Tag Archives: The Empire Strikes Back

Star Wars: A New Hope “The Empire motif” (1977)

Since it’s introduction in 1980, the “Imperial March” has become so closely associated with Darth Vader and the Empire that it is occasionally forgotten that this theme was written for The Empire Strikes Back and not the original Star Wars film. With that revelation, several people have asked me “Well, what theme did the Empire have before the Imperial March?”

 

The short answer is…it really didn’t. It must be remembered that at the time the original film was made, none of that glorious backstory existed yet.. We’d never met the Empire before, and nobody knew who Darth Vader was. In short, John Williams needed a way to make it clear the Empire was the overall bad guy in the film, a musical starting point as it were that could be built upon in future films (clearly he went in another direction entirely but that’s a conversation for another day).

The “Empire” motif that stands in for the Empire in A New Hope is very simple, consisting of three upward moving chords that sound rather ominous in the way they’re played, usually in sync with a shot of the Death Star or an Imperial Star Destroyer (or both). It’s admittedly a far cry from the “Imperial March” that will come in just a few years, but it does do an admirable job of letting you know when the story is shifting back to the Empire.

Incidentally, this motif does appear in a blink and you’ll miss it moment in Rogue One (when Director Krennic is meeting Tarkin, right before that meeting begins, listen carefully as the Death Star’s dish is being slid into place).

And that’s all I’ve got on the original “Empire” motif in Star Wars: A New Hope. I know it’s hard to imagine a world where the “Imperial March” didn’t represent the Empire, but for a few years that’s what we had.

Let me know what you think of the original “Empire” motif in the comments below and have a great day!

See also:

Star Wars: A New Hope “The Throne Room” (1977)

Film Soundtracks A-W

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The Lightsaber Duel at Cloud City: A Nightmare in Three Stages

The lightsaber duel between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back is often referred to as the greatest saber duel of the saga, and for good reason. The staging is perfect, the tension is spot on (and it happens to feature the biggest cinematic twist of all time).

I already wrote about the duel somewhat here but now I’d like to go into a bit more detail.

As I see it, the duel is divided into three stages, with a different setting and feel for each.

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Stage One is set in the carbon freezing chamber on Cloud City (where Han Solo was recently frozen into carbonite) and is also where Vader plans to do the same thing to Luke. At the beginning of the duel, Vader believes that Luke will be a pushover, so he’s not really expending a lot of energy. Quite the opposite, he lets Luke initiate the duel (Luke activates his saber first AND he makes the first attack), Vader only parries the blows in response. In fact, Vader isn’t even holding his saber with both hands, whereas Luke is clearly expending a lot of energy early on (and getting nowhere).

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There is a bit of taunting (on Vader’s part) but not too much, as he wants this duel to end quickly. It doesn’t take much to get Luke down the stairs and right in front of the pit as Vader activates the machine with the Force. And then Vader gets cocky: forcing Luke down into the pit, he boasts “all too easy” and flips the switch. But Luke (thanks to his training) is able to leap out a split second before the freezing process begins, much to Vader’s surprise (he says he’s “impressed” but I really think surprised is the better word). Clearly, this duel is not going to be a quick pushover, so once Luke kicks Vader off the edge of the platform (and I somewhat believe Vader let that happen), the Dark Lord disappears to regroup for Stage Two.

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Stage Two takes place in an abandoned hallway deep inside Cloud City. And even before it begins, Luke has a choice to make: at this point, Vader has vanished to who knows where and Luke doesn’t HAVE to follow him (I know I wouldn’t, I mean really, venturing into a dark hallway in search of a ticked off Dark Lord with a lightsaber? NOPE!), but of course he does.

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There’s a literal transition point as Luke comes to a brightly lit service corridor that takes him to the location of stage 2: the abandoned hallway with a large octagonal window looking out into the air shaft of Cloud City. And once Luke reaches that point…the breathing begins (a moment that always sends a shiver down my spine). Luke re-ignites his saber (Vader’s is already activated), but instead of launching back into the duel, Vader decides a “lesson” is in order (this is discussed more in the radio drama version of ESB and as far as I know is canon): sure, Luke is (at best) a competent duelist, a skill surely inherited from his father, but what experience does he have against a veteran Force user who can duel AND manipulate objects in the Force at the same time? Of course Luke doesn’t have any such experience which is why he gets the crap knocked out of him by various flying debris. At this point, Vader is still somewhat toying with Luke, but things are definitely more serious (I’m still not sure if Vader intended to have Luke go flying out the window, cause after that moment Vader comes over to look like “did I kill him?”)

