Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 2, 2021

The Empire Strikes Back, by Rebecca Harrison

The Empire Strikes Back is not what you might be expecting from the title of this book, which of course comes from the George Lucas sequel to Star Wars.  This book is a new release in the BFI (British Film Institute) Film Classics series published by Bloomsbury. It’s the film equivalent of literary criticism.

I expressed an interest in reviewing The Empire Strikes Back because one of my English lecturers at the University of Melbourne discussed Star Wars (1977) as an example of a modern morality play.  We were studying early English drama, reading medieval miracle plays, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson and Cyril Tourneur before moving on to Shakespeare, Chekhov and Ibsen et al. So we were quite startled at the presence of Star Wars in this company but soon made sense of it as sharing the characteristics of medieval morality plays, i.e. a battle between good and evil in which the good guys win as they are supposed to.  His argument was a tad more sophisticated than that but hey, this was back in 1980 and no, I have not kept my lecture notes.  But it stuck in my mind and I was interested to see if Harrison’s critique of the sequel would amplify the same idea.

The book turned out to be much better than that.  Some readers may recall that I reviewed Michael Wood’s Film, a Very Short Introduction a while back, but I have to say that Harrison’s book makes the VSI look rather old-fashioned.  An unabashed fan of Empire, she critiques the film through a variety of lenses including its politics, its historical context, and its representations of race, gender, identity and class.  The film has, apparently, been the subject of a great deal of scholarly interest, but Harrison goes further to explore fandom, marketing, divergent US and UK industrial relations and even colonialism.

I discovered from this book that I enjoyed an irreplaceable privilege when I took The Offspring to see it in 1977.  (He was only a little boy and had never been to the pictures before, and at the end he stood up and applauded).  We saw it in a cinema with a huge screen and surround sound, and this is not an experience that younger generations can have because it’s not shown in cinemas any more.  They may get to see it in one of those home cinema setups, but are more likely to see it on an ordinary TV.  I’m no film aficionado but even I know that the cinema experience contributes to the impact of the film.  No one in that cinema will ever forget that opening crawl, that pounding fanfare and then the death star which emerges to take up the entire screen as if it were flying overhead.

But remarkable as it was, by comparison with Empire, Star Wars was quite old-fashioned.  What I did not know was that Lucas heightened the hype of his brand in Empire by demanding that cinemas upgrade their technology: if they wanted to screen the sequel, they had to have 70mm projection and new Dolby sound systems.  And the cost of those innovations, recouped of course from cinema-goers, meant that — unlike in the 1930s during the height of the Depression when many people could still afford to go to the pictures because the cinema was cheap — going to see Empire was expensive.  And then there was the merchandise.  The Lego kits.  The light sabres.  Did you know that there were a whole lot of unsold Princess Leia figurines because boys didn’t want them?

Harrison analyses many aspects of this film through a feminist lens which is hardly surprising.  It’s not just the role of Leia and the way characters interact with her: Harrison investigates who gets credits as scriptwriter and other roles behind the scenes including women film critics and fanzine writers.  But I was a bit startled to learn that it is the Dark Side that is most obviously, if implicitly, coded as queer.  It certainly wasn’t obvious to me, but this is what Harrison has to say about it:

For example, the male Emperor is played by a woman, demonstrating a kind of gender fluidity that makes the character dangerous to heteronormative culture.  Neither the Emperor nor Vader express any particular interest, sexual or otherwise, in Leia.  And, playing to homophobic stereotypes, the two Sith Lords are notably older men who seek to lure the young, handsome Luke to the Dark side — the queer side — of the Force.   (p.51)

In discussing this, Harrison explains how the disruptive nature of the film, created during the Cold War and a time of social and cultural change, is signalled by all sorts of disruptive film techniques: strange camera angles, and the clash between Luke and Vader in a slow motion sequence of queer time.

Harrison’s perspectives about race and identity, about the role of subservient drones and the colonised spaces are interesting too.  What seemed like an exciting adventure film turns out to have meanings and significance that have certainly changed in the forty years since it was first screened.  For me, it’s a new way of looking at a well-loved film.

*chuckle* And also a catalyst for me to buy the complete series on DVD while I still can!

There are some other titles in this BFI Film Classics series that interest me: there’s one about Star Wars  (of course); Rebecca (forthcoming); Babette’s Feast; The Birds; The Third Man, The Sound of Music, When Harry Met Sally; and lots of other films that most people have seen. You can buy them as paperbacks or eBooks, and quite a few of them appear to be available at Fishpond (considerably cheaper than elsewhere in Australia, see here.)

(I checked at Booko.com.au, BTW, where they are claiming that Fishpond charges $7.95 for delivery.  Not so: FP delivers free in Australia and New Zealand, which makes $31, for Bonnie and Clyde one of the cheapest for a new copy in Australia and some of the other titles are much cheaper than that.  FP isn’t advertising all of the 200 titles, but if you are interested, you can find the ISBN at the publishing details at the Bloomsbury website and ask FP to order it for you).

