On May 21st, 1981, The Empire Strikes Back, the most anticipated sequel to the monster box office hit Star Wars, was released. After the massive success of Star Wars, and having already written a first draft for the upcoming sequel, Lucas recruited screenwriter Leigh Brackett, to help him refine the screenplay, and decided to offer directing the movie to somebody else, as he’d be too busy setting up his Special Effects company, Industrial Light & Magic, and wouldn’t have any time left to supervise the movie directly. He offered the job to experienced director Irvin Kershner, who had ample experience in directing small, character-driven features, but had never done a big -budget, special effects movie. Kershner was reluctant to accept at first, as he thought that no sequel could better what had already been done in Star Wars. Fortunately, a chat with his agent convinced him otherwise. After reading Brackett’s screenplay, and being unsatisfied with it, but unable to make any changes, as Brackett prematurely died of Cancer, Lucas was on the lookout for a new screenwriter. The job would fall in the hands of director and screenwriter, Lawrence Kasdan who, at the time, was working on the Raiders of the Lost Ark script. It was with his help that Lucas further fleshed out what would be the main twist of the story, the discovery of Darth Vader being Luke’s father. The whole of the cast returned, with a few new faces. Clive Revill put voice to the holographic image of the Emperor, while renown British actors would play the different parts of the Imperial Officers; among them, Michaeld Sheard as Admiral Ozzel, Kenneth Colley as Admiral Piett, and Julian Glover as Commander Veers. Other additions would be Billy Dee Williams as former smuggler and now regent of the Cloud City of Bespin mining facility, and Jeremy Bulloch as the Bounty Hunter, Bobba Fett.
A cold start
On March 1979, the crew moved to Finse, Norway, where Principal Photography was to begin. Unfortunately, they hit one of the worst snowstorms in 50 years, and for the first few days were unable to leave the hotel where they were staying, and were resigned to shoot the first scenes from the back door of the hotel, and never being able to venture out more than a few feet from there. Temperatures below 26 degrees, incidents of frostbite among the filming crew, and malfunctioning equipment and props were, once again, the norm. A whole set of scenes that involved the Wampa creatures attacking the Rebel Base on the planet Hoth, had to be eliminated from the final cut, due to the bad quality of the Creature design and performance. In 1997, the Wampa would be included in an additional scene for the Special Edition re-release, with a much better design this time around. For the ground battle scene on the planet Hoth, the Norwegian Red Cross Rescue troops were used as extras to play the parts of Rebel soldiers. It was a gruelling shoot for all those involved.
Back in England
The bulk of the production was, once again, filmed in Elstree Studio, Borehamwood, England. All of the sets, from the Rebel base on Hoth, the planet Dagobah, the interior of the Millennium Falcon, and Vader’s Superstardestroyer bridge, to the Cloud City of Bespin, were all faithfully recreated, and later on enhanced with matte paintings. The biggest challenge that the crew would face, though, would be the inclusion of a new character, that had to be created from scratch, and brought to life thanks to the skill of Puppet Master, Frank Oz. In the end, Master Jedi Yoda would prove to be a feat of engineering, as the Dagobah set had to be built a few feet off the ground, to allow Frank Oz and the rest of the puppeteers to control the Yoda puppet from underneath the floor. Due to the separation between Oz, who was underneath, and had to recite the Yoda lines, and Hamill who was on top of the stage, and couldn’t hear what Oz was saying, an earpiece was given to Hamill, so he could hear Oz’s lines, and better interact with the puppet. On many an occasion, Hamill voiced his frustration in saying that, for many weeks, he was the only actor on the Call sheet; the rest of the elements being the Yoda puppet, and the numerous props.
The big twist
Hamill, with the help of fencing master Bob Anderson, had undergone 6 months of rigorous swordfight training before shooting even started. He also took up Kendo and Karate, to further enhance his fighting style for the Lighsabre duel scene between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. Even in between rehearsals and shooting, he still trained an average of 6 hours a day, divided up into two 3-hour sessions. He had great difficulty in trying to memorise the different moves, and his dialogue, but did his absolute best, and tried to do as much of the stunt work as he could. The secrecy surrounding Luke’s surprising parentage was kept to a minimum number of members of the crew. Only Lucas, Kershner, Kasdan, James Earl Jones, who once again returned to voice Darth Vader, and Hamill, were in the loop. The rest of the crew and cast were given false information to keep the reveal from leaking to the media. Imagine trying to do that in today’s Twitter/ Instagram landscape.
