It’s official: the ballsy bootlegger is Star Wars’ coolest character. But he’s also a Corellian of surprising complexity
A celebration of the roguish smuggler played by Alden Ehrenreich in Solo: A Star Wars Story, and some ancient geezer in a bunch of really old films.
BY FAR THE funniest moment in (500) Days Of Summer, a likeable romcom which spins through key dates in the relationship between everyday guy Tom (Joseph Gordon-levitt) and music-loving Manic Pixie Dream Girl Summer (Zooey Deschanel), is when Tom, bouncing down the street high on Summer, checks his appearance in a car window. Looking back at him as his reflection is Han Solo from A New Hope.
Han winks at him — it’s the wink he gives Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) when he is receiving his medal for his role in blowing up the Death Star — and it makes Tom happy. Apart from the surprising thrill of seeing a familiar character in another movie (both were Fox properties), the joy of it is that everyone — man, woman, Princess, Wookiee — wants a Han Solo wink of approval. It’s the epitome of achievement unlocked.
This is one of the reasons Han Solo tops our list of Greatest Star Wars
Characters: he is ineffably cool. He has wit, charm, street smarts, can understand Shyriiwook, woo ladies and jumpstart his spaceship just by smacking it. When, in Spaced, Simon Pegg’s Tim Bisley bagsies ‘Han’ as his codename for a daring dog rescue, he is doing what kids in playgrounds across the planet have done since 25 May 1977 — wanting to be Han Solo. Even if no-one knows the correct way to pronounce it.
“George Lucas is a ‘Han’ man,” says Alden Ehrenreich, who plays the younger Han in Solo: A Star Wars Story. “Leia has said Han and ‘Hahn’, but Harrison says Hahn. You wonder how that stuff went on in the original movies. I guess there was no-one monitoring it. They had other things to worry about.”
However you say it, few characters have provided a more popular template for cocky insouciance. Dirk Benedict’s Starbuck in Battlestar Galactica and George Peppard’s Space Cowboy in Battle Beyond The Stars were the first wannabes. Since then, movies have given us variations on a Solo theme, from Val Kilmer’s Madmartigan (Willow) to Nathan Fillion’s Mal Reynolds (Firefly)
to Chris Pine’s Captain Kirk (Star Trek)
to Dane Dehaan’s Valerian (Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets).
Between Peter Quill (Guardians Of The Galaxy) and Owen Grady (Jurassic World), Chris Pratt owes his blockbuster career to Mr Solo.
It’s not just movies. Games characters The Prince (The Prince Of Persia), Balthier (Final Fantasy XII) and Nathan Drake (Uncharted) all share Solo DNA. And this is not to mention Star Wars’ ability to cannibalise (or Hannibalise) Han: Expanded Universe characters like Dash Rendar, Kyle Katarn, Corran Horn, Talon Karrde, Atton Rand and, of course, Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron are all cut from the same Solo cloth, looking to recapture that effortless charisma.
But if cool were the only criteria, then Boba Fett, Lando Calrissian or Darth Maul could also be king. There’s more in play with Solo than just sheer magnetism. Something that might not have been apparent from his inauspicious beginnings.
It’s a key
tenet of Star Wars ‘making of’ lore that everyone’s favourite space smuggler started life as a green-skinned alien — an Ureallian — with no nose and enormous gills. In this incarnation, he wasn’t even a smuggler but a “Jedi-bendu” and an old buddy of General Skywalker (more Obi-wan than Luke in this version). In the second draft, Solo is now a Corellian space pirate, a few years older than Luke, but burly, bearded, handsome and dressed in flamboyant clothes (forget Corellia; he belongs in Shoreditch). The model here seems to be Francis Ford Coppola, Lucas’ mentor, another fast-talking deal-maker who loved to gamble. In this draft, Han takes Luke to his home — a seedy slum dwelling — where he is shacked up with a female “Boma” named Oeeta, described as a five-foot-high cross between “a bear and a guinea pig” who communicates in baboon-like calls. Surely there couldn’t have been enough money in Hollywood to pay even a pre-stardom Harrison Ford to play this.
The third draft starts to look like the Solo we know and love. First introduced in the docking bay, he is written as 25, simple, sentimental and sure of himself. In this sense he is a version of John Milner, Paul Le Mat’s character in Lucas’ previous film, American Graffiti. For a brief time in the fourth draft, Solo went by the name Jabba The Hutt, before Lucas came to his senses. Yet the revised fourth draft sees him introduced in the Cantina — with a gorgeous alien girl draped round him — talking about his ship, the Millennium Falcon.
