Star Wars: Through the Binoculars

03 Nov 2006

A revised version of this essay is included in my essay collection The Films that Formed Me Collection 1, on my web site here.

So, I’ve bought a copy of Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope on DVD. This is the first DVD version I’ve purchased. This version comes with a bonus disc that contains the 1977 theatrical release, in 4:3 letterboxed format. We’ll watch that version tonight. I don’t think I’ve seen Star Wars since the 1997 theatrical re-release. And I wasn’t a terribly big fan of the second trilogy; I still haven’t seen episode III, although I guess I’ll have to bite the bullet sometime.

For many years I have had some confused thoughts about Star Wars. It certainly hasn’t helped that Lucas has released so many slightly different tweaked versions. I’m not going to talk about his more dubious changes, like the alterations to the scene where Han kills Greedo with a blaster. There were a number of minor changes prior to the 1997 Special Edition release. Some things are obvious, like the addition of Episode IV: A New Hope to the opening crawl, which was not there in the 1977 release. There were other changes, mostly very minor, such as a missing line of dialogue. One of the more noticeable changes features a stormtrooper yelling “close the blast doors!” and then after Han Solo escapes through them, yelling “open the blast doors! open the blast doors!” In some versions “close the blast doors!” is missing, which fails to set up this minor joke.

I’m not talking about those changes. I’m talking about the lost scenes. Scenes that were shot, but perhaps never finished, and which according to every source I’ve seen never made it into the released film.

Is it possible that some of the “lost scenes” actually made it into prints of Star Wars shown in theaters? Or have I just managed to delude myself about scenes I remember seeing in 1977?

I first saw the movie at, I believe, the Millcreek Mall in Erie. Erie, PA was not one of the theaters that got Star Wars on opening day. I don’t know what the date was. To the best of my recollection I didn’t know anything about Star Wars prior to seeing the first film. It was actually my uncle Ted, who was, I believe, 19 at the time, who took my brother and I to see the movie. At least, that’s the way I remember it. And I remember being very, very excited about the film — absolutely blown away — and afterwards laughing, yelling, just screaming “wow!” in utter amazement at what I had seen.

I went on to see Star Wars many more times; I think I may have seen it as many as ten or twelve times, since it ran for over a year at the Eastway theater in Harborcreek. I saw a lot of dollar matinees. I noticed, and recall thinking at the time, that the film seemed to have been slightly recut.

There are a number of these “lost scenes.” In one of them, Luke observes a sparkle in the sky, and sees ships in orbit through his binoculars. He urges a small droid with treads to come with him, but it blows up and he abandons it, thus setting up the need for new droids. Luke’s friends insist that the ships are just docking, but Luke tries unsuccessfully to convince them that he has seen shooting. He has a conversation with Biggs about the rebellion, setting up the scene where he meets Biggs just before the final battle (this scene was restored for the recent DVD release and, perhaps, for the 1997 theatrical release, although I am not certain about the latter).

If that scene never appeared in the theatrical release, why do I have such a clear memory of Luke examining the sparkle in the sky through his binoculars? Why do I vividly recall the droid blowing up? And why do I remember thinking, when I saw the movie again later, that the scene with Biggs was mysteriously missing?

There are other “lost scenes” that I have no memory of whatsoever, such as Han Solo flirting with a woman in the cantina.

The Star Wars Cut Scenes web site here claims that the scene I’m describing never made it into a release of the film, and so does Wikipedia.

I was a big fan: I owned a vinyl record dramatization with audio from the film called “The Story of Star Wars,” the John Williams soundtrack, complete sets of bubblegum cards, and even a wonderful LP by the Electric Moog Orchestra with an energetic and funny rendition of the Cantina Band theme. I read the novel; I thought it was amazing that George Lucas could write novels, but now I realize that it was ghost-written by Alan Dean Foster, who wrote the spinoff Splinter of the Mind’s Eye. Which I also read, naturally.

Since I was also exposed to the novelization, the comics, the trading cards, and probably other materials such as publicity photos and magazines — and that scene is either described or alluded to in all those sources — I’ll acknowledge that it is possible, even likely, that my memory has become muddled, and I didn’t actually see the scenes in the theater. But I can’t shake the feeling that the first print I saw was different. Allegedly, a scene on Tatooine involving Aunt Beru filling a tupperware-like container up with some kind of blue milk also never made it into the film. Does anyone remember the blue milk? I do! And I don’t think I’ve through about that blue milk in 30 years.

I’m looking through Luke’s binoculars backwards. I’m looking back thirty years at my younger, smaller self. It is hard to admit that I’m now middle-aged. I’ll never have that visual acuity back. The colors will never be as bright. The soundtrack will deafen me, instead of exciting me. Every time I see the movie, the thrills will be a little less thrilling. It’s a hard pill to swallow. And I can’t even trust that my own memories are correct.

Well, we’ll see the original tonight. On Amazon fans are complaining that the 1977 film re-release was not given the respect that it deserved. It’s a 4:3 letterbox. This leaves viewers with widescreen TVs with bars on the left and right edges of the film. What we have is a transfer of a version that was made for videodisc. No features (fine by me; I’m not really interested in interviews with Lucas), but no real restoration effort, and, sadly, no deleted scenes. Lucas missed an opportunity to create “Star Wars: the Nostalgia Edition,” targeted at… well, me.

The Nostalgia Edition would be the 1977 theatrical release given the Criterion Collection treatment. No bullshit, just a restoration, getting the finest possible quality out of what is already there. Lucas doesn’t have the inclination to do it; he thinks the movie doesn’t represent his “vision” of the movie. That’s weirdly arrogant even for a film director. Lucas doesn’t seem to understand anymore, and perhaps never did understand, what made the original Star Wars mean so much to its original fans. (Hint: it isn’t the quality of the special effects or gorgeous digital images). It’s a little something called exuberance; it’s about a world that looks rusty and lived-in. It’s about the brilliant artists and designers and painters who lovingly made magic on a shoestring, and it looks gritty.

The deleted scenes exist, in various degrees of degraded quality, because apparently no one has been interested in preserving them. That shows you where Lucas’s heart really lies. The scenes could have been on the disc I’ve got in my hand. They’re not. Lucas doesn’t seem to have an interest in preserving and restoring his original creation, which is what those of us who went to see his movie in 1977 love and remember. There was nothing wrong with the original Star Wars. It never needed extra digital imaging. The explosions didn’t need to be re-animated; Greedo didn’t need to shoot first. It just needed to be treated with love and respect. And I’d dearly love to see the lost scenes brought back to life and made available to the original Star Wars fans, before they deteriorate any more — and before we do.

Note: allegedly Lucas is preparing some kind of massive restored edition for release in 2007. A 3D verion — 3D! — of the original trilogy. It sounds nauseating. And his “archival” version of the originals with lots of extras, perhaps including deleted scenes, which will probably be released on Blu-ray disc. Let’s not go there. Now I really do feel old, and so does my DVD player!

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