‘Star Wars,’ the Original Series (Part Seven): ‘The Empire Strikes Back,’ Episode V — Parents and Their Children

Heads in the Clouds

Threepio, Artoo, Luke & Leia contemplate their fate at the conclusion of ‘Star Wars, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back’ (1980)

The Millennium Falcon follows the trash dump to freedom (along with the unseen bounty hunter, Boba Fett, hot on its intergalactic trail). Meanwhile, Luke is doing much better in the control department by staying calm and collected. But in the midst of his Jedi training with Master Yoda, which involves levitating rocks and such, he has an eerie vision of a city in the clouds, with Han and Leia in trouble. He can see into their future, and it’s not a pretty one.

To save his friends from further suffering, Luke decides to leave Yoda’s training camp. Yoda counsels against interrupting his lessons, but Luke is determined. As he makes this decision, the Millennium Falcon approaches the Cloud City. Han Solo expects a safe port of call and some kind of warm welcome from his old gambling partner, Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams). There are extra added FX inserted here, which are good for what they are: extra added effects.

The slick and debonair Lando (“old Smoothie” as Han describes him) indeed welcomes Han and his friends to his turf. He extends his hand to Leia and offers to help them and their ship (which used to be HIS ship, by the way). Assured of his cooperation, the band enters the premises under Lando’s protection.

Threepio lands himself in hot water almost immediately by meddling where he shouldn’t. His usual habit of poking his nose where it doesn’t need to go gets the better of him, however, as C-3PO has his head and arm blown off in the bargain (he “thought” he had heard an R2 unit in there….).

Back on Dagobah, Luke is preparing to depart on his X-wing fighter with Artoo. A vision of Obi-Wan Kenobi appears to him, warning Luke of the Dark Side’s power. Despite Old Ben and Yoda’s admonitions and predictions of disaster (“This is a dangerous time for you” and “if you choose the quick and easy path, as Vader did, you will become an agent of evil”), the headstrong youngster takes off after his friends.

Obi-Wan (Alec Guinness) exchanges thoughts with Master Yoda (voiced by puppeteer Frank Oz)

“That boy is our last hope,” sighs Obi-Wan forlornly, as his form slowly fades away in the background.

“No, there is another…” This phrase is cryptically intoned by Master Yoda, a foretaste of what is to come. (In the Loew’s Astor Plaza Theater where I first saw the picture, this casual aside left most viewers baffled. Others with more insight speculated among themselves as to what Yoda meant. As for myself, I had trouble just understanding what the hell the little toad had muttered to himself.)

Back at Cloud City (amidst another round of superfluous FX), Princess Leia is pacing back and forth in her quarters. She voices concern about the missing C-3PO to Han. Chewie, for his part, has gone in search of the unruly robotic butler. He finds the overly curious droid in a junk room, spread out in pieces as the furry star pilot attempts to put him back together.

In the ensuing scene, Lando invites the trio to dine with him, sans the physically discombobulated Threepio of course. Unfortunately, “old smoothie” leads our hearty adventurers straight into the gloved hands of Lord Vader himself, thanks to Boba Fett’s relentless tracking of their whereabouts.

Luke and Artoo are on their way at last! But as Chewbacca wails and carries on in the cell, Han is painfully tortured (vide the unearthly electronic sounds that fill the room). To occupy himself, Chewie tries to rebuild Threepio. He can’t make heads or tails out of the mess, a veritable Leggo set of spare parts.

And what about poor Han? Forever suffering the torments of hell, that’s what! Everything hurts, which will also be a running gag with actor Harrison Ford in the upcoming Indiana Jones series (produced by George Lucas and directed by StevenSpielberg). In just about every subsequent feature after Empire, Harrison will be battered about, poked, punched, pulverized and beaten to the ground. It’s a miracle the actor survives these ordeals. Perhaps being frozen in carbonite isn’t such a bad idea after all! At least he’ll be protected from the elements (and from physical abuse).

Han (Harrison Ford) feels awful after being tortured; Chewie (Peter Mayhew) gives him a helping hand

Luke’s X-wing fighter ship now approaches. There’s a quick wipe to Lord Vader outside the holding chamber. Vader orders that Leia and the Wookiee remain in Cloud City, to which Lando objects. Vader cuts him off with a curt “Perhaps you think you’re being treated unfairly.” Agreeing to Vader’s terms (!), Lando mutters under his breath that the deal he’s made with the Empire gets worse as time goes by. Oh, yeah!

Han is returned to the holding chamber in worse shape than when he left it. While Leia soothes his aching head, Lando returns to his “friends” and informs them that Han is to be turned over to the bounty hunter for delivery to the loathsome bandit, Jabba the Hutt. Jabba wants his prize trophy (Han had squelched on their deal, too, no doubt). Ticked off at his seeming betrayal, Han gathers up what strength he has left to take a poke at Lando’s chin. Before things get out of hand, Lando halts the brawl. He is powerless to prevent what will occur.

Frozen in Time (And in Carbonite)

The freezing facility is made ready for the inevitable. Certainly, the excellent sound effects in this sequence (the work of sound designer Ben Burtt), and in the ensuing lightsaber battle between Luke and Vader, are to be commended. But before Luke’s entry into the fray, Han Solo will be the test subject. The rising smoke and gases from the freezing chamber, along with the red glow, evoke shades of a fiery hell. In fact, the heat from the blast-furnace sets made Peter Mayhew’s Chewie costume stink to high heaven.

The prevailing darkness and flame-red colors fall on the actors’ faces, which give them a hellish glow. Chewie throws a Wookiee fit in order to save his friend Han, but Han looks up at the eight-foot-tall, walking fuzz-ball and tries to soothe his jangled nerves. He charges Chewie with taking care of the Princess. Leia then turns to Han as they kiss goodbye. Their love theme resounds on the soundtrack. Han is taken to the freezing platform to meet his maker.

When Han is being lowered into the pit, Leia cries out, “I love you.” Now, one would half expect a repeat of that hackneyed “I love you, too” phrase, but director Irvin Kershner wasn’t satisfied. Repeating take after take after take, and rewrite after rewrite after rewrite, “Kersh,” as he was fondly called, wasn’t convinced that another “I love you” would do the trick. Finally, in a last-ditch move, Kershner had Harrison do a final take where the ad-libbed line “I know” came out of the actor’s mouth. No one believed the scene was over when Kersh yelled “Cut!” but the line stuck. Not only did it stick, it went on to become a classic. And Harrison’s “Clark Gable meets John Wayne” acting impression became legend as well.

Han Solo (Harrison Ford) faces the freezing chamber

And, as “frozen in carbonite” Han Solo is taken on his journey back to Jabba, so will Luke be taken to the Emperor as a prize gift from Lord Vader — or so Vader thinks.

In the meantime, Threepio has been jabbering on about Chewie’s lame efforts at putting him back together à la Humpty-Dumpty (it’s a clumsy attempt at channeling the classic nursery rhyme, one might suppose, but so be it). He doesn’t realize that Chewie is more concerned about sparing the life of his buddy Han, who had previously asked him to save his rage for other times. Threepio must have witnessed Han’s stealing a parting kiss from Leia who, in the film’s most passionate exchange, FINALLY declares her ardor for the half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf herder.

And what does Han Solo remark in return? “I know.” To echo the words of the late Governor Tarkin: “Charming to the last.” In these so-called final moments, Han has gained a measure of nobility that, up until now, his character has rarely if reluctantly displayed. His stature with Leia has risen ten-fold by his noble self-sacrifice. Furthermore, it’s a credit to screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and the late Leigh Brackett, and also to Kasdan, Lucas, and Kershner’s keen sense of where the Leia-Han romance needed to go: it had to take center stage. At this juncture, you could say it’s the big setup for what will be the ultimate reveal at the end. But that is yet to come, dear fans! “Patience, young padawans! Patience!”

While audiences are still fawning over this sequence, i.e., where Han’s body is frozen stiff in the coal-gray-black carbonite — his expression is a mixture of pain and horror, as well as fierce resolve — we are being distracted from the real crisis. That is, how will Luke Skywalker be able to overcome and resist the Dark Side when faced with such unrelenting power, the power of the Dark Side, which he knows very little of?

As indicated above, John Williams’ love theme rises tellingly in the orchestra as the rectangular carbonite container (reminiscent of the black monolith from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, only sideways) hits the ground with a resounding thud.

May the Military Force Be With You!

Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) eyes the bounty hunter Boba Fett

Vader hands Solo over to the bounty hunter and demands that Calrissian escort Leia and the Wookiee to his ship, the aptly-named Star Destroyer Avenger. When Lando balks at this change in their plans, Vader cuts him off with a terse, “I am altering the deal. Pray I don’t alter it any further.” Lando shoots a knowing look at the cool bald guy with the radio-transmitting headset (known as Lobot), who silently acknowledges the message: they are planning a little getaway of their own.

