Chris Rogers | Writer on architecture and visual culture
– were achieved by literally pointing the camera out of the crew hotel’s doorway into the car park, where the unfortunate actors struggled in blizzard conditions. One of the sound stages at Elstree Studios on which the film’s sets were to be constructed was destroyed by fire whilst hosting Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, delaying occupation.
Tragically, veteran British production designer John Barry, here working as second unit director, died mere hours after reporting to work complaining of a headache, thanks to an isolated case of meningitis. He was 43.
Despite these setbacks, the talents of Lucas, Kasdan, Kershner and their crew combined to create an extraordinary filmic vision in The Empire Strikes Back.
It was a vision that would prove more intense and more thrilling than anyone could have expected.
The film is relentlessly downbeat in tone. The heroes are constantly on the run and are split at the outset, never to be reunited. Almost every character is broken, physically or mentally, and their path to healing is slow and painful. Luke is injured by a monster, maimed by his father and chooses suicide instead of succumbing to evil. Han is tortured, immobilised and abducted for money. Leia is parted from both of the men she loves, and even the droids and Chewbacca are not spared.
The harsh, blinding white snowscape of Hoth that opens the film sets the mood. This is a drama in which every step will be a struggle. The Rebels have only recently arrived and are still establishing their base, yet find it probed, threatened and eventually attacked. The smaller attack on Luke by a Wampa and a skirmish with an Imperial droid begin to heighten the tension in short scenes edited pacily and with no dialogue. But as events build, already the triangle of desire, care and antagonism between Luke, Han and Leia is cemented as Kershner, a veteran of non-genre cinema who clearly had no difficulty adapting to science fiction, concentrates on character and actor. Even C-3PO is shown to care for R2-D2 as he sensitively bids the little droid farewell.
Brilliantly introduced as black specks on the horizon and ominous thumps on the soundtrack, the arrival of the Imperial Walkers signals the beginning of the first of the major ‘front-loaded’ action scenes, the battle for Hoth.
A landmark in visual effects and one of the most original and effective fantasy action sequences ever committed to film, this seven-minute aria has an epic quality and takes clear inspiration from actual wartime documentary footage to forge an exhilarating and convincing picture of air-land combat.
The Walkers are superb. Simultaneously thrilling and terrifying, they succeed as characters as well as machines thanks to the personality imparted by the animators during their long toil. The elephant-like gait, flick of snow from the ‘toes’ and twists of the head all contribute to the final effect, along with exceptionally well-judged photography that renders the models utterly convincing as multi-storey anthropomorphic tanks.
Interwoven with the threads of this conflict the remaining principal characters plan their escape against the threat of blockade, and here Kasdan’s script, Kershner’s direction and the actors’ settling in to their roles really begins to gel.
The relaxed precision with which Ford, Carrie Fisher and particularly Anthony Daniels as C-3PO interact verbally and physically in the ice caves is a treat – note the timing between Daniels’ exasperated “Typical!”, delivered almost to camera in his role as Greek chorus, and Ford’s arm appearing and yanking him inside – and recurs throughout the film.
Pursuing the theme of peril, the move to space opens up a wider canvas as Han, Leia, Chewbacca and C-3PO evade capture for a second time, but only by guiding the Millennium Falcon into more danger amidst an asteroid field.
This sets up the second major action scene of the film, less than forty minutes in to its two-hour running time. And even though it is probably the shortest, the asteroid field chase lays claim to being the most exquisitely directed and truly beautiful of the entire saga.
A constantly-in-motion, utterly fluid camera both leads and follows the Millennium Falcon and a handful of Imperial TIE fighters as they first weave between the asteroids and then plunge down toward and across the surface of one giant example. There is sheer poetry in some of the camera moves. A claustrophobic chasm snaps open to reveal a vast plain of rock, the Millennium Falcon banking freely and gliding over it; a bravura, almost subversive moment has the Millennium Falcon performing a loop toward the audience but so energetically that she disappears up out of the top of the frame, only to reappear back into the frame much further into the distance and diving for safety as the loop completes; a third stand-out shot pans smoothly with the ship as she enters a dark cave, her headlights winking on mid-way through.
