Rogue One marks an unusual development in the Star Wars cinematic universe, a stand-alone story that isn’t about the Skywalker family. This new installment in the saga isn’t wholly unprecedented, however: In 1984, Lucasfilm cobbled together Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure, a live-action TV movie starring everyone’s least favorite Return of the Jedi side characters. A sequel, The Battle for Endor, arrived soon after.
While there have been many subsidiary Star Wars products over the years—some good, some bad, and some just sort of there—the two Ewok adventures occupy a peculiar place in the George Lucas canon, looking and feeling much like the more official films. Though that resemblance lends them the imprimatur of official approval, they just happen to be far, far worse than even the worst of those more familiar cinematic stories.
To mark the release of Rogue One and to spread public awareness about the existence of this remarkable film, Slate’s Joshua Keating and Jacob Brogan revisited Caravan of Courage for the first time since their childhoods.
Brogan: Let me begin our reflection on this very embarrassing movie with an embarrassing story of my own. When I was young, probably 6 or 7, I started to notice a pattern: Every time my parents brought home a George Lucas movie, I would vomit. This initially puzzled me, because I loved the man and his work in those innocent pre-prequel days. Only later did I realize that it was probably because they were procuring those films for me when I was already sick, offering them as balms for my convalescence. Having just rewatched Caravan of Courage, however, I’m inclined to suggest that it marks an important exception. This movie is so bonkers that it may have actually forced me to throw up all on its own.
Keating: Star Wars and Star Trek were my go-to sick-day fare as well. I was talking to a friend I’ve known from childhood recently about how, now in our 30s, we don’t really trust our own opinions of any movie we saw more than 10 years ago. I definitely remember watching Caravan of Courage. As a kid, I certainly didn‘t think it was as good as the three Star Wars movies, but I don’t think that at the time I perceived there to be a major drop-off in production value between them. I perceived it as just another equally valid story told within the Star Wars universe, very much in the spirit of Rogue One today. That said, I went into Caravan of Courage this time expecting that it would be pretty bad. But it was bad in a completely different way than I expected! I was expecting a treacly cash-grab of a kids’ movie, not this phantasmagoric—and honestly kind of fascinating—shit show.
Brogan: I’ll say this for it: It’s weirdly action-packed. One of the two children is almost always in peril at some point, though few of those episodes have anything to do with one another. My favorite moment comes when boy-child Mace—who seems to have been cast for his resemblance to a mushy Mark Hamill—has to fight off some kind of furry tree snake.
Keating: Yes, Mace is reminiscent of Luke in his haircut and orange flight suit, but rather than the Force, his special powers are petulance, ingratitude, and poor life choices. Then there’s his little sister Cindel, who I would not be shocked to learn is the result of a sinister Empire experiment to create a human-Ewok hybrid.
They crash-land on Endor with the galaxy’s worst parents, Jeremitt and Catarine, who amazingly manage to abandon their kids on an alien world twice in this movie. After mom and dad are somehow kidnapped by a dim-witted, slow-moving giant called the Gorax who imprisons them in one of the flimsiest, most escapable cages in cinematic history, their offspring are taken in by the Ewoks. With the help of a magical dreidel, the Ewoks discover the parents’ location, and in spite of Doof Skywalker’s shitty attitude, agree to mount a rescue effort. A caravan (of courage!) sets off across some not-very-forbidding-looking Northern California landscape, our heroes meet some new Ewoks, and also Tinkerbell for some reason, all culminating in a final showdown with the Gorax, who—as previously mentioned—is dumb and slow and doesn’t put up much of a fight.
Brogan: Ewoks embody a surprising paradox. On the one hand, they’re designed to look like animate teddy bears, all cuddly and fun. On the other hand, they’re terrifying monsters, their inexpressive, rotund faces permanently set in cruel grimaces. I don’t remember being disturbed by this as a child—to the contrary, I loved them in exactly the way George Lucas wanted me to—but it’s hard to escape now: These things are monsters and not particularly appealing ones at that.