With blaster in hand, Luke cautiously wanders the Cloud City’s halls. He catches sight of Han’s frozen-in-carbonite form and the armed escort that accompanies it. Without prior warning, bounty hunter Boba Fett (voiced by Temuera Morrison) shoots his formidable weapon at him while Leia shouts of an impending trap. In true “hero’s journey” fashion, young Luke is heedless of her admonition. Artoo has the door close on him (redolent of a monstrous mouth with teeth) as Luke enters the freezing chamber for the final confrontation with Fate and the dreaded Dark Lord.

Luke surveys the layout of the freezing chamber before he is abruptly greeted by a thrice-familiar voice. “The Force is with you, young Skywalker,” Vader croons in sepulchral tones. “But you are not a Jedi yet.”

Now begins another of those Captain BloodRobin HoodSea Hawk sequences whereby Vader and Luke cross lightsabers in what seems like every nook and cranny in the Cloud City complex. Luke’s blue-shaded lightsaber mixes with Vader’s red-toned one — Akira Kurawawa’s samurai influence runs deep in this and subsequent scenes.

Luke (Mark Hamill) challenges Lord Vader (body by David Prowse, voiced by James Earl Jones) to a lightsaber duel

In the meantime, Lando is able to free Leia and Chewie from their bonds, only to have Chewie almost choke the life out of him for his seeming betrayal of old buddy Han. He’s saved from his fate, however, by choking out a few breathless phrases that there is still time to save his friend. Oh, good to hear! They make haste for the east platform. Meanwhile, R2-D2 and C-3PO are reunited at last, even if Threepio is a bit worse for wear (and as cranky and complaining as ever).

Vader and Luke continue to battle it out in Edo-era fashion. Vader also exudes over-confidence, as to be expected, but Luke surprises him with some deft maneuvering in and out of the freezing chamber.

“Impressive,” observes Vader, “most impressive.” He takes a few swipes at young Skywalker. “Only your hatred can destroy me,” he bellows, but is that really part of Vader’s plan?

Vader calls on Luke to release the full brunt of his anger. It is the only way the Dark Lord can be vanquished. But Luke manages to fight his way out of a conflict. Losing his balance, Vader plunges into the outer rim of the pipes surrounding the freezing chamber. There is a brief pause in the action, enough for Luke and the audience to catch their breath.

Luke jumps in after Vader. He snoops around the reactor room — again, the superb sound effects in this next sequence are tops in their field. From nowhere, Vader re-emerges. Undeterred, the Dark Lord throws everything at Skywalker that isn’t nailed down (and then some!). Luke impotently swats at the oncoming objects, one of which breaks open a window. He is then sucked out of the room and thrown onto a platform in another of those omnipresent Forbidden Planet moments, with Luke holding on for dear life — literally on the edge! The look is all there, down to the triangular shaped doors, in another of George Lucas’ nods to his sci-fi past.

Back to Lando and company: he cautions everyone to leave Cloud City at once before the Empire takes over operations. Panic ensues, of course (in one more of those “expanded” scenes — completely uncalled for, in my opinion). Artoo is able to open the hanger door where the Millennium Falcon is housed. While Threepio hurls a series of comical one-liners at his mechanical playmate (having mostly to do with the inoperative hyperdrive), Lando and Leia manage to board the Millennium Falcon in time to make their escape.

Trust Your Feelings!

In the same instant, Luke and Vader are back at it. The Dark Lord duels it out with the novice Jedi Luke to the edge of the platform, where Luke nicks Vader’s right arm with his lightsaber, a nice move. It looks like he made a dent in the bout, until that fateful moment when Vader slices Luke Skywalker’s right hand off with his lightsaber.

Vader makes an offer that Luke must refuse

Luke will remember this encounter for the rest of the series (and what remains of his screen life). Indeed, this is the pivotal episode in the hero’s journey where the confrontation with one’s parent reaches mythical proportions. In both Classical and Norse mythology, we have copious parallels to consider: in Siegfried’s chance encounter with the Wanderer (or Wotan) in Wagner’s Ring cycle; in Oedipus’ slaying of his father Laius from the Greek tragedy by Sophocles; and in Orestes’ murder of his mother Clytemnestra to avenge her killing of his father Agamemnon.

Luke’s conflict with himself has also reached a climax, in typical Greek fashion, with the discovery of his true origins. Left with no defenses and suffering an open wound on his hand (emblematic as well of Amfortas’ unhealed wound via the lance held by the magician Klingsor), Luke holds on for dear life with his left arm. Vader, sensing his quarry is trapped (and knowing of his true origins), plays psychological mind games on him. In fact, messing with another’s mind is part of the routine (i.e., that “old Jedi mind trick” gimmick).

Conveniently, Vader suggests a way out of Luke’s predicament by offering to complete his training. In getting Luke to trust his intentions by making them sound reasonable and acceptable, Vader uses reverse logic to validate his offer. In other words, the ends justify the means; it all sounds so logical and doable, but it really isn’t.

So what does Vader offer? In essence, Vader reveals his plan to usurp the Evil Emperor by bringing Luke to his side — to the power of the Dark Side, that is. First, he claims that with their combined forces, both he and Luke can end “this destructive conflict and bring order to the galaxy.” I’ll bet! But Vader’s plans go much deeper than that.

Lord Vader emphasizes the “power of the dark side” to Luke Skywalker

Fortunately for film fans, Luke imagines himself capable enough to reason this out. “I’ll never join you!” he blurts out. Atta boy, Luke!

Now comes the big reveal! Realizing that he must level with the young man, Vader tells Luke the thing he longs to hear but wishes he never heard. “Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father.”

“He told me enough,” Luke counters roughly. “He told me you killed him!”

“No. I am your father.”

Luke cannot accept this knowledge (or rather, he refuses to swallow the bait). Knowing who the messenger is, he cannot possibly be receptive to the message. Can you blame him?

In response, Luke hurls a mighty and repeated “No!” to Vader’s metallic visage. But Vader presses the matter further by proposing a father-son union. By joining with him, they can depose the Emperor. It is Luke’s destiny. Together, they can “rule the galaxy as Father and Son.” This does not sit well with Luke’s plans. In defiance of his parent, Luke releases his grip on the platform — and on life as he’s come to know it — and floats down the long garbage chute (similar to the one where he, Leia and Han had fallen into in Episode IV: A New Hope).

Consequently, Vader is left empty handed. What must he have felt at that moment? Did he expect this kind of reception from his young recruit? Did he search his feelings, as the Evil Emperor had earlier advised him, or did he not heed his master’s word? To be exact, Vader poses the same message to Luke: “Search your feelings; you know this to be true!” One wonders, too, if Luke bothered to heed his advice.

There are many avenues to explore in not only Luke and Vader’s troubled and unrealized relationship, but also in Vader and the Emperor’s long association as slave and master, and as pupil and mentor. In reality, if Vader was “happy” with his current situation, why would he want to destroy it by killing the hand that feeds it, i.e., the Emperor (and with Luke’s help no less)? Was it ruthless ambition, lust for power, or unnatural selection? Or was it a case of “destroy or be destroyed”? By firing the first shot, he may have tried to avoid a problem before there was a problem to resolve.

Luke hangs on to what he can, which amounts to a few metal rods of support in open airspace. He keeps asking himself why Old Ben (Obi-Wan) never told him about his father. Calling out telepathically to Leia, the Princess forces Lando to turn the Millennium Falcon around so they can rescue Luke. Hesitating at first, Lando is convinced to help Luke out after Chewie bares his teeth in his direction. Upon arriving at Cloud City’s base, Lando goes through the top hatch and drags poor Luke to the safety of the cargo hold.

TIE fighters are in hot pursuit as they try to dodge their attack. Too, Vader is back on his flagship Star Destroyer to view the chase from his vantage point. In like manner, Vader calls out telepathically to Luke, who is in sickbay convalescing.

“Luke, it is your destiny….”

“Ben, why didn’t you tell me?”

The Millennium Falcon is being tracked by the Star Destroyer, and Lando and Chewie are STILL trying to jump into hyperspace (deactivated beforehand by the Imperial crew at Cloud City). Providentially and despite Threepio’s claims of “delusions of grandeur,” Artoo is able to reactivate the hyperdrive which blasts the fast-moving Millennium Falcon beyond Vader’s reach.

R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) tries to put C-3PO back together again

In an instant, the ship has disappeared from view. Vader is left on the deck of the Star Destroyer to brood and pace back to his quarters. This brings relief to the furrowed brow of Admiral Piett, who believed that he would be the next victim of Vader’s unappeasable frustration with how badly things have turned out.

Aboard the Millennium Falcon, Leia takes Luke to his bunk and plants a kiss on his lips for encouragement. The ending is a cliffhanger encased in true cliffhanger fashion. Rebel spaceships abound throughout. Lando vows to regroup on the planet Tatooine to find and bring back Han. In sickbay, Luke is being fitted with his new bionic hand. With feeling restored to his pulse, he approaches and embraces Leia. The two look out into the endless reaches of outer space as the Millennium Falcon takes off on its mission to rescue Solo.

