And now for part two of our discussion on the Star Wars films. If you’ve missed the first one, I encourage you to check it out before delving into this segment.
Much like A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back is politically loaded. At the start of the film we are reintroduced to the overarching political struggle, as the Empire discovers the new Rebel Headquarters on the frozen tundra world of Hoth. After a short battle, the better-equipped Empire easily routs the Rebels despite their extensive defenses and entrenchments. In the remaining portion of the movie, we primarily follow the routed Rebels as they seek refuge and new allies in their struggle.
Darth Vader takes his place as the central villain, not only in this film, but also in the entire Star Wars saga. Right off the bat, he reminds us of his evil ways with a taste of his power by killing several of his supposed allied Imperial officers. First, he strangles Admiral Ozzel after the Rebels on Hoth are needlessly alerted to the approaching Imperial fleet. Later, he repeats this deed on Captain Needa, the commander of one of the Star Destroyers, after Han and the rest of our rebel friends manage to escape the Imperial blockade. As further proof of his expanded influence, he either has (or assumes) the power to promote officers when he grants Captain Piett the rank of Admiral following Ozzel’s death.
If you recall, in Episode IV, we see Darth Vader try a similar intimidation tactic aboard the first Death Star on Admiral Motti, but a superior officer, Tarkin, stops him. Although Darth never really acquires a traditional rank within the Empire, presumably his authority has grown given that there are no noticeable repercussions for his actions. Then again, perhaps, as Leia suggested in Episode IV, only an extremely powerful figure like Grand Moff Tarkin was capable of “holding Vader’s leash.” With Tarkin gone, and no other Grand Moff in the picture, Vader is free to terrorize his fellow servants of the Empire. Either way, for better or worse, the Emperor has let loose this mad dog upon the galaxy.
This movie introduces two new characters of particular importance, Lando Calrissian and Yoda. Lando is an interesting figure as very early on he is revealed to be a traitor to his friend, Han Solo. Darth Vader holds Cloud City, a territory where Lando is more or less the mayor, hostage in exchange for Han’s (and Luke’s) capture. Lando has a difficult choice. Should he betray his friends to a ruthless murderer or should he gamble with the lives of the roughly five million inhabitants under his administration? Although one can certainly argue the morality of his decisions as well as his methods, he chooses the needs of the many and leads his guests into a trap. Immediately before his duplicity is revealed, Lando explains that his primary goal is to insure the freedom of his people from direct control of the Empire. Later, once Vader breaks and re-breaks the deal that he forced upon Lando, Calrissian openly defies his Imperial subjugation. Realizing that neither he nor the people of Cloud City will ever be free under a ruthless and deceptive monster like Vader, Lando order the evacuation of the city and personally joins the Rebellion. Although certainly reluctant at first, he ends up risking his political future, wealth, and even his own life for the sake of liberty.
Next we have Yoda, a diminutive figure and the last living Jedi Master. Unlike most people, I have a negative opinion of Yoda. Drawing a bit on the new trilogy, we learn that he was once a person of great authority. Not only did he head the Jedi Order, but also he was a supposedly a guardian of the Republic. While it decayed all around him, a Sith Lord (a person diametrically opposed to the ways and teachings of the Jedi) assumed control of the government but Yoda was either too ignorant or foolhardy to notice. Rather than serve as noble arbiters of justice, the Jedi became tainted. As their power and morals wane, they are warped into a role as the policemen of the galaxy, inadvertently quashing the liberty of others for the sake of order and supposed security. (Can anyone draw any parallels in our modern world?)
Then, once the Empire came into full power, rather than fight it directly or indirectly, Yoda cowardly sneaked into hiding on Dagobah, a planet so remote and devoid of any strategic value that no one would ever find him. He never went looking for Luke or anyone else. Clearly, he was guided by self-preservation and had little true loyalty to the supposedly selfless Jedi ideals of helping those in need. In fact, if not for the advice of Obi Wan, Yoda and Luke would have never met and thus he would have no hand in the destruction of the Empire. So how does he occupy his free time? Secretly hating the government and writing angry manifestos on his typewriter? The way he shuns technology and society fits the classic profile of violent neo-Luddites like Ted Kaczynski.
Lastly, let’s examine the relationship between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker. At the end of the climactic fight scene on Cloud City after Luke loses his hand, Vader reveals that he is Luke’s father. Following this shocking news, Vader informs Luke that the Emperor has prophesied his downfall at Luke’s hands. Vader then proposes an alliance between himself and Luke, a partnership of father and son to claim the Empire jointly under the guise of bringing order to the galaxy. The suggestion harkens back to the day of hereditary monarchies where mere blood relations were sufficient to legitimize the rulers of a nation. Why Darth would think that Luke would agree to partner with an estranged father who just seriously injured him merely for the sake of power and family ties may seem baffling, but clearly acquiring unquestioned power and the establishment of a dynasty are the primary driving motivations of Lord Vader. Perhaps even more surprising is Vader’s proposal to overthrow his leader and supposed master. Thus his loyalty lies only with himself and therefore swears fealty to no one. It is remarkable that the Emperor, with the aid of the force and his supposed political prowess, would not be able to detect such treachery but, as shown with Yoda, perhaps Jedi powers aren’t what they’re cracked up to be.
But what about the shadowy leader of the Empire? Up through this point, we have only learned a bit about the character through his opponents and subordinates. I hope you stay tuned for part three of my commentary as we turn to him as well as additional political thoughts regarding this entertaining and timeless trilogy.