David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

The Day “The Empire Strikes Back” Changed Everything

Saturday, May 24, 1980.

It’s a sunny morning in Orange County, California. Jimmy Carter is president of the United States, Mount St. Helens has just erupted, Richard Pryor will be setting himself on fire any day now. The Iranians have taken a number of Americans hostage in Tehran. Lots of people seem to be singing “Tie a Yellow Ribbon,” though I’m not quite sure why.

Empire Strikes Back posterMy mother takes my brother, my sisters, and me to see The Empire Strikes Back. I’m nine years old.

Star Wars has become my passion, as it is my older brother’s passion, as it is the passion of just about every boy I’ve ever met or heard of. I’m a late convert to the Church of Lucas, having stubbornly insisted for many months that Battlestar Galactica was the superior fictional universe.

Now I’m making up for lost time with a vengeance. I’ve got the first dozen issues of the Marvel Star Wars comic book series, I’ve got a TIE fighter, an X-wing fighter, a landspeeder, a Millennium Falcon, an interior set from the Death Star, every action figure from Greedo to Chewbacca to Hammerhead. My brother and I have worn the plastic light sabers of our Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader figurines down to nubs from fighting with them. (Our life-size plastic light sabers, however, are still in good shape.)

A few weeks ago, I have given in to sweet temptation and bought the Empire Strikes Back comic book published in mass-market paperback form. The cover is white and red. Even though I promise myself I won’t read it all the way through, I take several tantalizing peeks at the opening pages. There’s an ice planet. Luke and Han and Chewie are there.

There’s a TV special showing a behind-the-scenes look at the battle scene on Hoth, the painstaking art of stop-motion animation. I hear something about a new character being performed by Frank Oz.

Then finally, the day arrives. Saturday, May 24th or possibly May 25th — definitely a few days after opening day. The longest days of my life.

Mom hauls four kids in a blue Ford station wagon with wood paneling over to a theater in Costa Mesa (or was it Fountain Valley? Westminster?). We’re hours early. My brother and I haul ass as quickly as we can to the back of the line, nearly crying in despair to see it winding halfway around the theater. But we soon quit our moaning as we see the line snake its way far, far behind us. Suddenly our family is back in the vanguard. We’re prudent planners.

After an hour of torpid standing-around time — the minutes are stretched thin like taut rubber bands — the line moves. We enter the theater.

And somehow we find perfect seats, no small accomplishment for a party of five. Not too close, not too far. Directly in the center of the auditorium, no six-foot jackass sitting in the next row blocking our view. There’s probably candy. There’s always candy at the movies. Mom usually picks it up for a discount at Key Market and smuggles it into the theater in her purse.

The lights go out. My brother and I are wiggling in our seats. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

A symphonic blast of trumpets. The opening crawl.

Luke Skywalker riding a TonTon in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes BackThe first time Mark Hamill appears on the screen, taking off his goggles atop that TaunTaun, the crowd erupts into applause. Cheers, jubilation. Luke Skywalker is back! This is the first time most of us have seen Mark Hamill since his car accident. His face looks different… but it’s still Luke.

The audience is tense as the battle of Hoth rages onscreen. The Imperial Walkers are easily the coolest fucking thing we have ever seen. We’re ducking and diving along with the poor Rebels, who are about to get their asses handed to them by the Empire. But it’s okay — this is an anticipated setback, a planned retreat.

Han Solo & Co. blast their way out of the Rebel base at literally the last possible instant. The menacing figure of Darth Vader emerges just in time to see the exhaust on the Millennium Falcon as the ship wings away. The audience explodes: a literal standing ovation. People are cheering, yelling.

Luke Skywalker finds his way to Dagobah and begins his tutelage under the Jedi Master Yoda, whose words are sage and mysterious and challenging in a way we’ve never quite experienced before. Yoda wants Luke to unlearn? What the hell? To white suburban Orange County kids who have remained largely insulated from the hippy, trippy ’70s, this isn’t Hollywood hokum… this is the fucking Port Huron Statement. This is subversive. Does Mom realize we’re watching this? Would our teachers approve?

