Star Wars - Original Trilogy (partially lost high quality scans of original theatrical prints of sci-fi films; 1977-1983)
Star Wars is one of the most well-known science fiction franchise to dates, spawning eight (soon to be nine) films, several spin-off movies, shows, video games, novels, merchandise, etc. Beginning with the release of the eponymous film in 1977, the series made a name for director/producer George Lucas and gave Hollywood an increased emphasis on brilliant special effects in films. However, the series is also quite infamous for the extensive alterations made to the films by Lucas himself, which have caused the original prints of the films to fall into obscurity. In particular, Lucas's constant modifications to Episodes IV, V, and VI have caused their original, unaltered theatrical prints to fade from the public eye.
In 1997, 20th Century Fox commemorated the 20th anniversary of Star Wars, by screening a "Special Edition" of the original 1977 film. Going under its 1981 re-titling of Episode IV: A New Hope, the film was extensively modified to fit George Lucas's original intentions, which he claimed were absent from the 1977 print, due to the technological limitations that were present at the time. Dissatisfied with the original film's quality, Lucas digitally restored the original negatives and added a variety of changes, adding in computer-generated characters & effects, modifying the audio to stereo sound, and reorganizing the film's soundtrack and sound effects. All of these alterations came under considerable backlash from fans, who felt that the changes were both gratuitous and detracting from the film's quality. Likewise, the fanbase responded similarly to a number of other changes made to the Special Edition releases of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, whose modifications were also performed to satisfy Lucas's original intentions. Fans particularly took aim at the modification of Greedo's death in A New Hope, where the Special Edition changes Han's killing shot to be more clearly out of self-defense by making Greedo shoot first and miss, despite firing at point-blank range. This gave rise to the phrase "Han Shot First," the most prominent aspect of the Star Wars fan tradition of mocking George Lucas for his extensive re-editing. A New Hope has received the most alterations out of any of the films and has become the biggest focal point when discussing George Lucas's continued modifications.
Lucas would go on to continue re-editing the trilogy, in later releases, fixing some of the more glaring modifications (such as making Han dodge Greedo's aforementioned shot and having both characters fire near-simultaneously, making the scene more acceptable to fans) and adding in new ones, to better tie in with the prequel trilogy (which received their own sets of minor modifications in re-releases). Lucas has claimed that the original prints of episodes IV through VI were only 25 to 30% of what he had intended and that whatever modified re-release is the most recent is the canonical version of the trilogy.
The last time the first theatrical prints of the films ever saw public release was as bonus disks of a limited-edition DVD release in 2006. Even then, the DVDs used scans from the trilogy's Laserdisc release masters, rather than the original film negatives, resulting in blurry visuals, faded colors, and video smearing (and additionally, they use an audio cut that is slightly different from the theatrical, including glass shattering when the security cameras are shot). This release is commonly known by fans as the "GOUT" (George's Original Unaltered Theatrical version) release of the film. When asked about the matter, George Lucas claimed that the original negatives had deteriorated beyond usability. Even more, when Star Wars was selected for admission into the National Film Registry, Lucas attempted to hand in the 1997 Special Edition rather than the 1977 original print, a defiance of NFR regulations that led to the film's rejection (a film can only be admitted into the NFR if a copy of the earliest surviving print is provided). However, it is rumoured that both the NFR and the U.S. Library of Congress now possess high-quality prints of the original trilogy's unaltered negatives.
To this day, no home release of the original trilogy's original prints has ever occurred, and it's unknown whether or not Disney (the current owners of the Star Wars franchise) has any plans to re-release the unaltered trilogy. However, A New Hope is permanently owned by Fox. A group of fans has been able to modify the 2011 Blu-Ray releases into a "Despecialized Edition" that compiles footage from a variety of sources to create an unofficial cut of the trilogy that tries to match the original cuts as close as possible in high-definition; the Despecialized Edition is only available through torrenting. There are also some film prints that have been scanned as well, such as Team Negative One's scan (which can also additionally be downloaded through torrenting), and others are known to exist in private archives and libraries. Although the 2006 DVDs exist as well, they are fairly difficult to find cheap; a cheaper alternative for those who aren't willing to shell out the cash can also hunt down a pre-1997 release VHS copy. However, these are usually in pan-and-scan and the less commonly found letterboxed versions suffer a significant quality loss, due to a combination of squeezing so much picture into a low resolution and typical analog tape degradation from repeated playing and/or poor storage methods.
Despite George Lucas' claims, evidence that high-quality prints of the theatrical cuts still exist surfaced in 2019, with the release of CNN's documentary series The Movies, which focuses on the history of American cinema. In the episode devoted to the 1970's, the segment discussing the original Star Wars features high-quality footage from the theatrical cut, including the original versions of Han and Greedo's encounter and the Death Star's destruction. The fact that this footage both exists and was accessible to the producers indicates that there does indeed exist a high-quality unaltered print of at least the original Star Wars.
- Wikipedia page detailing the modifications Retrieved 20 Oct '15
- Videos cataloguing the alterations to the original trilogy:
- Video from the team of the Star Wars Despecialized Edition, detailing the nature & extent of the project and the sources for its footage Retrieved 20 Oct '15
- Article discussing Lucasfilm's inability to release Star Wars from Fox. Retrieved 20 Oct '15