Han Solo is an archetypal character, often ranking at the top of pop culture lists. He is so revered that it’s hard to see someone else take up the mantle in Solo: A Star Wars Story which debuted May 25th. Alden Ehrenreich, a standout in the Coen Brothers’ Hail Caesar, has big shoes to fill. Harrison Ford has been the quintessential Solo for over four decades uncontested. Before we judge Ehrenreich and the movie for playing fast and loose with Star Wars nostalgia, let’s rank Harrison Ford’s performances playing the scruffy looking nerf herder who could do the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.
5. Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983)
It’s a well-known fact that Ford did not want to continue playing Han Solo, but George Lucas insisted on keeping the character. I wouldn’t say that Ford is quite phoning it in here, as he has in other movies (cough, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, cough), but in press comments leading up to the release, you had the sense that he wasn’t excited about the role anymore. Some chalk it up to his dissatisfaction with his character’s life throughout the saga. It’s said that Ford felt the arc of his character would have been better served by Solo’s death via sacrifice. We may never know for sure. Ford would rather talk about anything but Solo or Star Wars. All conjecture aside, there is something off about his Jedi performance when compared to the other two films in the original trilogy. He’s not bad by any means, but it doesn’t have the same heart. Considering the chemistry he and Carrie Fisher had in the two previous movies, Jedi feels awkward, and not because Solo is under the impression that her heart belongs to Skywalker. When Han and Leia talk during the celebration scene, it’s as if their relationship has lost its spark. You can tell that he attempted a solid performance, but his lack of passion for the role came through on screen.
4. The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)
If you haven’t experienced the weirdness that is TheStar Wars Holiday Special, you need to locate a copy right now and bask in the strange. Want to see entire segments of the main plot in Wookiee Speak? They’ve got you covered! Wish the Mos Eisley Cantina bartender was Bea Arthur? Not only does your wish become reality, but she sings too! Ever wonder why people obsess over Boba Fett despite his minuscule screen time? You can see his origin story right here! And that’s not even the kookiest stuff. George Lucas wants all evidence of this production destroyed, never to besmirch the beloved franchise of Star Wars again. Lucky for us, the special lives on in bootleg VHS tapes. This is how I first saw The Star Wars Holiday Special, and you can still find digital versions if you know where to look. This may seem like an unlikely choice for an iconic performance list, but Ford’s performance is solid, especially when compared to other stars they brought back. Carrie Fisher looks like she’s on something in every scene, and Mark Hamill is awkward throughout the show. Ford is the only one trying to produce something decent. Sure, the sets are cheap, the plot is thin, and it’s so very odd, but Ford’s performance is both strong and believable. He commits to classic lines like “Why do I always think gettin’ you home for Life Day is gonna be easy?” or “Out of the frying pan into the fryer, huh pal? How should I know we’d come outta hyperspace into the middle of an Imperial convoy.” It may not be Star Wars canon in the eyes of Lucas or diehard fans, but Ford tried to make The Star Wars Holiday Special look good.
3. Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
It may be a bit controversial to rate Empire at number three, but please hear me out. This ranking is not a reflection of his performance. Something had to fall in the middle, and I felt this film didn’t give him as many opportunities to shine. Full disclosure, in my original draft I ranked Empire second, but sometimes you change your mind based on the points you make. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, Ford is fantastic in The Empire Strikes Back. You can see his investment in the role. He worked with director Irvin Kershner on Solo’s most famous line, his response to Princess Leia’s profession of love as he’s lowered into the carbonite. In fact, all of Han and Leia’s scenes are great, especially their back and forth at Echo Base. Ford’s arrival at Cloud City to meet Lando also establishes his rapport with his old friend. There are so many great Han Solo moments, it’s a travesty that he’s taken from us so soon. We can’t truly mourn his departure because we know he’s not dead and that he’ll soon be at the mercy of Jabba the Hutt. Ford may have perfected his performance of Solo here, but it’s a missed opportunity. Solo was literally frozen in time because Lucas’ vision required all of the main characters to stay alive for the full original trilogy.
2. Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015)
Everyone got a hint of Han Solo’s fate when they saw Ford’s attitude at press junkets for this chapter in the franchise. If you didn’t make that connection, the scene on the bridge with Kylo Ren drove the ominous feeling home. As the light left the room, bathed in a wash of red, the film gave you a huge clue that something bad was about to go down. Ford was older and grumpier, but it felt like classic Han had returned and lived to tell all the trials and tribulations he’d faced since the destruction of the second Death Star. The way Han Solo spoke of The Force and the truth behind the legends was magical. Finally, Solo was embracing the “hokey religion” that was so evident all around him. His negotiations with the Guavian Death Gang and Kanjiklub brought back the charm of classic scoundrel Solo. His rapport with Rey was touching and believable. I would have loved to see more of them saving the galaxy together, to see his frustration with her youthful tenacity. His death disappointed me, but it made sense in the narrative for Solo to die tragically by his own son’s hand. This was a great send off for Han Solo. It proved that if Harrison Ford is 100% on board with your script he is an amazing actor and can bring a beloved character back to life.
1.Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)
It should be no surprise that A New Hope is my number one pick. But it’s not because this was his first foray into the role. Ford cared about playing Han Solo. In fact, he made notes on the script about how to deliver the lines. He’s also famous for citing his frustration with Lucas’ writing, saying “You can type this shit, but you can’t say it.” He rewrote many of his lines so that he could deliver the ideas in a more natural way. A New Hope is where most of the classic ideas about Han Solo were born. When we first meet him in Mos Eisley he doesn’t give a rat’s patoot about anything that’s going on with the rebellion. He’s just a man looking out for himself and his next big payout. He is smarmy and sarcastic, but lovable. His calm demeanor and body language during his discussion with Greedo is brilliant. Han plays it cool even though the situation is dire. He’s a smooth talker and he knows what words can buy him the precious time he needs. When he executes the bounty hunter without a second thought it tells the audience everything they need to know about his character. At the same time, the moment you are certain that Solo is self-centered he returns to help the rebellion during the battle of Yavin, showing his redeeming qualities. It’s the perfect set-up for a character that audiences want to see over and over again. A New Hope‘s narrative is set-up for the audience to root for Luke, but Han was the real star of the film. Okay, maybe not the real star, but I wanted him to end up with Leia instead of Luke. This is the only performance not mired by Lucas’ overarching plan. It stands out as the best Han Solo performance because Ford was free to develop the character. He was confident and comfortable enough as an actor to pull it off seamlessly.
We don’t know if Alden Ehrenreich’s Solo will stand the test of time, but we’ll always be able to revisit these exceptional Solo performances by Harrison Ford.