Juxtaposed against the original New Hope ending, where, facing the viewing audience, the entire crew is rewarded for their bravery, the same cast members (minus Chewie and Han) are seen from the rear, their backsides turned to those same viewers in contemplation of their future. What does that future hold for our intrepid companions?

(End of Part Seven)

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 © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes     

‘Star Wars,’ the Original Series (Part Four): Changes in Altitude

Star Wars: Episode IV Logo (dvdactive.com)

Star Wars — Episode IV: A New Hope Logo (dvdactive.com)

The “Hope” of the Hopeless

As the first film in the original series, Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) provides the basic introduction to this fantastic, at times slow-moving world of the future. It’s creaky in spots (I’ll give you that), enlivened by the occasional fly-by or Imperial star cruiser roaring overhead.

Yet despite the almost insurmountable obstacles the project faced in coming to the screen (see the judicious “making of” features on the latest Blu-ray/DVD re-releases), the finished work represents a huge leap forward — an allegorical jump into hyperspace, if you will — in the art of movie-making, an oftentimes lyrical ode to gee-whiz, can-do rugged individualism.

(Reader Alert: Prior knowledge of the film’s plot may be required in order to follow the story outline below.)

After a brief opening skirmish on board a diplomatic ship — a fracas that ends before it even begins — we find ourselves on the outwardly lifeless desert planet of Tatooine. Mundane chores are the themes of the day as we are introduced to one of the saga’s chief protagonists: the restless Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), in this modern reinvention of the hero’s journey from classical mythology.

This was a deliberate choice on the part of its creator, writer, director, and producer, a visionary filmmaker named George Lucas. Deliberate in the sense that Lucas’ depiction of routine, commonplace occurrences of daily life would soon find themselves clashing with, and be far outweighed by, the necessities for survival (think: Naked and Afraid with clothes on).

Consequently, the entire middle section of the movie drags a bit — that is, up until the last third, where the ever-popular, video-game portion of the program happily takes over. A lively, fast-moving, and uninterrupted flight of programming fancy, this rapid-paced conclusion does, indeed, offer a new hope, a new outlook, and a new vision, at events that are still to come; a prescient and farsighted forecast into a technologically advanced future where all things are technologically possible.

In view of this analysis, it’s only right that the first figures to be introduced onto the screen are the robotic butler C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and his little droid companion R2-D2 (Kenny Baker), with another Threepio unit (clad in silver, not gold casing) seen directly behind them. This is followed by the entrance of Rebel Forces in heavy duty helmets with enormous visors — ostensibly in the shape of makeshift, inverted chamber pots resting on their noggins.

Rebel Alliance preparing for battle (Star Wars -- Episode IV)

Rebel Alliance preparing for battle (Star Wars — Episode IV)

Imperial Storm Troopers burst in, and a fire-fight ensues aboard Princess Leia’s flagship. The Rebels race down a long corridor, blasting away with their laser weapons as they go. As Artoo and Threepio perilously cross the line of fire, we see the huge black frame and hear the breathing apparatus of the series’ main heavy, the formidable Darth Vader — voiced by James Earl Jones, with body by Dave Prowse. (Note to the wise: This entrance is repeated, in like manner, in Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, as Vader penetrates the Rebel Alliance’s hidden base on the ice planet Hoth.)

This leads to a quick cut of Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) feeding Artoo the stolen plans for the dreaded Death Star, which the Galactic Empire has been building in outer space lo these many years.

An irate Darth Vader orders one of the Storm Trooper commanders to “tear the ship apart until you’ve found those plans and bring me the passengers! I want them alive!” Now, now! Temper, temper! We feel his pain and anger. It seems that underneath that Nazi-style helmet lies an emotionally-wasted, angst-driven Anakin Skywalker (or Starkiller, if you go by Lucas’ original intention for that surname).

This is hardly the manner in which a follower of the Dark Side should act, but then again we’re only at the beginning of the story. At this rudimentary getting-to-know-you stage, it makes perfect sense that Vader is not in complete control of his emotions; that will surely change as the saga deepens and develops. Besides, this initial outburst makes Vader’s character all the more potent, especially after he chokes the life out of one of the Rebels with his bare hand (his left to be exact, i.e., la sinistra = Italian for “sinister”). Vader casually tosses the dead Rebel aside. So much for the future value of one’s life!

Next, we hear the Princess Leia theme for the first time (courtesy of composer John Williams), but it doesn’t last long, as the princess herself is brought before Lord Vader to face the music. Leia insists she was on a diplomatic mission to Alderaan, her home planet, while Vader points an ominous, black-gloved finger at the girl and shouts, “You are part of the Rebel Alliance and a traitor – take her away!”

Again, Vader’s voice soars to a crescendo of impotent rage and fury at the petite, five-foot-nothing Leia. Talk about a height advantage, this guy is impatience personified. I wonder how he would react if he knew that little Leia was, in reality, his own daughter! (Ah, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves …) The princess is banished forthwith to one of the Death Star’s many prison cells to be, how shall one put it, “interrogated.”

Paradox in Paradise

Artoo and Threepio in Tatooine (starwars.wikia.com)

Artoo and Threepio are lost in Tatooine (starwars.wikia.com)

We revert back to the Tatooine Desert, where the blue sky contrasts with varying shades of red sand, a sight straight out of Sir David Lean’s epic Lawrence of Arabia (a model for Lucas’ vision). Artoo and Threepio have split up and gone their separate ways. With that, there’s a brief glimpse of Threepio shouting to a lone desert transport: “Hey! HEY!!” But instead of being rescued, he winds up inside the transport, a victim of his own insipidness. Transports are the principal means of conveyance used by the shady and secretive Jawas, hooded little creatures with flashlight-like eyes and Alvin the Chipmunk voices.

This smacks of a similar incident in Lawrence of Arabia, where the title character and Farraj, one of his native servant boys, reach the Suez Canal. On the other side of the ridge, a British soldier shouts at them: “Who are you? WHO ARE YOU?” That soldier was none other than director Lean himself, in a brief bit. I seriously doubt that Lucas was the one who provided the voice of Threepio in the desert yelling “Hey!” (glad you asked: it was Anthony Daniels), but it’s a nice touch nonetheless.

Artoo happens to be held in the Jawas’ desert transport, where he meets up with other abducted droids, all rather bizarre looking. One of the captured robots reminds us of a walking gas pump, while another bears a startling resemblance to Pixar’s Wall-E (were you watching, John Lasseter?). It’s here that Artoo reunites with his old buddy, Threepio, who is overjoyed to see him. Ah, those two! They enjoy a bubbling, argumentative relationship that has carried them near and far, from one end of the galaxy to the other.

The huge transport lumbers across the desert surface, slowly but steadily, with deadening music mimicking that same lumbering quality. It could be a stand-in for Terry Gilliam’s gigantic traveling-circus wagon, last seen in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009), but in point of fact it’s hard to predict what was on Gilliam’s mind at the time, it being entirely unpredictable at best.

At last, we are introduced to our hero Luke, a geeky, cheerful lad of post-adolescent age who’s stuck on his Uncle Owen (Phil Brown) and Aunt Beru’s (Shelagh Fraser) cheerless farm. This is where we hear the name “Biggs” mentioned, just before Luke takes the two droids back to his place for proper grooming and cleaning (Uncle Owen barters with a belligerent Jawa for their ownership). Audiences unfamiliar with the original script may be perplexed at the mention of Biggs’ name, a character that doesn’t appear until the last 15 minutes of the picture and is promptly never heard from again.

Biggs Darklighter (listal.com)

Garrick Hagon as Biggs Darklighter (listal.com)

In case you were wondering, Biggs Darklighter (played by Garrick Hagon) is Luke’s childhood pal, recently returned from the Academy, wherever or whatever that is (it ain’t Starfleet, that I can assure you). According to established Star Wars movie lore, Lucas has stashed away Luke and Biggs’ scenes (along with those of their friends Deak, Camie, and Fixer) in an off-sight vault somewhere, possibly in area 51. The rumor this so-called “lost footage” would someday be “restored” in subsequent revivals of the saga has been lingering for well on three decades without substantiation.

It’s my learned opinion, fellow sci-fi fanatics, that if maverick filmmaker Mr. George Lucas ever had plans to release this lost footage in the first place, he surely would have done so by now. Still, the rumor persists and continues to be one of those ongoing paradoxes associated with the series from time immemorial. Perhaps with the Disney Studio’s acquisition of the financially lucrative franchise we may yet be treated to this innocuous little side episode, even as part of the deleted scenes. Until then, let’s hope it’s worth the wait!

Uncle Ben’s Converted Lightsaber

"Help me, Obi-Wan." (hollywoodreporter.com)

“Help me, Obi-Wan.” (hollywoodreporter.com)

Meanwhile, after showing Luke the holographic message uploaded by Princess Leia, a suddenly impatient Artoo decides to go off on his own to seek out somebody called Obi-Wan Kenobi. With Luke and Threepio in hot speeder pursuit, they eventually meet up with Old Ben, who rescues them from the nomadic Sand People (commonly referred to as Tusken Raiders). With this, the group retires to Old Ben’s abode. This send-up of Cowboys vs. Indians, and the mountainous Far West terrain, will remind viewers of those Monument Valley locations so favored by director John Ford (and, by implication, Lucas himself).

