Monday, May 30, 2011

Leigh Brackett's original 1978 "Empire Strikes Back" script

Leigh Brackett's original script for "The Empire Strikes Back" is something I've sought after in a lifetime of being a Star Wars fan. This wasn't just another movie, it was the high point of the entire franchise. What secrets did the script contain?

Recently, I read it and I got a chance to find out. It was not what I was expecting at all.

Who is Leigh Brackett?

Leigh Brackett was all of seventy years old when she wrote the original script for the Star Wars Sequel (the name hadn't even been picked up), and one of the many people from Hollywood's Golden Age who was tapped in the 1970s when blockbuster, mass market pictures came back into vogue, just like "Exorcist" director William Friedkin was a student of Howard Hawks.

Brackett wrote the scripts for arguably the greatest Western and film noirs of all time: Rio Bravo and the Big Sleep.

Brackett is one of those authors, like Hemingway, that's bigger than the stories they wrote. She always "power-dressed," long before that expression came into vogue, loved driving her red sportscar way too fast on California curves. There was a famous story were Leigh played volleyball with the boys in Muscle Beach, California and held her own.

Saying you're a fan of pulp science fiction of the Golden Age is tantamount to admitting you're a fan of Leigh Brackett, just like saying you like Silver Age Marvel Comics means you like Jack Kirby. People forget that the vaguely denigrating term "space opera" started out as praise, a way of separating the wheat from the chaff, a way of telling apart the usual hokey "Adventure" sex-and-shooting romps from the Leigh Brackett-type moody, atmospheric adventure science fiction thrillers.

It was especially shocking to read Leigh Brackett and discover she wrote (anti-) heroes in a voice shockingly similar to Star Wars's scene-stealing, coolest character, Han Solo. One particular antihero character, Rick in "Nemesis from Terra," had a moment so "Han Solo" it was a little chilling, especially when you imagine it was written in 1944.

While on the run in a cave network under Mars with his lady friend, he reached in the darkness and grabbed her.

"Which wrist did I grab?"


"We go left. And baby, we'd better hope you're lucky!"

Since the prequels came out, I had another reason to want to read the Leigh Brackett script for "Empire Strikes Back." With the prequels, it was absolutely inarguable that George Lucas had absolute creative control. And those lousy movies were the result? A lot of fans started to wonder if maybe George's role in the success of the original movies was a little overrated. If Star Wars wasn't great because of his contributions, then who else was it? Laurence Kasdan? "Empire Strikes Back" director Irving Kirschner? Producer Gary Kurtz?

It's become a common argument among fans that Leigh Brackett, not George Lucas or screenwriter Laurence Kasdan, was responsible for the strong story of "The Empire Strikes Back." In an interview in Starlog around 1980, George Lucas claimed that it was Leigh Brackett's idea that Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker's father. Ever since Brackett's death in 1978, Lucas has given her a gradually smaller and smaller role in the history of Star Wars; currently Lucasfilm claims that Brackett's script was rejected in its entirety as unsuitable, and George Lucas only kept her name on the script credit as a favor to her widower husband, "Planet Smasher" Ed Hamilton. That's a pretty interesting claim considering that the screen writers' guild rules determines when a writer gets credit!

The Structure

First things first: the basic structure of the Brackett script is ultimately identical to the finished film. The differences are in the details.

All the beats of the final film are there: Luke is captured on an ice planet, the Rebels have to evacuate because of upcoming Imperial attack (although in this script the Rebels can't buy a break and get a double-whammy of Imperial troops and unstoppable, unfriendly ice monsters as well), and there's an escape into asteroids, Han and the Princess fall in love, and Luke goes to train as a Jedi Knight under some mysterious weirdo. All roads lead to Cloud City, where Darth Vader has captured Han and Leia due to Lando selling them out, and ultimately the climax is a lightsaber duel between Luke and Darth Vader where Luke is tempted by evil.

Yoda is there (named "Minch," a froglike old bog planet dweller that trained Obi-Wan), as is the Emperor…here he's his usual self as a hood wearing old sorcerer. Apparently this was the point where the idea the Emperor was a powerless figurehead pawn of a powerful military junta, present in the original Star Wars novelization among other pre "Empire Strikes Back" places, was ditched.

One of my favorite scenes shows something I was always curious about: Darth Vader's castle. Darth Vader has some gargoyle-like pets that he feeds, delighting in their greed and cruelty.


The most surprising element of the script had to do with Lando, here called Lando Kadar. As opposed to a charming but untrustworthy rake who tried to go legit and became successful, Lando in Leigh Brackett's script is a man who "went native," like Jake Sully in "Avatar," accepted by and becoming a leader of a tribe of primitives who live on the Cloud world and fly aerial manta rays.

A lot of people believe Lando was created for a very cynical reason: a big criticism of the original Star Wars was there weren't any black people in it. But there's not a single word about Lando's race in the script. The description of Lando Kadar is that he was so good looking, like Rudolph Valentino, he seems almost a little unreal.

Originally we hear that Lando Kadar was some kind of refugee from the Clone Wars. That's when the bombshell is dropped: Lando Kadar was a clone, from a planet of clones.

Han Solo, Dialed Back

One of the more disappointing things about the script is that Han Solo in this movie is a seriously subdued, "big brother" figure that seems very bland, without his trademark pride, gambler's arrogance, coolness and desire for independence. Han Solo is strongly on the Rebels' side, and isn't conflicted about it at all. Some of his character defining moments, like running the blockade of Imperial ships, leading them into an asteroid field and so on, are absent. This was one of the biggest surprises because practically every single hero Leigh Brackett ever wrote was basically Han Solo. Obviously I wouldn't expect a first draft to be perfect, and a few more rewrites were needed.

Han got a really interesting piece of business: we learn his estranged stepfather was a wealthy interstellar shipping magnate that might be the most powerful person in the galaxy after the Emperor and Darth Vader, and the Rebels need his help. This mission is set up at the end, where Han leaves in the Falcon. I always thought this was interesting because what little we've heard about Han's stepfather reminds me of the Fu Manchu-esque Prince Xizor in "Shadows of the Empire," who was also a shipping magnate and was also the third most powerful and influential guy in the galaxy.

There is one important character that isn't mentioned at all: Boba Fett, and there was no dark cliffhanger with Han Solo trapped in chocolate. Considering the original version of the Star Wars script had Darth Vader as an evil, quiet and menacing bounty hunter, I'm inclined to think this might have been Lucas's idea.

Luke Skywalker is "Rocky"

It's hard to imagine how a boy pilot who blew up the Death Star could possibly be an underdog again after proving himself in such an amazing way, but the Brackett story knocks Luke down a peg in the beginning to build him up. By the end of the story he's humbled, more aware of his shortcomings, but also more adult and wise.

The story starts with Luke getting his ass kicked by ice monsters, just like in the final film. And it goes downhill from there – he tells Leia he loves her and she rejects him, because of her duties (leaving him to think "she's a princess and I'm a farm boy from Tattooine"). And then, in a very subtle way, she leaves Luke to "help out" (ha, ha) Han Solo…

One of my favorite parts of the original Brackett script was how Luke drew his lightsaber to fight an ice monster and got his ass kicked.

Han Solo then tells Luke that Ben Kenobi was a good guy but he filled Luke's head with nonsense, and even for the Jedi Knights, lightsabers were entirely ceremonial weapons and are not the most practical in real fights. This is really funny to me, because I always found the idea that someone with a sword was invincible against people with guns was just a little unbelievable, and come the prequels, the lightsaber was so overused and overpowered it became boring. To have someone at this early stage flat out say they're romantic and sentimental but not a very practical weapon, well, it rings absolutely true.

Therefore, when Luke starts training on the unnamed bog planet, when the ghost of Ben Kenobi tells him he has potential and greatness, Luke was a little suspicious of him. "I'm nobody," he says.

