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Darth Vader: The Tragic Man Behind the Mask


The American Film Institute defines an iconic villain as a character whose wickedness of mind and will to power may still in the end mask a tragic side.

(Soundbite of movie, "Star Wars")

Mr. JAMES EARL JONES (As Darth Vader): You may dispense with the pleasantries commander. I'm here to put you back on schedule.

MONTAGNE: Darth Vader, a villain, is a central character - some would argue the central character - in George Lucas's "Star Wars" series. He's the master of the dark side, of all that is evil in the universe.

In this installment of NPR's In Character series, Andrea Shea of member station WBUR examines how the creators of Darth Vader built him into such a formidable guy.

ANDREA SHEA: When moviegoers settled into their seats in 1977, we opened the first page of what would ultimately become a six-part comic book serial on screen. And we loved it. From the earnest princess to the comical droids to the sinister warlord who confronts them.

(Soundbite of movie, "Star Wars")

Mr. JONES: (As Vader) Several transmissions were beamed to the ship by Rebel spies. I want to know what happened to the plans they sent you.

Ms. CARRIE FISHER (As Princess Leia): I don't know what you're talking about. I'm a member of the Imperial Senate on a diplomatic mission to Alderaan.

Mr. JONES: (As Vader) You are part of the rebel alliance and a traitor. Take her away.

SHEA: James Earl Jones provided the ominous voice for the strong man who serves an equally evil emperor. Darth Vader is clad in a shoulder-to-floor-length black cape. His head is covered by a helmet and a mask that looks like a robotic skull.

Mr. STEVEN COOPER (Psychoanalyst): He's hidden to us so we don't see any part of his humanity.

SHEA: Steven Cooper is a Boston psychoanalyst who hosts a film series called "Off the Couch." In fact, Vader's creator George Lucas described him as a sinister character encased in a special life-support suit.

Ben Burtt is the sound designer for the "Star Wars" movies. And to get Vader's mechanical breathing, Burtt went to a California dive shop, jammed a small microphone into a scuba regulator and started sucking air.

Mr. BEN BURTT (Sound Designer): When you breathe through it you could hear the valve opening and closing. It had a little bit of a click and clank to it. And the flow of air through the narrow rubber hoses had a really cold, very hissy quality to it. It was unreal.

(Soundbite of Darth Vader breathing)

SHEA: Burtt went on to record heart monitors and other devices for Vader's life-support system. Then he played the sounds for Lucas.

Mr. BURTT: It was kind of funny. Vader sounded like a walking emergency room with everything going all at once, you know, clicking, breathing, heart thumping and all this sound. So we began stripping little sounds away one at a time.

SHEA: They settled on just the breathing.

(Soundbite of Darth Vader breathing)

SHEA: That breathing became Vader's menacing signature.

Mr. BURTT: You know, I thought a little bit about Vader as being sort of like the crocodile in the Peter Pan stories. The crocodile would swallow the alarm clock and every time the crocodile was around - or in this case Vader - there'd be some special sound associated with him, even when he wasn't talking, that would give an indication that he was present or lurking about, and he was dangerous.

SHEA: Vader's sonic threat was amplified by music composed by John Williams. The same man who created the scary theme for the shark in "Jaws."

(Soundbite of music from "Jaws")

SHEA: The music introduces and defines the character, says Dan Carlin, head of the film score department at Berklee College of Music in Boston.

Mr. DAN CARLIN (Berklee College of Music): sometimes you don't see the bad guy, as in the shark, and you just hear it, and that tells you, oh my god, it's somewhere. I can't see where it is, but I'm scared because I hear the music so that shark must be close. And the same thing with Darth Vader.

(Soundbite of Darth Vader theme music)

Mr. DAVID PROWSE (Actor): Nobody's safe when Vader's around.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHEA: That's David Prowse, the six foot seven inch stunt double and body builder beneath Vader's costume in the first three "Star Wars" films. Size contributes to Vader's power as a villain. When George Lucas first called Prowse, he offered Prowse a choice of two parts. The first was Han Solo's furry sidekick Chewbacca, but Prowse chose the villain.

Mr. PROWSE: And he said, Well, tell me why. Why did you choose the villain? And I said, Well, if you think back on all the movies that you've ever seen where there are goodies and baddies, I said you always remember the baddie. He said - Dave, he said, I think you've made a very wise decision. He said, because nobody will ever forget Darth Vader.

(Soundbite of movie, "Star Wars")

Mr. JONES: (As Vader) I've been waiting for you, Obi-Wan. We meet again at last. The circle is now complete. When I left you I was but the learner. Now I am the master.

Sir ALEC GUINNESS (As Obi-Wan Kenobi): Only a master of evil, Darth.

SHEA: While Darth Vader's sound and size are instantly scary, much of his menace comes from the fact that we don't really know who or what he is, says Boston psychoanalyst Steven Cooper. He says Vader's mask is key.

Mr. COOPER: Usually when there's a mask you can develop a theory about why it's there. It's covering up something hideous or it's to be anonymous. But part of what's interesting about this visage is that you have no idea what the mask is about.

SHEA: Part of what the seemingly all-powerful villain is hiding begins to be revealed in the second film, "The Empire Strikes Back."

(Soundbite of movie, "The Empire Strikes Back)

Mr. JONES: (As Vader) Obi-Wan never told you want happened to your father.

Mr. MARK HAMILL (As Luke Skywalker): He told me enough. He told me you killed him.

Mr. JONES: (As Vader) No. I am your father.

SHEA: With that, Vader is not only villain but daddy. The name Vader is Dutch for father. Psychoanalyst Steven Cooper says all of a sudden a character that started as an archetypal bad guy becomes more complex.

Mr. COOPER: I think the turning point about being a daddy is that he seems like he kind of loves his son. He does seem to have conflict when they're fighting.

SHEA: In the end, Cooper says Vader acts as any father would. He sacrifices his own life to save his son.

(Soundbite of movie, "Return of the Jedi")

Mr. JONES (As Vader): Luke, help me take this mask off.

Mr. HAMILL: (As Luke) But you'll die.

Mr. JONES: (As Vader) Nothing can stop that now. Just for once, let me look on you with my own eyes.

SHEA: Darth Vader becomes tragic, one of the requisites for any successful villain. And his creator, George Lucas, apparently wanted audiences to see just how tragic, because he devoted the three "Star Wars" prequels that were made after the original trilogy to Darth Vader's childhood and the brutal trauma that turned him from a Jedi Knight into the Dark Lord.

For NPR News, I'm Andrea Shea.

(Soundbite of Darth Vader theme music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Andrea Shea

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