At the mention of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Old Ben makes this observation: “Now that’s a name I’ve not heard in a long time. A long time …” A smiling, bewigged Sir Alec Guinness in a one-size-fits-all robe plays a smiling, bewigged Uncle Ben Kenobi, aka Obi-Wan. Old Ben unwittingly echoes the sentiments of the film’s focus in the aforementioned declaration, in a slogan that defines the very crux of the drama that will appear in every Star Wars manifestation hereinafter:

“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away ….”

Laurence E. MacDonald, in his book The Invisible Art of Film Music: A Comprehensive History (1998), notes that the above inscription harkens to a “time and place of the story” that “are mythic rather than futuristic.”

“I haven’t gone by the name Obi-Wan,” Ben tells the guileless Luke, “since, oh, before you were born.” That’s good to know! And we’ll be learning a heck of a lot more about this mysterious stranger in long-flowing robes in the flicks to come. Right now, Old Ben’s got his hands full with two pesky droids, the presence of trigger-happy Tusken Raiders (vicious walrus-like creatures), and an excitable teenager clamoring for adventure.

Soon the conversation gets around to Luke’s deceased father and Ben’s participation in the so-called Clone Wars as a (gasp!) Jedi knight. As proof of his assertions, the old man hands Luke a lightsaber, claiming it once belonged to his old companion and friend, Anakin Skywalker: “An elegant weapon for a more civilized time.” I’ll bet! “Civilized,” as Old Ben politely puts it, is a bit of a stretch and, as it turns out, a matter of opinion.

Just then, the dastardly appellation of Darth Vader gets thrown out as the individual responsible for the death of Luke’s pater. “Vader was seduced by the Dark Side of the Force,” Ben insists. Aha, now we’re getting somewhere! Ben tries to recruit the reluctant Luke into learning more about becoming a Jedi knight and joining him on his quest, but the boy’s got troubles of his own — especially after he finds his aunt and uncle burned to crisp by the Galactic Storm Troopers (in a clear homage to Ford’s classic Western saga, The Searchers).

The scene shifts to a conference room in the interior of the Death Star. To lend his feature an air of legitimacy, Lucas decided on casting British-born thespian Peter Cushing as the iniquitous Governor Grand Moff Tarkin. A bit worse for wear, the thin and wan Mr. Cushing still makes for a sinister villain. In a similar move, Lucas later employed the talents of Cushing’s old friend and partner Christopher Lee, in Episodes II and III of the series (as Count Dooku)  — two Hammer Horror veterans with a long and honorable lineage in filmdom.

"Your lack of faith is disturbing." (dvdactive.com)

“I find your lack of faith disturbing.” (dvdactive.com)

Prior to Darth Vader’s convincing display of telepathic powers (in response to Commander Motti’s putdown of the Sith Lord’s “sorcerer’s ways” and “sad devotion to that ancient religion,” meaning the Force), Governor Tarkin is, for all intents and purposes, the featured bad guy. His commanding presence attempts to put order to the endless bickering carried on by his Galactic officers. Vader is loathe to release the helpless commander, but does so nevertheless.

Getting back to Tatooine, Luke resolves to join forces with Obi-Wan. They Landspeed their way off to Mos Eisley, a notorious spaceport and haven for smugglers, pirates, and criminals with prices on their heads. The pair, along with their trusty droids, are looking for a way off the planet via a freighter pilot they can trust. Their mission is to fly straight on to Alderaan and rescue Princess Leia (so they think).

In the thrice-familiar Cantina Bar sequence, Luke is pestered by several of the local inhabitants. He serves as witness to Obi-Wan’s skill with the lightsaber as the old gent slices off a malefactor’s arm. This attracts the unwanted attention of Storm Troopers nearby. Shortly afterward, Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford), their “pilot,” introduce themselves to Ben and Luke. Haggling over the price of their venture, Han finally accepts their offer. Now all the adventure seekers have to do is sell their Landspeeder.

Not wanting to regurgitate every nook and cranny of the plot, we move on to an inserted scene with Han Solo and Jabba the Hutt — or more correctly, a digitally-enhanced Jabba (or “DEJ”) speaking in Huttese. To these eyes, there is something unreal about this CGI-created slug. British-born actor Ian McNeice, who portrayed the vicious Baron Harkonnen in the Sci-Fi Channel’s excellent adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, was hired to stand in for the repugnant Hutt. This scene, while easily dispensable, does serve to explain why Jabba had it in for Solo: he owes him quite a lot of money.

Also making his screen debut is the notorious bounty hunter Boba Fett, who is part of Jabba’s advance guard, to include the green-skinned creature known as Greedo (Paul Blake), an aptly chosen moniker for such a loathsome smuggler. In the previous scene, Greedo gets blown away by Han Solo in the Cantina Bar at the Mos Eisley spaceport. What a way to go!

In the revised version of this particular sequence, however, Greedo is made to fire first, thus negating the effect of Solo’s wanting to gain the upper hand in their brief encounter. Hey, a smuggler’s got a right to protect himself, right? Think of it as an intergalactic re-creation of the “stand-your-ground” law.

We’re Off and Running

We shift to a brief bit where Lord Vader is planning to interrogate Princess Leia. After another visual wipe, the gang of five escape the spaceport with the Storm Troopers firing their blasters at them. Luke makes a snide remark to Han about the dilapidated state of the Millennium Falcon, the freighter ship that will take them to their destination.

As the boys battle the Imperial Star Destroyers, their ship finally makes the belated jump into hyperspace. This gag, where the Millennium Falcon manages to have oodles of problems avoiding space combat, amid its inability to escape its pursuers, will become a running gag in future episodes.

Chewbacca, Luke, Obi-Wan & Han Solo on board the Millennium Falcon

A scene change takes us back to the Death Star, where Governor Tarkin meets the pugnacious Princess. Their dialogue is clipped and brusque, with Leia getting the better of the confrontation with her caustic wit and faux “charm.” However, Tarkin tricks her into revealing the location of the Rebel base on Dantooine (a sister planet of Tatooine, most likely), which is too far for the Empire to seek and destroy. Instead, Tarkin instructs his men to open fire on Alderaan, Leia’s home planet, putting all of its inhabitants at risk.

The destructive force of the Death Star is equivalent, in this prime Nixon-era / Vietnam War example, to what U.S. bomber planes did to the North Vietnamese, the Cambodians, and the Laotians. The plan was to bomb the enemy into submission (via the retaliatory aftermath of the surprise 1968 Tet Offensive), or at the least to bring the enemy back (in the early 1970s) to the bargaining table for more “talks.” The mantra spouted by the Nixon Administration was “peace with honor,” in the midst of endless bombing raids that accomplished little in the way of actual gains on the ground. (In many documented instances, the bombing only prolonged the conflict.)

The grand demonstration of the battle station’s immense power results in Alderaan’s explosion. On board the Millennium Falcon, Obi-Wan has a momentary falter in his step. He steadies himself as best he can, rubbing his forehead and resting his weary form onto a seat. He senses the cries of terror of millions of silenced voices (an after effect of being “linked in,” as it were, to the Force). While Luke practices his lightsaber lessons (with intermittent snipes at hokey religions by the non-conforming Han Solo), Artoo risks a game of holographic checkers (or chess, if you prefer) with the mighty Chewbacca. Upon learning that Wookiees are “poor sports” at losing, Threepio councils his friend to let Chewie win.

When the Millennium Falcon re-emerges from hyperspace, the crew sees nothing but debris where the planet Alderaan should be. The worst appears to have happened. Even more troubling is that the Millennium Falcon is now caught in the battle station’s tractor beam. Unable to break free, and with TIE fighters buzzing around from all angles, Han and the crew have no choice but go with the tractor beam’s flow by making a forced landing within the large moon-shaped Death Star’s innards.

In the meantime, Tarkin is informed that the supposed Rebel base on Dantooine is deserted. Incensed at Leia’s treachery, Tarkin orders her immediate termination. Back on board the Millennium Falcon, Vader’s men report the freighter appears to be abandoned, but Vader, in tune with his extrasensory perception, feels that something is amiss, a “presence” he hasn’t felt since …. He departs before completing his sentence.

Of course, we know that Vader has been feeling the presence of Obi-Wan Kenobi. Amazing! That sixth sense of his, albeit corrupted and twisted by the Dark Side, can still detect his old nemesis — even in the outer reaches of space.

