Bounty hunters, blizzards and betrayal. The Empire Strikes Back had it all. To mark the 40th anniversary of its release, Rebel Briefing editor Anthony Murphy celebrates his favourite film of the Star Wars Saga.
My love for Star Wars began in 1980 with The Empire Strikes Back. I was lucky to see A New Hope and Empire together as a double feature at my local cinema. I was four years old.
Reconstructing those hazy memories from a long, long time ago is tricky. But one thing is for sure – the impact of those movies, especially Empire, never left me.
Maybe it was seeing the ice planet Hoth for the first time, falling in love with the magical Yoda, or that shocking ending. Graphically and culturally speaking, Empire was stamped onto the canvas of my young imagination.
Decades later it remains my favourite film… But why? With all the magical movies in the Saga, why is The Empire Strikes Back (for me at least) still the jewel in the Star Wars crown?
Pushing the Limits
It’s because Empire is the peak of quality. It goes beyond being one of the best Star Wars films; it’s one of the greatest sci-fi/fantasy movies ever made.
In his sequel, George Lucas boldly pushed the limits of storytelling and special effects. It could easily have been a rehash of the tropes and themes of the bright and bombastic original. Instead, it’s a darker, more mature tale. Lucas, Irvin Kershner, Gary Kurtz, Lawrence Kasdan and Lucasfilm ramped up the stakes, giving fans a new way of looking at the Star Wars universe.
Without a doubt, Yoda is the star of the show. The green sprite is central to the dramatic and spiritual development of the story, especially Luke’s education in the Force. Through him, we discover more about its power and the Jedi code.
Yoda’s lessons are spectacular and awe-inspiring. Seeing him lift Luke’s X-Wing out of the Dagobah swamp, and hearing him explain the Force – “Its energy surrounds us and binds us” – is pure movie magic.
For me, Yoda speaks the best line in the Saga: “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter,” he says. From a spiritual point of view, it’s the purest description of the Force. This knowledge is a source of comfort to all those who have suffered loss or grief.
The Dark Side
And then there’s Darth Vader. The cybernetic Sith Lord is the antithesis of the organic and mystical Yoda.
In Empire, the dark side of the Force is everywhere. We see more of Vader’s skills and we meet the Emperor via hologram. We also catch a brief glimpse of what’s under Vader’s helmet. Remember Luke’s failure at the cave on Dagobah, too.
During his pursuit of Luke and his friends, Vader ruthlessly kills incompetent Imperial officers, unleashes dangerous bounty hunters on our heroes (Boba Fett – the coolest dude in the galaxy) and tortures Han Solo. We were shocked as Luke received the beating of his life at his hands.
With those four words (“I am your father”) we learned there was more to Vader than the pitch-black armour. We discovered he was once Anakin Skywalker, and he is humanised by his connection to Luke.
Because of that emotional climax, The Empire Strikes Back became more than just a story about good versus evil. Vader’s betrayal reduced the conflict to a human level, setting father against son. For Luke (and the fans), things were never the same again.
As Vader’s son, Luke’s character became richer and more complex as a result. In the blink of an eye, he changed from naive idealist to scion of the (second) most evil man in the galaxy. From that point, fans accepted that Luke carried the dark side within himself.
Despite his grim reality, Luke remains my Star Wars hero. Rather than surrender to the dark side, he chose an almost certain death to preserve his honour. By jumping into the abyss below Cloud City, not only did he surrender the last remnant of his innocence, he won a vital moral victory over Vader and the dark side.
Empire’s immense last act launched the final stage (as it was back in the ’80s) of the Star Wars Saga. More than that, it set up Vader’s redemption in Return of the Jedi, and the eventual reconciliation between father and son. It was a new and modern mythology I totally bought into.
The Circle is Now Complete
From experiencing The Empire Strikes Back for the first time as a wide-eyed child with my family to collecting the toys and re-watching the movie on video at home (Special Edition included!), my appreciation and love for the film is just as strong and powerful 40 years on. After all, I have grown up with it.
I learned life lessons from it – sometimes the bad guys win – and incorporated Yoda’s wisdom into my worldview. Because of Empire, I love movies, photography, design, writing and storytelling.
Today I’m a proud dad to a four-year-old boy, and tonight we’ll sit down and watch The Empire Strikes Back together for the first time… as father and son. The circle is now complete.
It’s a wrap! After 42 years and nine movies, the generation-spanning Skywalker Saga has come to an end. Is The Rise of Skywalker a fitting finale? To quote Obi-Wan one last time, it all depends on a certain point of view.
In a nutshell, fans of The Last Jedi will loathe it, while haters of Rian Johnson’s fandom splitting Episode 8 will love it.
And therein lies the problem – we were given three different films written and directed by two vastly different filmmakers.
Sadly both The Rise of Skywalker and the sequel trilogy suffer because of it.
Rebel Briefing will probably receive a one-way ticket to the Spice Mines of Kessel for saying this, but the trilogy missed the influence of George Lucas or someone of his stature.
With no creative deity overseeing production, The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, and The Rise of Skywalker are a mishmash of story ideas. It’s clear Disney did not have a game plan for the trilogy.
Blasters to Stun
Before you set your blasters to stun (or worse), the original trilogy (OT) gets a pass.
Yes, you can argue Lucas did not have the OT mapped out from the beginning, but he did have a vision. A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi were based on stories by him – Luke Skywalker learning to become a Jedi to defeat the Empire and redeem his father.
It doesn’t matter that Empire and Jedi were made by different directors, Lucas, The Maker, was in charge. He was the constant. Because of this, the trilogy felt cohesive.
Like the Emperor, Lucas exercised total control over his universe. In true auteur style, he handled every creative aspect of production.
Again he knew the story he wanted to tell: how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader, and how the Empire rose to power.