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Fortunately, Luke doesn’t go falling to his death, but instead manages to make his way to a platform station of some kind even lower down the air shaft, the setting for Stage Three (and the end of the duel) But he barely has a chance to look around before Vader shows up, and this time the Sith Lord isn’t messing around. His strikes come fast and hard, and Luke is quickly chased backwards out to the near edge of the platform. Vader (holding Luke at saberpoint) declares his opponent beaten, it’s time to give up. Unfortunately, Vader also taunts Luke by saying “Don’t let yourself be destroyed as Obi-Wan did” reminding Luke about how Vader killed Obi-Wan in front of him. This visibly angers Luke and he stages a miraculous (and brief) comeback, which ends when he manages to score a partial blow on Vader’s shoulder.

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That this not-even-half-trained-would-be-Jedi managed to score a blow on him enrages Vader and pushes him over the edge. He pushes Luke back again and in a short series of moves deprives Luke of his lightsaber…and his right hand!! (For years I dreaded this moment, because it always seemed to come out of nowhere, and I hated Luke’s scream of pain).

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Now the fight is really finished, but Vader isn’t done yet. Now that Luke is cornered (literally), he makes his “pitch” for Luke to join the Dark Side. Of course Luke refuses, pointing out that he (Vader) killed his father. This prompts the biggest cinematic twist of all time:

“No” (Vader says) “*I* am your father.”

On the one hand, it makes no sense because Episode IV clearly establishes Vader and Luke’s father as two separate people. And yet….why would Vader lie? Luke knows there’s no reason for Vader to lie, hence his (understandably) upset reaction.

With the duel over, it appears Luke has no place to go except with Vader, but Luke figures he still has one way out: he’s at the edge of the main air shaft of Cloud City, and he’s not sure what’ll happen down there, but it has to be better than going with Vader…so he lets himself fall! There’s more, but that’s a separate scene.

Fun notes:

I remarked in my earlier post that Vader was played by master fencer Bob Anderson for this entire duel (David Prowse kept breaking the saber blades), hence  the reason this duel is shot from so many unusual angles (looking down at Vader, looking up at Vader, a lot of close-up shots) because Anderson was nowhere near the height and size of Prowse.

Only Mark Hamill, George Lucas, and one other writer knew the truth about the big twist. Everyone else was given a fake page of script where the “twist” was given as “You don’t know the truth, Obi-Wan killed your father.” (I mean that WOULD have been a pretty epic twist in and of itself)

The hallway seen in stage 2 is the same hallway Rey sees early in her Force vision in Episode VII. I really hope they explain at some point how Maz got the lightsaber, because last time it was seen, it was tumbling into the atmosphere of Bespin.

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My Thoughts on: Star Wars: 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.

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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!

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

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See also:

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)

My Thoughts on: Solo: A Star Wars Story (with spoilers!) (2018)

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Star Wars (1977)

Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983)

My Thoughts on: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

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The Empire Strikes Back or, Everyone has a Theme! Part One: Leitmotif and “The Imperial March”

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The Empire Strikes Back
Released: May 21, 1980
Director: Irvin Kershner
Music by: John Williams
*All music is the property of Lucasfilm

The Empire Strikes Back is considered by many to be the greatest movie of the original Star Wars trilogy and it’s no wonder. The film contains battles both on land (Hoth) and in space (the Millennium Falcon vs. Star Destroyers), a terrifying villain (Darth Vader), moments of comedy (C3PO) and one of the biggest twists in the history of film. It also features a gorgeous score composed and conducted by John Williams, a film composer who has been working in Hollywood since the 1950s and is solely responsible for some of the greatest film scores of all time.

 

For his work on The Empire Strikes Back, Williams began with the musical themes he had established for the original Star Wars and used it as a starting point for the sequel. Two themes were already set in stone:

Luke’s Theme/The Force

Leia’s Theme

As the role of Darth Vader was being greatly expanded from his first appearance, Williams concluded that Vader would need a theme to match. This lead to the creation of “The Imperial March,” a theme that is now synonymous, not just with Star Wars and Darth Vader, but with anything evil in nature.

Darth Vader’s Theme/The Imperial March

These themes, and how they are used, derive from a technique created for opera, known as leitmotif. Leitmotif was made popular by the Romantic composer Richard Wagner in his famous series of “Ring” operas.

