Why Is It Such An Issue If Han Shot First?
With anticipation at an all-time high for the upcoming release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, nothing can taint fans’ excitement at seeing the sci-fi franchise back in theaters again.
That is, except for the grudge we’re still holding against George Lucas for messing with Han Solo’s itchy trigger finger.
On the off chance that you missed this scandal when it first happened, here’s the deal: In the original 1977 Star Wars, Han Solo’s first appearance established him as a calculating, decisive badass who wasn’t afraid to shoot first and ask questions later—literally. In the famous scene, Han is being held at gunpoint by Greedo, a bounty hunter who plans to turn him in and reap the monetary rewards. Greedo admits straight-up that Han won’t be surviving this scenario, at which point Han shoots to kill before Greedo can fire his own gun.
In the 1997 re-release, however, George Lucas edited the scene to show Greedo firing first, and missing—changing Han’s shot from an act of calculated aggression to a heat-of-the-moment defensive move.
The response was swift and furious: “Han shot first!” became a rallying cry for fans, all of whom flat-out rejected the notion that Han Solo, a survivor above all, would ever wait his turn to shoot Greedo just because doing otherwise would be impolite.
But in a recent interview with The Washington Post, George Lucas once again insisted that he’d made the right call when he changed that scene.
“Han Solo was going to marry Leia, and you look back and say, ’Should he be a cold-blooded killer?’” Lucas said. “Because I was thinking mythologically—should he be a cowboy, should he be John Wayne? And I said, ’Yeah, he should be John Wayne.’ And when you’re John Wayne, you don’t shoot people [first]—you let them have the first shot. It’s a mythological reality that we hope our society pays attention to.”
In that respect, Lucas has a point. Contemporary Western audiences love a good gunfight or action sequence, but we don’t like to see our hero throwing the first punch. It’s not that only the bad guys can ever be instigators—the only thing American fans love more than a hero is an anti-hero, after all—but traditionally (or “mythologically,” as Lucas puts it), one of the defining qualities of a “John Wayne” type hero is that he won’t resort to violence until or unless he has no other choice.
This archetype—the reluctant hero, the badass pacifist—comes from a variety of sources, from our good old-fashioned love of an everyman/underdog story to our history of being fascinated and inspired by nonviolent martyrs. (Would Jesus have shot first? Yeah, probably not.)
And it’s enduring; there are few central characters out there who don’t struggle with the question of when to pull the trigger, either literally or figuratively. Superman screams in anguish when he’s forced to choose between sparing Zod and saving humanity. Rick Grimes becomes a pragmatic killer after learning firsthand the cost of being merciful, yet still struggles with the fear of losing his humanity. Katniss Everdeen kills only when it becomes absolutely necessary, and is traumatized by the violence she commits, even in the name of self-defense. Batman dispenses justice, but draws the line at taking human lives—which is “so important,” he says, precisely because his enemies won’t be similarly restrained.
Even Leonidas of 300, who is more or less shooting first when he literally kills Xerxes’ messenger, does it with full awareness that he’s starting a war which will cost his life.
In this landscape of righteous dudes and courageous martyrs, Han Solo is a different kind of hero. He doesn’t reject or question the need for violence. He’s certainly not about to put his life on the line for the sake of a cowboy honor code that his enemies don’t share. Han is a survivor. Confronted with the reasonable likelihood of having to kill or be killed, he kills, and he doesn’t hesitate.
And yet, fans never questioned Han Solo’s status as a hero of the Star Wars franchise, and straight-up rejected George Lucas’s revisionist history of the character. Not only did nobody need Han to be John Wayne, nobody wanted him to be.
Why, in a world where most heroes are held to strict standards vis-a-vis acceptable violence, does Han Solo get a pass? It probably helps that he’s not technically the protagonist of Star Wars; Luke Skywalker is. Minus the part where he doesn’t get the girl at the end, he embodies all the characteristics of a classic hero on a classic hero’s quest. And Luke, in combination with Obi-Wan Kenobi and Princess Leia (not to mention Chewbacca), supplies more than enough moral conscience to make up for Han’s more mercenary sensibilities.
But more importantly, if Han didn’t start off motivated solely by self-interest—if he didn’t start off as the kind of guy who had learned, through hard experience, to shoot first for survival—it wouldn’t be so exciting and compelling to see him align himself with the side of righteousness.
Because unlike Luke Skywalker, with his supernatural gifts and hero’s destiny, Han Solo is just a guy. And his heroism isn’t about being the Chosen One; it’s about being an ordinary, flawed human being who chooses to join the good fight.
That makes for a more complicated journey than the typical hero’s quest. It also allows for the possibility that a man might start that journey as a calculating outlaw who knows when to negotiate and when to just pull the trigger. And yes, it can make for a hero whose checkered history makes some people (ahem, George Lucas) uncomfortable. But it also makes for a hero who we—the ordinary, flawed humans sitting in a movie theater, watching this story unfold—can actually relate to.
Han shot first. Then he risked his own life to save his friends, fight the evil Empire, and make it possible for Star Wars to return again in the new millennium.
Surely, John Wayne would have done the same.