The Dark Secrets Behind the Ewoks (Seriously)
Ewoks. For some, they're a beloved part of the Star Wars universe. For others, the introduction of sentient Build-A-Bears to the franchise was proof that the it had become focused less on story and more on selling toys, cartoons, and eventually murder-filled made-for-TV movies. Regardless of how you feel about the flesh-eating Teddy Ruxpins, it's worth noting that there's more than one messed-up story about their real-world origins. And it has nothing to do with the fact that those cuddly Endorians were essentially adorable Viet Cong.
We all love Star Wars, but some of the tactics Lucasfim employed to make the original trilogy back in the '70s and '80s wouldn't exactly fly today. Even before the broad racist caricatures of the prequels, those first three movies were brimming with cultural appropriation. Before you roll your eyes at the suggestion, think about it for a minute. George Lucas mined distinctly Middle Eastern and Asian elements, then reworked them to tell the story of a white teen from the space suburbs. Eastern Earth cultures were repackaged for American audiences as freaky and alien. Hell, the planet "Tatooine" is just a mangled version of the Tunisian town of "Tataouine."
In retrospect, one of the least culturally sensitive elements of the production was the way the alien languages were created. According to legendary sound designer Ben Burtt, his process for inventing the languages of Star Wars was to take "exotic" real-life languages, then "mimic" them. That's why the Jawas spoke sped-up Zulu words, while Jabba the Hutt's dialogue resembled Quechua, a native Andean language has nothing to do with giant slug mobsters. All of which gave a bunch of wacky aliens a sense of "authenticity" that "could not be created artificially in the studio."
However, the most troubling example of this can be found in how Ewokese was developed. Burtt goes into all the details on his DVD commentary. Apparently, it's partly based on Kalmuck, a native Mongolian language. Since it was relatively obscure, Burtt was put in touch with an elderly refugee who didn't speak English. According to Burtt, she "was probably in her 80s" and from "primitive regions of China." The idea was to record her voice as she told stories, but the old woman "didn't really understand" what he was doing. And since no one knew the Kalmuck translation for "We want your voice to inform how our race of alien teddy bears speak while they battle an army led by evil space wizards," she probably never found out.
According to Burtt, she "wanted a bottle of Vodka." So they got her tipsy enough that she became "lucid," then started recording the "wonderful sounds" she made. Also, no one knew how to say her name, so they decided to call her "Grandma Vodka." This woman, who isn't credited and was seemingly paid in booze, "provided the basis for the Ewok language," which the voice actors imitated. And you know those little songs the Ewoks sang? Like when they're passing firewood? That wasn't written by John Williams; that was "Grandma Vodka" singing what Burtt thinks is "probably" a "Chinese folk song," which may or may not be about devouring Harrison Ford.
It wasn't just "Grandma Vodka." Burtt also took inspiration from Tibetan. And by inspiration, we mean it's straight-up Tibetan. According to 1991 article in Culture, Burtt also recorded nine Tibetan immigrants. Here's where things get a tad controversial. Contrary to his account, this report claims that it was the Tibetans who were first given the vodka. Not because they asked for it, but because their performances were deemed lackluster and the translator's "secret to obtaining lively dialogue" was to ply them with hooch in order "to relax them." Never a good sign when your production process mimics that of date rapists.
There are actually two instances of real Tibetan in Return Of The Jedi, seemingly taken directly from these recording sessions. One line of dialogue suggests that the Tibetan immigrants were impressed by the studio's recording equipment, while the other implies they didn't enjoy being recorded, seeing as an Ewok tells C-3PO "I am a silent person. You better leave me alone."
Even the word "Ewok" itself is a loose appropriation of Native culture, created to rhyme with "Miwhok," the tribe from the Northern California land where Lucas worked. And we know this because Lucas said so under oath. Why was he under oath? Well, in researching this history, we found another crazy detail: George Lucas was accused of stealing the Ewoks!
In 1990, Lucas had to journey to Calgary, Alberta (presumably by Tauntaun) to testify in a copyright infringement case against him. The suit was brought by Dean Preston, who claimed that the idea for the Ewoks came from a script treatment he wrote for a movie called Space Pets. (Maybe he should have waited a few years and sued the creators of Space Buddies instead.)
Preston alleged that he mailed his treatment for Space Pets to Lucas in 1978. While Lucas probably got a lot of nutty fan mail following the success of Star Wars, this one featured an alien race called the "Ewoks." Five whole years before Return Of The Jedi was released.
The treatment featured warring alien critters, the Ewoks and the Olaks, who are helped out by human astronauts attempting to mediate the dispute. The aliens are then taken to Earth, where they become "stressed due to the media attention." So ... yeah, not exactly Return Of The Jedi. But the description of these Ewoks is rather close to what made it to the screen. While the Star Wars Ewoks don't have Preston's "multicolored fur" or "large yellow eyes," they are "small primitive woodland ... in tree villages with connecting bridges/swinging vines."
According to the lawsuit, Preston didn't even find out that there were "Ewoks" in the third Star Wars movie until he was in Los Angeles and randomly saw a car with an "EWOK" vanity license plate. He followed the car and questioned the driver, who turned out to be one of the actors who played an Ewok in Jedi, which was still in production at the time. So Preston sued Lucas ... for $129 million. His legal team made some convincing arguments, which included exposing some inconsistencies in Lucasfilm's record-keeping when it came to all the unsolicited mail they received. And the lawyers even caught Lucas in a lie over the invention of another furry alien race:
Still, it's hard to imagine one of the most successful working filmmakers getting his ideas from random Canadian fan mail. In the end, the judge ruled in favor of Lucas because the Ewoks in the Space Pets treatment weren't distinct enough to "warrant recognition as a character subject to copyright," since names aren't usually protected by law. He also ordered that Preston pay for Lucas' legal costs, which might have amounted to "as much as $50,000." In 2005, Preston claimed that the case pretty much destroyed his life. So if you think Ewoks ruined Star Wars, remember that at least they didn't get you drunk and steal your heritage, or cost you 50 grand.
You (yes, you) should follow JM on Twitter!
Follow us on Facebook, you're our only hope.