How the Empire Strikes Back Solidified Star Wars’ Cult Status? | History Hit

How the Empire Strikes Back Solidified Star Wars’ Cult Status?

History Hit

03 Jun 2019

Few fans of sci-fi or any other genre would dispute that Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back is one of the greatest and most timeless films ever released, in a category matched by very few others.

One where virtually every scene has become iconic, from Harrison Ford’s improvised response to “I love you” to perhaps the most famous movie line of all time – “no Luke, am your father.”

In 2010, the film was selected for preservation in the United States’ National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant.”

Dan Snow talks to historian, academic, and Star Wars fan, Janice Liedl, about the movie franchise's historical influences. Janice's book 'Star Wars and History' was written in collaboration with George Lucas.
Listen Now

The Sequel

After the phenomenal success of the first Star Wars film, a great sequel was always likely.

George Lucas, the creator of the cultural phenomenon, was so determined for the next instalment to go ahead, in fact, that he invested most of the millions he had made from the first film into this new project.

One of the first decisions that he made would also be one of the most crucial.

He decided to take a back-seat role and focus on production and screenplay, leaving the directing to Irvin Kershner, who was well-known for his intense, character-driven films.

Kershner had also been one of Lucas’ favourite professors at film school.

Critics have since attributed the film’s memorable character moments and development to this move, which gave it a more studied and adult feel than its predecessor.

Lucas, meanwhile, can take much of the credit for the plot of the movie, and its most famous twists, which he envisaged while writing in 1978.

The series was extended into a saga in his mind. The Empire Strikes Back was tagged Episode V, part of a epic series of tales based on the rise and fall of an evil galactic Empire.

Film poster for The Empire Strikes Back.

Difficulties begin

With this excellent skeleton of a film in place, the actual filming could begin.

Kershner had originally rejected the role of director, believing that the sequel could never live up to the original, but now launched himself into the project with enthusiasm.

As the first part of the movie takes place on an icy planet, much of the original filming was on a remote glacier in Norway. Here the difficulties began, as the worst Norwegian winter in decades meant that for a time going outside was literally impossible.

Even when conditions improved slightly, a language barrier with the local extras made filming battle scenes extremely chaotic.

Getting to the moon was no easy feat, no matter how confident Kennedy may have sounded in his famous 1961 speech. Fong tells stories of just how close they came to failure, and how risky it was.
Listen Now

To compound matters, Mark Hamill – who played the hero Luke – had been involved in a car accident which had left him with a badly scarred face, which resulted in an added scene involving him in a brush with a snow monster to explain the change to his appearance.

Perhaps the most stressful part of making the film, however, was trying to keep its biggest reveal from everyone until the very last moment.

The revelation that villain Darth Vader is actually Luke’s father was known only to Lucas Kershner and a few others until seconds before the cameras started rolling.

It is now arguably the most famous movie moment of all time.

Irvin Kushner was hired to direct The Empire Strikes Back.


The film was very nearly never made as it went wildly over budget. Lucas had to spend hours in increasingly brutal talks with 20th Century Fox, until he finally got the go-ahead for another loan.

The film was finally released on the 21st May 1980, and was an instant huge success.

Given its now cult status within the movie industry it is surprising to note that many of its early reviews were mixed.

However gradually it began to receive more and more praise from critics for its dark tone, brilliant character moments and grandiose scale.

Now it is regularly in any list of the top ten movies of all time, and retains its popularity today across people of all ages.

The American essayist Chuck Klosterman concluded that while “movies like Easy Rider and Saturday Night Fever painted living portraits for generations they represented in the present tense, The Empire Strikes Back might be the only example of a movie that set the social aesthetic for a generation coming in the future.”


History Hit