In the second part of a series of articles examining the various screen incarnations of George Lucas’ Star Wars saga, we focus on the Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back…
Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back, 1980.
Directed by Irvin Kershner.
Starring Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams and Anthony Daniels.
Three years after the destruction of the Death Star the Rebel Alliance have sought refuge on the remote ice-planet of Hoth but they are soon scattered across the galaxy after the Empire launches a full-scale assault. Luke Skywalker seeks out the revered Jedi Master Yoda to continue his training while Darth Vader relentlessly pursues Princess Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca and C3PO aboard Millennium Falcon. Capturing the heroes, Vader then uses them as bait to lure Skywalker into a confrontation that ends with a shocking revelation.
Given the unprecedented success of George Lucas’ 1977 space opera Star Wars it was inevitable that a sequel would soon follow. While he felt at the time that Star Wars would be his last picture as a director due to the exhaustive nature of the production, Lucas was keen to further explore his newly created galaxy and had been reflecting upon his original vision, which would have spanned a number of movies and concluded with the Rebel’s destroying the Death Star (fearing that Star Wars would prove unpopular and fail to generate a sequel, he instead chose to use this as the climax of the original movie). Aware of audience demand for more – and conscious of the fact that his original deal with Fox stated that any sequel must be in production within two years to avoid the rights reverting back to the studio – Lucas opted to independently produce the next instalment and serve as executive producer, which enabled him to supervise the production whilst contributing to other Lucasfilm projects, namely More American Graffiti (1979) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).
Lucas viewed the sequel as “the middle act of a three-act play” and after producing a story treatment he contracted screenwriter Leigh Brackett to turn his outline into a workable script. Brackett completed her first draft early in 1978 but unfortunately died of cancer just days after delivering the screenplay. Lucas then decided to complete this himself (albeit uncredited) along with help from Lawrence Kasdan, who had recently finished the first draft of Raiders. Kasdan worked on revising Brackett’s draft throughout 1978 while Lucas continued pre-production. Independent filmmaker and Lucas’ former USC teacher Irvin Kershner was hired to handle the pressures of direction, with Lucas retaining overall control on each aspect of production from his executive producer position.
Most of the original crew were also reunited save for director of photography Gilbert Taylor (who had clashed with Lucas during the first movie and was subsequently replaced by Peter Suschitzky) and production designer John Barry (Barry had accepted an offer to direct the 1980 science fiction film Saturn 3, but was fired during production and returned as second unit director on Empire only to die of meningitis two weeks into filming).The principal actors from Star Wars all agreed to return, while Billy Dee Williams was brought in for the role of Lando Calrissian (Williams had initially auditioned for the part of Han Solo back in 1976 and became the only black character to appear in the original trilogy).
In addition to the returning cast and crew, Lucasfilm once again hired London’s Elstree Studios (although they were forced to construct a new soundstage on the studio backlot to house the giant Dagobah set), while Finise in Norway was selected to stand in for the frozen wastelands of Hoth. Principal photography on The Empire Strikes Back began in Norway on March 5th 1979 and – as with Star Wars – location filming was severely hampered by bad weather conditions with the crew battling freezing temperatures, snowdrifts and blizzards to capture footage for the early Hoth portion of the film. Moving to London, the production found Elstree Studios to be temporarily unavailable (Stanley Kubrick was using the facility for his Stephen King adaptation The Shining, which had fallen behind schedule), and had to make do with nearby Lee International Studios until space became available.
Worried that the production was falling apart Lucas soon flew to London to try and salvage the situation. He hired American director Harley Cokeliss and was soon running multiple units simultaneously, with Lucas himself helming a number of scenes which he felt had been mishandled. Empire’s budget had now spiralled out of control and Lucas was forced to negotiate a deal with the First National Bank of Boston to provide additional funds, which were supplied only on the proviso that Fox guaranteed the loan (in return Fox were given a greater percentage of profits on both Empire and Return of the Jedi). Shooting eventually wrapped in September, having taken 175 days as opposed to the scheduled 100, and burning a $33 million hole in Lucas’ pocket.
The Empire Strikes Back was released to an eager public on May 21st, 1980 (queues at Mann’s Egyptian Theater in Hollywood had begun three days earlier, marking the beginning of the oft-repeated fan tradition), banking over $10m in its first weekend and going on to become the biggest grossing film of the year, with Lucas turning a profit within three months. Although today the film is often considered the best of the saga, initial critical reaction was somewhat mixed with a number of reviews pointing to the second-act nature of the narrative and lack of plot. However, most were in agreement that the marked departure towards more adult-orientated themes helped the film to stand out from its predecessor and position itself as a worthy (and necessary) sequel.
Indeed, Empire really does go out of its way to avoid retreading Star Wars (the only location that appears in both movies is the interior of the Millennium Falcon), enhancing and adding to the story with the introduction of classic characters such as Jedi Master Yoda, the bounty hunter Boba Fett, and of course the Emperor himself. It goes as far as to invert the earlier narrative, beginning as it does with the big battle (only this time, with the Imperials gaining the victory) and slowing considerably until the climax, at which point the Rebel Alliance is on the verge of oblivion and all hope seemingly lost. The role of fan favourite Darth Vader is also expanded considerably in this second chapter and the Dark Lord is on ruthless form throughout, while his startling paternal revelation to Luke Skywalker masterfully raises the stakes and paves the way for the concluding episode of the saga.
In his 1997 review, respected film critic Roger Ebert described The Empire Strikes Back as “the best of the three Star Wars films, and the most thought-provoking”, and with the movie currently ranked number 10 on the IMDB Top 250 (two places above the 1977 original), it would seem that fans are generally in agreement. It is also testament to the quality of The Empire Strikes Back that, during the 1997 special edition releases of the original trilogy, it was the episode to which the least alterations were made. Unlike Star Wars, which had benefitted from a number of visual effects overhauls, additional scenes such as Han’s confrontation with Jabba the Hutt and of course, the Han – Greedo controversy, enhancements to Empire were minimal (a revised Wampa, visual tweaks to flesh out the Bespin landscape, and a short scene of Vader leaving Cloud City are the main changes, while the 2004 DVD release would see Ian McDiarmid reprise his role as the Emperor at the expense of Clive Revill).
Bringing Star Wars to the Screen: Episode IV – A New Hope
Bringing Star Wars to the Screen: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi
Bringing Star Wars to the Small Screen: The Star Wars Holiday Special
Bringing Star Wars to the Small Screen: Caravan of Courage – An Ewok Adventure
Bringing Star Wars to the Small Screen: Ewoks – Battle For Endor
Bringing Star Wars to the Small Screen: The Ewoks and Droids Adventure Hour