The Origin of Darth Vader: The Name
The story of how George Lucas drew from unlikely sources to name the greatest screen villain of all time.
This month, to celebrate the release of Rogue One, we’re going to take a deep dive into the secrets and stories surrounding the creation of Darth Vader, starting with a look at the four elements that make up this iconic villain — the name, the look, the body and the voice.
The name ‘Darth Vader’ goes all the way back to George Lucas’ rough draft summary of The Star Wars, completed in May of 1974. In fact, elements of Vader can be found in four separate characters from that draft.
General Darth Vader, of the Royal Space Fleet, was a “tall, grim looking humanoid”. Lucas has indulged in a little bit of self-mythologising and revisionist history over the years, claiming that he always intended Vader to be Luke Skywalker’s father and that the name meant ‘Dark Father’, but the reality isn’t that straight-forward.
While ‘Vader’ does mean ‘Father’ in Dutch, it’s pronounced very differently (‘fah-der’). ‘Vater’, the German word for ‘Father’, is pronounced more like ‘Vader’, however. ‘Darth’ doesn’t mean anything in Dutch or German, although it does, of course, sound a bit like ‘Dark’.
But Vader, as initially conceived in the rough draft, was a fairly minor character, and it seems extremely unlikely that he was intended to be related to the hero of the story — especially because, in the rough draft, the hero’s father was still alive and was a different character altogether.
At the time, Lucas said the name “sort of appeared in my head one day. I had lots of Darth this and Darth that, and Dark Lord of the Sith. The early name was actually Dark Water. Then I added lots of last names, Vaders and Wilsons and Smiths, and I just came up with the combination of Darth and Vader.”
We can assume ‘Darth’ was chosen for its phonetic similarity with ‘Dark’, then, but that still leaves a question mark around ‘Vader’ — could anyone really just casually throw around a great last name like ‘Vader’ with generic last names like ‘Wilson’ and ‘Smith’, as Lucas describes above?
Well, you probably could if you went to school with one.
George Lucas went to Downey High School in Modesto, California with Gary Vader, a football player who was one year older than him.
Here’s Gary Vader in the 1960 Downey High School yearbook with a few of his gridiron teammates.
Of course, that could be a picture of any group of high school football players. So here’s Lucas in the Downey High 1960 yearbook (third from the left in the bottom row)…
… And here’s Gary Vader (third from the right in the top row).
Now, it would be cruel to speculate that football star Vader might have bullied young Lucas, forever associating the name ‘Vader’ with evil in Lucas’ subconscious. It would be cruel, but let’s face it, we’re all thinking it.
In Lucas' rough draft, Darth Vader reported to Prince Valorum, who actually bears more of a resemblance to the character Vader ended up becoming. Valorum was described as a "Bogan master" and “black Knight of the Sith”. ('Sith', by the way, were large predatory insects in Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter stories.)
A “large, sinister warrior in black robes and a face mask”, Valorum — disgusted with the Empire — eventually switched sides and joined the heroes.
The Jedi Bendu master, Kane Starkiller, was revealed to be a cyborg with a “metallic chest covered with electrodes”. He ultimately sacrificed himself to save his family and friends.
Kane Starkiller’s young son, Annikin Starkiller, was the hero of the story. At one point, the young Starkiller was tortured by the Empire; seeing this was what convinced Valorum to switch sides.
Lucas most likely took the name ‘Annikin’ from the British director Ken Annakin, whose films included The Longest Day (1962), Battle of the Bulge (1965), Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines (1965) and the Disney classic Swiss Family Robinson (1960). Funnily enough, Lucas and Annakin have both been inducted into the Disney Legends hall of fame.
When Annakin passed away in 2009, Lucas’ publicist denied the connection, but it seems impossible that Ken Annakin’s name didn’t at least subconsciously influence Lucas – especially because a scene in Swiss Family Robinson in which the heroes are dragged under murky water by a massive snake is very similar to the trash compactor sequence in Star Wars.
By the time Lucas completed his first draft, in July 1974, Prince Valorum had largely been written out – he was still part of the story, but he was kept entirely off-screen (much like the Emperor in the completed film).
By the second draft, Valorum had been cut out altogether, and Darth Vader became the seven-foot-tall Sith knight. By the fourth, penultimate draft, Vader had been given the half-man, half-machine attributes originally ascribed to Kane Starkiller.
Meanwhile, Annikin Starkiller was replaced as the hero of the story by Luke Skywalker (the son, of course, of Anakin Skywalker).
So if Darth Vader and Annakin Starkiller weren't connected in the early drafts of Star Wars, when did Lucas decide that Darth Vader was Anakin Skywalker?
In the immortal words of Maz Kanata, that's a good question — for another time...
December is Darth Vader Month at Force Material – check back throughout the month for more stories about your favourite Sith Lord, and follow @ForceMaterial on Twitter for plenty of great Darth Vader art, moments and factoids.
To go deeper into Darth, I recommend tracking down copies of The Making of Star Wars by JW Rinzler, The Complete Vader by Ryder Windham and Peter Vilmur, Anakin Skywalker: The Story of Darth Vader and Star Wars: From Concept to Screen to Collectible by Steve Sansweet, and Star Wars Costumes: The Original Trilogy by Brandon Alinger.