On this day in Film History: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

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It is not often that a sequel surpasses the original, and yet the prevailing opinion is that The Empire Strikes Back, released on this day in 1980, did exactly that. Set an unspecified amount of time after the original Star Wars (now known as A New Hope), Empire Strikes Back finds the Rebel Alliance holed up on the ice planet of Hoth while the Imperial fleet, led by Darth Vader, searches for them (and for Luke Skywalker in particular, as he delivered the killing blow to the Death Star).

This film features several plot lines. The first is Luke’s continuing journey to becoming a Jedi, now under the tutelage of the ancient Jedi master Yoda (Frank Oz) on the swamp planet of Dagobah. The other follows Han Solo, Princess Leia, Chewbacca and C-3PO has they flee in a damaged Millennium Falcon from Darth Vader.

And speaking of Vader, the Dark Lord of the Sith’s role is greatly expanded compared to the previous film. Whereas the first film had Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) and the vague threat of the Emperor, this film places Vader as the sole villain to be feared. And unlike the first film, where he releases the arrogant Imperial officer from a throat choke (at Tarkin’s demand I might add), the Vader in Empire Strikes Back shows no such mercy, killing an Admiral AND a Captain in the course of the film.

Of course The Empire Strikes Back is also known to possess one of the greatest cinematic twists of all time: the shocking revelation that, far from killing Luke’s father, Vader IS Luke’s father!! (It was so shocking in fact, that when shown the page of dialogue, James Earl Jones was convinced that Vader had to be lying).

How could they keep something that big so secret for so long? Simple: they lied to everybody about the twist. What I mean is, when everyone was given their script, Lucas and company put in a fake page of dialogue for that moment (to prevent the true secret being leaked). Hamill was not told the truth until right before it was time to film the scene (allegedly Prowse wasn’t told at all and had a totally different dialogue that Jones dubbed over, but this is disputed). According to the fake dialogue, the pivotal moment read as Vader saying “You don’t know the truth, Obi-Wan killed your father!” Now, you have to admit, even if it was fake, that’s a pretty earth-shattering twist!

The other best-known moment (or I should say sequence of moments) from this film would be the lightsaber duel between Luke and Vader in the depths of Cloud City. The director stated that, regarding Cloud City, he wanted to create an idea of Heaven and Hell, with the white exterior of the city among the clouds symbolizing Heaven, and the freezing chamber deep in the city representing Hell. If you compare this duel to any of the duels in the prequel trilogy or The Force Awakens, one big difference should jump out at you: for most of the duel, there is no music whatsoever. The only sounds you hear in the opening are lightsaber hits and Vader’s breathing.The lack of music serves to raise the tension (I believe), as Vader is placed as this really powerful foe that (according to Yoda and Obi-Wan) Luke is NOT ready to face.

The Empire Strikes Back: Cloud City Duel (1980)

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When the villain is introduced like that, you know you’re in trouble

Furthermore, Vader, at the start, is only fighting Luke with one hand, he doesn’t even need to use both hands to block Luke’s attacks (in effect, he’s toying with him).

Now, regarding this fight, there’s a little known fact that you should know: that is NOT David Prowse in the Vader suit. It was going to be, but Prowse kept snapping the practice blades during rehearsal and finally they said “You’re out.” He was replaced by Bob Anderson (1922-2012), an Olympic fencer and and a legendary fight choreographer (he trained everyone from Errol Flynn to Viggo Mortensen and then some in sword fighting). Now, Anderson was nowhere near the height or bulk of Prowse, so the director had to resort to some cinematic trickery to make you unaware that someone else was playing Vader. The key element was shooting Vader at high or unusual angles, to make it look like he was the same size. That’s why in the opening part, the camera is looking UP at Vader, who is standing on top of the stairs. There are also a number of shots where you don’t see Vader’s whole body in the frame. All of this would be repeated for the final duel in Return of the Jedi (1983).

The Empire Strikes Back “Imperial March” (1980)

Musically, this film is best known for introducing “The Imperial March” aka “Darth Vader’s theme.” This is possibly the most famous Star Wars theme ever created, and it has come to represent total evil. (For more on the “Imperial March”, see “The Imperial March” by John Williams ).

Of the seven Star Wars films released to date, Empire Strikes Back is the one I invariably end up watching the most (I also highly recommend the NPR radio drama of this story). That’s all for now, enjoy the rest of the weekend! -Bex

*all images are now the property of Walt Disney Studios/or possibly 20th Century Fox still

For more “On this day” posts, see here

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10 thoughts on “On this day in Film History: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

  1. christinawehner

    Loved your informative review of this last fight! I did not know about Bob Anderson (or the visual idea of Heaven and Hell). This is my favorite Star Wars film, too, and I watch it at least once at the beginning of every year as a kind of ritual. 🙂 That last fight – without the music and with Vader beginning with one hand – so awesome!

    Liked by 1 person

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  2. Arline

    Well written post, this makes me want to watch the movie again. I wasn’t even born when this came out so all I remember are bits and pieces from second viewings of the adults around me.

    Liked by 1 person

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  3. Pingback: The Lightsaber Duel at Cloud City: A Nightmare in Three Stages | Film Music Central

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