Special Edition Part 1:
If there’s one thing that some Star Wars fans want more than anything is the chance to see George Lucas’s original unaltered trilogy without the infamous Special Edition enhancements, in the highest quality possible. Right now, the only version widely available on home video is some form of these altered versions.
A few years ago, I had the honor of hanging with hundreds of wonderful fans for over twenty hours watching all seven Star Wars films for the AMC movie marathon. This was the first time I saw Star Wars on the big screen since the Special Edition release back in 1997. Before that, I had only seen Star Wars (after Young Frankenstein played) on the big screen in 1978, inside an old yellow Mustang with my parents at the now-demolished 100 Twin Drive-In in Fridley, Minnesota. Naturally, as with most Star Wars fans at various events, a few fans in the cinema gathered together to discuss “all things Star Wars.” Of course, the main topic on the table was “are we seeing the original theatrical versions of the Star Wars Trilogy tonight.” Soon, Star Wars: A New Hope began, and we found out the answer as we all watched the 2011 Blu-ray version play out on the big screen. Don’t get me wrong, the AMC movie marathon event was a wonderful fan experience that I will never forget and discuss for years to come. However, it seemed like something was missing, and an incredible missed opportunity was lost for a company that paid millions to screen it. Imagine the media attention that AMC could have had if they had shown the original versions over the 2011 Blu-rays. Did AMC even ask for the original version? Who knows. Months after the AMC release, TNT television aired all six Star Wars films that included the original Star Wars trilogy. Once again, and opportunity for the original versions to be played on some sort of official medium was sorely missed. The simple fact that TNT had paid out a reported 250 million dollars to play the Blu-ray versions is unreal, at least in my opinion. So, the big question remains, will we ever see the original Star Wars Trilogy officially released again?
In fairness to Lucas, not all of the alterations made in 1997’s Special Edition 20th anniversary re-releases were that bad. I’ll get more into that later. I myself had had nearly two decades to immerse myself in the movies on VHS, so I was quite happy with the original versions. But the chance to see Star Wars on the big screen again was too good to pass up. So, on a nice Friday evening in late January 1997, I finally got to see the film after nearly two decades. As I drove up to the single-screened (now demolished) theater in the Mission Valley section of San Diego, I wasn’t surprised to discover a line wrapped around it! I quickly got into line, with still about an hour to go before showtime, and watched the line double while everyone in it began to comment on how many people there were! Once inside the theatre, I realized that Star Wars was back, and in a big way. In the lobby stood the cockpit version of the Star Wars video arcade game by Atari, manufactured in 1983. This vintage arcade machine was based on the original 1977 Star Wars film! Of course, I told someone to hold my spot in line, put my quarter on the arcade screen (just like when I was a kid), waited a bit, and finally immersed my self in a game I hadn’t played since I was a kid in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. After I got my arcade fix, I was back in line and off into the theater, where I sat front and center. It was so jammed packed. Being it was one of those old theaters, it seemed like it had about 1000 seats (922 to be exact). I was like, “What the hell is going on?”. Then it hit me; it was that Star Wars magic that I’d remember being a kid. Suddenly, the room became silent; the infamous 20th Century Fox logo came on screen, along with “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away …”, then the Star Wars title blasted onto the screen along with the coolest theme music I’d ever heard. I was a kid again and felt I’d come full circle. I quickly saw The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi in the following weeks and even received a Luke Jedi toy handed out to me while standing in line. I still have that toy to this day. It was a joyous experience that I’ll never forget.
In the weeks leading up to the release of “ 1997’s Special Edition 20th anniversary, I saw that the film was altered in its media ads campaign. But I had no idea what I was in for when I saw the film on the big screen. George had altered several things in the original trilogy that made the films feel jarring and awkward. Some of these changes included replacing special-effects shots with brand-new CGI shots, replacing musical pieces, new and previously deleted scenes including the Jabba the Hutt scene, and the highly controversial among Star Wars fans, “Han shot first” addition. From a cultural standpoint, the Special Edition trilogy made Star Wars matter again. For me, it was something of a disappointment but something I could live with. I mean, I saw the Star Wars trilogy on the big screen for the first time since 1977. But I often still wonder why George kept messing with them endlessly. I have come to understand the original 97′ alterations, but I don’t understand the continuing tinkering.
Over the years, George had refused to release the remastered versions of the unaltered originals in any form and has stuck with his original idea that his Special Editions are the most accurate representation of his vision. In fact, Lucas had this to say when the SE’s were released (via Wikipedia.org). This was the most George has ever spoken on the subject:
“There will only be one [version of the films]. And it won’t be what I would call the “rough cut”, it’ll be the “final cut”. The other one will be some sort of interesting artifact that people will look at and say, “There was an earlier draft of this.” The same thing happens with plays and earlier drafts of books. In essence, films never get finished, they get abandoned. At some point, you’re dragged off the picture kicking and screaming while somebody says, “Okay, it’s done.” That isn’t really the way it should work. Occasionally, [you can] go back and get your cut of the video out there, which I did on both American Graffiti and THX 1138; that’s the place where it will live forever. So what ends up being important in my mind is what the DVD version is going to look like, because that’s what everybody is going to remember. The other versions will disappear. Even the 35 million tapes of Star Wars out there won’t last more than 30 or 40 years. A hundred years from now, the only version of the movie that anyone will remember will be the DVD version [of the Special Edition], and you’ll be able to project it on a 20-foot-by-40-foot screen with perfect quality. I think it’s the director’s prerogative, not the studio’s, to go back and reinvent a movie.”
