The fastest review hanging on almost everyone’s tongue Return of the Jedi cynical is that the Ewoks are a soulless merchandising cash grab. These naysayers want you to believe that the sight of cuddly teddy bears beating Stormtroopers with nothing but sticks and rocks turns the idea of Star Wars into a baby playground. Of course, among the films of the original trilogy, Return of the Jedi is perhaps the one with the most problems – but the Ewoks are not one of them. Certainly not. They’re not cuddly teddy bears, they’re hardened death machines. The truth is simply that the Empire rolled onto the moon of Endor like the Colonial Marines rolled onto LV-426 in aliens. They had no idea what they were getting into and they got slaughtered.
It is entirely plausible that an indigenous culture like the Ewoks could ward off a technologically superior occupying force like the Empire. There is a historical precedent that george lucas himself said that he was inspired by it for the ongoing conflict in star wars, such as the American Revolution and the Vietnam War. George has been open in the past about drawing inspiration from the Vietnam War in particular, going so far as to say that the Ewoks were inspired by the Viet Cong. He was fascinated by the idea of small fighting forces defeating powerful global entities with irregular warfare, which is represented by the struggle of the oppressed of the Rebellion against the Empire. George’s interest in this kind of war history becomes even more evident with the Ewoks. He always intended for a more primitive star wars cash to overthrow the Empire in the “final” episode.
Originally, George wanted the Wookies to fill this role in the final battle. The massive land battle we see on Endor was a concept George had in mind for the first movie with Wookies instead of Ewoks. Although that idea was scrapped, we still have Chewbacca in the final cut. Wookies were said to be a somewhat primitive species that used crude weaponry compared to blasters, speeders, and walkers. They would have been trained to pilot spaceships for a space battle taking place simultaneously. The concept of ground combat was brought back for the third movie, but by then Wookies already knew how to pilot spaceships and fight with blasters. George realized that Chewbacca had already set a precedent for the Wookies to be proficient, spatial technologists in the previous two films. Chewie co-pilots the Millennium Falcon, re-enacts the C-3PO, and wields a bowcaster. While George could have argued that Chewie was an outlier, it was just simpler to invent a new kind of star wars creature. So enter the Ewok, a clever inversion of the term Wookie.
Despite their adorable outward appearance, Ewoks are too quickly underestimated. Fans often wonder how an armored Stormtrooper could be taken down by a head bonk with a rock. This is because Ewoks are canonically as strong as Wookies. Think there’s soft padding under all that fur? It’s pure muscle. Ewoks are strong enough to throw spears directly through plastoid armor. These boulders aren’t just boo-boo makers, they’re skull-smashing dodgeballs when thrown by an Ewok. For their small size, their proportional odds mean the rocks they throw will tear through a Stormtrooper’s helmet like papier-mâché. Maybe it sounds funny, but when a Stormtrooper gets down too slowly, they don’t just shake it off and get back up offscreen because they’re incredibly dead.
In addition to muscles, the Ewoks have a brain. They are military geniuses. Using guerrilla tactics, the Ewoks move in unison to overwhelm their enemy with numbers. They are brilliant engineers, designing and building massive traps, snares, and catapults to fight foes much larger than themselves. It is unlikely that the Ewoks learned this kind of construction overnight. The Ewoks developed these contraptions to defend themselves against their moon’s deadly megafauna. One such native predator that the Ewoks regularly encounter is the Gorax – giants that live in the mountains and sometimes attack Ewok villages. The threat of these wandering beasts is one of the reasons the Ewoks build their villages high in the trees, far from the dangerous forest floor. In that context, scenes that might seem adorably pathetic — like Ewoks trailing behind an AT-ST with a trip cord — actually make more sense. They’ve done this maneuver before, this group of Ewoks just weren’t prepared for the increased strength of the mechanized walker, compared to a Gorax.
The little Ewok that can be seen attacking the foot of the AT-ST also uses a solid strategy. He’s trying to compromise a vulnerable joint, which is a tactic that probably works on the organic creatures he’s used to fighting. The only thing these strategies don’t take into account is that Empire beasts are made of metal. His persistence isn’t exactly misguided – this Ewok has probably hacked the pelts of far bigger beasts than he is countless times, and he knows it takes elbow grease. Another beast native to Endor is the Condor dragon, which was known to descend from the sky and tear Ewoks from their mounts. Undoubtedly, the hang gliders used by the Ewoks against the Empire are designed from sightings of threats such as Condor dragons.
Speaking of the Empire’s metal war machines, the Ewoks prove to be quick learners capable of discovering new tools and turning enemy technologies against them. They can pilot speeders and they understand the nature of Empire vehicles to understand how to destroy them. By the time the Rebels meet the Ewoks, the Empire has already razed one of their villages and occupied their land for the construction of the Shield Generator. They’ve seen what Stormtroopers can do, and they know what blasters are, and they’ve had time to study scout walkers. One of the most eerily maligned moments of the battle is the double ram crushing an AT-ST. Not only does this demonstrate the Ewok’s understanding of the enemy, but also advanced physics.
When not using their sheer might or quick wits, the Ewoks display a frightening brutality that gives them an edge in battle. Ewoks don’t always seek quick death. They use serrated weapons to make wounds that are difficult to heal. They point poison arrows at the gaps between the armor plates. They are not interested in instant death. The Ewoks break your bones, damage your organs, and leave you helpless in the woods to die a slow, painful death. Although the Ewoks have the eyes of predators, they have evolved socially to evoke understatement. As an enemy tries to determine if an Ewok is dangerous, chances are they have already fallen into a trap they are unlikely to escape – and Ewoks take no prisoners. They are omnivores who have learned to prepare their meat fresh. Hunters have been known to slit the throats of Imperial officers and bring back bodies for parties, according to canon junior novel Tom Angleberg. Remember that when Han, Luke, and Chewie first encountered the Ewoks, they were brought back to the village to be cooked and eaten. If it hadn’t been for C-3PO, they would have been the Ewoks’ main course that night.
The biggest thing that is overlooked with the Ewoks is that they are a proud society that deserves dignity. When the Empire first arrived on the moon, Stormtroopers razed an Ewok village to make room for their shield-generating complex, and the survivors fled to a nearby village to regroup and prepare. The Ewoks are waging a war and they suffer casualties. Some of those little fuzzers are dead. I will not describe the scene. You remember it. It’s not Build-A-Bear Workshop, it’s an active theater of war.
The Ewoks are an indigenous population with rich religious, artistic, medical and political cultures. They build intricate structures that are safe and secure in the heights of the conifers, which are fire resistant and serve as a natural insect repellent. They’re resourceful, resilient, they care about each other, and they’re not so scared of Imperial humans that they don’t want to give Rebel heroes a chance to help them. They’re cute, yes, but they’re also badass. The whole point of the Ewoks is that we’re supposed to underestimate them. We’re not supposed to look at them and think they can dominate the Empire. But they can. And they do. To claim that they are nothing more than fodder for toy store shelves only belies a fundamental lack of understanding of what Ewoks are and what they were created to do. So let’s start giving the Ewoks the respect they deserve for bringing the Empire to its knees when they went places they shouldn’t have.