On the Cultural Legacy of Star Wars
On October 30, 2012, Disney announced that it had acquired Lucasfilm for more than four billion dollars.1 It was a landmark moment in film history: Lucas, who had long defended his sole control of the lucrative Star Wars franchise, had seemingly given up, and Disney had just made one of the most valuable acquisitions in film history. For many, it was a moment of hesitation and doubt; memories of the infamous Star Wars prequel trilogy were still fresh enough to attract vitriol at the thought of new movies. But with the end of Lucas’s control over Star Wars, some dared to hope that the films that they thought they had lost would return to them.
Jurassic Park was released in 1993. Directed by Lucas’s friend Steven Spielberg, Park was another revolutionary moment in film history; you can trace the modern reliance on CGI to the technique’s effective use in Spielberg’s film. George Lucas would, after seeing a rough cut of the film, go on record stating that he was extremely impressed with the CGI in the film. 2 A few years later, the world would come to see what Lucas saw in the new technology. In 1997, on the twentieth anniversary of the original films, Lucasfilm released the Star Wars Special Editions. Lucas had, metaphorically speaking, taken a crayon to the negatives and scribbled all over them. Bad ’90s CGI was forced into the film, in an attempt to create some sort of continuity with the upcoming prequels. Plot points were altered, and characters were changed. It didn’t help the situation that George Lucas had gone on record stating he had no interest in rereleasing the theatrical cuts. It also didn’t help that this was the largest release of the Star Wars films on the home video market. George Lucas had effectively erased the existence of the theatrical cut from the collective consciousness. This is how the films were meant to be, Lucas would claim, and furthermore, Star Wars, as his vision, was his to change.
Perhaps Lucas could have withstood the anger of the fans, if only he had managed to pull off a successful prequel trilogy. Unfortunately for George, the films turned out to be disastrous, both for his career, and for the hopes of untold numbers of fans who wanted to see Star Wars in the theater again. They are bad. The writing is awful, the performances are uninspired (except for maybe Ian McDiarmid, who is clearly having fun reprising his role from Return of the Jedi), and the special effects work does not hold up at all today. Worse, they seemed to be a massively calculated cash grab, targeting children in the same fashion as fast food or breakfast cereal, while containing characters who can only be described as horribly stereotypical representations of minorities (I can think of a greedy slave-owning alien who is clearly supposed to be Jewish, a heavily accented alien who is clearly supposed to be Chinese, and an oblivious and annoying alien who speaks in an offensive mockery of Jamaican Patois). It was so bad, so thoughtless, that some wondered if George Lucas had tried to ruin his franchise.
On March 3, 1988, George Lucas appeared before the United States Congress for a hearing. He wasn’t there to be questioned or accused; rather, he was there to provide testimony against what Lucas had perceived to be a new threat to the industry. He was afraid of the new power of digital editing and computer graphics, especially in respect to the altering of classic films. Digital alterations, he feared, even of the smallest kind could erase thousands of hours of work put into a film. In his own words:
People who alter or destroy works of art and our cultural heritage for profit or as an exercise of power are barbarians, and if the laws of the United States continue to condone this behavior, history will surely classify us as a barbaric society . . . Creative expression is at the core of our humanness. Art is a distinctly human endeavor. We must have respect for it if we are to have any respect for the human race.3
That same year, the National Film Registry was established as a branch of the Library of Congress. Each year, the Registry, tasked with preserving the best of American cinema, grants twenty-five films a spot on the list, and in 1989, Star Wars found itself among such American classics as Some Like it Hot, The Searchers, On the Waterfront, The Wizard of Oz, and Modern Times as one the first films to be inducted.
When selected, filmmakers are required to submit a copy of their film as it was when it first published. This may seem arbitrary, but the Registry it isn’t simply a collection of the greatest American films. Consider this: It is estimated that seventy-five percent of all silent films have been permanently lost to history.4 Film preservation, as the National Film Registry practices it, is a fairly new concept. But when Star Wars was inducted, Lucas declined to provide the registry a print of the film, later insisting that the spot be filled with his Special Edition. Because neither party is willing to give up any ground, the request sits unfulfilled.5
Lucas’s reasoning for denying the request is simple, and absurd. Essentially, Lucas contends that Star Wars should have never existed, as it did, in 1977, and that he was forced to abandon the project. In an interview, quoted in a 1997 publication of American Cinematographer, Lucas put it this way:
There will only be one [version]. 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.’ That isn’t really the way it should work. 6
Because of the initial rights negotiations he went through with Fox to get the first picture made, Lucas had the unique opportunity to maintain control over Star Wars. In his eyes, it’s simple then: the film is a draft, to be revised and worked over, until he sees fit.
For an example of how to revise a film properly, look to Ridley Scott. For his 1982 masterpiece Blade Runner, there are no fewer than five widely available cuts. The latest one, released in 2007 (The Final Cut) is the definitive version of that film, including and enhancing all of the aspects that make that particular film great, while removing bits that were actively detracting from the film (such as the awful narration done by Harrison Ford at the request of the studio, who had little faith in the audience’s ability to pay attention). The key difference in Scott’s approach is the availability of the older cuts. To deny the past versions as valid works of art in their own right, as Lucas has done, is to take away the history of the entire project.
In 2011, Petr Harmáček, a dedicated Star Wars fan, released his own cut of the film. Widely known as Harmy’s Despecialized Edition, this version of the film attempted to faithfully recreate the theatrical cut, down to the smallest of details that, to the average viewer, would never even be visible. It’s a monumental task to undertake; Lucas had been meddling with Star Wars since the very beginning. The mono cut of the film, shown during the theatrical release in theaters without surround sound, had some quite substantial changes: dialogue was redubbed with alternate takes, sound effects were different, and the audio mixing was (understandably) changed. Between 1977 and 1997, there were numerous changes of this scope. These alterations are far from the soul-scarring CGI monstrosities that were clumsily carved into the film twenty years later, but in the quest for authenticity, Harmy found and removed them all.
