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If you’re still smarting from David Fincher killing off Hicks and Newt at the beginning of Alien 3 (1992), then you might not want to watch 1985’s Ewoks: The Battle for Endor on Disney+.
The second of two Ewok TV spin-offs that got a theatrical release in the UK, it takes the hero and the parents he saved in the first one and promptly murders them all, leaving a five-year-old girl (Aubree Miller) as an orphan. It’s an ignominious and rather terrifying creative decision in what is otherwise a pretty milquetoast mini-franchise. At least Battle for Endor is a better name than its working title, which was Son of Ewok.
For kids of a certain age, news of further Ewok adventures emanating from the Lucasfilm brain trust back in the mid-Eighties was everything. Initially, Lucas only intended to make a half-hour TV thing, something for his daughter Amanda, who loved the sometimes divisive alien teddies that first appeared in Return of the Jedi (1983).
But when the ABC network said they would only take a two-hour movie of the week, everything got a little bigger. Caravan of Courage, as the first film was also known, would be directed by Lucas’s friend and neighbor John Korty and written by the Star Wars creator and his former aide, Bob Carrau.
As Told By
The story was simple: a human family would crash land on the Ewoks’ planet and the parents kidnapped by a scary monster called the Gorax. Wicket – Princess Leia’s mate played by then-teenaged Briton Warwick Davis – and his friends would help their teen son Mace (hey, George obviously likes the name) and four-year-old daughter Cindel to rescue them.
Wok This Way
Lucasfilm turned to the little people who had played Ewoks in Jedi to once again don the furry suits. Well, some of them anyway.
“There were some people who stole their costumes [from Jedi] who didn’t get asked,” says Kevin Thompson, a veteran performer who you’ll recognize – possibly – as the Ewok who blew the horn, swung into the village, and chopped the rope that made all those logs fall on the stormtroopers in the third Star Wars.
“Thanks to ‘Leia’s Log’, as we called it, [Warwick] sold the world on Ewoks.”
It’s ironic considering Davis wasn’t even supposed to have been in the scene. Kenny Baker, aka R2-D2, was going to do it, but was ill with food poisoning on the day and had to bow out. The rest is, well, you know.
Debbie Lee Carrington (the one who died in Jedi) and Tony Cox (the Ewok on the speeder bike) also returned, while Thompson was given the role of ax-wielding badass Chukha-Trok.
“On Jedi I changed with 10 other guys in a trailer,” he tells The Companion. “And now I had my own dressing room.”
A wide search was carried out to cast the humans. Miller got the job after an open audition. Meanwhile, a young man called Eric Walker was going to acting class five times a week and trying to make it as a professional thesp.
“They told us it was for an after-school special,” explains Walker of his audition, which took place in a building opposite Universal Studios in Los Angeles that has since been turned into a subway station.
The casting director liked what they saw – which included a quality Eighties bowl cut – and gave him some script pages to learn so they could put him on camera, telling him they wanted to show it to the executive producer.
“They didn’t tell me the executive producer was George Lucas.”
He was called back for a screen test with Miller, to check she wasn’t afraid of the characters she would be around during shooting. “At the end of the day of the screen test, they brought out an Ewok on a stick,” he remembers. “And of course, she ran up and hugged it, she thought it was this lovable teddy bear.”
“I’m pretty sure once that costume went on Warwick, in my eyes he was an Ewok,” Miller herself told Star Wars Insider in 2015. “As far as Warwick as a person, he and Eric were in their teens and doing their own thing. I was just a young child.”
Production took place in and around Marin County, by Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch.
“We shot a lot of it on George’s ranch,” says Thompson. “That was always neat because we were going through the secret gates and it was like, you know, Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.”
Unlike the movies, turnaround was fast. Within four weeks of Walker’s audition, they were shooting, the first day being 11 June 1984. The film was scheduled to go out on ABC that November and in cinemas globally by mid-December.
“I didn’t find out I was going to be riding a horse until I read the script,” sighs Thompson. “And I was like, ‘I’m riding a horse in this outfit?’ What is a pony’s enemy? A bear. What do I look like? A bear.”
“It definitely did feel cutting edge,” says Walker. “There was one particular scene where I think there’s like 14 cameras rolling all at the same time.”
The villainous Gorax was a combination of stop motion and a guy in a suit. That performer was actually ILM effects artist Jon Berg, whose movements were shot using a slow-motion camera to make him look more ominous.
Producer Thomas G. Smith told Starlog magazine at the time they were throwing that level of feature film treatment at all aspects of the show.
“What looks bad on TV is when you have multi-element shots and have slight color differences between those elements,” he said. “These differences are accentuated on TV. That won’t happen on The Ewok Adventure.”
“They actually hired a trainer to get me in shape,” says Walker. “I did every stunt except for one stunt where Mace crashes into the Gorax cage. That’s not me. Although I did film myself flying up through the air. I flew about 15 feet and landed on a bag. But the actual part where he hits the cage is the stunt coordinator.”
Still, the coordinator was so impressed that he gave the young actor $150 in danger money and a stuntman’s hat.
Though not directly involved in the project from day to day, Lucas was often around.
“[One day] we hear on the walkie-talkie George is coming with [his daughter] Amanda,” remembers Thompson. “And it’s her birthday and George would like the Ewoks to present her with some gifts.”
The assistant director immediately started panicking about the schedule, before it became clear that they’d just have to suck it up and catch up the next day if the boss said so.
