For a six year old, three years is quite literally half a lifetime. It’s an even greater eternity when you don’t remember the first three. I remember May 21, 1980, as being quite the one-two punch in our household. Dad and I went to see The Empire Strikes Back that opening afternoon, and after having his mind blown with questions, Dad settled in that evening after avoiding all of my questions to watch the season finale of his favorite TV series at the time, Dallas. You could say I followed in Dad’s footsteps in following the villain. He tuned in just to watch J.R. Ewing make life miserable for everyone else. So as of that day, Dad was in the same camp as everyone else in popular culture, asking the two same questions: was Darth Vader really Luke’s father, and who shot J.R.? By the time fall rolled around, everyone knew who shot J.R. (spoiler: it was Kristen Shepard, if you didn’t already know). A year after that, certainly nobody at my school remembered or even cared in the first place beyond it being a catchphrase that everyone used for no explicable reason. But the debates raged on the playground about Vader and Luke. And I mean raged. There were full-blown fist fights about it. I remember some (not in my circle of friends) lost their teeth or suffered broken limbs. Many were absolutely convinced that the Dark Lord was lying. I, of course, came to Vader’s defense, blissfully unaware of how correct I was or of the ramifications of what that meant. Why would he need to lie? Luke had already been beaten. It was another three years before we’d know for certain. My big concern was whether or not Vader would walk away from the next encounter. The rumors of what would happen next started almost immediately, and I’ll get into those when I post about Jedi. For now, let’s just say I was excited by the idea that Vader would possibly become the new Emperor before his obligatory defeat at the hands of Luke Skywalker. After all, I’d been right before. Besides, at the time, I had no real interest in the first Emperor, even if this was the guy that gave Vader his marching orders. That would come later for me. Much later.
A great deal had changed in the world between 1977 and 1980. Economically, the country was a disaster. Gas prices were high, lines to get it were long, and conflict in the Middle East — the source of the domestic turmoil — was on the rise yet again. Unemployment, inflation, potential war… you know, all the cyclical stuff you hear about today. Confidence in President Jimmy Carter was waning fast, and Ronald Reagan was campaigning hard to bring some kind of big turnaround for American fortune. Like when Star Wars first hit, and regardless of your view on politics, it was the right message at the right time. Meanwhile, the advent of Star Wars had created a new surge in science fiction entertainment and in the idea of happy endings and a return of wonder to the big screen. Films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Superman wowed the kids while Alien scared the adults. On the small screen, Star Wars‘ lead special effects wizard John Dykstra took charge on Battlestar Galactica, which opened up the world to Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and the idea that absolutely every other show needed a robot of some kind. Over in the UK, the creative team at Doctor Who went to the theaters to support their friend Peter Cushing. As Cushing had played the Doctor in two previous big screeners in the 1960s, the general feeling was it was time for return to that idea, seeing as how the British were the ones who put Star Wars together in the first place for George Lucas, and seeing as how their current Doctor, Tom Baker, was the most popular actor they’d had in the role to that time. After seeing Star Wars, producers felt they just couldn’t compete on any level (especially on budget), and the project was scuttled. Baker’s Doctor got a robot
sidekick companion instead, K-9 making his first appearance in October 1977. Over at Paramount, executives were scrambling like mad, wondering what they had in their back catalog that could possibly compete for audience dollars that Star Wars had proven was there for the taking. Turns out, there was a little cult sci-fi TV series that was making a low budget revival, and it was already in the works. Greedy beyond the dreams of avarice, more money was thrown at the project, enough to bring about the return of the one man who was notably absent to that point. With Leonard Nimoy now officially reprising his role as Mr. Spock, it was now a foregone conclusion audiences would find their seats. The pilot episode for Star Trek: Phase Two was expanded and greenlit anew as Star Trek: The Motion Picture, launching that franchise into a new era and unknowingly providing the fallback cushion for a generation of Star Wars fans a few years down the road when the glory for the Force that could never end… ended.
