While I discussed it once before in the context of the blog Troubling Immortality, I think that this is a good chance to probe the matter more deeply. In that blog, I said:
But there’s that little matter of Anakin becoming an abomination. That’s a tough one to forgive, especially when viewed from the perspective that he gets to “retain his identity” after death and in fact transcend where most in the context of the Star Wars universe are left to be nothing more than victims of a tragic zero-sum outcome, a whole lot of them at his hands.
And to be honest, it is a bit of troubling matter philosophically speaking. But I think I’ve figured a bit of Mr. Lucas’ thinking out on this one, as well as keyed in on some of his possible reasoning. A bit of this is conjecture, but I can back up my conclusions with a lifetime of study of “the text.”
First Things First
There’s first the matter of Anakin himself and his turn to the Dark Side. As Hawk remarked in his comment,
But Vader went from concerned husband to mass child killer in the blink of an eye.
I’m not going to dispute that so much as offer a small counterpoint. Anakin had turned to the Dark Side well before that moment. I argue he turned at the beginning of the film.
What I mean is, in the context of the film, Anakin had turned when he killed Dooku. After many viewings I’ve come to the conclusion that Anakin is in fact already of the Dark Side after that point, and what we’re watching up until he swears allegiance to Sidious is that of his trying to turn back and redeem himself.
I personally think the film is more interesting to view through that lens. We’re not waiting for a man to turn to darkness. We’re instead watching a man fighting to redeem himself before it’s too late.
In other words, he’s not killing kids “in the blink of an eye.” That’s merely the moment when the last ember goes out.
Is my read supported by the text? Take another look at the film and you decide.
The Heart of the Matter
Now for the act itself. The Jedi Temple is under seige and “Master Skywalker” enters the chamber where a group of children1 are hidden, and they turn to him asking for help. His reply is to turn on his lightsaber. We are left to accept what inevitably happens next.
Speaking as a father, that’s a stunningly heartless act. To borrow a sentiment from Sonny Corleone, he wasn’t killings some faceless guy across a battlefield, he was face to face and eye to eye. Worse than that, he was killing children. There’s no way to abstract that. He didn’t order their deaths, he didn’t toss a bomb in and walk away. He cut them down like an inhuman animal.
However, I think there’s a deeper point to this. Contrary to what some might believe, every film of merit has a great deal of thought put into it.
In the course of Episode II, Anakin kills children. When he takes his revenge on the Tusken Raiders who murdered his mother, he wipes them all out. Every man, woman, child and probably desert mouse is wiped out of existence in the blink of an eye.
As an audience, though, we’re more likely to forgive Anakin when he shows remorse for that act. Crying, he looks down at his hands and wonders at the horrible thing he’s done and he’s not only angry but fearful of that which he’s found himself to be capable. I can tell you, though, that when your mother dies you find a great well-spring of hurt inside that can easily turn into pain for all those around you.
When he kills Dooku, we‘re predisposed to forgiving that. Dooku was waging war, and defenseless though he was, we could always say to ourselves, he had it coming to him. After all, if you had you had Osama bin Laden at your mercy, you might just forget your own ideals about truth, justice and the American way.
Yet when Anakin kills these children he knows, in a calculated moment and for his own benefit, it’s very suddenly that we see the act as “of the Dark Side.”
My argument is that what Lucas is doing is showing us that all of these major points are of the “of the Dark Side,” and we get the chance to learn a bit about ourselves as we consider what is justifiable and what is forgivable. Is killing a man whose arms you’ve cut off at the elbow nobler than killing the children of desert tribesmen who’ve hurt the ones you love? Is killing those children more forgivable than killing the ones you’ve known?
I know my answers, but I have to admit that it’s a very uncomfortable question.
Over the Top
The final question remains: Why did Lucas feel compelled to include such a terrible and horrible scene? Surely he knew what he was filming and what he was showing to the audience.
I believe that, from a certain point of view, he had to go over the top. Not only was his audience older and not only are sensibilities different from the 1970s, with the tremendous popularity of games focused solely on body count and the goal to kill as much as you can see, but Darth Vader had grown from Universal Bad Guy to International Symbol of Cool.
Some of that is inevitable, like the fixation that teenage boys get for horror movie villains. We deal with the frightening harbingers of Death by celebrating them in some small way.
But Vader had spent three decades becoming Everyone’s Favorite Bad-Ass. There was no more Aura of Bad. The impact of his Evil was gone.
So Lucas was in a situation where his villain had to become worse. He had to go to the one thing left that makes a human being universally despicable. Namely killing children, as well as his own wife. Had he not gone that far, had he held back, then Vader never would have been seen as a true villain again. Now, lingering in the back of our minds as we chuckle about his treatment of subordinates, we’re left with the lingering remembrance of the Indefensible Act.
One Last Note
But remember, no one is beyond redemption. No matter who they are or what they’ve done, people can come back to the light. It’s just that they can’t do it alone. Anakin tried to save himself and everyone else, but it was when someone else (Luke) ventured to save him that he was able to find his way back. So it’s not a death-bed conversion as some might suggest, but rather a late assist.
I also think that the moment we stop believing people can be beyond all hope is the moment we lose what remaining value we attach to life in today’s world. And when that happens, I’m not sure I want to be around for the aftermath.
1 Lucas’ clever dodge to keep the audience tuned in is to use the word “younglings” instead of “children” in the movies, to allow a mental “out” to abstract the phrase “killing younglings”, and he wouldn‘t have his movie rated R. But I’m not indulging that BS here.