Emerging from their hiding places below deck, Luke, Han, Chewie, Obi-Wan, and the two droids chatter among themselves. Lucky for them! As two of the Storm Troopers enter the freighter, they are overpowered by Han and Luke, who assume their guise and places. Blasting their way (noisily, one might add) from the Forward Bay into the Command Office, Luke and Han are able to determine Princess Leia’s whereabouts with Artoo’s aid. However, Old Ben needs to disable the tractor beam’s hold on their freighter in order for them to make good their escape. Ben saunters off into the hallway to do the deed.

This leaves the two comrades in arms (more like friendly rivals) discussing the merits of rescuing the Princess, and the ensuing reward it entails. Threepio is nearing his wits’ end as he asks Master Luke for instructions on what to do. Following their lead, Han and Luke escort their “prisoner” Chewie close to the area where Leia is being held. Chewie pretends to put up a fight, which gives both Luke and Han the opportunity to fire their blasters in the direction of the two guards. Finding her cell, Luke frees Leia from her prison and informs her that Obi-Wan is with them.

At that same instant, Vader lets Governor Tarkin know that Obi-Wan is on board the Death Star. “I must face him alone,” Vader intones ominously. Switching back to the detention area,  the three are united at last, but the pleasantries are short-lived as their presence has drawn more Storm Troopers. Blasting their way into the area, the self-reliant Leia takes matters into her own hands by blowing an opening in the detention area’s wall. She slips through the opening, along with Luke, a reluctant Chewie, and Han. But not before Han has the final word.

“Wonderful girl!” he yells out. “Either I’m going to kill her or I’m beginning to like her.” I don’t think today’s #MeToo movement would have approved of that comment, but so be it.

Plunging down a long chute, the four adventurers land onto a huge pile of garbage. This is where Lucas injected a dose of those old Saturday-matinee Flash Gordon serials into the mix. At first, something snaky and slimy slides around at the bottom of the trash pile. And then, it strikes, grabbing onto young Skywalker and dragging him to the bottom. Firing their blasters does no good. Luke breaks through the surface again, gasping for air. Thrashing around in the muck, he is once more submerged by the monster’s tentacles. As the chute starts to tremble and groan, the beast disappears. Luke bobbles back up to the surface, relieved to be free of the menace.

The garbage masher scene, with Leia, Han & Luke

What more could happen to our friends? No sooner said than the walls of the chute start to close in. It’s a real Indiana Jones moment, something Lucas and Spielberg would take extra care to reintroduce when they eventually got around to making those features. Our intrepid heroes try placing a long pole between them and disaster to keep the walls from collapsing, but to no avail. Luke tries to communicate with Threepio, who does not answer his distress calls (the droids have been hiding from some snooping Storm Troopers in the Command Office). Both the garbage chute and the Command Office keep miscommunicating with each until, finally, Artoo is able to shut down the garbage masher walls.

The comic banter and wry sarcasm of this and many other scenes are bandied about in the style of the Marx Brothers, or better yet the Three Stooges. Add to the formula the asides of the fey C-3PO (who gets louder and more acerbic as the series progresses) and the incomprehensible squeaks and squeals of R2-D2 (in the best tradition of Laurel and Hardy), and you have yourself a merry old time at the cineplex.

After their tribulations, the hearty (and still lively) group continues to make their escape. There are more slapstick shenanigans in the back-and-forth routine of Han trying to chase after his pursuers, only to find more pursuers than before; he then tries to outrun them in the opposite direction, and vice versa.

Finding themselves separated and balancing precariously in one of the central core shafts (as well as being constantly shot at), Luke uses his Trooper disguise’s utility belt to swing a la Tarzan to safety, with Leia clutching for dear life and giving him a kiss on the cheek for good measure. It can’t get any better than that!

Old Soldiers Never Die

We cut to Old Ben in the narrow passageway leading to the tractor beam’s switch. Vader is there, too, waiting to bate his old mentor. Meanwhile, Threepio is in a panic because he can’t locate the gang. Moving back to Obi-Wan and Vader, both adversaries trade barbs at each other in a snail’s paced recreation of Errol Flynn (as Robin Hood) dueling with Basil Rathbone (as Sir Guy of Gisbourne). Their lightsabers cross as the two combatants clash every which way. Note that Alec Guinness, as Old Ben, is slower and more methodical than the larger and swifter Lord Vader (Dave Prowse) — deliberately so, I would imagine.

Obi-Wan Kenobi (Old Ben) versus Darth Vader, in a duel to the death

In a flash, we see Han and Chewie with Luke and Leia gathered at the Main Forward Bay. They are searching for the entrance to the freighter. At that moment, Vader and Obi-Wan waltz (or rather, glide) into view, still flailing their brightly-colored lightsabers at each other (royal blue for Ben, and fiery red for Vader). At that moment, Old Ben catches sight of Luke who calls out his name. Pausing from the battle, Ben raises his lightsaber high and, with hands clasped, lowers his weapon. Vader takes strategic advantage of the moment and strikes Ben down. However, there is nothing left of Ben except his hooded cloak. Where did the old bloke go?

Luke is shocked at Ben’s sudden death. He cries out, “No!” in a solemn preview of what will come in the next installment. The fun has started to turn serious. Leia, Han and Chewie start blasting away to cover Luke’s escape into the Millennium Falcon. But before they can enter the freighter, Han charges Luke with sealing the front door shut, which collapses on the other Storm Troopers and Vader as they approach. Luke suddenly hears Ben’s disembodied voice, urging him to “Run, Luke! Run!” He does so, and makes good his escape.

With Han and Chewie at the controls, the Millennium Falcon is able to make a clean getaway out of the Death Star. Looks like Old Ben came through after all! He saved his comrades from certain death, if not a terrible punishment. Luke is saddened at his friend’s demise. Noticing his discomfort, Leia comes over and wraps a blanket around him — a gesture she will repeat in the next entry, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, upon Luke’s eventful encounter with the Dark Lord.

But the intrepid band is not out the woods yet! Han summons Luke to the Falcon’s gun port so they can take potshots at the oncoming TIE fighters. This is where the show really starts to move in the direction of a massive video game. Some of the fun, dialogue and action of days gone by are recaptured in this homage to 1940s war movies. Yee-haw!

Of course, the boys are successful in wiping out the enemy. But, alas, we return to bad old Governor Tarkin, who seeks reassurance from Vader that a homing device has been successfully planted on the Millennium Falcon. Hmm, so it was too easy for the gang to escape. What’s in store for them now, we wonder?

Victory is Its Own Reward!

All in all, in a comparison to the later trio of Star Wars movies — Episodes I, II and III, to be exact — there’s a palpable realism and solidity to the earlier pictures that are most welcome here and completely missing further down the road; a feeling of sturdiness, of real physical structures surrounding the all-too human figures that no CGI-created atmosphere can beat or replicate.

Moving on to the conclusion, Leia is suspicious of their quick getaway, but Han’s only interest is in getting paid for his efforts. This leads to her storming off in a huff. Han remarks to Luke as to whether or not Solo and Leia can make it as a couple, to which Luke gives a curt, “No!” However, in reality Han has other plans in mind besides paying back Jabba the Hutt.

When Luke’s old buddy Biggs re-emerges onscreen (in one of those previously cut scenes us fans are still waiting for), his usefulness is made evident in vouching for his friend’s superior piloting skills. Once that business is out of the way, we’re off to outer space and video-game land, the second of many such happenstances. Let’s take a look at one of them: an earlier encounter that takes place aboard Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon spaceship.

Luke attempts to master the Jedi art of stretching out with one’s feelings by covering his sights with a helmet, while preventing a floating “seeker,” a chrome baseball-like automaton with built-in antennae, from hitting him with its blood-red laser beam. If this isn’t a precursor to virtual reality games (or a similar apparatus in the still-to-come Harry Potter series), I don’t know what is.

General Dodonna (2nd from right) in the briefing room (pyxurz.blogspot.com)

General Dodonna (2nd from right) in the briefing room (pyxurz.blogspot.com)

We fast-forward to Rebel Base Headquarters, where the leader of the group, General Dodonna, gives a mid-seventies re-enactment of the Saint Crispin’s Day speech — you know the one, the rallying cry that Shakespeare’s Henry V gave his battle-weary troops before the English victory over the French at Agincourt. Dodonna’s discourse, unfortunately, is not all that inspiring. In fact, it’s chock full of techno-babble. But he concludes it with the line, “And may the Force be with you,” which is certainly not the last time we’ll be hearing this popular catchphrase.

The good general does look incredibly like veteran filmmaker-actor John Huston. Incidentally, the fellow who plays him, a guy named Alex McCrindle, even manages to capture “some” of Mr. Huston’s familiar voice mannerisms and cadences, although the resemblance ends there. Perhaps it’s another of those “art imitates life” moments we hear so much about. We do know that Huston made his residence in western Ireland at the time of the Stars Wars shoot. In addition, outside of the desert sequences in Tunisia, the bulk of the movie was shot at Elstree and Shepperton Studios in the UK. If Huston wouldn’t come to the mountain … well, then, why not take the mountain somewhere else?

