The Empire Strikes Back / Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back / Star Wars, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) ****½
For decades, George Lucas was pretty consistent in asserting that he always had big, grandiose plans for Star Wars, and that he knew from the start exactly where the saga was going. The first half of that assertion might even be true, but it’s obvious now (if it hadn’t been already— anybody else remember when Lucas was saying that the big picture would ultimately resolve itself into a trilogy of tangentially related trilogies covering the adventures of R2-D2 and C-3PO?) that the second is nothing more than brand ballyhoo. And you know what? That’s okay. In fact, as more and more pre-release material from early in the franchise’s development comes to light, it becomes increasingly apparent that one of its strengths was the young George Lucas’s willingness to scrap his preconceived notions whenever a better idea came along, even if that meant a bit of emergency retcon was necessary. Furthermore, the changes from draft to draft and from film to film show that in the 70’s and early 80’s, Lucas was indeed pretty dependable about telling the better ideas from the worse ones. You can see it especially plainly comparing The Empire Strikes Back as completed to its earliest finished screenplay, written by Leigh Brackett in 1978, shortly before her death from cancer.
First, the version you already know. The destruction of the Death Star was a setback for the Empire, but conventional Imperial forces were still plenty powerful enough to chase the Rebel Alliance out of its comfortable digs on Yavin in the aftermath. Now the main body of Rebel fighters, under the command of General Rieekan (Bruce Boa, from The Omen and The Ninth Configuration) has set up shop on Hoth, a remote, icy planet so inhospitable to any kind of life that you’d think no one would waste their time looking there. But the Emperor (Rick Baker’s wife, Elaine, overdubbed with the voice of Clive Revill, the latter of whom can be seen in The Legend of Hell House and The Headless Ghost) wants the Rebels found— especially wannabe Jedi Knight Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill again)— and Darth Vader (still David Prowse with James Earl Jones dubbing his dialogue) is extremely thorough. One of his probe droids has landed on Hoth, and it’s bound to find evidence of the Rebel base sooner or later. In the meantime, though, the troops there have a more immediate problem. Hoth isn’t without indigenous life after all, and one of the species inhabiting it is a sort of carnivorous yeti. One such creature nearly kills Luke while he’s out on a routine patrol. Only quick, resourceful, and almost suicidally courageous action by ex-smuggler Han Solo (a returning Harrison Ford) saves Luke from freezing to death even after he escapes from the monster.
Luke has only just recovered from his ordeal when Vader arrives in Hoth’s star system at the head of a huge Imperial fleet. While his admirals— first the bumbling Ozell (frequent movie Nazi Michael Sheard, putting a sci-fi spin on the usual routine), and later the more efficient Piett (Kenneth Colley, of The Vampire Beast Craves Blood)— establish a blockade around the frozen planet, General Veers (Julian Glover, from Blood Fiend and Five Million Years to Earth) attacks the Rebel base with the Empire’s equivalent to an armored cavalry division. It’s all Rieekan’s forces can do to hold them off long enough to cover a more or less orderly evacuation of the planet. Among the last to leave are Solo, his Wookie first mate Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew once more), Princess Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher again), and the interpreter droid C-3PO (still Anthony Daniels). They run the blockade in Solo’s suped-up freighter, the Millennium Falcon, but the old ship has seen a lot of hard use since the last movie, and the fugitives are horrified to discover that its hyperdrive motivator is burned out at exactly the moment when they really need to make the jump to light speed. The Falcon and her crew will spend pretty much the whole second act pinned down in an asteroid field, where their one consolation is that the gigantic Imperial Star Destroyers hunting them will find it even more difficult to navigate without being smashed to bits.
