10 Particular Points About The Empire Strikes Backby Todd King, contributing writer
In a (slightly belated) celebration of its 40th anniversary, here are 10 particular points about Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back.
#10 – George Lucas did not direct Empire because he was Too Busy Changing Hollywood
During the production of Star Wars, Lucas had to create the special effects in-house because the visuals he needed hadn't been invented yet. Thus, Industrial Light and Magic was born—which was busy most of the time building its own computers and camera systems in a garage. After the first film's massive success, ILM began to establish a new home base and create even more technological advances. Getting this company off the ground and ready to work on other movies, including the upcoming Star Wars sequel, required a lot of work.
Also growing exponentially under the Lucasfilm umbrella was Skywalker Sound, a division devoted to movie sound production. Furthermore, the beginning of THX, the theater sound technology, had its ideas swimming around at the time, as well. Plus, there was the licensing, which was part of the phenomenon that Star Wars had become. On top of all that, George Lucas financed Empire Strikes Back himself—as in, his own money. Needless to say, Lucas had a lot on his plate and he felt he couldn't be on the set everyday and serve as director, which is a kind of important job that requires a constant presence.
That's when he turned to Irvin Kershner, who was a lecturer at the University of Southern California and also a teacher/mentor to Lucas. At first, Kershner wasn't sure about the job, thinking that a sequel would fall into the common traps of sequels of the day by just being a repeat of the first film. In the end, he accepted the job due to Lucas's need for character development in the story, one of Kershner's strengths as a director, and also due to his own admiration for Star Wars and wanting to keep it going. Seeing as how The Empire Strikes Back is often considered the best film in the saga even to this day, it was absolutely the right choice.
#9 – Not Your Typical Sequel
Star Wars came out in 1977 and reinvigorated cinema, almost reinventing it at the same time. You've heard about its impact time and again, and there's simply no need for me to repeat what's already been said—but its sequel is a different story.
There are so many sequels to movies these days that we barely bat an eyelid when a trailer for one drops. These days a movie need not even be a huge success to get a sequel. In many cases, if a film profits and perhaps has a decent fan following, a sequel is almost a given.
In the late '70s and early '80s, sequels were not uncommon, but often were only green-lit if the first one was already a great success. One could say that studios weren't bothered too much with the content or quality of a sequel, just so long as it would make a profit. A sequel usually meant "more of the same" from the first film and the "law of diminishing returns" would rear its ugly, but expected, head. 1974's The Godfather Part II, directed by George Lucas's friend and contemporary, Francis Ford Copolla, was the exception to these rules and proved that sequels could be more than just a rehash of the original. For Star Wars, expectations were certainly high, but most people were assuming its sequel would be like most sequels of the day and just be "another" one.
The Empire Strikes Back was not a "let's see it again" rehash of Star Wars; it was instead an earnest answer to the question, "What happens next?" It took a deeper look into ideas from the first story, including more about the Force, Luke's journey to becoming a Jedi, the plight of the Rebels, the relationship of Han and Leia, and other speculations remaining from the first episode. For example, as kids we asked ourselves, "Who is the Emperor?" and "Will Luke actually face Vader in a lightsaber duel?" A typical sequel of the time would not have had the heroes in such peril and certainly would not have ended on such a down note. I think we can all appreciate what Lucas did with Empire to not only build upon the original but pull us from an epic space battle to a personal story of family. By golly, it's why we've stayed fans all this time.
#8 – Enter Boba Fett
Boba Fett, that notorious bounty hunter, has been a fan favorite ever since his first live-action appearance in Empire. But hype for the character predated the movie by some time. Toy company Kenner began offering his action figure as a special mail-away item and served as one of the first images we would see of the upcoming movie. As kids, we didn't know who or what this character was other than that he looked really cool. From that point we couldn't wait to see him and find out what he was about; the mystery surrounding him was already percolating in our young minds. The aura of this character has followed him to this day, where it is rumored he may return (from a "presumed dead" state, mind you) as part of season two of The Mandalorian.
Boba Fett's first actual appearance was in an animated sequence from the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special, but that, as they say, is a whole 'nother story.