Leigh Brackett's Star Wars sequel script had an infinitely more complex and intriguing view of the Force than the later films. When Luke asks what the Dark Side of the Force is, Yoda tells them the Dark Side isn't something external, but your own personal Dark Side and worst characteristics, insecurities, wrath, hatred and vices. Giving in to these traits is destroying yourself.

Was Darth Vader Luke Skywalker's Father?

Short answer: no, not in this script.

If Luke being Darth Vader's son was Brackett's idea, it wasn't here. And it isn't just a question of that line not being there. In one scene on the bog planet, Obi-Wan introduces Luke to the ghost of his real dead father. The moment is as earth-shattering for Luke as it is for us.

Amazingly of all, Luke's Father tells him he has a sister, who in the script was given the name "Nellith."

During the final confrontation, hoping to unleash Luke's evil side, Vader taunts him with the knowledge that he killed his father.

"You don't stand a chance against me. …No more than your Father did, anyway."

Vader plays to Luke's vanity as well as his rage and wrath, hoping to get Luke to use the Dark Side so Luke could say he killed the great Darth Vader. In the end Luke gives in to wrath and rage, and as a result, he betrays his Jedi oath, a crushing moment where Luke believes he ought to die.

All in all, Darth Vader's temptation of Luke was much better done in this script because he had something to tempt Luke with.


Eduardo M. said...

Interesting that the script has Vader with a castle. Some of the later EU stuff introduced Bast Castle, a retreat Vader had on a planet called Vjun.

I still take what Han says about lightsabers with a grain of salt. While I agree that they shouldnt be these invincible weapons that can deflect anything, Han is not exactly a religious scholar and is a known skeptic. The idea that lightsabers arent as powerful as one would think would have more weight if it came from Yoda or Obi-Wan.

Julian Perez said...

I remember reading there were models and conceptual paintings done for "Return of the Jedi," which at some stage would have had a scene in Darth Vader's castle. From what I remember, it would have been on some lava planet near a volcano.

I do remember reading a novel where the guardians of Vader's castle were these horrible all-black manta-shaped starfighter droids. The thing that made them creepy is that each one was powered by a human brain ripped out from an enemy of Vader. That's the stuff nightmares are made of.

Re: Han not being a religious scholar...

I remember reading in the novelization of the Empire Strikes Back that Han Solo, while he used the lightsaber to save Luke's life by putting him in a tauntaun, wondered if grabbing his lightsaber in this way might be sacrilege.

As for Han's comment, you have to put it into a little more context. The lightsaber is a lethal weapon in close-quarter fighting for sure, but the ice monsters were giants with colossal reach. Luke tried to use it on them to save Leia and the ice things smacked him down, kicked his ass.

Maybe Han wasn't a religious scholar, but that scene showed a weakness in the lightsaber itself: it's an edged weapon and makes the wielder vulnerable to enemies with superior range and reach.

Eduardo M. said...

The droids fighters were used in the Dark Empire graphic novels. The idea behind them was that their pilots were brains taken from wounded Imperial aces.

That's very similar to the Bomarr Monks. Religous guys who hung around Jabba's Palace. To them, shedding your brain and sticking in a jar is a good thing. Accoridng to the EU, thats what happened to Bib Fortuna after the events of RotJ. I remember reading that there's a bank of lights in front of the spider-walker thing the monk brains use to move around. If a red light is flashing, that means the brain is "screaming" and is not happy about being just grey matter in a jar.

David said...

[blockquote]Ever since Brackett's death in 1978, Lucas has given her a gradually smaller and smaller role in the history of Star Wars; currently Lucasfilm claims that Brackett's script was rejected in its entirety as unsuitable, and George Lucas only kept her name on the script credit as a favor to her widower husband, "Planet Smasher" Ed Hamilton. That's a pretty interesting claim considering that the screen writers' guild rules determines when a writer gets credit![/blockquote]

It's even more interesting when you consider Hamilton preceded her in death! Never let it be said Lucas isn't a sensitive guy, even worrying about a dead man's feelings.

This script sounds better than the filmed version, from your synopsis. I'm kind of relieved at the possibility she *didn't* come up with the idea of Darth as Luke's father. As far as I'm concerned, that's the moment the series jumped the shark.

