Few franchises are as scrutinized as Star Wars, and fans have been poring over the groundbreaking space saga since its debut. However, one question still stumps followers to this day: why does Luke look so different between 1977’s A New Hope and 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back? Well, after years of speculation, fans may now know why.
In 1977 Mark Hamill was on the top of the world. Though still not famous in Hollywood, the actor had just finished filming a mysterious movie named Star Wars in which he played the main character of Luke Skywalker. But his rise to fame would be hampered by one devastating incident mere months before the film’s release.
While out driving his BMW on the freeway on January 11, 1977, Hamill made a colossal mistake. “I was speeding, going too fast,” he told Gossip magazine the following year. “What happened, I think, was that I tried to negotiate an off-ramp and lost control, tumbled over and went off the road.”
But while Hamill couldn’t remember how the accident occurred, he knew for certain what happened next. And soon afterwards, the actor woke up in hospital to find that he’d fractured his nose and cheekbone. “Someone held a mirror up to my face, and I just felt that my career was over,” he revealed.
At the time of the accident, Hamill’s co-star Carrie Fisher was still filming scenes for Star Wars. “It was a really bad accident,” she remembered years later on the 2011 Blu-Ray commentary for The Empire Strikes Back. “Miraculously his teeth didn’t shatter. But his nose did.”
With a body double standing in for Hamill on set, the actor remained in hospital. Due to the severity of his injuries, doctors had to repair the rising star’s nose using cartilage from his ear. And though the surgery restored his features, it still left noticeable scars.
Upon its release, though, Star Wars proved to be a genre-defining success. In its first year alone, the sci-fi film grossed an incredible $220 million. And to this day, the film remains one of the highest-earning movies of all time, with a gross of $1.6 billion, adjusted for inflation.
Now, despite Hamill himself being dealt a huge blow by the accident, his career perhaps received a boost from this exposure. His recently roughened features made him a perfect fit for 1980’s gritty war film The Big Red One. And on the back of his box office success, the actor starred in Corvette Summer the following year.
But there was still the issue of Star Wars, and Hamill’s injuries may have posed a problem for its makers. Due to the original’s success, a sequel was soon put into production. And the question of Hamill’s noticeable change in appearance was likely to crop up.
In truth, Hamill’s injuries had already hampered the saga. Between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, the actor appeared in 1978’s Holiday Special, where he was pancaked in scar-covering make-up. But even so, the cosmetics couldn’t completely conceal the changes to his face.
However, in his mind, creator George Lucas saw his star’s injuries as having a natural place in the backstory to the next part of the trilogy. “I knew Mark was going to look a little different than he was in the first film,” he said on the sequel’s commentary. “But my feeling was some time had passed, they’ve been in the Rebellion fighting… so the change was justifiable.”
But while Lucas’ initial claim makes sense, it seems that many fans weren’t convinced. So much so, in fact, that certain viewers noticed one seemingly deliberate sequence that called attention to the crash. And nearly 40 years on from Empire’s release, the scene’s significance remains contested.
Early on in The Empire Strikes Back, Luke can be seen scouting the frozen wastes of Hoth. Already on edge from the threat of the Empire, the hero maintains a cautious eye on the horizon. But even he is startled by the presence of a terrifying wampa monster that knocks him unconscious with a blow to the head.
But although he escapes the creature’s clutches thanks to his mastery of the force, Luke doesn’t come out unscathed. Hence, soon afterwards, he is interned in a Rebellion medical ward with prominent damage to his face – wounds that strangely parallel Hamill’s real-life injuries.
Of course, fans were quick to point out that the wampa scene was written to help explain away Hamill’s altered appearance. And within years, this theory spread like wildfire to the point where many take it as fact. The story is even referenced on Hamill’s page on fan wiki Wookieepedia.
Despite the theory’s popularity, though, there is one notable figure who disagrees with this story: George Lucas. “That wasn’t really the meaning of why we wrote the monster in the beginning,” he explained on the Blu-Ray commentary. “We needed something to keep the film suspenseful.”
In Empire’s 2004 DVD commentary, Lucas also claimed that the wampa attack was written well before Hamill’s accident. And yet there exists evidence to the contrary. For example, a deleted scene from the 1980 film clearly shows Skywalker recovering in hospital with conspicuous bandaging around his face.
Most damning of all, however, is co-star Fisher’s testimony. According to her account on the Blu-Ray commentary, the scene was indeed an attempt to explain Hamill’s accident. “[Lucas] adjusted the film with this snow monster to right away… scratch his face to account for his looks being different,” she claimed.
Meanwhile, although Hamill has maintained a strong career since his Star Wars success, it’s possible that his accident has had further effects on his work. Rather than continue as a lead actor, for example, the star has predominantly worked as a voice-over artist. To wit, his version of Batman villain the Joker is often considered the definitive take on the character.
But that all seemed to change with the release of Star Wars’ latest installment The Last Jedi. After a brief appearance in The Force Awakens, Hamill embraced a meatier role in this eagerly anticipated sequel. And we for one couldn’t be any more excited to see our favorite hero back in action.