forgive Lando for anything. If you’re able to play a character that can be sort of a bad guy but has redeeming qualities, those are the best characters to play. That was a great challenge to me, to make him palatable, and it worked…”
Even if Lando couldn’t personally ask for help or tip them off, there was still no way he could have even tipped Han off, something Solo knew far too well. As Han reflected in the novel Scoundrels in which he, Chewie and Lando are hired along with a rag-tag bunch of out casts to engage in a heist,
“If Lando was desperate, it sure didn’t show in his face…but then it never did .If there was one thing Lando was good at, it was hiding whatever dark secrets were churning around inside him. Which was what made him such a good –and annoying-gambler and con man.”
It has been well noted in the world of high-stakes poker that bad gamblers always have a tell, a way of letting someone know they are bluffing. Be it a tug of an ear, scratching their nose or rubbing their eye, the bad ones always get made. The good gamblers however are impossible to get a read on, and that is where Lando’s strength lies. Not only do his friends not know he’s bluffing, neither do his enemies.
This comes in handy later on when his “deal” with Vader begins to go south. Almost immediately after Vader arrests Han and Leia, Lando begins to question Vader as the Dark Lord alters the deal whenever he sees fit. However, knowing he has no choice, he continues to play along, even getting socked in the jaw by an irate Han Solo. Unknown to any of them, Lando has another ace up his sleeve.
After Han Solo has been frozen in carbonite, Lando sent a message to his right hand man Lobot. Then, after helping free Chewie from his restraints he explains to him and Leia that there is still a chance to save Han. Having taken down the troopers guarding them, Lando hurried to a console and gives the order to his people to evacuate the city.
He lead Leia out to the docking bay where the Han has been loaded up into the ship of the bounty hunter Boba Fett, but their efforts are too late. The ship takes off and their friend is lost to them. Joined by Artoo, who had arrived moments before with Luke they made their way to the Falcon. With Lando at the helm they almost thought they were safe, until Leia received her message from Luke through the Force.
At first Lando was reluctant to go back. But thanks to Leia and Chewie’s insistence he went back, and saved Luke before Vader could snatch the wounded young Jedi. Upon arriving at the rendezvous point, a plan was already being hatch to save Han, one that Lando was more than happy to take part in. Posing as a guard, Lando worked from the inside, finding the weaknesses in Jabba’s palace.
Then in Return of the Jedi the plan was set. As a guard he was in a key place on board the sail barge that was taking Luke, Chewie and Han to the Sarlacc Pit where they were to be thrown in after Luke killed the Rancor monster. This allowed him to help over take Jabba’s men when Luke retrieved his lightsaber from R2. Lando fell during the skirmish and is nearly wallowed by the monster in the Pit of Carkoon, but thanks to some help from Han he is able to get free. With Han rescued, and Jabba dead, the heroes made their way back to the alliance.
Already there are signs that the rift between Lando and Han is on the mend. The two speak in a much more friendly manner, and Lando is surprised to learn that Han even recommended him to lead the strike team on the run on the second Death Star. Han knew that Lando is an excellent pilot and a great commander, and, he even offered Lando the Falcon for use in the battle. Lando is surprised, knowing how much the ship meant to him and promised not to get a scratch on it.
As the assault on the second Death Star got underway, Lando remained calm, cool, and collected during the more intense parts of the battle. To their great disappointment, the mission on the forest moon to deactivate the shield generator is not going as well as they planned. The shield was still up, and the Death Star was operational. When Admiral Akbar wanted the forces to retreat, pointing out that there is no way they could last against the Imperial Star Destroyers, Lando pointed out,
“Yes! I said closer! Move as close as you can and engage those Star Destroyers at point-blank range…We will last a lot longer then we will against that Death Star. And we might just take a few of them with us!”
As far as Lando is concerned it’s do or die time. He had cow towed to the Empire once, and he won’t make that mistake again, and would rather go out kamikaze style then continue to allow the Empire to oppress them. Piloting the Falcon through enemy lines he took down several enemy fighters. Finally when the shield is down, he and ace pilot Wedge Antilles made their way down into the reactor core to destroy the station.
This is something that continues to make Lando such a unique character in science fiction. Long before Will Smith would punch out aliens in Independence Day or blast them with a Noisy Cricket in Men in Black, Billy Dee Williams as Lando was a person of color, who took an active role in leading a battle against the forces of evil. He even refused to back down when his commanding officers may have insisted upon retreat. It was Lando, not Luke or Han that got to destroy the Death Star this time around.
After firing those strategic torpedoes the Death Star was destroyed. Lando was reunited with his friends on the forest moon of Endor, no longer seen as a traitor but a hero and an ally. However, here is where Lando’s story really gets interesting. Luke was now a Jedi and tasked with bringing back the Order. Han no longer had a bounty on his head and had earned the love of the Princess. Leia had gone from diplomat to alliance leader who not only helped restore freedom to the galaxy, but avenged the destruction of Alderaan. With an ending in place for the “Big Three” what was there for Lando to do?
The Expanded Universe novels fell into a trap of an endless string of get rich quick schemes. From Holo-fun Worlds, to casinos, to selling a drink he discovered on another world called “hot chocolate,” Lando would have a job in one book, and then a different one in the following without so much as an explanation as to why it happened or how he lost the last one. Fans did not respond to these very well, especially since Lando was a clearly a shrewd businessman who had managed to turn his life around. Further, while Bespin Cloud City may have been evacuated, he still had to return to do his duties.
Perhaps this is why fans are so disappointed to see that while most of “the Band”, in namely, Luke, Han, Leia, Chewie and the droids, are getting back together for Episode VII, that Lando was absent. After all, aside from being their friend, he was one of the heroes of the Battle of Endor, and led the assault on the second Death Star. Despite his missteps, he was well liked and fans want to know where his story leads. He might not have been part of that original core, but the part Lando played in the Star Wars saga earned him a spot wherein he is mentioned in the same breath alongside Luke, Han, Leia and Chewie.
Billy Dee Williams himself was quite flattered by the fan reactions to his absence from Episode VII. As he noted in an interview with Jordan Maison at Cinelinx.com,
“People were pretty upset about it. But I uh…I may very well…I have a feeling I’m going to show up…People think of me as the original cast, but I didn’t come in until the second movie. I did Empire and then I did Return of the Jedi, but I came in after everyone else was introduced…I can’t imagine them not bringing Lando back… Most movies I’ve done, I’ve managed to make all the characters I’ve done indelible. I’ve managed to make them bigger than life and I’m able to give them a presence that people don’t forget…Any time you get people quoting lines, then you know you’ve made an impact.”
But at the same time, while some things, like Luke, Han and Leia may seem to be set in stone, Lando’s story leaves fans with something more to imagine. So perhaps he simply went back to the Cloud City to finish working as Baron Administrator. Or maybe he simply found a way to have new adventures on his own. After all, he was never really comfortable sitting still. As he tells Lobot in Lando Calrissian: An Idiots Array,
“I guess this whole ‘respectable baron administrator’ thing has been a bit overwhelming, that’s all. I can’t gamble while I’m in office. Someone’s been trying to kill me, so I can’t go anywhere without guards. And every little thing that goes wrong, I have to fix. Sometimes I miss hopping around the galaxy…. Life was easier back when I was playing the rogue. More dangerous, yeah… but more fun. I miss the adventure, Lobot. Sometimes I really miss being a scoundrel.”
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