May the Fourth may be a made-up holiday based on a very silly pun. But even knowing all of this, I still can’t resist taking this occasion to write a few words in praise of Princess Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) of “Star Wars.” Leia wasn’t just the first great heroine of science fiction and fantasy to capture my imagination. She was one of the first characters I encountered whose power came from her political conviction and acumen.
Leia’s nerves as a revolutionary are clear from the moment she arrives on screen in “Star Wars: A New Hope,” which was released in 1977. She takes shots at the Storm Troopers boarding her ship, gets stunned with a blaster in her hand, than has the audacity to try to make Darth Vader (David Prowse) feel ashamed of himself. “Only you could be so bold,” Leia clucks at him. “The Imperial Senate will not sit still for this, when they hear you’ve attacked a diplomatic [vessel].” She has enough energy left over after a nasty session of torture to insult Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing). And while she grieves when her home planet, Alderaan, is destroyed by the Death Star, Leia’s not paralyzed: when her unexpected rescuers show up, she’s ready to go, and to gripe about their operational sloppiness.
Leia’s conviction and confidence are in stark contrast to the characters who will become the most important men in her life. When we first meet him, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is a largely apolitical person, lobbying his uncle (Phil Brown) to allow him to send in an application to the Imperial Academy. His primary interest is in adventure rather than in any particular cause, which makes sense: growing up on a moisture farm on Tatooine can’t have been the most stimulating experience. In George Lucas’s shooting scripts for “A New Hope,” Luke does talk to his friend Biggs Darklighter (Garrick Hagon) about Biggs’s plans to desert from the Imperial Navy and join the Rebellion. But even in those scenes, which didn’t make it into the final cut of the film, Luke’s a skeptic, focusing more on the plausibility of Biggs’s plan than the political issues his friend is raising.
If Luke has the sort of youthful myopia that seems destined to clear up as soon as he gets the sand out of his eyes, the Han Solo (Harrison Ford) we meet in the Mos Eisely Cantina is actively hostile to the idea of political involvement, and particularly to political idealism. His snarl to Princess Leia that “I ain’t in this for your revolution, and I’m not in it for you” is a terrific, funny, mean line, a cynic’s dream.
Even one of her droids, the fantastically fussy C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), is a moderate who sees radical politics as a kind of decadent arrogance. “Don’t call me a mindless philosopher, you overweight glob of grease!” he grouses at his fellow robot R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) at the beginning of the movie. “Secret mission? What plans? What are you talking about?”
Neither Luke’s inexperience, Han’s aggressive detachment, or C-3PO’s anxieties faze Leia in the slightest. In fact, the dichotomy between them sets up the two emotional arcs that define the three movies in George Lucas’s original trilogy. Han and Luke, influenced by Leia’s passion, take their places as full participants in the Rebellion: Han overcomes his cynicism while Luke rejects his teacher Yoda’s (Frank Oz) monasticism. And Leia, whose primary relationship has been to the political movement she helps lead, finds a partner in Han, acknowledging that personal happiness can help her sustain her commitment to building a better galactic order.
It’s not a transition that happens immediately. In “A New Hope,” Luke is mostly along for the ride like the recently escaped farm boy that he is: It’s not until the Death Star run that he starts to figure out how his strength in the Force fits in with the Rebellion’s strategic needs.
And while Han is attracted to Leia almost immediately, the core of their screwball banter is her assumption of command and his allergy to it. “Listen. I don’t know who you are, or where you came from, but from now on, you do as I tell you. Okay?” Leia tells Han early in the rescue. “Look, Your Worshipfulness, let’s get one thing straight! I take orders from one person! Me!” Han snaps at her, trying to reassert the proper order of things. But Leia gives him a dead-eyed stare and tells him, “It’s a wonder you’re still alive.” Barbara Stanwyck couldn’t have delivered the line better.
It helps that the movie regularly lets Leia be correct. When Han congratulates himself on “not a bad bit of rescuing,” it’s Leia who recognizes that Vader and company let them escape. After the Battle of Yavin, when Han comes back to provide cover for Luke’s run, Leia tells him, delighted, “I knew there was more to you than money.” Han deflects, but Leia’s willingness to see the best in him, and Han’s desire to live up to her belief in him, will prove one of the two pillars of the relationship to come.
The other is Han’s recognition that Leia is, as Meghan O’Keefe puts it in a celebration of Solo’s feminism, “more than a princess; she’s a person.” Yes, it’s slightly ridiculous in “Empire Strikes Back” that he tries to pry a confession of affection out of her on Hoth, as Leia is trying to manage an evacuation with just an ion cannon for defense. But Han’s not wrong that if Leia doesn’t figure out that she’s a person with needs, she’s going to burn out with all the speed of a lightsaber slicing neatly through flesh. In a way, it’s an early confession of love: Han’s anxious about the bounty hunters who are still pursuing him, and he’s not exactly prepared to declare himself an idealist. But he would stay and give his love and support to Leia if she could just acknowledge that she needs him. Han is starting to believe in her importance, if yet not in his own.
And we know those two crazy kids are locked for life in “Return of the Jedi” when it turns out that Han has accepted a Generalship in the Rebellion, keeping it a secret from Leia. In “A New Hope,” Leia was grumbling about the quality of Han as a rescuer and the annoyance of his “walking carpet.” But when she finds out what Han’s done, accepting a rank he once found insulting and a mission she knows to be dangerous, Leia is the first person to volunteer to join his strike team. In “Star Wars,” that’s what love looks like: trusting your partner’s commitment to the cause and respecting his strategic and technical judgement.
Everyone else eventually comes around to Leia’s view the world. Luke, after the deadly recklessness that costs him his hand in “Empire Strikes Back,” figures out how his work as a Jedi will function alongside, if not precisely in tandem, with the strategic needs of the Rebellion in “Return of the Jedi.” It might not make strategic sense for Luke to try to redeem his father, but he’s earned the political and personal credibility that means Leia doesn’t stop him when he explains what he’s trying to do. Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), the former smuggler who discovered his talents as a leader and administrator on Cloud City in “Empire” embraces full respectability and service to rebellion as a general in “Jedi.” Even the straightlaced C-3PO embraces some of Leia’s daring spirit in the final movie of the original, when he embraces a role in negotiations with the Ewoks with a little too much relish. R2-D2, of course, never stops being Leia’s ally, striking off her chains after she kills Jabba the Hutt (Larry Ward).
In another story, Princess Leia’s captivity might have just been the incident that got Han and Luke’s stories started. But in “Star Wars,” the reasons she’s in custody and the work she does afterwards are just as important as the fact that she landed in a cell.