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The light and darkness war: The Empire Strikes Back revisited

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Roger Kastel's first poster design for the film's release; his was chosen after a number of artists were asked to capture the romantic style of the 1967 Gone With The Wind re-release poster. A later version included Lando Calrissian, Bespin and Boba Fett, though neither featured Yoda in a deliberate marketing ploy. The film's dark tone is not detectable here (Lucasfilm Limited/

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Phenomenally popular amongst fans, Boba Fett was first seen as a crudely-animated cartoon within the live-action Star Wars Holiday Special, a curious one-off shown on North American television in 1978. Conceived initially by Lucas as a grittier version of a Dark Knight of the Sith, he became a bounty hunter to counter the lethal elegance of Darth Vader. The character’s actual look was first developed by Joe Johnston and Ralph McQuarrie as a super-stormtrooper for the Empire. They borrowed from Star Wars iconography and real-life Japanese Samurai armour to design a realistically battered suit, and detailed this with Wookie scalps, a Sergio Leone-style cape and an arsenal of integrated weaponry and equipment. The original costume had practical effects including a functioning wrist flame-thrower and simulated jet-pack exhaust. Disappointingly, none of these was used in the finished film and Fett himself was killed off somewhat peremptorily in Return of the Jedi (Lucasfilm Limited/

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Luke and Yoda on Dagobah. The full version of the Yoda puppet required multiple operators, a raised floor, video assist and immense patience to animate, a word which assumes its true meaning in this context (Lucasfilm Limited/

Thirty years on, it still seems remarkable that Star Wars (1977), an adventure film for families with a positive message of good triumphing over evil and a happy ending, could ever have yielded the wholly darker, morally more complex and unrelentingly downbeat sequel that is The Empire Strikes Back (1980). In today’s climate, where the need to recoup colossal budgets pushes ever more risk-averse executives to back ever blander product, it would appear impossible that the same could happen again.


But when, in late 1977 and still stunned at the overwhelming and unexpected success of Star Wars, George Lucas started to plan a follow-up, he determined to create something far bleaker than the original film. It would push established characters into deeper emotional situations and introduce new figures whose motivations are unclear and unfixed. All would exist in a climate of real peril and fear. Not only would the film have no happy ending, it would have no true ending at all.


Lucas first hired respected screenwriter and novelist Leigh Brackett to shape his vision for the new film, at this point bearing a title which, five films on, seems charmingly simple: ‘Star Wars II’.


Brackett had initially written science fiction, characterised by richly-envisioned worlds as a background for mood and melancholy. This dovetailed nicely with later forays into detective noir. Both would come together in her screenplays for The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo and other films of the American west or the American city.


Brackett’s task was to script Lucas’s ideas, and their discussions – as recorded in Jonathan W. Rinzler’s recent book – are fascinating, as is a reading of the draft that resulted.


To begin with, Lucas’s concepts leant far more toward sword-and-sorcery fantasy than hard science fiction. This is particularly clear in the suggestion of Darth Vader living in a castle in a barren expanse of desert or, as Brackett puts it, “A grim castle of black iron that squats on a rock in the midst of a crimson sea”. In a neat piece of mirroring the Rebels inhabit their own castle of ice, and fully a quarter of Brackett’s script concerned a Wampa snow creature infiltration and attack on this base before the Empire arrives. That battle included the repeated motif of men being instantly frozen from ruptured water pipes, probably the kernel of the carbon chamber sequence which does not appear in this version. A telepathic duel was later abandoned but found an echo in the finished film’s intercutting between Luke’s and Leia’s thoughts as they escape Bespin.


Interestingly, Yoda is clearly stated to have been watching Luke all his life, but to be ignorant of Leia as his sister. The infamous revelation of Vader as Luke’s father is absent.


Ironically, the rather pulp-ish encounter with a giant space slug seen in The Empire Strikes Back was not, it seems, a Brackett invention, but there is nevertheless  considerable material that feels awkward or extraneous, such as a race of creatures on Bespin who assist Luke to gain entry and a step-father for Han.


It should be noted that multiple sources confirm Lucas always desired to make more than one film, confounding some critical voices who to this day accuse him of opportunism. It was only when uncertainty over the likely success of Star Wars was refuted categorically and immediately by its box office takings that these additional ideas could find form through further releases.  


The sheer number of ideas Lucas generated at an early stage – for human and alien characters, planets, objects, events – ensured no single film could contain them all and considerable rearrangement occurred throughout the quarter-century creation of the full saga. To take one relevant example, Vader’s castle was shifted backward (in the Star Wars world’s chronology) and adapted to become the lava planet Mustafar, setting for episode III’s climactic duel.


According to a very early handwritten note of Lucas’s, what would become The Empire Strikes Back was always planned as the penultimate episode of six, albeit with the events of Star Wars as the climax. The scheme had a prologue, a trilogy and an epilogue, a rather literary structure showing Lucas’s innate empathy with traditional storytelling mechanisms consolidated by his well-known affinity for the theories of American academic Joseph Campbell.


Noting that mythology and heroic tales down the ages share similar themes and components regardless of source and time period, Campbell argued that these effectively form a monomyth, a single generic tale comprising stages that are common across stories and cultures.


