With the one year anniversary of The Imperial Talker coming up, I thought it’d be appropriate to do a post on Imperial Walkers (I think you know why). What follows are some general thoughts and impressions on the use of the Walkers in The Empire Strikes Back.
“Echo Station 3-T-8. We have spotted Imperial walkers.” – Rebel soldier
A few minutes before the Imperial Walkers make their first appearance in The Empire Strikes Back, we watch as Rebel infantry prepare for the oncoming ground assault. The musical score that plays hints at the tension these soldiers are feeling as they make their preparations and scan the distant horizon for Imperial forces. But all that can be seen in the distance are cloudy billows of snow, made, we can presume, by Imperial ships landing forces on the glacial Moorsh Moraine.
When the enemy is spotted minutes later, shortly after the first transport safely evacuates Echo Base, the tension is cut for viewer and soldier alike. Now, as we look off at the horizon, small black objects can be seen, and a strange mechanical sound, albeit faint, can be heard. In a flash, the infantry prepare their weapons, taking aim while one soldier, a sergeant, places electrobinoculars up to his eyes. Transported into his eye’s, we now get our first glimpse of an Imperial Walker…or rather, of a Walker’s massive foot slamming down to the ground.
I have always loved this shot, the fact that the first time we see the All-Terrain Armored Transport (AT-AT) – the technical name for the Imperial Walker – we only see a solitary foot. To me, this shot of an Imperial Walker’s foot is one of the most brilliant shots in all of Star Wars. The image serves as a momentary metaphor, a visual statement informing us of what the Empire plans to do to the Rebels on Hoth: crush them.
Having zoomed in too closely, the Rebel soldier begins to zoom out and pan up, giving us a full profile of the towering war machine the foot belongs too. In turn, as he continues to zoom out, two more Imperial Walkers come into view. Just from looking at them, one can easily tell that these massive, mechanical beasts are perfectly Imperial, each one serving as a visual reminder of the power the Empire possesses, even after the loss of the Death Star.
Added to this visual reminder of the Empire’s power, though, is also the fact that these slow, cumbersome war machines are marching across an open and barren tundra. In short, General Veers, the commander of the Imperial ground assault, has opted for a frontal assault against a well-fortified position, a position that has received no aerial or artillery bombardment. Logic would suggest that the Imperial force will be cut to shreds, and yet, that is far from what happens…
As the battle opens, it quickly becomes apparent the AT-AT is formidable beyond compare. As Rebel soldiers fire weapons of all types at the advancing machines, nothing happens. Luke Skywalker himself, leading a squadron of T-47 Airspeeders in the battle, exclaims the obvious early in the battle: the armor on the Walkers is too strong for blasters. Some other tactic must be used to slow the advance of these mechanical beasts.
Well, another tactic does work when the Airspeeder flown by Wedge Antilles and his gunner Wes Janson, trip a Walker with a tow cable. However, it is also the ONLY time this particular tactic will work. Surely, other Airspeeder pilots and gunners followed suit and attempted to destroy the Walkers with tow cables, but it is clear that none were successful. And so, the Walkers continue their march towards the Rebel position, and in the process even knock Skywalker out of the fight when his Airspeeder is hit and crashes. It certainly is telling that the hero of the Rebellion, the pilot who destroyed the Death Star, is shot down during the Battle of Hoth, a clear indication that even he cannot defeat the Empire alone.
What his crash also signifies, though, is the turning point in the Battle of Hoth. Even if his crash is not the tactical turning point, the collapse of Rebel defenses, in the film at least, begins after Luke is knocked out of the fight. We witness this collapse first-hand as the Rebel infantry, whom we earlier watched preparing for battle, now flee their trenches, shouts of “retreat” and “fall back” echoing down the line. In what I would consider to be one of the most iconic shots in all of Star Wars, we see the Imperial Walkers in the background towering over the panicked Rebel soldiers who are in the foreground (the picture is below). The image helps to give us a clear understanding of just how massive these Walkers are compared to the average human, another visual reminder of the size and power of the Empire, and a clear sign that the Rebellion is much smaller and far weaker than its enemy. In a sense, we already know this to be true, but it is fascinating, and chilling, to see it expressed so poignantly in this particular scene.
Interestingly, immediately following this iconic scene, Luke Skywalker reappears and uses some creative heroics to destroy another Imperial Walker. While his action is not enough to stem the tide of the Imperial assault, we can certainly assume that some of the retreating Rebels would have been emboldened by the sudden destruction of an AT-AT. Still, the deed is far too little, too late. Only after Luke’s small victory, General Veers, commanding the attack from his own Walker, will destroy the shield generator that protects the Rebel base, and the Battle of Hoth comes to an end.