May the Fourth: Does it matter who shot first?
There's no true Star Wars nerd who doesn't have an opinion on this.
And being a complete nerd, there was no way I could let May 4th go by without writing something Star Wars related. So here’s my take on the hotly disputed issue of Who Shot First and why on earth it should matter.
Who Shot First?
Solo does not approve
Here are the basics for anyone unfamiliar with the crisis which rocked the Star Wars fanbase. In the original 1977 Star Wars: A New Hope we’re introduced to Han Solo, a smuggler played by Harrison Ford. In the Mos Eisley Spaceport, ‘the most wretched hive of scum and villainy’ the hero Luke Skywalker and his mentor Obi-wan Kenobi are looking for a way off the planet and ask the smuggler to take them. Before they can leave, Greedo, an alien bounty hunter confronts Han in order to turn him for the reward. In the 1977 movie, Han shoots Greedo dead immediately.
In the 1997 re-release of the movie, Greedo shoots first, misses and Han fires back. The fans were furious.
Why does it matter?
I’ll set aside the fact that it’s in rather poor form to alter a story which has been canon for thirty-eight years. Especially when there was no apparent reason to do so.
It’s clear that George Lucas is suffering from that feeling you get when people misjudge your characters. That confused, deeply defensive feeling when you need to stick up for your imagery darlings.
The controversy over who shot first, Greedo or Han Solo… what I did was try to clean up the confusion, but obviously, it upset people because they wanted Solo to be a cold-blooded killer, but he actually isn’t. George Lucas speaking to the Hollywood Reporter
This is usually the point in the writer’s circle when you take a minute to rephrase well-meant constructive criticism into something the currently angry-eyed and shaking writer can take. Nobody thinks Hans is a cold-blooded killer, George, but maybe look at it this way…
If he isn't a cold-blooded killer, who is he?
The question is over the character of Han Solo. Is he a pro-active, Machiavellian bad boy who shoots first? Or a survivor, reacting to the cruel world around him. The difference between offensive and defensive. George Lucas is very clear who Han is supposed to be – he’s a cowboy.
Han Solo was going to marry Leia, and you look back and say, ‘Should he be a cold-blooded killer?’… he should be John Wayne. And when you’re John Wayne, you don’t shoot people … It’s a mythological reality that we hope our society pays attention to. George Lucas speaking to The Washington Post
Feel lucky punk?
A cowboy is the American quintessential hero. Picture Clint Eastwood, Roy Rogers or John Wayne. They are frontiersmen, loyal to their friends, brave and independent. They’re expected to be honourable i.e. they can’t stroll into town and shoot someone in the back. But when the guns come out, they dispatch their enemies with style and skill.
George Lucas is right – this is the sort of mythology people expect.
In the world of fiction, the honourable cowboy has the happy advantage of knowing their enemies can’t kill them (and ruin the plot!) so they don’t have to shoot first. Or, at least, that’s my cynical view. In reality, there were no stand-offs, no ever-present tumbleweed drifting past à la The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. Not only did they shoot first, they didn’t stop shooting until the guy didn’t get up again.
The loveable rogue
As a Brit, the cowboy archetype never spoke to me. We don’t share the same history and ethos. For me, Han Solo is the loveable rogue. These guys function on a sliding scale of idealism and cynicism. They’re not going to gamble everything on the honourable course when a dirty underhanded trick will succeed.
And that’s why they’ll always be my favourite characters. They’re fascinating and complex, unlike the glittering hero who takes the most insane, illogical path simply because it’s more righteous. Why are we challenging them to a Marquess of Queensberry duel, Mr Hero, when we can just sneak into the enemy base and steal the evil mastermind diary with all the secret plans?
I’ve never had a problem with Han Solo shooting first.
Until the re-release and controversy, it hadn’t even occurred to me that it was a problem. Han fired first and seemed to subvert a cliché – his unwillingness to let the whole thing devolve into a barroom brawl, which was just going to end the same way anyway, seemed to me to paint him as the only sensible hero in the band. Luke is driven by honour. Leia by achievement. Han is the only one dealing with the universe as it actually is, rather than as he’d like it to be.
This subversion is mirrored in George Lucas’s later movie Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark where the titular character, played once again by Harrison Ford, is confronted by a man threatening him with a sword. Indiana simply shoots him in the chest.
One of my all-time favourite scenes and one George Lucas clearly hasn’t felt the need to go back to and correct.
Is it important who fired first?
I think it is.
Han’s story arc depends on these early scenes where he is driven solely by self-interest. His development is cheapened if he is re-created as a peaceable hero from the outset. In the beginning, he is vain, coarse, focused on his personal gain and willing to shoot first. By the end, he’s a valued member of the Rebellion, worthy of marrying a princess. His long struggle in the face of war, defeat and carbonite, Han’s arc is, without a doubt, the most substantial in the movies.
In conclusion, Han shot first.