Rogue One has a lot of cameos, references and Star Wars in-jokes. But one of its most surprising is less of a cameo than a first official appearance. The latest film in the Star Wars franchise rescues a group of characters from the cutting floor of Return of the Jedi, and establishes that they’ve been with the Rebellion all along.
I’m speaking, of course, of female Rebellion pilots.
In A New Hope, when General Jan Dodonna briefs the Rebellion’s fleet on the Death Star, there isn’t a single woman to be seen, and the same is the case for Rebel troops in the air and on the snow on Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back. The quick-eyed can glimpse female Rebel officers in the backgrounds of Mon Mothma’s briefing in Return of the Jedi, but that’s about all we’ve got. The rest was left on the cutting room floor.
The lost female pilots of Return of the Jedi
At least three female extras were cast, costumed, and filmed for the Battle of Endor sequences of Return of the Jedi. English actress Vivienne Chandler had the role of an X-Wing pilot, while Poppy Hands and another unknown actress were seated in A-wing starfighters.
Hands and Chandler are both relatively young-looking, but the third actress is obviously middle-aged — like many of her male counterparts in the rest of the Rebellion’s navy, she seems to be a pilot who might not otherwise still be flying into combat if the Rebellion’s cause wasn’t so dire.
Only Hands would actually make it into the final cut of Return of the Jedi, as a part of Green squadron, and her single line of dialogue was dubbed over in post production with a male voice, obscuring her actual gender.
You can check out surviving b-roll of Chandler here and of Hands and the final actress here, where you can see that filmmakers asked for a lot of dialogue from their pilot extras — no doubt so as to simplify the process of editing together something as complicated as the triple-front finale of Return of the Jedi. Where trashing some extra dialogue from the male pilots didn’t necessarily change much about the Star Wars universe, trashing the female pilots (and dubbing over one of them) gave us a Rebel Alliance that only has a single woman on the front lines — Princess Leia.
The new Star Wars Expanded Universe may have cut the canon back significantly, but it made quick strides to diversify the gender of the Rebellion’s forces.
One of the first supplemental Star Wars comics released in the lead up to The Force Awakens was Shattered Empire, which introduced readers to Shara Bey, A-wing pilot, veteran of the Battle of Endor and mother of Poe Dameron. In The Force Awakens, Jessika Pava flies alongside Dameron under the callsign Blue Three — aiding in the destruction of Starkiller Base.
And now, in Rogue One, the Rebellion of the Galactic Civil War finally has its gender-integrated fleet on the big screen. Women fly troop transports in Rogue One, and they fly star fighters and even Y-wing bombers, in what might even be their own all-female squadron. And just like their male counterparts — many of whom are A New Hope cameos — some of them are solidly into middle age.
They’re women who would have watched the Empire rise and the Jedi fall within their own lifetimes, possibly even mothers who watched their children — and maybe grandchildren — grow up only knowing authoritarian regime. Now they’ve been immortalized alongside folks like Nien Nunb and ... uh ...
OK, nobody really remembers the names of Red Squadron except for Luke, Biggs and maybe Wedge, but the point is that they’re there. There are women on the front lines in the Rebellion. And just like the moment Rey pulls Luke and Anakin Skywalker’s lightsaber halfway across a forest with the Force, that’s going to mean a lot to a lot of women, old and young.