“These movies were made for Amanda,” adds Thompson. “You know, she liked the Ewoks. And thank gosh she did.”
Walker’s experience with the filmmaker was even closer, as Lucas decided to helm the week of reshoots personally.
“John [Korty] would still drop in from time to time, but he was not as closely involved in post-production as George and I were,” Smith told Yahoo.
“[Lucas] would come to the set, you know, at least once a week,” says Walker. “What I understand was he was really enjoying the editing, he got in there with the editor.”
Ultimately, there was only one thing that Kevin Thompson didn’t like about Caravan of Courage.
“I wish I would have got a chance to do the voice,” he says.
When he says voice, it’s a bit of a stretch. The filmmakers brought in a team of linguists to develop ‘Ewokese’.
“If someone pays careful attention,” producer Smith told Starlog, “one can begin to learn the language.”
When One Endor Closes…
About four months after its nine-week shoot, The Ewok Adventure hit ABC and became an inevitable hit, winning an Emmy for Visual Effects. On 14 December, it reached 100 UK cinemas, with accompanying toy displays in Harrods to promote it.
“I still would love to get some action figures from this,” says Thompson. “Chukha-Trok was made for a toy. He’s got an ax, he’s got the breastplate. He just has all the extra accessories. I can be like Barbie, I can have, you know, a pink Jeep or something.”
Unsurprisingly, talk immediately turned to a sequel.
“That’s the first thing the network asked us,” said Thomas G. Smith. “They said, ‘can this be a pilot for a TV series if it works out?’”
It wasn’t the second episode of a series, but what they came up with was certainly pretty bold. No sooner had Mace, Cindel and Wicket saved the day and rescued their parents than an evil witch and a bunch of Marauders killed most of them.
Walker repeats the story that George Lucas and Amanda were watching the movie Heidi the weekend before filming on Battle for Endor began which led to a total change in plot to make Cindel an orphan as well as adding a hermit character (Wilford Brimley).
“I was very upset about it for a while,” says Walker, who was originally signed for a trilogy. “I like the pace of the second one. I wish I would have been able to kick some more ass and kill some more Marauders, but it just didn’t happen. To me, Mace never died, I don’t think he died. I think something happened… You know, Boba Fett could survive the Sarlaac Pit.”
Shooting took place in the same area, only this time they also shot on soundstages next to ILM, using easily-moveable sets made of Styrofoam.
Even though his character – spoiler alert! – didn’t survive the first movie, Thompson returned for the follow-up.
“I was just glad that I got called because I was killed off the time before,” he says. “And they said no, you’re going to do all the stunts. So now you’re going to do like you did in Jedi, you’re going to wear a whole bunch of different heads, you’re going to be all these different characters.”
Written and directed by the Wheat brothers, Lucas still made his presence felt. “Once, he came around with Michael Jackson,” Warwick Davis revealed to Starlog. “I had my photograph taken with him, I had the Wicket head on.”
It was a tougher shoot with more security. “They were so stringent on it, that even when they gave us scripts, they were numbered and we had to turn in the script,” recalls Walker. “So if anybody got a copy of it, they would know who gave them the copy of it.”
Brimley was a handful, calling the Wheats ‘the idiot brothers’ and refusing to come to work at one point.
“He never got credit for it but that movie kind of was ghost-directed by Joe Johnston,” reveals Walker. “Every scene Wilford Brimley is in is directed by him.”
But this new creative direction didn’t go down well with audiences or critics. The Hollywood Reporter questioned whether making it more adult made sense, given “the central figures of this telefeature are a little girl and an overgrown teddy bear”.
Almost a year to the day since the first one was broadcast, Ewoks: The Battle for Endor arrived on TV on 24 November 1985.
“It got a lot of bad reviews,” says Walker. “The ratings were down, it tanked pretty much, the second one.”
Fur Gone Conclusion
And just like that, the Ewoks live-action universe was over. ABC persisted with the brand, hurriedly releasing two series of animated adventures (the creatures even managed to learn English, which is pretty impressive considering it’s a prequel), but that was it.
“For years, it was a unicorn,” admits Kevin Thompson. “People could not find [them]. Everybody knows me from Jedi, but a lot of people even to this day don’t know that there are two Ewok movies.”
Walker has long been a cheerleader, calling them the original Star Wars Stories. Then when Disney+ started up, he helped marshal a petition which got over 5,000 signatures and which he says contributed to Disney putting the movies on their streaming service.
Looking back now, it’s funny how the Ewok Adventures in a way pre-visualized the new Star Wars TV strategy.
“I suspect we will be doing more things like this movie for television,” producer Smith told Starlog back in December 1984. “They will be projects that can still use the story ideas of George Lucas and the talents of ILM, but these movies will be less ambitious.”
For now, Thompson has written a book with his wife about his life as an actor called My Journey to Endor. As for Walker, he’s hoping the two hours of footage he and Warwick Davis shot on set might become a behind-the-scenes documentary on the streamer.
Other than that, he’s happy to keep the Mace flame alive.
“It’s always a humbling experience to be part of a galaxy far, far away,” he says. “I had my 15 minutes of fame, so to speak. And it was neat.”
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Ben Falk is an entertainment journalist and author, who’s talked to scientists about whether Skynet will eventually take over the world and to cryptozoologists about who would win in a fight between a Xenomorph and a Predator. He is the author of books about Robert Downey Jr and Professor Brian Cox and particularly enjoyed writing the parts about how the latter helped make Danny Boyle’s Sunshine.