No matter, the speech has the desired effect of getting the journeymen star pilots to perform at their peak. Speaking of journeymen (or journey-boy in this instance), Luke runs into Leia. He can’t help mouthing off to her about Han’s selfishness and egotism. Leia brushes away his comment by implying that Han’s got to “follow his own path. No one can choose it for him.” Well, she’s right about that. Luke wishes Old Ben were still with them. (And you know what? He might just get that wish after all.)

As Luke is lifted into his X-wing fighter plane (with the ubiquitous R2-D2 going along for the ride), he hears Ben’s voice again, intoning some needed encouragement: “The Force will be with you.” And also with you, Old Ben! Amen to that. The next sequence is probably the most exhilarating of the entire picture, and the most complicated in terms of special visual and sound effects. From this sequence alone an entire industry was born: Industrial Light and Magic, or ILM for short.

Sound effects expert Ben Burtt (a former teaching assistant at USC Film School) wanted everything in Star Wars to sound real and relatable: the motors, the equipment, the flybys, the planes, the engines, the explosions. This obsession with reality came into its own in this fascinating interplay between the outgunned and outmanned Rebel forces versus the invincible space armada amassed by the Galactic Empire.

Between shots of the approaching Death Star and the fired upon X-wing fighters, the sense that the Rebels are in for the fight of their lives never lets up. This whole episode places movie audiences smack-dab in the middle of the action, as if instead of outer space the U.S. Pacific Fleet (which, by the way, the Star Destroyers closely resemble) were on hand to swat away those annoying Japanese Zeros (except in this case, the fleet is represented by the bad-guy Empire, with the good guys being the Zeros). Battle cruisers, single engine jobs, high-speed chases, downed space-crafts, direct hits — all the heavy FX artillery has been brought out to bring the first part of Lucas’ story to a satisfactory finish.

Despite Vader’s deadly aim and his success at picking off one X-wing fighter after another (in the mode of World War I’s infamous air ace, the Red Baron), the Dark Lord is no match for the Force (or for Obi-Wan’s disembodied advice to the wet-behind-the-goggles Luke), along with Han Solo’s last-minute riding to the rescue. Finding the Death Star’s weak point, Luke launches a full-scale attack just as the battle station is locked and loaded. The end result: Kablooey!!!

But most important of all, both Luke Skywalker and Han Solo are reunited as friends who save the day. Han gets a chance to redeem himself in the eyes of his comrades (and the gorgeously bedecked Princess Leia) in the Throne Room sequence. This is especially significant, since it appeared to everyone that Solo was about to abandon the Rebel’s cause by taking the reward money and run. Ta-dum!!!!

The Throne Room sequence (nydailynews.com)

The Throne Room sequence (nydailynews.com)

On a final note, the additional scenes inserted by Mr. Lucas for the 1997 “Special Edition” re-release, in the digitally-enhanced realm we’ll have you know, add little to the film’s overall structure and content. On the contrary, these so-termed “improvements” tend to favor the original’s cleaner, uncluttered productions, which are parsecs removed from the upgraded versions.

If anything, they prove how much better the original films were as opposed to these bowdlerized and patently ersatz enhancements.

(End of Part Four)

Transcript of dialogue from George Lucas’ original Star Wars screenplay was taken from the Public Version of same. 

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes (Revised – 2018)    

Easing Their Pain – The ‘Force’ is Strong with the 501st

The Carolina Garrison of the Fighting 501st Legion of Storm Troopers lends a comforting hand (or light-sabers, in this case) to local children in need

Darth Maul & me at Librari-Con 2013 (Photo: Ernie, 501st Legion)

Darth Maul & me at Librari-Con 2013 (Photo: Ernie, 501st Legion)

The lanky stranger, dressed from chin to toe in nightmarish black, held out his gloved hand to a darling little girl standing quietly by his side.

“Well, hey there,” said the stranger, in a reasonable facsimile of Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi’s hearty salutation. “How are you today? It’s so nice to meet you.”

The little girl shook the stranger’s hand, cautiously if not a bit reluctantly. She must have been no more than two. With her blonde curls and sweet, angelic expression, she was as pretty as a princess – Princess Leia, to be exact, but without the trademark hair extensions.

After she had greeted this intimidating fellow, the girl’s father approached the stranger and asked if he could take his picture.

“Sure thing,” signaled the stranger, with the politeness of one who’s been asked this question several dozen times a day, a natural part of one’s convention-going routine.

In the blink of a Jawa’s eye, the stranger struck a more aggressive pose, baring his dark-stained teeth and flashing his bright-yellow eyes for the camera.

At this, the little girl retreated a few steps, into the comforting arms of her mother. Her formerly watchful gaze had turned to fright, for the stranger revealed himself as Darth Maul, one of the Sith Lords of Stars Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace fame.

“Thanks a lot,” the father acknowledged.

“My pleasure,” replied Darth Maul – or rather, ex-Army veteran Bill Lane, the man in nightmarish black behind the red-tattooed makeup, spiky horns, and yellow contacts.

Modest and unassuming, Bill is a member of the Carolina Garrison, part of the Fighting 501st Legion of Storm Troopers, one of the world’s premier fan-based Star Wars costuming clubs. He was busy manning the display table at the Cumberland County Public Library’s “Librari-Con” Mini-Convention, in the library’s headquarters on Maiden Lane in Fayetteville, North Carolina.

Group Shot of the 501st Legion (Photo courtesy: Chad Pulliam)

Group Shot of the 501st Legion (Photo courtesy: Chad Pulliam)

Despite the noisy atmosphere, Bill always finds time for visitors, well-wishers, and plain, old curiosity seekers (present company included). His task is to alert people to the garrison’s main cause.

Mission and Purpose

Founded in 1997 by Albin Johnson, a resident of South Carolina, the 501st Legion boasts an international association of some 5,000 members (known as “storm troopers”), with chapters (or “garrisons”) in over 50 countries worldwide.

According to their brochure, the 501st is dedicated to spreading the magic and fun of Star Wars through authentic-looking costumes and arms. Their aim, throughout the years, is to become the “leading force in fan-based charity events” devoted to “brightening lives.” Their reward: the satisfaction of knowing they are bringing joy through their work and smiles to children’s faces.

Garrison members are not compensated for their time, nor are they reimbursed for travel or other expenses. They do what they do for the sheer pleasure of doing it.

“It’s cool to dress up,” Bill confirmed. “To see a smile on someone’s face, who’s gone through what they’ve gone through – it’s priceless, absolutely priceless!”

Darth Vader (Bill Lane) & helpless victim (me) - Librari-Con 2011

Darth Vader (Bill Lane) & helpless victim (me) – “You don’t know the power of the dark side” Librari-Con 2011

Bill started down the charity-event road back in 2003, when he was stationed in Alabama. It was during the Halloween season, he recalled, that his son expressed a desire to dress up as Darth Vader.

“That’s great, son,” Bill said. But then, the son asked the father to dress up along with him – as, wouldn’t you know it, Darth Vader. Bill couldn’t resist the challenge.

I’m sure he felt (as many others had, too) that this reversal of the age-old order of things – i.e., “the transmission from fathers to sons of the powers of both good and evil” – was not the usual quick-and-easy path for a Sith Lord to take.

Though no outward expression of evil (what Star Wars fans commonly refer to as the “dark side”) was ever intended, certainly the power of good (or the “Force”) was unquestionably conveyed in ways Bill had no means of measuring.

Quite unexpectedly, his spot-on personification of the dreaded Dark Lord was noticed by storm troopers from the local 501st Legion, resulting in an invitation to join their ranks. He accepted without hesitation.

Dress Up for Success

In 2007, Bill and his family relocated to Fort Bragg, where he joined the Carolina Garrison of the Fighting 501st, which serves both North and South Carolina. During one of their frequent charity appearances (“It was at the Jordan Lake Pediatric Brain Foundation,” he added), Bill was once more dressed up as Darth Vader.

While in his distinctive costume and iconic headgear, Bill casually walked up to one of the kids in attendance and noticed the child’s face light up brighter than Luke Skywalker’s light-saber.

This was no Jedi mind trick, he reckoned, but the real deal.

“That did it. That’s when I knew this is what I wanted to do.” But playing “dress up” with Star Wars figures isn’t all fun and games.

“I got up at 3 a.m. this morning to put on the makeup and costume,” Bill explained. “I started the night before by shaving my head, which my wife didn’t take too kindly to. The next thing I did was glue on the horns. Then I placed a stencil on my face and had my daughter spray on the black paint. The whole process took about six hours. Once the makeup’s on I can sweat and do whatever I want in it, and it won’t come off.”

He estimates the cost of impersonating Darth Maul (including makeup, boots, and double-edged light-saber) at around $800. His Darth Vader outfit, which is modeled on the same one the character wore in Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, tops out at an astronomical $3,000.

Chewbacca (Ryan Ricks) - Librari-Con 2011

Chewbacca (Ryan Ricks) – Librari-Con 2011

While most garrison members relish playing the “bad guys” – from Sith Lords, Imperial guards, and Galactic storm troopers, to bounty hunters Boba and Jango Fett – a fair number of “good guys” are given equal billing, most notably the aforementioned Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker, along with an incredibly accurate Chewbacca.

