Once More unto the Breach!
Having helped Luke Skywalker out in the Rebel Alliance’s plan to rid the universe of the evil Galactic Empire — amid the whizzing of laser-blasters from a swarm of dedicated TIE fighters — Han Solo and Chewbacca step forward with young Luke, C-3PO, and R2-D2 to receive their prize from a beaming Princess Leia in the sequence that closes Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope. THE END.
So that’s it? Is there nothing else? Well …. yeah!
We know from the decades of merchandising and over-exposure that George Lucas, the saga’s originator and one-track-minded filmmaker, had a sequel in mind whereby the characters and situations he originally conceived as a USC film student would continue to undergo new challenges in this fanciful sci-fi / space fantasy world.
Most fans are aware that the full title of the initial Star Wars story, if I may be allowed the privilege of repeating it, was The Adventures of Luke Skywalker as Taken from the Journal of the Whills: Saga One: The Star Wars. That’s a meal and a mouthful in itself! One can hear the studio heads at Twentieth Century-Fox clamoring for a shorter working title; so Star Wars it became, albeit with Episode “X” and “Y” and “Z” appended in.
The first sequel, known officially as Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, is darker in both tone and mood than its immediate predecessor. The color palette, made up primarily of grays, blues, and blacks, is maintained throughout the production. Indeed, this shadowy ambience can be found in the picture’s shifting mise en scène, whether it be in caves, tunnels, corridors, storage rooms, or walkways, or the eerie interior of a runaway asteroid.
More internalized than the earlier feature, Empire is much more preoccupied with re-familiarizing the viewer with its iconic characters than in grinding out the mechanics of the plot. At its core, Episode V is the most organically structured chapter in the entire series in that the characters develop not only according to the requirements of the constantly evolving story line, but to their own individual needs and desires (not to mention the mountain of problems each of them are faced with).
As well, there is a noticeable improvement in the level of understanding between one individual and another. For instance, Han Solo, that tall and handsome rogue of a smuggler — a man who lives by solely his wits — is utterly taken with Leia’s feisty personality and ability to stand up for herself (and for others).
For her part, Leia is equally captivated by this “scruffy-looking” scoundrel, but is reluctant to admit her interest in him, even to herself — a typical Hollywood formula where “hate” means love at first fight. Granted, Han’s lowly station as a brigand may have been a hindrance to the development of a more permanent relationship, as if that mattered in their particular set of circumstances.
In contrast to this squabbling duo (the space-age equivalent of Ralph and Alice Kramden), our hero Luke has begun the process of realizing his full potential via the ability to move objects at will. He desires above all to become a Jedi knight like his father, Anakin Skywalker, before him — a notion planted into his cranium by none other than Obi-Wan Kenobi (who continues to exert an influence on Luke in a more metaphysical rather than personal manner).
The subsidiary cast of C-3PO and R2-D2, and, in a comparable sense, both Chewie and Han (and later, Han’s former partner and fellow smuggler Lando Calrissian), continue to play the comic relief: manservant and maid, skinny and fatty, what-have-you; an ersatz vaudeville team without the song and dance. Their comic verbal patter, a running joke throughout the series, is mildly suggestive of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s On First,” yet saturated with high-pitched squeaks, garrulous techno-babble, and inarticulate snarls.
In sum, they each take turns playing Laurel to the other’s Hardy (and vice versa). This amiable banter is played strictly for laughs, which, in the larger scheme of this installment (and in the next one, Episode VI: Return of the Jedi), is there to relieve the tension that slowly builds from one sequence to the other.
Another Classic Film-Score Moment
As the picture begins, we hear the Oscar-nominated John Williams fanfare on the soundtrack. This and other motifs were based in part on themes taken from the golden age of Hollywood movie-making, among them Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s score for Kings Row, the opening “Mars” movement of Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite The Planets, Miklos Rozsa’s Entrance of the Charioteers from Ben-Hur, and Elmer Bernstein’s music for Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments.
Words scroll above the screen, the influence of Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and other Saturday matinee movie serials: “It is a dark time for the Rebellion. Freedom fighters led by Luke Skywalker have established a secret base on the ice planet Hoth …” Lord Vader has become obsessed with finding young Skywalker who he knows to be strong with the Force. As a consequence, “Vader has dispatched thousands of remote probes into the far reaches of space” in order to uncover the boy’s whereabouts.
With that, a number of probes are launched from below the Imperial Star Cruiser. One of them crash lands on the surface of the ice planet. At that same instant, Luke enters the scene. He’s riding a tauntaun — sort of a ram-horned camel crossed with a kangaroo, an excellent example of traditional stop-motion animation perfected by the late Ray Harryhausen (see the following tribute to the artist: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2013/05/08/ray-harryhausen-the-last-voyage-of-an-fx-master/).
