See The Empire Strikes Back as a Silent Film — Precisely How George Lucas Imagined the Star Wars Films

The rush to rank the lat­est Star Wars movie The Force Awak­ens against its pre­de­ces­sors has got the series’  legions of fans look­ing back with even more scruti­ny than usu­al at those six chap­ters of this appar­ent­ly nev­er-end­ing cin­e­mat­ic space opera. While Star Wars fans have been known to argue amongst them­selves, quite a few of them do agree on cer­tain broad­er points of assess­ment: about as many of them call 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back as the best of the bunch as call 1999’s The Phan­tom Men­ace the worst. (The worst Star Wars movie, the worst movie, the worst thing — take your pick.)

Much time and ener­gy has gone into the dis­cus­sion of what makes The Phan­tom Men­ace so bad, but what makes The Empire Strikes Back so good? We can get some insight into the mat­ter from the video above, which con­verts the much-ref­er­enced, oft-par­o­died duel between Luke Sky­walk­er and Darth Vad­er, com­plete with the big reveal of parent­age and ensu­ing wail, into a scratchy, twitchy, title card-punc­tu­at­ed, piano-scored (but still faith­ful to John Williams’ com­po­si­tion) arti­fact from some­time around 1920. I’ve heard it said that the best songs, how­ev­er heav­i­ly pro­duced in their best-known ren­di­tion, work just as well by their very nature when played on noth­ing but a gui­tar or piano. The Empire Strikes Back, by the same token, works as a silent film.

This all, if you believe Star Wars cre­ator George Lucas, comes down to music. “Star Wars films are basi­cal­ly silent movies,” he says in the inter­view clip just above. “The music has a very large role in car­ry­ing the sto­ry, more than it would in a nor­mal movie. In most movies, the sto­ry is car­ried by the dia­logue — in Star Wars films, the music car­ries the sto­ry.” Every install­ment in the series, from the most beloved to the most exe­crat­ed, has to hop from world to world quick­ly while advanc­ing the sto­ry, and Lucas sees the music as the “con­nec­tive tis­sue” that makes it work: “With­out that music there to smooth it out and take you from point A to point B in an ele­gant way, it becomes very jerky and con­fused, and the sto­ry does­n’t work very well — the film does­n’t work very well.” Does the the­o­ry hold for the also Williams-scored The Force Awak­ens? Let the debate begin.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

16 Great Star Wars Fan Films, Doc­u­men­taries & Video Essays to Get You Ready for Star Wars: The Force Awak­ens

Hard­ware Wars: The Moth­er of All Star Wars Fan Films (and the Most Prof­itable Short Film Ever Made)

Fans Recon­struct Authen­tic Ver­sion of Star Wars, As It Was Shown in The­aters in 1977

Star Wars Uncut: The Epic Fan Film

The Empire Strikes Back Uncut: A New Fan-Made, Shot-for-Shot Remake of the 1980 Sci-Fi Clas­sic

The Exis­ten­tial Star Wars: Sartre Meets Darth Vad­er

Watch a New Star Wars Ani­ma­tion, Drawn in a Clas­sic 80s Japan­ese Ani­me Style

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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