Darth Vader [voice of James Earl Jones]: “If you only knew the power of the Dark Side. Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father.”
Luke Skywalker [played by Mark Hamill]: “He told me enough! He told me you killed him!”
Vader: “No. I am your father.”
Luke: “No. No. That's not true. That's impossible!”
Vader: “Search your feelings, you know it to be true!”
Luke: [anguished] “No! No!”— Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980), screenplay by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, based on a story by George Lucas, directed by Irvin Kershner
And you thought that you had problems with your father, Faithful Reader! How would you like it if your old man not only didn’t die, the way that your wise mentor had told you, but that he was the personification of evil in the universe?
This is a father with a really, really warped worldview: He wants his son to experience “the power of the Dark Side.” Even Vito Corleone hoped his Michael would never get into the family business.
Thirty-five years ago this month, The Empire Strikes Back premiered. The success of this sequel to the biggest blockbuster of all time assured the world that it would continue to have, according to the satiric lyrics Bill Murray sang to that earlier movie’s theme, “Star Wars…nothing but Star Wars.”
Now, you can say that any sequel to that film would have made money. But talk to most fans of the entire Star Wars saga and, more likely than not, they’ll tell you that The Empire Strikes Back was the best of the bunch. It had reversals of fortune, a cool lightsaber duel, intriguing new characters, lines that made people wonder what was happening, a barely suppressed love triangle, dialogue that could have been flung around in a Thirties screwball comedy—and, as the above passage indicates, a surprise that really complicated matters.
I wrote about the film five years ago, in this post celebrating its 30th anniversary. For all the behind-the-scenes aspects of creating the film, I refer you to that (with the ulterior motive that I hope it boosts traffic to this blog…)
But the above passage opens up an avenue I hadn’t considered back then—one that, in a way, calls into question some of the conventional wisdom about Empire.
It escaped the notice of few fans who proclaimed this film as their favorite in the whole Star Wars bunch that it was the one in which George Lucas was least directly involved, having convinced others to take up the directing and writing chores.
In terms of whether Kershner did a better job than Lucas helming the fleck, I’ll leave that to film-school grads obsessed with montage, mise-en-scene and Minnelli. But I can address the issue of writing.
Based on his screenplay for the 1977 Star Wars film (or, as it’s now known in the saga, A New Hope), the one entry in the series when he did not have a writing collaborator, it’s obvious that Lucas is not much of a wordsmith. (If only during his time at USC’s film school, someone had thought of drilling him in Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style!)
But we can see now that his contribution to the Star Wars saga remains immense. Some people are born to write lines that sing; others, to act as a brilliant, if instinctive, story editor. The latter was Lucas' skill.
The first draft for Empire was created by Leigh Brackett, a natural to work on this project, not only as a noted sci-fi author of the 1940s but as a screenwriter for some of the great genre pictures of the Golden Age of Film: The Big Sleep (1946) and Rio Bravo (1959). Lucas wanted to make some changes in the screenplay, but her death precluded any further revisions he could do with her.
A critical change that Lucas decided on, as he passed the script along to Lawrence Kasdan for a rewrite, was the relationship—and the motivating forces—between Luke and Vader. Instead of the encounter that Luke has with his father—or, rather, the spirit of his father, dead at Vader’s hands, during his training at Dagobah (or Bog World in Brackett’s version)—Luke, in the rewrite, discovers that Vader is his father.
In Brackett’s version, the emotion that Luke must surmount during his training is jealousy over the relationship between Princess Leia and Han Solo. Although that might have helped trigger the plot for Empire and its sequel, it would not have helped the vast enterprise Lucas had in mind.
The question of patrimony, on the other hand, would allow for the creation of a whole other trilogy—and perhaps even beyond what Lucas had immediately in mind. Moreover, the appeal to blood made by Vader would bring to the surface some of the most basic questions of good and evil: biological determinism vs. free will.
Lucas was out for the long game—not just in the independent financing he wanted that would cut Twentieth-Century Fox out of any potentially ruinous say-so over his work, but in the entire empire he was able to build through Lucasfilm and Industrial Light and Magic—corporate structures supported by tie-ins now made possible by his suddenly darker genealogy for the film: video games, novelizations, action figures, and more.