For George Lucas, the issue was creative control. Star Wars was the straw that broke the camel’s back in terms of studio dominance. Using the immediate windfall from the merchandising rights that 20th Century Fox practically handed him because such things “never” paid off, Skywalker Ranch was built in 1978, a private campus studio facility that would continue to see expansion well into the 2000s. Lucasfilm Ltd. became much more than a shell company of two people, George Lucas and his wife Marsha; it became an independent film company, free from studio oversight. Let me say that again because most people have a hard time wrapping their heads around this idea: The Empire Strikes Back is an independent film. And so are Return of the Jedi and all three prequels. 20th Century Fox owns the first one, but they only got distribution rights for the rest of the Saga until the Disney buyout.
The hallmark of George Lucas in regards to his way of making movies is that he believes films are created in the editing room, after the scenes are shot. To him, building the shots is a lot like crafting the wood and nails and other materials, and the “house” of the film is put together in the editing room. For this reason and for the fact that there were more factors to oversee in the production of the eagerly-awaited sequel, Lucas turned the directing duties over to his friend and former instructor, Irvin Kershner. Given the success of the film, people often ask why Kershner didn’t follow up on Jedi. The understood reason is because Kershner got heavily fined from industry due to the layout of the film. It was industry standard — mandatory to be in the guilds and avoid those fines — that acting and production credits were offered at the beginning of the film, a tradition which Star Wars and its sequels notably broke. One could also latch on to rumors that perhaps Lucas had less control over Kershner than he would have liked. All we know for certain is that whatever happened behind the scenes, The Empire Strikes Back knocked it out of the park and is often hailed as the very best of the Star Wars films.
That wasn’t always the case.
Forget what we all know now and think about the effect the movie had on audiences at the time. The film opens on the icy wastelands of Hoth after the opening crawl tells us our Rebels have been dogged at every turn since the destruction of the Death Star. Lord Vader was promoted from behind-the-scenes enforcer to lead the Imperial star fleet in obsessive pursuit of young Skywalker and his allies with ruthless efficiency.
After one of the most impossible battle sequences involving Imperial walkers, the heroes are split apart physically with Luke and R2-D2 going off to pursue his training at the hands of Jedi Master Yoda while Han, Leia, Chewie, and C-3PO are chased across the galaxy by the Empire and the bounty hunters Vader hired on the side. While Han and Leia find romance in their downtime, Han is betrayed by an old friend, Lando Calrissian, put into carbon freeze to test the chamber for Luke’s eventual capture. Luke faces spiritual crisis during Yoda’s tests and runs headlong to prematurely confront Vader in a bid to rescue his friends.
The consequences: he loses his hand, his lightsaber, and what’s left of his innocence as he learns the revelation that could crush his soul. The film ends on a downbeat, Luke and Leia watching the Falcon speed off into an uncertain future, quite the reversal from the first film. When those credits roll, the audience is as adrift as the heroes.
That sort of thing is almost unheard of in movies, especially of films of this sort. At the time, audiences were generally confused and angry about it too. The defense issued from George Lucas was pragmatic: it’s standard three act drama. In act one, you introduce your heroes. In act two, the heroes get into danger. In act three, they get out of it. That’s just how it works. And it seems so obvious in hindsight, but at the time… hoo boy…
But wait… if this is supposedly “act two,” why is it labeled Episode V? That was something else put into play. Audiences wondered just how much story we missed. What happened to episodes two, three, and four? It was the 1981 re-release of Star Wars that answered that, when it was changed to Episode IV: A New Hope. But that only fueled the new obvious questions. Where are the first three? And would we ever see them? Again, I’ll address the rumor mill when I talk Jedi. The point is that everything was in limbo, and there’s nothing more uncomfortable for audiences than limbo.
It was more a case of turnabout being fair play. In 1977, audiences were pretty much assured Star Wars would continue. We just had no idea what form it would take. Remember, no one other than Mark Hamill believed it would be a success at all, and even he thought it would become the stuff of midnight cult matinees. It seems mind-boggling to think about this now, even for one who lived through it, but the first thing Star Wars offered us in 1978, even before the Holiday Special, was a sequel novel: Splinter of the Mind’s Eye by Alan Dean Foster, who had ghost-written the movie novelization for George Lucas in 1976. Lucas had assumed his film would be a failure, but in securing the merchandising rights, the idea was that Star Wars would live on in other media — you guessed it — free from studio control.