Solo’s impact is partly narrative design. He enters the story at a point where the judo-suited farm boy, bath-robed ex-wizard and stiff robot are starting to bore. Solo/ford’s introduction gives Star Wars a kick up the arse but also contrast. And it is a stroke of pure casting genius. When it came to filling Solo’s threads (so good Lando steals his look for the end of Empire), the ace in the hole was Fred Roos. An associate of Coppola’s, Roos championed Harrison Ford even though Lucas made it clear that he didn’t want anyone from American Graffiti. Bob Falfa, Ford’s American Graffiti character, is another early sketch for Solo: a cowboyhatted braggart permanently in the cockpit of a Chevy Impala. Roos played clever. He kept Ford, a Hollywood carpenter in-between acting gigs, front and centre in Lucas’ mind by hiring him to fix a door in the casting offices. While the long, now infamous list of wannabe Hans (Christopher Walken, Kurt Russell, Nick Nolte, Perry King) came in to read, Ford was playing Solo for the hopefuls trying out for Luke and Leia, lodging in Lucas’ mind but also developing a take on the character. He was just the right mix of worldly wisdom and hot AF youth.
“I was 35 when I first hit with Star Wars,” Ford told Empire in 2010. “I had some degree of maturity and some degree of experience, yet physically I still looked young. That had been an impediment early on in my career, but then it turned out to be an advantage.”
These qualities helped Ford keep Han Solo grounded. Ironically, they also let Star Wars fly.
When talking up
other roles (especially the complex Allie Fox in The Mosquito Coast), Ford would often denigrate Han Solo as a simplistic, one-note character. He was wrong. Of course, the first thing you would see is the hip, flip space pirate. He puts the smug in smuggler (“less” than 12 parsecs), wields sarcasm like a DL-44 heavy blaster (“But who is going to fly it, kid? You?”) and virtually commentates on the film as it unspools (“Where did you dig up that old fossil?”). Yet, from the point we first meet him (especially if you factor in Alden Ehrenreich’s incarnation) to the time he comes to that tragic end on a bridge at the hands of his son, he is one of the characters who has gone through the biggest arc. His ‘journey’, both exterior and interior, is equal to more supposedly developed characters like Luke.
Steven Spielberg coined the phrase “courage and stupidity” to describe the making of Jaws. It is also the perfect encapsulation of Solo. Just run a quick Solo supercut in your head. You might start with the moment he decides to chase stormtroopers down Death Star corridors until he comes face to face with an entire Imperial platoon. Or consider the moment he flies directly into an asteroid field (the
odds of survival are… never tell him, he hates that) to escape an Imperial blockade. Yet sometimes his bravery is infused with wily smarts: his seemingly foolhardy manoeuvre of goosing the Star Destroyer Avenger’s bridge, only to cling to the side of the ship like a limpet to avoid the sensors, earns him a kiss of gratitude from Leia but also burgeoning respect.
Courage and stupidity plays into one of the joys of
Han Solo: his ability to improvise. Faced with a freezing Luke Skywalker dying of hypothermia in the wastes of Hoth, he quickly deduces the only warm place available is the inside of a tauntaun’s stomach, but also realises the only instrument to perform ad hoc surgery is Luke’s lightsaber, a weapon he’d previously derided as “ancient”. Just as there is a real frisson in seeing Solo use a lightsaber — the old world meeting the new — there is an equal thrill in seeing him pick up Chewie’s bowcaster to see off baton-wielding stormtrooper FN-2199 in The Force Awakens. Yet his greatest moment of improv — worthy of Greg Proops himself — is when he decides to answer the beeping comlink during the rescue of the Princess in A New Hope. After stuttering and stammering to keep them at bay (“We’re all fine now, thank you. How are you?”), he gives up and blasts the comlink to bits, adding, “Boring conversation anyway.” It is quintessential Han Solo: loose, funny and endearing.
Yet probably the number one moment in any Solo supercut would be an actual moment of deft improvisation. Shooting Solo bidding Leia goodbye before being encased in carbonite, Ford didn’t like the dialogue as written — “I love you”/“i love you too” — because he felt Solo would be too arrogant to let Leia win. So he workshopped different iterations on camera with director Irvin Kershner — including “I love you”/“yeah, yeah” — until, from nowhere, Ford delivered the immortal, “I know.” The pair were confident they’d aced it, but knew they’d have to get it past Lucas.
“That was all about George’s discomfort and then acquiescence,” remembered Ford. “He said we were going to get a bad laugh and I said, ‘There’s no such thing.’ We had a screening where I was compelled to sit next to George as he tested the line the way Kersh and I wanted it. And he gave in at that screening. ‘Alright. It works.’”
