Why Finding the Original 1977 'Star Wars' Verges on the Impossible
A short time ago in a galaxy very, very near to here, I set out on a mission to find a movie classic.
It’s a scene etched into every Star Wars fan’s mind. The roguish anti-hero Han Solo sits alone at bare table in the Mos Eisley cantina. An alien bounty hunter pulls up a chair to confront him. After some tense chit-chat, the amphibian-looking barfly pulls a gun and fires a laser blast inches from Solo’s head. Without batting an eye, Han fires a return blast under the table, killing the bounty hunter and sauntering away from the grisly yet PG-rated scene. Everybody’s seen it. Except not.
That impromptu shootout in the first Star Wars is but one of the sequences that diverges from what audiences saw when the movie was originally released in 1977, and it’s perhaps the most infamous of writer/director George Lucas’s endless tinkering with his beloved space saga. This means that a whole generation of supposedly passionate fans have been living a lie. The galaxy far, far away that fans like me fell in love with is a different film entirely.
I confess that I love Star Wars far too much. It’s a cultural artifact that permeates my whole being. I couldn’t count how many Star Wars birthdays I’ve had, how many toys I’ve bought, and how many home video editions of the original trilogy I owned. I’ve even made some of my best friends by challenging them to exceedingly nerdy Star Wars trivia (Q: What was the number of the garbage compactor that nearly killed Han, Luke, and Leia in the first movie? A: If you don’t know it, we aren’t best friends.)
And yet I’ve never seen the original version of Star Wars — a crime that should be punishable by freezing me in Carbonite and shipping me off to an uncertain fate with Boba Fett. But in 2015, it requires nothing shy of an actual quest if you want to find Lucas’s 1977 original, the ur-Star Wars from which the subsequent multi-multi-billion-dollar cultural empire sprang. Lucas has ensured the “original” is a tampered-with version he now sells riven with edits and festooned with computerized effects. To see his original vision, one must dig.
The first version of the iconic movie I saw on the big screen was as a wide-eyed scamp in 1997, when Sith Lord Lucas spiffed up the original trilogy to commemorate their 20th anniversary. He packaged the revamped versions of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and The Return of the Jedi under the heading “Star Wars Trilogy: Special Edition.” He tweaked the films throughout — mostly souping up the quantity and purported quality of the special effects — as a dry run for the impending prequel trilogy that Lucas would begin inflicting on despondent audiences two years later.
Perhaps the most egregious changes were to the 1977 original itself, which, because of Lucas’s prequel plans, would later be re-labeled as Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, an inelegant heresy. Some changes were cosmetic, polishing up little details. Others were far more substantial. As he spruced up some scenes with CGI, and blatantly overhauled others, Lucas made mad bank while claiming the updates fulfilled an old artistic vision that movie-making tech in the ‘70s forced him to defer.
Kids like me embraced it without any qualms whatsoever — seeing Star Wars was, after all, a turning point in my life, as it will be for 10-year-olds who see Rogue One in December. But older viewers, long-versed in the language of that universe, had plenty to gripe about.
Eventually, I wised up to Lucas’s changes. The movie’s impact somehow ebbed. What I’d seen wasn’t Star Wars. It was Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Special Edition. But am I taking this too seriously? Maybe Lucas had a point. Anybody familiar with the history of the original movie knows he was undercut by the studio at nearly every angle, forcing him to make quick, potentially regrettable decisions that could have compromised the vision of his space epic. Compared to the changes made to those originals, the compromises seem trivial.
Take, for example, one awful addition to the Special Edition in a scene cut from the 1977 release. Han Solo confronts a human version of Jabba the Hutt in Docking Bay 94. The Falstaffian human actor portraying Jabba in 1977 was replaced by a laughably obvious CGI creation in 1997, worsened only by an even crappier-looking computer enhanced Solo stepping on CG-Jabba’s tail. Lucas also added an understated introduction of Empire Strikes Back fan-favorite Boba Fett, who now can be seen silently lurking in the background before turning and staring straight into the camera. Fans couldn’t believe what they were seeing. What was this hackneyed pandering in their prized Star Wars?
The greatest affront came in that Mos Eisley cantina scene. The version I first saw had Solo defending himself, returning fire after that first errant blast. The original version, I later learned, had Solo straight-up blasting this marble-eyed Greedo customer (who, let’s face it, was probably going to kill Solo eventually anyway) and swing out of the cantina like the John Wayne gunslinger his character is set up to be.
