It is difficult -- if not impossible -- to understand the impact these five words had on all of popular culture back in 1980. They were spoken, of course, by one of the cultural icons of the last half of the twentieth century; the modern fairy-tale symbol of all that is evil; the ultimate cinematic bad-ass; Darth Vader. And when a stunned Luke Skywalker heard these words his expression of shock, horror and disbelief found millions of reflections in the faces of the audience that bore witness to this awe-inspiring revelation. There has never and will never be another moment like it in the history of film.
Nearly thirty years later the phenomenon that is Star Wars is taken for granted. Young people today don't know and older people don't remember that there was a time when no one knew that Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker's father. Nowadays that moment in cinematic history has become a part of our social fabric. I would venture to guess that everyone reading this has uttered those five words (probably altered erroneously to include a sixth – as in "No Luke, I am your father") in their deepest baritone at some point in their lives. Take a moment: can you think of anyone who does not know where those five words come from or who it was that said them? Someone may or may not know who Michael Corleone is, or Iago, Sauron, or the White Witch; but everyone knows Darth Vader. People who have never seen any of the Star Wars movies (I hear there are such people, poor, sick, twisted souls) are cognizant of Luke Skywalker's dark lineage by sheer cultural osmosis. But it goes deeper than that. Those five words were much more than a powerful twist in the ultimate fantasy flick. That sentence changed movies and by extension, America, forever. More than any other film THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK is responsible for the American tradition of the summer blockbuster. It wasn't the first. GONE WITH THE WIND, THE SOUND OF MUSIC, and THE GODFATHER had all been massive in their day. And then there was JAWS, and STAR WARS changing the game altogether.
Released at the beginning of summer, they put up numbers never before seen. This was a result not just of the films themselves, but the changing face of marketing. Still these two spectacular hits were surprises, first-timers, phenoms unto themselves. The release of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK stirred in a new ingredient...anticipation. Springing directly out of the hype machine and story momentum of the first film, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK opened to a blockbuster reception. The world had spent three years waiting for it. Slated to be The Event for the summer of 1980, everyone wanted to be a part of it. We had rushed to see JAWS and STAR WARS because we'd heard they were great but we'd penciled in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK on our calendars because we knew it was coming...and thus a tradition was born.
This had everything to do of course, with the impact of STAR WARS. Movies are our societal dreams, the creative manipulation of our collective sub-conscious. In the 1970's America had started out having a difficult time of it. We had lost a war for the first time – a war we weren't even sure we should be participating in. A president had resigned in disgrace. Symbols of hope from the decade before – Martin Luther King, Che Guevara, Bobby Kennedy – had been assassinated and the civil rights movements for Black and Native Americans, women, and homosexuals seemed to have crashed on the reefs of the Me Generation. And the films of the Seventies reflected this new, bruised and battered
reality: CHINATOWN, THE FRENCH CONNECTION, TAXI DRIVER, SAVE THE TIGER, DOG DAY AFTERNOON, THE DEER HUNTER, THE EXORCIST, even THE GODFATHER. Though these films were often brilliant they didn't provide relief from an increasingly complex, frustrating and dangerous reality. America had needed a break, an escape. And STAR WARS had provided.
STAR WARS drew on the literary and mythic traditions of Joseph Campbell, Beowulf and King Arthur, among others, as well as the cinematic traditions of Westerns and Flash Gordon serials. It was a new movie that touched something old within us, something primal. The simplified positing of conflict between two stark extremes – Good and Evil – had in itself been a relief from the moral ambiguities of the day. It felt like a throwback to an earlier era, the days of Once Upon a Time, a period when there were clear answers to tough questions, our memory of an age that probably never existed. Child-like, but not childish, its stunning special effects dazzled kids and cynical adults alike. Perhaps most importantly Star Wars provided a lot of fun at a time when that was what everyone needed. And it was HUGE. Even though we now live in the Age of the Blockbuster, STAR WARS is still one of the highest grossing films of all time. Everyone saw it. Everyone knew the story. Everyone knew what a light saber was. We hummed the music on the playground. "May the Force be with you" became the phrase of the day. Republicans and Democrats sat side by side, mouths agape, in like wonderment during the cantina scene. A Jew and a Muslim were both enthralled by the awesome sight and voice of Darth Vader. Young people and old gripped their chairs on the roller-coaster ride culminating in the exhilarating destruction of the Death Star. For two hours, people of every culture, color and race forgot their differences and had a blast. STAR WARS had, in effect, engendered a cinematic community that wasn't bound by borders or ideologies or even culture.
The full potential of the social impact of film had been stunningly realized in one stroke and it was more than anyone could have imagined. Groups of human beings often function as a single organism in behavior and this newly formed Star Wars community had been no different. Having had one blast of ecstasy the whole world now waited for its next fix. And that was THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. Adding to the anticipation was that it took years for the next one to come along. Almost before the first film ended there was a rumor that there was going to be a second one. But there was nothing for a while, only speculation. And then speculation became more concrete. Quite deliberately it was leaked that a sequel was in production. Movie buffs, science fiction geeks, children, even professionals over their water coolers hotly debated the title and plot of the new film. Everybody else was drawn in when the marketing campaign began anew.
(STAR WARS had changed the face of movie marketing and maybe marketing in general. It was perhaps, the first movie ever to become a full fledged corporation. There were toys, lunch boxes, comics, cartoons, books, clothes, games, you name it – that carried the STAR WARS name or image. Thirty years later this is old hat. But in the late 1970's this was something new. I was too young to realize that I should have been terrified.)
So we were all waiting. The story, the characters, the marketing campaign, the time period had all combined to create a perfect storm of anticipation. Whatever else was going on in your community in the summer of 1980 you knew that one thing you were going to do, one thing that most people in most communities across the United
States were going to do, we were all going to go see THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.
I was twelve that year. My family was in transit. My dad was in the military and we had spent three years on a little island, Terceira, out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. That summer was a good one. We were visiting my mother's family in San Antonio, Texas and if you've ever been to Texas in the summertime you know that it's blistering. Temperatures were in the hundreds. You could see the heat coming off of the street. Summertime in San Antonio was about snow cones and dirt, baseball and ice cream, watching flamenco dancing on the riverside and dashing from one air conditioner to the other. We went to Six Flags and I rode a bigger, meaner roller coaster than I had ever ridden before. We went to the zoo and rode on elephants. We saw family we hadn't seen in years. And we planned to go see THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. It was the first movie anyone ever did that for. The weekend it opened people packed to go see the movie because they were going to have to wait in line...for hours. They brought lawn chairs and comic books, squirt guns and games to play. We brought a bunch of quarters because the age of Star Wars had also ushered in another technological and social phenomenon -- video games. This was also the dawn of the age of the multiplex. And once you made it to the ticket booth you probably weren't buying tickets for the next showing but the one after that or the one after that. Before movie theaters had one, two or three screens. Now for the first time there were epic movie houses with screens in the double digits. THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK was showing on six different screens and we still had to wait. But we were cool with that because it was
a festival atmosphere. I went with my sister and my cousins but it was like we were friends with everybody who was there and it seemed like there were a million people there. People were playing Frisbee in the parking lot, sitting under umbrellas on the sidewalk, eating lunch in the back of their pickup trucks. Everybody was happy and excited. Everyone was talking about the movie and what they hoped to see. Everyone was an expert on the nature of the Force and the intricacies of being a Jedi. We were all waiting to see Yoda who was already a household name and face due to marketing. And when we finally, finally – not after hours of waiting or even days, but after years of waiting – were sitting in our seats staring up at the screen about to find out what happened to all of our friends, Luke and Leia, Han Solo and Chewbacca, R-2 D-2 and C3PO...it was as sweet a moment of anticipation as any we'd experienced.
And it was awesome. I have heard since that THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK opened to mixed reviews when it first came out. All I can say is I was completely unaware of anyone not liking the movie and frankly, sometimes people think too much. From the opening scenes on the ice planet Hoth, to the romance between Han Solo and Princess Leia, to the training of Luke by master Yoda, to the introduction of Lando Calrissian and the Cloud City THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK expanded and deepened the first film and it did it with the same flair and excitement. Thrilling events tumble over each other: the fight with the Wampa, the thunderous battle with the Empire in the ice when the rebels were forced to escape, Luke's pilgrimage to Dagobah, the chase through the asteroid belt, the finding of the Cloud City.
And then, of course, there was the climactic light-saber duel between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, the fight that everyone wanted to see, the real-deal showdown between Good and
Evil we all knew was coming. And it went the only way it could go really. Luke putting up a good showing but really fighting a fight he could not win. We all knew that. After all, this was Darth Vader, the coolest cat in the Universe, a dude so bad he could choke you to death with a dirty look from behind his black helmet. But Luke showed skill, courage, heart. And then it happened. Beaten, helpless, with his back against the wall (or rather, hanging over a giant air-shaft) Luke finds himself facing the personification of cinematic evil on a slender bridge. We all knew Luke wasn't going to die but what was going to happen? How was he going to get out of this mess? And then, out of nowhere, a curve ball: Darth Vader for whatever reason decides to bring up Luke's father:
Darth Vader: Obi Wan
never told you what happened to your father.
Luke: He told me enough.
He told me you killed him.
We all knew that. Like Luke we learned it from the venerable Obi-Wan Kenobi -- Luke's mentor, a man who'd sacrificed himself to save Luke and his friends -- in the previous movie. And then it happened, the words none of us ever imagined we would hear:
Vader: No. I am your father.
It was electrifying, seismic, a bombshell. Looking back it was as though two hundred million movie-goers all audibly gasped at the same time. Certainly, everyone in the theater I was in did. And the next time I saw it and the next time after that. It was an ultimate story-telling moment in our ultimate story-telling medium; absolute, perfect, completing a perfect circle that made pure emotional sense. And it had been building up for three years, we had all been waiting for just this moment – and none of us had known it.
For one five-second sliver of time (I'm counting the four seconds Vader took to say the words and the immediate next second of shock on Luke's face) we were all one mind, one heart, frozen. It was epic.
There have been a hundred -- a thousand truly great moments in film history: the ending of CASABLANCA, when Dorothy first sees Oz in THE WIZARD OF OZ, Orson Welles entrance in THE THIRD MAN or when Atticus Finch leaves the courtroom for the last time in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, to name a tiny, tiny few. And I don't know that THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK is a great film in the way these other films are great. The first three STAR WARS films were a product of zeitgeist, they captured a moment. This was something that George Lucas himself didn't seem to understand with the subsequent STAR WARS films. But there has never been another moment in film history that brought so many people together into the same emotional space and mindset as those five seconds in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK when Darth Vader broke it down reeeeeeeeeeaaaal proper like and let Luke Skywalker know what was really going on.
It didn't take long before you started hearing people saying "Oh, yeah, I knew it all along." and "They didn't fool me.", etc. And you know, maybe some of them did know and maybe some people weren't fooled. If so, it's too bad for them. There are some things more important than being in the know. Those people who "knew" missed out on the greatest five seconds in movie history and one of the greatest moments of community in the Twentieth Century.
Bobby Bermea inherited his deep and abiding passion for movies from his mom. He writes about them as a fan: from the heart, without agenda or rancor and if he's lucky, with a little humor, wisdom and common sense.
If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Bobby B. by clicking here.