August 17, 2014 – It was a nice rumor making the rounds over the past week, but it doesn’t ring true: The rumor mill had proclaimed that Disney was about to release the original, unaltered versions of Star Wars (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and Return of the Jedi (1983) on Blu-ray, and that a boxed set would be distributed in stores in a lead-up to the release of Star Wars Episode VII (18 Dec. 2015).
To salivating fans worldwide, this long-awaited gift makes perfect sense because Disney would make lots of money, fans would be sated, and an unedited Original Trilogy release would be a perfect promotion for Episode VII.
But here are the stark realities, which undermine the rumor: (1) Disney does not yet own the distribution rights to the movies; (2) Fox owns the first Star Wars movie (A New Hope) in perpetuity, and there is no incentive for Fox to relinquish the rights; (3) Disney will not acquire rights to Empire or to Jedi until 2020; (4) George Lucas made clear many years ago that his re-released, edited versions are now official canon. Presumably, so long as he is alive, this hurdle will remain.
WHAT GEORGE LUCAS SAID:
“There will only be one [version of the films]. And it won’t be what I would call the ‘rough cut’, it’ll be the ‘final cut’. The other one will be some sort of interesting artifact that people will look at and say, ‘There was an earlier draft of this.’ The same thing happens with plays and earlier drafts of books. In essence, films never get finished, they get abandoned. At some point, you’re dragged off the picture kicking and screaming while somebody says, ‘Okay, it’s done.’ …The other versions will disappear. Even the 35 million tapes of Star Wars out there won’t last more than 30 or 40 years…I think it’s the director’s prerogative, not the studio’s, to go back and reinvent a movie.”
EDITS AND TINKERING BEGAN IN THE 1980s:
Alterations began as early as 1981. For example, in the opening scene of Star Wars, the 1977 narrative (“It is a period of civil war….”) begins to crawl upward before the Star Wars logo dissolves. But in the 1981 re-release version, the logo dissolves before the opening crawl.
The subtitle “Episode IV: A NEW HOPE” was also added in the 1981 re-release, along with other edits which are described here.
THE NEXT BEST THING: It is very difficult to find the unaltered trilogy. In addition to the 1993 laserdisc release, there were the VHS tape versions (hated rewinding these ancient relics!); the “Special Edition” DVD release (1997); the 2004 DVDs (silver or gold cardboard slipbox containing 4 DVD’s, including the “Star Wars Trilogy Bonus Material” DVD); the 2006 Limited Edition Release (comes in a collector’s tin-case box, pictured at left, which holds 3 standard DVD plastic jackets, each of which contains 2 DVDs – Lucasfilms’ revised versions and the supposedly “unaltered” versions); and, finally, the 2011 Blu-ray release.
I don’t know if Disney/Lucasfilm will EVER release the unaltered originals. While many of the remastered shots and improved audio tracks have improved the viewing experience over the years, excessive editing has altered key details of the theatrical releases and tampered with our memories. For me, the NEXT BEST THING is the 2006 Limited Edition DVD’s (somewhat hard to find). Within the collector’s tin-box case, you will find the remastered/altered DVD’s for Episodes IV, V and VI – and each episode has a separate bonus DVD, which ostensibly plays the unaltered original versions.
But here’s a small caveat: The “original” bonus versions in the 2006 release are actually transfers from the 1993 Definitive Collection laserdiscs (with the only change being a spliced-back insertion of the original 1977 crawl, and therefore no subtitle of “A New Hope”). For now, this may be as close to the originals as you will find.