Leitmotifs, by nature, are meant to evoke a particular character and are played whenever a specific character is seen on stage OR when they are mentioned by another character. This happens a great deal with “The Imperial March”, and not just in The Empire Strikes Back.

Starting with The Phantom Menace, echoes of “The Imperial March” are heard towards the end of the film when Yoda (reluctantly) gives Obi-Wan permission to train Anakin. (specifically: when Yoda says “Nevertheless, grave danger do I feel in his training”)

The theme grows stronger in Attack of the Clones, but again is heard primarily at the end of the film when the Clone fleet is seen landing in Coruscant, announcing the start of the Clone Wars.

Finally, in Revenge of the Sith, the theme is finally heard in full when Anakin turns to the Dark Side and is dubbed Darth Vader by the new Emperor Palpatine. (The theme can be heard in snippets throughout the latter half of the film, but fully comes out when Vader is being placed into his armor, particularly when the mask slips into place).

Part Two will explore the theme of Han and Leia’s love and the theme of Yoda. Until next time!

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See also:

Film/TV Reviews

The Empire Strikes Back: “The Imperial March” by John Williams

The Empire Strikes Back Part Two!: Han and Leia in Love and Yoda!!

*All music shown is the property of Disney and Lucasfilm, I own nothing.

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“I love you….I know…” One of the most remembered lines from the Star Wars universe came moments before Han Solo was frozen in carbonite by the evil Darth Vader. Leia finally realizes that she loves the scoundrel of an ex-smuggler and he reveals that he’s known it pretty much all along.

(On a side note, Han’s response was a complete ad-lib by Harrison Ford, as they had tried numerous takes using the generic “I love you too” and it just wasn’t working out.)

The music heard immediately before this line (when Han and Leia share a brief kiss) is the culmination of a theme that has been building since early in the film when the two are seen arguing in the ice caverns of Hoth.

Musically, this love theme is remarkably similar to Leia’s original theme (as heard in the first film):

Notice that both begin with large leaps from the first note to the second, using a pickup note. Both can also be divided into two sections, with the second section featuring a leap as well. The primary difference is that whereas the love theme drops down a whole step after the initial leap, the original Leia theme keeps going up. It’s almost like an inversion of the original theme, where the music now moves downward instead of up.

Of course Empire Strikes Back is also where we get to meet Yoda, the diminutive (size matters not!) and slightly eccentric Jedi Master who reluctantly agrees to train Luke in the ways of the Force. Yoda’s theme, a quiet melody for woodwinds, is first heard after Yoda is walking back to his hut and inviting Luke to follow. Of course at this point we have no idea that this is actually Yoda (or maybe we do, but Luke certainly doesn’t).

The theme is a perfect match for the ancient Jedi Master. It exudes a quiet confidence, the exact opposite in fact of the “Imperial March.” This theme really comes out in full when Yoda demonstrates what the Force can do when he successfully raises Luke’s sunken X-Wing from the swamp.

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See also:

The Empire Strikes Back: “The Imperial March” by John Williams

The famous Imperial March a.k.a Darth Vader’s theme. This music never fails to send a chill down my spine. What’s interesting is the contrast between the main “Imperial March” that everyone knows and the softer “B” melody, that’s played in the middle. The woodwinds create an unbelievable sense of tension that sets the listener up for the return of the primary “A” melody which quickly modulates into a different key.

The theme is first heard in The Empire Strikes Back when we cut away from the Rebel base to get our first look at the Imperial fleet, but it is also notably used to herald Vader’s arrival in the ruins of Hoth base, and as the remaining heroes rush for the Millennium Falcon, the camera repeatedly comes back to Vader striding through the ice caverns.
Later on in the film, during the climactic lightsaber duel between Luke and Vader on Cloud City, the theme comes back rather menacingly as Vader begins to use the Force to hurl objects at Luke to distract him.
Though there are other instances after this one, I would like to highlight one final time we hear the Imperial March and that is, ironically enough, at the end of Vader’s death scene at the end of Return of the Jedi. Just after Vader/Anakin dies, listen very carefully to the music in the background.
Right there on the harp, is the last iteration of the melody, so soft you can barely hear it, and nothing like the strident march first heard in The Empire Strikes Back. Fitting for a villain who was successfully brought back to the side of good.

See also: Film Soundtracks A-W

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