As for Luke and R2-D2 (still a barrel full of Kenny Baker), they split off from the retreating Rebel convoy and fly to the obscure swamp planet of Dagobah. While Skywalker was delirious with hypothermia and yeti wounds, he had a visit from the ghost of his mentor, Obi Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness again), instructing him to go there in search of Yoda, the Jedi Master. Yoda trained Obi Wan, and he’ll train Luke, too, if the lad can find him. The first sentient being that Luke encounters on Dagobah is a tiny, aged, irascible gremlin (a sophisticated hand puppet voiced and mostly controlled by longtime Jim Henson sidekick Frank Oz) who takes him in at his mud hut and offers to help him in his search, but mostly just annoys the shit out of the aspiring Jedi. Naturally the little, long-eared pest turns out to be Yoda himself, much as the least impressive old geezer in any kung fu movie invariably turns out to be the one guy in all of China who knows the secret of the Four Winds Drunken Venom Exploding Head technique. Yoda is not enthusiastic about the pupil Phantom Obi Wan has sent him. In fact, he considers Luke a distinct risk for turning to the Dark Side of the Force like Darth Vader did. Still, Vader’s virtual extermination of his fellow Jedi Knights leaves those who would resurrect the order in “beggars can’t be choosers” territory, so the diminutive wizard gets to work trying to make a Jedi of Luke. He’s actually doing pretty well by the time Skywalker has a prophetic vision of Han and Leia in mortal peril, and dashes off recklessly to save them despite being told to stay put by both Yoda and Phantom Kenobi.
No, it isn’t the asteroids or the Imperial fleet menacing Luke’s friends in the future— Solo eventually comes up with a commendably clever way around both of those hazards. But as he slips away, he fails to notice that the Millennium Falcon is being tailed by a small ship belonging to Boba Fett (Jeremy Bulloch, of Can You Keep It Up for a Week?), one of several bounty hunters hired by Vader once it became obvious that the military sledgehammer was the wrong tool for apprehending the last of the Rebel stragglers from Hoth. Fett evidently reports to Vader that the Millennium Falcon is headed for Bespin, where the main human settlement is a gas-mining colony administered by Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams, from Fear City and Hood of Horror). Calrissian and Solo are old friends, although they trust each other about as much as any two criminals should. If it weren’t for the bounty hunter’s tattling, Lando would probably have given his visitors as warm a welcome as he pretends to. But the Bespin colony is in several dubious legal positions, affording Vader plenty of leverage to make Calrissian cooperate in laying a trap. Betrayer and betrayed alike assume that Solo and his companions are the intended prey, but in fact their capture is just phase one of a more involved scheme. Their anguish, both physical and emotional, is to serve as a psychic beacon luring Luke Skywalker into Vader’s clutches. And as we already know, Luke has already taken the bait. While Vader makes his preparations to receive Skywalker, Leia, C-3PO, and Chewbacca are taken into Imperial custody, while Han, frozen into a block of carbonite, is handed over to Boba Fett for sale to Jabba the Hutt. (You remember Jabba? The mysterious gangster who put a price on Han’s head? Yeah, well he’ll be staying just as mysterious this time around.) Nor is Vader’s plan anything as simple as to kill the budding Jedi. He agrees with Yoda that Luke’s natural affinities are with the Dark Side of the Force, and his object is to encourage those affinities. Vader has reason to be confident of success, too. You see, it happens that Obi Wan Kenobi was not entirely honest with Luke about what happened to his father all those years ago…
Now let’s go back to 1978. While Chewbacca kept Star Wars in the public eye by celebrating Life Day with his moth-eaten parents and a coked-up Princess Leia, George Lucas entrusted the writing of a proper follow-up to a real, live author. Although Leigh Brackett was a regular in the pages of Astounding Stories, Planet Stories, and Thrilling Wonder Stories, and a screenwriter of some distinction, Lucas found in the end that he didn’t much care for what she’d done with his story notes, and wrote two drafts of his own before handing everything over to Lawrence Kasdan, who put the screenplay into its final form. Barely a line of dialogue or stage direction survived from Brackett’s script to the completed film, but the skeleton of the story that became The Empire Strikes Back is unmistakably present in her version, in a surprising amount of detail. Brackett had the Rebels routed out of their base on a monster-haunted ice world, Luke studying the Force under a swamp-dwelling Space Beggar So, and Han and Leia betrayed by the boss of a floating cloud city. She opened with Luke running afoul of a snow creature, climaxed with a duel between him and Darth Vader, and used a conspiracy by Vader and the Emperor to turn Luke as the lynchpin of Skywalker’s subplot throughout. Brackett also revealed, during the Dagobah segment, that Luke wasn’t the only iron the good guys had in the fire when it came to rebuilding the Jedi order. She even ended on an ambiguous, indecisive note, with the key Rebels separated and the Empire holding the upper hand.
