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Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Star Wars on DVD and Blu-ray: will we ever get the unaltered, original theatrical cut?

Han Solo prepares to shoot first in
the 1977 theatrical cut of Star Wars

We've looked at Star Wars on Super 8 and home video. Now it's time for a brief guide to the frustrating history of the original film on DVD and Blu-Ray.

The reason the story is frustrating is, of course, that George Lucas has devoted endless time and energy refusing to release the Star Wars we all know and love.



2004: Star Wars comes to DVD



Star Wars: the 2004 DVD release
At the turn of the millennium, DVD was gaining in popularity faster than any home entertainment format had before.  But Lucas had suggested that he would not release any of the original Star Wars trilogy in the new format until after the prequels were finished.  He relented in time for them to be released as a boxed set in September 2004 – but it was made clear from the off that this would be the trilogy as revised for the Special Editions.  There was no chance of seeing Star Wars as we had originally known and loved it.  In fact, these films wouldn't even be the same Special Editions that people had seen in the cinemas.  There would be further tinkering.

Thousands of people signed a very politely worded petition at originaltrilogy.com, calling for the original cuts of the films to be made available.  But George Lucas was having none of it, telling Associated Press: “The special edition, that’s the one I wanted out there. The other movie, it’s on VHS, if anybody wants it ... I’m not going to spend the, we’re talking millions of dollars here, the money and the time to refurbish that, because to me, it doesn’t really exist anymore.  It’s like this is the movie I wanted it to be, and I’m sorry you saw half a completed film and fell in love with it.  But I want it to be the way I want it to be.  I’m the one who has to take responsibility for it.”

An awful lot of us had spent a lot of money watching this “half-finished” movie over the years, and I seem to remember being charged full price every time.  But Lucas's astonishingly disingenuous argument seemed to be the end of the matter.  


The 2004 DVDs duly went to the top of the retailers' charts, and they were full of interesting material, including the laudable feature-length documentary, Empire of Dreams.  But when Empire of Dreams showed us a glimpse of the original crawl from Star Wars, with no 'Episode IV' subtitle – the first time most of us had seen it this way since the 1970s – the sense of disappointment in the boxed set only became more acute.  To make matters worse, a lot of fans complained that the colours on the DVD release seemed to have gone haywire.




2006: the original theatrical cut of Star Wars comes to DVD



The limited edition Star Wars DVD
of 2006: the only official release of
the unaltered theatrical cut

December 2005 saw the release of a budget-price set of the Special Editions, minus the bonus disc from the previous year’s box, and most people gave up hope of a more interesting re-issue.  But then, in 2006, Lucasfilm finally and unexpectedly capitulated to the calls for the films to be released in their original form.  “See the title crawl to Star Wars before it was known as Episode IV,” said StarWars.com; “see the pioneering, if dated, motion control model work on the attack on the Death Star; groove to Lapti Nek or the Ewok Celebration song like you did when you were a kid; and yes, see Han Solo shoot first.”

The tone of that announcement seemed a bit ambivalent, and the small print  contained some disappointments.  The theatrical versions of the films were only to be “bonus features” on DVD releases of each of the Special Editions; and they were only to be issued from September that year to December 31.   Lucasfilm was going to no trouble at all to restore the films –  these were essentially the 1993 laserdisc releases (with the best available print of the original title crawl added to the first film), and they were in plain old letterbox format rather in anamorphic widescreen for modern TVs.  But you had to give George Lucas some credit for the gesture.  It takes a big man to perform such a conspicuous and overdue U-turn, even if there seemed to be a slightly grudging air about the whole thing.

Sales of this third DVD release of the original trilogy in two years were not huge, and despite their limited edition status, the discs were available for several years, which was probably not good news for those hoping there would be a widespread clamour for a better release of the unaltered trilogy.




2011: Star Wars comes to Blu-ray



The Star Wars saga on Blu-ray:
everything except the theatrical cut

The Star Wars films would be as late to arrive on Blu-ray as they had been on DVD.  It was not until August 2010, when there were already 19.4 million Blu-ray players in the US, that Lucas appeared at the fan event Celebration V to announce that the six movies would be available in the high definition format, all in one box, in autumn 2011.  

For those who just wanted to see Star Wars as they had known and loved it on first release, the news was, once again, not encouraging.  Lucas told the New York Times that releasing the original editions on Blu-ray would be “kind of an oxymoron because the quality of the original is not very good”, adding: “You have to go through and do a whole restoration on it, and you have to do that digitally. It’s a very, very expensive process to do it. So when we did the transfer to digital, we only transferred really the upgraded version.”  

It was a pretty unsatisfying statement, especially given that the 35mm film in fact provided for better picture quality than even Blu-ray could handle.  Countless older films had already looked fantastic on Blu-ray without the need for expensive digital restoration.  But later in the interview, there was a hint that this might not be a final decision.  “We’ve been working on them for quite a while,” Lucas said of the Blu-ray releases, “but still, there are pipelines. Unfortunately, the recent releases get priority over what we call the classic versions of things.”

The Blu-rays contain some superb extras, including the original Making Of documentaries for the first time on a digital format, and some of those long sought-after deleted scenes.  But the films, were subjected to even more tinkering.  Star Wars had, by now, been altered so many times that, at this rate, there would soon be none of the original left.  Still, Lucas's "pipelines" remark suggested there might still be hope of seeing Star Wars the way people had always wanted it.




2014 and beyond: will Disney release the unaltered Star Wars on Blu-ray?


Selling out: George Lucas did
a $4billion deal with Disney
in 2012

When Lucas sold Lucasfilm to Disney in 2012, many first generation fans will have instantly wondered what it meant for the original films.  Would Disney finally allow us to see the unaltered cuts that we had been patiently waiting for all this time?  For many of us, the Disney sale was itself A New Hope.  

There is still no official news on the possibility of an unaltered cut on Blu-ray.  In the summer of 2014, there was a flurry of excitement when the restoration company Reliance Mediaworks reported that it had completed a 4k digital transfer of the original Star Wars trilogy.  But it was unclear whether that meant the original cut or the Special Editions, and a lot of the circumstantial evidence suggested the latter.

This saga took another twist with a report by Comicbook.com in August, citing two independent sources, that Disney was preparing to release the original cuts of the original trilogy on Blu-ray. Fan excitement was tempered slightly by the fact that other sites, such as this one, suggested that this could not possibly be the case.  For the time being, Disney is keeping us in suspense as surely as Lucas did for years.

Maddening as it has been not to be able to watch Star Wars in a good quality transfer at home, you have to wonder whether the delay has helped maintain interest in the movies.  

If the 1977 cut of the film had been released in a good quality anamorphic DVD, and then Blu-ray, would I be blogging about it today?  Maybe, but the more Lucas seemed determined to disguise the fact that Star Wars was a film of the 1970s, the more I've been interested in putting it back into the context of its era.  Star Wars is a contender for title of most influential movie ever made, yet the original cut remains maddeningly unavailable.  Like the Force itself, the influence of Star Wars is felt everywhere, but you can't see it.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I found a VHS version of the original a VHS copy of Star Wars at a thrift shop for 99 cents plus tax.
As in, not Stars Wars IV: A New Hope. Just Star Wars, complete with cartoon illustration on front and, let us hope, original crawl.
The HELL with the reboots.

Darren Slade said...

Good find. Presumably 'Episode IV' will be on the crawl, since it was added in 1981 and was on all the official video release ... unless you have some sort of pre-Episode IV bootleg, which would be amazing!
Thanks very much for commenting.

johnnyivan said...

The best version I can watch these days is Harmy's 'Star Wars DeSpecialized' edition.