The announcement on Thursday that Peter Mayhew, the British-born actor who originally played Chewbacca in the beloved Star Wars franchise, had died earlier in the week shook up the science fiction and cinema worlds. The first on-screen Wookiee died Tuesday at the age of 74.
Mayhew’s passing not only sparked an outpouring of tributes from fans and co-stars but also reignited one of the great debates in Star Wars lore: Why didn’t Chewbacca get a medal after the destruction of the first Death Star?
Just to refresh your memory, at the end of 1977′s “Star Wars: A New Hope,” the film’s final moments show the Rebel Alliance celebrating a big victory. Luke Skywalker just took the Empire’s world-destroying superweapon — the Death Star — and turned it into space dust. Han Solo has momentarily abandoned his outlaw ways to help fight for the greater good. As a crowd looks on, Princess Leia bestows gold medals on both Skywalker and Solo. But Chewbacca — who displayed just as much courage as his two human cohorts — goes unrewarded.
The scene has since had fans asking whether Chewbacca was unjustly cheated out of the victory spoils. Or, as the “Star Wars Explained” YouTube channel asked in 2016: “Is the Rebel Alliance just as racist as the Empire?”
The answer requires a plunge into the deepest waters of Star Wars fandom.
The mystery of Chewbacca’s missing medal is even more bizarre because it seems like the Wookiee was supposed to get a medal all along. As the website Today I Found Out pointed out in 2015, the novelization of the 1977 film specifically notes Chewbacca does get the honor.
The book, “Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker,” which was released six months before the film, was written by a ghostwriter who took the story’s basics from Star Wars creator George Lucas’s own original drafts of the script. A 1974 script draft, using an older spelling for Chewbacca’s race, also explicitly says that “Han presents Chewbacca and a delegation of Wookees with a treaty, gifts, and a medal of honor.”
So why didn’t Chewbacca get the glory when the cameras actually started rolling?
Mayhew had his own theories. In 2015, CinemaBlend found a since-deleted interview with the actor and an Australian magazine.
“I think it was one of two reasons,” the 7-foot-3 actor said. “One, they didn’t have enough money to buy me a medal. Or two, Carrie [Fisher] couldn’t reach my neck, and it was probably too expensive to build a little step so that I could step down or she could step up and give me the medal.”
Lucas had his own explanation for why the Wookiee wasn’t properly awarded. In 1977, the director recorded “in-character” spots to fill in the character’s background, according to MovieWeb.
“Chewbacca wasn’t given a medal because medals don’t really mean much to Wookiees. They don’t really put too much credence in them. They have different kinds of ceremonies,” Lucas said. “The Wookiee Chewbacca was in fact given a great prize and honor during a ceremony with his own people. The whole contingent from the Rebel Alliance went to Chewbacca’s people and participated in a very large celebration. It was an honor for the entire Wookiee race.”
But this explanation reveals the problem with a tremendously popular (and profitable) franchise like Star Wars.
Following the success of the first film and two sequels, hundreds of comic books and novels have expanded the Star Wars universe and the adventures of the original characters. And often, this pileup of new material contradicted other elements of the story.
For example, in 1980, a short comic came out called “The Day after the Death Star!” This version of events runs counter to Lucas’s 1977 explanation. In the comic, the Wookiee is given his medal by Princess Leia the day after the main ceremony.
But things then get even more complicated.
In October 2012, Disney purchased Lucasfilm for $4.05 billion, a haul that included all of the Star Wars intellectual property. Eyeing a series of new films, the company declared that everything published outside the original films and prequels — all the comics and novels — were no longer official “canon” material. By scrubbing out the now-unofficial story lines, both Lucas’s 1977 explanation and the 1980 comic were also left on the cutting room floor.
Disney, however, eventually did the Wookiee right. In 2015, the company greenlit a comic book series featuring Chewbacca. According to /Film, in the fifth issue, the Wookiee crash lands on a planet, where he befriends a young girl. Before finally zooming off the planet, he gives her a memento — a medal identical to the one awarded to Skywalker and Solo at the end of the first film.
Although the canon comic settles once and for all that Chewbacca received a medal, there is still no clarity on how or when he got it, or why he was so conspicuously left out in the iconic Star Wars ceremony scene. The debate still rages following Mayhew’s death this week.
“[M]ad all over again that Chewy didn’t get a medal,” one Twitter user posted on Thursday after the news broke that Mayhew had died. “RIP Chewie,” another posted. “They got a medal ceremony waiting for you.”
Although it might not be part of the official “canon,” Chewbacca did get his long-delayed honor in 1997.
That year, at the MTV Movie Awards, the character was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award. Carrie Fisher was there to drape the award — which looked identical to the movie medal the character had so unjustly been denied — over the towering Wookiee.
“He’s one of the kindest, gentlest creatures I’ve ever worked with,” Fisher told the audience. “I only wish we had love scenes.”