Untold Star Wars : The Wampa Ice Creature
There is a tradition in Star Wars movies of cutting between multiple action scenes, particularly in the climax of each film – it’s something that George Lucas always seems to take a great deal of joy in doing. A New Hope may have focused on the singular task of the Rebel Alliance attacking the Death Star, but Return of the Jedi, The Phantom Menace and Revenge of the Sith all cut between various battles taking place in different locations. The Empire Strikes Back of course goes between Leia’s escape from Cloud City and Luke’s duel with Darth Vader in its final act, but opens the film in similar fashion too.
The Battle of Hoth sees the Rebel Snowspeeders facing off against the AT-AT Walkers of the Empire, while cutting back to Echo Base where Han is trying to persuade Leia to leave before they do indeed make a dramatic escape. But even the more sedate opening to the movie, that establishes Echo Base and the Alliance on Hoth, was intended to have more going on than ended up in the finished film.
A small but fun subplot was intended to feature the Wampa ice creature more heavily than it was in the finished film. In The Empire Strikes Back, a Wampa kills Luke’s Tauntaun and drags Luke back to its lair. Because the costumes used for the creatures at the time were not considered convincing enough for audiences, the only shots of the Wampa were a flash of its face – thanks to a hand puppet – and a few snippets showing its arm.
This made for a very spooky, tense scene in the creature’s cave, during which Luke is hanging upside down with his lightsaber out of reach. It’s a great example of Star Wars sound design and score, as both create a sense of impending danger as the audience wills Luke to use the Force to retrieve his lightsaber. When the Jedi-in-training removes one of the beast’s arms, the size of it demonstrates just how dangerous the threat was without the creature ever bring clearly seen.
When George Lucas revisited The Empire Strikes Back for the 1997 Special Edition, he acknowledged in an interview for the home video release that, ‘some people will say that’s more artistic than actually showing it.’ He is not a man to go with what ‘some people’ would want, however, and elected to add the Wampa to the scene in which Luke is captured. The costume developed for the Special Edition is entirely convincing and makes for a suitably menacing ice monster.
The reason for the Wampa being excised for the original 1980 release of The Empire Strikes Back was that the costume was not remotely satisfactory, which the deleted scenes released as part of the Star Wars: The Complete Saga Blu-ray boxset clearly demonstrate. It is perhaps also surprising that in the opening of the movie Lucas and Director Irvin Kershner would complicate matters with such a subplot.
It may make more sense when bearing in mind that this is a Star Wars movie, and exposition rarely gets too much screen time before something is going wrong for the protagonists. The first snippet that was cut in this sequence sees a mysterious paw clawing at the wall of Echo Base as Han and Leia obliviously argue further down the corridor.
Things escalate in the next moment, when an entire wall of the base caves in next to R2-D2, causing the astromech to scarper quickly before there’s a clearer look at the original, decidedly ropey Wampa costume. A few Rebel Soldiers attempt to take on the yeti-like beast, but are thrown across the room in a classic Star Wars visual gag.
A rather ominous little scene sees a group of cautious Rebels inspecting a trashed room in Echo Base, where several Tauntauns lie slaughtered on the floor. It establishes the level of the threat, to the point that even the saga’s most heroic droid reacts by running away from the carnage. R2-D2 is then pursued by one of the Wampas in part of another scene.
The best known of these deleted scenes – or snippets may be a better word – is when C-3PO, running behind Han and Leia to escape the pursing Imperial Snowtroopers, passes a door with a yellow hazardous label on. The protocol droid removes the label, so that when the troops behind them arrive at the door they are unaware of the danger. Sure enough, when a Snowtrooper opens the door, his squad mate is grabbed by a snowy claw and disappears through the doorway.
In an extended version of the scene in which Leia plants the kiss on Luke in order to irritate Han, C-3PO refers to the Wampas attacking the base and being ‘trapped, rather cleverly’ – suggesting further scenes were either planned or filmed that showed how the Wampas came to be captured within Echo Base after their incursion.
With the quality of the costumes, it is clear why Kershner opted to cut around the creature during the scene that did make it into the film, when Luke is captured during his patrol. That scene remained in the movie thanks to some clever cutting, but cutting around the Wampas for this entire subplot would have been something of a struggle.
These scenes were presumably intended to add an extra layer of tension to the early part of the film, which is predominantly character based. Thanks to judicious editing and careful pacing, The Empire Strikes Back as a whole, including that opening section, has an almost perfect rhythm and certainly didn’t need the subplot to ramp up the stakes. What fans will find in this particular batch of deleted scenes is another great example of Lucas having fun with the universe, enjoying detours to look at the weird and wonderful world he was developing around the central storyline.