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Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back

The 1980 Irvin Kershner-directed sequel to the original Star Wars film.

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Learn about the inspiration for George Lucas' "Star Wars'

  • Aug 24, 2010

I was a freshman in college when I took my new girlfriend, (now married for over 30 yrs.) to see George Lucas’ 1977 film “Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope.”  This movie literally blew our minds!!!  Audiences were not used to the great special effects this film introduced to the world!  Even more compelling for me was the story.  The movie had a visceral magnetism that took hold of me.  It was only years later when I found out why that was, and the answer that I found is going to be the basis for my review.  Let me first say that I love finding out about the “back story” of the great works of artists, the answer I found to this work of art filled me with joy and a sense of satisfaction beyond my dreams!!!
I saw a several part series on PBS moderated by Bill Moyers talking to George Lucas about the inspiration for his “Star Wars” story.  Lucas gave most of the inspirational credit to a book he read by one of the world’s preeminent scholars on religion and myth, Joseph Campbell; his book is “A Hero With A Thousand Faces.”  I gained a whole new perspective on religion after reading this book and understood why it was so compelling to Lucas.  What Campbell was able to ascertain by studying religion and myth is that in every culture there is a foundational “monomyth” describing a “hero’s” journey that is at the center of every culture’s belief system.  I am going to describe the “monomyth” cycle within the “Star Wars” movie to make the point.
Campbell discovered through extensive research that humankind shares a universal monomyth in its various religions and legends especially pertaining to the creation of the world and humankind.  Campbell borrowed the term monomyth from James Joyce’s book Finnegan’s Wake.  Campbell’s intuitive insight in human myth proves that for thousands of years these myths display a certain standard structure, which he summarizes beautifully in his book.
"A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man" (Campbell 30).                                 
There are at least four major stages that a monomyth has however, in his book, Campbell goes on to describe  seventeen stages that some monomyth's posses.  The four stages making up the cycle of a monomyth are “passage: separation-initiation-return:” In the first stage, known as the passage stage, the hero is summoned to journey or embark on an adventure by some kind of event that takes place or from a message, he receives.  The hero may embark on this passage willingly or reluctantly.  For instance, in the movie, the young Lukeskywalker returning to his farm from performing some errands finds his aunt and uncle killed by shock troops of the Empire.  He had been itching to leave the farm to go to the flight academy, so faced with this tragedy he finally has a reason to leave the farm, to start his “journey.”
Campbell says that during the second stage, the separation stage, the hero meets with a mentor or wise man who gives the hero either an amulet or some words of wisdom to be of help to the hero on the adventure.  In the movie this is where Luke meets with former Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi who gives him a light saber and starts to teach him the ways of the “force.”
During the third stage, the initiation stage, the hero goes through several trials or tests.  The hero will go through his first transformation, also known as “crossing the first threshold,” as he crosses over to another world or dimension leaving behind the old world.  The hero often receives help in these ordeals along the way by allies or from a supernatural force.  In this case Luke is helped by Han Solo and Princess Leia on his quest to fight against the Empire’s dark force Darth Vader.
As the hero completes these ordeals successfully, he proves himself more worthy to continue the adventure.  Most importantly, during this stage the hero must pass through a major ordeal that will expand his consciousness, and thereby change his character forever.  Often, this ordeal entails the death of an ally or enemy. 
This is where Luke’s mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi meets his death at the hand of Darth Vader, which enrages Luke and will eventually cause him to fight Vader in a duel with light sabers.    
In the fourth stage, once the hero successful accomplishes his ordeal he is rewarded with a gift, it could be intrinsic like the “holy grail, or it can be new found knowledge to better the world with. This last stage the hero travels is that of the return whence he came.  Often the hero will undergo further trials on his return before he is permitted to cross the threshold back to the world he left.  During his return journey, the hero will use his newfound wisdom or gift to make a safe return home.  Once home the gift is used to cure some ill in the hero's home or to impart new wisdom to his neighbors.
In the case of Luke he will continue with the help of other mentors like Yoda, to become a Jedi master, completing his last stage wherein he receives “enlightenment” the gift that he can bestow on his world.
Campbell points to the significance of the monomyth in the fact that it describes the cycle that Moses, Jesus, Buddha, and the Mahavira had gone through according to their religious adherents.  This is not to mention the hundreds of other monomyths told throughout human history.  The monomyth proves that humankind shares a common creation DNA in a sense.  No wonder Campbell’s monomyth was the perfect vehicle for Lucas’ “Star Wars” story!!! 
I hope you enjoyed the journey!!!

