By now, most of us are already know that George Lucas is infamous for tinkering with his films. Take the original trilogy for example. The version available to purchase/rent/stream right now isn’t the version that was screened in theatres all those years ago. Lucas has made plenty of changes to the original trilogy, such as adding CGI characters and locations as well as changing the way a scene plays out (i.e. Han shot first). But did you know that George Lucas changed the ending of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back after its initial release in theatres, before its wide release?
According to StarWars.com, shortly after The Empire Strikes Back premiered in theatres on the 21st of May 1980, Lucas informed Industrial Light & Magic’s (ILM) general manager Tom Smith that he needed more shots for the film. Smith thought that Lucas was pulling his leg — after all, the film was already in theatres. “No, no, no,” Lucas said, “it’s not in all the theatres.” Classic Lucas!
Lucas felt that the end of the film was unclear. In the version that we’re familiar with, after Princess Leia, Lando and Luke escape Cloud City, they reunite with the rebel fleet. The gang then splits up. Luke and Leia recuperate while Lando and Chewbacca take off with the Millennium Falcon to rescue Han Solo (who had been frozen in Carbonite and sold to Jabba the Hut). However, in the original-original version of Empire Strikes Back, the geography of this scene was confusing to Lucas.
Lucas had three weeks before Star Wars: The Empire Strikes back was set to be wide-released in cinemas, so he gathered the troops, which included ILM effects cameraman Ken Ralston and artist Joe Johnston, and started designing the shots.
Here’s the breakdown of the shots per StarWars.com:
In the original 70mm release, the camera begins by moving forward amidst the rebel fleet, revealing the Millennium Falcon docked to the medical frigate, then cuts to Lando and Chewbacca aboard the ship. But the first of the new shots added another view of the fleet before going aboard the Falcon: a few X-wings and a Y-wing pass from behind the camera, followed on opposite sides by the frigate and a transport (likely one of the escapees from Hoth).
Still before glimpsing Lando and Chewie, a second new shot moves in close on the Millennium Falcon, lowering to view the cockpit with illuminated interior. Only then does it match the cut of the original release. “Luke, we’re ready for takeoff,” Lando says from inside.
A final new shot involves the most complex camera move: a right to left pan from the Falcon’s exterior to a viewport on the medical frigate, wherein Luke, Leia, and the droids are speaking with Lando over commlink. A specific note had been made to avoid the view of any characters within the window frame, and the camera was lowered so as to avoid seeing anyone. “I’ll meet you at the rendezvous point on Tatooine,” says Luke as the film cuts to the interior of the medical bay (and in the background, R2-D2 and C-3PO are conveniently positioned to the left side of the window, away from the camera’s view from outside).
In its original release, there was a direct cut from the Falcon cockpit to the medical bay, with no visual cue to understand that Luke and Leia were aboard a separate ship. Thus the last-minute remedy to clarify the geography of Empire’s final moments.