Played by six-foot, four-inch trooper Ryan Ricks, Chewie’s individually hand-stitched costume and furry feet add about a foot to his already imposing frame, right up to the “regulation” Wookiee height of seven-feet, five-inches tall.

Katie’s Story: A Personal Connection

No doubt Chewbacca and his Star Wars cohorts command plenty of attention wherever they go. But there are also serious undertones to all the hoopla, most of which came about through the troopers’ personal connection to a family member’s terminal illness.

Katie Johnson, the six-year-old daughter of the 501st Legion’s founder, Albin Johnson, was diagnosed about a decade ago with an inoperable brain tumor. Katie fought long and hard to overcome this implacable foe, but eventually lost her battle with cancer in the summer of 2005.

With the help of the Make-a-Wish Foundation, she was able to make one last trip to her favorite vacation spot, Walt Disney World in Orlando. From that life-altering experience, the Carolina Garrison has continued to support Make-a-Wish in Katie’s honor, so that, according to their flyer, “other children like her might have an easier time [of it].”

“It’s all about easing their pain,” Bill noted.

In addition to Make-a-Wish, the 501st participates in all sorts of charity benefits, including parades, children’s hospital visits, conventions, library visits, and concerts, with appearances at company functions and movie premieres thrown in for good measure.

They make regular excursions to Duke Children’s Hospital, in Durham, and Breast Cancer “Walk for Life” rallies, as well as the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation and Toys-4-Tots toy drives, among other charitable activities.

Beating the Odds

Unfortunately, the odds of beating pediatric brain cancer depend entirely upon the type and location of the tumor. But there are a few success stories.

Bill told one such story: of a survivor whose parents bought raffle tickets for a FireAntz hockey team jersey. “They must’ve spent $20 worth of tickets,” he continued, “out of a total of 600 or so tickets sold that day.”

As luck would have it, the survivor won the raffle and made off with the FireAntz jersey.

“What are the odds of that happening?” Bill asked. I’d say about 3,720 to 1, but then I never successfully navigated an asteroid field, let alone won a jersey in a raffle.

Bill recounted another incident – a more moving one, to be sure – of his emotional encounter with a terminally ill patient. “She hardly had any hair left and her eyes were almost lifeless.”

However, the outcome was far different from the one with the curly-headed tyke described above. “As soon as she saw me in costume, she extended an arm to me. I shook her tiny hand – two fingers, really. Tears came to my eyes… I felt joy.”

Darth Maul (Bill Lane) Wallpaper (Librari-Con 2013)

Darth Maul (Bill Lane) Wallpaper (Librari-Con 2013)

This goes to show that underneath the red-and-black makeup and spiky horns, even a Sith Lord, one as fearsomely determined as that of a former Army veteran, can have a heart of gold.

“She’s the real trooper,” Bill said in conclusion, “not me.”

He may have joined the metaphorical dark side, but the Force remains strong with this one, and with the Fighting 501st.

(The Fighting 501st Legion national website is: www.501st.com . Locally, you can read about the Carolina Garrison at: www.carolinagarrison.com.)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Star Wars’ – The Original Series (Part Three): A Film Saga by Any Other Name…

Obi-Wan Benobi (Alec Guinness) businessinsider.com

Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) businessinsider.com

“The Cost? No Man Knows ….”

The price tag for George Lucas’ epic science-fiction/adventure flick has been variously estimated at between $10 and $15 million U.S. dollars. It’s part of Star Wars lore and legend that, prior to studio head Alan Ladd Jr.’s interest in rescuing the production for Twentieth Century-Fox, several other studios had passed on the project, to include Universal (which had earlier released Lucas’ American Graffiti) and United Artists.

Originally, the budget had been placed at about $3.5 million. According to film critic and writer Charles Champlin, in his book George Lucas, the Creative Impulse, “inflation had doubled [the budget] to $7 million even before production began. It was then $9.5 million and the film went $3 million over budget because of the high cost of creating a nonexistent world. The eventual cost of the effects was $2.5 million, still extremely modest by the standards of that day and this.”

In Guy Haley’s Sci-Fi Chronicles: A Visual History of the Galaxy’s Greatest Science Fiction (2014), the picture had out-sold most other blockbusters of the period. “When released in May 1977, Star Wars was a huge hit, earning $460 million in the United States and $314 million overseas, and beating Jaws to become the world’s most financially successful film. (Adjusted for inflation, it remains one of the top-five movies of all time.)”

The subsequent installments in the series also did exceedingly well: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) earned a whopping $721 million; and Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983) took in approximately $679 million at the box office.

As Han Solo would say to the young hotshot Luke, “Great, kid! Don’t get cocky!”

What’s in a Name?

The characters of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda represent the positive mystical aspects of the Star Wars franchise. More precisely, they are two exalted high priests: one hooded, one hairy (and a little green around the gills) of the old Jedi order. The negative aspects of this decidedly unglamorous duo (the Yang to their Yin) fall to their opposite number: the evil Emperor of the Galactic Empire (i.e., the former Senator Palpatine) and his intimidating protegé, Lord Vader.

With the years, our perception of the three original films in the trilogy has indeed changed. To be clear, it’s been colored significantly by the fluctuating political scene, as discussed in our previous posts. We, the good ole U.S. of A., are now the Galactic Empire (or, if you so choose, the equivalent of a modern-day Roman Republic), a concept that producer, director, and screenwriter George Lucas was in favor of debating in the late seventies to early eighties.

We have become our own worst enemy, in the sense of the classic cartoon-strip character, Pogo Possum (created by cartoonist Walt Kelly), who used to remark as a running refrain: “We have seen the enemy, and the enemy is us.” Be mindful of ourselves, the films seem to be saying, for we, too, may one day undergo such challenges to our status quo as may render us helpless.

To recap where we stand, the first film in the series was shot on location in the desert of Tunisia in North Africa — the Tatouine Desert, to be exact (which also happens to be the name, or close to it, of the planet where Luke Skywalker lives) — and along the Arizona desert near Yuma.

Desert sagas from Lawrence of Arabia to Khartoum influenced the look and clothing worn by the individual characters. The saber wielding Jedi knights of yore were also modeled on samurai warriors and Akira Kurosawa movies, purportedly the Japanese master’s The Hidden Fortress (1958), which Lucas recalls from his early viewing days. Even the story of the first feature, A New Hope, had its derivation in the plot line of Kurasawa’s film, with samplings of The Seven Samurai (1954) strewn about. Certainly the concept of a ragtag bunch of misfits, few in number and facing impossible odds and overwhelming challenges, is made clear from the outset.

Both the timeliness and timelessness of the Star Wars films are what strike the viewer as unique, which makes them essential classics of the science fiction-war picture genre. They can mean many things to many people, at different times and in different places.

Luke confers with Yoda

Luke Skywalker confers with Master Yoda

For example, let’s take our young hero Luke (Lucas) Skywalker, the naïve, innocent, geeky, short-of-stature but big-of-heart teenaged adventure seeker. Full of boyish enthusiasm and an over-abundance of bravado, the rambunctious Luke is itching to break out of the boring, hum-drum life he’s been leading on his Uncle Owen’s “farm.”

Mark Hamill, the actor who played Luke, fit the profile of the gung-ho future fighter pilot to perfection. It’s been noted that his character’s name is derived from the ancient Greek word leukos, which means “light.” Somehow, we can’t quite picture Luke (or any Jedi knight’s apprentice, for that matter) wielding a leukos-saber against his or her foe, can you? It wouldn’t do.

To get back to a more “biblical” connotation, there’s always the Evangelist Saint Luke of the Gospels, who, according to accepted knowledge, was a physician before he converted to Christianity. He was also a follower of the Apostle Paul, another well-known biblical evangelist and firebrand, as well as a prolific letter writer, at that.

So where does all this leave our friend, Young Skywalker (whose original surname happened to have been Starkiller)? Among the immortals, one hopes …

Here are a few more examples of names and their meanings:

Han Solo (“solo” = by himself, alone, acting on his own), played rather charmingly by the roguish Harrison Ford (who loves to channel the vocal mannerisms of big John Wayne). Always acting unilaterally in his own self-interest, Han is a “scoundrel,” according to Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher). His name may have been derived from Hans, a variation of the German form of John, as in Johan or Johann. Maybe even Johannes, as in Johannes Brahms (“Check out Brahms … He’s good too,” hinted Gary Oldman in Luc Besson’s Leon, the Professional).

Han Solo & Chewbacca (glamorama.cl)

Han Solo (Harrison Ford) & Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) (glamorama.cl)

Solo’s close friend, colleague, and partner in intergalactic crime is a woolly creature called Chewbacca, or Chewie for short. He (it?) belongs to a race of towering fuzzballs known as Wookiees, whose name may have come from a possible ad lib heard in producer-director Lucas’ earlier sci-fi actioner THX 1138 (“I think I ran over a Wookiee back there”).