Love or loathe them, there’s no denying the prequel trilogy had a coherent and cohesive story arc.
The films gave fans new stories that expanded the Star Wars galaxy.
In contrast, the sequel trilogy feels thrown together and not uniquely original.
The Force Awakens borrows heavily from A New Hope, and The Last Jedi is The Empire Strikes Back.
The Rise of Skywalker takes us on a lightspeed journey of story and plot corrections that bring us back to the same place in Return of the Jedi, with our heroes killing Palpatine at the end.
No Jedi Master
With no visionary Jedi Master overseeing production on the sequels, JJ Abrams and Rian Johnson had the freedom to write what they wanted.
As a result, the trilogy never seems to know where it’s going.
Abrams may have had a plan for what came after The Force Awakens, but he surrendered it when he handed the baton to Johnson on The Last Jedi.
Johnson even admits there was no story map given to him beyond the first instalment and that he was allowed to take the story in a new direction. As a consequence, his brave efforts to write and direct a different kind of Star Wars film subverted what Abrams established in The Force Awakens.
For many, he changed the story too dramatically…
Perhaps Abrams (or someone else) should have mapped the trilogy from beginning to end before handing it to other filmmakers.
We know George Lucas had an outline for the new trilogy before he sold it to Disney. It’s intriguing to wonder where he would have taken the story.
Return of the Sith
In The Force Awakens, Abrams treated us to his mystery box of puzzles – who are Rey’s parents, and who is Snoke?
These mysteries were answered by Johnson in The Last Jedi, leaving Abrams nowhere to go in the final film. He was painted into a corner.
As a consequence, and to possibly appease to fan anger, he walked back much of Johnson’s work.
The best example is the question of Rey’s parentage, which was laid to rest in The Last Jedi.
Instead of being a nobody from nowhere, we are told Rey is the granddaughter of the Emperor. This is despite there being no allusion to the presence of Palpatine in the previous films.
Admitting he was hamstrung by the killing of Snoke, Abrams says he had no better choice but to bring Palpatine back.
Why not make Kylo Ren the supreme villain of the trilogy? So much for a coherent plan from the beginning.
This is a shame because, at the end of The Last Jedi, we are told bloodline didn’t matter. It implied that the Force isn’t just the domain of a few notable and noble families, but a power able to manifest itself within anyone, from the lowest stable boy to a lonely desert scavenger.
What’s more, Palpatine’s return reduces the sacrifice Anakin Skywalker made at the end of Return of the Jedi.
After all, the previous two trilogies were about the rise and fall of Anakin.
Most annoying of all, his contribution was reduced to a single (off-screen) ethereal line.
The Safe Zone
For many, The Rise of Skywalker was a welcome relief after the shocks and revelations of Episode 8.
But by returning to the safe zone established in The Force Awakens (coupled with the return of Palpatine), the trilogy takes a step backwards rather than a giant leap forward. It goes back to a place of thematic and emotional safety. There’s a frustrating lack of imagination – The Rise of Skywalker feels like an attempt to correct what went before.
What we are left with is a trilogy that does not connect with the previous two. Because of this, the Skywalker Saga feels out of balance.
Below the frozen surface of Hoth, General Rieekan addresses the Rebel ranks. The subject is Echo Base. But he’s not talking about surprise Imperial invasions or Wampa attacks. Instead he’s discussing the Echo Base Facebook group – a growing alliance of Star Wars toys enthusiasts. Despite the cold, the battle-weary commander hands the briefing over to the group’s founder Adam Pemberton for details.
A long time ago in a childhood far, far away, Star Wars toys ruled the universe. They were the rocket fuel that fired the hyperdrives of our young imaginations. Who doesn’t remember re-staging the Death Star assault with Tie fighters and X-Wings in the backyards or bedrooms?
Today, this passion still inspires fans to collect the toys. Look online and you’ll find a community of collectors spanning the globe. “It’s mostly 40-something, follically challenged males with facial hair,” jokes Adam to Rebel Briefing.
Ether-Regions of the Force
It can be argued that Star Wars collectors fall into two groups – those kids who had the wisdom to keep their toys, and those whose collections disappeared into the ether-regions of the Force. “I kept mine, and even as a 16-year-old I still liked them from a collector’s point of view,” Adam says.
At the beginning his goal was to grow his collection. But with no collecting community to speak of at the time, he ingenuously offered to buy his friend’s toys. These were supplemented with visits to toy fairs.
Then, in the early 90s, Adam reached a critical juncture in his career – he sold his entire collection on eBay. It’s a decision he still regrets today.
Fortunately, he bought some 12-inch Gentle Giant figures online as a homage to the toys he sold. To his surprise, one came with a vintage Kenner IG-88 as a freebie. “It broke my brain a bit. It felt like the beginning of a new chapter, so I began collecting vintage toys again, especially IG-88 figures.”
It Began with Jedi
Adam’s collecting journey began with Return of the Jedi – it was the first film he saw at the cinema. “The great thing about this era was that all the toys were available, albeit in Jedi packaging. For me, there was no waiting between movies for new items.”
Soon he was buying toys from as far afield as the United States and Canada.
Because of the expensive postage costs, he wondered if there was a place online where collectors could buy and sell Star Wars toys in the UK.
A web search showed little and soon Echo Base was launched. “It began with a gang of my Star Wars friends, plus contacts I made on eBay and through social media.”
That was five years ago.
Today Echo Base boasts 14,000 members. And that’s just for the Vintage group where fans can buy and sell classic toys sold between 1977 and 1988.
This was followed in 2016 by the Modern group where you’ll discover another 7,000 members trading toys from the prequels to the sequels.
The Droids You’re Looking For
So, how does it work?
