Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Star Wars: what is the 'definitive', original 1977 edition anyway?

An ad for Star Wars in 70mm at the
Granada, Santa Barbara, September 1977.

Ever since the Star Wars Special Editions came out in 1997, people like me have been repeating the same tedious question: Will we ever see the original, 1977 version of the film again?

For many years, George Lucas was pretty insistent that the answer to that question was no.  But then there were some encouraging signs.  In 2006, the original theatrical cut of the film was released, somewhat half-heartedly, as a bonus feature on a DVD release of the film (see this post about the history of Star Wars on DVD).  And although we were all insane with frustration that the 2011 complete Blu-ray release of the Star Wars films did not include the 1977 cut, Lucas did not seem to have finally closed the door on issuing the original (see the comments in that same post about the BD release.)

But since George Lucas has never given the fans the answer we want to hear to the above question, we have never needed to ask another – much geekier – question, which is this: What is the original 1977 version of the film anyway?

Sound differences between the 70mm, 35mm stereo and mono mixes of Star Wars

See Threepio, about to say something about
the tractor beam being coupled to the main reactor
... if you saw the mono version of Star Wars  

Casual fans be warned: your eyes may be about to glaze over. But I'll keep it as simple as I can.

Star Wars was, visually speaking, more or less the same film from May 1977 until the April 1981 re-release, when the opening title crawl was changed to accommodate the subtitle 'Episode IV: A New Hope'. (I say more or less the same film, because there is some mystifying information to add on that point in a few paragraphs' time.)

However, the soundtrack of the film varied, even in 1977.

The way movies were projected could vary considerably back then, depending on whether you saw them at a big city cinema with the latest facilities or at your local, small auditorium (which might get their prints much later).

As we saw in this post, Star Wars was initially released on 32 screens that could show it with the best possible sound and picture.  They were the auditoriums that had been equipped with 70mm projection systems and Dolby six-track surround sound.  The giant 70mm film projectors gave superb picture quality, even with films like Star Wars which had been made on 35mm and 'blown up' to the larger format.

70mm would definitely have been the way to see Star Wars first time around, if you were lucky enough to live near to one of those screens.  And yet George Lucas and his sound people had not finished with the movie.

Crowds at Mann's Chinese 

Theater, the 'home of 
Star Wars'

Once the audio for the 70mm prints had been mixed, the sound team had to finalise the soundtrack for cinemas showing the film in 35mm with Dolby Stereo.  And after that, it was time to refine another mix for the many cinemas who were having nothing to do with all this stereo business and still had 35mm projectors with monaural sound systems.

But all this was not just a matter of sound quality.  The actual content of the film was slightly different, depending on which version you saw.

The mono mix of the film actually contained some lines of dialogue that were not in either of the stereo version.  One of them is See-Threepio's line, aboard the Death Star: "The tractor beam is coupled to the main reactor in seven locations”. Another is a Death Star storm trooper ordering “Close the blast doors” before Han Solo the troops find themselves cut off.  Aunt Beru sounds different between the two versions and is possibly voiced by a different actress. (Neither voice was that of Shelagh Fraser.)  

Did someone say to close the blast  doors?
More differences between the mono and
stereo mixes of Star Wars

There are also different distortions applied to the voices storm troopers and the Rebel pilots.  And while the mono mix might have been the least impressive way to see the film at the time, it was reputedly the one Lucas was happiest with, because it had been refined over a longer period. 

For a full list of the differences between the mono and stereo versions, take a look at The Starkiller’s Guide to the Mono Star Wars Sound Mix.

The Story of Star Wars LP,
though in stereo, had
much in common with
the mono mix
The 1977 LP and cassette release The Story of Star Wars was in stereo, but it was based on the mixing done for the mono release of the film, so “Close the blast doors” and other elements of the mono edition were present.

None of these three original audio mixes for Star Wars have been heard properly by a mass audience for a very long time.  When the film came to video in 1985, Ben Burtt created a new sound mix.  He did the same for the 1993 laserdisc release, on each occasion combining elements of all the previous mixes.  The 'theatrical edition' of the film on the 2006 DVD release uses the laserdisc soundtrack – with no “Close the blast doors” and no tractor beam line.

So far, so complicated – but here comes the real puzzler.

Differences between 1977 prints of Star Wars

I said above that, visually, Star Wars was more or less the same film between 1977 and the 1981 re-issue.  But the folks over at – people whose avid attention to detail leaves me looking positively relaxed about all this by comparison – have noticed that, even in 1977, there may have been some visual details that changed for no obvious reason.

Here – with appropriate credit, again, to – are two images from the film's end credits, from different 1977 prints.

Baffling differences between 1977  prints of Star Wars as noted on

Not a big change, certainly.  It won't have altered the viewing experience very much.  But... why? 

Why would anybody have been tinkering with this stuff amid all the pressure and expense of releasing a major motion picture?  You can read a discussion about it here.  But you have to wonder how many other tiny differences might be picked up if someone had access to enough prints of the film and time enough to compare them shot by shot.

It's surprisingly hard to say what the original, 'definitive' version of Star Wars was.  The one thing that's easy to assert, without fear of contradiction, that it's not any of the 'preferred' versions that Lucasfilm has been releasing on DVD and Blu-ray.

NOTE: Apart from the websites already mentioned above, I’d recommend visiting this page from the excellent website Saving Star Wars and this one at From Script to


Rory Cobb said...

Oh my; now that is a question, isn't it? I have to say, I was 10 years old in the summer of '77 when my family and I saw Star Wars at the theatre in Kankakee, IL., and I was so swept away by the imagery and sounds, I really didn't remember much of it... and, being 10, I only saw it once that year. It wasn't until the re-release in 1981 (my 3rd time to see it, and the first time with the EP IV title) that I really remember it-visually and aurally. That, to me, is what Star Wars looks and sounds like (only without the ep IV title). Now, since I don't really remember the '77 showing, I don't know how close that re-release was to the original, but I can say-the version that has been released that closely resembles *that* showing is the 1989 laserdisc version. It is the only one with the soundtrack I remember, and the only one with the correct color pallet. The video and laserdisc version that was released in 1993 (the ones the 2006 dvd's were mastered from) not only has altered audio (extra r2 whisltes,Alderaan debris, explosions in the cell block to name a few), the color was wrong. Too hot in some places. I have even seen the fan-remaster by a certain person whose original film remaster has been talked about in the news lately...and even IT isn't right (oh sure, the audio is how it used to be, but the color has been amped up waaay too much). I wasn't surprised when I learned after seeing that remaster d original version that the gentleman who did the remaster didn't even see the original in the theatre-his experiences were as a kid seeing it on video. So, as far as I can tell-sadly-there never WILL be a proper release of the original the way I remember seeing it. Despite the non-anamorphic and soft picture when played on today's tv's- the 1989 laserdisc still has audio and video as close as I remember seeing it in the theatre. And I doubt that will ever get a proper restoration.

Darren Slade said...

Thanks Rory. Great comment.
Laserdisc was never as big here in the UK as it was in the US, so I haven't seen that '89 version and neither, I suspect, has almost anyone else, but it sounds like that's the best available cut.
I guess restoring Star Wars is becoming an ever harder job, as memories fade of what it looked like before the endless tinkering. Lucas isn't much interested in making it look the way it did in '77, of course; Gil Taylor is no longer with us (not that anyone ever seemed that keen to consult him on such things); and Ben Burtt, rather than original sound editor Sam Shaw, has long been responsible for updating the soundtrack. Wouldn't it be great to see one of those 1977 prints that apparently exist in a few private collections?

John White said...

Well you know... there is supposed to be at least one Technicolor print floating around. So, fingers crossed :)

John I. White said...

Hi Rory,
'Harmy's Despecialized' version is my preferred option these days - of the ones I have access to- until we get a better version. It only includes SE footage for picture quality purposes.
I agree with you about the colour being over-saturated now. I also dislike the sharpening that was done on the SE. The scene in Ben's hut and the scene by the burning Sandcrawler for example, show everything sharpened - flattening the picture. The stucco on Ben's wall should be slightly out of focus but it's sharp and lumpy. The air duct or whatever it is infron of ben and Luke by the Sandcrawler is too sharp too.
It reminds me of what some major international art galleries have been doing to old master paintings: cleaning away some of the artist's intended over-painted glazes in the pursuit of very bright colours - possibly against the artist's original intention. TITIAN's paintings are an excellent - and sad example of this.

Rory Cobb said...

John; good analogy! Oddly enough, I find what version i watch depends on what mood Im in!

Scott said...

That Threepio line always sounded like it was recorded years later and added into the film to explain how they were going to escape. The quality and pace doesn’t sound consistent with the preceding lines.

As crazy as this may sound, I definitely remember seeing a cut of Star Wars in August of 1977 in a small suburb of Atlanta that I have never seen (or heard) the same way since. A few scenes have emerged over the last few years as “lost” or “extended”, e.g. longer landspeeder and Death Star scenes, that confirmed I wasn’t imagining things. I do remember Luke missing with the grappling hook the first time. One other thing I remember that I’ve never heard anyone else mention is Vader saying he would return as he regains control of his TIE Fighter. I know I heard that because it struck me as odd when he said it and my mother and aunt remember it as well.

Darren Slade said...

Thanks for commenting, Scott. That's really intriguing. I wonder whether anyone at could confirm the existence of that material? It would be easy to put such things down to the fallibility of memory, but since we already know of some other audio differences, and two of your relatives remember it the same way... well, fascinating.

Anonymous said...

It's the Mandela effect. The people at Have so rigorously analyzed every print they could find (Inculding whether such prints have odd orange marks near the beginning) that it's unlikely they wouldn't have discovered the version you speak of.

Sebastian Hawks said...

I hadn't seen Star Wars in nearly 20 years due to the unavailability of the real version. I just get so angry seeing the film vandalized by the CGI I just couldn't enjoy the experience. Recently I found a 1984 print on VHS and it truly is the movie I used to love watching. I can't even remember when I saw it in the theater but knew it was well after nearly everyone in my kindergarten class saw it due to my mom being such a party pooper who wouldn't let us do what the other kids did. It was probably late 1977 or early 1978 when we went to the old Palwaukee Theater in Wheeling Illinois and saw it. Of course my mom didn't get us the good toys the other kids got like the Death Star or Millennium Falcon. I really don't remember anything different about that original theater experience vs. the VHS from the early 80s. I can relate to the reminiscing of some remembering different things though as around the same time I saw Superman and remember a scene at the very end where Lex Luthor is attempting to feed Miss Tessmacher to some lions because she freed Superman from the swimming pool. I've never been able to find this scene since, but vividly seem to remember it.