George Lucas Solved A Star Wars Problem By Freezing Han Solo (And Harrison Ford)

As the middle chapter of George Lucas' original "Star Wars" trilogy (the "OT"), "The Empire Strikes Back" was designed to leave moviegoers wanting more. And the sequel paid more direct homage to the serialized cliffhanger style of storytelling that inspired the saga — but quite unlike those Saturday matinee serials, the next installment wasn't a week away. When viewers walked out of "Episode V," they were facing a three-year wait for the trilogy's resolution.

And many of them were steamed.

Lucas played particularly rough with his newfound fanbase in "Empire." Darth Vader dished out a lightsaber whuppin' to the saga's Jedi-in-training protagonist, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), slashing off the youngster's hand and informing him that he is, in fact, his father. But Luke got off relatively easy compared to Harrison Ford's Han Solo. The interstellar rogue got placed in suspended animation via carbonite, and was ferried back to Jabba the Hutt's desert lair on Tatooine by the bounty hunter Boba Fett (Jeremy Bulloch). The film closes on our bruised, almost broken heroes watching Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) dart off in the Millennium Falcon to hopefully rescue Han. John Williams' soaring final cue achingly underscores the faint hope of the moment before slamming back into the main theme for the end credits.

Why did Lucas and his good old friend/director Irvin Kershner go so hard? On one hand, this was just good, high-stakes storytelling. But part of the deal might've also had something to do with ensuring that burgeoning superstar Ford would be back for the last chapter.

A manufactured Star Wars crisis

According to Robert Sellers' "Harrison Ford: A Biography," Harrison Ford was nonplussed by the perturbed reaction to the second film's unresolved nature. As he cheekily told Starlog in 1981:

"I guess it really depends on what you want to go to a movie for. I figure that there was at least 11 dollars worth of entertainment in 'Empire.' So, if you paid four bucks and didn't get an ending, you're still seven dollars ahead of the game."

Or course, Ford owed his career in part to George Lucas (who had cast him as the hell-raising street racer Bob Falfa in "American Graffiti"), and would never abandon his friend. But this didn't mean his co-stars had to play fair-and-square with journalists desperate to reveal plot details for "Star Wars: Episode VI — Return of the Jedi." Per Sellers, Mark Hamill relished the opportunity to yank reporters' chains. As the star teased in an interview during the "Empire" press tour:

"Look at what's happening to Harrison. He wasn't at all sure whether he wanted to repeat his role and he's not at all committed to doing it a third time. So George has left him in limbo and given himself the option. Solo is not vital to future stories. It's up to Harrison, I guess, as to whether Han comes back into the saga."

Solo returns and the galaxy is (temporarily) saved

George Lucas and 20th Century Fox Studios did a superb job of keeping moviegoers off-balance heading into "Return of the Jedi." We suspected Harrison Ford would get dethawed sooner rather than later, but screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan wisely drew out Solo's recovery from being frozen. It's surprisingly deep into the action of "Return of the Jedi" that Han Solo is fully back in action, and not a prisoner of a giant space slug or blindly stumbling around that giant space slug's various barges. Though the concluding chapter of the original trilogy gets a bit bogged down during its middle section, its first act is expertly paced and written. Our heroes get it together just as they're about to hit the Sarlacc's tummy, and director Richard Marquand serves up an exciting rescue. And then the whole crew is reunited as they sprint into the grand finale and the assault on the second Death Star.

"The Empire Strikes Back" might've cheesed off moviegoers who expected a full hero's journey in one film, but Lucas was painting on a much bigger canvas. More than 40 years later, it's widely accepted that we wouldn't still be visiting the galaxy far, far away without that daringly dour middle installment. If Lucas hadn't given Harrison Ford his possible out, if Han Solo wasn't left in the bleakest possible place heading into the third chapter, would the trilogy have kept pop culture in its iron grip for so long? The fact that time has labeled "The Empire Strikes Back" the best of the original three movies suggests not.