What if I told you that The Empire Strikes Back, arguably the best film in the Star Wars saga, could have turned out drastically different than what we saw on screen? No, no, I’m not talking about changing any scenes or how the film looks; rather, I’m talking about what we hear.
Unbeknownst to many, of the 117 minutes of music that John Williams composed for the 127 minute film, 15 minutes of it was omitted from the final product. This is due to a process in post-production called spotting sessions. The composer meets with the director and together they decide where music should and shouldn’t be.
On the Digital Stage at Star Wars Celebration, David Collins, a former staff member at LucasArts who is experienced with music and audio, took the unused score and re-inserted it into their respective scenes. The end result gives the film a much different tone, especially in certain scenes that I will highlight below.
David showed off a total of eight scenes for the crowd, and half of them occurred on Hoth. Two of these scenes in particular were more impactful than others and for similar reasons. The first scene occurs in Echo Base. Originally, as Han Solo makes his way through the base, there is no music and you can just hear the bangs, beeps, and boops of a typical military installation. But in the alternate version, music plays throughout the entirety of the scene and drowns out the sounds of Ben Burtt.
The second scene is when Han goes out searching for Luke. The version we see on screen is almost completely absent of any music. All you can hear is the wind of Hoth and it makes for a very eerie feel to the film. The restored scene has music playing all the way through, cutting out the sound of the environment. As great as Mr. Williams’ music is and as much as it can add to what we see, I’m glad that they cut the music out of these scenes because the final product really helps you feel like you’re on Hoth and can feel the cold around you.
While the Hoth act had the most music cut from it, perhaps the most fascinating and surprising sequence where music was omitted was the duel between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. Williams composed music for the entire duel (at least for the parts in the carbon freezing chamber), but in the final cut, nothing is used. The restored music is very ominous and suspenseful, leading up to a tragic motif when Vader knocks Luke into the freezing pit. When Luke jumps out of it shortly after and knocks Vader off the ledge, the music turns into a happy, heroic sound, emphasizing Luke’s apparent triumph. Even though this music fits the scene, not having it actually puts you onto the edge of your seat even more.
The Empire Strikes Back is a near-perfect film, both in the perspective of Star Wars and in filmmaking in general. And it would take a lot of guts to tell John Williams, one of the most iconic movie composers of all-time, that some of his music would not feature, but in David Collins’ opinion, it showed that Kershner and Lucas had enough confidence in The Empire Strikes Back to do without it. It may have been one of the riskiest decisions in the entire process, but in the end, it certainly paid off.