Now, the “Chewie” part most probably refers to his carnivorous diet and razor sharp teeth. Incidentally, Wookiees are tremendously strong and fearless, and fancy themselves the best star pilots in the galaxy (but don’t tell them that, or they’ll get a swelled head). GGGRRRRRRHHHHHH!

Princess Leia Organa (aka Fata Morgana, or Morgan Le Fay of fabled times), spunky, feisty, self-sufficient, and, of course, lovely to look at. Leia sports dual side braids that make her look as if she’s wearing cinnamon rolls over her ears (thank the New York Times for that description). She may even evoke fondly remembered memories of Lady Galadriel from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (another excellent action-adventure series, we would add), although Leia happens to be about a foot shorter.

Princess Leia

Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher)

The Organa portion of her surname could be a hint of her “organic nature,” or that “back to the land aesthetic” so favored by many in the 1970s. Remember: that was the start of the burgeoning environmental movement. I like to think it came from her adopted dad, the late Senator Organa (he and his planet were blown to smithereens, you will recall, in the first Star Wars feature). He’s played by the tall and handsome Jimmy Smits. But of course, we won’t know that until we arrive at Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. “Patience, young padawan, patience …”

Darth Vader (i.e., Dark Father, or even Der Fuehrer), voiced in sepulchral tones by stage actor James Earl Jones; and portrayed, under the burdensome mask and cloak, by former British bodybuilder and physical fitness trainer Dave Prowse (A Clockwork Orange, The Horror of Frankenstein), was originally named Anakin Skywalker. Now, Anakin is a variation on the name of a race of giants found in the book of Genesis (there’s that biblical reference again). Someone had the nerve to suggest that Lord Vader’s face mask, or breathing apparatus, was “inspired,” to put it politely, by the front grille of a 1956 Chevy. “I hope so, for your sake!”

Ben Kenobi (Uncle Ben) or Obi-Wan Kenobi (the one and the only), played by the redoubtable Sir Alec Guinness, has the most impressive-sounding lineage of the lot. We know that “obi” is the Japanese word for sash, which is used to tie one’s kimono. Along those same lines, the “wan” part may imply the honorific term “san” attached to most Japanese names (as in “Joe-san,” or “Yoshi-san,” for instance). Hah, and “OB” could also be a shortened form of Old Ben, which Luke likes to call the wizened geyser at various points in the story.

Finally, there’s our metallic buddies, the Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy of droid-dom, R2-D2 (or is it Artoo Deetoo?) and C-3PO (Threepio, if you don’t mind). R2 emits sounds more in line with a “whistling Hoover vacuum cleaner,” as one wag described him. Supposedly (now we haven’t been able to verify this, so don’t quote me) the little droid got his name from some sound editor’s shorthand for “Reel Two, Dialogue Two,” from Lucas’ American Graffiti. That may well be, but I wouldn’t bet the ranch … Skywalker Ranch, that is.

As for Threepio, well … he’s more of a butler-type than a robot, and a prissy little snit at that. For a protocol droid, he certainly has a lot of pent-up ennui. He’s good at math, though — of that we are more than certain. And so is Artoo. But he’s been known to be wrong … from time to time … Oh, dear, dear, dear …

And there we have it. These play-on-words and puns, and fancy put-ons on top of put-ons are both fascinating and delightful, but do not necessarily add to or detract from our enjoyment of the trilogy as a whole. The best one can say about them is that they’re plain old fun!

(End of Part Three)

Source and Suggested Reading:

• “The Names Came from Earth” – Eric P. Nash, The New York Times, January 26, 1997

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Star Wars’ – The Original Series: A New Hope for Sci-Fi Cinema, As the Empire Strikes Back Yet Again

Strategic Defense Initiative — Oh, Baby!

President Ronald Reagan (AP Photo)

President Ronald Reagan (AP Photo)

On March 23, 1983, former President Ronald W. Reagan announced, in a major address to the American people (and everyone else), his proposal for a new missile defense system that would, in essence, enable the free world to thwart all future aggression from the Soviet “evil empire.”

This system, hailed as a “formidable technical task,” would be designed to “intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies.” Upon hearing this bold assertion, then-Massachusetts Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy fired off a fierce rebuttal to the president’s rhetorical remarks, labeling them “misleading Red Scare tactics and reckless Star Wars schemes.”

The press quickly picked up on the connection and, for better or worse, President Reagan’s grandiose directive has been forever linked with the popular sci-fi space opera; only later did it acquire its official (and less stratospheric sounding) moniker, the Strategic Defense Initiative — or SDI for short.

Fast forward two months later to Memorial Day 1983, in the Big Apple, where I and thousands of my fellow New Yorkers were lined up four deep, outside the Loew’s Astor Plaza Theater between Broadway and 44th Street, for the premiere unveiling of Return of the Jedi, the highly awaited final installment in the original George Lucas-produced Star Wars trilogy.

We were eagerly anticipating a major announcement of our own, i.e., the long-awaited news as to whether the evil Darth Vader was or wasn’t Luke Skywalker’s father, as he had so apocryphally pronounced at the end of The Empire Strikes Back some three years earlier.

The only thought going through our minds was this: had we heard Lord Vader right? Was it possible that a large segment of the movie-going public had been fooled — somehow swayed, via “Jedi mind trick” or other magical means — into thinking the all-powerful Sith Lord had declared, in that solemnly intoned, basso profundo voice of his, courtesy of James Earl Jones, a (gasp!) paternal connection to Young Skywalker?

“No, no … That’s not possible,” Luke cried in horror and disbelief. Heck, I was ready to cry along with him! I searched my own feelings for the veracity of that claim.

Alas, it was too good to be nothing but the truth. We learned, on that hot and humid May afternoon, that Darth Vader had once been Anakin Skywalker, a trusted ally, a Jedi Knight, and erstwhile follower of the Force; until one fateful day, he turned away from the light, to become … music, maestro, if you please … the dreaded Dark Father and Lord of the Sith. Yikes, yikes, and triple yikes!!!

Star Wars -- Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (20th Century Fox)

Star Wars — Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (20th Century Fox)

Regardless of what we had heard, Vader’s last-minute repudiation of the detestable Dark Side — not to mention his ovation-inducing elimination of that repugnant old fogey, the red-eyed Emperor of the Galactic Republic and former Senator Palpatine (to music of a highly operatic nature, no less) — both cheered and consoled us to no end.

“Force” to Be Reckoned With

For science fiction and fantasy film fans, May 25, 2012 had marked the 35th anniversary of the start of the first series of films collectively known as the Star Wars saga. And in solemn commemoration, the more recent announcement that George Lucas — founder, creator, and steadfast protector of LucasFilm Limited, as well as Skywalker Ranch and the accompanying Industrial Light and Magic (ILM for short) — had sold the rights to the money-making franchise to the Disney Studios, along with the chance for filmmaker J.J. Abrams to direct additional entries in the continuing Star Wars saga.

As Sting would say, “Be still my beating heart …”

After so many showings, repeat runs, and return engagements — in digitally enhanced “Special Editions,” naturally — the series has lost none of its staying power or appeal with the young, the old, and the restless (now comfortably middle-aged). Interestingly, both men and women seem drawn to it, as if the seductiveness of the Force itself has taken on a life of its own.

The series has been analyzed to death by shrinks, thinks, and cliques from every walk of movie life. One reason for this continued fascination stems from the over-use of the multi-purpose catchphrase, “May the Force be with you,” which has always sounded prophetically like a postmodern twist on that old, medieval apostolic blessing, the Roman Catholic “Peace be with you” — itself a variant on the Jewish-Arabic greeting Shalom (or Salaam) aleichem and its pop-culture equivalent, the oft-repeated salutation, “Live long and prosper,” from creator-producer Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek universe (thank you, Mr. Spock).

The fact that the three original features represented a proto-mystical “trinity” of sorts — the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (or “Force,” if you prefer) — is another subliminal aspect of the series’ marked influence on popular culture, and on our collective subconscious.

Despite the semi-serious, pseudo-religious connotations inherent in the above saying, the films initially had a hard time shaking off their Saturday afternoon serial roots. To be fair, creator, writer, producer, and director Lucas more fully exploited this connection as the executive producer of the Indiana Jones series (with direction by colleague Steven Spielberg), another popular action-adventure anthology.

Young George Lucas

Young George Lucas peering into a Panaflex camera

Mr. Lucas was most fortunate in that the story lines for Star Wars were initially conceived in the late 1970s, when America was fast approaching the forefront of a new and highly advanced technological era, what we might graciously term the beginning of the Computer Age.

More importantly, though, and in view of its largely classical and mythological adherence to antiquity, the series was no doubt influenced by ongoing geopolitical concerns during the time period in which it was made.

In this and subsequent posts, we will explore some of these concerns, as well as revisit the original series for some clues as to where the Star Wars franchise may be headed. But in order to do that, we will need to determine where the series has been and what we have learned from it.

(End of Part One)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes