It’s been called the greatest twist in movie history: Fearsome Sith cyborg mass murderer Darth Vader is revealed to be the father of earnest, heroic farmboy Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) in the climax of 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back.
The revelation worked because it was shocking and disturbing: Luke’s father is not only alive, but also his mortal enemy!? It worked because it came at the end of a gripping lightsaber battle that left Luke pummeled, maimed, and defeated. It worked because it made sense even though the twist wasn’t conceived by George Lucas until after he shot 1977’s Star Wars. And it worked, screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan tells EW, because literally every previous scene in Empire was written and executed with the big revelation in mind.
“All this energy and all this storytelling that proceeded it was aimed at this tiny spot,” Kasdan says of the scene. “It’s like if you were trying to get to Mars and you were one degree off, you wouldn’t get there. That’s what the scene was like for all of us. How do we get there at the perfect time, the perfect place, and have it just absolutely blow people’s minds? It was just extraordinary the size of the picture and the expectations people had for it. The filmmakers are focused the entire time on this one revelation, which we not only want to pull off in the best way possible, but we want to keep it hidden from the world to the release.”
Kasdan had just finished his script for Raiders of the Lost Ark when he recalls Lucas sitting him down and inviting him to write his next project, the eagerly awaited Star Wars sequel. “He said, ‘You know, Darth Vader is Luke’s father,’ and I said, ‘No s—?’ I was shocked and amazed.”
Secrecy was paramount, even on set. “We wrote fake pages, all different pages,” Kasdan says. “The cast didn’t have the pages until the last second.”
The script said Vader tells Luke that Obi-Wan Kenobi killed his father — which Hamill notes wouldn’t have been a bad twist either. “I thought, wow, Alec Guinness, this icon of virtue, is secretly a villain? That’s a great twist,” the actor says. “I didn’t see that coming.” Hamill wasn’t told the truth until moments before the scene was shot. “[Director Irvin Kershner] pulled me aside and, and said, ‘Look, I’m going to tell you something, and I know it and George knows it, so if it leaks, we’ll know it was you.… We’re going to dub in [the line] I am your father.’ I thought, ‘Oh my God, I was as shocked as the audience would later be. This is so primal, nothing could top Darth Vader being your father.”
The scene also escalated Luke’s peril by having Vader chop off his hand at the end of their fight, raising the stakes in viewers’ minds that maybe, just maybe, the hero was really going to perish. “When George and I were writing the script, one of the major conceits of the [trilogy] is that over the course of the second act of this three-act structure, that Luke would not only discover this devastating thing about his past, but we’ll see in him those qualities that could go the wrong way,” Kasdan says. “So when he loses his arm, it leads to the next scene where he becomes starting to become literally like a machine like his father.”
Filming the scene was made even more challenging by the use of loud wind machines. Hamill not only couldn’t hear Vader body actor David Prowse say his lines, but couldn’t even hear himself and had to go off visual cues of Prowse moving in his suit. In fact, Hamill says that one of the biggest Star Wars original trilogy secrets is that more than half the dialogue was recorded in post-production due to all the intrusive noises from smoke and wind machines, prop effects, and even clunking robots. “C-3PO doesn’t sound like metal, he sounds like fiberglass,” Hamill notes.
After filming the scene, the fake twist — that Obi-Wan killed Luke’s father — leaked to a British tabloid. “These newspapers were offering 20,000 notes for anybody that got a good Star Wars leak,” Hamill says. “We couldn’t even keep that [the fake twist] a secret for a week. I was secretly delighted.”
Of course, the final effect was perfect — an entire generation of moviegoers were stunned, and Empire is still considered by many to be the best Star Wars film.
“It blew people’s minds,” Kasdan says. “I have never gone to a screening of the movie where people weren’t shocked, where they didn’t gasp. I would say that was the most successful secret ever kept in movies. People were amazing about not telling other people.”
Hamill recalls that at the Empire Strikes Back premiere, even his famously laconic costar Harrison Ford was stunned. “Harrison turned to me and said, ‘Hey, you didn’t f—ing tell me that.’”
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