#7 – Norway's Bad Weather, Star Wars Bad Luck
Shooting scenes in snow is hard enough with all the blinding white glare everywhere, but while production was proceeding in Norway for the setting of the planet Hoth, the area was struck with its hardest snowfall in 50 years. Temperatures dropped to 20 below, with about 18 feet of snowfall. It certainly slowed down the schedule and made the situation a bit otherworldly.
It seemed that bad weather followed Star Wars. The desert in Tunisia, where Lucas was directing the first film, got slammed with its worst rainfall in 50 years. It happened to The Phantom Menace, when Tunisia suffered a sandstorm that damaged sets and destroyed props. It's hardly a wonder why Lucas kept things out of open-air environments for much of the prequels after these hardships.
#6 – Anakin's Name was not Mentioned in the Original Release
We knew Luke had a father that had been a great pilot, had fought in the wars, was a pupil and friend to Obi-Wan, and was dead. This much we learned in Star Wars. One thing we didn't learn was his name. This Mr. Skywalker sounded like a great guy until he was murdered by Darth Vader at some point in the past.
Through the events of The Empire Strikes Back, needless to say, we learned some good news and bad news about Mr. Skywalker. The good news was that he was actually alive and still practicing ways of the Force. The bad news was that he was Darth Vader, and a practitioner of the dark side. What we did not learn, again, was his name—in the original cut, that is.
When Vader accepts a zoom call from the Emperor, the ruler of the galaxy referred to their "new enemy," Luke, simply as, "the son of Skywalker." Then they both proceeded to plot against Luke and turn him to their side. The name of Luke's father was still a mystery at that point. In the following episode, Return of the Jedi, Obi-Wan finally utters the name, Anakin, when telling Luke that he must go and kill him to fulfill his destiny and bring down the Empire.
In 2004 with the release of the original trilogy on DVD, Lucas redid the scene in Empire where Vader chats with the Emperor to include Ian McDiarmid in his role as Vader's master and with him, changed some dialog. The Emperor now referred to their new enemy as, "the offspring of Anakin Skywalker." The reason for the change was to better fit with the series of events in the then-upcoming Revenge of the Sith. In that film, Anakin actually does learn that his wife is pregnant, whereas at time of the original releases, it was assumed Anakin, then Vader, didn't know that fact. Lucas earns some marks for continuity here, but not every detail throughout the entire saga was so contiguous.
#5 – Star Trek Tech
Star Wars and Star Trek share a kinship, an audience, a genre, and many other ideas. In pop culture over the decades, one has inspired the other, and vice versa. George Lucas was a fan of Star Trek and admired Gene Roddenberry for his achievements in sci-fi, and the two even met at a Star Wars 10th anniversary celebration hosted by Starlog magazine. Lucas's special effects company, Industrial Light and Magic, even worked on Star Trek films. It's no wonder that the two franchises would, over time, include little nods to each other in their movies and programs.
In Empire Strikes Back, one of the key locations was Cloud City, Lando Calrissian's gas mining colony on Bespin. The idea of a city in the clouds may have been inspired by the original Star Trek series episode from February 1969, "The Cloud Minders," set in the floating city of Stratos.
Earlier in the movie, Han desperately tries to escape the pursuing Empire's ships when he hides the Millennium Falcon by attaching to the back of a Star Destroyer in order to keep out of sight from their scopes. Just as the Falcon flies past the Destroyer's bridge and disappears, the Imperial captain says, "No ship that small has a cloaking device." A "cloaking device" was a phrase made popular in Star Trek as a secret weapon used by the Romulans to dematerialize in space and hide from the Enterprise—technology inspired by submarines that would vanish underwater and avoid radar detection.
#4 – The Entire Movie's Success Hinged on a Puppet
Yoda trained Jedi and had done so for over 800 years and was about to begin schooling Luke Skywalker on the mystical arts. So needless to say, Yoda was going to be a very important character for the movie. That's why it is almost baffling that George Lucas would cast this character as a muppet.