Let’s say you want a vintage droid figure from A New Hope (ANH). You may be looking for a mint R5-D4 figure on card, a loose Gonk Droid in good condition, or an R2-D2 variant (more on variants later).
Your first step is to join Echo Base.
Once accepted you are free to post what toy you need – in this case on the Vintage page.
Chances are strong that a fellow collector will have the droids you’re looking for and will be happy to sell.
The same rules apply if you want to sell your own toys – you simply post on the relevant page. A Qui-Gon Jinn figure, for example, should be sold on the Modern group.
To prove ownership, every toy must include a photo with the seller’s name and date written on a piece of paper. Private Messaging is also banned without posting on the original sales thread first. When done, you’re free to make contact with address and payment details (using PayPal).
“The rules prevent scamming,” Adam explains. “Unlike other sales platforms, Echo Base allows collectors to sell, buy and trade Star Wars toys safe in the knowledge that reproductions and shady dealings are few and far between. There’s also the added bonus of paying no fees – we don’t make any profit from Echo Base.”
Echo Base Live
In 2016 Adam made the jump from cyberspace to real space with Echo Base Live.
The free fan event at the Kingfisher, Redditch, showcases a cargo hold of vintage and modern Star Wars collectables. You will find everything from carded and loose figures, ships and vehicles, to art and books. All budgets are catered for.
With two events a year, more than 2000 eager fans marched through the blast doors in April to spend their hard-earned Republic credits. “It’s great that people can chat on Facebook, but it’s better when everybody gets together at Echo Base Live. Fans love rummaging and picking things up at the different tables.”
Autograph hunters are catered for too with actors signing names and sharing stories. Caroline Blakiston (Mon Mothma from Return of the Jedi), Tim Rose (Admiral Ackbar), Mike Quinn (Nieein Nunb), Michael Culver (Captain Needa) and Jack McKenzie (Cal Alder) appeared at the October 5th event.
Adam also encourages you to bring toys from home to the free evaluation service – you may be surprised what they are worth.
Most important, Echo Base Live is a fundraiser for charity. Proceeds from raffles and official Echo Base merchandise including mugs, action figure guides and posters go to local causes including the Ronald McDonald Children’s House.
“It’s hard to organise but great fun,” Adam says. “It’s been a great success, especially with fans from other Facebook groups attending. I enjoy seeing younger collectors coming along, and I’ve noticed more female fans joining too, which is fantastic. We should remember that this new generation of collectors are the the ones who will keep our hobby alive. I like to think Echo Base Live helps promote this.”
There are many reasons why fans collect Star Wars toys. Some collect for nostalgia, some for fun and, some for investment.
If you were an 8-year-old in 1978 and lucky to still own the figures and ships from that period, you are fortunate.
But, for people starting again from scratch, they often begin with loose vintage figures before moving on to vehicles. “It becomes about what to collect next, and buying variant figures has become popular.”
All figures – especially those from Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back – have variations ranging from the obvious to the minor. This is the result of toys being produced in different countries and factories. Mexican figures, for example, differ from those made in North America or Europe.
The classic example is the famous Jawa figure with the vinyl or cloth cape.
Vintage Luke from ANH is another toy with different variations – you’ll find him with blonde or brown hair, plus different lightsaber types. His trousers can range from dark brown to cream in colour.
Obi-Wan also shares Luke’s hair issues – you’ll find old Ben with grey or white hair.
“Variants are a fun way to expand your collection. Take IG-88, the figure that set me on my journey to Echo Base. You’ll find a ton of different forms for that toy; many of which I have. For me, chasing down and buying variations of the assassin droid is great fun. You can find all types of variants on Echo Base and live events.”
Unlike the icy Rebel fortress on Hoth, there are no plans to abandon Echo Base anytime soon. In fact, it continues to grow.
He’s under no illusion that Echo Base will allow him to retire early (he’s not in it for the money). Like many fans, Star Wars toys remind him of a special bygone era – the fun and nostalgia of playing with them as a kid. “Men especially are terrible for buying things that made them happy as a child. People simply want that joy back in their lives. Yes you can invest in stocks, shares or saving accounts, but they don’t bring the same joy of being able to display and enjoy your collection. This is much more fun.”
Suddenly, General Rieekan ends the briefing. There are reports that Captain Solo and Commander Skywalker are missing. With temperatures dropping, Tauntauns freezing and Wampas prowling the first marker, Adam is ordered to his snowspeeder to join the rescue mission.
WARNING: If you hate The Phantom Menace with the fury of a supernova, this is not the article you are looking for.
It’s hard to believe The Phantom Menace turns 20 today. The years have flown by like a quick lap of the Boonta Eve podrace.
Two decades on, it still remains divisive. But, with The Last Jedi now the punching bag of the Star Wars universe, The Phantom Menace can breathe a sigh of relief that it’s no longer the most hated film of the franchise.
So, on its 20th anniversary, maybe today’s the day to talk about its legacy.
Yes, it has flaws. It can be argued the movie is the product of a ring rusty filmmaker who hadn’t written and directed for 22 years.
You can, of course, find plenty of criticism and vitriol online if that’s your thing – enough to fill the hold of a certain Corellian freighter in fact – but I’d rather focus on what the movie gave us rather than what it didn’t.
A Different Beast
Anticipation for The Phantom Menace was 16 years in the making. Crushed under a tidal wave of hype and expectation, its fall was inevitable.
For many, it was a different beast to the one they expected. Fans were angered by the slow and deliberate story. Instead of civil war, we got trade disputes and dry politics instead of balls to the wall action.
Controversially, George Lucas started the prequel trilogy with the story of a nine-year-old boy.
And Midi-chlorians? Let’s not go there.
The thing is, we were given the singular vision of an independent filmmaker famous for preserving his creative freedom to tell the stories he wants. Remember, it was Lucas’ dogged determination that got Episode IV: A New Hope made way back in 1977.
