The Empire Strikes Back, also known as Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back, is a 1980 American epic space opera film directed by Irvin Kershner and written by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, based on a story by George Lucas.
Set three years after the events of the first film, the Galactic Empire, under the leadership of Darth Vader and the Emperor, pursues Luke Skywalker and the rest of the Rebel Alliance. While Vader relentlessly pursues Luke’s friends – Han Solo, Princess Leia, Chewbacca, and C-3PO – Luke studies the Force under Jedi Master Yoda.
The ensemble cast includes Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, David Prowse, Kenny Baker, Peter Mayhew, and Frank Oz.
Three years after the destruction of the Death Star, the Rebel Alliance, led by Princess Leia, has set up a new base on the ice planet Hoth. The Imperial fleet, led by a merciless Darth Vader, hunts for the new Rebel base by dispatching probe droids across the galaxy. Luke Skywalker is captured by a wampa while investigating one such probe and dragged into the creature’s cave, but manages to escape using the Force to retrieve his lightsaber. Before Luke succumbs to hypothermia, the Force spirit of his deceased mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi, instructs him to go to the swamp planet Dagobah to train under Jedi Master Yoda. Han Solo discovers Luke and manages to keep him alive by placing him inside the body of his dead Tauntaun mount, and the two are rescued by a search party the following morning.
The probe alerts the Imperial fleet to the Rebels’ location. The Empire launches a large-scale attack using AT-AT walkers to capture the base, forcing the Rebels to evacuate. Han and Leia escape with C-3PO and Chewbacca on the Millennium Falcon, but the ship’s hyperdrive malfunctions. They hide in an asteroid field, where Han and Leia grow closer amidst the tensions. Several bounty hunters, summoned by Vader, assist in searching for the Falcon. Meanwhile, Luke travels with R2-D2 in his X-wing fighter to Dagobah, where he crash-lands. He meets a diminutive creature who reveals himself to be Yoda and reluctantly accepts Luke as his apprentice after conferring with Obi-Wan’s spirit. Luke learns more about the Force from Yoda, who lifts his X-wing out of the swamp using the Force.
After evading the Imperial fleet, Han’s group travels to the floating Cloud City on the planet Bespin, which is governed by Han’s old friend Lando Calrissian. Bounty hunter Boba Fett tracks the Falcon and, with Vader, forces Lando to hand the group over to the Empire. Vader plans to use the group as bait to lure Luke, intending to capture him and turn him to the dark side of the Force. Luke experiences a premonition of Han and Leia in pain and, against the wishes of Yoda and Obi-Wan, abandons his training to rescue them.
Vader intends to hold Luke in suspended animation by imprisoning him in carbonite, selecting Han to be frozen as an experiment. Han survives the process and is given to Fett, who plans to collect a bounty on him from Jabba the Hutt. Lando, still loyal to Han, frees Leia and Chewbacca, but they are too late to stop Fett from departing with Solo. Under attack from stormtroopers, they fight their way back to the Falcon and flee the city. Meanwhile, Luke arrives and engages Vader in a lightsaber duel that leads them over the city’s central air shaft. Vader severs Luke’s right hand, disarming him, and tempts him to embrace his anger and join the dark side. Luke accuses Vader of murdering his father, but Vader reveals that he is Luke’s father. Horrified, Luke drops into the air shaft and is ejected beneath the floating city, where he hangs from an antenna. He reaches out telepathically to Leia, who senses him and persuades Lando and Chewie to turn back. After Luke is brought aboard, they are chased by TIE fighters towards Vader on his Star Destroyer and find that the Falcon’s hyperdrive has been tampered with, but R2-D2 reactivates it, allowing them to escape.
Luke rejoins the Rebel fleet and his severed hand is replaced with a robotic prosthesis. Lando and Chewbacca begin their quest to save Han, as the other rebels watch the Falcon depart.
- Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker: A pilot in the Rebel Alliance and Jedi in training.
- Harrison Ford as Han Solo: A smuggler and captain of the Millennium Falcon.
- Carrie Fisher as Leia Organa: A leader in the Rebel Alliance.
- Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian: The administrator of Cloud City.
- Anthony Daniels as C-3PO: A humanoid protocol droid in the Alliance.