Harrison Ford, in the meanwhile, by cavalierly dodging the Empire through fancy maneuver after fancy maneuver, has clearly demonstrated that he is the coolest dude in the history of the universe, ever ever ever. The chase through the asteroid field makes the Imperial Walkers seem like old news, especially now that the candy’s gone and the sugar high has kicked in.

Our heroes find their way to Cloud City.

And then something happens that’s beyond my nine-year-old imagination. The heroes start to lose. The android C-3PO, blown into bits. Han Solo, frozen in carbonite and sent off with the mysterious bounty hunter Boba Fett. Luke Skywalker’s hand neatly sliced off by the blade of the Dark Lord of the Sith.

And then —

Darth Vader on the bridge in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.I have absolutely no idea what’s coming next. None of the comic books or Saturday morning TV shows I’ve been digesting my whole life have prepared me for this moment. Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father. Gasps echo throughout the theater. Time pauses to catch its breath. His father? Never in the darkest corners of my imagination could I have predicted this. It’s a world-shattering revelation. I’m scared, I’m elated, I want to go home, I never want to leave.

The plunge off the bridge, the rescue, the daring escape. The credits.

The rest of the afternoon is a blur. My summer agenda has now been set. I have mysteries to ponder that will occupy much of my attention during the next few years. Was Darth Vader telling the truth? How could someone so noble as Luke be the child of a villain so black as Vader? And why didn’t Ben Kenobi tell him earlier? What point was Yoda trying to make by sending Luke into the cave to confront his phantom nemesis?

One thing is clear: this is not the same world that existed before the lights went down.

It will gradually become clear to me in those next few years what George Lucas was trying to say: The menace and nightmare and calculation that had seemed like some distant, external force in Star Wars is inside of us all. Luke Skywalker is Darth Vader. We are Darth Vader, each and every one of us.

Your grandkids will yawn when you try to tell them what the world was like in those heady days right after 9/11. They will roll their eyes when you talk about how shocking and revolutionary New Wave music was, or how much of an uproar the country was in over the Clinton impeachment. You’ll say “you just had to be there.”

If you’re an American male born somewhere in the late ’60s or early ’70s, you know. You remember. The Empire Strikes Back changed things forever.

And I was there.

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  1. erin on May 5, 2006 at 4:27 pm  Chain link

    Thanks for posting this — it captures a lot of why Episode V is so near and dear to fans’ hearts. I was about the same age when Empire came out, and I was also stunned into contemplation after the credits rolled. And I’m a chick!

  2. David Louis Edelman on May 5, 2006 at 9:30 pm  Chain link

    I guess I’ve always known logically that there were plenty of girls that connected with the original trilogy as much as us boys did — but it’s just always seemed like such a boy thing. I mean, there’s a reason Lucas didn’t put Han in a metal Speedo in Return of the Jedi, right?

  3. Joshua Corning on May 8, 2006 at 4:04 am  Chain link

    It will gradually become clear to me in those next few years what George Lucas was trying to say: The menace and nightmare and calculation that had seemed like some distant, external force in Star Wars is inside of us all. Luke Skywalker is Darth Vader. We are Darth Vader, each and every one of us.

    You should know George Lucus did not write or direct Empire strikes back….oh and Erin might like to know that Leigh Brackett who actually did write it and who came up with the idea of Vader being Luke’s father… was a woman.

  4. David Louis Edelman on May 8, 2006 at 8:15 am  Chain link

    Sure, Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett were the screenwriters, and Irvin Kershner was the director. But it was Lucas credited with the story. Kershner, at least, seems to give the impression that he was hounded and bossed around by Lucas at every turn.

    I’m curious what your source is that Leigh Brackett came up with the idea of Vader being Luke’s father. If you believe Lucas (not that we necessarily should after all the lies and half-truths he’s told over the years), Vader was always supposed to be Luke’s father. The name Darth Vader was supposed to be a perversion of Dark Father.