The Phantom Menace was a similar vision – a movie free of meddling studio execs insisting on something safe and familiar (probably a carbon copy of A New Hope). Lucas gave viewers his personal vision for Episode 1, made the way he wanted it. In modern Hollywood, this should be applauded.
Lucas’ vision, imagination and world building in The Phantom Menace are magnificent. It’s still a bold, innovative and visually stunning movie.
Stylistically and tonally, it’s deliberately different to the original trilogy (OT). Design director, Doug Chiang, describes it as being “richer and more like a period piece, since it was the history leading up to A New Hope.”
Unlike the straight-forward narrative and military/industrial style of the OT, the film gave us a somewhat wider, complex and nuanced story.
Design wise, the renaissance architecture of Naboo is rich and glorious – you can almost feel the Mediterranean-like sunshine and vibrant culture.
The art nouveau-inspired Gungan underwater city is beautiful and alien, in contrast to Coruscant, with its cosmopolitan skyscrapers and urban crawl.
We shouldn’t forget the sleek aesthetics of the Naboo starfighters or the Nubian royal starship, either.
We visited Tatooine again – led down the backstreets of Mos Espa and invited into the homes and workplaces of its denizens.
Nor should we forget the exhilarating and reverberating visuals and sounds of the pod race as it screamed across the desert landscape.
Then there’s the movie’s rich costume design, suggesting a society more sophisticated than the one seen in the OT. Queen Amidala, her Orient inspired outfits and makeup, coming to life on the screen.
Darth Maul, also, with his gothic black robes, devil horns and red and black tattoos, evokes images of Japanese demons, while Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan’s Jedi remind us of Samurai.
Importantly, the production design and set pieces (the pod race and climactic lightsaber battle) are visually stunning – they serve the story, not the other way round.
Duel of the Fates
Gluing it all together is John Williams’ epic score.
The ominous, choral-led Duel of the Fates theme underpinning what is by far the saga’s best lightsaber battle; The fight between Maul, Kenobi and Jinn.
It’s a spiritual movie, too. Anakin Skywalker is the chosen one – prophesied to bring balance to the Force. Episode 1 foreshadows his fall from grace when he later betrays his loved ones and brothers in arms.
Carrying out the devil’s work is Darth Maul, his demon-like appearance again referencing the movie’s spiritual subtext. Even the title, The Phantom Menace, suggest higher powers at play.
Which brings us to Senator Palpatine – the real Phantom Menace.
The two-faced, calculating and Machiavellian politician is a different kind of antagonist. He’s a master manipulator and conspirator. Yes we suspect (know) his secret Sith identity, and we enjoy this knowledge at the expense of the Jedi Counsel and Galactic Senate. Despite his appearance, Palpatine is the movie’s strongest villain.
A Second Chance
The battle for the heart and soul of The Phantom Menace has been fought along two demographic fractures – Generation X and The Millennials.
Fans who grew up in the 1970s and 80s will probably always hate the movie. Their disappointment is real and ubiquitous – they are not for turning.
But, the ill-will towards Episode 1 has mellowed over time with a shift in how it is viewed.
For older fanboys, arguments about the film’s evils are now said and done. They have moved on, with many choosing to forget and ignore the movie (and prequels) entirely.
The others grew up.
Rightly or wrongly, George Lucas made The Phantom Menace for children – a new generation superseding those of the 70s and 80s.
When released, Episode 1 was probably the first experience of Star Wars these millennial kids had. Like the older fans of the OT, their childhood was shaped by the saga, but this time with heroes like Anakin and Padme (and dare I say it, Jar Jar Binks), not Luke, Leia or Han.
These younglings would eventually have access to six era-jumping movies and a new plethora of toys, comics and video games. Now in their 20s and 30s (some now with children of their own) these girls and boys can nostalgically look back and celebrate a childhood enriched by Star Wars, starting with The Phantom Menace.
A Warm, Fuzzy Feeling
Thinking back to the early summer of 1999 brings back happy memories. The world was saturated with Episode 1. From posters to Pepsi cans – the hype and excitement was unreal.
Fan fever was stoked with the release of the first trailer in November ‘98 when it burst on to the net. There were news reports of fans buying cinema tickets to see Meet Joe Black, just so they could watch the trailer then leaving the theatre before the film began.
Many fans were still buzzing after the re-release of the original trilogy in their special edition formats. The promise of a new adventure was overwhelming – The Phantom Menace could not come soon enough.
The best memories were seeing the trailer for the first time. It was recorded on VHS; every image and word dissected by me and my friends.
The soundtrack never left the CD player.
Who could forget also the awesome teaser poster of Anakin on Tatooine casting an ominous shadow of Darth Vader?
Variety magazine boasted Annie Leibovitz’s on set photos plus George Lucas’ first Episode 1 interview.
My family – mum, dad and brother – enjoyed an evening out on premiere day. It was a special occasion for everyone.
It didn’t matter that The Phantom Menace didn’t entirely meet expectations, it was Star Wars. The Force was back on the big screen.
Despite having issues with the movie (I still hate those battles droids), I get a warm, fuzzy, nostalgic feeling every time I think back to the summer of 1999.
Nostalgia plays a big part of why people love Star Wars – the happy memories. They go together like Chewie and Han.
A Certain Point of View
With the release of The Force Awakens, some fans (me included) have revisited Episode 1.
Watching it again with fresh eyes, it’s possible to rethink the legacy of The Phantom Menace.
This is helped by much in-depth analysis of the prequels online, specifically its defences. For those interested, you can unpack near academic levels of pro arguments. One of these is Ring Theory.
Put simply, it postulates the idea of George Lucas likening the saga to poetry. As he said in the excellent ‘The Beginning’ documentary “it’s like poetry, they rhyme. Every stanza should rhyme with the last one.”
