Friday 22 December 2017

Will the original, unaltered 1977 Star Wars ever be released on Blu-ray?

The approach to Yavin, as seen in the 1977 cut of Star Wars

With Christmas upon us, there is one gift that legions of first generation fans want but seem destined never to get. The original, unaltered, 1977 cut of Star Wars on Blu-ray or DVD.

Today, we consider whether we'll ever see Star Wars the way first generation fans remember it – and what form the ideal Blu-ray would take.

Star Wars before it was Episode IV: A New Hope. What happened to those rumours about a Blu-ray of the 1977 cut?

Star Wars Celebration in Orange County, California, this year, pulled out the stops to celebrate 40 years of the franchise. George Lucas was back, and he was on stage presiding over the festivities as though he hadn't sold his company to Disney four years previously. 

Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford were there too, while John Williams conducted a moving rendition of 'Princess Leia's Theme' in tribute to Carrie Fisher, followed by other pieces from the original trilogy's soundtracks.

It was all great fun. But there was no sign of the announcement that some sources had suggested was imminent. There was no news about a release of the original, unaltered Star Wars, the way the world saw it in 1977.

Ironically, if Star Wars had been a flop, or a moderate success, we'd almost certainly have seen a definitive home video release by now. Much lesser movies are available in gorgeous HD transfers with copious extra features. But the enormous success of Star Wars gave Lucas the power to tinker with his work, without giving us a copy of the original. 

Why does George Lucas keep altering his movies?

George Lucas restored minor cuts to THX 1138

George Lucas was never entirely happy with Star Wars. At the time of its original release, he said that his first film, THX 1138, had been 75 percent of what he wanted it to be, while American Graffiti had been 50 percent. Star Wars, he said, had achieved only 25 percent.

Both Lucas's earlier films had been cut by their studios, albeit not very much. Understandably, that rankled with the director. After the success of Star Wars, he took the opportunity to restore the cut scenes in late 1970s re-releases of both those movies.

There was always more than one version of Star Wars. Even in 1977, the soundtrack was slightly different depending on whether you saw it in 70mm, 35mm with Dolby stereo or in 35mm with mono sound. Some of the voices were mixed differently between those versions, while a couple of lines of dialogue differed as well. But those were refinements made as the mixing went on – quite different from altering the movie after the event.

By 1981, Lucas had added the subtitle Episode IV: A New Hope which appeared on all the home video and TV releases of the film. And then, in 1997, came the theatrical release of the Special Edition trilogy and the start of the serious tinkering – Greedo shooting first, CGI Jabba, and all the rest of it. Star Wars became fluid, with each new home entertainment release slightly different form the previous one.

That's Lucas's prerogative, I suppose. If he really spent 20 years fretting that Han Solo seemed too ruthless in the cantina scene, or nearly 40 years thinking that R2-D2 should have been hiding behind more rocks in the desert, then fine – go ahead and make some changes. He could put Jar Jar Binks in the movie for all I care – as long as he left the original, unaltered Star Wars for us to experience, the way it looked and sounded on May 25, 1977. 

Why Star Wars should be preserved (and why the film critics should back the fans)

The imperfect, original 1977 arrival at Mos Eisley in Star Wars

In the US, the National Film Preservation Board has the job of choosing up to 25 films a year which should be preserved because they are "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

It's natural that, in 1989, Star Wars was picked. After all, its harshest critics couldn't deny that it's culturally significant.

And yet, the film was not preserved.

As the excellent website Saving Star Wars explains, Lucasfilm stonewalled about handing a print of the film to the Library of Congress's National Film Registry – and then offered a copy of the 1997 Special Edition. That offer was declined, because the registry is there to preserve the original versions of movies.

The Library of Congress does have 35mm prints of the original Star Wars trilogy which were deposited for copyright purposes, but the public can't see them.

This has upset a lot of die hard fans, but there should have been more of an outcry in the wider film-loving world than there has been. Star Wars had as much impact on the world as any movie ever has, yet we might never see a good quality release of it, in its original form.

I believe that every film should remain available in the form that audiences first saw it. Whether we're talking about Metropolis or Blade Runner, we should always have that original theatrical version preserved.