If anything has shaped Solo over the course of the saga, it is Leia. When the rogue meets royalty, he is the archetypal “scoundrel” (her word) and their repartee — written by script doctors Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz — sparkles. In short, he needs to grow up, and she is the conduit for his change. After meeting her, he gives up smuggling and becomes a key member of the Rebel Alliance, leading sorties to Endor and later Starkiller Base. Leia exacerbates perhaps the guiding principle of Solo’s character: the push and pull between the mercenary and the altruistic. It’s a quality demonstrated at the end of A New Hope, as he packs up his loot to pay Jabba The Hutt yet returns to save Luke and the entire Rebellion by taking down some TIE Fighters. Han’s conflict between light and dark became codified in a completely meta way when, in 1997, Lucas digitally doctored Episode IV so Han’s shooting of hired killer Greedo was in self-defence. In 1977, Han was a dope badass. Twenty years later he was a victim of circumstance. It’s a decision Lucas subsequently regretted.
“If I’d known what a big crazy thing it would be, I would have just left it alone,” Lucas told Empire in 2014. “The people who like to think of Han as a cold-blooded murderer, they have their version. The idea was this guy is not a coldblooded murderer, he is a scoundrel — that’s different from being a murderer. I still don’t think many people can tell the difference.”
The details of
Solo’s earlier life existed in George Lucas’ head from the get-go. Among the director’s extensive notes were the guessable (parents killed in a battle, raised by space gypsies, became a mechanic) and the unexpected (he spent three years herding large animals called coldppedas — their meat is an aphrodisiac — on the planet Coonee). Seventeen years later, while developing Revenge Of The Sith, Lucas considered adding a ten-yearold Solo aiding Yoda to find General Grievous on Kashyyyk. Although concept art was created, the idea never left the drawing board.
Lucas was also a prime mover in the film that became Solo: A Star Wars Story, commissioning Lawrence Kasdan to write the screenplay. Along with Lucas and Ford, Kasdan is perhaps the chief architect of Solo, co-writing Empire, Jedi, The Force Awakens and Solo.
“When I saw Han in A New Hope
when it first came out, he was absolutely my favourite character,” he says. “He was perfectly in line with all the people I had really been fascinated with since I was a child. Not just Bogart, but Robert Mitchum, Steve Mcqueen, the entire cast of The Magnificent Seven. He had all that manliness and a wry sense of humour, but what I really loved was he wasn’t that smart.”
Solo does a neat job of articulating the character’s nascent bravado with his lack of grey matter — witness the moment where Solo attempts to trick marauder Enfys Nest into believing the Millennium Falcon is filled with “about 30 hired guns”, followed by a shot of the ship flying off into the
distance. If the character hasn’t found his sarky voice yet, Solo does capture Han’s courage and stupidity (flying into a rather muddled Kessel Run), inner battle between selfishness and selflessness (spoiler: he funds the entire Rebellion), and that quality of going above and beyond to protect those he loves, in this case Qi’ra. He also unequivocally shoots first, killing his mentor, Tobias Beckett, before he gets killed.
Kasdan not only presided over Solo’s origins; he also co-authored his demise. It’s perhaps the biggest stroke of genius of The Force Awakens that Solo, the ultimate jaded cynic scoffing at Luke Skywalker’s wide-eyed wonder at the Force (“No mystical field controls my destiny. It’s all a lot of simple tricks and nonsense”), has become over the course of his life a believer (“Crazy thing is… It’s true. The Force. The Jedi. All of it. It’s all true”). Han has the film’s best line: when Finn suggests they destroy Starkiller Base by using Jedi powers, he chides, “The Force doesn’t work like that.” Yet as Solo has become more open-minded, he has also suffered pain. He lost his son Ben to Supreme Leader Snoke after training with Luke went awry. When Ben became Ren, Solo and Leia’s marriage collapsed, the former returning to smuggling and Chewbacca, the latter leading the Resistance. Their reunion on Takodana brings a lovely moment: Han notices she has changed her hair; Leia, assessing his outfit, teases, “Same jacket.”
Perhaps this growth is why Solo sticks. In a galaxy populated by aliens and droids, pauper farm boys and rebellious royals, Han is the most human of all. But also, across five films, as he has grown up — become more responsible, vulnerable and susceptible to pain — we have grown up with him. We may never wear a waistcoat (unless we’re Gareth Southgate), but when we see him, we see ourselves. When he says, “Chewie, we’re home,” just his presence means they’re not the only ones there.
Left: Harrison Ford as Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back.Right: Alden Ehrenreich as the younger Han in Solo: A Star Wars Story.