Spoiler Warning: I discuss details about Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, specifically about administrative officers of the Imperial fleet, and their relationship to Lord Darth Vader. And execution by force-choke.
This is one of those incidents in which I start writing about one thing and end up writing about another.
Admiral Ozzel doesn’t live long in The Empire Strikes Back before he is killed — executed essentially — by Darth Vader. It was the first time in the movies that the Dark Lord used his grippy-grippy power to actually dead someone.
This was a demonstration of what was a fairly common trope in cinema at the time. At this point it’s a bit cliché but still well-loved when done well. A henchman returns to Professor Plutonium all contrite and remorseful and apologizes profusely for failing to secure the super-laser plans from the Black Mesa Scientific Research Facility. Professor Plutonium may even seem sympathetic, and listen to the sad thug tell his sad tale of how this guy (the hero) saw him through his sad tricks and not only sent him sadly packing, but gave him a few sad lumps in the process. Professor Plutonium accepts his apology and suggests that the super-laser might be gotten another way, at which point the Professor’s brutish assistant, Joule, shoves him into the hydrogen compression chamber and he dies horribly and much, much smaller.
Earnst Blofeld earned his own maneuver for adamantly threatening one (innocent but intimidated) mook with the This is the price of failure speech, before turning around and killing another mook, the (allegedly) guilty party. I’m not sure if the authentic Blofeld moments were failures so much as betrayals. In the Cold War moles (specifically) and COINTEL guys (generally) were disliked since they had to play both sides and it wasn’t always clear to their superiors which side they were on. One of the more terrible tales during the cold war featured a KGB officer who had been discovered sending intel to the US. He was fed awake and feet first into a roaring furnace while his colleagues watched. Spy agencies really don’t like traitors.
If Ozzel was a traitor, Vader’s murderous ways might make more sense.
Age of sail grognards point out that the execution of under-performers seems brutal and crass only in the 20th century, after WWII. While in the late 20th century it may seem gauche to kill a fellow solder for anything less than heinous war crimes, in the 19th century, poor performance in action, even under mitigating circumstances, was sufficient cause for a firing squad. Admiral John Byng was ordered to bring troops to Port Mahon to relieve the garrison at Fort St Philip. Undermanned and with an unseaworthy fleet and due repairs, he made a prudent attempt to deliver the troops, encountering French ships along the way. He evaded the French and tried to contact the fort without success. Then he set to Gibraltar to effect those pesky needed repairs. For this, Admiral John Byng was executed. Shot by firing squad on the 14th of March, 1757 on the quarterdeck of the HMS Monarch for failure to do his utmost in the face of the enemy. Voltaire was being satirical when he commented In this country, it is good to kill an admiral from time to time, in order to encourage the others.
To be fair, it wasn’t a common thing for the fleet to kill off admirals, and as a result of the Byng affair the Articles of War were (further) amended to make killing officers less… necessary.
Getting back to Ozzel, it remains a discussion of debate whether Admiral Ozzel deserved summary execution, whether Vader was being temperamental and killed a man out of spite, or whether this was a cleverly coached political move by Vader in sweeping out the Emperor’s old guard brass, now that he was taking over the Imperial fleet. None of these are contradictory.
My opinion regarding the Ozzel affair differs from those published, say in Wookiepedia where opinions are common that Vader’s regard of the fleet was as expendable lackeys with minimum competence. Part of Lucas’ intent (circa 1976 when Star Wars was one movie) was to apply archetypes of The Hero’s Journey and justify them within an intact, functional (if used) world, and I think this approach makes for good Star Wars.
Vader’s frank discussion with Commander Daine Jir as it took place on the Tantive IV (beginning of ANH) demonstrates his respect for thoughtful officers. Lord Vader had ordered Princess Leia detained, and Jir expressed concern of political consequences of doing so, given that the Rebel Alliance was gaining sympathy within the Senate. This conversation demonstrated a rapport between Jir and Vader. It also showed the Dark Lord was willing to respect and address concerns regarding his orders and the consequences they might incur. Later on, Admiral Motti certainly wasn’t afraid of sassing Darth Vader and was even surprised by Vader’s unconventional response, this implied that officers not only discussed policy with Vader often but could openly disagree with him without having to concern themselves for their safety or their careers.
As for Ozzel, Darth Vader had already pegged Ozzel as clumsy as he is stupid by the beginning of ESB. Might Vader have just demoted the guy to a better position (e.g. Captain of the Line or Rear-admiral)? Vader obviously feared no repercussions from choosing to summarily execute an administrative officer. It can be argued either way whether Vader just acted on impulsive fury, or had deliberated carefully Ozzel’s final end.*
Vader was too quick to execute Captain Needa after Needa lost track of the Millennium Falcon. That incident was a matter of impatience and underestimating Han Solo’s piloting skill and ingenuity. Needa’s apology to Vader was clearly a means to control the blame and the resulting kerfuffle. Vader interpreted it correctly but was unimaginative in merely executing the captain and sparing the crew. I suspect it was a case of l’esprit de l’escalier in which Vader saw in retrospect he could have made a bold ally and determined hunter out of Needa and the Avenger (e.g. To redeem yourself you will find the Falcon before I do. And, Captain Needa, don’t fail me again.). It was this regret that figured largely in staying Vader’s grip when it came to Admiral Piett when the Falcon escaped yet again.
This is the way I want to read it. Not how I expect old Lucas or new Disney to interpret what happened.
* Some conspiracy theorists like to imagine Ozzel was a Rebel spy. I find that a bit outrageous, and if Vader knew, he’d be worth more alive and in an interrogation booth. I can imagine Ozzel being a sympathizer, though, and choosing to obstruct pursuit of the Rebels based on his opinions. And in the context of Vader seeing what Ozzel was doing, giving him the ol’ grippy-grippy makes more sense.