Our heroes get separated
One of the most interesting aspects of the movie was that our main group of heroes would end up spending most of their screen time separated from one another; Luke would go on to Dagobah to complete his Jedi training, and Han Solo, Leia, Chewbacca and the Droids would wind up being pursued by the Imperial fleet on a faulty Millenium Falcon, giving us some truly amazing sequences along the way; the Chase through the Asteroid Field, their hiding out in a cave inside one of the larger asteroids, that would end up being the stomach of a giant space slug, and their arrival to the Cloud City of Bespin. Han Solo and Leia also start developing a romantic relationship, which also led to both Harrison Ford and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan having the idea that Han Solo should die to add up to the stakes, and amp up the emotional impact of the story. The reasoning behind this, was that Ford thought that Han having no family and no emotional ties to anyone but our main group of heroes, served up the perfect opportunity for Han to sacrifice himself for the greater good. Lucas, on the other hand, was adamant that the fate of Solo didn’t change, as he had plans for him in the next movie, which turned out not to be the case.
Visual artistry taken to another level
The likes of Phill Tippet, Dennis Muren and Ben Burtt, just to name a few, really outdid themselves this time around; producing some of the best work of their careers. That, and the amazing work Dennis Muren and Co did in the Planet Hoth ground battle sequence was truly remarkable. To produce the movement of the AT-AT Imperial Walkers, they used a new state-of-the-art motion capture camera method called Go Motion. The movements of the Walkers would still have to be done manually, one frame at a time, but the motion capture on screen would be more fluid and less jerky, once played back on the screen at 24 fps. To achieve the dynamics needed for such a complex sequence, the storyboard artists and animators created Animatics, which are basically animated storyboards that were used as a tool to plan out and execute said scenes, and aid in the editing process.
Problems in Paradise
But not all was good and well, and as Lucas had decided to invest his own money in the movie, thus not having to ask the Studio for money to pay for it, and at the same time, avoiding Studio interference over the final product, he would end up securing a loan from a bank that, as shooting went on, would prove not to be enough to finish the film. The final budget would end up being in the neighbourhood of $25 million. Unfortunately, he finally did have to turn to Fox to ask for more money to finish it, but in a way that would not jeopardise either his vision, or his final cut of the movie. He would also run into other financial misfortunes; the DGA ( Directors Guild of America), were pressuring Lucas to put the main credits at the very beginning of the movie, right before the crawl, as they thought it was disrespectful not to have the people who worked on the movie listed, as per Union regulations, at the very beginning of the movie. Lucas refused to give in, as he thought that this decision would severely hamper his vision. He was fined $200.000 because of this, and disillusioned with what the Industry had to offer, he decided to pay the fine, and cut all ties he had with them, and abandon the DGA and SGA ( Screenwriters Guild of America), as well.
Critical and financial reception
Although the movie was generally loved by fans the world over, it didn’t make as much money in the box office as the first one had, grossing approx $530 million worldwide, a little over $200 million less than Star Wars. It also received mixed reviews, as many critics emphasized on the fact that being as it was, a middle chapter, it didn’t have a satisfactory resolution as Star Wars had, and the tone was definitely darker and more adult oriented this time around. Despite all this, overtime, fans and critics alike have come to regard Empire Strikes Back as the best Star Wars movie of the whole franchise.
When the Original Trilogy was re-released back in 1997, Empire was also given the full Image and Sound quality clean up treatment, but surprisingly, of all three movies, it was the one that suffered the least amount of changes in regards to added CGI and scenes. In terms of added scenes, we only get the additional bit showing us a full on Wampa chomping on some food, while Luke is strapped to the ceiling of the Wampa cave, with the unnecessary shot showing us the Wampa with his arm cut off, after Luke escapes from the cave. Other than that, the Cloud City of Bespin is expanded upon with digital matte paintings, showing off the rest of the city, making it seem larger, and not as claustrophobic as the original set was; which was a welcome addition. There is also a whole new scene with Vader leaving Bespin on his Shuttle after his Lightsabre duel with Luke, and landing on the Superstardestroyer deck. Some of his original lines were re-dubbed for this scene for the 2004 DVD release of the OT. That Lucas struggled to find things to change on Empire is a testament to the great work that the technical crew did on this movie.
I think that Empire Strikes Back is the best Star Wars movie in the whole franchise, hands down. The pacing, action, character development, and overall emotional rollercoaster that this movie is, has never been equalled over the years with either the prequels, or the new batch of movies that Disney have been churning out, ever since they bought out Lucasfilm. Everything from Production Design, Special and Visual effects, Cinematography, Editing, Sound Design and so on, are top notch. The cast do a wonderful job with their respective parts, the stakes have never been higher, danger lurks around every corner, and even though the film ends on a sour note, there’s still a glimmer of hope that our heroes will overcome the difficulties, and come out on top in the end. All of this is rounded up with a wonderful soundtrack by John Williams. On this occasion, he delivers, what I believe, is his best soundtrack for the entire Saga. Iconic tracks like the Yoda theme, and the Imperial March theme, along with all the whimsically descriptive tracks used for all the different action set pieces, like The Asteroid Field Chase, are foverer etched in our minds once you’ve heard them. As I said, an emotional rollercoaster ride.
Thanks for reading.