If you’ve never read this book, do so. This is where Expanded Universe 1.0 begins, and as with its successors, film canon changed everything. In the book, we’re introduced to the concept of Kyber crystals in the form of the Mind’s Eye (a holdover from an earlier draft of the original film’s script). The splinter is a fragment of the jewel, which is said to magnify Force powers. Luke and Leia confront Darth Vader in what is essentially a spiritual arms race. And this is one of the reasons why you need to read this one: when Luke is beaten, Leia picks up his lightsaber and confronts Vader.
Raise your hand if you want to see this one sequence on a big screen. (*raises hand*) Who wouldn’t, am I right? *sigh*
It’s funny… as popular as this book was at the time, I don’t recall that people were complaining about how Empire “ruined everything.” And this wasn’t the only book to be had. Between the Holiday Special and Empire, we got the first of three Han Solo novels, the success of which laid the groundwork for a Lando Calrissian trilogy by the same author, Brian Daley. They’re simple by today’s standard, but at the time they were magical. And most importantly, they were fun.
It was Daley who also adapted Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back to radio for NPR, the latter of which introduced me to the power of radio and started a whole new kind of fandom. I tuned in every Sunday evening.
And, of course, there were the Marvel comics, the newspaper strip, t-shirts, and pajamas, and bed sheets, and lunch boxes, and… the toys. Those wonderful toys. I can’t speak for anyone else, but this is where my toy collection took off. I was a bit late to the game, but my parents came through for me in Christmas 1981 / birthday 1982 with action figures and vehicles like I’d never seen in one spot outside of a toy store. I missed out on the Death Star, but that Christmas I got the Millennium Falcon, and the AT-AT walker showed a week later for the birthday fun, both of which I still have to this day. In fact, I ended up with most of what you see on the back of this card and then some (this isn’t everything in the series — I note the ion cannon and the Hoth wampa are missing, for example, and none of the miniature sets are listed either):
Hey, for a kid, this really was a golden age! Is it any wonder Empire is my favorite of the films, even besides the fact that Vader finally gets to unleash his full power in ways that were only hinted at in the original movie? More, please! Which, of course, was the sentiment of the early 80s. We didn’t know at the time that subsequent eras would have much more to offer on any front, and for my money, more doesn’t always equate to better. That’s the gift and the curse of being an original generation fan: nothing can really compete with the nostalgia of living through it all the first time. It’s why I understand both the negativity from my fellow original generation fans and the enthusiasm of later era fans. I’ve been there. In the end, enthusiasm will win every single time for me. That was seeded with the first film. Empire solidified it and made it real. I was old enough to fully appreciate it and young enough to not know the stories behind the stories. I was there during the three years the world held its breath, waiting to learn the horrible truth behind Vader’s revelation. What’s more, I know how fortunate I am to have been a part of it.
In 2010, I saw a 30th anniversary screening of Empire. At the time, Twilight was a big deal for some reason, and I remember telling those fans to calm down and put it into perspective. “Let’s see if anyone even remembers that crap in 30 years, let alone holds fan conventions.” Maybe not my finest hour, but the truth hurts. Whatever. The Clone Wars was in season three on TV, and a younger generation was being brought up on the idea of Anakin Skywalker as their hero, many of them blissfully unaware of the fate that we know so well. When Vader made his dread proclamation, there were howls of unbelieving protest from that audience, just as it was in 1980. Different reason, of course, but the exact same reaction. Say what you will, that’s power. Some movies don’t age gracefully at all. It’s hard to argue that The Empire Strikes Back will ever be one of those. For me, this was living proof that, regardless of divisive fans and wildly negative trash talk on modern social media, Star Wars is forever, for the right reasons. It’s a story that will pass itself down generation to generation, for as long as film exists. Empire was the film that made Star Wars into a franchise and turned it into a legacy beyond anyone’s wildest imaginations.
Not bad for an indie movie.