The droid you’re looking for: C-3PO as the unsung hero of the original Star Wars trilogy
C-3PO is perhaps known more in the more recent two Star Wars trilogies for being a somewhat hapless comedy relief character or for having a baffling origin story inserted into the saga (built by a 9-year-old Anakin Skywalker in his spare time from being a slave to Watto?) than he is for providing heroic assistance to the main protagonists. But that wasn’t the case for most of the original trilogy, where he has a key role in bailing out various characters at important times.
Here’s a look at the various ways in which C-3PO proves crucial to the success of the Rebel Alliance cause, and shows why underestimating the golden protocol droid would be unfair. Without a weapon, a ship, or warrior prowess, he uses his wits to escape from tough situations, all while sometimes fending off insults or complaints from his companions.
From near the beginning of the original Star Wars AKA A New Hope, C-3PO shows how he uses his experience as an expert in human-cyborg relations and interpersonal skills, as he puts in a good word for R2-D2 in front of Luke, who has gone with his Uncle Owen to purchase new droids. This connects Luke to R2-D2, which due to Artoo’s mission to find Obi-Wan causes Luke to meet Obi-Wan, making C-3PO the catalyst for Luke’s hero’s quest. Later, on the Death Star, Threepio tricks a stormtrooper into letting him and Artoo leave, allowing the two droids to rescue Han, Luke, and Leia from getting crushed in the trash compactor. In the latter case, C-3PO shows a skill at subterfuge, saying that “all this excitement has overrun the circuits of my counterpart here,” so that he has a reason to leave to take Artoo to maintenance.
C-3PO plays one of his most important roles in helping to forge the alliance between the Rebels and the Ewoks at the Battle of Endor, thanks to his ability to understand the Ewok language. Despite Threepio telling Luke early on in A New Hope that he’s not much of a storyteller, when Luke asks for details about battles that he’s been in, we see that either he was being modest or his storytelling skills developed considerably over the course of the trilogy. C-3PO summarizes many of the events of the trilogy up to that point, uses some outstanding state of the art sound effects, and through an apparently well-told tale of the Rebellion’s struggle against the Empire, gets the Ewoks to make Han, Leia, Chewie, Luke, Artoo, and the Rebel strike team to be part of their tribe. Maybe Threepio missed his calling of coming up with recruitment posters and videos. During the battle itself, C-3PO again delivers for his friends by tricking the stormtroopers into getting ambushed by the Ewoks after the Rebel team has been captured.
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back is the weak link in the original trilogy, as far as C-3PO’s heroism being important to the outcome. While he and Artoo are great comic relief for the entire trilogy, here C-3PO is relegated primarily to that, as he would be for a lot of the other trilogies, while R2-D2 still gets lots of useful things to do that are critical to the success of the Rebels, such as fixing the Millennium Falcon’s hyperdrive so the crew can escape. C-3PO does get to help out with repairs to the Millennium Falcon, but he also spends a lot of time riding along in pieces on Chewbacca’s back, pessimistically reciting long odds against specific courses of action, and bearing the brunt of Han’s annoyance. But even in the darker middle chapter, he shows his resilience by not letting his inclination to avoid perilous situations interfere with his commitment to face danger together with his friends.
Throughout the Star Wars movie saga, C-3PO seems like the main character least in control of what happens to him, and the most tossed around on the ocean of events. He comes into service to Luke as a result of an Imperial attack, he’s caught up trying to evade pursuit by the Empire with Han, Leia, and Chewie, and then he spends some time serving in Jabba the Hutt’s palace, before the events on Endor. These changes in setting and role let him demonstrate his resourcefulness and adaptivity.
Ironically, despite winding up in adventure after adventure in the middle of a war, and despite his bickering with Artoo, he mostly seeks to avoid conflict, advising R2-D2 to “let the Wookie win” at holo-chess and then proposing surrendering the Millennium Falcon at one point in The Empire Strikes Back. When he ends up on the body of a battle droid on Geonosis, he exclaims that he’s “programmed for etiquette, not destruction.” It’s C-3PO’s contrast to the other main characters, his vulnerability and fear while accompanying characters who are Force-power wielding knights or who have an array of gadgets to call on or Wookie strength to rely on that make him more sympathetic to the audience during all of the mishaps, memory wipes, and injuries that he endures. Though likely happiest on a politician’s staff or as an aide to a diplomat, it seems that fate or the Force keeps having him play the role of reluctant hero.