Three years after their successful attack on the Death Star, the Rebel Alliance, led by Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), has established a new base on the snow-covered planet Hoth. The Imperial Fleet, commanded by Sith Lord Darth Vader (body by David Prowse, voice by James Earl Jones), sends off probe droids to search the galaxy. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), investigating one such probe, is captured by a bear-like Wampa and dragged back to its cave, but he uses the telekinetic powers of the Force to grab his lightsabre and escape. As he drifts into hyperthermian unconsciousness, the spirit of Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) tells him to go to the swamp-covered world of Dagobah to train under Jedi Master Yoda. Han Solo (Harrison Ford) finds him and keeps him alive during the freezing Hoth night by stuffing him into the dead body of his Tauntaun mount, until they can be rescued by a search-party the next day.
But the probe has alerted the Imperial Fleet and the Empire launches an attack on the base by towering AT-AT walkers, forcing an evacuation. Han and Leia escape with C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) in the Millennium Falcon, but the hyperdrive malfunctions and they hide in an asteroid field. Vader has hired a variety of bounty-hunters to find the Falcon. Luke, with R2-D2 installed in his X-wing fighter, travels to Dagobah, where they crash in the jungle and the ship sinks into the swamp. He meets the tiny Yoda (a Muppet performed and voiced by Frank Oz), who reluctantly agrees to tutor the headstrong youth in the Ways of the Force, including how to lift a spaceship out of a lake with the power of the mind.
Having eluded the Imperial Fleet, Han and crew travel to the floating cloud-city on the planet Bespin, which is run by Han’s old friend Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams). Bounty hunter Boba Fett (Jeremy Bulloch, with Jason Wingreen’s voice) follows the Falcon and with Vader forces Lando to turn over our heroes to the Empire. Vader plans to use them to lure Luke into a trap, hoping to turn him the Dark Side. Luke senses his friends’ fear, abandons his training with Yoda, and speeds to their rescue at Bespin.
Vader intends to freeze Luke in carbonite suspended animation and tests out the procedure on Han. Frozen Han is turned over to Boba Fett to be taken to Jabba the Hutt. Lando frees Leia and Chewbacca and they escape with the temporarily disassembled C-3PO. Luke arrives and engages in a lightsabre duel with Vader, ending over the city’s airshaft. Vader cuts off Luke’s right hand and tries to stoke his anger (which leads to the Dark Side) by revealing that he is his father.
Luke is horrified by the news and drops to his apparent death down the airshaft, where he ends up clinging to the outside of the city, far above the clouds. He calls telepathically to Leia, who persuades Lando to turn the Falcon around and return for him. The ship’s hyperdrive has been tampered with, but R2 fixes it and they escape. Vader, waiting to seize them on the Star Destroyer, is defeated. Luke re-joins the rebel forces and his severed hand is replaced with a robotic prosthesis. Lando and Chewbacca head off to rescue Han.
Like everyone else, I was dumbstruck with the revelation of Luke’s parentage. Then I spent the last 20 minutes of the movie fretting that there was not enough time to rescue Han, and only realized at the end that the story would continue in the next movie. When I saw Luke’s robotic hand, I realized that he was on the way to becoming his father. I think it was the first time for me that a fantasy movie had ended so darkly, and it was a sobering experience. Vader’s revelation immediately changed the way people interpreted the first film. Studios were pretty much allergic to sequels in those days (Hard to believe now) and I’m sure the success of The Empire Strikes Back went a long way to changing that.
The shots of Luke retrieving his lightsabre in the Wampa’s cave were created by him throwing it away and running the film backwards. Mark Hamill did all his own stunts except being sucked out of a Cloud City window. If the scene of Luke being kept warm in the Tauntaun’s entrails reminds you of Leonardo DiCaprio doing the same with a bear in the Revenant, it’s because both were inspired by the same Native American trick. The Tauntauns were inspired by a two-legged creature appearing in the 1977 animated film Wizards by Ralph Bakshi. Their bleating sound was that of an Asian sea-otter named Moda. Luke’s hospital scene was the only one in which all the main Rebel characters appeared. When Mark Hamill was having a tough time during scenes with Yoda, Frank Oz brought in Miss Piggy to make him laugh. When I saw the movie for the first time and Yoda first spoke, a kid in the audience behind me said, “It’s Fozie Bear!” George Lucas tried to get an Oscar nomination for Frank Oz, to no avail. Oz didn’t really care.
Don’t tell me the battle with the Oliphaunts in The Two Towers was not influenced by the battle of the AT-ATs on Hoth. The AT-ATs (All Terrain Armoured Transporters) were inspired by the tripods in the novel War of the Worlds but based on the movements of elephants. The troops in the Battle of Hoth were Norwegian mountain-rescue skiers. Lucas donated to the Norwegian Red Cross for all their help. The two-legged Walkers, first planned for that scene, but which worked better later in the forests of Endor, were called AT-STs, but often referred to as chicken-walkers. Their roofs were the roofs of World War II German tiger tanks. The twin-fuselage TIE bombers used in the asteroid-field hunt for the Falcon are based on the World War II German Blohm & Voss BV141 reconnaissance bomber. One of the asteroids is a potato. The Bespin twin-pod Cloud City fliers resemble the American F-82 Twin Mustang Fighter. The spacesuit worn by the bounty-hunter Bossk was previously used in The Tenth Planet, a Doctor Who serial in 1963. Scenes in the rebel hangar used children as extras so the hangar would appear larger.
Lucas hired Irwin Kershner to direct because he was up to his eyeballs in running his companies. He hired SF writer Leigh Brackett to write the script, but she died before production began. The music was created by John Williams with the London Symphony for a quarter million dollars. The Imperial March may well be my favourite music from any movie. Many reviews were dismissive of the film and it was considered by many a disappointment following Star Wars, but now it is often listed as one of the greatest movies ever made and certainly the best of the original Star Wars Trilogy.
One of the things I love about the Star Wars movies is that they tend to take place in at least three exotic locations, much like a James Bond movie. In the Empire Strikes Back, there are actually three separate stories, one on the ice-planet of Hoth, one on the jungle world of Dagobah, and one in the cloud-city of Bespin—all three gorgeous in their own way. Just as the first production was bedevilled by dust storms (and rain!) in Tunisia, the second film was begun in the worst winter storm in fifty years in Norway. The shots of Luke escaping the Wampa’s cave were filmed out the hotel’s front door. Ironically, the team had brought several crates of simulated snow, just in case.
When Leia tells Han that she loves him, it was Harrison Ford who came up with “I know.” Possibly the best line in the movie. Carrie Fisher often stood on a box for scenes with Ford because he was a foot taller. Lucas had to pay huge fines to the Hollywood guilds for leaving the credits till the end of the movie, which is fairly common now. He bankrolled eighteen million dollars himself to avoid using a major studio. He recovered the investment in three months and gave five million to his employees. Nevertheless, Lucas spent so much money on the film that Fox gave him a hard time. His backer Alan Ladd Jr. quit his job over this, and Lucas went to Paramount Pictures for Raiders of the Lost Ark. He’s my fucking hero.