I still remember being surprised back in 1980 that everyone made such a big deal about it. I assumed Vader was lying to unnerve Luke; after all he's the bad guy, that's what they do, right? It took a long while to realize he wasn't kidding, and really things never recovered from there, in my opinion. Making Leia Luke's sister just tipped it into total farce.

As a franchise, the Star Wars record stands at 2 wins, 4 losses. So really, what's the fuss? Even Crocodile Dundee managed a 50% success rate.

Julian Perez said...

I remember reading about the Bomarr monks in that gorgeous book with the Ray McQuarry illustrations! The idea they were the "real" owners of Jabba's Palace was one of those cute factoids that up-end everything that justifies the entire existence of the expanded universe. McQuarry was one of the greatest science fiction artists ever; I was so sad when I heard he got Parkinsons recently.

I personally loved the twist Vader was Luke's father because it up-ended the entire story. We were so used to thinking of Vader as a symbol of evil and Luke as a symbol of goodness.

And Vader having some real humanity was amazing in Return of the Jedi. Here's this guy more machine than human that commits horrible acts, but somewhere in his withered heart is a love of family and decency. That redemption act was moving.

(I wish someone would do that for Dick Cheney.)

I suspect most people at the time believed it was a lie. I have a quizbook from 1980 where the question was "what relationship did Vader CLAIM to have with Luke?" (my emphasis) and even James Earl Jones believed it was a lie.

Thinking it over, with the hindsight of the prequels...was Return of the Jedi really that bad? There was a time we considered it the worst of the Star Wars movies and I can only laugh at how naive we were. The only definite thing I can think of that enraged me was the lazy way they wrote themselves out of the Luke/Han/Leia love triangle.

David said...

If you're saying "Jedi" looks good compared to the prequels, it's hard to argue with you. But then, you could say the same about "Battle Beyond the Stars", as well.

I rather liked Jedi first time around, although the general impression it left was that it was very...lightweight compared to its predecessors. The teddy bears torpedoed any pretense of drama, the "Oh, and Leia's your sister" scene turned the "shocking" ending of Empire into the set-up for a bad joke, the speeder bike race through the forest looked fake and silly (foreshadowing similar nonsense in the prequels) and I agree with Harrison Ford that not killing at least *someone* (Han would have sufficed) made the whole thing seem empty fluff, like "The Rover Boys Conquer Space." And yes, I know Vader croaks, but only after switching sides, so he dies a stranger to us. We were invested in the villain; we don't know the hero. Most of all, after all the build-up of the Empire as some far-reaching galactic scourge with fingers everywhere, the whole thing falls apart after one crummy Death Star is blown up.

I "get" where Lucas was going with the "redemption of Vader" thing, but when you consider what a phenomenally awesome movie villain he of the best in cinema history...what we got in terms of "warm fuzzies" was no compensation for what we lost. And the prequels erased whatever cool was left in the character.

Having said all that, I liked it all well enough at the time; it was old-fashioned, Flash Gordon-style fun, which is all I really asked from Star Wars (I still consider the series at its best when it aims for thrills and leaves politics and pseudo-religion at the door). But when given the chance in Summer of '83 to watch a movie a second time, I still picked "Octopussy." LOL

Julian Perez said...

Interesting Empire Strikes Back/Octopussy factoid: the guy that played Q's assistant in Octopussy, Jeremy Bulloch, was the same actor that played the legendary Boba Fett.

Without the mask, he looks like a pasty office dope. It reminds me of a scene in a novel where a rarely vulnerable Boba Fett was recovering from illness. Someone actually snatches a glimpse at his rarely-seen face.

"Is that...Boba Fett?"

"No." Dengar said. He held up Boba Fett's helmet. "This is Boba Fett."

On Vader, I'm gonna have to disagree with you on this one, Nightwing, and here's why: Vader did not ever switch from being grand and terrible to being sympathetic and weak. That's what made Luke's interactions with Vader in Jedi all the more tense: we, the audience, saw the same SS-officer evil asshole we always did...but Luke thinks he can turn him good again? Yeah, right! That made Vader's moment of goodness all the more surprising.

