The sequel to the 1977 sensation Star Wars was released on May 21, 1980, and became a major box office success. Forty years later, Empire is the favorite of critics and fans alike, with the highest aggregate Rotten Tomatoes score of any Star Wars picture. Yet back in 1980 its reception was mixed. Critics were disappointed by Empire’s darker themes, divergent plots, and unresolved narrative: it had lost the straightforward silliness of the first film and swapped action for emotion. One reviewer criticized Empire’s “soggy” morality and comic-book status. Vincent Canby complained in The New York Times that it “isn’t even a complete narrative [… it’s] simply another chapter in a serial.” Writing for the L.A. Herald Examiner, Carol A. Crotta found it guilty of “picking through genres like a shopping-bag lady through trash bins.”
Of course, all three of the original trilogy Star Wars films (also including the 1983 Return of the Jedi) recall the campy fun of comic books and draw on myth and fairytale devices across their narrative cycle. But The Empire Strikes Back skews the circle, and in deviating from the trilogy’s more conventional trajectory it follows a path that Sarah Ahmed describes as not straight, as visibly wonky — as queer. Like a character in a Gainsborough melodrama, Empire masks its marginal arthouse and camp aesthetics in a cunning mainstream disguise and inverts expectations about gender, genre, and the blockbuster film. Thus, on the 40th anniversary of its release, I explore how Empire blows up the boundary between the mainstream family film (masculinized by default as the patriarchal “norm”) and the supposedly niche, alternative realms of queer and female desire.
I. A Space Opera in the European Mode
Empire, and indeed the Star Wars franchise, is embedded in the register of melodrama, a theatrical style popularized in 18th-century France before being transferred to the screen. In Melodrama and Modernity, Ben Singer identifies a range of generic tropes that recur in Hollywood cinema, all of which can be easily applied to The Empire Strikes Back: the misplaced love between Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Han (Harrison Ford) that causes the Princess to kiss Luke (Mark Hamill), generational frictions between Luke and his mentors Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness), as well as his complicated figure of his father and nemesis Darth Vader (played by David Prowse and voiced by James Earl Jones). The Millennium Falcon’s flight through the asteroid field, together with the computer-generated special effects and surround-sound technology of the day, generate what Singer calls “imminent peril” and “sensory excess.” Luke and Leia’s incestuous kiss is a cinematic example of what Mimi White describes as “a [narrative] mainstay of daytime soap opera” familiar to a largely female audience demographic. The list of melodramatic elements goes on: the “moral polarization” between the Dark Side and the Light is captured visually — Vader is almost vampire-esque in his Victorian stage-villain attire — and narratively, such as when Luke and Han demonstrate noble self-sacrifice in their attempts to save their friends.
Commonly referred to as a “space opera” (a science fiction story with melodramatic and romantic motifs), Empire is also rooted in the musical tradition of Grand opera, which was associated with lavish excess and large casts in the French and Italian concert halls of the 18th century. Like Grand opera, Empire has a five-act structure that is roughly divided across five locations: the ice planet Hoth, Vader’s ship, Luke on Dagobah, the asteroid field, and the showdown on Bespin. This is alluded to more than once in Empire’s reviews. Michael Sragow called Irvin Kershner’s direction “a symphony of inchoate yearnings” reminiscent of Mahler, while David Denby described it as a “Wagnerian pop movie — grandiose, thrilling, imperially generous in scale.” Perhaps not coincidentally (although melodrama does thrive on coincidence), the movie’s director of photography, Peter Suschitzky, had recently worked on Ken Russell’s outrageously ostentatious pop-opera Lisztomania (1975), as well as the sexually subversive The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). In the former, the final duel between Liszt and his fascist nemesis Wagner is staged against the backdrop of a broken window as objects hurtle toward them through the air. This harmonizes with a scene in Empire’s Cloud City, in which Luke and Vader, framed by a broken window, use the Force to send objects hurtling through the air at one another. It’s a theme and variation — an unlikely hero battles his fascist enemy on an stage propped up by melodramatic devices — that situates Empire in a tradition of British camp and surrealism.
Suschitzky was not the only member of Empire’s creative team to have worked on more avant-garde or indie underground movies. For example, director Irvin Kershner’s last feature prior to shooting Empire was Eyes of Laura Mars (1978), from which he famously distanced himself owing to disagreements with the studio.
In its exploration of the relationship between the camera, Laura Mars owed a debt to European films such as the more garish and critically panned horror Peeping Tom (1960) and Michelangelo Antonioni’s acclaimed Blowup (1966). With Jewish-Ukrainian parents, a reputation for character-led films that drew on the European tradition of psychoanalysis, and George Lucas’s seal of approval (according to Lucas, Kershner was “not Hollywood,” having an art school education and background as a documentarist), the director was seen more like émigré directors Max Ophüls or Fritz Lang than a US-born and -educated filmmaker. And, stylistically, Empire’s restless camera, which tracks down the long corridors of the Rebels’ base on Hoth or tilts and pans as the Millennium Falcon escapes the Imperial fleet in the asteroid field — an entirely different framing to that of the static A New Hope — is reminiscent of Ophüls at his melodramatic finest in Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948).
