How The Empire Strikes Back Ruined Star Wars

“The saga comes to an end”, announced the trailer for Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker. It isn’t the first time we’ve heard that.

In 2005, Revenge of the Sith was marketed with the tagline “The saga is complete,” and the first six movies are still available in a blu-ray box set titled “The Complete Saga”. The sequel trilogy was an unnecessary addition to the story of Anakin Skywalker, and the prequels themselves were unnecessary additions to the story of Luke. What is now a multi-generational saga, with a final episode which will define the legacy of the Skywalker family, was, just a few years ago, the story of the rise, fall and redemption of Darth Vader; and a few years before that, it was the hero’s journey of a farmboy.

Nothing, however, changed what Star Wars is more than The Empire Strikes Back. With Episode V, we gained a blockbuster franchise, a sprawling family saga, a modern myth. But we also lost something – a weird, fascinating high-concept movie, an episode of a Flash Gordon-style serial that the audience would stumble upon without ever knowing what came before, or what came afterwards; and the completion of a thematic trilogy of films by a young filmmaker which dealt with leaving home and going out into the world.

The Saturday Matinee Serial

“Originally when I wrote Star Wars, it was meant to be one episode of a Saturday-matinee serial and you came in in the middle of it”, said Lucas in 2002. It is difficult, when reading Lucas’s statements about the history of Star Wars, to be certain of exactly what is accurate and what isn’t. Not necessarily because he’s being dishonest, but because the memories of any creative process tend to become muddled, with shape, meaning and inevitability only projected onto them afterwards (rather like a story itself). The Saturday serial influence on Star Wars is clear, though, and the concept of “coming in in the middle of it” shows an intention that Star Wars should recapture a very specific, long-lost moviegoing experience.

During the 1930s and 40s, you could go to a cinema each Saturday and watch one episode of a serial adventure film. The most famous, and relevant to Star Wars, are science fiction adventure tales like the thirteen-episode Flash Gordon (1936) and Buck Rogers (1939), but there were also pulp thrillers like 1946’s The Crimson Ghost, Westerns like Zorro Rides Again (1937), and the first superhero movies like 1948’s fifteen-part epic Superman. Each chapter would end in a cliffhanger, and if you missed a week, well, too bad. No iPlayer or Tivo back then. Fortunately, chapters would begin with a short recap of the previous week as a text card or, in the case of 1940’s Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, a familiar-looking opening crawl.

The crawl wasn’t the only serial tradition Lucas used for his weird little movie. The wipe scene transition – where one shot slides across the screen, replacing the previous one – was commonly used in serials, and his emphasis on swashbuckling adventure and corny, earnest dialogue is a deliberate homage. Then there are those wonderful titles: “The Purple Death”, “Stark Treachery”, “Doom of the Dictator”, “The Unseen Peril”, “The Phantom Plane”, “Revolt of the Zuggs”. Just in case you were wondering where the likes of “The Empire Strikes Back”, “The Phantom Menace” and “Attack of the Clones” come from.

What is most interesting is Lucas’s claim that he wanted audiences to come into the middle of his serial – that they wouldn’t know what had happened in Episode III, and would have to rely on the crawl to fill them in. Lucas claims on the 2004 audio commentary that he wanted to put “Episode IV – A New Hope” on the film during its original release, but the studio resisted him, and there’s little reason to doubt him: ESB was released with the “Episode V” caption, and “Episode IV” was added to the original Star Wars for its 1981 re-release. The London Symphony Orchestra recently posted an image of the original notes from the 1977 recording session for the Star Wars score, with “New Hope” included in the title.

Imagine if Lucas had gotten his way, if audiences had walked into Star Wars to find out it was “Episode IV”. I had a little of that experience the first time I saw it, on VHS. I didn’t know whether I was starting with the right one, and was blindsided and confused for the first ten minutes. This was in the days before it was easy to check these things on the internet. Lucas wasn’t just making a movie, he was also trying to recreate a movie experience which had died out after the 1950s, when television became the home of serial storytelling.

We can also imagine what that first movie would still feel like if ESB had never been made. Darth Vader gets away at the end of ANH, but we’ll never know what happened to him, or what happened to the Empire. That’s next week, and we can’t make it to the cinema next week, we’re busy. And we’d never know what happened in those three episodes before ANH, either. Lucas had plotted out ideas for the rest of his saga at various times – sometimes six episodes, sometimes nine, sometimes twelve, depending on his mood – but there was no certainty he was going to use them. While no fan in their right mind would want to erase the rest of the saga from history, ANH nonetheless loses something unique because of it.