To basically replace Obi-Wan Kenobi as the wise old mentor espousing the philosophy of the Force meant that the character must be able to have a profound effect on the main protagonist. As far as the archetypal hero's journey goes, making this teacher an unremarkable creature by all appearances—thereby forcing the hero to judge beyond the outward form of another—fits within the story's presentation of a rite of passage. But as far as making a movie goes, where you're trying to make a fantasy in another galaxy as believable as possible to people on Earth, making this main character a puppet is a huge risk indeed.
Designing the working puppet of Yoda fell into the good hands of Stuart Freeborn, who had already made Chewbacca possible. Where Chewie did not speak words, Yoda had to instruct and test Luke verbally and so needed to be able to perform subtleties of acting like any other living, breathing performer, while also having to lend a sense of gravitas to the endeavor in much the same way Alec Guinness did in the first film. No small feat indeed, pun intended.
Performed by Frank Oz, who had been working with legendary puppeteer and creator of the Muppets, Jim Henson, Yoda had a good foundation. When Yoda was on set with Mark Hamill, it seemed at first like it was not going to work. If it wasn't going to work then the audience wouldn't believe it and it would be such a disaster that the rest of the movie could not be taken seriously. It could have literally crushed the entire work of the film and the franchise to boot. When Lucas and director Irvin Kershner saw the video under proper lighting and the camera's perspective, it looked wonderful and they knew it was actually going to work, and work it did. Yoda struck a chord with audiences and has been a truly beloved character ever since.
#3 – Mark Hamill Hosted The Muppet Show in his Empire Costume BEFORE its Release
Speaking of the Muppets, around this time The Muppet Show was a successful program on prime time TV. That's prime time television—a vaudeville-style show starring puppets was in the highest-viewing timeslot of network television! It's a testament to not only the performing of Muppets by the likes of Frank Oz and others, but also to the writing and overall amazing talents of Jim Henson and company. Hollywood stars and popular musicians were begging to be on the show not just for its viewership but for its genuine entertainment that was unlike any other show in its day.
On February 21, 1980, about three months before the release of Empire Strikes Back, The Muppet Show put together one of the earliest and greatest cross-over events in pop culture history—move aside Avengers! The Muppets and Star Wars came together that night when Mark Hamill hosted the show.
At first, however, it was actually Luke Skywalker who had crash-landed into the Muppet studio, along with C-3PO (performed by Anthony Daniels, of course) and R2-D2, who were searching for the missing Chewbacca (performed by Peter Mayhew). Luke appeared in a cool brown jacket and pants outfit that was much beloved by the theater's inhabitants. So much so that there was a running joke in the episode where several characters comment to Luke saying, "Who's your tailor? I love that outfit!"
These tan fatigues are not only cool but they are part of the outward symbolism of Luke's evolution to becoming a Jedi knight. Before this he was in his farm-boy white robe and here, he looks more sure of himself, and more skillful. After this, he would don an all-black attire to portray his greater mastery of the Force—one that would bring him to the edge of the dark side like Vader who, incidentally, wore all-black.
Another funny aspect of this Muppet Show episode is that Kermit and the others teeter on the fourth wall and mistake Luke for Mark Hamill. Luke claims Mark is his cousin and actually leaves the theater to go get him and when he does, Hamill appears in a different outfit that is much more earthling-like: an argyle blue sweater. Hamill also gets a few moments to show off his talent for voices which would serve him later as a second career which included being the voice of the Joker on the Batman Animated Series. When Luke and Mark both appeared on screen at the same time even Mark commented on the great outfit Luke was wearing. If this episode were ever to be considered canon and Mark Hamill is Luke's cousin, then he's also related to Leia and may have some power in the Force.
#2 – Cliffhangers Served Another Practical Purpose
Empire ended in quite a suspenseful manner. Han was captured and maybe gone forever, Luke's world was full of questions and doubt, Leia sensed Luke's presence and heard his call, Lando and Chewie flew off to find Han, the Empire wasn't defeated, and the Rebels were homeless. Although so much was left up in the air, we knew the third movie was on the way (in three very long years to a kid) and this episode left us with an indelible impression and some nerve-racking anticipation for the next one. Cliffhangers can be an effective tool to create such anticipation but there could have been ulterior motives for having things as they were.