II. Drag, Camp, and Hamming It Up
Camp, drag, and melodrama spill riotously around the cinematic apparatus to take center stage in front of the screen, too — despite the film’s apparent commitment to exploring archetypal masculinity via Han’s leadership and Luke’s coming-of-age story. Vader actor David Prowse had a background in bodybuilding, a world tied up in homoeroticism and the queerness of masculine display, and the template for mystical puppet Yoda was Frank Oz’s drag act Miss Piggy in The Muppet Show (1976). Oz famously performed as Miss Piggy on the set, and according to Empire editor Paul Hirsch, George Lucas wanted the credits to read “Yoda played by Miss Piggy.” Thus, Oz’s performance of the Jedi Master emerges from and pays homage to the vocal flourishes and hyper-camp femininity of his puppet drag persona. In the original theatrical release of the film (it has since been digitally altered for home viewing) there are women performing in drag, too, with Cathy Munro hidden behind the masked costume of male bounty hunter Zuckuss, and Marjorie Eaton shrouded under the cloak of the evil Emperor.
Billy Dee Williams also deserves attention in this context. Prior to Empire, he was famous for his role as Brian, an activist dedicated to supporting the Black communities of Chicago, in another 1970s fashion film, the Diana Ross vehicle Mahogany (1975). In a gorgeous velvet suit and with witty ripostes between him and Ross throughout the movie, it’s easy to see why he was cast as Empire’s Lando. With his powder-blue and rich yellow silk cape, Lando has a theatricality and colorfulness that mark him on the one hand as different from the white and austerely dressed Rebels — with colorful versus white, it goes without saying, pertaining to the film’s dubious racial politics as well as costuming — and on the other as included in the movie’s camp politics.
The continuity between Mahogany and Empire lies in their shared kitsch-yet-entirely-serious delivery, which conforms to one of Susan Sontag’s often paradoxical definitions of “camp” in her famous 1964 essay, ‘Notes on “Camp.”’ For Sontag, camp is present in 18th-century caricature and artificial ruins, it is found in opera, ballet, and “old Flash Gordon comics.” It is simultaneously serious (that is, unaware of its own campness) and yet also playful, theatrical, and “anti-serious.” For Sontag, camp is embraced by LGBTQ communities and cultures as a means of legitimizing queer lives and aesthetics. It also tells us that we are allowed to find pleasure in low art, in melodrama, in women’s pictures, romance novels, in trash — and that (just as important) we are allowed to take them seriously. We are allowed to read Luke’s much parodied moment of despair when he learns that Vader is his father as a profound moment of grief. The loss of his hand and his childlike belief in paternal heroism can be sincere rather than satirized. Not all of the Star Wars films work this way: A New Hope is earnest, but ultimately too aware of its Flash Gordon feel and comic book aesthetic. Empire, though, with its deadly serious yet “soggy” morality, its tropes of Gothic horror via Luke’s hallucination in the Dagobah swamp, and its exaggerated performances from Fisher and Ford, is as camp as a cartoon Disney villain.
III. I Love You … And Rock Hudson Already Knows
Over the course of the Star Wars film series, Han and Leia’s relationship develops according to the heteronormative rules of Hollywood that, on the surface, reinforce rather than resist a “straight” reading. Most obviously, their repartee riffs on the Rhett-Scarlett relationship in Civil War drama Gone with the Wind (1939). Han and Leia’s dramatic pose on the Empire poster — having swept her off her feet he hovers above her, ready for a kiss — is a direct copy of Gone with the Wind’s promotional materials. Additionally, there’s an oft-repeated line among reviewers that Lando’s character was reminiscent of a modern-day Clark Gable, although in what seem like racially charged criticisms of Billy Dee Williams, critics such as Tom Allen at the Village Voice tended to make this comparison unfavorably. Elsewhere, allusions to the screwball comedy aspects of Leia and Han’s interactions often refer to another Gable film, It Happened One Night (1934). But look at the relationship through the lens of another staple couple of the screwball and melodrama canon and there’s more than a hint of queerness, too.