The George Lucas Trilogy

Thematically, ANH also has more in common with Lucas’s earlier movies – THX 1138 and American Graffiti – than it does with the family saga that Star Wars later became. THX is an experimental, avant-garde science fiction dystopia, an Orwellian nightmare of cold, clean white rooms where people are given numbers instead of names, overseen by androids and fed drugs to keep them docile and unquestioning. Incidentally, Finn’s story in The Force Awakens owes much to THX, from his lack of a name other than FN-2187, to his escape from cold First Order corridors into a frightening new desert world.

THX-1138 and FN-2187

American Graffiti is on the face of it very different – a sprawling and unstructured glimpse into one night, the final night, of a group of high school students as they drive around town before going to their separate colleges the following morning.  It’s fun, witty, and gorgeous to look at, but what really stands out is the soundscape – the roar of the engines and Wolfman Jack’s sixties sounds often drown out the dialogue, but that doesn’t matter, because in Lucas’s films the dialogue isn’t important. What both these films have in common is the idea of leaving your mundane surroundings and taking your first, frightening steps into a larger world, whether it’s escaping a dystopian nightmare or leaving high school.

ANH is about the same thing: Luke Skywalker, cleaning droids, helping with the harvest and staring out at the sunset, finally leaving home and finding his place in the galaxy. It is uniquely interested in the early movements of Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey”, while the rest of the saga followed this structure a bit more loosely (the only Star Wars hero who can be said to “return home” with the ultimate boon is Padmé at the end of TPM, for example). And in this first Star Wars film, there is no sign of a “family saga”. Luke is partly motivated by his father’s Jedihood, and loses his aunt and uncle, but there’s no family drama, no soap opera. This is about a young boy leaving home and going off to fight an Empire. ESB’s “I am your father” revelation turned it into something very different.

Instead, ANH forms part of Lucas’s “leaving home” trilogy with THX and American Graffiti, and it is that, plus its independent and experimental spirit, that makes it the most “Lucas” of all the Star Wars films. The only other to really come close to this theme and spirit is The Phantom Menace, though the Disney era recaptured some of it in Solo (which, like TPM, features a young hero driving a car they tinkered with in their garage, as Lucas loved to do) and TFA.

Tatooine Graffiti

ANH isn’t just the first Star Wars film. It’s also something slightly apart, and even perhaps more interesting. It gave rise to a franchise behemoth, but it’s also strange and experimental. It doesn’t hold your hand: it’s an old-fashioned serial you’ve come to halfway through, and you’re just going to have to pick things up as you go along. It’s also the completion of a trilogy of Lucas movies about leaving home that began with THX 1138.

Its huge success made sequels inevitable, and took this young avant-garde filmmaker’s career in a very different direction. We’re all grateful for that. But when we look back across the complete saga this December, let’s not forget where it all started, and those particular things that make ANH so unique and so special.

4 thoughts to “How The Empire Strikes Back Ruined Star Wars”

  1. What I find interesting is that even with the film’s huge success as a given, there’s a scenario where the sequels double down on the serial premise rather than reduce it to window dressing. In that case Episodes V and VI (and VII, and VIII, and IX…) might have looked a lot like the old SW newspaper strips or Marvel comics—endlessly iterating on the original conflict without advancing the story or themes much. I wonder how long he could have gotten away with that.

    1. I always say if you wanna look at the weird “What if ” universe of Star Wars taking a different direction look no further then Splinter of the Minds Eye.

  2. Nice article. I’m with Coop that it’s fun to dream on a Star Wars emerging from A New Hope that focused on a serialized format, rather than becoming an epic saga. Michael Kaminski’s “The Secret History of Star Wars” provides an interesting peak at what might have been, as it outlines Lucas’s original treatment for The Empire Strikes Back–which closely mirrors the ultimate product we received until near the end, when Han escapes Cloud City with everyone else, Luke duels Vader sans an “I am your father!” revelation while maintaining a Millennium Falcon rescue to cap it off, and then “The Falcon lands on a beautiful jungle garden planet at the end, where the heroes say goodbye to each other before the Falcon takes off into the sunset.” It’s not hard to imagine such a film as the start to a serialized series.

    Additionally, Kaminski flags that early story discussions between Brackett and Lucas and the first draft of the screenplay referred to The Empire Strikes Back alternately as “Chapter II” and “Episode II.” It was the second draft of the screenplay–notably, the draft where “I am your father!” appears–that dubbed the film “Episode V.” In some ways, that makes sense; it may have been in realizing what a rich backstory that moment created that Lucas embraced the idea of A New Hope as the first film of a second trilogy in an epic saga.

    I’m glad we landed where we did; I like the Epic Saga of Star Wars. But the original remains my favorite film, largely because of the possibility it inspires–and that includes fun imaginings of other directions these films could have taken.

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