History, Legacy & Showmanship

Betting the Ranch: Remembering “The Empire Strikes Back” on its 40th Anniversary

May 21, 2020 - 2:00 pm   |   by
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The Empire Strikes Back should be remembered as one of the greatest films of all time!” — Skywalking through Neverland co-host Richard Woloski

The Digital Bits and History, Legacy & Showmanship are pleased to present this retrospective commemorating the 40th anniversary of the release of The Empire Strikes Back, the middle act of George Lucas’s original Star Wars trilogy and one of the most celebrated and beloved sequels of all time.

The Empire Strikes Back (aka Star Wars: Episode VThe Empire Strikes Back) was directed by Irvin Kershner (The Flim-Flam Man, Eyes of Laura Mars) and starred Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher, reprising their popular roles of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Princess Leia, respectively.

As well, Empire featured returning cast members Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Kenny Baker (R2-D2), Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca), David Prowse (Darth Vader), and an uncredited James Earl Jones as the voice of Darth Vader. Newly introduced in Empire were Lando Calrissian (played by Billy Dee Williams) and Yoda (performed by Frank Oz and a team of muppeteers). [Read on here...]

Empire was released to movie theaters 40 years ago this week, and for the occasion The Bits features a compilation of statistics and box-office data that places Empire’s performance in context, plus passages from vintage film reviews, a reference/historical listing of the movie’s higher-quality 70mm showcase presentations, and, finally, an all-new interview segment with a trio of Star Wars authorities and historians who reflect on the movie’s impact and legacy four decades after its debut.

And, lastly, before we begin… in case you missed them or desire a refresher read, the Bits’ other Star Wars-themed retrospectives include Star Wars 40th anniversary, The Empire Strikes Back 35th anniversary, Return of the Jedi 30th anniversary, Return of the Jedi 35th anniversary, and The Phantom Menace 20th anniversary (plus a 10th anniversary look at Fanboys).

The Empire Strikes Back - Filmmakers

 

EMPIRE NUMBER$

  • 1 = Rank among top-earning films during opening weekend
  • 1 = Rank on list of top-earning films of 1980
  • 2 = Number of Academy Awards
  • 2 = Peak all-time box-office chart position (rentals)
  • 2 = Rank among Fox’s all-time top-earning films at close of original run
  • 3 = Number of Academy Award nominations
  • 3 = Peak all-time box-office chart position (gross)
  • 3 = Rank among top-earning movies produced by Lucasfilm (adjusted for inflation)
  • 3 = Rank among top-earning Star Wars movies (adjusted for inflation)
  • 7 = Rank among top-earning movies of the 1980s
  • 11 = Number of weeks top-grossing film (weeks 1-3 and 5-12)
  • 11 = Rank among top-earning movies produced by Lucasfilm
  • 11 = Rank among top-earning Star Wars movies
  • 13 = Rank on current list of all-time top-grossing films (adjusted for inflation)
  • 16 = Minimum number of weeks first wave theaters were contractually required to play the film
  • 54 = Number of months between theatrical release and home-video release
  • 59 = Number of days to surpass $100 million
  • 61 = Number of weeks of longest-running engagement
  • 100 = Rank on current list of all-time top-grossing movies
  • 127 = Number of opening-week bookings
  • 136 = Number of 70mm prints
  • 823 = Number of bookings during first week of wide release
  • $38,972 = Opening-weekend per screen average
  • $1.3 million = Opening-day box-office gross (126 theaters, May 21)
  • $4.9 million = Opening-weekend box-office gross (3-day; 127 theaters, May 23-25)
  • $6.4 million = Opening-weekend box-office gross (4-day; 127 theaters, May 23-26)
  • $7.4 million = Box-office rental (1982 re-release)
  • $9.6 million = Opening-week box-office gross (7-day; 127 theaters, May 21-27)
  • $10.8 million = Box-office gross for first weekend of expanded release (823 theaters, June 20-22)
  • $13.3 million = Box-office gross (1982 re-release)
  • $14.2 million = Box-office rental (1981 re-release)
  • $28.0 million = Box-office gross (1981 re-release)
  • $32.0 million = Production cost
  • $34.0 million = Amount 20th Century-Fox received in advance guarantees from exhibitors
  • $67.6 million = Box-office gross (1997 re-release)
  • $99.6 million = Production cost (adjusted for inflation)
  • $120.0 million = Box-office rental (original release)
  • $134.2 million = Box-office rental (original release + 1981 re-release)
  • $141.6 million = Box-office rental (original release + 1981 & 1982 re-releases)
  • $181.4 million = Box-office gross (original release)
  • $209.4 million = Box-office gross (original release + 1981 re-release)
  • $222.7 million = Box-office gross (original release + 1981 & 1982 re-releases)
  • $290.5 million = Box-office gross (original + 81, 82 & 97 re-releases)
  • $919.2 million = Box-office gross (original + 81, 82 & 97; adjusted for inflation)

The Empire Strikes Back

 

A SAMPLING OF MOVIE REVIEWER QUOTES

The Empire Strikes Back is a worthy sequel to Star Wars, equal in both technical mastery and characterization, suffering only from the familiarity with the effects generated in the original and imitated too much by others. Only boxoffice question is how many earthly trucks it will take to carry the cash to the bank.” — Jim Harwood, Variety

The Empire Strikes Back joins The Godfather, Part II as one of the rarest of films — a sequel that lives up to and expands upon its original.” — Gene Siskel, Chicago Tribune

“Kershner gives the material a sense of peril and tension that the original conspicuously lacked. If the first film was adventure-as-a-lark; Empire is adventure with menace and meaning.” — John Hartl, The Seattle Times

The Empire Strikes Back is a lifeless copy of Star Wars propelled chiefly on the momentum of that earlier film. Without the likes of a Peter Cushing or Alec Guinness to add some dignity and solid support, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford flounder in roles that are certain to doom their careers regardless of the series’ success. Critics who labeled this film ’better than Star Wars’ must have been watching the audience instead of the performance.” — Frederick S. Clarke, Cinefantastique

Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, like all superior fantasies, have the quality of parable, not only on good and evil but on attitudes toward life and personal deportment and there is something very like a moral imperative in the films’ view of hard work, determination, self-improvement, concentration, and idealism. It does not take a savant to see that this uplifting tone only a little less than the plot and effects is a central ingredient of the wide outreach of the films.” — Charles Champlin, Los Angeles Times

“This is no ordinary sequel. Lucas and his company have used their Star Wars profits to make a film far more sophisticated in its technical effects. Lucas’ imagination is as bountiful as ever, and he seems to have taken up where Disney left off. There are disappointments in The Empire, but it retains that special sense that fairy tales have — a moral dimension that touches us much more deeply than one-dimensional action adventures can.” — Gerald Clarke, Time

The Empire strikes out. It is embarrassing to watch the stand-offish princess be romanced successfully by Solo with one, brief kiss. Given the scope of the project, such childish innocence — even when well acted, as most of the movie is — turns vapid and trite. Even less satisfactory is the development of the impetuous Skywalker as he confronts the dark side of his personality during a fight with a vision of Darth Vader. He beheads the vision only to learn, as the helmeted head smashed to the ground, that — lo and behold — his own face is inside. That simple-minded scene is the only stage setting for the movie’s biggest surprise — Skywalker’s near surrender to Vader after Vader informs him they are father and son.” — Mary Hellman, The San Diego Union

“The film’s problem is that the ending isn’t really an ending. So many loose ends are left dangling that one finds almost maddening the prospect of waiting three years for the third movie to resolve the situation.” — Paul Johnson, (Little Rock) Arkansas Gazette

The Empire Strikes Back is malodorous offal… everything is stale, limp, desperately stretched out, and pretentious. Harrison Ford (Han) offers loutishness for charm and becomes the epitome of the interstellar drugstore cowboy. Mark Hamill (Luke) is still the talentless Tom Sawyer of outer space — wide-eyed, narrow-minded, strait-laced. Worst of all is Carrie Fisher, whose Leia is a cosmic Shirley Temple but without the slightest acting ability or vestige prettiness.” — John Simon, National Review

“In an era of diluted, dismal, and deadly sequels, this one delights — and it’s certain to do the business. It’s a dazzling continuation of the space adventures of Luke Skywalker — light years ahead of the space operas of recent months. Everything else is artificial; this is the heavy cream of the crop.” — Wayne Harada, The Honolulu Advertiser

“Along with its breathtakingly spectacular special effects, the film is to be applauded for its ability to incorporate the themes, values and characters of the first film and move ahead without repeating itself.” — Eric Gerber, The Houston Post

The Empire Strikes Back is, perhaps, proof of something I’ve been suspecting for some time now. That is, that there is more nonsense being written, spoken and rumored about movies today than about any of the other so-called popular arts except rock music. The Force is with us, indeed, and a lot of it is hot air.” — Vincent Canby, The New York Times

“Visually, the new installment conveys a sense of generosity that surpasses even the original: in any corner of the frame one can discover a delightfully gratuitous detail — a space lizard climbing up a tree, a puff of rocket exhaust, a barely glimpsed robot — that creates a sense of a totally inhabited fantasy world. The Empire Strikes Back is a technological triumph, a cornucopia of intergalactic tchotchkes.” — David Ansen, Newsweek

Empire is the only motion-picture sequel I can think of — ever — that is not less effective than the original. Usually, the popular elements of a hit film become the ingredients of the sequel formula, repeated in the hope that large audiences will again flock to see the same things they loved the first time around. If Lucas was that kind of filmmaker, Empire would have included another cantina, another garbage compactor, another planetary destruction and another regal ending. But it didn’t. And we didn’t get the Star Trek treatment either — wherein characters we all know and love recite their standard familiar lines all over again.” — Kerry O’Quinn, Starlog

“One of the qualities that made Star Wars fun for children and adults was its tongue-in-cheek humor. George Lucas didn’t seem to be taking his marvelous comic strip inventions seriously, and it was possible to sit back, relax and enjoy R2-D2 and C-3PO without pondering the deeper meaning of it all. There wasn’t any. Now a pinch of Freud and a touch of Zen have been added to muddy the Milky Way in The Empire Strikes Back. The kiddies’ response to the strange new encounters of their hero, Luke Skywalker, with the evil Darth Vader could provide doctoral thesis material for millennia.” — Judy Stone, San Francisco Chronicle

“Even for those without the tunnel vision of a movie fanatic, The Empire Strikes Back rivals the numerous world crises as one of the day’s important topics. We can all relax — and, for that matter, maybe even rejoice. The Empire Strikes Back is funnier, spookier, more technically advanced and frequently just as clever as Star Wars, its record-breaking antecedent. It also makes Superman seem like a soggy Milk Dud and Star Trek: The Motion Picture seem like evaporated milk.” — Philip Wuntch, The Dallas Morning News

“A more impressive and harrowing magic carpet ride than its fundamentally endearing predecessor, Empire pulls the carpet out from under you while simultaneously soaring along.” — Gary Arnold, The Washington Post

“It is a dazzling feast for the eye, the sort of film with so much going on in each frame you want to see it again immediately.” — Desmond Ryan, Philadelphia Inquirer

The Empire Strikes Back has arrived. And it’s wonderful…the audience is on its feet cheering.” — Peter Travers, Rolling Stone

The Empire Strikes Back - poster

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