Darth Vader: The Tragic Man Behind the Mask

The iconic villain Darth Vader has it all: heavy breathing; theme music; brute physical and mental power; and that impenetrable mask. In Vader's case, the mask shields his humanity, making him appear gothic and machine-like.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

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)

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Vader Unmasked: The Sounds and Psychology of Evil

Darth Vader from below i i

hide captionDarth Vader's mask, with its eerie hiss of mechanical breath, is one the most recognizable icons in popular culture.

Courtesy Lucasfilm
Darth Vader from below

Darth Vader's mask, with its eerie hiss of mechanical breath, is one the most recognizable icons in popular culture.

Courtesy Lucasfilm
David Prowse as Darth Vader

hide captionDirector George Lucas offered actor David Prowse the choice of two parts in the original Star Wars Trilogy: Chewbacca or Darth Vader. Prowse opted to play Vader.

Courtesy Lucasfilm
Vader before his mask in 'Revenge of the Sith.' i i

hide captionThe final piece of Vader's suit, the ominous mask, begins to slide over his burned face in Revenge of the Sith.

Courtesy Lucasfilm
Vader before his mask in 'Revenge of the Sith.'

The final piece of Vader's suit, the ominous mask, begins to slide over his burned face in Revenge of the Sith.

Courtesy Lucasfilm

When moviegoers first met Darth Vader in the original 1977 Star Wars, it was hard to tell if he was man or machine. Apparently Vader's creator, director George Lucas, described him as a bit of both.

"He was described as a sinister character encased in a special life-support suit, and with some kind of unusual breathing apparatus and helmet over his head," says the film's sound designer, Ben Burtt.

Burtt's job was to come up with the sounds that would come out of that helmet. Vader's ominous voice is famously the work of actor James Earl Jones. But that tell-tale breathing is Burtt's — recorded in the back of a California dive shop, with a small microphone jammed into a scuba regulator.

"You could hear the valve opening and closing, and it had a little bit of a click and clank to it," Burtt recalls. "And the flow of air through the narrow rubber hoses had a really cold, very hissy quality to it. It was unreal."

Burtt went on to record heart monitors and other devices for Vader's life-support system. Then he played the sounds for Lucas. It was too much, Burtt remembers.

"Vader sounded like a walking emergency room with everything going all at once," he says. "You know, clicking, breathing, heart thumping and all of this sound. So we began stripping the sounds away one at a time, and it got down to really what was the simplest solution — which was just to have this very isolated breathing going. It gave Vader that machine-like undercurrent to his character."

It was a menacing audio signature, and one that had a kind of precedent.

"You know, I thought a little bit about Vader as being sort of like the crocodile in the Peter Pan stories, the crocodile that swallowed the alarm clock," Burtt says. The breathing, in other words, becomes a kind of sonic threat signature.

In Vader's case, it was amplified by music — music composed by John Williams, who two years earlier had created one of the most famous danger themes in the history of cinema. And in Star Wars, just as in Jaws, whenever you hear the theme, or leitmotif, associated with Vader, you know something bad's going to happen.

"Sometimes you don't see the bad guy — as in the shark — and you just hear it," says Dan Carlin, who chairs the film scoring department at Boston's Berklee College of Music. "It tells you, Oh my god, that's somewhere; I can't see what it is but I'm scared because I hear the music so the shark must be close. And the same thing with Darth Vader.

Vader's musical calling card was titled "The Imperial March," but it turns the traditional idea of the march on its head.

"Yes, it's brass, it's all low brass, but he does it in a minor key so it doesn't feel quite right," Carlin says. "You get irony there, because normally in a march ... you'd get something happy and bright that everyone wants to march along to. ... Nobody wants to march with Darth Vader."

True enough, that.

You Always Remember the Baddie

"Nobody's safe when Vader's around," laughs David Prowse, the 6-foot-7 stunt double and bodybuilder beneath Vader's costume in the first three Star Wars films. "With the boots and the mask and the helmet I probably was 7 feet tall."

His height has sometimes limited Prowse's choice of roles. With Vader, though, his imposing physique was another factor that intensified the character's power as a villain.

George Lucas initially offered Prowse the choice of two parts. The first was Han Solo's furry sidekick, Chewbacca.

"And all I could think of was 3 months in gorilla skin ... how hot and sweaty and smelly that's gonna be," Prowse says. "And I thought, No, you can keep that one, George."

The other was Darth Vader.

"And he said, 'Tell me why, why did you choose the villain?'" Prowse remembers. "And I said, 'Well, if you think back on all the movies that you've ever seen where there are goodies and baddies ... you always remember the baddie.'

Lucas, Prowse says, thought that was the right call.

"'Dave,' he said, 'I think you've made a very wise decision,' he said, 'because nobody will ever forget Darth Vader. '"

The Character Behind the Mask

While Darth Vader's sound and size are instantly scary, there's more menace embedded in the fact that we don't really know who or what he is. Psychoanalyst Steven Cooper says Vader's impenetrable mask is key.

"When you're first introduced to him even the mask is masked," says Cooper, who also hosts a film series called "Off the Couch." "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..."

Not so with Vader — at least not initially.

"Part of what's interesting about this visage is that you have no idea what the mask is about," Cooper says. "He's hidden to us so we don't see any part of his humanity."

One thing the seemingly all-powerful villain is hiding begins to be revealed in the second film, The Empire Strikes Back: Darth Vader is, or was, the father that hero Luke Skywalker thought was long dead. Suddenly, Vader is not only villain, but daddy.

The name Vader, in fact, is Dutch for "Father."

"Plenty of daddies are horrible people," Cooper says. "Many murderous people have children. I think the turning point about [Vader's] being a daddy is that he seems like he kind of loves his son. ... That's what makes him a daddy; he does seem to have conflict when they're fighting."

In the beginning, Cooper says, audiences of all ages respond to Vader because he reinforces the earliest lessons we learn about absolute good and absolute evil.

But as the series progresses, this dark character gets more complex — like King Lear, or Frankenstein. Like all of us, for that matter. In the end, Cooper says, Vader acts as any father should towards a child: He sacrifices his own life to save his son.

And Darth Vader's creator, George Lucas, apparently wanted audiences to know who his tragic character really was. He devoted the three Star Wars prequels that followed the original trilogy to Darth Vader's biography, and to the brutal trauma that turned him from a Jedi into the Dark Lord.

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