  5. joshua corning on May 9, 2006 at 12:48 am  Chain link

    no source…just a wild guess. :)

    I am very reluctant to give Lucas credit for anything in “Empire Strikes back” my evience is that every other star wars movie, which he does take credit for directing and writting, are so terribly bad.

  6. David Louis Edelman on May 9, 2006 at 12:33 pm  Chain link

    Fair enough. :-)

  7. A.R.Yngve on May 18, 2006 at 7:18 am  Chain link

    Lucas’ story about the name Darth Vader holds up to scrutiny: I’m Swedish, and “Vader” does seem much like our word “Fader” (though it’s pronounced “FAA-DER”, not “FEY-DER”) for “Father”.

    I too remember the impact of Star Wars — but I also remember the “Star Wars Holiday Special” which broke my heart and made me a more cynical person. ;-)

  8. David Louis Edelman on May 18, 2006 at 8:50 am  Chain link

    I’m not sure I ever saw the Holiday Special. I have a vague memory of seeing Chewbacca with his family, so I must have seen at least part of it. Now I’m mostly curious to see it for the spectacle of Carrie Fisher stoned out of her mind playing Princess Leia.

  9. TabathaOster on May 18, 2006 at 12:03 pm  Chain link

    Awesome blog. Peace out until next time TabathaOster

  10. Daveman on June 19, 2006 at 11:47 pm  Chain link

    Definitely the greatest sequel of all time. I went to the theater expecting Star Wars II. ‘Yeah, the Empire strikes back, but I know at the end of this thing, Luke will be blowing up some big chunk of metal owned by the Empire’. Boy was I wrong. It was so wondrously different than what I had expected.

    …Epic snow battle at the beginning of the movie…Wow…people were cheering so loud I did not hear a single word of dialogue.

  11. Ginny Keller on October 31, 2006 at 1:24 pm  Chain link

    Empire is probably my favorite movie of all time. I feel pretty much the same way about the movie as you do. I was just telling my boyfriend a few days ago how the Star Wars movies really screwed me up! They turned me into a sci-fi geek. I was twelve at the time and pretty much already well on the path to geekdom because of Star Wars and the host of other sci-fi that came out more-or-less around the same time (Battlestar Galactica, Space:1999, Superman: The Movie, Star Trek: The Motion Picture). Anyway – definitely not just a boy thing. Thanks for the post!

  12. [...] The Day The Empire Strikes Back Changed Everything [...]

  13. Calimac on June 30, 2007 at 11:27 am  Chain link

    I’m more than a decade older than you, and was that much more cynical.

    I didn’t believe it.

    Empire was a fine movie – better than the original – up until the end, when it jumped the shark. In terms of everything that had happened up to that point, Vader was lying. It was a clumsy retcon. And sure enough, all four movies that have come out of Star Wars since – everything based on the retcon notion that Vader is Luke’s father – have stunk.

    You’ve read that it’s not a retcon, that Lucas intended for Vader to be Luke’s father all along.

    If that’s true, it makes it even worse. For if so, than Lucas achieved a feat that only a writer truly gifted with monumental badness could achieve – to write a preplanned plot twist that LOOKS like a clumsy retcon. Jeepers.

  14. David Louis Edelman on June 30, 2007 at 12:43 pm  Chain link

    You’re right that context is key. My love of Empire has something to do with that rosy glow of childhood. But then again, people’s love of Casablanca is caught up with their feelings about World War II.

    I actually didn’t dislike the prequels as much as some people. I liked Phantom Menace at the time, and I still think Revenge of the Sith is a great movie. (Let’s not talk about Clones.) I really admire George for tackling something as audacious as the origins of evil, even if the execution left something to be desired.

  15. Bob Nolin on April 26, 2008 at 2:44 pm  Chain link

    Great memoir. I’m even older that Calimac, and for me the world changed when I was 19 and watched the first Star Wars movie in 1977. The opening scene with the star destroyer roaring across the screen was a true rift in time for me. While I can appreciate your experience of Empire, I in the Calimac camp: the “Luke – I am your father” was almost funny. In fact, to my teenage kids, it’s one of their favorite campy lines from an old movie. They love making fun of it. My favorite of the SW movies was actually Return of the Jedi, though I know this is not a popular choice. It has just the right amount of special effects and story, blended in the right proportions. The more recent ones (1-3) are, to me, unwatchable. If there is a story there, it’s well hidden behind a barrage of special effects.