- David Prowse and James Earl Jones (voice) as Darth Vader: A powerful Sith Lord in service to the Emperor of the Galactic Empire.
- Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca: Han’s loyal Wookiee friend and copilot.
- Kenny Baker as R2-D2: An astromech droid in the Rebellion and C-3PO’s counterpart.
- Frank Oz as Yoda: A diminutive, centuries-old Jedi Master living in self-imposed exile.
While Prowse physically portrays Darth Vader, James Earl Jones provides the character’s voice. Oz provides the voice and puppetry for Yoda, with assistance from fellow puppeteers, including Kathryn Mullen, David Barclay, Wendy Froud, and Deep Roy. Alec Guinness appears as Obi-Wan Kenobi, now a Force spirit following his death at Vader’s hands.
Denis Lawson reprises his role as Wedge Antilles from the first film. John Hollis plays Lobot, Lando’s personal aide. Julian Glover appears as General Veers, a general who leads the Empire in the battle of Hoth. Kenneth Colley portrays Admiral Piett, the Empire’s top admiral. Michael Sheard portrayed Admiral Ozzel, Vader’s previous admiral. Michael Culver appears as Captain Needa, one of the Empire’s captains who failed to catch the Millennium Falcon. John Ratzenberger portrays Major Derlin, one of the officers who leads the Rebels in the Battle of Hoth. Bruce Boa appears as General Rieekan, Princess Leia’s military advisor on Hoth. Christopher Malcolm plays Rebel snowspeeder pilot Zev Senesca, who finds Skywalker and Solo on the surface of Hoth. and John Morton portrays Dak Ralter, Luke’s gunner in the battle of Hoth who was killed by an AT-AT. Richard Oldfield portrayed Rebel pilot Hobbie Klivian. Morris Bush portrays the bounty hunter Dengar, Alan Harris portrays the bounty hunter Bossk and Chris Parsons portrays the robotic bounty hunter 4-LOM.
Jeremy Bulloch portrays Boba Fett, a bounty hunter hired by Vader. Jason Wingreen provided Fett’s voice. Multiple actors have portrayed the Emperor, the evil ruler of the Galactic Empire, who appears via hologram. Clive Revill provides his voice, while actress Marjorie Eaton portrays him physically, wearing a mask.
Filming began in Norway, at the Hardangerjøkulen glacier near the town of Finse, on 05 March 1979. Like the filming of Star Wars, where the production in Tunisia coincided with the area’s first major rainstorm in fifty years, the weather was against the film crew. While filming in Norway, they encountered the worst winter storm in fifty years. Temperatures dropped to −20 °F (−29 °C), and 5.5 metres (18 ft) of snow fell. On one occasion, the crew were unable to exit their hotel. They achieved a shot involving Luke’s exit of the Wampa cave by opening the hotel’s doors and filming Mark Hamill running out into the snow while the crew remained warm inside.
Mark Hamill’s face was scarred in a motor accident that occurred between filming of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. Despite reports to the contrary, the scene in which Luke is knocked unconscious by the Wampa was not added specifically to explain this change to Hamill’s face. Lucas admitted that the scene “helped” the situation, though he felt that Luke’s time fighting in the rebellion was sufficient explanation.
The production moved to Elstree Studios near London on 13 March, where over 60 sets were built, more than double the number used in the previous film. A fire in January on Stage 3 (during filming of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining) forced the budget to be increased from $18.5 million to $22 million, and by July the budget increased $3 million more.
Filming finished 24 September 1979.
The script contained a scene in which Princess Leia professed her love to Han Solo, with Han replying “I love you too.” Harrison Ford felt the characterisation was not being used effectively, and Kershner agreed. After several takes, the director told the actor to improvise on the spot, and Ford changed Solo’s line to “I know.”
During production, great secrecy surrounded the fact that Darth Vader was Luke’s father. Like the rest of the crew, Prowse – who spoke all of Vader’s lines during filming – was given a false page that contained dialogue with the revelatory line being, “No. Obi-Wan killed your father.” Hamill was informed just moments before cameras rolled on his close-up, and did not tell anyone, including his wife; according to Hamill, Ford did not learn the truth until he watched the film.
