Happy Birthday, Peter Mayhew.
The actor turned 71 on May 19. So, in celebration of his birthday, why not talk about Chewbacca?
Chewbacca is one of the most memorable characters in Star Wars, and it’s amazing how much he adds to the meaning and power of each scene with his mere presence. Mayhew was given lines to speak on set -lines that actually made sense in the context of the story, but they were replaced in post with the unique howls and groans of pure emotion that comprise the Wookie language.
Star Wars has some of the greatest characters ever committed to film to drive the story: Luke, Han, Leia and Vader, among others. It also has many ships, vehicles and settings that help bring us into this unusual world. Chewie is one of the most iconic figures in Star Wars. He’s instantly recognizable as being a part of Star Wars, and as much as Vader represents evil, seeing Chewie in any context, represents friendship and even loyalty.
The story of the Star Wars trilogy begins, of course, with Luke Skywalker. As he makes the fateful choice to go to Alderaan with Ben Kenobi, we see his world expand; he must leave the homestead and venture into dangerous and unfamiliar waters. It is at a seedy spaceport cantina that he meets Han Solo, the crack freighter pilot, and his co-pilot Chewie. Han is simply looking for an easy charter to clear up some debts, and Chewie seems to always be at his side. Some off-screen material suggest that, in the past Han saved Chewie’s life, and Chewie owes him a life debt. There’s that, and there could be more.
“Chewbacca here is first mate on a ship that might suit us,” Kenobi says to Luke shortly after arriving at the cantina. We aren’t privy to the conversation just moments prior. Perhaps, just perhaps, Kenobi knew who Chewbacca was.
Regardless, Chewie is, from this point on, not just Han’s sidekick, he’s Luke’s and soon, he’s Leia’s. His presence as a member of the group is one that we treasure. His grunts, groans and howls express how we all feel in ways that words never could, yet he remains a formidable fighter, as he is no doubt the strongest of all of the characters we’ve met.
Even in the following films Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, Chewbacca serves, really, as the emotional anchor. It might not be his story, and even though most of his complaints are often voted down, we still feel as he does in pretty situation. When the rebel base on Hoth must close its main doors for the night, leaving Han and and Luke out in the wilderness, Chewie’s painful howl is exactly how we all feel. Later, when he is trying to fix the hyperdrive on the Millennium Falcon (like that moment when he smashes the tool into the console causing quite a electric shock which really doesn’t phase him) we feel the same frustration he does. His biggest moment of courage is holding back at Han’s suggestion just when Han is about to placed into the carbon freeze. It’s Chewie’s emotions that we must burn through before we realize that this is also the moment than Han and Leia realize that they truly love each other.
Chewbacca can always be counted on. He’s loyal and loving, aggressive and formidable. And his behavior, with gestures both subtle and broad, are all interesting to look at. Mayhew doesn’t just wear the costume: he inhabits the character. Combine his performance with the some awesome mouth movements (performed by the special effects wizards who worked achieved the mouth movements of “primitive man” in 2001: A Space Odyssey and the clever sound design of unique Wookie noises provided by the craft, Ben Burtt.
But it’s Mayhew who has us convinced that Chewbacca is as loyal and expressive as he is.
And how much fun was it when Chewie took control of that walker and started blasting away at the stormtroopers in Return of the Jedi? Yes, it was very cool. Chewbacca might be familiar to any who is a passionate dog-owner, but he’s also not one to just lie down and play dead. He’d rather turn back at you, holler a bit, and shot you down with his bow-caster if you cross him, especially if you are wearing stormtrooper armor.
I still wish he’d gotten a medal!