By John H. Foote
“…I am your father.”
You could have heard a pin drop. The chewing of popcorn ceased, there was a collective audible gasp and the packed cinema went deathly silent with the intake of breath. With those four mind-altering words Darth Vader turned the Star Wars narrative on its ear, suddenly making Luke Skywalker’s battle with the black cloaked villain deeply personal, hugely mythical, the stuff of legends. It felt like all the oxygen had been sucked in by the gasps of 800 people who could not fathom what they had just heard? I cannot remember taking a breath for the rest of the film though I am sure I did. Like everyone else, I was stunned by the revelation that Vader was Luke’s father.
It was unbelievable.
It was perfect.
Forty years have passed since that screening in Oshawa, 1980, since the words heard round the world, I was just 21.
It seems a lifetime ago.
The Empire Strikes Back had been the single most anticipated film of the year in 1980, a sequel to the extraordinary Star Wars (1977) which had won seven Academy Awards on 10 nominations, becoming the highest grossing film of all time in the process. For the sequel Lucas hired his former film professor Irvin Kershner to helm the film, uninterested in directing again himself. Kershner had directed some films but never really broke through. He had directed The Film Flam Man (1966) with George C. Scott and The Eyes of Lara Mars (1977), a solid thriller with Faye Dunaway, after years working in television, but went back and forth between teaching and directing.
What did Kershner bring to the film? Where to start. Certainly he was fearless in tapping into the darker elements of the story, the introduction of Yoda, and the ambiguous ending which a middle film to a trilogy always has. Though it was likely Lucas had a great deal to say about the film, it was rumoured he left the director alone to create the film.
Set a few months after the end of Star Wars, we find our heroes Luke, Leia and Han Solo on the ice planet Hoth where the Empire has found the rebel base and is planning an invasion. Obviously blowing up the Death Star has not shut down the Empire, but the rebels have proven the Empire is not unbeatable. They turn back the Empire but have been found out and must find another base. Luke leaves them to complete his Jedi training with Yoda, the mysterious Jedi master on the swamp planet of Dagobah.
We move back and forth between the narratives of Luke, in training with the tiny, ancient but formidable Yoda, while Han and Leia are falling in love.
Moving back and forth we watch a Luke train with Yoda, a strange little creature with astonishing powers who chides Luke’s impatience as they train. Knowing Luke wishes to join the fight, Yoda permits him to go, knowing there is another. In the Cloud city the rebels clash with Vader and the Empire, Han is frozen in carbonite and given to a bounty hunter, while Luke prepares to duel with Vader.
It is here that moment happens, and I still get chills thinking about it. We never saw it coming, which had they made the film today, everyone would have known going in, given social media has taken away all secrets.
Being the second of three films, we are left hanging as Luke and company escape Vader leaping into hyperspace, leaving Vader seething, but not murderous.
By far one of the year’s finest films it was something of a shock when the film was not a Best Picture nominee. Critics crowned the film a monumental achievement, better than the first, which naturally led one to believe by besting the first, it could land in the Oscar race. Not so. Four nominations, nothing more.
There was so much to admire in the film: that lush, foreboding score from John Williams, the breathtaking visual effects and sound, the astonishing cinematography, the extraordinary creations of the worlds, including a moon which is inhabited by a massive space slug which very nearly ingests Han and his crew. Filled with wonder, audiences were left in awe by the picture.
The performances were deeper this time, richer as the actors had spent time with them and could shade them more. Mark Hamill continued to excel as eager to fight Luke, while Harrison Ford shone as Han Solo, darkening his character, giving him a greater edge, one who answers being told someone loves him with “I know”. And Carrie Fisher, poor Carrie, gone too soon, but forever Leia, realizing her love for Han as it sweeps over her.
Altogether brilliant, a masterful film and easily the finest of all the Star Wars films made to date. The visuals left audiences all but swooning.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.