“Charming to the last. You don’t know how hard I found it, signing the order to terminate your life.”
Peter Cushing has played several on screen heroes; Sherlock Holmes, Van Helsing and Doctor Who.
Many of us will remember him, however, as the sinister and dangerous Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. As commander of a near-indestructible space station, Tarkin oversaw the thousands of soldiers and war machines which uphold intergalactic peace with the Empire. Though physically intimidating, a clear British accent gave him the authority to command his subordinates as well as reign in the Emperor’s psychopathic apprentice, Lord Vader, no small feat.
Listening to the Grand Moff speak is like a staccato bombardment of crisp consonants and alveolar trill. When his words fail him Tarkin will resort to threats, torture and even the destruction of planets to convince the reticent. Cushing makes such an excellent villain because in part his speech is so cool and clipped that he gives the impression of intelligence and malice, but also because of his restrained acting style. Standing bolt upright with a pensive expression, Tarkin looks every inch the military man, becoming a believable commander who demands respect.
For all this, there are weaknesses. There is no physical menace from Tarkin, he relies upon the strength of others to torture or restrain. There is also a strong seed of arrogance behind the reserved exterior, an arrogance which sees itself played out in the Grand Moff’s ultimate demise. A single enemy fighter penetrates the Death Star’s defences and despite being warned, Tarkin remarks ”Evacuate!? In our moment of triumph? I think you overestimate their chances!”.