Beyond that, George hasn’t spoken much about his notorious decision to tinker with the original films. That was until recently when a new book explained how he felt compelled to make changes. I go more into that in Part II of this article.
As of now, the only way to officially view the unaltered cut of Star Wars, in decent quality, is a DVD set released in November 2006, which included the original unaltered theatrical prints of each movie on a separate disc from the Special Edition versions. Unfortunately, they took video sourced from the 1993 LaserDisc released in a much lower quality. That 2006 set was the last time, the original theatrical editions were released in any home video format. But it still remains the highest quality official release. The most recently updated Blu-ray releases should be, in my humble opinion, skipped altogether because, unsurprisingly, there is even more re-mastering that includes even more changes. (Via Movieweb), “A New Hope added a rock in front of R2D2 when hiding from the Tusken Raiders, removed some frames from Han and Greedo’s shootout, Luke’s lightsaber color was corrected to blue during the scene where he’s training in the Millennium Falcon, and many sound effects were either altered or added. The Empire Strikes Back had minor changes like removing a visible puppeteer rig, the addition of a reflection on a window in Cloud City when a cloud car passes by, and sparks were added to the melting chamber Chewbacca is searching for what’s left of C-3PO. Return of the Jedi also had many unnecessary changes – except for the restoration of most lightsaber shots, which were given their white cores back. The door at Jabba’s Palace was made bigger, CG eyelids were added to some Ewoks, and the infamous “Emperor slugs” were finally removed. The most “notable” addition was Vader muttering and then yelling “no!” before throwing the Emperor down the pit.” Again, the alterations are endless and unnecessary.
Unofficially, some dedicated and resourceful fans have “over the years” created their own restorations, with Harmy’s Despecialized Edition release being the most famous and widely (though illegally) distributed online. If you plan to see the unaltered Star Wars trilogy in a high-quality original form, I highly recommend watching his restorations. If you can deal with the initial SE changes, try out the Five Star DVD9 set containing the 1997 Special Editions if you must view them. Good luck with finding them at a low price. The Five Star Series of the 97′ is my favorite. It always takes me back to seeing the re-release on the big screen, as I wrote about above. I’m honestly quite happy I have pressed copies of the three films. I can live with the 97′ changes but beyond that everything is literal “Madness.”
Is there a new hope? In 2014, the Internet went abuzz with rumors that Disney intended to re-release the original, unaltered Star Wars trilogy in a remastered Blu-Ray set. At the time, Comicbook.com claimed to have it on good authority (“two reliable, independent sources”) that the plan was to re-release the unaltered trilogy in some form. They had this to say:
“According to our sources, Disney has plans to release the original cut of the Star Wars trilogy on Blu-ray. Our sources indicate that the project has been underway for quite some time, but it’s been challenging because of some damage to the original negatives they are utilizing. The goal is to release A New Hope, Empire Strikes Back, and Return of Jedi in their complete, unaltered, original form without the redone special edition SFX.”
Sadly, there’s been no movement or official truth on the matter. At least, not officially, not yet.
So what’s the holdup? Disney has had the ability to release the original unaltered Star Wars film, along with Empire and Jedi since they acquired Lucasfilm in 2012. There has to be more than one reason why they haven’t attempted a 4K restoration of the films in an unaltered state. Is there more to this story?
Recent comments from a Disney director of Library Restoration backs up what Rick McCallum years earlier regarding the original Star Wars negative only existing in its Special Edition state. And yet, here we are, with a team of hellbent fans reportedly having tracked down a negative of the original print of Star Wars in an unaltered state. Are we not surprised? And what happened to the Empire and Jedi prints. What’s the excuse behind not at least releasing them in an unaltered form? I’ll delve more into that in my upcoming Part II of this story. Stay tuned
Anyhow, until official high-quality versions are released, we will have to watch the highest quality available, even though it’s a bootleg. Still, I’ll never forget going down the long road at a drive-in to see Star Wars’, unaltered, with my recently TARGET store-purchased Chewbacca and C-3PO figures in hand to watch ‘Star Wars’ as it was meant to be seen. Forever, the moment that the huge Star Destroyer appeared from nowhere is seemingly burned into the memories of my childhood. I can still see it when I close my eyes. Such wonderful childhood memories. My mom, my dad, my toys, and Star Wars.
The original Star Wars film is considered among the best of what science fiction and Hollywood cinema offer. Why is it that we can’t see it in its original form in the quality we all deserve? Hopefully, one day Disney and Lucasfilm will release Star Wars, along with the other two films, unaltered, for all of us to enjoy!
May the Force be with you….
The original version of this article, written by me, originally appeared in Outerplace.com