Harmy’s Despecialized Edition is essentially a patchwork quilt, assembled through various VHS, DVD, Blu Ray, Laserdisc, and film transfer versions of Star Wars. According to a “making of” video Harmy released alongside the Despecialized edition, the version that was used as the groundwork for the restoration was the 2011 Blu Ray release of the film, which was essentially the 1997 cut, but with a few more changes. Obviously, this Blu Ray version was incredibly flawed, but because of the capabilities of Blu Ray, especially in terms of resolution, it was the best option for recreating the feel of film. Other sources include the 2006 DVD bonus disc, which included a version colloquially known as “GOUT,” or “George’s Original Unaltered Trilogy.” These again were bad transfers, but some work in postproduction was able to fix some of the problems endemic to this release.
The sheer dedication of fans like Harry and his anonymous online collaborators is truly impressive. To simply remove a bit of background CGI could often take weeks of effort. Color correction had to be applied to almost the entire film, and because of the various aspect ratios and resolutions of the different versions used to assemble the Harmy’s cut, individual frames were often spliced together to patch out Lucas’s alterations. The Despecialized Edition is a testament to the cultural power of Star Wars, and the dedication of the franchise’s fans. It is the ultimate representation of the fan-rebellion against George Lucas.
On September 15, 2004, the Associated Press released an interview with George Lucas, who had decided to make a rare public appearance to promote the final film in his prequel trilogy. This interview would become infamous, as Lucas was given a real opportunity to share his detailed thoughts on the original films. When asked why the Special Edition and the theatrical cut weren’t made available together, his answer was simple: “I’m not going to spend the . . . money and the time to refurbish [the theatrical cuts], because to me, [they] doesn’t really exist anymore.” He continued with this point, stating “I’m sorry you saw half a completed film and fell in love with it. But I want it to be the way I want it to be. I’m the one who has to take responsibility for it.”7
George Lucas may be the only true auteur in filmmaking. His alterations led directly to the erasure of many people’s names from the credits of the original Star Wars trilogy. Additionally, it was the success of the original trilogy that led Lucas to be granted free reign over the entire prequel trilogy. I think, actually, that the films of George Lucas quite succinctly disprove auteur theory, as the inconsistency of his filmmaking allows the craftsmanship of the various artists who have defined the look and feel of Star Wars to shine through.
I cannot remember the first time I watched the Star Wars trilogy. I was too young, but because they were so deeply a part of my childhood, I will always feel a connection to them, even if a little of the magic has faded over time. On one hand, I’m a bit confused as to why these films were lionized so greatly in the collective memory of pop culture, but then again, I have no frame of reference for the reportedly amazing experience of watching Star Wars for the first time in a packed theater buzzing with energy. I also think that because a certain part of those films intrinsically linked with my early childhood, I won’t ever be able to view them apart from what they were to me as a child.
I do remember getting a bit older, when I heard for the first time about Lucas’s meddling. I felt a bit cheated; I had been told all my life that the film was a landmark for special effects, only to find out that many of the scenes I had been so impressed with had been either recomposited or completely covered in CGI. It was my first real understanding of how filmmaking worked, and how effects were created. It was therefore a pretty important moment for me, as my fascination with film as a form of artistic expression really began there, despite my initial feelings of betrayal. Still, I cannot get away from the feeling that George Lucas took something away from all of us when he released the special editions.
Ultimately, the battle between George Lucas and fans like Harmy breaks down into a debate over artistic ownership. When a piece of art is released, who really owns it? Is it the public, who embraces that art and allows it to shape them, or is it the artist, who’s countless hours of hard work have brought about the work from nothing. When put this way, it is hard to argue that a film as massive and culturally important as Star Wars belongs to anybody but the general public.
- Matt Krantz, Mike Snider, Marco Della Cava and Bryan Alexander in “Disney buys Lucasfilm for $4 billion”, USA Today (October 30, 2012): https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/business/2012/10/30/disney-star-wars-lucasfilm/1669739/
- Alexander Huls in “The Jurassic Park Period: How CGI Dinosaurs Transformed Film Forever,” The Atlantic (April 4, 2014): https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/04/the-i-jurassic-park-i-period-how-cgi-dinosaurs-transformed-film-forever/274669/
- George Lucas, quoted by Germain Lussier in “George Lucas Speaks Out Against Altering Films in 1988”, /Film (August 31, 2011): http://www.slashfilm.com/george-lucas-speaks-altering-films-1988/
- Paul Harris, “Library of Congress: 75% of Silent Films Lost,” Variety (December 4, 2011): http://variety.com/2013/film/news/library-of-congress-only-14-of-u-s-silent-films-survive-1200915020/
- Rose Eveleth, “The Star Wars George Lucas Doesn’t Want You To See,” The Atlantic, (August 27, 2014): https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/08/the-star-wars-george-lucas-doesnt-want-you-to-see/379184/
- “Digital and analog special effects collide in the retooled version of STAR WARS” American Cinematographer: http://www.theasc.com/magazine/starwars/articles/sped/uni/pg4.htm.
- AP, “Lucas talks as ‘Star Wars’ trilogy returns,” Today (Sep. 15, 2004): http://www.today.com/popculture/lucas-talks-star-wars-trilogy-returns-wbna6011380