Learn about the inspiration for George Lucas' Learn about the inspiration for George Lucas' Learn about the inspiration for George Lucas' Learn about the inspiration for George Lucas'

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January 27, 2011
I have a videotaped copy of another program on PBS. It was titled "George Lucas: Heroes, Myths and Magic". It also featured Joseph Campbell and was a great program. I wish it were available on DVD.
January 27, 2011
Thank you for the compliment. I don't think I have seen the program you refer to, I would be interested in viewing it.
August 30, 2010
I also remember lots of the points you mention. Joseph Campbell had a great influence on me, and it was a real education to hear him and Moyers discuss this groundbreaking film.
August 30, 2010
Thank you for the compliment. Campbell influenced a great many a college student. He was a great academic, more importantly a great story teller. I loved the film when I saw it, this was the icing on the cake. After reading Campbell, I have viewed the history of the world and religion differently.
August 28, 2010
MNeulander, I have the PBS series on DVD and Joseph Campbell's  - both of which are excellent. Have you written reviews of them for Lunch.com? I'd be great to have your thoughts about the book and DVD, and more about how it connects to Star Wars.
August 28, 2010
I have done a review on the book, I will work on the oters, thank you for looking.
August 28, 2010
Definitely. I think reading and understanding the mythological elements that so fascinated Lucas helped me appreciate the prequels better. I have many complaints about those films, but also appreciate them much more than I think many people do because I see what Lucas was shooting for.
August 26, 2010
great insight Michael... thanks for sharing. after reading your review, it seems almost obvious that such a popular film would have tapped into something so universal as this concept of monomyth.
August 26, 2010
JR, thanks for the compliment.
August 25, 2010
Michael, Your review is excellent but it should really be on Campbell's book instead of this film.
August 25, 2010
I did a book review, However, I also wanted fans of Star Wars to know the inspiration for the story.
August 25, 2010
From many SW fans I have spoken to consider this the best movie of the whole series. I guess this is the one where Luke learns that Darth Vader is his father and then gets his hand cut off. I guess I would like to learn your thoughts on the movie itself.
August 24, 2010
Nice review, Michael. I knew this, though, so I'm not as surprised as everyone else, lol. ;) Don't people realize that the best films in Hollywood are always inspired by books. :D

But seriously, this is a great book! I also read a version about the Heroine's Journey, which is different from what Campbell described. 

