Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith is not a great movie.
Granted, it's certainly the best of George Lucas' Star Wars prequel trilogy: It moves along at a decent clip thanks to far fewer hallway conversations and far more face-melting and dismemberment. But compared to the original trilogy — or even most of the Disney era movies — it's almost unwatchable.
Of course, that hasn't started a certain segment of the fandom from obsessing over the film. Virtually every moment of the prequels has already been memed into oblivion, but if you're looking to honor the 15th anniversary of Revenge of the Sith, there's a fantastic way to experience Anakin Skywalker's turn to evil even if you don't have a Disney+ subscription.
Star War the Third Gathers: Backstroke of the West is a fan project inspired by a hilarious bootleg copy of Revenge of the Sith. Here's how it happened.
In 2005, a fellow by the name of Jeremy Winterson bought a bootleg of the movie in Shanghai and noticed something amiss with the English subtitles. When he shared a bunch of screenshots online, Backstroke of the West became a viral phenomenon among Star Wars fans. Essentially, the English dialogue had been automatically translated to Chinese, then auto-translated a second time back into English. The result is utterly hilarious.
"It came with hilariously mangled subtitles that ranged from somewhat close to what the actors were saying to far, far away," Winterson wrote on his personal blog in 2009.
That humble bootleg went on to inspire an impressive fan project: a complete redub of Backstroke of the West using English voice actors reading the garbled subtitles. The voice work is surprisingly bang-on, and even the characters who aren't an exact match are funny enough to let you roll with it. (Yoda sounds a bit like my Gran after too many vodka tonics.) The video on the Grateful Deadpool YouTube channel has racked up more than 3 million views. It's silly and nonsensical, a welcome departure from the air of pomp and expectations that the prequels and the sequels, respectively.
Here just six of the many wonderful things about Backstroke of the West:
6. The naughty language – Even before Disney acquired Lucasfilm, the Star Wars movies were pretty squeaky-clean. Perhaps the most vulgar epithet in the series, "echuta," is frustratingly generic in its meaning. That's not the case at all with Backstroke of the West.
Even in the first few minutes, Obi-Wan's out here dropping F-bombs at random droids. A more civilized age, my ass. There's not a ton of profanity in here, but it crops up in the oddest of places, making happenstance exchanges all the more weird and enjoyable.
5. So strong and so big – From the Jedi to the Sith (and every bounty hunter and smuggler caught between) Star Wars is a story about power. It's a concept that comes up a lot, whether you're dealing with planet-blasting death rays or learning to levitate rocks. Backstroke of the West makes all these meditations on the nature of power wonderfully dumb with translations like this:
There's actually a pretty reasonable explanation for this. In Chinese, "powerful" is made of two characters, one meaning "strong" and the other meaning "big." So this is just pure robo-translation literalism at its finest. A savvy linguist like C-3PO would never make such a bush-league mistake.
4. Some of the dialogue is actually better – Sure, a lot of it makes less sense than Yoda speaking Pig Latin, but Backstroke of the West blesses Star Wars fans with an ear for mellifluous language. Case in point, this tweaked version of a line Obi-Wan delivers after Anakin accuses his former master of turning Padmé against him.
There are a few other moments like this, where oddball changes lend more gravity to George Lucas' often clunky script.
3. Calling out the Jedi – There are several mistranslations of the Jedi Order and Jedi Council in Backstroke of the West, but the one that's used the most is surprisingly apt: hopeless situation.
At various points in the movie, Anakin and Obi-Wan are referred to as a "hopeless situation warriors" instead of Jedi Knights. Given all the blunders that pave the way for Palpatine's rise to power and Order 66, it's remarkably apt for an accidental name. While the original trilogy made a generation of fans revere the nobility of the Jedi, prequels fans know better. For all their chin-stroking conclaves and stylish robes, these fools don't know their asses from their elbows.
Weirdly, Backstroke of the West also occasionally refers to Jedi as "hopeless situation Presbyterians," which the good folks over at the Star Wars Fanpedia point out probably has something to do with translating "elders" from English to Chinese and back again.
2. That Vader moment – You've seen the meme, you've seen the GIF, but did you actually know where this is from? Now you do – Backstroke of the West.
Again, there's actually a pretty simple linguistic explanation for this. Chinese doesn't have an equivalent word for "no." Instead, speakers often use the negative tense of a verb based on the context of the conversation.
1. Finally, a satisfying explanation for Padme's death – This robot really says what we're all thinking. I'll just let the image speak for itself here.
Here in the roaring 2020s, the age of physical media is largely behind us, and that's good in a lot of ways. It's better for the planet, plus you no longer have to hide your shameful romcoms and anime box sets from judging eyes. But for those of us who long to see Rise of Skywalker get the Backstroke of the West treatment, all that is cold comfort.
Bonus: This iconic exchange.
Welcome to Star Wars Week! To celebrate the 15-year anniversary of Revenge of the Sith (May 19) and the 40-year anniversary of The Empire Strikes Back (May 21), we're talking about our favorite sci-fi franchise for nine days straight.