An exceptional musical cue from John Williams, who composed some of his most striking work for this film, immeasurably enhances the sequence. A dynamic, tense brass theme changes pitch and volume endlessly in twisting paths to follow that of the ships, relaxing only as the cave is reached.
If the film is a second act of quietude, its own middle section replicates this approach with a brief period of stillness as Han and Leia’s relationship finds its way forward on the cloud city of Bespin and Luke finds Yoda, the Jedi master, on the jungle planet Dagobah.
The latter scenes give Hamill time to display his character’s decency and humanity, but with the whining teenager not far away. Placing him with the diminutive alien Yoda, startlingly alive himself thanks to Frank Oz’s delicate performance, provides a wonderful contrast with which to explore the ways of the Force.
Again, Kersner and Kasdan succeed in creating character, with Yoda’s distinctive vocalisation aiding acceptance of philosophical speeches which might have seemed trite. Certainly his line “Great warrior… Wars not make one great” might be the film’s one true message. Yoda’s own message for Luke, revealed in the cave beneath the tree, is still astonishingly daring in its psychological complexity and presentation.
It can often be enlightening to assess a film’s colour palette. In these terms The Empire Strikes Back is rendered in the sterile white and black carried over from the first film but with added tones of cold blue. Only Bespin provides a softer, warmer interlude for Han and Leia, and even that is interrupted with the burning orange of the carbon freezer (“Hell in the middle of heaven” – Lucas). Importantly, Dagobah’s lush greens provide the same relief for Luke.
The Art Deco calm of Bespin was certainly influenced by the look of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, the classic inter-war serials that were some of Lucas’s stated inspirations. The city was used as the setting of an intense love scene between Han and Leia which was filmed but later cut. This, and the realisation that events there last for just half a day, from arrival as the sun rises to frantic escape against a gorgeous sunset, are further evidence of how the film-makers constantly but subtly explored darkness.
As it is, Han’s juggling of Leia and Lando Calrissian maintains a lightness of sorts until the act ends abruptly with the shocking revelation of Vader and bounty hunter Boba Fett’s presence. Vader’s black outline in the pristine white room, Dracula come to dinner, harks back to those early story conferences and introduces the final act.
Drawn irreversibly by his friends’ suffering and sacrificing his own destiny to save them, Luke arrives to meet his own worst enemy, literally. Vader and Luke are at times reduced to shadow puppets – the light and the dark – as they duel around the city’s bowels, a duel which itself moves from blackness into lightness. At the end, Luke faces a fundamental revelation followed immediately by a Faustian temptation, a fitting climax for a film of densely-defined and -explored morality.
The sole bright spot, and a careful pointer to the final, more uplifting entry in the series, comes as the repeated expectation of the Millennium Falcon’s malfunctioning hyperdrive, so carefully set up no fewer than three times previously, is triumphantly contradicted. The scene’s true power comes from the remarkable restraint shown in depicting Vader’s reaction, which is portrayed entirely through body language and movement: disbelief, disappointment and departure, in silence.
As the film draws to a close with the principals split into three groups, each having lost something or someone, Williams’s deeply powerful end theme exerts an incredible grip.
Even from the critical distance of thirty years, The Empire Strikes Back is an astonishing achievement. Its exploration of shadowy morality, dilemma-filled incident and emotional tension within an envelope of dazzling visuals that have not dated remains a high point in mass-market genre cinema. And yet it retains a sense of hope, a hook into the future of a saga to which an eager world would soon return.
Posted 27 February 2011. In 1987 artist Cam Kennedy and writer Tom Vietch created the comic book series The Light and Darkness War, a meditation on life and death viewed through an alternate universe where the fallen from history's numberless wars go when they die
Contact Chris Rogers to receive an exclusive supplementary pdf article on illustrator Ralph McQuarrie’s luminous pre-production painting
Actor Dave Prowse was not given the true script of the famous temptation scene, partly to preserve general secrecy over the true dialogue and partly because he had let slip other plot points off set. His actual line as voiced was “Obi-Wan killed your father”, with James Earl Jones supplying the real line in post-production. Only Mark Hamill knew the truth on set (Lucasfilm Limited/primaryignition.com)
Light and darkness above the abyss (Lucasfilm Limited/nerve.com)
The true master: Irvin Kershner, 29 April 1923 – 27 November 2010 (theepochtimes.com)