Going further, Ring Theory argues the prequels echo their corresponding original trilogy counterparts – in the case of The Phantom Menace, Anakin destroys the droid control ship the same way Luke does with the Death Star. The key difference with the prequels being that the Dark Side wins.
You can find many intelligent and passionate defences of The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith at your fingertips. All offer a fresh and thought-provoking rethink of the films.
Best of these is The Prequels Strike Back documentary, should you be open to watching it. Remember; it all depends on a certain point of view.
The Clone Wars animated series can also take credit for breathing new life into Episode 1. It brilliantly fleshes out the prequel era, helping fans old and new in their acceptance of a story controversially told by George Lucas 20 years ago.
One of the most famous prequel bashers to rethink The Phantom Menace movie is Simon Pegg.
Calling the movie “a boring, turgid, confused mess,” he recently made a big u-turn in his acceptance of Episode 1 and George Lucas.
“For all the complaining that I’d done,” he says, “there was something amazing about his imagination. I do feel like his voice is missing from the current ones.”
Pegg’s contrition highlights the retro tone of The Force Awakens under Disney, and how different it is to the first prequel movie.
Love or hate The Phantom Menace, Mr Lucas reinforces a point made above: “My previous Star Wars films involved constant innovation. I worked very hard to make them completely different, with different planets, with different spaceships – to make it new.”
Episode 1: The Phantom Menace gave new depth to the Star Wars universe. It looked and felt different. It passed the torch to a new generation of fans, without whom there’d probably be no new movies to make and stories to tell.
The cycle will start again with young fans of the sequel trilogy.
At the very least, its legacy gives fans a great excuse to debate, discuss and dissect our favourite galaxy far, far away.
Rebel Briefing wouldn’t usually initiate contact with agents of the Empire, but we did. Our brave Rebel operative, under armed guard and surrounded by Stormtroopers, sat down with the Commanding Officer of the 501st UK Garrison to gather vital intel about the group. Here is part 1 of our official report. No Bothans died to bring you this information.
Stormtroopers are a taciturn bunch, but nothing could be further from the truth when talking to Gary Hailes. Taking a break from his frontline duties, he boasted to Rebel Briefing that the 501st Legion “are the good guys.”
While this could be dismissed as Imperial propaganda, there’s an element of truth to his claim.
If you’re not familiar with the 501st, of which the UK Garrison (UKG) is a part, it is the largest costuming group in the world. It is made up entirely of volunteers and boasts 14,000 active members from more than 60 countries. You may recognise the Legion from San Diego Comic Con, MCM London Comic Con, film premieres and Star Wars Celebration to name a few.
Founded by South Carolina resident Albin Johnson in 1997, the 501st spreads the magic of Star Wars through its screen accurate Stormtrooper costumes. It also has a grander, philanthropic mission, being dedicated to many charitable causes. It is credited with raising millions for charity, particularly those involving children living with illness. It is Lucasfilm’s preferred Imperial costuming organisation.
In 2004, and with Lucasfilm’s blessing, author Timothy Zahn honoured the 501st by incorporating it into his novel, Survivor’s Quest. Since then it has been included in video games, the Clone Wars animated series and many other Star Wars stories and merchandise.
The Legion is nicknamed ‘Vader’s Fist’ because of his exclusive use of the unit. See those clone troopers backing up Darth Vader as he sacks the Jedi Temple in Revenge of the Sith, yep, that’s the nascent 501st.
But, shouldn’t these accolades fly in the face of everything we know about the evil Empire? Well, it depends on a certain point of view and who you talk to. For instance, while many of us were opening our presents on Christmas morning, Gary and members of the UKG were driving to Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire. Their mission? To bring some festive joy to the lives of sick children spending Christmas in hospital.
Still, why would someone want to become a Stormtrooper when they could be anything else in the Star Wars universe – a hotshot X-wing pilot, Rebel commando, Jedi Knight, or even a rogue smuggler with a Wookie sidekick?
“I’d been into costumes for a while and I knew of the 501st,” says Gary. “I decided I was going to build a Stormtrooper uniform and the UK Garrison seemed the obvious place to go.”
Joining the Ranks
You cannot mind trick your way into the UKG. First you need a big passion for Star Wars and for helping others. Secondly, you need to own a professional-quality costume celebrating Star Wars ‘Dark Side’ characters.
While famous for its Stormtroopers, the Garrison welcomes other Imperial ranks such as TIE fighter pilots, Royal Guards, Biker Scouts, Snowtroopers, Sith Lords, clone troopers and bounty hunters.
You should also note that the UKG, as with all 501st global Garrisons (local units in each country are called Garrisons), is very fussy about the accuracy of its costumes. Raw recruits must adhere to strict, minute details to ensure that their outfits are screen accurate.
“Accuracy and attention to detail is what we look for,” explains Gary. “Some people may argue that it doesn’t matter if something is not completely accurate. To us it does matter – buttons should be the right size, lenses for helmets the right type, and belts the correct thickness. Armour colour should be exact. Blu-ray has had a big impact on costuming in recent years, meaning people can now study costumes in great detail. It’s about making your outfit look like what’s on screen.”
Once accepted into the Legion, you are given a unique identification number. This follows the tradition of the Stormtrooper character TK-421, mentioned in A New Hope. Gary’s is TK-2739.
A Force for Good
Charity work is a big priority for the UKG, indeed the whole 501st. Because of this, it proudly refers to itself as “Bad Guys Doing Good.”
The Garrison does not charge appearance fees for attending and supporting fundraising and charity events. For corporate, marketing or promotional functions, it welcomes donations which go into their collective pot. These are distributed to the UK charities it directly supports including The Royal British Legion, MediCinema, The Henry Allen Trust, Mitchell’s Miracles, and the Oxford Children’s Hospital.