    I once owned the first three movies on VHS (4-6, I guess they are now). This was back in the 80′s. There was a “featurette” that came with the boxed version, and in it Lucas pompously opines, “A special effect without a story is boring.” How ironic, considering how the SFX took over his second trilogy. I’m guessing that the only thing holding him back, in 4-6, was the film-based technology limitations of the day. Once digital came along, story went out the window, and eye candy took over. I agree with Lucas. It’s boring.

  16. Brad on April 28, 2008 at 1:01 pm  Chain link

    I was 7 years old, and remember vividly my brother taking me to see this the first saturday of its release in 1980. I saw star wars in 1977 but I dont remember it much since I was so young. At 7, the experience of The Empire Strikes Back was quite visceral and scary at times in that theatre but it would make me a fan of the film forever. I enjoyed the other 2 films but for me The Empire Strikes Back was the greatest of them all. Make no mistake about it; none of the films are masterpieces. They are nothing but pure fun but nevertheless they do strike a poignant chord. Theres not much else to say. if anyone hasnt seen it, then see it. It’s fantastic. However view star wars first (aka a new hope), and return of the jedi after Empire Strikes Back. Id also recommend viewing the original theatrical versions since Lucas has altered each one of them drastically since.

  17. charles on September 4, 2008 at 12:27 pm  Chain link

    Funny… I just read Multi-real, and put a post on my facebook page that it reminded me a lot of “The Empire Strikes Back” in a very positive way. Good to see I caught all the right influences… obvious I guess, since I was born around the same time as you. I’m going to assume your book 3 *will* have something similar to princess Leia in the bikini but *nothing* analagous to Ewoks (please)

    ; )

  18. David Louis Edelman on September 4, 2008 at 12:42 pm  Chain link

    charles: There will be no Ewoks in book 3, but there will be plenty of Jar-Jar Binks.

  19. Charles Garber III on October 21, 2008 at 8:13 pm  Chain link

    I loved reading this because it brings back memories I had of the stories that made my youth fun and memorable. I missed the original motion picture debut of the Star Wars series (born in the wrong decade?), but was caught in the grasp of The Empire just like you. Anyways, thanks for the well thought out blog, and look forward to seeing the next one. :)

    p.s. PLEASE, no Jar-Jar… If he must exist, he then need must fade out of the story rather quickly. :)

  20. Eric on March 1, 2009 at 10:00 am  Chain link

    Both Star Wars and the Empire Strikes back struck me. I was about 7 when Star Wars came out and the attack on the Death Star hit me. I mean, they were the Good Guys and they were dying. In my 7 year old mind, that was never supposed to happen.

  21. Rosie on December 7, 2009 at 2:54 pm  Chain link

    You should know George Lucus did not write or direct Empire strikes back….oh and Erin might like to know that Leigh Brackett who actually did write it and who came up with the idea of Vader being Luke’s father… was a woman.

    Leigh Brackett wrote the original screenplay for EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. George Lucas re-wrote the screenplay, while she was ill and gave her screen credit, following her death.

  22. Ernst-Jan van Leeuwen on August 21, 2011 at 3:41 am  Chain link

    Thanks for the article. I remember being nine years old when I was invited to a birthday party to see TESB in a movie theatre in Rotterdam, the Netherlands in 1980. Irvin Keshner’s (Lucas’ teacher at the university) movie made such a huge impact on me.
    I even still remember that the American/English cast came to a Dutch television show calles Telebingo with Mies Bouwman. All in their movie outfits. Excellent.
    After having seen TESB I got hooked on the SW saga and never let go. I sill have the Dutch comic version of TESB. Such a great part of my childhood as many of you have experienced aswell. Not to mention the entire Kenner Toys I collected.

    Greeting from the Netherlands!

    E-J

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