There are certain signatures in cinema that inspire emotions in us at an instinctive level, Bo Derek in a bikini, the cool confidence of John Wayne with a gun on his hip, the sight of Jaws’ fin above the water line; but only one creation in cinema has ever been able to inspire terror simply by breathing. When we hear that metallic inhuman sound we feel an innate terror that mixes with a feeling of anticipation and excitement because we know it means that Darth Vader is coming and people are going to die. We may admire a triumphant hero but it is in our villains that we revel. Continuing our Star Wars theme this edition of Character Study focuses on one of the badest of the bad: Darth Vader.
He is the nightmare of Frankenstein’s monster. Which is appropriate since the character we know is actually a composite of many individuals. Physically Darth Vader was portrayed by 6’5 British bodybuilder David Prowse and by stunt performer Bob Anderson who performed al of Vader’s lightsaber duels. I’ve already mentioned his signature mechanical breathing which was created by sound engineer Ben Burtt which combined with the sound of James Earl Jones’ voice provided a menacing sound to go with Vader’s imposing physique. By combining these elements Lucas managed to create one of the most intimidating figures in the history of cinema.
Darth Vader is more than simply the sum of his parts. The emotionless, relentless, black-clad figure is a staple of story-telling dating back to the Greeks. By fashioning his creation in this manner Lucas knows that his audience will instinctively associate the sith lord with the personification of death. If this weren’t frightening enough the casual dispatching of his various underlings over the course of the series displays a cold fury that is as unpredictable as it is final. This is what elevates Vader into the greatest villain ever discussion, the emotionless way in which he murders those sworn to follow him for their failures. He makes choking the life out of someone a mundane activity. Proof that it is more than just his black mask that makes him inhuman.
But what makes Vader tick is a trickier question. The fall and subsequent redemption of Anakin Skywalker is discussed as rabidly in psychological circles as it is on internet fan pages. Many psychologists use Anakin Skywalker to teach the symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder. The truth is for as much as his imposing presence is felt throughout A New Hope he actually only occupies about 12 minutes of screen time which makes his comparison to Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs inevitable. For almost the entire first two movies he appears in he is a static character, a loyal hound of the Emperor commanded to hunt down his prey without any thoughts or feelings of his own.
Then the duel at Cloud City happens and we find out he’s Luke’s father and character development pours out of him like water from a burst pipe. It’s undoubtedly one of cinema’s greatest WTF moments that immediately adds an insane amount of depth and dimension to a character who was pretty damn frightening to begin with.