In the climatic moments of A New Hope, Luke Skywalker speeds down the Death Star trench, nimbly avoiding blaster fire from turrets stationed along its length and guarded against attacks from behind by his two wingmen, Red 2 and Red 3. Those two pilots are better known, respectively, as Wedge Antilles and Biggs Darklighter. Neither of their last names are mentioned in the film and only one of the pair survives to fly another day. The death of Biggs Darklighter occurs after Wedge is forced to pull out after damage to his X-wing and leaves Skywalker alone and isolated, a vulnerability that Mark Hamill perfectly portrays as the young rebel recognizes no one is left to protect him. However, when the original plans for Star Wars are referred back to, Luke’s look of shock and dismay adopts another emotion, loss. As left on the cutting room floor was a backstory of lifelong friendship between Luke and Biggs that was edited out of the theatrical release.
In the beginning, Biggs was intended to be part of the gravitational pull that drew Luke’s imagination and dreams toward the stars. When Aunt Beru chides Uncle Owen that many of Luke’s friends had left, it’s a remnant of this earlier idea establishing a foundation for Skywalker’s frustration at being told “one more season…” by his uncle. It also touched upon Luke’s excited inquiry to C-3PO when he learned that the two droids had been involved in the rebellion against the Empire, something his friend Biggs had left the Imperial academy to join. The absence of Bigg’s backstory in A New Hope, not only stripped away a layer of background from Luke’s own character, but it also removed from the film the idea of the doomed, romantic patriot.
The idea of the romantic rebel can be traced back to at least Lord Byron, whose life straddled the last years of the 18th Century and the first two decades of the 19th. A poet of the Romantic period of English literature, Byron remains famous today for his work and his friendships, such as the close one with the married super duo Shelleys. Byron died a relatively young man in this 30s, fighting on the side of rebels against an oppressive empire. In this case, the rebellion was the Greek fight for independence from the Ottoman Empire. Perhaps since his death, the idea of young people devoting their lives to a valiant cause has been a popular theme, as best encapsulated in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérable, which pulls into its narrative young French patriots doomed to die in the Paris Uprising of 1832. Popular upon its release in 1862 and the undeniably emotional framing element to the second half of Andrew Lloyd Webster’s adaptation of the novel, the theme of young idealists likely resonated in the mind of George Lucas, who came to age during the 1960s and its era of youth lead protests.
It’s unsurprising, then, that a character formed within Lucas’ mind that encapsulated the youthful idealist who had abandoned a comfortable future to fight for a greater cause. It’s the death of an idealist that is always cast as a tragedy and had Biggs remained in A New Hope as the local who had enlisted in a righteous cause against an evil empire and then perished defending his friend, Darklighter’s death would undoubtedly be remembered as one of the emotionally tragic moments of the final act of the movie. His absence in the beginning, legitimately intended to help quicken our hero’s journey from the farm to adventure removed this possibility. The Biggs who responded to the radio call Red 3 just prior to the attack on the Death Star instead became simply one more casualty among many to follow. Loss under this anonymity was also the storytelling device that related back to Luke Skywalker.
In the theatrical cut of the film, Luke only agrees to join Obi-Wan Kenobi on his mission to Alderaan after the deaths of his aunt and uncle. Nothing was left for Skywalker to return to with the family homestead in flames and his family buried in the sands of Tatooine. In Biggs, something was left for Luke which connected him back to Tatooine. In a scene kept from the original release, but returned by Lucas in the special edition, Luke runs into Biggs in the X-wing hangar and for a brief moment, their friendship is established and Skywalker will no longer be flying among strangers on a life and death mission. The original absence of this scene, drawing a connection between the two men, removed the impact of Biggs’ death on two levels.
First, as a storytelling device, Bigg’s death symbolized the severing of Luke’s last connection back to Tatooine and to the person he had been before two droids entered his life. As a result, the Luke who flew back to Yavin was no longer quite the same Luke who had departed. Second, touching once again upon this changing of reality for Luke, Biggs’ death, more than any other pilot in the Battle of Yavin, came with true emotional weight and attachment. In that moment, when Luke is left alone, vulnerable, and soaring down the Death Star trench with the weight of a universe on his shoulders, the war became real. Unlike the death of his pseudo-parents, which happened without his knowledge, Darklighter died in his rear view, so to speak, just behind him, in the same circumstances that he now inhabited. Biggs brought to Luke a sharp recognition of his own mortality. One is challenged to look at Luke’s reaction, as portrayed by Hamill, with knowledge of Biggs’ importance to Skywalker, and not see it in Luke’s face before the farm fresh rebel is required to refocus on the task before him.
The tragedy of Biggs Darklighter is two fold. He encapsulated the romantic doomed idealist fighting for a greater cause, sacrificing himself for his friend on the hope that Luke Skywalker could pull off the nearly impossible shot. The silencing of his story stripped away this thematic element from A New Hope and it additionally stripped away Biggs’ presence and death as it related back to Luke Skywalker. The important role Biggs would have played was somewhat redeemed by the return of the Yavin scene in George Lucas’ retouched edition of Star Wars, but it was incomplete without his earlier introduction as role model and idealist as he was to be in the earlier script of the film. Thus, Biggs Darklighter remains a tragic figure in Star Wars, for who he was meant to be, and who he ended up becoming. Fly home, Red 3, fly on home.