With the recent celebration of the 40th anniversary of The Empire Strikes Back, I thought it would be worthwhile to take a look at the most iconic line from the film.
As Darth Vader gains the upper hand in his battle with Luke Skywalker on Cloud City, he reveals the truth about Luke’s father: “No, I am your father.”
It sent shock waves to audiences, and that’s because it was largely kept a secret in the filming process – and it’s something that was also kept a secret in-universe as well.
In Real Life
When the scene was originally filmed, Darth Vader said, “Obi-Wan killed your father.” That in itself would have proved to be a shocking reveal, as it would’ve meant that the wise mentor to Luke had lied about his father and had actually been his murderer! But unbeknownst to all but a select few, that wasn’t going to be the final version.
George Lucas and director Irvin Kerschner knew that the actual line was, “No, I am your father,” but they didn’t disclose that either in the script or in filming the scene in an attempt to preserve the secret. But as Mark Hamill tells it, Kerschner pulled him aside right before filming that scene and told him, “’I know it. George knows it. And when I tell you, you’ll know it. But that means, that’s only three people. So if it leaks, we’ll know it’s you.’” Talk about pressure!
So they filmed the scene, with only Hamill, Lucas, and Kerschner knowing the truth. So when Hamill reacts with the utter devastation, he’s reacting that way because he knows the truth (I’m sure I’ve heard somewhere that some people thought he was overreacting until they saw the final version, but I can’t find a source for that). Harrison Ford wasn’t aware of it until the premiere, and neither was David Prowse (who actually played Vader in the suit!). Eventually others would come to know – including James Earl Jones (the voice actor for Vader), Ben Burtt (the sound designer), and other sound designers. Lucas estimates that only about 12 people knew what the line was before the film released.
It’s a stunning line, and many people just assumed that Vader was lying until they saw Return of the Jedi three years later. But now, 40 years later, it has become perhaps the most iconic line in movie history.
So who knew that Darth Vader was actually Anakin Skywalker in-universe? It was just as secretive as in real life.
Obviously, Sheev Palpatine, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, Bail Organa, and R2-D2 knew the truth about Vader’s identity, as made obvious in Revenge of the Sith. But outside of them, the list of people who knew the truth is very small. It includes Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin, who wound up figuring out Vader’s identity but never mentioning it. Ahsoka Tano also found out that her former master was now Vader, learning the truth in Rebels and confronting the Sith Lord in a duel. And based off of the recent season of The Clone Wars, I wouldn’t be surprised if Maul knew too.
A few others in canon figured it out as well (many of whom were killed because of it), and I would guess that there are some who suspected it that we just haven’t heard about yet, since those who were around and closely connected as the Republic turned into the Empire may have had reason to suspect something (like Mas Amedda, for instance).
The Empire kept Vader’s identity a closely-guarded secret, but in The Empire Strikes Back he actually reveals it himself to his son, Luke Skywalker. It shocks and blindsides the young Jedi, and it is a theme that features prominently in Return of the Jedi. In that film, Luke discovers that he actually has a twin sister, Leia Organa, and tells her that information, as well as the information that their father is Darth Vader.
But rather than becoming a widely-known fact across the galaxy, it continued to be held a secret only a select few knew. Luke and Leia knew, obviously, as did R2 (since his memory was never wiped). Han Solo was told, too, but Leia wasn’t sure whether he told Chewbacca or not. And it seems Mon Mothma suspected as much, though never mentioned it or knew for certain. Like during the Imperial era, I would guess that there were a few others close to Luke and Leia who came to suspect it, but we just haven’t heard of it yet.
Importantly, Ben Solo did not know. The fantastic book Bloodline, by Claudia Gray, describes how the galaxy came to find out about Darth Vader’s true identity – 25 years after the events of The Empire Strikes Back! Six years before the events of the sequel trilogy, in a political stunt by Ransolm Casterfo (with Lady Carise Sindian behind it) to keep Leia from becoming First Senator of the New Republic, the secret was outed to the entire Senate. The shocking revelation essentially ruined Leia’s entire political career, which was part of what led to her forming the Resistance. But in Bloodline, as the scandalous secret is revealed to the entire galaxy, Leia confides that she had not told Ben, thinking it was for his own good.
At the time of the book’s events Ben is off training with Luke, so while Leia sent him a message about it, she didn’t hear back (at least in the book). Others, like Chewbacca, Lando Calrissian, Mon Mothma, Gial Ackbar, and Nien Nunb, sent her messages of support. But while it hasn’t been explicitly confirmed, there have been hints that the shocking revelation to Ben, that his grandfather had actually been Darth Vader, may have contributed to his descent to the dark side.
So in summary, by the time of the sequel trilogy the galaxy at large would have been aware of the truth of Darth Vader’s identity (or at least the information would have been out there), but it was kept secret from the time of Vader’s fall in Revenge of the Sith through six years before The Force Awakens. Only a few knew the truth.