In the first place, Harrison Ford had not originally signed on to do a third film, so it wasn't a given that the character of Han Solo would return. So, in the story, Han was frozen and possibly lost. If Ford did not return, then there was already a plot point from which to explain why he was gone. If Ford did return, then part of the next story could be his rescue. His return was in further doubt after Harrison Ford became a megastar as the leading role of Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. In spite of both Ford's and Lawrence Kasdan's insistence that Solo should die to create dramatic tension, George Lucas always wanted him back, and it worked out that he would return.
Another plan could have been that if Harrison Ford did not return, Billy Dee Williams would step more into the role of Lando as a replacement for Han being the cynical and wise-cracking, outlaw-type, and perhaps be the romantic link to the character of Leia.
Speaking of Leia, if for some reason Mark Hamill couldn't return (such as some unforeseen difficulty or tragedy), then the movie had already setup the Princess as someone sensitive in the Force and could be the one to pick up where Luke left off, discover the identity of her true father, get some training from the still-breathing Yoda, and take on Vader and the Emperor in the end.
Some of these ideas could have served as safety nets for the film should some of the principal actors not be in it because, well, a lot can happen in three years. Luckily, all the cast returned, and the story could proceed as planned. There did not seem to be any such alternate plans for Princess Leia, there was just no replacing Carrie Fisher in any way.
#1 – Darth Vader's big Reveal was a Well-Kept Secret
You might be thinking I would mention here the supposed tale that David Prowse, the actor who portrayed Darth Vader in most scenes of the original trilogy, accidentally let the proverbial cat out of the bag when, as the story goes, he met with fans at an event sometime in 1978 or '79 and said that in the second chapter, it would be revealed that Vader is Luke's father. This story has been batted back and forth like a tennis match as to whether it really happened or not, and whether Prowse knew about it and told fans anyway, or he didn't know about it and made a lucky guess. Without the Internet, the rumor didn't spread very far, if it ever happened.
What I'm referring to is that the shocking revelation actually did get out ahead of the movie's release. But back up first because Lucas's plan to make this family connection between Luke and Vader was at first only in his mind and he told nobody about it. This idea had been in his story from the start but it wasn't written where anyone saw it. Inserted in the working script for everyone on set was a false page. At the time of shooting, only George Lucas and the director, Irvin Kershner, knew what the real script would contain. When it came time to capture the actual scene, they pulled Mark Hamill aside and told him the truth in order for him to portray the right emotion. They did not tell David Prowse who was on set, as Vader saying the lines from the false page. Nobody else on the set knew, either. Prowse would act the scene as written, which said, "Obi-Wan killed your father," but Hamill had to react to the real line, "I am your father," that would be dubbed later.
When it came time to add the voice of Darth Vader, by James Earl Jones, Jones had to be told what the real lines were of course. Jones's initial reaction was that Vader was lying to Luke. That made sense, because Vader was evil and would do anything to get his way, even lying and causing discord. He soon learned the truth as well. So by that time, only four people knew.
In post-production, probably the only other person (or people) to learn of the true line were those involved with sound editing, most likely Ben Burtt and maybe others on his team. All things considered, that is still a very small number of people knowing the truth and it is exactly what Lucas planned to ensure its secrecy.
It paid off in spades, of course, as that line probably had the largest impact on everything in Star Wars ever. In that moment, everything changed and became personal. To exemplify just how well the secret was kept, Harrison Ford was sitting next to Mark Hamill at the premiere and turned to him saying that he didn't know that happened to Luke. Perhaps he was upset that Hamill hadn't told him but regardless, it shows that such a secret could not be kept in this day and age.
There's this small matter of the novelization of Empire Strikes Back by Donald F. Glut, which accurately told the story of the movie with no false pages. The book, however, was originally published on April 12, 1980, a whole 39 days before the wide release of the film on May 21. It's not known how widespread the book was available at that time or how many copies sold, or if it even reached bookstore shelves until May—it's publication date on the inside of the book simply has: May 1980. I'd like to believe that those readers who did pick it up and get through it before seeing the movie were all good people and kept it under wraps to not spoil it for anyone else, but that is probably wishful thinking even from a slightly less innocent time.
And that's my list. What did I miss and what did I mess up? There are so many details it's hard to keep up but let me know in the comments and may the Force be with you always.