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‘The Empire Strikes Back’ Had a Different Ending When It was First Released in Theaters

3. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Lucasfilm

The Empire Strikes Back opened in theaters 40 years ago this week, and StarWars.com is commemorating the occasion with all kinds of new features and content about the film. Yesterday, they posted an eye-opening article that revealed something I never knew about the Star Wars sequel: It originally had a slightly different ending.

Yes, George Lucas was still futzing with the film after it was already playing in theaters in 1980. Here’s what happened: The Empire Strikes Back was initially released in about 100 theaters in 70mm. Before it made the jump to wide release, Lucas decided he needed to quickly create three more shots that would help clarify something he found confusing, namely the physical relationship between the characters on the Millennium Falcon and the characters on the medical frigate where Luke was healing from his injuries in the fight with Darth Vader.

As StarWars.com explains, Lucas felt the original version, which lacked these shots, was confusing and raised all kinds of questions in the minds of viewers:

Where were Luke and Leia in relation to Chewie and Lando? Were the heroes on the same spaceship or two different ones? If the latter, where was the Millennium Falcon in relation to the rebel medical frigate? In the rush of completing the film, the potential hazard had been overlooked, but Lucas was never one to miss an opportunity for improvement. There was a generous three-week window before Empire’s wider 35mm format release on June 18, just enough time to create three new shots.

With those three weeks, Lucas (who didn’t even direct The Empire Strikes Back, remember; that was Irvin Kershner) assembled a team of special effects artists to create the three shots: A view of the Rebel fleet establishing there were more ships than just the Millennium Falcon, a closer shot of the Falcon exterior, and a pan from the Falcon exterior to the frigate.

You can read much about the shots and the team that created them at StarWars.com. (The version streaming on Disney+ obviously includes the updated scene.) It is fascinating that Lucas’ tinkering with the Star Wars trilogy began long before the notorious Special Editions. It’s just in his nature never to “finish” anything he creates.

Gallery — All the Stuff Luke Skywalker Screws Up in The Empire Strikes Back:

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