Experiencing the Star Wars Original Trilogy in its unaltered format has been a distant hope for most fans. Could it ever become reality?
Ask any Star Wars fan about their opinions over the 1997 Special Edition releases, and you’ll typically hear the same thing: That the changes implemented by George Lucas, on the whole, either altered the story and character development for the worse, or added unnecessary and cumbersome CGI elements out of step with the movies’ aesthetic.
And so, for as long as the Special Editions have existed, so too have the persistent rumors that the theatrical versions of the Original Trilogy would eventually be released. They wane in the years between significant milestones in the franchise’s lifespan, but become ever more abundant when an anniversary is on the horizon.
However, when it comes to the ever-persistent conversation around the theatrical cuts, nothing has shifted the tone more than Disney’s recent acquisition of Fox.
A major obstacle to the theatrical editions of Star Wars being released was that, while Disney owned the majority of the distribution rights, A New Hope still fell under the jurisdiction of Fox, in perpetuity, thanks to a deal secured by Alan Ladd Jr.
Laddie, as he was more commonly known, was largely the reason why the Star Wars movies ever made it to the big screen. A steadfast advocate for Lucas’ vision, he petitioned and fought the Fox executives over and over, and eventually secured a deal that would allow Star Wars to move forward at the studio.
That deal also sealed his eventual fate. Laddie signed over full control of all potential Star Wars sequels to Lucas. Only A New Hope fell under Fox’s purview, and Lucas eventually used that leverage to secure the merchandising rights for the franchise, putting into motion the fully self-funded Lucasfilm juggernaut.
Fox fired Laddie over that fumble, but he had at least guaranteed that the studio kept control over the original Star Wars movie.
Without full distribution rights to Star Wars, it was always going to be a pipe dream that Disney might be able to release the theatrical cuts. At least, not without Fox’s full cooperation.
But now, with a $52 billion deal signed on the dotted line, there are very few obstacles standing in Disney’s way.
But why are the theatrical releases of the Original Trilogy such an important commodity for fans of the franchise?
The complicated history of Star Wars and the Special Editions
Whether you love, hate or are indifferent to Star Wars on the whole, there’s certainly no denying the significant cultural impact the franchise has had on the world. A New Hope — or just Star Wars, as it was known back in 1977 — won several Academy Awards, including Best Visual Effects, Production Design and Original Music Score.
It left its mark on the film industry in pretty spectacular style, and influenced movies in its wake, but there was no knowing then that the version of Star Wars so decorated by the Academy, and beloved by fans and critics alike, would be unceremoniously hidden away from the world — as though it was George Lucas’ secret shame.
Many fans of Star Wars have never experienced a version of the film where Han really did shoot first, where John Williams’ score isn’t drowned out by sound effects, and Luke and Obi-Wan’s arrival at Mos Eisley isn’t obscured by CGI creatures.
George Lucas has spoken out in defense of these changes, which debuted in a re-release of the Original Trilogy in 1997, saying that the Special Editions are the films as they were “meant to be.”
That Lucas could return to the trilogy years after its release, with more advanced technologies at his fingertips, in order to complete the film with his original vision in mind is something that most of us — as creators — would yearn to do. There is, as Lucas mentioned in his interview, always more you feel that you could have done. Nothing ever truly feels perfect, or complete.
But, in returning to the films to “correct” his mistakes, Lucas did more than alter them to more closely fit his ideal vision — he erased an important part of film history.
Setting aside the complicated feelings most fans have with the significant adjustments to the story and visuals, the 1997 release of A New Hope stripped the film of every aspect that it had won its Academy Awards for. Gone were the incredible sound effects and mixing, replaced with more cumbersome versions. So too were the costume and production design, overwritten by CGI creatures. And John Williams’ beautiful score was drowned out by the rush of X-Wings.
Each year, the American National Film Registry, a branch of the Library of Congress, archives 25 American films to preserve them. Star Wars, the 1977 release, was one of the first films chosen for preservation — but Lucasfilm refused to deliver the original archival print.
The 1997 release of A New Hope has been offered in its stead, but legislation dictates that the first published must be archived, so the Registry had no choice but to refuse to accept it.
Preserving the original version of Star Wars became a hugely important project for many fans, who felt as though future generations deserved to experience the film as they had. And so, with each subsequent release, and re-release, of Star Wars, several restoration attempts have been made.
The scope of these fan projects is nothing short of breathtaking, and the results in themselves are incredible, particularly with Harmy’s Despecialized Editions. They painstakingly restored the sound balance, breathing life back into John Williams’ score, and corrected the coloring, removed the additional scenes and CGI, and ensured the original sound effects were in place.
There is no denying that these projects are a labor of love. It is a true respect for the cultural impact of Star Wars and its part in film history that continues to drive fans to restore the trilogy to its original state.
But now, perhaps, those versions of the film will no longer need to be hidden in the shadows, skirting around the edge of legality under fair-use.
With the potential of an official release of the theatrical editions of the Original Trilogy, at a level of quality that Star Wars truly deserves, perhaps it can finally take its rightful place as a documented part of American film history.