The UKG has also granted many wishes for children on behalf of the Make-A-Wish Foundation (UK) and has a close relationship with Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children. 100 percent of the money raised gets shared between the organisations. In recent years the Garrison has raised over £336,000 for worthwhile causes.
“Being part of the UKG is fun but hard work,” Gary says. “Ultimately it’s fun. If it wasn’t, you wouldn’t do it. The upside is that we raise a lot of cash for charity. On Christmas Day me and two other guys woke up at silly o’clock and drove to Milton Keynes. We live nowhere near there. We travelled to the hospital and spent the morning giving presents to children. It’s an amazing feeling, and that’s why we do it.”
Gary recalls one visit when a three-year-old patient, Tia, screamed and ran away from the Stormtroopers as they invaded the hospital ward. Finally, she started talking to the troops. By the end of the visit Tia was holding Gary’s hand and telling the nurses she didn’t want them to leave.
With its penchant for Star Wars villainy, the real-world mission of the Garrison is to help local communities. Its goal is to brighten the lives of the less fortunate and highlight good causes both locally and globally.
Despite the ideological differences between the Alliance and Empire, Rebel Briefing can only applaud and celebrate this excellent work.
Serving the Empire
So, if serving with the Empire is still your ambition, how do you begin building your Stormtrooper armour?
Gary says that costumes are usually hand-assembled. He describes them as being like giant Airfix model kits which, like the original armour in A New Hope, are made up of different pieces of plastic.
When he bought his kit 10 years ago, it turned up in a big, brown box full of different pieces that needed cutting and trimming. At first the small and different parts meant nothing to the rookie trooper; it was just a question of getting out his Stanley knife, glue and tools and getting into it. The armour – which is vacuformed ABS plastic – needed to be cut, sanded, and attached to and around a black undersuit.
While this may seem as complicated as reading the Death Star plans, you will be glad to know that there’s a lot of support to help you assemble your outfit. And this is where the club mentality of the UK Garrison comes to the fore.
“I could not have completed my costume without the help of the UKG,” says Gary. “A member sent me a text message inviting me over to their house one Sunday. She said to bring my incomplete armour, explaining that members of the group would be there to help me get started. And that’s what I did – I got there at 10.30am and left several hours later with my uniform nearly complete. The rest I finished at home.”
Gary warns that it is easy to be conned by people taking advantage of the enthusiasm and naivety of beginners. The danger is you can spend a lot of money on something which is not worth much.
“We don’t want you getting ripped off, so come to us and we’ll steer you in the right direction,” he advises. “We will help you build your armour, advise you on the how, why, when and what for. As a club that’s something I am very proud of; we try to help people out.”
There are essentially two kinds of Stormtrooper armour available on the market – fan sculpted costumes and those made by a Cheshire-based company called RS Prop Masters.
Licensed outfits are available, which are usually used for fancy dress. “These are not practical for our needs and requirements,” Gary says. “They are not what we call ‘trooper worn’. I probably suit up 80 times a year, and commercially available armour is not something you can use on multiple occasions.”
This is interesting when you consider that the original Stormtrooper costumes were made for one film, A New Hope. To save cash, the same outfits were reused for The Empire Strikes Back. While that armour was made to look good, it was not sturdy or rigid. He explains that Legion suits are thicker and hard-wearing. “We put them together so that they are practical to wear. It’s interesting to watch Rogue One and see how the filmmakers have adapted the armour to be more wearable. They obviously learned mistakes from the original films, and I suspect they have used ideas from the 501st. I notice how flexible they are, being easy to walk, run and sit in.”
“I am Darth Vader,” booms a voice suddenly from the shadows.
Startled, our agent notices the presence of a tall figure dressed in black watching the interrogation. The mere mention of the Dark Lord’s name triggers a feeling of dread in the room. But, just like everything related to the UKG, appearances can be deceiving.
Garrison member Mark Brooks steps into view. “Well… I am a Darth Vader,” he says with a smile. “We actually have several, but we only let one out at a time because they are trouble.”
Like Luke Skywalker and his height issues, Mark is actually too tall to be a Stormtrooper. At six-two, his impressive frame makes him a natural fit to play the Sith Lord. “I had a Stormtrooper outfit which was not up to muster, so I sold it on eBay. Because of my height people suggested that I play Darth Vader instead.”
Mark now enjoys scaring children for fun. A good day for him is counting how many kids he makes cry. The more he reduces to tears, the better day he has.
He recalls appearing at a Christmas grotto called ‘Dark Santa’. The idea was, instead of visiting Father Christmas, you go into the grotto and meet Darth Vader.
“Because of the long day there were two of us playing Vader, each taking a turn to meet the children. The other Darth spent two hours meeting the kids, and it was all laughter and smiles. I was in there for 10 seconds and the first child who approached me was reduced to tears. I thought yep, he’s not supposed to be lovable or approachable. Vader, if you go back to prequels, is a baby killer; he murders the Younglings at the Jedi Temple. He’s not nice, and the idea is that if you put the suit on you have to be him. I’m not going to give people high fives. Darth Vader doesn’t high five.”
Just when you could be forgiven for thinking that UKG members are scum and villainy for scaring children, Gary defends Mark with cold, Tarkin-like logic.
“It’s not just the accuracy of the costumes that’s important. We try to create an experience. If you see Mark, he’s Vader. He’s not some guy who’s takes his helmet off and asks ‘are you OK?’ and then has a cup of tea with you. When he’s out there, he’s the real deal. Personally, as soon as my Stormtrooper helmet goes on, then I’m not me. I am quite dull in real life, and the characters are much cooler than me. It’s great to be someone else for a while.”
