November 12, 2019 – For cinephiles and hardcore Star Wars fans, the search for the original, unaltered theatrical releases of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, are their holy grail.
But George Lucas has put up a huge roadblock. In an interview with American Cinematographer magazine (Feb. 1997), he said:
There will only be one. 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.’… What ends up being important in my mind is what the DVD version is going to look like, because that’s what everybody is going to remember. The other versions will disappear. Even the 35 million tapes of Star Wars out there won’t last more than 30 or 40 years. A hundred years from now, the only version of the movie that anyone will remember will be the DVD version [of the Special Edition].”
Despite George Lucas’s attempt to bury the original theatrical release in some hidden, mythical vault, some passionate fans have been working hard to re-create, clean up and release versions of the original releases.
Harmy’s Despecialized Edition
Work on a series of fan restorations of the Original Trilogy, called “Harmy’s Despecialized Edition”, began in 2010. The restorations were intended to reproduce the appearance of the three films as originally shown in cinemas. The edits were created by a team of Star Wars fans led by Petr “Harmy” Harmáček, an English teacher from the Czech Republic. The first version was released in 2011, with updated versions being released in following years.
As a fan edit, Harmy’s Despecialized Edition cannot be legally bought or sold. However, versions can be found on various file-sharing sites, such as BitTorrent. You can also view them at https://archive.org/details/starwarsivdespecialized.
Another fan-led restoration team has created Project 4K77 (for the original 1977 release) and 4K83 (for 1983’s Return of the Jedi), and is now working on 4K80 (for 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back). You can follow their progress and read their FAQ’s at thestarwarstrilogy.com
Controversy Over the 2006 Bonus DVD (George’s Original, Unaltered Trilogy)
So why all the hard work by Project 4K77 and by Team Harmy, with no legal way to make a profit? Some consider their work a labor of love as well as a response to Lucasfilm’s refusal to release what fans have been begging for, for decades.
But didn’t Lucasfilm release the original theatrical version of the Original Trilogy in its 2006 bonus DVD 3-pack set? Well, yes, sort of. But once fans saw how grainy and poor the release was, more than a few upset fans questioned Lucasfilm’s motives: Why did the company lazily copy the 1993 Laserdisc version onto the 2006 DVD format without using anamorphic enhancements or other 2006-era technology? There are ample 35mm source materials available to do a proper high-def transfer, some argued. (You can read all the gory details here at SaveStarWars.com)
But the more you dig, the more you realize that over the decades, no one version will appeal to ALL Star Wars connoisseurs. Some will be perfectly content with George Lucas’s Specialized Edition (1997). Others will cherish the first VHS releases (early to mid-1980’s), or the 1993 Laserdisc, or the 2011 Blu-ray version (impressively sharp details, but oh, it is overly saturated in magenta!) and many more.
But Is There Really A Difference? Why Does It Matter?
The YouTube video below shows a side-by-side comparison of four versions of the opening scene of Star Wars. Compare the 2006 Bonus DVD GOUT (George’s Original Unaltered Trilogy) versus the 2011 Blu-ray versus a Silver Screen edition (version 1.6) versus the 4K77 project:
The four versions have their strengths and weaknesses. None is perfect.
A good analysis is provided by Michael French on his YouTube channel, RetroBlasting. His video is enlightening and well worth the 25-minute view time – particularly where he clears up confusion over 4K resolution versus HD-quality film. He also discusses old lens technology and film stock, among other variables, which affect film quality. (Sample: “Anything that’s shot on 35mm film, going all the way back to the Silent Era … has an inherent equivalent of 4K resolution in it.”)