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A pig with a stomach ache: reflections on first seeing The Empire Strikes Back

To a true Star Wars fan, there are some things that go without saying. They are verities. To express them is unnecessary, even gauche. To dispute them would be a transparent admission of ignorance. Chief among these axioms is that The Empire Strikes Back is the best of the three (or, if you must, the six) Star Wars films. Please do not argue the point. You will only embarrass yourself.

Innocence pervades the original Star Wars. Luke, a farmboy living in ignorance of both his future and his past, finds himself suddenly thrown into alien worlds of wizardry, royalty, heroism and rebellion. At the film’s climax, Luke trusts his instincts, and the mystical teachings of an unexpected mentor, to overcome the sprawling, mechanized, unfeeling Galactic Empire. The film’s original viewers were also innocents, plunged into a fantasy world and a cinematographic experience like none they had ever seen.

The mood of Empire is distinctly different. If Star Wars is a story of innocence, Empire is one of experience, failure and betrayal. The contrast between the final scene of Star Wars and the opening scene of Empire sets the tone immediately: the celebrated heroes of the attack on the Death Star are now reduced to hiding from their enemies on a frozen, seemingly lifeless planet. Yet even there the Empire finds them. The appearance of a single probe droid is enough to provoke a complete evacuation of the rebel forces, but not before the Empire launches a massive ground assault on their base. The leader of this attack is Vader, no longer the junior man to Tarkin, now fully in command of the imperial forces from the bridge of a vessel that makes the gigantic Star Destroyer that swallowed Leia’s ship in the opening scene of Star Wars look insignificant. Again in contrast to Star Wars, this time the rebels are routed. They are lucky to escape at all in the face of the giant imperial walkers bestriding Hoth’s frozen surface and the fearsome imperial fleet waiting in its orbit. The mood of Empire does not let up. Though lightened throughout by humour and even a touch of romance, these respites only accentuate the film’s pervasive darkness. Han and Chewbacca, charged once again with saving Leia, repeatedly fail to escape their pursuers, let down superficially by their ship but really by themselves. Luke’s failures are more pronounced. Travelling to Dagobah to be trained by a Jedi master, Luke does not even know Yoda when he sees him. The ancient teacher initially refuses to take him on, asking Obi-Wan pointedly, “Will he finish what he begins?” The answer proves to be No. After repeated failures and disappointments, Luke abandons his training to save his friends—which he does not. Han is betrayed, tortured, frozen in carbonite and delivered to a bounty hunter. Leia, Chewbacca and Threepio escape (the latter carried in pieces on Chewbacca’s back) but not due to Luke’s intervention. On the contrary, it is Leia who saves Luke after a disastrous confrontation with Vader. This duel, the film’s startling climax, leaves Luke disfigured for a second time: he was mauled by an abominable snowman earlier in the film and now he loses his right hand. Worse is the trauma of Vader’s horrible revelation. Ben had lied: Vader is not Luke’s father’s murderer but Luke’s murderous father.

The contrast between Star Wars and Empire reached also to the films’ audiences. The first viewers of Star Wars were thrilled in part because their expectations were so low. No one had ever made a film like Star Wars before, such that every novelty was refreshing, every innovation an improvement on what had come before. For Empire the situation was almost the opposite. Never had expectations for a film been so high. There seemed nowhere to go but down. The film’s director, Irvin Kershner, originally rejected the offer to direct the Star Wars sequel for that very reason—how could it do anything but disappoint? His agent persuaded him to reconsider. Kershner’s job then became to make a sequel that would at least live up to the most popular movie of all time. He surpassed it.