Author: Rebecca Harrison
Title: The Empire Strikes Back (BFI Film Classics series)
Publisher: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020
ISBN: 9781911239970, pbk., 100 pages inclusive of 22 pages of notes, credits and a glossary
Source: review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing

Available from Fishpond: The Empire Strikes Back (BFI Film Classics), $23.32

 


Responses

  1. This is the last thing I expected to see on your blog, Lisa, a critique of a Star Wars film. 😂 it brought back many memories because I saw it at the Leongatha Drive-in and I had a Princess Leia doll! I was not the kind of little girl that even liked dolls but I was obsessed with Carrie Fisher so had to have it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • *chuckle* I know, I know, and I only took him to see it because I was nagged into by someone who said he’d never forgive me when he was older if I didn’t!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Good decision. My son has never forgiven me for not taking him to Jurassic Park (when he was 6, or, maybe just 7), but I went first and I thought it was SCARY! Kids have to have something to complain about, don’t they?

        We watched Sound of Music on TV the other night, by accident but I felt it was just what I needed – what I didn’t need though were the ads which were interminable. I should have waited for the DVD! We rarely watch commercial TV and when we do – like for MasterChef – we usually record and watch later so we can fast forward.

        Anyhow, this book sounds really interesting. I’ve seen most of the Star War films – just not the last one I think, because the one before that felt so much like a replay of previous ones that I lost interest. The first ones, though, were great. I remember watching the first one with Mr Gums. It was impressive.

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        • Well, I hesitated, because — you may remember — that the word around at the time was that children shouldn’t go to the pictures before the age of 8 because they couldn’t distinguish between the film and reality. Scary in a film, to little kids, is the same as scary in real life.
          But yes, I watch most things on DVD, no ads, no hassles:)

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          • That’s right, that’s why I thought Jurassic Park … we are talking 1990-1991 … was not suitable. Son Gums wrote a song (parody of The Spice Girls Mumma) for my 50th, and one of the features was my JP meanness!

            We do go to the movies fairly often. I love the big screen. And it’s tradition – well it was those days we could go to Melbourne! – to go to Cinema Nova on Saturday afternoon with Daughter Gums. Oh, those days!!

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            • We love the Palace in Brighton. Dinner over the road at the Spanish place, and then relax in front of the big screen. We would go more often if there were more good things to see…

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              • Yes, I like traditions like that. We like Palace here. Has the best films overall. More foreign language ones for a start.

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                • Which is what I like. Last year because they couldn’t open, they put all the films from the Italian Film festival into a DVD collection which I bought, and it’s been terrific.

                  Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve never seen a Star Wars film, at the cinema or otherwise but you remind me of the experience of going to see 2001 A Space Odyssey in New Farm (Brisbane) in 1972, which was very nearly overwhelming. And much more recently, Avatar which I also saw in a properly set up cinema.
    (I also remember taking the kids when small to ET, that was great too)

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    • What?! And you tick *me* off for not reading enough SF?!!
      I think I will make you watch it when next you come for dinner at my place.
      *gloomy frown* The way things are going with C-19 that is a threat I may never get to implement…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I too have never seen any Star Wars film but 2001 A Space Odyssey saw with my brother when we were youngsters.What a memory. Stanley Kubrick the master film director.

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  4. How fascinating! I loved the first three films (yes, in the cinema – lucky me!) but am not fond of where the franchise has gone (am I a purist? maybe!) But there is obviously so much more to the films than I realised…

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    • I felt exactly the same way when it first started going on and on and on… but now, there’s a small part of me that wants to see the whole thing.
      So I’ve ordered it and will indulge myself as a guilty pleasure.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. I’m with Kaggsy. I found the 4th film (ep1) such a disappointment, haven’t bothered since. I was listening to a radio programme the other day about pantomime, and it described the Star Wars characters as such, and I had warm thoughts of ‘Luke, I am your father’ ‘Oh no you’re not!’ etc! :D

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  6. So funny because as I am reading this, we are all (husband, son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren) rained in and they are watching The Empire Strikes back, for the 100th time. They know almost by heart, all the films, and yes, the conclusions they draw are truly universal. I love the fact that my children are passing it on to my grandchildren and each telling becomes more their own.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I was the eldest of 4 girls and back then, we had no interest in using up our rare movie-going privileges on something like Star Wars (we saved them for ABBA the movie and Xanadu thank you very much!)
    But when I saw Star Wars for the first time on TV when I was about 14, I was blown away! You gotta love it when the good guys (& gals) win!

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    • PS Does your son now thank you for taking him to see it when it first came out?

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      • *blush* I’ll confess to liking Raiders of the Lost Ark too. Could be something to do with Harrison Ford perhaps…

        Liked by 1 person

    • I went with Mr Gums under protest – well, not quite, but I was taking it for the team so he’d come to “my” films, but I surprised myself by liking it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The Spouse and I have a system where we mockingly classify films into ‘boys’ films and ‘girls’ films, and then we take it in turns. But I insisted on 3 girls films to make up for having to watch Saving Private Ryan.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Sounds fair to me!

          In our family it’s “misery guts” movies versus the rest! I like the former but Mr Gums doesn’t. (Actually it’s a bit more complex than that but that’s close to the situation!)

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