In the process of investigating the crash, Luke and the tauntaun are attacked by a vicious Snow Creature who drags him inside its lair. The extended scenes in the “Special Edition” DVD/Blu-ray show the beast greedily devouring a bloody meal and, to be honest, are pure overkill.
To escape the same fate, Luke uses the Force to grab hold of his Jedi lightsaber which is just out of reach. When the Snow Creature advances, Luke slices off its arm, much as Obi-Wan Kenobi did to that unruly troublemaker at the Cantina Bar sequence in Episode IV. Incidentally, the Snow Creature is nothing more than a humongous Muppet monster (portrayed by Des Webb).
Baby, It’s Cold Outside
Meanwhile, Han Solo returns to the Rebel base on Hoth (in reality, the Scandinavian country of Norway). He and Leia have an obvious attraction for one another, but resist it at every turn. Han knows there is a price on his head, placed there by the loathsome Jabba the Hutt. One would think, after being handsomely rewarded for coming to the Alliance’s aid, that Han would have paid the debt off by now. But noooo!
He bids adieu to the Princess, goading her on with sarcastic asides and false deference to her authority (“Your Highnessness,” “Your Worship,” and so). She, on the other hand, is perturbed at his leaving in the middle of a revolt (he is repeating a pattern he set in the earlier film). They engage in the first of many lover’s quarrels. However, underneath the bickering we hear a love theme which telegraphs their true feelings for one another. It will sound again at the end of the picture in full symphonic glory.
After Han is informed there has been no communication from Luke, he resolves to look for him in the subfreezing storm. Right on cue, we see Luke running off into the icy blizzard. It’s at this point that Obi-Wan Kenobi’s spirit appears, when the boy is most in need of his services (remember that Old Ben was “killed” by Lord Vader in their last encounter). We expect the old geyser to go on spouting New Age advice. Instead, Ben charges Luke with a new task: he’s to go to the Dagobah system and seek out Jedi Master Yoda.
Obi-Wan’s image fades away into that of the approaching Han Solo on his tauntaun. With Luke left blinded by the snowstorm and delirious after his hallucinatory vision, Han slices open the frost-bitten tauntaun and exposes his buddy to the warmth of its innards. Offhandedly, Han remarks that he was under the impression tauntauns “only smelled bad on the outside.” Whew! Was he ever mistaken!
Fortunately, our adventure seekers are found — how could it be otherwise? There wouldn’t be a series to speak of if these two had perished so soon after the start. Luke’s scars from his encounter with the Snow Creature are clearly visible. As a matter of fact, they were the result of actor Mark Hamill experiencing a serious real-life car accident prior to filming. Coincidentally, as a young man George Lucas had been the victim of his own near fatal racing-car crash. Taking his star’s condition to heart, Lucas took advantage of the bit with the Snow Creature (although he denies the script was altered in any way to accommodate the situation) in order to utilize the very real disfigurement on Hamill’s face.
We Kiss in a Shadow
While recovering in sickbay, Luke is visited by Han and Leia. To make Solo jealous, she plants a kiss on Luke’s mouth, making up for the furtive one she gave him when they made their escape in the Death Star’s airshaft. In fairy tales, it’s usually the handsome prince who gets to kiss the beautiful princess, not the other way around. No matter. Chewie chuckles to himself at Solo’s discomfort as Han bolts from the room in pursuit of the Princess.
Alerted to the Rebels’ presence by another probe, the inhabitants of the base make final preparations to abandon their stronghold. After saying his farewells, Luke mounts one of the X-wing fighters as he and the other pilots get ready to help their fellow revolutionaries escape.
The battle to end all battles now takes place, with ground troops, fire arms, Imperial walkers (gigantic mammoth-like land rovers), and Star Destroyers participating left and right and at breakneck speed.
Back on board Lord Vader’s flagship, General Veers (Julian Glover, a dead ringer for rocker Sting) reports they have emerged from hyperspace a tad too soon, thus tipping off the Alliance to their presence. Vader is not amused by the news. By the way, the miniature work here and in the battle on the ice is exemplary.
An interesting side note: Rebel pilot Wedge replaces Biggs Darklighter, who perished after being fired upon by Darth Vader. As R2-D2 is lifted aboard Luke’s X-wing fighter, his robotic pal, C-3PO, takes the opportunity to express a little motherly concern for the little droid and for Master Luke. They do care for each other, you know, but in a most “humanly” fashion, despite being preprogrammed, thinking-on-their-own automatons.
