GETTING MORE TALE #763: L’Empire contre-attaque
We didn’t have a VCR in 1980. You could rent them; this was usually reserved for special occasions. That meant, unlike today, we couldn’t just watch the latest Star Wars any time we felt like it. The best way to re-experience the movie was on your own, with action figures and soundtracks. The Empire Strikes Back was my favourite album at that time. I played certain tracks on those records so often with my kid fingers that they started to skip.
I used my parents’ big living room hi-fi. Giant wooden speakers as heavy as oak doors. A turntable, an 8-track, and a receiver. Once I discovered Star Wars, I think I used it more than they did. The Empire Strikes Back came in a luxurious gatefold, with photos from the film, liner notes, and a generous booklet. It didn’t take long for the rips and tears to set in; that record was well loved. Usually, I would plug in the set of headphones and listen quietly while turning the pages of that booklet. On weekends, my sister and I would probably set up a big battlefield and re-enact the movies, with the soundtrack playing in the background. The most frequently played tracks were “Yoda’s Theme”, “The Asteroid Field” and of course “The Imperial March”. Sometimes we would ambitiously re-enact the entire movie in sequence using the whole soundtrack.
We had to improvise. There were lots of characters and vehicles we didn’t have. When the Wampa ice monster attacks Luke Skywalker and knocks him off his tawn-tawn, we had to use Chewbacca as a stand-in for the monster. Before we had a Boba Fett, we used a Micronaut with an actual missile-firing backpack. We didn’t have an AT-AT, so we used my sister’s cardboard Jawa sandcrawler. The centrepiece of our play time was usually my huge Millennium Falcon toy.
Before anyone gets too nostalgic for the good old days, I’ll remind you those Kenner toys were actually quite shit. My two biggest toys, the Falcon and the X-Wing, both broke immediately out of the box. The wings on the X-Wing never worked right and I had to wedge marker lids in the wings to keep them open. The hinge for the boarding ramp of the Falcon snapped when my dad put it together. He tried to glue it, but ultimately the door was held on by an ugly piece of masking tape. Sturdy toys they were not, and parts were always popping off. The guns refused to stay on the wings of the X-Wing. The canopy of the Falcon always popped open mid-flight. It too eventually got locked down by masking tape.
During these huge play battles, my sister and I would take over the entire living room floor. There was a coffee table that usually acted as Imperial headquarters. You could park a TIE fighter on the shelf underneath. All the while, John Williams and the London Symphony spun behind us. I’d flip sides and cue up another track, or just play “The Imperial March” again.
When we were done playing Empire, we would do our own original stories. We usually set these “pre-Empire“, since Han Solo was frozen in carbonite at the end of the movie. He was a favourite character and we had two Han Solo action figures: original Han and Hoth Han. I loved Hoth Han. Not only did he look cool but he was the only figure you could take his gun and plug into a holster on his hip. It was hard to really make good coherant “pre-Empire” stories though, because we also wanted to play with other cool figures like Lando, and Yoda. It didn’t particularly matter because we had tremendous fun without a logical story.
I’ll say it again: improvisation. We built a custom multi-level Cloud City out of cardboard boxes. It had sliding doors and sort of an elevator. We made our own figure-compatible vehicles out of Lego. Before I had a figure of Han Solo frozen in carbonite, I took my Solo and put him in a glass of water. If I put him in the freezer for a few hours, I’d have a frozen Han ready to go for the next adventure. My dad was bemused to go into the freezer and find Han Solo in there so frequently.
No matter the story or setting, the Millennium Falcon was there. You could fit several figures in it, with two in the cockpit, one in the gunner’s chair, and several tossed into the opening rear compartment. The cool thing about the gunner’s chair was that it rotated in sync with the top quad-cannons. The Falcon’s rear compartment was equipped with a space chess table (called Dejarik), a Jedi training area (you know, for that one scene), and a smuggler’s compartment with secret hatch. This made it more of a playset than a ship, but it did have several features that made it more a ship than a playset as well. Close up the rear compartment, raise the working landing gear, and you are airborne. The Falcon also had sound effects and a large battery compartment where the escape pod would have been. While playing on the living room floor, if the track “The Asteroid Field” was playing, you just had to get the Falcon ready for take off. Close the ramp, the canopy, and the rear compartment. Raise the landing gear and you were space-bound! Then I’d fly the ship around the living room in sync with the swells and crescendos of the theme. It really felt like Star Wars at that point.
In 1981, the first Indiana Jones soundtrack was released, also composed by John Williams. It was official then: Williams was my favourite. I didn’t have very many records; most of the others were “Story Of” soundtracks with full narration and dialogue. That was another way to re-live a movie in a pre-VHS household, but I kept coming back to the actual movie scores. I outgrew the “Story Of” records but not the scores. Even so, nothing topped the original two-record set of The Empire Strikes Back. When Return of the Jedi was released in ’83, it was only a single record. It didn’t have as many memorable cues. I loved and cherished it, but not as much as Empire.
Besides, in 1983 something else happened besides the end of the Star Wars trilogy. I was getting older, and there was this new song out. I heard four words — “Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto“, and my world shifted once again! But that, friends, is another story.