It was during one of our Dallas shopping trips that I first saw Empire. We caught the matinee at the NorthPark cinema. I remember emerging from the theatre into a bright, clear, stifling Texas afternoon reeling with excitement over what I had just seen. It must have been in late June or early July 1980, shortly after the school year had ended and a month or so after Empire had been released. It was not until I was well in to writing this book that I recalled that my grandmother had come with my mother, my sister and me to see the film. It amazes me now to think of that. She was not, to my knowledge, even an occasional filmgoer, and science fiction (as she would have considered it) was as remote and uninteresting to her as Hegelian dialectic. She had almost certainly not seen Star Wars, and Empire was hardly a stand-alone film: Lucas and company clearly felt entitled—with justification—to assume that every viewer of the sequel had seen the precursor at least once. So for my grandmother to come see The Empire Strikes Back at the NorthPark matinee must have been an act of pure indulgence of her grandchildren.

The film was exciting and mysterious from the moment the subtitle “Episode V: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” floated across the screen. I could not recall any such subtitle to Star Wars, and in fact there had been none; Lucas dubbed this film Episode V and rechristened his previous work “Episode IV: A New Hope” in re-releases. The immediate effect of this storytelling device was to make me want to see Episodes I, II and III—films that had not yet been made, or even written. I carried this desire with me for nineteen years, when it was pitilessly driven out of me in the first three minutes of The Phantom Menace. For the moment, however, I was fascinated by the implications of this simple phrase, “Episode V”, and transfixed by the words that followed it into space, beginning aptly with “It is a dark time for the Rebellion…”. For the next two hours I was completely engrossed by Empire’s contrasts: gravity and levity, friendship and betrayal, mystery and revelation, all at relentless pace yet intelligible even to a seven-year-old. I left the cinema dizzy with excitement. How soon could I see it again? And how soon could I see the sequel?

The only reaction I remember my grandmother having to Empire was to ask, with real puzzlement, “Who was that little green man?” I had the same question. Yoda was one of the mysteries that made Empire so intriguing. Who was he? The Jedi master who instructed him, Ben had said. But there was clearly much more to Yoda than that. Besides, Ben said in Star Wars that the Jedi were gone. Tarkin had said the same, telling Vader, “The Jedi are extinct, their fire has gone out of the universe”. Yet here was Yoda, a sort of lizard man living alone in a swamp, and a Jedi master. What was the explanation? What was the story? And what, for that matter, was Yoda? I later learned, probably on the back of a trading card, that he was nine hundred years old. I took this to mean he was a nine-hundred-year old man, shrunken and discoloured with extreme age. How he had developed cloven feet, long ears and three-digit hands was hard to understand, but who knew what might happen to a person after nine centuries? But maybe he was not a man at all—nothing was explained. We were left to guess. My grandmother’s speculation was as valid as anyone’s. “He looked to me”, she said, “like a pig with a stomach ache”.

My mother’s reaction to Empire also stayed with me. Driving to our next destination after seeing the film, she gave voice to a feeling I had never heard her express. Very mildly, completely inoffensively to anyone who was not her seven-year-old son, she said something to the effect that Harrison Ford was a very attractive man. I was bewildered. I lacked not only the vocabulary but the sensibility to explain, or even understand, my reaction. It was not that my mother was not supposed to take notice of men who were not my father. She was not supposed to take notice of men at all. This was not jealousy on my part. It was not protectiveness. It was stark fact: mothers, fathers, teachers, human beings in general were neuters. Of course I had heard, and even told, jokes about boys and girls on the playground. And there was that time when the girl from across the street came to play in our basement. But the usual thing was that boys and girls, men and women paid no attention to each other. There was little in Star Wars to dissuade me of any of this. But Empire was different. Of course when Leia kissed Luke, it was a joke. A little more courageous than the playground jokes I knew, but still a joke. She did it to make Han mad. But why did it make Han mad? And later, when Han kissed Leia on board the Millennium Falcon, it was not quite as clearly a joke. Threepio interrupted them, and that was funny, but the kissing part seemed not to be a joke at all. It was hard to say; there were a lot of jokes in The Empire Strikes Back. But there was something else, too. My mother called it romance. It was something I would not learn anything more about from George Lucas. 

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Reader Comments (2)

Great writing!

March 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChristopher James

Thanks! This is actually an excerpt from a book I'm writing. I'm about two-thirds done and hope to have it out on Amazon by late summer.

March 14, 2012 | Registered CommenterDark Helmet

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