'The Empire Strikes Back' at 40: My quest for 'Star Wars 2', the defining beat of the saga

British actors Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, American actors Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher on the set of Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back directed by Irvin Kershner. (Photo by Lucasfilm/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

Mark O’Connell is the author of Watching Skies: Star Wars, Spielberg and Us

For a generation of Star Wars kids, the forty-year-old sci-fi behemoth The Empire Strikes Back (released in the UK on 20 May, 1980) was less the greatest chapter in a nine-part saga of plastic-toy escapism and more the one movie we could never find.

Like the Rebel heroes hunkering down for an opening attack of an AT-AT on a Hoth tin roof, George Lucas’s second opus was often hidden away – lost to a VHS galaxy of a video-store’s one elusive copy and no UK TV broadcast until 1988. Its sequel Return of the Jedi was the real star of the 1980s dominating video-stores, sticker albums and Tesco toy departments.

Between 1977’s A New Hope not only changing cinema – and a staggered theatrical campaign and reissues ensuring it was still around when its sequel landed – and the merch-march of 1983’s Jedi, for many kids George Lucas’s Episode V sometimes fell through the cracks like a Skywalker suddenly dealt bad family news.

The queue outside the Leicester Square Theatre, in the morning, for the London opening of the movie "Star Wars". (Photo by PA Images via Getty Images)

My own attempts at experiencing director Irvin Kershner’s muted benchmark of fantasy cinema had become an original trilogy of misfires itself. In December 1981, I first caught a curious Super-8 version during a junior school Christmas party.

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With an accompanying audio cassette for sound, the rather condensed version was a hasty thirty-minute compendium projected on a wall in-between the PE climbing apparatus and the dinner lady hatch.

American actor Mark Hamill on the set of Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back directed by Irvin Kershner. (Photo by Lucasfilm/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

As grainy AT-ATs aimed their fire at the hall rope ladders with blasters painfully out of sync with that cassette, I ventured out to the freezing playground toilets. I can still see Carrie Fisher’s concerned Hoth face as the rain pelted her face through the Victorian school windows and I returned to a hall dripping in condensation and confusion at the abbreviated movie heresy before us. 

My second truncated attempt to experience the film was The Empire Strikes Back Read-Along cassette and book. Those kids’ ‘Read-Along’ square books were as near to an ownership of the movies we had. With official sound effects and John William’s heraldic cues mixed with terrible B-movie replacement voices, I still loved these attempts to get kids to ‘read’ the films.

Surely my third bid at Star Wars 2 would be more successful?

The stars of 'Star Wars: Episode V û The Empire Strikes Back' attend a photocall outside the Savoy Hotel, actress Carrie Fisher with the Stormtroopers, 19th May 1980. (Photo by Alisdair MacDonald/Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)

It wasn’t. Despite an impending Star Wars triple-bill announced in the local papers in 1983, The Empire Strikes Back was denied me a third time. It may well have involved a C-3PO hissy fit about not going to church, not getting pocket-money, or using a swear word because of a combination of the first two.

The maternal empire really struck back and there was no new hope in hell this mop-haired Jedi was going to the Guildford Odeon to see The Empire Strikes Back any time soon.

Author Mark O'Connell (R) in the 1980s. (Mark O'Connell)

Because many Star Wars kids were too young to visit movie theatres in 1977 and 1980, many of us first experienced The Empire Strikes Back via its plastic, resin-scented merchandise. If the film was stuck in a far-away galaxy, the next best thing was easily the plastic trophy of many a kid’s childhood – the Millennium Falcon.

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A vital support character in Empire, the fastest hunk of Corellian junk that is the Falcon was a plump space nickel at odds with the jagged, industrialised angles of its enemies. And the Palitoy version of it was £22.95 at Argos.

Two boys, Thomas (dark hair) and Robbin playing with their Star Wars toys. 16th November 1983. (Photo by Arthur Sidey/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)

So, in October 1984 and aged nine-years-old, my lobbying moved from cinema listings to coyly opened pages of the Argos catalogue and countless dinner table campaigning. Help me Christmas 1984 – you’re my only hope. And, as if a shimmering blue hologram did indeed find a daring farm boy willing to fight the dark side of bad luck, I entered our lounge in the early hours of Christmas Day 1984 and beheld that most glorious of sights - a sizeable box with ‘Palitoy’ visible through thin snowman wrapping paper. The Falcon had landed.

Removing the snowy wrapping to reveal a box covered in snowy Hoth imagery, I quickly fell into a world of Kenner kids and a factory-fresh promise of a ‘Swivelling Radar Dish’, lightsaber practice room and ‘Battle Alarm Sounds’! However, that Millennium Falcon was not even the main prize that morning. The real flagship had yet to be opened. It was 124 minutes long, had all its original dialogue, saw no ninety minutes left on the school floor and no cancelled screenings due to unruly behaviour.

The box art for Empire Strikes Back on VHS.

Having been finally released on video rental the month before, my amazing Mum had also reserved the only copy for Christmas Eve from our local video-store. For one day’s rental I could bask in an Episode V glory for three whole nights! I opened the thick black VHS box and touched that deliciously slanted Empire logo on the cassette. I had waited four and a half years for this moment. And with my freshly minted Falcon taking pride of place on the hearth rug, I shut the curtains, switched on the tree-lights and carefully fed The Empire Strikes Back into our front-loading Hitachi VT-33A.

The Empire Strikes Back was once the quiet, brooding and almost Nordic cousin of the original Star Wars movies – that midwinter rarity never as ubiquitous as its shinier siblings. As we hyperdrive with hyperbole for a deserved classic of American cinema forged by European and Californian talent, it is no Jedi myth to suggest that without Episode V franchise cinema would look very different.

American actors Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, British actors Peter Mayhew and Anthony Daniels on the set of Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back directed by Irvin Kershner. (Photo by Lucasfilm/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

Kershner’s defining space adventure plays out like a nervous road movie without any roads – all told in the front seats of cockpits with stolen conversations in corridors and everyone on the run.

Nothing is quite ready. Nothing quite works. Because of this improvisation, the swashbuckling drive of The Empire Strikes Back becomes ever princely in its heroism and wholly noble in its emotions. Instead of tripling the spectacle, Empire scales back with a great sense of containment, of being inside and letting the character dynamics and emotions widen the story rather than a constant flow of jaw-dropping visuals.

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If A New Hope introduced that world and Return of the Jedi opened it up for decades more, The Empire Strikes Back sets the saga’s tone, its story dignity and matinee movie heraldry. For all its sci-fi grandeur, it is a very intimate movie, a Star Wars movie in reverse and proved the middle note of a saga can be its defining chapter.

American actor Mark Hamill on the set of Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back directed by Irvin Kershner. (Photo by Lucasfilm/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

The end-result is a sharp, open-ended quest with airtight dialogue, an eleventh-hour sense of resourcefulness the prequels missed, and a heroism held together with duct tape, a story wrench, and a prayer.

With that onscreen iris shrinking to an end-credit fanfare, I rewound the tape, ignored a call to walk the dogs and watched it all over again. 

Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back in streaming now on Disney+.