Mark adds: “Other than Finn, what does a Stormtrooper look like without its helmet on?” Our agent considers Jango Fett’s progenitor of the clone army for a moment before dismissing it. There is silence.
“That’s my point,” he continues. “We’ve never seen a Stormtrooper without its helmet on. One of the things the UKG prides itself on is our ‘lids on’ policy. When our members are in front of the public, you are that character. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Stormtrooper, Biker Scout, Sith Lord or a bounty hunter – when you are in the public eye, you are that character. You embody it and you do the things that character does.
“It’s only behind closed doors that we remove our helmets to get some fresh air. We try to maintain that sense of mystery – nobody knows who we are because we’re supposed to be anonymous. It’s one of the many things I love about being in the Garrison.”
Suddenly there is an announcement over the comms systems alerting the room of a disturbance up on Cell Block 1138. Gary looks at Mark, who offers to deal with the unfolding chaos.
As his large frame leaves the room, our agent feels sorry for the jokers causing mayhem up on the detention block.
For more on life in the UK Garrison, be sure to check out part twoof Rebel Briefing’s intel mission…
Stormtroopers are a taciturn bunch, but nothing could be further from the truth when talking to Gary Hailes. The Commanding Officer of the 501st UK Garrison takes another break from his day to day duties with the Empire to share a little more of what life is like in a galaxy a little closer to home. Here is part 2 of Rebel Briefing’s official report…
With more than 500 volunteers in the ranks, UKG members are expected to appear at least once a year in their costume to be granted “active member” status. Like other large organisations, it is made up of people from all walks of life. Each has their own reason and motive for pulling on their ‘bucket’ (helmet) and trooping across the UK.
Male, female, scientist to binman, there’s not a profession, gender, class, colour or creed that is not represented in the Legion. For members it is a hobby not a job, and nobody gets paid. The costumes are paid for out of their own pockets and can run into thousands of pounds. A Darth Vader costume can cost up to £3,000, while Gary’s armour was more than £1,000.
A lot of work goes into building every outfit – more than 25 hours for a classic Stormtrooper uniform and much more for other costumes including Vader’s.
It is like a big golf club. Not only do members help each other – a TIE fighter pilot fitted Gary’s back door and is now helping to build another’s kitchen – they also socialise together. The ranks are filled with people living in the north of Scotland down to Land’s End.
They usually meet in their geographic regions, but once or twice a year they get together en masse. Last year they met at Birmingham Comic Con. Star Wars Celebration is also a popular place to meet.
Star Wars has always had a special relationship with the United Kingdom. Not only was the original trilogy filmed at Elstree Studios, The Phantom Menace was shot at Leavesden and the new trilogy at Pinewood. Lucasfilm has always relied on the skills and talents of the British film industry’s actors, film crews, model makers and technicians to shape our favourite galaxy far, far away.
In 2015 the UK Garrison became part of this tradition when six of its members appeared in The Force Awakens.
Apparently, JJ Abrams is a big fan of the 501st, and because of its close links with Lucasfilm, an idea was floated to have a couple of Garrison people appear as Stormtroopers.
“Mary Franklin, who was senior events lead at Lucasfilm, came to England to spend a day with us at London Comic Con,” says Gary. “She visited our stand and met some people. We didn’t know it at the time, but she was selecting guys to be in the film. I was never intended to appear, so I asked if I could act as liaison. I also drove people to and from the studio. By a quirk of fate I managed to get in front of the cameras as a Stormtrooper. It’s hard to tell which shots I’m in, though.
“It was fantastic, but hard work. We arrived at Pinewood at 5.30am and spent the day working on set. We didn’t leave until gone 9pm. We had tons of stuff to do, mainly Stormtrooper shots. I was impressed with JJ Abrams. He’s a hands-on guy; very friendly and ordinary. I love passion, and I believe that most people in the Legion are very passionate about what we do. JJ is just like that, a very passionate guy.”
Gary describes being on set as incredible. The down side was having to sign a non-disclosure agreement with Disney. The contract was so tight that the budding movie stars were only released after the film came out on Blu-ray.
Doing the Job
Having led the UKG for eight years, the demand on Gary’s time is immense. As Commanding Officer, he is the chief administrator and policy maker for every event that occurs within the Garrison’s borders. There is never a moment when he’s not on his phone updating or sharing Legion information.
For the last two years he has served as Legion Executive Officer of the global 501st – basically the organisation’s second in command. This is in addition to his UKG duties.
“I am lucky that I work freelance, which gives me a lot of flexibility to do my duty. For the UKG, I spend a lot of time ensuring things are done, passing information along and making sure things are up to speed. Today, for example, I was out on a troop at a hospital in Oxford. Now I’m speaking, reluctantly, to you Rebels. Afterwards I will workout before getting back to business. Luckily I have great people who support me including our events team, PR team and Finance Officer, who I’m constantly in touch with. My emails are constant and come in from around the world.”
Because of his position in the 501st, the UKG carries a big voice on the international scene.
“The Garrison is a big club, which is part of a bigger organisation. But we are loud, and we have our reputation for accuracy. We’ve been part of the 501st for 18 years. The Legion is now in its 21st year, so we joined early on. We were one of the first non-American groups to join.”
As Legion executive officer, he is friends with founder Albin Johnson, who he first met at Dragon Con 10 years ago. “We hung out together in the US and have stayed friends ever since. I worked under him when he was running the 501st. Albin’s an interesting, friendly and humble guy. He’s been over to the UK to troop with us several times.”
Duty, Honour, Empire
Gary’s motivations are bound in his duty, honour and service to the Empire. A massive Star Wars fan, his love and passion for the UKG and 501st is huge. He takes his role seriously because, as he says, he has to.
“It doesn’t matter that I’m not paid – people have a right to expect you to do what you say you will do. That’s a commitment. Over the years it just snowballed and evolved to become a massive, massive part of my life. Most importantly, we are normal people doing a normal hobby. We have a lot of fun.