Keating: If these movies were made today, I wonder whether the Ewoks would have elicited some of the same online blowback that greeted Avatar’s depiction of “indigenous” aliens. In the original (brutal) New York Times review of Return of the Jedi, Vincent Canby describes “teddy-bear-like creatures called Ewoks, which serve the functions once left to friendly pygmies in old Tarzan movies.” This is only highlighted more in Caravan of Courage by the David Attenborough–style faux-ethnographic narration—by Burl “Big Daddy” Ives, no less—in the early scenes depicting Ewok village life.
Brogan: Tarzan is actually an apt point of comparison for this film, isn’t it? If anything, it owes more to old jungle adventure stories than Jedi did. There are whole sections that play out in untranslated and unsubtitled Ewokese, a language that seems to consist solely of cutesy mumbling. Were it not for that weird ethnographic narrator, there are times when this would have felt more like Fitzcarraldo-era Werner Herzog than a Lucasfilm project.*
Keating: I’m going to admit that I did not realize until going online afterward that the main Ewok character, Wicket, is the same Ewok that meets Princess Leia in Return of the Jedi. Wicket’s entry on Wookieepedia, the online Star Wars reference site, is 23,000 words long—about 45 pages when you paste it into Word.
Brogan: His full name is Wicket W. Warrick, by the way.
Keating: Caravan of Courage takes place some time before Jedi. That doesn’t really make any sense since the Ewoks have learned some English by the end of the movie, which they definitely don’t know by the time the rebels show up.
Brogan: The Ewoks’ language acquisition in this film may be its most unlikely element: They learn to speak with such ease that the linguist from Arrival would be jealous. By the time the sequel starts, Wicket is basically speaking in complete sentences. Ultimately, that’s one of the few things that carries over from the first Ewok film to the second, since the filmmakers kill off Cindel’s entire family in the first few minutes, rendering her efforts in Caravan of Courage moot.
Keating: I think I had mentally filed this movie along with those Jim Henson acid trip–for-children movies like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth that came out around the same time, but it feels a lot more homemade than that.
Brogan: Watching it is like reading fan fiction written by someone who has heard about but not actually seen Return of the Jedi. There’s all sorts of magic on display here, for example, but none of it seems to have anything to do with the Force—or anything else we’ve witnessed in the series. At one point, Mace-Not-Windu gets teleported into a pond, and the only thing that can get him out is some sort of enchanted stick.
George Lucas famously disavowed the notoriously terrible Star Wars Holiday Special (although Lucasfilm’s Pablo Hidalgo is still sticking up for it), but he seems to have been oddly untroubled by this production (on which he gets a story credit), despite its extreme amateurism. Mediocre as it is, it still has every appearance of canonicity: If we count this film and its sequel but not the benighted Holiday Special, there are 10 legitimate live-action Star Wars films. That means the Star Wars cinematic universe is roughly 26 percent Ewok.
Keating: For all his flaws as a storyteller, I find Lucas’ genuine love of Ewoks kind of endearing. I watched this movie a day after Rogue One, which in my view fails by thinking that violence and humorlessness are the same thing as seriousness. I was considering mounting an extreme Slatepitch arguing that Caravan of Courage is better than Rogue One. I can’t do that. Rogue One is a competently directed movie starring world-class actors, and Caravan of Courage is hot garbage. But I ultimately find Caravan of Courage’s approach to the Star Wars universe more appealing. Better that than the way the new movies treat it as some kind of religious text. Basically, what I’m saying is: Rogue One needed more Ewoks.
Brogan: I don’t know that I’d go that far, but I’ll say this: There’s something pleasant about the relatively low stakes of this film. No planets are going to blow up if our characters fail to rescue their parents. That doesn’t make for a particularly scintillating story, but it is a nice reminder that the Star Wars universe is a universe—and that it’s large enough to encompass all sorts of adventures.
*Correction, Dec. 29, 2016: This post originally misspelled the title of Werner Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo.