Tuesday 12 May 2020

The Empire Strikes Back at 40

This May marks the 40th anniversary of the release of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, directed by Irvin Kershner (Eyes of Laura Mars), in the US. It's that rarest of sequels, one that successfully builds on the mythology of the original while taking the story to darker and unexpected places.

To commemorate this milestone, Generation Star Wars' John Hood and Taking the Short View's Andrew Lewin look back to one of the Rebel Alliance's darkest hours...

John: It's summer 1980, I've started the six-week school holiday after finishing primary school for good. Obviously, my thoughts were on seeing the next chapter in the Star Wars saga at the Exeter Odeon, where I'd seen Star Wars two years previously. However, ongoing rehabilitation following a life-changing head injury in primary school meant more hours spent undertaking hospital visits, physiotherapy and plaster casts. Alas, no recovering in a bacta tank, operated by medical droids FX-7 and 2-1B, for me!

Undaunted, I avidly listened to the latest double LP soundtrack by John Williams, played with existing Star Wars action figures and excitedly leapt upon the mention in the album liner notes that creator George Lucas was planning no less than nine movies in total. Now that was surely something to look forward to, right?

Then, following a hospital appointment with a surgeon who showed no empathy (a far cry from the surgeons who had saved my life in 1977 and set me on a cinematic path), mum surprised me with new Han Solo and Chewbacca action figures. Suffice to say, I was chuffed to bits. What I wasn't expecting was the Millennium Falcon in my bedroom adorned with Star Wars wallpaper! There was the so-called 'piece of junk', in all her glory.

I remember the hurdle my late mum and an aunt had to overcome helping me into the Exeter Odeon cinema (my legs encased in plaster cast for the umpteenth time). Of being enthralled by the AT-AT attack, traumatised by Darth Vader's scarred skull (triggering the trauma of seeing my shaved head and surgical stitches for the first time post surgery) and mesmerised when Master Yoda used the Force to lift Luke Skywalker's sunken X-Wing out of the Dagobah swamp, but somewhat nonplussed by Han and Leia's romance. Too much kissing and not enough PEW! PEW! PEW! Although I needn't of worried, the movie's climax in Cloud City brought more than enough thrilling blaster and lightsaber action.

Years later, Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia) hugged and kissed me at Star Wars Celebration Europe. Childhood me would never have believed it.

As for that shock paternal revelation, I thought Vader was lying to Luke and merely trying to coax him back from the edge of the gantry in order to kill or convert him. Ah, the gleeful mind of a young child, eh? So, what are your memories, Andrew?

Andrew: I'm afraid I'm going to be a major disappointment to you on this one, John! I have weirdly few actual first-hand memories of seeing The Empire Strikes Back in 1980, certainly far fewer than I can recall about seeing the original film three years earlier. Obviously, I did see the film on the big screen at the time - I can state with complete confidence that I've seen all 11 Star Wars first time on the big screen as a point of principle - yes, I'm including Rogue One and Solo, just accept it!

John: Controversial confession: I didn't bother seeing Solo at the cinema, nor since on Sky Cinema or Disney+! With the conclusion of The Clone Wars and season one of The Mandalorian, I've run out of excuses.

Andrew: Wow! I'm genuinely aghast. I figured that you would have at least streamed it by now. It's not at all bad, honest - if you can make it through Star Wars: The Phantom Menace then you'll definitely be able to get to the end of Solo without too much trouble!

Getting back onto safer territory, I'm strangely lacking in specific recollections of the very first time I saw The Empire Strikes Back. It would undoubtedly have been at the old Southend Odeon, which was so big and plush that it would even give today's Empire Leicester Square a run for its money in terms of capacity. (Alas long since gone and now part of the Southend campus of the University of Essex.) I remember staring at the screen curtains for hours as the lights faded endlessly from green to purple and back again - it was mesmerising, almost better than many films that followed once the curtains parted and the lights went out!

While I don't remember seeing the film itself at the Odeon, I know I did - and multiple times - because I have vivid memories of the short film that preceded it. Remember when there was a pre-feature British production on every programme? For The Empire Strikes Back it was Black Angel, the tale of an Arthurian knight returning from the Crusades who rescues a princess. It was shot in Scotland and atmospherically directed by Roger Christian, who'd actually won an Oscar for his set decoration on the first Star Wars movie. It was really quite brilliant.

John: I too remember the prothetic Black Angel and it was around this time that a neighbour friend gifted me a copy of The Lord of the Rings, which would only cement a lifelong passion for fairytales and by extension story telling. Darth Vader as a Ring Wraith... Sorry, please go on.

Andrew: Having been put off Tolkien for a long time by a forced school study reading of The Hobbit, it was many years later - almost 20 in fact - before I finally dipped my toe into The Lord of the Rings. Back in 1980, Black Angel was simply the ideal dark fantasy accompaniment to The Empire Strikes Back that followed.

Sadly, the film originals for this short film were reported lost shortly after, but I do still remember seeing it multiple times at the Odeon. In fact it's the only support feature I do remember from those days, so it follows that I must therefore also have seen The Empire Strikes Back many times too. But the rest of my recollections from that time are now all just part of a general "The Empire Strikes Back memory" in which I know every line and shot and music cue, but not whether I'm recalling it from watching it 1980, 1999, or last week!

Being slightly older at the time than your good self, I think I was more, umm, open to the idea of the Han/Leia romance for some unknown reason. I do have a strong sense that even on first viewing I completely accepted Vader's shock revelation without question as it was surely too delicious a twist to be a lie (as opposed to the similar attempted revelation between Rey and Kylo Ren in The Last Jedi, which simply never had an equivalent ring of satisfaction to it and therefore never felt quite right). And I do remember desperately wanting a Snowspeeder for Christmas - which I don't think I ever got, now I think of it...

John: Did someone mention toys? Not only did The Empire Strikes Back give us, arguably, the greatest instalment (spawning the prequels years later), but also a fine collection of new Star Wars action figures, playsets and accessories. Sorry you never received that coveted Snowspeeder; mine arrived alongside an AT-AT and Rebel Troop Transport, Christmas 1981. Do you have a favourite piece of merchandise from the era, Andrew?

Andrew: For me it was always all about the Millennium Falcon. I think it must rank as one of the all-time greatest, most iconic science fiction spaceship designs, up there with the likes of Space: 1999's Eagle transporter, Star Trek's Enterprise and the Liberator from Blake's 7 (and a smorgasbord of International Rescue craft, of course). I remember I had a wonderfully detailed and high-quality metal die-cast model Falcon which was small enough to almost fit into the palm of one's hand - surprisingly heavy for its size but nonetheless ideal for whooshing through the air as the leading player in many imagined thrilling chases and dog-fights.

John: I was gifted die-cast Darth Vader's TIE Fighter and Star Destroyer one Christmas along with a Millennium Falcon. The tooling on those toys was peerless, and - as you've already suggested - of a premium build quality. In fact, I've now remembered receiving Boba Fett's Slave 1. However, the very rare TIE Bomber proved too elusive.

Andrew: Alas, poor ultra-elusive TIE Bomber - the Doctor Who: The Collection Season 14 Blu-ray limited edition boxset of its day!

The apex Millennium Falcon back in those days was unquestionably the much larger playset version that you could use with all the standard-size action figures fitting inside it. Try whooshing that behemoth through the air over your head and you'd definitely do yourself an injury! Sadly, when I finally got one for Christmas, there was a part missing - one of the landing struts. I was absolutely devastated, as the model couldn't stand upright without it. My dad leapt into action, and cut and glued two pieces of soft wood together which slotted in and actually worked surprisingly well once painted the right shade of grey. In the end I grew rather fond of it, and proud of being the sole possessor of this unique "peg leg" edition Millennium Falcon.

Before we close, one final question: I trust that we still in full agreement that even four decades later, The Empire Strikes Back remains the very best of all the Star Wars films? Or do you have a controversial (and obviously wrong!) alternative opinion on this seminal matter?

John: Longtime readers will already know my answer! Not only is The Empire Strikes Back my favourite Star Wars instalment, it also, conveniently, happens to be my all-time favourite movie. Kershner's sequel to Lucas' original casts a long shadow…

Andrew: I was pretty sure that would be your verdict, but I just wanted to get you to say it anyway. After all, you are a man of rare distinction and refinement; even if you still haven't got around to seeing Solo yet!

John: Well, that's our recollections of The Empire Strikes Back. What are yours? Let us know in the comments below.

In the meantime, why not checkout our previous conversations regarding Doctor Who and Star Wars.

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