Among Leia and Han’s combative dialogues in Empire, fraught as they all are with sexual tension, one exchange stands out. “I love you!” implores Leia across the set of the Bespin carbon-freezing chamber. “I know,” replies Han, as he is lowered into the bowels of the machine. According to publicist Alan Arnold’s account of the production, Han’s response was improvised by Ford after hours of tinkering with Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan’s script on set. This ad-lib mimics the opening lines of the 1959 romantic comedy Pillow Talk, in which Rock Hudson and Doris Day bickered their way into bed with one another. The film’s first lines of dialogue — overhead by Day’s character Jan Morrow on a shared phoneline with Hudson’s philanderer Brad — are delivered by the besotted Eileen (Valerie Allen) as she tells Brad “I love you,” to which he merely replies, “I know.” Han and Leia’s quarrels bear more than a passing resemblance to Brad and Jan’s, too, both men implying that the women are frigid and in need of sexual education.
Of course, we know that Hudson is never going to pay Day that kind of attention. The queer subtext to Hudson’s work complicates Ford’s performance of Han’s straightforward masculinity, the former coming out as gay shortly before his untimely death from AIDS-related illness in 1985. Hudson’s acting career is littered with homoerotic imagery: in Pillow Talk, for instance, he and Day mirror one another in split-screen bathtubs, both extending their soapy legs out of the water toward their respective bathroom walls.
It is a playfully effeminate moment that, thanks to his then-assured brand of “sexual normalcy,” inverts what Barbara Klinger describes as his “uncomplicated virility.” His performance nevertheless opens up a space not only for female desire, but also for queer desire via Hudson’s camp persona. Hamill is, to an extent, similarly coded in Empire. In the Dagobah swamp, Luke’s muscular arms are exposed as he engages in physical activities such as swinging Tarzan-like through the trees, which draws attention to his figure. But it is Ford’s body that is made most readily available for female and queer desire and the intersections thereof, his objectification and commoditization in stasis presaging Leia’s fate in the infamous Return of the Jedi gold bikini. Frozen in carbonite, he is, as film historian Melanie Selfe once suggested to me, shrink-wrapped and presented to the audience like a toy.
IV. Emotion, in Glorious Eastman Color
Another Rock Hudson movie casts a shadow over Empire in the form of All That Heaven Allows. Douglas Sirk’s sumptuous melodrama always makes me recall the words of my high school art teacher, who would rhapsodize about thick-pigmented paints being “good enough to eat.” With its red-, blue-, and yellow-drenched suburban landscapes, All That Heaven Allows was, as Klinger argues, excluded from film canon by its contemporary critics for endangering “the codes of naturalism” and using sensationalist Hollywood tropes to undermine “dramatic integrity.”
Empire builds on this tonal palette. Where A New Hope goes au naturel in shades of nude, sand, and monochrome, Empire makes a bolder statement in deep blues and reds, deploying color to render emotions and inner conflict visible onscreen. The two colors emanate from ships, light up dashboards, infuse lightsabers, and saturate the inky depths of the Bespin carbon-freezing chamber.
The film’s symbolic use of color evokes the phantasmal Powell and Pressburger ballet picture The Red Shoes (1948), in which the tragic Victoria Page is forced to choose between two opposing sides — the stage, and her domestic life. In the movie, “The Red Shoes” ballet is a 14-minute sequence in which the camera moves with Page through various sets that recede around the edges into darkness, creating surprising and often illogical juxtapositions between different spaces, all lit in fantastical colors.
Jack Cardiff’s extraordinary cinematography and use of color seem to have a pronounced influence on Luke and Vader’s Bespin fight scene. Silhouetted on a cavernous set with no visible edges, the pair dance with one another in a choreographed duel against a backdrop of intense blue and red, giving way to a corridor of white light that delivers them back into darkness again. The Empire Strikes Back is the epitome of a film that wends from adventure to romance to science fiction but that always, somehow, finds its way back to a camp sensibility.
While on the surface The Empire Strikes Back looks and sounds like a blockbuster adventure movie, it relies on the talent, sensibilities, and textual elements of its ostensible opposite: the marginal, the queer, and the arthouse. There are visual similarities to the exaggerated high-camp of Ken Russell in the 1970s, references to homoerotic Rock Hudson romcoms, and the sentimental excesses of 1950s-era melodramas by Douglas Sirk. Given that melodrama is meant to be for girls, that camp is for queers, and that the film’s more experimental and romantic elements are generally overlooked, it’s not hard to understand how the myth that Star Wars is for boys is perpetuated by Empire’s canonization as a science-fiction-Western-adventure hybrid. But The Empire Strikes Back is heavily indebted to girls, to gays, to drag, to dance, to European traditions of camp and opera and being too much, with its excesses manifesting in spectacular effects, in the availability of male bodies for desire and consumption, and in the overt sentimentality of the romantic subplot. Playing very seriously with audience expectations about blockbuster filmmaking, Empire creates queer subtext in a family-friendly movie with intertextual abandon. Let’s celebrate it as such: not only as the most revered of all the Star Wars films, but as the kind of trash that professional critics tend to deplore — a sensational melodrama with the camp sensibilities of the soapiest space opera.
Rebecca Harrison is a queer feminist academic, film critic, and broadcaster based in the United Kingdom.