Even if someone discovered Orson Welles' original edit of The Magnificent Ambersons, as it was before the studio butchered it (and that, sadly, is almost certain not to happen), I'd want the released version kept for the sake of posterity.

I can't help thinking that "serious" film critics would be angrier about this if the film in question was anything but Star Wars. But many blame Star Wars for every dim-witted blockbuster that came after it, and so they don't much care which versions of it survive.

The critic Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote:

“If every existing print of Star Wars were burned to a crisp, just like Luke’s aunt and uncle, I doubt that the world would be a much better place, because the changes it has helped to usher in are already part of the modern world. But I don’t think I’d shed any tears.” 

With attitudes like this, it's not surprising that many cineastes aren't backing the fan demands for a Star Wars restoration. 

The 2006 Original Trilogy DVDs. Not quite what we wanted.

The 2006 Star Wars DVD, with the
1977 cut as a bonus feature

The nearest thing to a proper release of the original, unaltered Star Wars came in 2006. Finally, Lucasfilm capitulated to fan pressure to release the original cuts of Star Wars and the rest of the original trilogy. Well, sort of.

In fact, what we got was a pretty substandard transfer of the films as bonus features with the Special Editions. We were essentially given the laserdisc releases on DVD, except that the original title crawl for Star Wars (without the Episode IV: A New Hope) was spliced back in, using what was said to be the best available source.

It was a victory of sorts. The absence of the Episode IV subtitle meant we were seeing Star Wars as no one had ever seen it on home video before. But the discs were letterboxed, rather than modern, anamorphic widescreen. That meant, essentially, that the discs didn't use anything like the available pixels on your TV set. You had to zoom in to make the film fill the full width of the screen 
 which meant Greedo's subtitles disappeared off the bottom of the screen.

It was still an exciting moment – and I thought that, when upscaled by a decent DVD player, the quality was just about watchable. But the film deserved so much more.

As it stands, the only way of getting a Blu-ray quality copy of the film is to download one of the fan restorations – most notably Harmy's De-Specialized Editions. You can find instructions online. But all that dedicated work by fans shouldn't have been necessary. 

Will Disney release the original Star Wars?

Han shooting first, in the 1977 version of Star Wars

Now that Disney owns Lucasfilm, will we ever see the original film released on Blu-ray?

Hopes were raised when it was reported that Rogue One director Gareth Edwards had seen a 4K transfer made of Star Wars. But it looks as though that was the special edition.

But Disney's rights in this matter are unclear. Star Wars may have the same Lucasfilm credit at the beginning as its sequels and prequels, but 20th Century-Fox paid the whole $10 million dollars or so to make it, as well as distributing it. It remains a Fox film, which is why it still carried the Fox fanfare and logo in the recent digital release, even when its sequels didn't.

There's been a lot of speculation about whether Disney is allowed to release unaltered versions of any of the original trilogy, even if it wants to.

Did George Lucas insist, when he sold the movie to Disney, that the original cuts of the films shouldn't see the light of day? 
None of us know – and while it sounds consistent with some of his previous judgements, this is all just speculation. 

Would it even be possible to release the unaltered Star Wars? Wasn't the negative permanently changed when the Special Edition was made? 
The publicity around the Special Editions suggested the original negative of Star Wars had deteriorated badly between 1977 and 1996, to the extent that re-releasing the film was getting close to impossible. But Lucas had hoarded an awful lot of useful material, including the original elements of the visual effects shots, so the Special Edition could put together. 

It sounds as though the Special Edition is indeed the only version that survives as a negative. But all Lucas's hoarded material surely still exists. And of course, prints of the 1977 film still exist, although people are reluctant to admit to owning one, because Fox has a habit of seizing and destroying them. Film restoration experts have worked with a lot less -- so I think it's fair to conclude that there's nothing technically standing in the way.

Does the recent deal for Disney to acquire 20th Century Fox improve our chances of seeing the original trilogy? The
 deal to sell a large part of Rupert Murdoch's entertainment empire to Disney certainly means, if approved by regulators, that all the films would be firmly in Disney's ownership. 

The route to a complete Blu-ray boxed set (complete with Fox logo and searchlights) would be clearer. It surely can't hurt the chances of us getting the release we always wanted. 

What should be on a Star Wars Blu-ray?

Luke's friends in a deleted scene from Star Wars

Imagine a Christmas when you unwrapped the perfect Star Wars gift: the original, unaltered film on Blu-ray. 

What, exactly, would be on it?

I reckon it would have to include these things:

  • The original, 1977 film with the soundtrack heard on the 70mm Dolby Stereo prints. 
  • The 1977 film with the 35mm Dolby Stereo soundtrack.
  • The film again with the 35mm mono soundtrack. 
  • The original film with modern 5.1 channel sound, for those who want the original picture with 21st century polish. 
  • The film with the Episode IV subtitle it acquired in 1981 
  • The 1997 Special Edition. For posterity's sake, it should be there. Especially since it was itself replaced by subsequent tinkering. 
  • The 2004 DVD release, with its various changes from the 1977 cut. 
  • The 2011 Blu-ray release, with its latest revisions. 
  • The deleted scenes as bonus features. Biggs, Jabba (as played by Declan Mulholland) and all the rest.
  • The original Making of Star Wars documentary, theatrical trailers and so on. 

Is it too much to ask? Much lesser films have been given that kind of treatment.

It's about time for Disney to do the right thing by film history and give us the Star Wars release that first generation fans really want.

In fact, why not be generous and throw in the Star Wars Holiday Special too?


Harrod said...

Excellent research. Since you mention the Holiday Special, I've never seen an article about who owns the right to release it. Disney bought Lucasfilm, but Lucasfilm does not appear in the credits ("A Smith-Hemion Production in association with 20th Century-Fox Television"). Disney might have the power to block a release based on ownership of the characters that appear in the movies, but I'm not a lawyer.

Another possibility: In America, it's possible to lose a copyright by not enforcing it, so it may be that the special has simply been abandoned to the public domain, in which case no release can ever have an iron-clad official status.

Darren Slade said...

Great comment, Harrod. Thank you for posting.

Very good point about the Holiday Special. My understanding was that Lucasfilm owned it, which was why it was able to suppress it for so long -- but who knows? It would be ironic if it entered the public domain and EVERYONE could release it!

Phillip said...

You are right as rain. I love uncle George, unlike many of the toxic fandom, but on this issue I think he's just being pointlessly intractable.

John White said...

I'd like an option to also be able to view the film with the deleted scenes put back in. But maybe I'm just being unreasonable. Garrick Hagon himself told me that he'd love that too (of course he he would!).

There were sound creative reasons for removing the Treadwell and Anchorhead scenes after all. The first half of the film is slow by today's standards and would be slower still.

Darren Slade said...

Phillip: Thanks very much for commenting. Like you, I don't go along with a lot of the hostility to Lucas, but refusing to let the world see the movies in their original versions really is an outrage against film history.

John: Yes, it would be fascinating to see the film that way. I suspect it would just confirm that Lucas was right to drop those scenes, though, because as you said, they would have slowed down the film badly. On the other hand, the Biggs subplot worked very well in the novelisation and the radio series, which could allow more time for it.

John White said...

Yep, I think there simply MUST be a Biggs movie. About how he jumped ship from the Rand Ecliptic and joined the Rebellion.

Garrick could play his dad—or mentor perhaps!

All I ask is that—like Rogue One—it slavishly follows the look and style of the original 'Star Wars'. 'Tis but a small favour. I like 1970s Star Wars, moustaches, sideburns and all.

You know: proper Star Wars.

Darren Slade said...

I think that's a brilliant idea, John.
If Disney/Lucasfilm won't make it, an enterprising fan should.
Even though I think Lucas was right to drop the Biggs scenes from the film, they work really well in all the other versions of the story -- i.e. the Marvel comic, the novel and the radio.

Rook King said...

It is ridiculous that George Lucas ever altered Star Wars after its release, and he is ridiculous and selfish as Hell for not at least making the original version available. What is that guy's problem? What a sellout and a major jerk.