Thanks for informing the masses, my friend!
August 24, 2010
Thanks for pointing me to your review, Michael! I've only seen this movie once, so I had no idea! Very interesting, and I love reading a review from someone who actually saw this when it first came out and was part of all the initial pandemonium!
August 24, 2010
Interesting. Lucas always surprises me with lucid ways in which he finds his stories. Then he surprises me by saying that it would cost too much to put the old movies on blu ray. I guess 4 billion dollars just isn't enough. Thats an argument for another time.
August 24, 2010
whoa. This movie is one of the those that has been over-reviewed, over-discussed and over-argued about by most of its fanbase. It would be rather difficult to add fresher areas of discussion but I have to say, you made real good with this review! This is well thought-out review of one the classics in American filmmaking! Bravo!
August 24, 2010
Thank, I was blown away when I learned all this, from your profile,I know you would love reading this book!
More Star Wars: Episode V - The Emp... reviews
review by . May 02, 2011
This is the best of the bunch people, admit it. I love it, personally, when a great movie is followed up by an equivalent or better sequel, and Empire Strikes Back is definitely better than A New Hope, which was still a masterpiece of science fiction all the same. Empire Strikes back still has the entertaining chase scenes (unlike the consensus says), but its also a tad bit darker than the first one with the same visuals and the same sense of wonder and excitement, of course with that legendary …
review by . September 26, 2009
posted in Movie Hype
Luke is trapped by the evil Lord Vader
We need to have more movies out now "ruined."      How ironic is it that the best of all Star Wars movies is the one that elicited a tantrum from George Lucas and how he thought the movie was awful with the way others in charge put it together and turned it into one of the finest pieces of sci fi ever?      What else is ironic is that ESB was initially panned when released and is now looked back on as a masterpiece.  People I've talked to continually …
review by . July 06, 2009
posted in Movie Hype
After the unprecedented success of Star Wars, it only made sense for there to be a sequel.  George Lucas himself had stated there would be three films.  The second film in the trilogy: "The Empire Strikes Back," is often considered the best Star Wars film.  It is also one of the darkest and most character driven of the entire saga.  George Lucas, however, opted not to direct.  Rather he hired a director named Irvin Kershner to direct the Star Wars sequel. …
Quick Tip by . September 25, 2010
posted in Awesomeness
The most awesome thing with "Star Wars" on the label. Time has proven it to be a classic.
Quick Tip by . August 08, 2010
Nice foreshadowing, good twists, immersive world. This is what Star Wars is meant to be---not the prequels and new Lucas-schlock.
Quick Tip by . July 04, 2010
Darth Vader is out to capture Luke Skywalker and corrupt him and drive him to the dark side. Takes what the first movie had and made it run deeper and turns up the drama. A great sequel. Also has the benefit of being the one of the original series to not suck completely by it's special edition.
review by . January 18, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
What I love about The Empire Strikes Back is that it's such an original sequel to A New Hope. Also, unlike the other episodes of the original trilogy, all of the revisions/alterations to Empire I think make it better. The ships look much better and more realistic (no more grey boxes around TIE Fighters). Cloud City on Bespin evokes more beauty. This is as close as we'll ever get to seeing a restored version of the original movie.
review by . January 18, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
What I love about The Empire Strikes Back is that it's such an original sequel to A New Hope. Also, unlike the other episodes of the original trilogy, all of the revisions/alterations to Empire I think make it better. The ships look much better and more realistic (no more grey boxes around TIE Fighters). Cloud City on Bespin evokes more beauty. This is as close as we'll ever get to seeing a restored version of the original movie.
Quick Tip by . January 07, 2010
Finest Star Wars outing expands more on it's characters and has plenty of eye candy and drama for fantastic sci fi entertainment.
Quick Tip by . December 04, 2009
Not only the greatest "Star Wars" film ever, but also one of the most triumphant sequels ever. Intelligent sci-fi with a heart and soul. : )
About the reviewer
Michael Neulander ()
Ranked #43
Recently graduated with a Masters in Humanities degree from Old Dominion University reading in philosophy and history. I graduated from the Univ. of Miami in 1980 with a B.A. in Political Science; specializing … more
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About this movie


Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back is a 1980 space opera film directed by Irvin Kershner. The screenplay, based on a story by George Lucas, was written by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan. It was the second film released in the Star Wars saga, being followed by Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, and the fifth in terms of internal chronology.

The film is set three years after the destruction of the Death Star. Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia Organa, and the rest of the Rebel Alliance are being pursued by Darth Vader and the elite forces of the Galactic Empire. While Han and Leia are chased across the galaxy by the Empire, Luke studies the Force under Jedi Master Yoda. Vader is secretly plotting a trap for Luke that will lead to a fierce confrontation and a shocking revelation.

Following a difficult production, The Empire Strikes Back was released on May 21, 1980, and received mixed reviews from critics, although it has since grown in esteem to become one of the most well-regarded chapters of the saga and one of the most highly rated films in history.[3][4][5] It earned more than US$538 million worldwide over the original run and several re-releases, making it the highest grossing film of 1980. When adjusted for inflation, it is the 12th highest grossing film of all time in the United States.

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