Check out this fascinating interview with Gary Kurtz of early Star Wars fame.
“I could see where things were headed,” Kurtz said. “The toy business began to drive the [Lucasfilm] empire. It’s a shame. They make three times as much on toys as they do on films. It’s natural to make decisions that protect the toy business, but that’s not the best thing for making quality films.”
Most interesting of all is the way Return of the Jedi was originally imagined.
“We had an outline and George changed everything in it," Kurtz said. “Instead of bittersweet and poignant he wanted a euphoric ending with everybody happy. The original idea was that they would recover [the kidnapped] Han Solo in the early part of the story and that he would then die in the middle part of the film in a raid on an Imperial base. George then decided he didn’t want any of the principals killed. By that time there were really big toy sales and that was a reason.”
The discussed ending of the film that Kurtz favored presented the rebel forces in tatters, Leia grappling with her new duties as queen and Luke walking off alone “like Clint Eastwood in the spaghetti westerns,” as Kurtz put it.
Kurtz said that ending would have been a more emotionally nuanced finale to an epic adventure than the forest celebration of the Ewoks that essentially ended the trilogy with a teddy bear luau.
I think this just confirms my idea that Lucas is a fantastic idea guy, but he needs people around him to hammer those ideas into a better shape. There's nothing wrong with that, of course; it's just too bad that Lucas became so big that no one was willing to say to him, "Uhm, that's dumb. What if we took that idea, though, and tried this." Certainly it couldn't have made the prequels any worse.