The differences, though, are even more striking, which gets us back to my point about the young Lucas knowing better than his future self how to roll with a new idea. When Brackett said “snow creatures,” for example, she meant not abominable snowmen, but creatures made of snow. Her snow creatures are intelligent, too, and it is they more than the Imperial military that dislodge the Rebels from their base on the frozen planet. Brackett’s Lando Calrissian (although he isn’t quite called that) is a clone— of Clone Wars fame— and his colony is chronically at loggerheads with the indigenous people of Bespin (although Brackett called the planet “Hoth”). Luke’s brush with the Dark Side during his training on Dagobah is no mere vision, but a Garden of Gethsemane situation in which Vader actually reaches out to him across the light years to tempt him away from his course of instruction. The issue of Luke’s secret sister is not merely foreshadowed for use in the next sequel (“That boy is our last hope.” “No. There is another.”), but dealt with in some detail. Furthermore, Brackett probably didn’t intend her to be Leia at all, although that’s somewhat open to interpretation. Her script has the name “Nellith” crossed out in favor of a line explaining that the girl’s identity must remain secret from Luke lest Vader extract it from him telepathically, but the accompanying statement that she is in hiding far away is hardly an accurate description of the Leia we’ve seen so far. By far the biggest difference, though, between Brackett’s version and Kasdan’s concerns Luke’s father. He isn’t Darth Vader in Brackett’s telling. In fact, we get to meet him as a ghost conjured up by Yoda (or rather, by Minch, since that’s what Brackett called her ancient, elfin Jedi master) to help conduct Luke’s Jedi initiation.
Some of what got dropped from the Brackett script is really neat, no two ways about it. For instance, Lando’s lament over the loneliness and isolation he feels now that he no longer sees his own face on other men everywhere he goes is the kind of mind-igniting insight that you can find nowhere else but science fiction. Indeed, the best way I can think of to boil down the changes in subsequent drafts is to say that Brackett’s version is the most purely and truly a sci-fi story (albeit sci-fi of the mystical strain that was popular in the post-hippy 70’s), as opposed to a fantastical adventure yarn with sci-fi trappings. The thing is, though, that Star Wars was exactly the latter sort of thing, meaning that Brackett’s bigger, bolder, more sophisticated ideas don’t really fit. They feel Star Trek, not Star Wars— hell, the snow creature subplot is practically a remake of “Devil in the Dark” without the happy ending. So by progressively downplaying the egghead stuff in their rewrites, Lucas and Kasdan were simply harmonizing the tenor of the sequel with that of its predecessor. And the big retcon whereby Vader becomes Luke’s father plays into that by making the conflict between them an epic family tragedy, something that people who don’t give a shit about the psychology of clones or the natural rights of indigenous non-carbon-based lifeforms can immediately understand. It also cleverly undercuts Obi Wan Kenobi’s ascension to saint/angel status by compounding his great fuck-up. Not only did he catastrophically lose control of his old apprentice, but he also lied about it when the time came for owning up. Considering the centrality of Obi Wan’s failure to the back-story here, it’s good to see it demonstrated that he isn’t quite as wise as he seems even now.
Lucas and Kasdan made an equally smart move in reinventing Han Solo’s motivation completely. Brackett treated the Jabba issue as settled, and not without reason. After all, Han was no longer on Tatooine; instead, he was in hiding as part of a fighting force powerful enough to challenge the Empire itself. What was a mere gangster going to do to him in that kind of company? When she has Solo preparing to separate from his comrades in the first act, it’s because he’s been charged with a mission to convince his stepfather, essentially the head of the Teamsters union, to enlist his influential guild in the fight against tyranny, and that’s where he goes once all the hassles of the second and third acts are finally behind him. Here the changes don’t merely make for a better thematic fit, but are just plain superior storytelling. By keeping Jabba in the picture (or just outside the frame, anyway), Kasdan’s script keeps Solo a little isolated from his fellow Rebels, preserving and indeed heightening the tension between his past as an outlaw without attachments or loyalties and his present as a fighter for a cause. Han’s outsider status was vital to the functioning of the ensemble in Star Wars, and the looming threat of Jabba’s bounty— a threat which applies to him alone— maintains that status even now that he’s fully invested in his friends’ struggle. It also gives Solo a Hero’s Journey of his own to play out alongside Luke Skywalker’s.