With Campbell’s work forming an armature, Lucas’s and Brackett’s explorations ranged widely and ambitiously across storylines and techniques. They included connecting the Force back to the saintly concept of the halo, and the use of prefiguring. This last is actually employed with some skill throughout the entire saga, often demonstrating Lucas’s long-term aim. Thus the loss of Luke’s hand in a sabre duel with Vader in The Empire Strikes Back is reflected in Return of the Jedi when Luke, now with an artificial hand, wounds Vader in exactly the same way. But in that scene we learn that Vader’s hand is already artificial, following its loss in a much earlier fight.


As specific plot points were confirmed for the new film, so a structure emerged. It would be front-loaded with action and feature smaller individual stories, fulfilling the middle third of Campbell’s monomyth conceit. This format would reverse in the final episode, which would pick up these stories and build them to a resolution.


Lucas’s dialogue for Star Wars has often been criticised, not least by actors Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill. Brackett’s delivered script for The Empire Strikes Back shows that clunky and pedestrian speeches remained problematic despite – or possibly because, given the era in which she had mostly written – Brackett’s contribution. Brackett herself seemed to acknowledge this in a line where Han, attempting to romance Leia with a dreadfully clichéd comment, stops himself: “No, no, hold it. That’s too much even for me […] I can’t seem to make anything sound convincing.”


And yet Brackett did provide some striking moments. There is poignancy (“I doubt if even God remembers where He hung this star”), lyricism (Yoda chastises Luke’s clumsiness wielding a light sabre: “Farmboy! That’s no axe to chop your wood with”) and wryness, with Han bemoaning his lot very much in character: “I remember how peaceful things used to be when I was just a low-down rotten smuggler, involved with people like Jabba the Hut [sic], who might try to kill me, but it was on a kind of person-to-person level. I could handle it. But since I’ve been treading the straight-and-narrow…I mean, entire fleets thrown at me?”


Sadly Brackett, who had been ill with cancer, died in early 1978 at the age of 60, shortly after completing her draft. It was to be the first of two deaths and many misfortunes that would affect the film’s making.


Lucas turned to Lawrence Kasdan, who was already writing the Lucas/Spielberg adventure Raiders of the Lost Ark, for assistance. Kasdan immediately looked to reshape the film, honing its action, setting out clear relationships between characters who would spend much of the film apart after the opening scenes and, most importantly, improving the dialogue. It was Kasdan who wrote much of the snappy, sardonic interplay between Solo, Leia and C-3PO that gives those relationships life.


It is perhaps instructive that Kasdan had written a screenplay in the mid-1970s as an intended vehicle for Steve McQueen; McQueen’s ability to play apparently simple but actually quite complex characters who could flex between light and dark must surely have influenced Kasdan’s shading of Han Solo, whose personal journey develops further in episode V (Kasdan’s script, which was not filmed until the 1990s, was The Bodyguard).


The third principal who would have a huge influence on the film was its director, hired before Kasdan and whose wealth of experience – of life and of film-making – was critical to the project.


Irvin Kershner was more than twenty years’ Lucas’s senior. ‘Kersh’ had been at various times a musician, artist, photographer, wartime airman, lecturer, anthropology major and theist, and would bring all of these to bear on Lucas’s sequel. As an independently-minded director with mainstream appeal, Kershner was perfect.


Crucially, Kershner states that Lucas made it very clear to him that “this would be my picture.” This allowed Kershner to concentrate on what he saw as the single biggest challenge of the film – developing character.


Kershner saw the film’s position as the second part of a trilogy as analogous to the middle act of a play. It was, he said, “more character than action. The problems are explored.” Though Kershner obviously needed to ensure the action scenes and effects worked, it was this overriding concern with character that led him to make numerous interventions, big and small, in script, performance, staging and visuals throughout the production.


Kershner has said that "I like to fill up the frame with the characters' faces. There's nothing more interesting than the landscape of the human face”, and the emotions playing across those faces were also fundamental.


Strikingly, Kershner’s desire to inject every scene with emotion extended to the non-human characters. Chewbacca’s howl of anguish as the ice base doors close with his friend still outside, R2-D2 standing on tip-toe like a child to peer inside Yoda’s house on Dagobah and even the steam issuing – improbably – from the Millennium Falcon’s vents as it sits on the Bespin landing platform (“It kept the thing alive”, explained Kershner) were all moments created by the director. He also conceived the chilling scene in which the audience glimpses, albeit briefly, Darth Vader with his helmet off. Kershner’s aim was to prove this masked, robotic thing is in fact human – evil, yes, but human. Vader, too, was on a journey.


The production was difficult. The visual effects team were working at the very limits of what was technologically possible, and were required to deliver far more shots than for Star Wars. The Imperial AT-AT Walkers, which featured in the battle sequence on Hoth and became some of the most memorable and best-loved creations of the entire saga, were realised by the traditional stop-motion method, moving and filming articulated models a single frame at a time against exquisite thirty-foot-wide matte painting backgrounds. It was a painstaking process which took over a year to produce just minutes of finished footage. An entirely new technique, go-motion, was invented to realistically animate the camel-like Tauntauns, but bringing Yoda to life appeared impossible, and the eventual solution of a real-time-manipulated puppet was an extreme risk.


Filming in Norway for the Hoth scenes took place amidst the worst weather for decades and some shots – which were used in the film



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Chris Rogers  |  Writer on architecture and visual culture

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