It’s been a long time since I’ve stood in line to see the very first Star Wars, among the first blockbusters and a movie so good and iconic it launched a 45-year-old multi-channel franchise that changed lives, if not the course of history.
Back then, before we understood how the simple tale of good versus evil would weave its way into our cultural fabric unlike any movie before (or maybe since), it was just a movie we all had to see. Without social media or 500 channels to promote it, Star Wars lived on word of mouth, magazine covers, and a terrible Christmas special.
The effects were, for their time, surprisingly good. As a teenager, I thought it was a perfect film, without equal. But the version I saw at the time is lost in time and the author himself, director George Lucas, who repeatedly edited the original Star Wars and then later sequels for decades . Even in the hands of Disney, which bought the franchise back in 2015, Star Wars: A New Hope Episode IV has gone through multiple tweaks and tweaks (even the name is different).
There are few guarantees, even now, that Star Wars (pick any movie in the series) will be the same today as tomorrow. Disney isn’t just cleaning up quality, it’s also removing practical effect artifacts, like the thread that appears on Obi-Won’s hand during his iconic battle with Darth Vader. It’s safe to assume that Disney could continue to polish the entire series.
Lost in a galaxy far far away
My point is, as we celebrate all things Star Wars on May 4, it’s worth remembering that we’re celebrating a ghost. The original Star Wars (in fact the entire original trilogy) as it was in 1977 exists only in our memories. It hasn’t been aired, streamed or released in its original form for at least 25 years and there’s almost no way to see the same movie I saw when I was 13.
Almost no way.
First, there’s the way I did five years ago, when I walked into the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and made an appointment to sit in a small windowless room watching a series of video files on a computer screen. All the while, a grumpy librarian kept a watchful eye on me, making sure I didn’t capture any footage from the original, untouched theatrical version of Star Wars: A New Hope on my iPhone.
I remember it looked like a mess, but at least there were no new special effects from the late 1990s and Han Solo definitely shoots first.
For those who don’t want to make the trip to the capital, there is at least one other way to see something close to the original – but it may cost you quite a bit.
find the strength
My oldest Star Wars Trilogy set is a trio of VHS tapes from 1997. They look amazing, but they’re all big screen special edition movies. I’m glad I got this set, but it’s not my Star Wars award.
In 2008, 20th Century Fox released the trilogy as a digitally remastered DVD set. Inside the slim box are the Special Editions that Lucas re-released in theaters in the late 1990s, which means they’re full of bad CGI and Han Solo footage. after Greedo shouts “Maclunky” and shoots Solo.
The 2008 Star Wars Trilogy DVD set.
However, the set includes six DVDs, and while the first set is all of those special editions, the second set is all of the original Star Wars theatrical releases from 1977, 1980, and 1983.
Understand that these movies aren’t full screen, and watching them on, say, a 65-inch 4K TV is only a marginally better experience than what I had at the Library of Congress. Still, it’s watchable and welcome because that’s how I remember them when I saw each of the Star Wars Originals, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back and Star Wars: Revenge… uh … Return of the Jedi in theaters. Untouched, immutable and perfect, for me.
It’s not easy to get this set anymore. No one is releasing new media for theatrical releases. Disney showed little interest in releasing the originals untouched, even though they would have every right to do so (unless Lucas had a secret, unbreakable promise from Disney never to show those originals to anyone, at least while he is still alive).
If you want these discs – no, you can’t get mine – you have to look on Amazon or eBay, where you can find them for almost $200.
At this point, you may be measuring your commitment to all things Star Wars. How important is this original purity, really? Heck, your kids, grandkids or the average millennial or Gen Z thinks the sequels are the best Star Wars anyway, or at least until the final trilogy. I admit the last three started well but ended in a confusing mess. At least Return of the Jedi made sense and stayed true to the heroes Lucas introduced in Episode IV.
Anyway, the star wars I remember are gone and I will keep those DVDs until the day I die.