The Empire Strikes Oz!

Comparing the films "The Empire Strikes Back" and "The Wizard of Oz" as road movies.
April 13, 2009
Hi everyone! This is a paper I wrote for my class on Road Movies. Enjoy!

"Goodbye Yellow Brick Road: Space, Escape, and the Modern Fairy Tale"

By Morrow Gordon

The fantasy and "fairy tale" genre of storytelling has been around for many years. Part of the appeal or excitement towards these stories is the element of adventure that the characters encounter. Some classic characteristics in these include the young hero who must travel far and encounter (and eventually overcome) many obstacles in the way, although the hero usually didn't begin with the need for adventure. The heroes are usually forced or seduced by the journey. An interesting way to look at the odyssey of these characters pertains to the view that not only the protagonists are being seduced, but more likely that the authors themselves are allured by the journey. The dangerous yet exciting escapades invoke the imagination and seduction of adventure, excitement, and (hopefully) fun. Most recently, films have been quite possibly the most popular form of telling fantasy tales. Some of the most beloved of these are Victor Fleming's classic "The Wizard of Oz" and Irvin Kershner's (don't forget that George Lucas didn't direct it) sequel to "Star Wars," "The Empire Strikes Back." Both of these films adhere to the fantasy and fairy tale epic sense of adventure as well as to that of a classic "road movie," even though neither have modern cars nor asphalt characteristic of the road genre. Although both "Empire" and "Oz" are usually not viewed as typical "Road" films, both contain many similar aspects and attributes akin to that genre as well as aspects of a fairy tale, both of which rely on the seductiveness of adventure and mobility in search of family affiliation and happiness in domesticity.

Fantasy stories still remain very popular today, especially with the success of the Walt Disney Studios. Out of the popularity of Disney's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" came what some call one of the first "road movies," MGM's "The Wizard of Oz" in 1939. Nearly forty years later, the science fiction response to the classic fairy tale was released, "Star Wars." "Star Wars" was then followed by a 1980 sequel "The Empire Strikes Back," which many critics saw as superior due to the psychological and concentrated development of the characters. If "The Wizard of Oz" is a fairy tale in the classic sense, "The Empire Strikes Back" is a fairy tale in the modern.

(A modernized yet classic fairy tale intro...)

Fairy tales have always made great road films, as they have not only provided escape for the characters, but that to the viewers as well. The illusion creates a sense of escape from the pressures of the real world. They adhere to the fantastic and are built around the concept of dreams. The viewer enjoys the ride, and sometimes the characters do too. "Empire" (and "Star Wars") helped create the family-fantasy film genre of the 1980's.

(Notice both the "Oz" and "Star Wars" references on the "Neverending" poster)

Films like "The NeverEnding Story" and "Labyrinth" were very successful and contained many aspects that were indebted to "The Wizard of Oz." A notable figure in this rebirth was Puppeteer/Director Jim Henson, who was obsessed with both the fantasy and road genre, and usually combining them in such films as "The Muppet Movie" and "The Dark Crystal." His company helped with consulting on the puppet alien "Yoda" (voiced by Frank "Oz," ha!) and later collaborated on other films with "Empire" creator George Lucas, such as "Labyrinth." These connections are small, but very important to the idea of what was in mind when creating "Empire" and its relation to "Oz" and the fantasy/road genre.

(Frank Oz and his character Yoda)

As fairy tales are usually associated with family values, an important aspect of these films are that of the family. Many of these stories involve the search of family on a path and the seduction that they will find anything in the wide world of the open road. "The Wizard of Oz" begins with Dorothy (Judy Garland) feeling a disconnection with her family after they decide to hand her dog Toto over to the despicable Miss Gulch. Dorothy tries to fight, but is overtaken by her Aunt and Uncle, who act as parents to her. When she loses her battle, she proceeds to run into her bedroom, a familiar prison of domesticity. Miss Gulch is seen pedaling towards her home, but Toto escapes from her basket and heads back to Dorothy. The road that Toto scampers across is dirt and when the camera zooms out, the visible scenery of Kansas is almost expressionistic and exaggerated. The fences are crooked and the farms are rustic. Toto returns to Dorothy and she quickly realizes that she must run away in order to save him.
It is interesting to note that even though Dorothy doesn't want to run away at first, her current family situation forces her to leave home and go to find "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" that she's been dreaming about.

