The original trilogy of Star Wars films (1977-1983) remains as the benchmark of excellence for all subsequent stories in that famed galaxy. While much is known and celebrated about these films, and the figures and filmmakers involved in them are regularly elevated, there still seems to be some very influential people that are often looked over.
It is particularly interesting to note that some of these overlooked men by general audiences are in fact probably the most important of all; the films’ directors! The creative genius of George Lucas has been well documented and his visionary ideas were in full display in A New Hope; but though the film and his directorial work on it found acclaim, Lucas decided to step away from the high pressure of the director’s chair. It left the two sequels (The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi) under the directorial control of others.
To intimate fans of the series the names of Irvin Kershner and Richard Marquand will indeed have a special resonance, but unfortunately, to many in the general public, these two great directors are commonly lost in all the excitement and hype around the ever-growing franchise. Yet without them, the original trilogy could not have succeeded and the enduring mythology of Star Wars could have been a one-hit wonder.
Often considered the greatest of all Star Wars films, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) was a project with much at stake. As the first sequel to the unprecedented smash hit, audiences and filmmakers alike knew this second chapter would be built on great expectations. When George Lucas decided to leave the position of director, 20th Century Fox was scrambling to find the right person, until Lucas decided on an unconventional choice: Irvin Kershner.
Kershner was a little known independent filmmaker with credits in both TV and film, and who also taught film studies at the University of Southern California. One of his students in the 1960s?: a young George Lucas! Though his filmography contained lesser known titles like Eyes of Laura Mars and Loving, Lucas knew that Kershner was a man with all the talent necessary to take on the project especially in the area of character development.
"I think it went beyond "Star Wars". You had some humor, you got to know the characters a little better. I saw it as the second movement in an opera. That's why I wanted some of the things slower. And it ends in a way that you can't wait to see or to hear the vivace, the allegretto. the end. I had an emotional climax."
- IRVIN KERSHNER ON EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
Like the first film, The Empire Strikes Back faced considerable challenges during its production; these included a significant winter storm in Norway during the filming of the Hoth scenes, increasing budgetary costs, and a confrontation with the Writers and Directors Guilds over the placing of the film credits. Yet despite these setbacks, like A New Hope, this sequel managed to create once again art through adversity. With the visual effects and score aside, Kershner managed to create an intimate relationship with all the characters, even three-foot puppet creations like Yoda.
Though the immense success of the film gave his name newfound fame, Kershner decided to remain on a relatively small scale and focus on projects that interested him, not that had the biggest paycheques. Among his notable works post-Empire include Never Say Never Again (an unofficial James Bond film with Sean Connery) and RoboCop 2.
Today the name of Irvin Kershner may be only widely known to film enthusiasts, but his impact cannot be denied. If we are to celebrate Star Wars, and The Empire Strikes Back, then Kershner’s name cannot be ignored. He helped give the film its heart and soul and was a key ingredient in the sustained success of the emerging sci-fi series. And so we must indeed be thankful to Mr. Irvin Kershner, for without his work, there perhaps would not be an enduring Star Wars legacy today.
"I am a tremendous 'Star Wars' fan; I know the story means an enormous love to me. I love the characters."
- RICHARD MARQUAND ON RETURN OF THE JEDI
By 1983 the Star Wars series was a certified phenomenon and as production began on the then final chapter, Return of the Jedi, producer George Lucas was once again looking for that right person to fill the directors chair. Being in charge of this ever important concluding film would be a formidable task, but an unknown Welsh director took on the responsibility with triumphant results.
Richard Marquand like Irvin Kershner before him was a bit of an odd choice. In comparison to Kershner, Marquand’s work had consisted mostly of documentary films and bio-pics like Birth of the Beatles. His experience with large-scale productions like Star Wars was nearly non-existent, but again Lucas sought to find someone who could build the elements of character and thematic development convincingly.
Marquand’s 1981 film Eye of the Needle, a WWII spy thriller, received positive reviews and showcased that the emerging director had a flair for suspense and character building. It was directly based on this film that George Lucas approached Richard Marquand with the opportunity of a lifetime.
Return of the Jedi proved again that this franchise was something truly spectacular, and though it did not reach the level of acclaim as its two predecessors, the film features some of the best sequences in the entire series. The final encounter between Luke and Vader and the introduction of the Emperor are great examples of master storytelling and Richard Marquand’s creative touch became quite evident.
It was, in fact, Marquand and the casting director who recommended actor Ian McDiarmid to play the role of Palpatine to George Lucas. They had seen him on the stage convincingly playing an elderly man and knew he would be the one to bring to life the mysterious and aged Emperor, (McDiarmid was only 39 at the time). Indeed the Throne Room sequence and the redemption of Vader are great emotional highlights of the film, while the fight to destroy the second Death Star and the Battle on Endor maintain the quality of visual prowess associated with the films.
For his work on the final chapter of the original Star Wars trilogy, Richard Marquand solidified himself as a director of great talent but one that unfortunately for the world was cut short. Just weeks before his 50th birthday in 1987, Marquand died from complications from a stroke. His premature passing meant the film world would be deprived of future films and an emerging talent beginning to take full flight. Yet through his short career and in particular through his work on Return of the Jedi, he enriched the world and ensured that Star Wars up until that point ended on a satisfying note.
Both Irvin Kershner and Richard Marquand are essential names in the history of Star Wars and deserve a great level of recognition and admiration. Today their names are looked over, but their contributions to the grandest space opera of them all remain ever-present. And so it is with great appreciation that we salute Richard Marquand and Irvin Kershner for their indelible marks on a galaxy far, far away.