In 1981, a film crew working on a project titled Blue Harvest, Horror Beyond Imagination descended on the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area. The name Blue Harvest was intended to mislead the public and hide the fact that the crew was preparing to film scenes for the third movie of the original Star Wars trilogy. This ruse proved to be ineffective and the production staff would be forced to periodically deal with small armies of fans who realised that that ‘Blue Harvest’ was simply a cover for the film that was first known to the public as Revenge of the Jedi.
A promotional trailer was first released in the United Kingdom in May 1982 and carried the Revenge of the Jedi title card. It contained footage filmed on the Imperial Dunes set and showed Luke Skywalker brandishing a blue lightsaber above the sands of Tatooine.
Before the 1983 premiere, the film was subsequently renamed Return of the Jedi and the hue of the lightsaber became the emerald colour now associated with Luke Skywalker.
Some believe that the colour change was made to visually represent the evolution of the character while others believe the change was to give the lightsaber blade a more visible contrast against the vivid blue of the desert sky above Tatooine’s Dune Sea. Even today, this sequence draws Star Wars enthusiasts to the desert sands on the eastern edge of California’s Imperial Valley.
In the completed eight-minute sequence from Return of the Jedi, his high exaltedness, the great Jabba the Hutt attempts to resolve a breach of contract with Han Solo, an expert smuggler and undeniably poor businessman. Jabba also attempts to administer justice to Solo’s conspirators Luke Skywalker and Chewbacca, who were implicated in the attempt to steal a favoured decoration from Jabba’s palace.
The scene concluded with the untimely death of Jabba, marking the sixth murder of a significant number of Jabba’s business associates and employees, the wholesale destruction of the Hutt’s sail barge, and the ingestion of the bounty hunter Boba Fett by the all-powerful Sarlacc. This pivotal scene provided a resolution to the cliffhanger established in The Empire Strikes Back, highlighted the loyalty shared between the main characters, and gave the audience the first glimpse of maturing power of Luke Skywalker. The scenes were staged in desert depression ringed by a circle of 300-foot sand dunes, roughly twenty miles west of Yuma, Arizona. Starlog journalist James Van Hise stated construction at the filming site began in 1981 and required over $200,000 in lumber stock alone.
Additional claims indicate that the set took over five months to build and more than 5,500 cast and crew were involved in the production.
The completed set rose over fifty feet above the desert floor and consisted of a multi-storey construction large enough to park production trailers under. The crew constructed the sail barge (retroactively named the Khetanna), the desert skiff (sometimes known as the Ubrikkian Industries Bantha-II skiff), and the Sarlacc Pit on site, maximizing the use of the practical location. The Sarlacc Pit was a raised construction, not an underground pit, which allowed actors to be swallowed up during shooting and easily recovered for later shots. Production photos also show speeder bikes, later showcased in the Endor chase scenes, present on set but unused in the final film.
The film cast and crew faced the oppressive California desert heat throughout the two-week shoot in April 1982. The set was then torn down and the only permanent landmark that remained is a concrete base containing a sheared metal fencepost that was used to mark the perimeter of the production area. This post can be located on occasion but often disappears beneath the shifting sands. Typically, only small scraps of dry wood, maroon painted plaster, amber coloured foam, rusted metal building supplies, and the occasional scaffolding clamp are unearthed today.
Periodically, the winds will uncover remnants that have laid beneath the desert sands for over three decades, but these fragments can be lost within a few days if not quickly located. Film Artifact Preservationist William De Molee has documented filming locations across America and has taken multiple trips to the Imperial Dunes location in support of the Movie Reliquary Collection. William conducts detailed research of the filming sites using first-hand accounts, production photos, and multiple film viewings to locate production used relics. The Great Pit of Carkoon filming location required a three-mile desert hike in temperatures over 37 Degrees C. (100 degrees F.) before beginning the search for remnants.
Return of the Jedi would complete the original George Lucas trilogy, earn over $400 million at the box office, and receive a Special Achievement Award for Visual Effects at the 56th Academy Awards, in part because of the masterful set construction and storytelling that occurred at the Imperial Dunes filming location. The fragments of this material make it possible for Star Wars enthusiasts to own a piece of the original film trilogy, with documentation that provides an irrefutable line of provenance required by collectors.