To preserve the dramatic opening sequences of his films, Lucas wanted the screen credits to come only at the end. While this practice has become more common over the years, this was relatively unusual at the time. The Writers and Directors Guilds of America had no problem allowing it on Star Wars, back in 1977, because the writer-director credit (George Lucas) matched the company name. However, when Lucas did the same thing for the sequel, it became an issue because they viewed the company credit (Lucasfilm) as displaying Lucas’ name at the start of the film, while the director and writers had theirs on the end. The guilds fined him over $250,000 and attempted to pull Empire out of theatres. The DGA also attacked Kershner; to protect his director, Lucas paid all the fines to the guilds. Due to the controversy, he left the Directors and Writers Guilds, and the Motion Picture Association.
The initial production budget of $18 million was 50% more than that of the original. After the various increases in budget, The Empire Strikes Back became one of the most expensive films of its day, costing $33 million, and after the bank threatened to call in his loan, Lucas was forced to approach 20th Century Fox. Lucas made a deal with the studio to secure the loan in exchange for paying the studio more money, but without the loss of his sequel and merchandising rights. After the film’s box office success, unhappiness at the studio over the deal’s generosity to Lucas caused studio president Alan Ladd, Jr. to quit. The departure of his longtime ally caused Lucas to take Raiders of the Lost Ark to Paramount Pictures.
Special Edition and Other Changes
As part of Star Wars’s 20th anniversary celebration in 1997, The Empire Strikes Back was digitally remastered and re-released along with Star Wars and Return of the Jedi under the title Star Wars Trilogy: Special Edition. Lucas took this opportunity to make several minor changes to the film. These included explicitly showing the Wampa creature on Hoth in full form, creating a more complex flight path for the Falcon as it approaches Cloud City, digitally replacing some of the interior walls of Cloud City with vistas of Bespin, and replacing certain lines of dialogue. A short sequence was also added depicting Vader’s return to his Super Star Destroyer after duelling with Luke, created from alternate angles of a scene from Return of the Jedi. Most of the changes were small and aesthetic. Some fans believe that the changes to the film were less detrimental than that of the other two entries in the trilogy.
The film was also resubmitted to the MPAA for rating; it was again rated PG, but under the Association’s new description nomenclature, the reason given was for “sci-fi action/violence”. This version of the film runs 127 minutes.
The 2004 release, among other changes replaced Jason Wingreen’s voicework as Boba Fett with Temuera Morrison, who portrayed the character’s father Jango Fett in Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002). Similarly, the Emperor, as voiced by Clive Revill and portrayed by Marjorie Eaton, was replaced by Ian McDiarmid, who portrayed the character in later films.
- Following the success of Star Wars, Lucas hired Brackett to write the sequel; after her death in 1978, he outlined the Star Wars saga as a whole and wrote the next draft himself, before hiring Kasdan.
- Lucas chose not to direct due to his obligations at Industrial Light & Magic and handling the financing, and passed the duty to Kershner, his former professor.
- Filmed from March to September 1979, The Empire Strikes Back faced a difficult production that included actor injuries, a set fire, and fines from the Writers and Directors Guilds of America.
- The production moved to Elstree Studios near London on 13 March, where over 60 sets were built, more than double the number used in the previous film.
- A fire in January on Stage 3 (during filming of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining) forced the budget to be increased from $18.5 million to $22 million, and by July the budget increased $3 million more.
- The budget eventually ballooned to $33 million by the time production concluded, making it one of the most expensive films ever made at the time.
- On a budget of £33 million the film generated revenue of $547.9 million.
- In 2010, the film was selected for preservation in the US National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
- The Empire Strikes Back had a significant impact on filmmaking and popular culture, being regarded as a rare example of a sequel that transcends the original.
- The climax, in which Vader reveals to Luke that he is his father, is often cited as one of the greatest plot twists in cinematic history.
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Production & Filming Details
- Director(s): Irving Kershner
- Producer(s): Gary Kurtz.
- Writer(s): Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan.
- Music: John Williams.
- Cinematography: Peter Suschitzky.
- Editor(s): Paul Hirsch.
- Production: Lucasfilm Ltd.
- Distributor(s): 20th Century Fox (1999 to 2019) and Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures (2019 to Present).
- Release Date: 17 May 1980 (The John F. Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts) and 21 May 1980 (US general release).
- Running time: 124 minutes.
- Country: US.
- Language: English.