The abhorrent CG-Jabba is one thing. Han returning fire was another. No other addition to the original films pissed fans off more. The rallying cry of “Han shot first” became shorthand for fans everywhere who felt betrayed by art that was toned down to be more marketable to parents. George Lucas, one of the richest men in the world, sold out the very people who made him so wealthy.
The rejiggered scene prompts Star Wars geeks to lose their collective shit, because it fundamentally changes Solo. Through the chintzy reconfiguring that has the bounty hunter shoot at Han first, Lucas removed the moral ambiguity of the morally ambiguous Han Solo. To audiences, and to the character’s personality, it just made no damn sense.
Lucas would defend his addition years later, but he undercut the outcry by basically saying fans were wrong from the get-go. The controversy over who shot first, Greedo or Han Solo, in Episode IV, what I did was try to clean up the confusion, but obviously it upset people because they wanted Solo (who seemed to be the one who shot first in the original) to be a cold-blooded killer, but he actually isn’t,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “It had been done in all close-ups and it was confusing about who did what to whom. I put a little wider shot in there that made it clear that Greedo is the one who shot first, but everyone wanted to think that Han shot first, because they wanted to think that he actually just gunned him down.”
That scene came to represent the failures of the Special Editions. The needless additions seemed only to address Lucas’s personal hangups with his own work — and, not coincidentally, line his pockets anew. Star Wars fanatics loved the movie already, so why would Lucas endorse a repackaging that undercut the scrappy, DIY charm that made the original adventure a worldwide phenomenon?
“To me, the Special Edition ones are the films I wanted to make,” Lucas explained when the original trilogy was released in a DVD boxset in 2004. “Anybody that makes films knows the film is never finished. It’s abandoned or it’s ripped out of your hands, and it’s thrown into the marketplace, never finished.”
This notion of the original Star Wars as an incomplete draft made me wonder. Unaltered versions of the original trilogy are available — but, because they’re out of production, they’re not available through official channels. Why is it so difficult for a fan, like me, who doesn’t want to suss out shady Deep Web torrents or to hunt down bootlegs of the 1977 version? We should be in a world where we can have both, but because Lucas is as stubborn as he is, whatever new version we get of the perpetually updated movies are the 100 percent official canonical versions.
It’s a bitch to find the originals. But still, I couldn’t shake the question: Am I a Star Wars fraud for having never seen them?
As I set out on my geeky quest, I considered first editions. What compels us to exhume originals, as if whatever it was about that purest precedent somehow represents an ideal version? Lucas himself hinted at this before the Special Edition release: “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.”
When people sit down this summer to take in a Shakespeare in the Park performance, they can’t expect the play, any play, will be the exact iteration of the play from when it was first performed 400 years ago. People may have a notion of Hamlet, but the play has evolved across many different forms and configurations. First editions of books, like movies, feel like a set medium. But they, too, take on new additions and subtractions through different releases.
Take the 50th anniversary edition of perennial high school syllabus classic On the Road. It was a bound printing of author Jack Kerouac’s masterpiece taken from the one continuous scroll on which he wrote the manuscript in the early ‘50s — closer to the original source material, perhaps it was more holy to Kerouac devotees. And earlier this year, reclusive author Harper Lee’s second novel Go Set a Watchman ended up being a repackaged early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, released more than a half-century earlier. Lee’s story, too, morphed along the way, decidedly for the better.
Why, then, don’t audiences accept an updated Star Wars like a new Macbeth, a new edition of a book, or a remastering of your favorite album? Are Star Wars fans really more captivated by the 1977 original, or are they simply fetishizing their nostalgia? The only way to find out was to get ahold of Lucas’s discarded early cut.
Let’s get this out of the way: Unless you’re a filthy rich collector or an outrageously lucky fanboy who owns an original projector, there’s no way to see Star Wars on actual film. Even if they’re somehow shown in public, Lucasfilm reportedly confiscates the reels when they surface. When theaters do show the movies, they’re undoubtedly the Special Editions or another iteration after that, and they’re most likely not on film.
It seemed like my Holy Grail, my white whale, but that also my destiny was a failure before I even began to look for it. Even in previous interviews, George Lucas was there to taunt me. “I’m not going to spend […] the money and the time to refurbish [the original], because to me,” he said, “it doesn’t really exist anymore.” If I couldn’t find exactly what I wanted without emptying out my entire savings account or finding a time machine, I figured the best way to go about it was to find something commercially available that I could legitimately watch in 2015.