The battle rages on! Luke blows up one of the walkers. At the same time, General Veers blasts the power generators to smithereens. Finding themselves trapped below ground Leia, Han, Chewie, and Threepio have no choice but to board the Millennium Falcon in order to make their escape. One thing leads to another, when at last Vader makes his entrance in grand style (in pretty much the same manner as he did in Episode IV) by blasting through an impregnable door (well, not so impregnable at that). Storm troopers attempt to shoot it out with them, but they manage to avoid annihilation. Their world now comes crashing down around them.
On board the Millennium Falcon, the frustrated Threepio can’t seem to get a word in edgewise, or rather (from Solo and Leia’s viewpoint) he won’t shut the hell up. And that damn hyperdrive can’t seem to function at all, another running joke. To escape the pursuing TIE fighters, Han resolves to lose them in the asteroid field, to wit the chances of successfully navigating are “3,720 to 1.” Luckily for the crew, Han and Chewie are able to maneuver the fast-moving vessel into one of the many craters on the largest asteroid.
Meanwhile on Dagobah, we find Luke and Artoo stepping cautiously along the moss-drenched swamp that covers the planet’s surface. This scene may remind viewers of a similar one in Ridley Scott’s Legend, which came a few years later — it certainly seems likely that both scenes were shot at one of the movie studios in England, where both features were filmed. There’s even a swamp thing lurking below the water’s surface that tries to swallow poor, unassuming Artoo. He becomes a flying projectile when the creature decides to spit him out. A muddy mess!
One can’t say if this sequence refers to an earlier one in Episode IV, but it definitely calls it to mind. If you recall, Luke, Leia, and Han were trapped inside the Death Star’s trash compactor. With the walls about to close in on them, Luke was abruptly sucked down into the compactor’s watery bottom by a tube-like, one-eyed serpent. Thanks to Han’s blaster and to the closing walls, he escapes in time to contact Artoo, who happens to be locked on to a computer mainframe. Good work, R2-D2!
Back at the swamp, out of the blue little Yoda decides to make a nuisance of himself in his long-awaited bow. He’s a most curious and ill-tempered intruder. And he sounds suspiciously like Fozzie Bear, and why not? He happens to be voiced by master puppeteer and director Frank Oz, the same fellow who gave life to Fozzie, Bert, Miss Piggy, and numerous other denizens of Sesame Street and Muppet movies.
Yoda is more comical here than elsewhere in the series, so enjoy it while you can, folks: it is only an act. You see, Master Yoda is a most studious follower of the Force. He may pretend to be cranky and irritable, but his whole purpose as a mentor has been well defined by screenwriters Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan. He’s the High Lama of the Jedi Order, the Wizard Merlin to young King Arthur, charged with teaching young Skywalker the wise ways of the Force.
Rising in the Ranks (or Not)
On the opposite side of the spectrum, Lord Vader has a completely different set of priorities than the wizened Yoda. He, too, may appear to be calmer and more collected in this episode than he was in the previous one. Nevertheless, Vader’s displeasure at the ineptitude of the Imperial Cruiser’s commanding officers has grown by leaps and bounds.
Having botched the surprise attack on the Rebel’s base on Hoth, Vader handily disposes of the “clumsy as he is stupid” Admiral Ozzel in the same way he tried to teach Commander Motti (from Episode IV) a thing or two about the Force’s power: by making him choke to death.
In that earlier encounter, Governor Tarkin prevented Motti’s demise with a sharp rebuke, but not here. There is no Tarkin to restrain Vader’s wrath: he was blown to kingdom come, if you remember, along with the first Death Star. In this sequence, however, the ambitious Captain Piett is forthwith promoted to admiral in Ozzel’s stead. And, in a later scene, Captain Steeka falls to the floor to breathe his last after losing track of the Millennium Falcon. “Apology accepted,” Vader notes in a contemptuous aside.
No matter how one takes this kind of action, the dreaded Dark Lord of the Sith delivers an ultimatum to the recently promoted Piett: “Don’t fail me again,” he intones darkly, all the while pointing a gloved finger at the admiral. Wow! How’d you like to work for an “understanding” boss like that? Vader makes Donald Trump’s tossing off of his signature “You’re fired!” phrase from The Apprentice seem like child’s play.
All we can say at this point is this: the revolving chain of command on board an Imperial Star Cruiser was plenty tough during those long ago and far away Empire days ….
(To be continued…)
Transcript of dialogue from the original screenplay by Leigh Brackett, revised by Lawrence Kasdan and taken from the novel by George Lucas
Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes