Friday, 29 June 2018

Plain old Star Wars: Why this blog doesn't tend to say A New Hope

Around here, we don't tend to use the phrase A New Hope.

I suspect that may have cost me a bit of Google traffic, but there's a reason for it.

This is a blog devoted to Star Wars as it was released, enjoyed and debated in the 1970s. Back then, people thought that if there were more Star Wars films, they would be straightforward sequels. There was no suggestion that Luke Skywalker's first adventure was the middle of a multi-chapter story. Hence the title of this blog: Episode Nothing.

Why Star Wars was such a great title

A storyboard by Alex Tavoularis, from when Star Wars was still The Star Wars

Before we go on, let's pause a minute to reflect on the brilliance of that title: Star Wars. The symmetry of those two four-letter words might have owed something to Star Trek, but it's surely the one of the most perfectly evocative film titles ever. (I think The Driller Killer runs it a close second.)

United Artists had registered the title The Star Wars back in 1971, back when it was interested in producing American Graffiti and retaining an option on anything else George Lucas had to offer. (It ended up passing on both films.)

The title still began with The while it was being shot. But at some point before the logo was commissioned, it became plain Star Wars.

What it didn't become, for quite some time, was Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.

When did Star Wars first become Episode IV?

Star Wars, in the days when the crawl had no Episode IV

Back in 1977, Star Wars was just plain Star Wars, and everyone assumed that any sequel would be Star Wars 2.

It was in the first issue of The Empire Strikes Back Weekly, from the UK division of Marvel Comics, that I learned the plan had changed. A feature about the new film told us that its full title was Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, and that in future the 1977 film would be known as Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.

Now, that was a piece of knowledge to show off to your friends. And when we finally saw The Empire Strikes Back, Marvel was proved right. It really was called Episode V, which must have been highly confusing for any cinema-goers who had not been doing their homework.

The next year, Lucasfilm made good on its promise to re-title the original film. When it went on re-release, on April 10, 1981, the opening crawl had been amended to accommodate subtitle Episode IV: A New Hope.

That was the version that was released to home video and laserdisc, and of course it would persist in the Special Editions and its various home video release.

With the original version of the title crawl unavailable on home video, some younger fans came to believe the Episode IV had always been there. Then, in 2004, we first generation fans could point to proof that we hadn't been imagining it. The documentary Empire of Dreams, which was included as a bonus feature on the DVD set, included a clip from that original crawl.

In 2006, the original cut of the movie was finally issued as a bonus feature on a new DVD of the film, and the argument was settled for good.

Was Star Wars going to be called Episode IV originally?

More of the Star Wars opening crawl

Some said Lucas had wanted to call the 1977 film Episode IV all along, but that Twentieth Century-Fox scotched the idea.

In fact, Alan Frank's 1982 volume The Science Fiction and Fantasy Film Handbook had producer Gary Kurtz saying just that. Unfortunately, Frank doesn't cite his source, but he has Kurtz saying the film "was supposed to have been titled Star Wars: Episode Four, A New Hope. We got cold feet at the last minute, and took that out. Fox was worried, and to be perfectly honest, we were worried too. People wouldn't understand what all that meant."

But Kurtz's version of events contradicts something that George Lucas said to Starlog magazine as far back as late 1978. (I'm grateful to this article at Movie Legends for the quote.)

"We were going to call it Star Wars: Episode II 
– The Empire Strikes Back, but we ran into some problems. You see, although this story is a direct sequel to the first movie, we have three more stories that we eventually want to film that actually occur before the point where the first Star Wars begins. So we’ve been toying with the idea of ignoring the numbers completely. Instead, we’ll give each movie episode a unique title. I mean, if we had to give each film its true number in the series, this movie would be called Episode V: The Empire Strikes BackThe first film would be called Episode IV! Can you imagine how complicated it would get?"

Well, these days, we don't have to imagine.

Like so much about the development of Star Wars, the situation is confusing. But we have to remind ourselves that Lucas's plans for the sequels did tend to keep changing. At various times, he suggested the final number of Star Wars films would be: indeterminate, nine, twelve, six and nine again.

I think we have to assume that Kurtz, who must have been speaking at around the time The Empire Strikes Back came out, must have been reflecting what Lucasfilm was touting as the official line at the time. The evidence suggests there was no serious plan to put an episode number on the original film until Empire was being made.

It was still called Star Wars

Even the Star Wars Special Edition posters didn't use the Episode IV subtitle

Even after the Episode IV title was added, most people didn't use it.

That 1981 reissue still said Star Wars on the posters. The 1982 UK double bill was of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, not Episodes IV and V. The TV transmission in the UK that autumn was billed as just Star Wars.

In fact, even the Special Edition, released in 1997, didn't make much of the subtitle. Most artwork called it Star Wars, or Star Wars with A New Hope in much smaller letters.

In everyday conversation, people still called it Star Wars, but as the franchise grew in the 1990s and beyond, fans took to using that A New Hope title. And when the prequels arrived, the roman numerals were finally made prominent on the artwork for releases of the original trilogy.

And what about the public today? The wider public, who are not Star Wars fans. It's hard to fathom the mind of a non-fan, of course, but I suspect many of them have come to see Star Wars as a title that describes a myriad of stories, like Star Trek.

That's understandable, and of course it aids clarity to use the phrase Star Wars to refer to the whole saga, while A New Hope describes the 1977 film.

But on this blog, I stick to the title Star Wars for two reasons.
Firstly, for historical accuracy, I believe a film should be referred to by the title it originally carried, in its home country. And that means Star Wars (1977).

But secondly, I like to remember the film that surprised the world on May 25, 1977 and over the months that followed. It was fresh and exciting and charming, and while people assumed there would be a sequel, nobody knew what path that would follow. And the most enjoyable experience to ever hit cinemas was called simply Star Wars.


Unknown said...

I agree...simply 'Star Wars' is all that is needed to remind me of that amazing movie that came out in '77.

Darren Slade said...

Thanks Rebecca. I appreciate the comment.

Rory Cobb said...
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