The Empire Strikes Back: The Jewel in the Star Wars Crown

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. 

Movie Magic

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.

Moral Victory

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.

A Saga Out of Balance

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.

It’s the same with the prequels.

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.

Bad Guys Doing Good

A head and shoulders profile of a 501st UK Garrison Stormtrooper standing against a Henry Allen Trust charity flag.

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.”

Suiting Up

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.”

Costume Drama

“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 two of Rebel Briefing’s intel mission…

Above image – courtesy of the 501st UK Garrison

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