It's been a long time since I stood in line to see the very first Star Wars, among the first blockbusters and a movie so good and iconic that it's launched a 45-year multi-channel franchise that has changed lives, if not the course of history.
Back then, before we understood how the simple tale of good versus evil would worm its way into our cultural fabric unlike any film 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 through word of mouth, magazine covers, and one terrible Christmas special.
The effects were, for their time, shockingly good. As a teenager, I thought it was a perfect film, without peer. But the version I saw back then is lost to time and the auteur himself, Director George Lucas, who repeatedly altered the original Star Wars and then the subsequent sequels for decades after. Even in the hands of Disney, which bought the franchise in 2015, Star Wars: A New Hope, Episode IV, has seen multiple alterations and adjustments (even the name is different).
There is little guarantee, even now, that Star Wars (pick any movie in the series) will be the same today as it is tomorrow. Disney is not only cleaning up the quality but it is removing practical effect artifacts, like the wire that appears on Obi-Won's hand during his iconic battle with Darth Vader. It's safe to assume that Disney might continue tweaking the entire series.
Lost to a galaxy far-far away
My point is, as we celebrate all things Star Wars on May the 4th, 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 aired, streamed, or been released in the original form in at least 25 years and there's almost no way to see the same movie I saw as a 13-year-old.
Almost no way.
First, there's the way I did it five years ago, when I traveled to 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 wasn't capturing any of the footage of the original, untouched, theatrical version of Star Wars: A New Hope on my iPhone.
I recall that it looked a mess, but at least there were no new late 1990s special effects and Han Solo definitely shoots first.
For those unwilling to make the capital trip, there is at least one other way to see something approximating the original – but it may cost you a bit.
Finding the Force
My oldest Star Wars Trilogy set is a trio of 1997 VHS tapes. They look spiffy but are all the wide-screen Special Edition films. I'm glad I have that set, but it's not my prize Star Wars possession.
In 2008, 20th Century Fox released the trilogy as a digitally remastered set of DVDs. In the slim box are the special editions Lucas re-released into theaters in the late 1990s, which means they're full of bad CGI and Han Solo shooting after Greedo shouts “Maclunky” and shoots at Solo.
The 2008 Star Wars Trilogy DVD set.
However, the set comprises six DVDs, and while the first set is all those special editions, the second set is all the original theatrical Star Wars releases from 1977, 1980, and 1983.
Understand that these movies are not full-screen and watching them on, say, a 65-inch 4K TV is only a slightly better experience than I had in the Library of Congress. Still, it's watchable and welcome because this is how I remember them when I saw each of the originals Star Wars, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, and Star Wars: Revenge…er…Return of the Jedi in theaters. Untouched, unchangeable, and perfect, to me.
It's not easy to get this set anymore. No one is putting out new media for the theatrical releases. Disney has shown little interest in streaming the untouched originals, even though they reportedly have the right to do so (unless Lucas has a secret and unbreakable promise from Disney to never show those originals to anyone, at least as long as he's still alive).
If you want these discs – no, you can't have mine – you need to look on Amazon or eBay, where you may find them for almost $200.
At this point, you might be measuring your commitment to all things Star Wars. How important is that original purity, really? Heck, your kids, grandkids, or the average Millenial or Gen Z-er think the sequels are the best Star Wars, anyway, or at least they did until the final trilogy. I'll admit the last three started off well but ended in a confusing mess. At least Return of the Jedi made some sense and remained true to the heroes Lucas introduced in Episode IV.
In any case, the Star Wars I remember is gone and I will hold onto these DVDs until the day I die.