“Some people like to tease, but I reply ‘yeah, I helped raise £50,000 for charity last year, what did you do?’ They then immediately ask how they can get involved. It’s brilliant, because when they do, it proves to me that everybody has a Stormtrooper inside them.”
Then pointing to the door, Gary signals that our time is up. His Stormtroopers hustle our agent towards the exit with the words “Rebel scum” hanging in the air.
Happy to be alive, there is a quick rendezvous with the Tantive IV, which is waiting in a docking bay. Before making the jump to lightspeed the vital intel is beamed to our Bothan friends at Rebel Briefing.
Rebel Briefing would like to thank Ginny Tait for helping to organise our ‘sit down’ with the UKG. Thanks also to Mark Brooks for his contributions. Most of all, thanks to Gary Hailes for agreeing to talk to us. See, it wasn’t a Rebel trap!
Is The Last Jedi strong in the Force? It’s hard to say, but whether you love or hate the film, it’s a game changer.
Not everything works in Episode 8. The film is too long and sags during the Canto Bight scenes. Del Toro’s character DJ felt pedestrian and didn’t leave a strong impression. The feeling is that Finn’s talents could have been better used elsewhere.
Leia’s spacewalk was ridiculous and on par with the prequel’s more ludicrous moments. Although a great general and warrior, her powers always felt intuitive and emotional rather than physical. There was never a suggestion in the movies that she was Force-trained. To suddenly have Leia do something so extreme and physical (Force-wise) felt out of place. Surely there was another more subtle yet powerful way to illustrate Leia’s connection to the Force?
The First Order’s pursuit of the Resistance was, arguably, lifted from the Battlestar Galactica playbook. The introduction of Vice Admiral Holdo (another new character who comes to a quick end) wasn’t needed as other players deserved more screen time. A conflict between Leia and Poe, hinted at with that slap, would have given these scenes a tougher edge.
Killing new(ish) characters brings us to Supreme Leader Snoke. The jury is still out on this one as his presence, plotting and manipulative nature felt visceral and genuinely sinister. In the film’s defence, his death allowed Ben Solo (Kylo Ren) to ascend to power. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the final chapter as Ben is now the undisputed antagonist of the sequels.
Bad Boy, Ben
Speaking of Ben, how far does one have to go before being considered a bad seed? Killing his dad probably sealed the deal, right? Don’t forget that he also ordered the murder of the villagers in the opening scenes of The Force Awakens. Ben had the chance to atone for his crimes after killing Snoke, and despite Rey’s pleas, decided to continue his pursuit of power. Considering her goodness and kindness, would Ben power-share with Rey in the future, and what path would he lead her down? There appears to be nothing democratic or pluralistic about Ben – he is the opposite of his parents and his rule will undoubtedly be absolute, authoritative and bloody. As a consequence, we saw Rey literally close the door on him… despite her vision of his possible future.
Peace and Purpose
It was heartbreaking to watch Luke slip his mortal coil and become one with the Force. Luke was the hero and beating heart of the original films. His radical change of character, his cynicism and the sense of defeat he now carries, flies in the face of everything we know about him. We saw him grow from a callow and impatient young man to daring rebel leader and then wise and noble Jedi Knight. It was Luke’s compassion and love for his father that saved them both from damnation. It makes no sense why he would want to kill the young Solo, without first, at least trying to reach out to him and make him see the light.
Remember, though, Luke’s decision to kill Ben was supported by Leia. For a mother to decide that her child should die is momentous. If they could agree that Ben should perish, then shouldn’t we accept that these two noble characters with their connection to the Force know and understand more than we do? Although not well written, this brings a new perspective to Luke’s decision and sheds a little light on his decision. It’s possible Luke believed without doubt that Ben is inherently evil and needed to die, especially now he has consolidated his power over The First Order.
A world without Luke Skywalker is a bitter pill to swallow. The only crumb of comfort fans can take, and this is debatable for many; is that Luke’s sacrifice saved the last embers of The Resistance and, more importantly, Rey. Most significantly, his death reinforces his legend and will inspire future generations in the struggle against evil.
Luke’s passing, in the long run, will save the franchise from predictability and drive the films into new territory. Don’t shoot first, but shouldn’t director Rian Johnson, from a certain point of view, deserve credit for what he tried to do with The Last Jedi? Luke’s warning that “this is not going to go the way you think” was our first clue that the film would turn recurring Star Wars narrative tropes on their heads.
Whatever JJ Abrams decides to do with the final chapter the hope is he will not redeem Ben Solo, if his soul is saved and he is granted atonement for his sins, then Star Wars risks becoming clichéd. We’ve already seen a member of the Skywalker family (Anakin) succumb to the Dark Side only to be saved. If he is redeemed it would be a case of ‘haven’t we’ve seen this before?’ It would also undermine Luke’s view that Ben is, despite his conflict; truly evil. Fans should see him pay for his crimes and die unredeemed. It would send a strong message that wickedness and the pursuit of power comes at a cost to one’s soul and destroys the people who love you. His demise would also strengthen Luke’s legend as the only Skywalker to confront and reject the Dark Side.
Despite George Lucas’ suggestion that the films (or stanzas) should rhyme like poetry, Star Wars needs to break free from these variations of the same themes and motifs and reach out to explore new ideas. The Last Jedi, triggered by Luke’s death, feels like the start of this process. Although not a perfect film, hopefully Abrams can build on Johnson’s efforts and propel the saga into a wider universe – a future which belongs to Rey, Finn, Poe and others. As Luke drew his last breath and looked to the horizon at the double suns (beautifully bookending his heroes journey) perhaps he was already seeing and contemplating these new, uncharted waters. Only time, and the Force, will tell.