Of course, there’s nothing unusual about stories getting tighter, better integrated, and more thematically focused as draft follows draft. Indeed, that’s the whole point of doing rewrites in the first place. But it’s also exactly what Lucas spent about 30 years pretending he didn’t do with Star Wars. The quality of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi shows that the pretence was mostly harmless in and of itself— that so long as the mastermind pose remained a tool for snookering studio heads into giving Lucas a free hand, it could even act in the movies’ favor. I’m starting to think that when the franchise lost its mojo during the era of the calamitous prequel trilogy, it was first and foremost because Lucas had begun to believe his own hype.
If you want to see that mojo in full effect, The Empire Strikes Back really is the best place to look. It retains all the strengths of its predecessor and improves upon them. The three core actors are visibly more confident of and comfortable in their performances. Mark Hamill is less whiny, Harrison Ford has learned to calibrate his smugness more finely, and Carrie Fisher has given up completely on her risible counterfeit of Royal Shakespeare Company delivery. Lawrence Kasdan has a much better ear for dialogue than his boss, although the occasional jarring pothole of a line can still be found here and there. John Williams’s score is rendered even more magisterial by the addition of the iconic “Imperial March” cue, which became the official soundtrack to organized villainy for two generations of sci-fi fans (and may yet become so for a third if Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens amounts to anything worthier than an organizing principle for the latest Disney World expansion). Yoda proved that the Henson touch could be applied to “realistic” characters, endowing them with believable life and personality just as surely as it made piano-playing dogs out of old toilet skirts. The new planets, new alien species, and new fantastical machines further enlarge one of the broadest and most convincingly lived-in fictional universes in all of cinema. And this movie’s three big action set-pieces— the siege of Hoth, the pursuit of the Millennium Falcon, and the showdown between Luke and Vader— collectively play a nifty trick on audience expectations by taking on greater and greater thematic weight as their physical scale and scope decrease.
Audience expectations are also at work in the most noteworthy thing about The Empire Strikes Back, the ease with which it brings together two seemingly contrary trends in earlier sci-fi movies. Star Wars was unusual for its unabashedly sunny escapism at a time when the rest of the genre was entranced with visions of apocalypse, dystopia, and collapse. To be sure, it paid lip-service to the mood of its era via its evil empire and its planet-destroying super-weapon, and it hedged its bets by being set “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away,” but its interpretation of the genre was mostly in line with the optimistic futurism of 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s space operas. Furthermore, Star Wars’ success gave rise to a countercurrent of rip-offs that eschewed the gloom and doom ushered in by Planet of the Apes, although the darker style would remain at least equally potent even unto the present day. One would naturally expect The Empire Strikes Back to follow its predecessor’s lead, and in a lot of ways it does. It heroes are still Heroes for the most part, its villains still Villains, and even the ambiguous Lando Calrissian is poised to follow in Han Solo’s footsteps down the road from self-regarding criminal to committed freedom fighter. Its settings seek our awe rather than our terror, and its violence aims to excite rather than to horrify. But now look closely at that ending. Solo’s fate leaves Jabba the Hutt triumphant, and deprives everyone among the good guys— even Lando, if we want to count him— of a dear friend. In Leia’s case, it deprives her of her lover at the very moment that she becomes willing to admit to herself that that’s what he is. Calrissian loses everything he’s worked for since he gave up smuggling. Obi Wan (assuming that ghosts care about such things) loses Luke’s trust, and sees his plan for a resurgent Jedi order put in jeopardy. And Luke, who had lost plenty already back home on Tatooine, now loses his hand, his light saber (along with the link it symbolizes to the father he never knew), and most of all the inspiring illusions planted in his head by Kenobi. He must now live with the knowledge that his father was not the fallen hero he’d been encouraged to imagine, but rather the man who has become his personal totem for all that’s evil in the universe. Whereas Star Wars concluded with Leia handing out medals to all and sundry, The Empire Strikes Back wraps up with the heroes routed, scattered, and hunted, despoiled of everything save their fighting spirit— and even that’s at a low ebb. To be fair, everyone knew in 1980 that this wasn’t really the end, that there’d be a third film coming along to set things right again in a few years, but that’s still awfully close to the Full 70’s Bummer. I never really thought of it in these terms before, but I’m extremely impressed that Lucas, Kasdan, director Irvin Kirshner, and the bosses at 20th Century Fox were willing to trust the audience to accept such bleakness at the heart of a nominally lightweight summertime amusement.