The character in the fairy tale is seduced by her own, inherent fairy tale. From the bleak looking view of what we have seen of Kansas, anything new and different would be a logical decision, especially when the viewer is expecting wonderful places that fairy tales usually depict. A wonderful shot of her and Toto on the road begins with the camera panning up from the footprints of her path, symbolically designating the path she has taken and the direction she is going. However, it is not until she is far away from home that she realizes she needs to rejoin with her family. In most typical road films this epiphany usually occurs towards the end. Even though Dorothy realizes this early on, fate intervenes and she is forced on the road again by coming in contact with a tornado that sends her into the Land of Oz.

Throughout "The Empire Strikes Back," not only the primary hero, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), is put on a journey, but his surrogate family of Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) are also constantly on the move. In the beginning of the film, the team's Rebel base is attacked upon and everyone is forced to evacuate. Luke and his friends are forced to leave their temporary home and venture elsewhere. The film chronicles Luke and his travels to the planet Dagobah for training while Han and Leia are constantly being chased by the Empire throughout most of the film.

Interestingly, the reason Luke leaves his group is based on a seductive whim from a vision he saw. However, when he arrives in the barren wasteland swamp that covers the planet, he quickly regrets this decision. He stumbles upon Yoda and begins to train to become a Jedi Knight. However, not too long afterwards he sees a vision of his friends being caught by the Empire and he decides to venture outwards again.

In the scene before he departs, Yoda urges him to stay and complete his training. However, Luke continues to pack as he fears his "road family" is in trouble. Yoda tries to convince Luke that if he leaves his training, he will eventually succumb to the dark side of the force. He is told that his abilities are what the Empire wants and his friends suffer because they are being used as bait. However, Luke simply responds, "That's why I have to go." This scene is implying that Luke has found yet another temporary home, but he decides to leave that as well. However, Luke's rebellious nature for journeying forward once again is not of a selfish nature, nor has it ever been. His actions are completely heroic and selfless, much like his fantasy/fairy tale counterparts.
Luke's character in all three original "Star Wars" films is very much like Dorothy and both have similarities to the classic "Road Rebel." In the climactic battle scene between Luke and the evil Darth Vader, Luke walks around a long and desolate catwalk amidst ambient wind and unsettling grey technology with the suspense of Vader lurking around any corner. Luke follows the path through a dark hallway with limited vision and deep shadows until Vader reappears and resumes the battle.

It is notable that even the light sabers between the two are colored to address their allegiance, with Luke's being blue for good and Vader's being red for evil. The battle continues and the camera angle floats overhead the catwalk as they battle over a seemingly bottomless pit.

From what the viewer can see, the catwalk dead-ends and leaves Luke being forced into a corner with nowhere else to go. This is exemplified as Vader says, "you are beaten." His road (or path) has ended. Luke continues to battle until he is at the very edge of the ramp. However, Vader literally disarms him by slicing off his hand and sending his light saber into the pit, thus also cutting off Luke's allegiance to the "blue glow" of good, making it easier to tempt him to the dark side.

In one of the most iconic moments in recent cinema history, Vader reveals he is Luke's father and asks him to join the dark side. However, Luke being the road rebel he is, decides to reject his father (or newfound parent) and determines to find another road or path to follow. He suddenly jumps into the pit below and descends into the void. He falls into a myriad of slides and chutes until he drops to the bottom of the cloud city and hangs precariously above the sky. He tries to climb upwards and back into the city, but the path he took is only one way and the hatch shuts on him.