Screenings of the actual films are so limited that when the prestigious Brooklyn Academy of Music’s BAMcinematek wanted to show Return of the Jedi during a series last year highlighting puppets on film, they were forced to project a copy of the movie on Blu-ray. Try looking for celluloid on eBay, and you’d be lucky to merely find cut up film strips, not an entire 35mm reel.
The DVDs are similarly messed with and full of additional post-Special Edition tinkering that borders on the completely inconsequential. For instance, the scream that Obi-Wan Kenobi uses to scare away the Tusken Raiders that attack Luke — affectionately known to Star Wars geeks as the “Krayt Dragon Call” — has been increasingly pitched up and changed from what it had been before.
I couldn’t do laserdiscs because no sane person has a laserdisc player these days. The same goes for a VHS player, which I surprisingly do have, but the most widely available versions of the movie on VHS are the Special Editions anyway.
They’ve even committed the cardinal sin of having some of the worst parts of the prequel trilogy intrude on the original trilogy, like inserting Hayden Christensen in for actor Sebastian Shaw as Anakin Skywalker at the end of Return of the Jedi. Any young Padawan would know that this little turn of the knife in our geeky backs makes absolutely no sense considering they’ve kept Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan instead of replacing him with the prequel’s Ewan McGregor … but I digress.
The most widely available versions of the movies are on Blu-ray, but those are counted out because they’ve also been mercilessly altered based on Lucas’s whims. Here we get even more prequel intrusion with Vader’s widely despised “NOOOOO!” from Revenge of the Sith added to the end of Return of the Jedi for puzzling effect. If you asked George Lucas, “Why? the only answer he’d muster would be, “Why not?”
The home video options seemed like a dead end until I realized a 2006 limited edition DVD could be exactly what I was looking for.
After years of pressure from nitpicky fans like me, Lucas released limited edition DVDs in 2006 of the exact same versions of the individual movies previously released in 2004. Buried on a second disc of those releases were what was billed as the “theatrical versions” of the original movies, allegedly untouched and unscathed.
To my surprise, they were widely available on everywhere from Amazon to eBay and even accessible via the DVD plan from Netflix. But when I finally got my hands on a copy of the first movie, I would be sadly disappointed.
The 2006 DVD theatrical editions are a relatively intact example of the early versions of the movies, and they’re missing the changes/vandalism of the Special Edition onwards, but instead of simply taking the movies from the original film negatives and slapping them onto a DVD, these theatrical editions were actually taken from the so-called LaserDisc Definitive Collection first released in 1993. The irony here was that these definitive editions were anything but and included remastered changes that were basically another dry run from Lucas for the Special Editions that launched this whole mess four years later.
Close would have to do. The thrill of popping in a DVD of something resembling the original 1977 version still had me jazzed, until I saw the famous, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” splayed in a grainy haze in the middle of my (humblebrag) relatively big flatscreen TV. The theatrical versions included on the 2006 DVDs are a non-anamorphic letterboxed transfer with a 4:3 aspect ratio, meaning there are huge back boxes on all four sides of the screen if you’re watching it on a widescreen.
It was another disappointment piled on top of a series of disappointments produced by Lucas passive-aggressively putting ugly transfers on the second discs of a release to prove his own point that they’re somehow inferior. But I kept on watching. I did do because for one, I was realizing a childhood dream. For another, fuck George Lucas.
I had searched out the closest thing to the original Star Wars I could possibly see, and what I got was something close to what I first experienced in 1997. It’s a downright fun movie, a scrappy sci-fi throwback that makes you forget the relative shittiness of the world for two hours and puts you into a huge galactic battle between good and evil with a hero, a damsel in distress, and their friends all just having a rollicking good time. It also looks like something crafted by human hands.
This theatrical version wasn’t the Platonic ideal I’d hoped for. But it showed the terrible updates to the Special Edition, and that the endless tinkering wasn’t justified. Star Wars is and always was an evolving thing, and people will just need to accept that it will grow as we grow with it.
When news of Disney’s $4 billion purchase of Lucasfilm went through, rumors ran rampant that the original versions would finally be packaged and sold. Finally, the Mouse could override Lucasfilm’s intransigence! Alas, Disney still doesn’t own Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, or Return of the Jedi — 20th Century Fox does. Until Fox decides to give fans a glimpse of the spark that started the fire, we’ll just have to enjoy the galaxy far, far away in whatever way we can.