David said...

Well, I will say this; at least Vader's "redemption" happens in the last few minutes of Jedi, and he dies for it. Unlike say, Jaws, the steel-toothed terror of "The Spy Who Loved Me" who turns to the side of good in "Moonraker" but then hangs around, leaving us to watch in disgust as he and his new girlfriend (Pipi Longstocking with boobs) share a champagne toast ("Well," says the previously mute Jaws, "here's to us!") =:-0

Possibly I'm just viewing "Jedi" through the lens of the prequels, where Vader is also far from "sympathetic," but is definitely "weak" the slang sense of the word, ie: lame. At least in the original trilogy someone out there was rooting for Annakin to return. Once we saw what he was like pre-armor, I doubt that was still true.

Re: Bulloch: There are several Bond/Star Wars crossovers, not surprisingly given their English shoots. Shane Rimmer and Julian Glover spring immediately to mind. Wherever there's a control board full of lights and buttons to be pushed by an American in an English-filmed movie, you'll find Shane Rimmer. I remember watching "Batman Begins" and there's a scene at the end in the control room for the L-train; who should be running it? You guessed it. And right away, I knew two things: (1) Shane Rimmer was still alive and (2) part of "Batman Begins" must have been filmed in England.

In fact, now that Ed Bishop's passed on, Shane's probably getting twice the "technician with American accent" jobs he used to.

David said...

Oh yeah, and about masks with nebbishes underneath:

One of the cool moments in "Jedi" is at the beginning when we learn that bug-like bounty hunter is Leia, and Vader's unmasking is foreshadowed. With this scene, we learn that a mask plus a voice filter can completely change our impression of anyone. Up til now, we just assumed Darth was as scary and imposing sans mask as he was with it, but as we'll see he was really just a cuddly old Humpty Dumpty of an uncle.

Which is to say, it was cool but at the same time disappointing, because after all those scary moments in the first two films, I'm left thinking, "I was afraid of THAT?"

Now even when I see the earlier stuff I'm thinking, "Oh, Dad's just being cranky. He's all bluster, you know."

Joseph G said...

Honestly, the lightsabers should be a little overpowered. While I agree that they were a bit overplayed in the prequel trilogy (and that Yoda/Dooku lightsaber fight was just painful), lightsabers lent the jedi some credibility for being a force in the galaxy. If they couldn't do things like block blaster fire then the jedi as a whole would be relatively useless as a peacekeeping force.

I'm not sure whether I like this idea of Cloud City better although it would present logistical issues since a clone Lando would have looked different from later clones.

Otherwise I agree that giving Lucas more creative control presented issues, but part of it was that Lucas himself had changed since the time he was involved in the original films. The fact that the prequel trilogy turned out dodgy might not necessarily have meant he was minimally involved in the originals since he would have been a different person then.

Fra X said...

vevo letto che alla fine pareva che del lavoro della Brackett fosse rimasto poco e niente ed onestamente dubitavo di questa cosa. L' intuito mi ha dato ragione. XD
La parte del film dell' 83 con Jabbah non mi pare affatto leggera e anche il confronto Vader-Luke è reso bello tosto. E sono d' accordo quando si dice che per il cinema di genere dell' epoca era piuttosto originale e quando si toglie la maschera è Anakin, non più Vader. Anakin mica deve farci paura. A noi faceva paura Vader.
Riguardo gli Ewoks, sono una forza primitiva che sconfigge la fredda tecnologia dell' impero come la Forza nella prima pellicola. La critica li apprezzò. Poi, chissà perché, certi fan hanno cominciato a denigrarli come roba per bambini. Boh! L' unica cosa effettivamente un po buttata li è Leia sorella di Luke visto che all' inizio doveva essere un altro personaggio.
L' inseguimento degli speeder una baracconata? Allora lo sono anche le scene degli altri due film. Dai, non arrampichiamoci sugli specchi.