It is not until he telepathically contacts Princess Leia when he is ultimately saved as they come by ship to rescue him. This can be viewed that Luke finally realized who his real family was, the one that he met on the "road" (or journey) in the previous film. Through them, he found another path and a new life on the road.

In "Oz," Dorothy encounters many different characters, such as the Cowardly Lion and the Tin Woodsman. Along the road, this motley crew acts as a surrogate family to Dorothy who help her out and support her when she is in trouble. They are found on the road and join her journey, not just to aid her, but to assist themselves in some way. "This idea takes hold in part because the characters in road films are always, in some critical way, incomplete...Victor Fleming's The Wizard of Oz, another important road film predecessor, takes this characteristic quite literally by featuring characters in search of completeness along the yellow brick road, characters in search of missing parts" (Orgeron). Luke's friends are the same way. Both are comprised of a group of loners in search of happiness and family on the road (or journey) and eventually find a family in unity of each other.

Following Han and Leia's long journey through space, they finally find a place they can hide or safe-haven. They travel to a beautiful floating city in the clouds of Bespin, where one of Han's close friends Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) is an Administrator. A common theme throughout many road films and fairy tales is of deception from outward appearance. The Cloud City as well as the Emerald City from "Oz" are both very beautiful and kind on the outside (especially with "Oz's" bright Technicolor vision) and provide as a temporary home for each of the movie's respected characters.

However, both sites have a dark underbelly that is ultimately seen. The Empire had already invaded the city and Vader was waiting on Han and Leia to arrive. The false home of the Cloud City also reflects the disjointed family relationship of Luke and Vader. This is similar to director David Lynch's 1986 film "Blue Velvet." The "white picket fence" on the outside of the house is deceiving compared to the deep, dark secrets of the inside. Similarly, the "Wonderful Wizard of Oz" who resided in the Emerald City actually turned out to be a cruel and omnipotent being who strikes fear into his guests with special effects like fire and smoke (of course, this is before they found out he was just a goofy old man). Because these safe-houses turned out to not truly be safe, it forces the characters to return to the road and continue the search for family and domesticity. (On a side note, it doesn't seem a coincidence that the hologram of the Emperor is nearly identical to the hologram of the Wizard. There are many other small connections in the other "Star Wars" films as well.)

"Empire" doesn't have a road in the literal sense, but it is definitely plausible that it can still be seen as a "road" film. In John Ford's road film "The Searchers," the two cowboys don't follow a certain road or path, but journey towards a goal instead. That goal is also about reuniting a broken family. Timothy Corrigan writes in his article "Genre, Gender, and Hysteria: The Road Movie in Outer Space" that "road movies have become a primary and incisive marker" of "how contemporary genre reflects the contemporary moment," like that of the science fiction craze in the seventies.

In the end, "Empire" and "Oz" are "family" films about family. Luke and Dorothy both try to find new and exciting places with which to travel and seek. But after the journey, they realize that their original home was what they needed all along. Dorothy "seeks adventure and the unfamiliar, but finds instead a makeshift community with which to reconstruct her identity away from home. It is not until she regains consciousness at film's end that she realizes that her adventures were peopled with her own family and community, the familiar in disguise" (Orgeron). However, for these characters to realize this, they had to travel alone and experience the adventure independently in order to find what they were searching for. Like many fairy tales, both "Empire" and "Oz" are coming of age films. Through the course of the story the characters mature, but not only after they have been successfully seduced by the adventurous road and hitting many of the "bumps" along the way.


Corrigan, Timothy. "Genre, Gender, and Hysteria: The Road Movie in Outer Space." A Cinema Without Walls. 1991. (137 - 160).

Orgeron, Devin. "Road Movies: From Muybridge and Melies to Lynch and Kiarostami." Palgrave Macmillan. New York. 2008.
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