Why you should care
Because keeping a good secret in Hollywood is like keeping a beach ball underwater … with your tongue.
In the face of rampant speculation, rumors and inadvertent leaks, Disney, Lucasfilm and director J.J. Abrams are doing their best to keep the lid on the details of next year’s blockbuster-in-waiting, Star Wars: Episode VII. But no matter what Abrams & Co. have in store for moviegoers on the film’s now confirmed release date of December 18, 2015, which will be set 30 years after Return of the Jedi, they will be hard-pressed to rival the bombshell dropped by The Empire Strikes Back in the summer of 1980.
There are a handful of moments in the 1980s when most people can remember precisely where they were: The fall of the Berlin Wall, the Challenger disaster and, for many of us under 50, the discovery that Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker’s father.
Believe it or not, that disclosure — perhaps the biggest reveal in film history not involving Bruce Willis or a Dil pickle — was as big a surprise to the vast majority of the film’s own cast and crew as to the millions of us who left the theater in stunned silence.
Most cast members and crew had scripts with the fake line ’Obi-Wan killed your father.’
That’s right: Prior to Empire’s premiere, the true identity of Luke’s father, and arguably the lynchpin for the entire Star Wars franchise, was known only to creator George Lucas, the film’s producers, director Irvin Kershner, actor Mark Hamill (playing Luke) and James Earl Jones (the voice of Vader).
Most cast members and crew had scripts with the fake line “Obi-Wan killed your father” instead of the “I am your father” used in the final cut. Even David Prowse, the 6-foot-5-inch British bodybuilder in the Vader costume, was given the phony line to read during shooting (though it appears he had a pretty good idea about where the film was headed as early as 1978).
The veil of secrecy over Vader’s reveal was intense. As Mark Hamill would later describe it:
“Kershner, the director, brought me aside and said, ‘Now I know this, and George knows this, and now you’re going to know this, but if you tell anybody, and that means Carrie [Fisher] or Harrison [Ford] or anybody, we’re going to know who it is because we know who knows.’”
Empire’s great secret was also helped along by the fact that George Lucas did not decide to transform Luke’s father, Anakin Skywalker, into Darth Vader until relatively late in the scriptwriting process. If you’ve ever wondered why Luke’s last name was never changed from Skywalker as an added precaution to conceal his existence from his father and the Empire, the answer — hard as it is to fathom — might just be that the epic plot point had yet to be incorporated into the story.
But what a twist of fate it was, and not just for Luke. For many of us who saw the film as children, Empire represents a clear demarcation in our childhoods. Vader’s true identity was our first real exposure to life’s ambiguities, to moral complexity. Suddenly, evil was the father of good, and life would never again be so clear or straightforward.
“Search your feelings. You know it to be true.”