The Original Star Wars Saga:
George Lucas v. Film Preservation
It is a dark time for the Jedi.
For one thing, fall is in the air, which means it must be time for another Star Wars DVD release. For the third year in a row, George Lucas has gone to the "original trilogy" trough. In 2004, it was to release the Special Editions for the first time ever on DVD in a 4-disc box set. Last year, it was to release the same discs in a 3-disc box set. That simply meant a new package without the bonus disc.
Now in 2006, Episodes IV, V, and VI have been released separately, each movie getting its own 2-disc set. Once again, it's the same stuff as before on Disc 1, but Disc 2 is a bonus disc with the "original original" movies as they were presented during their initial theatrical runs.
It's a shame the bonus discs amount to nothing more than a load of Bantha poop.
Preservationist, Preserve Thyself
While the Special Editions are souped up with Dolby 5.1 and a 16:9 anamorphic widescreen picture, the original releases are presented in Dolby 2.0 and 4:3 (leading to a grainy picture for the growing masses who watch DVD on high definition TV). In short, the latest from Lucas is an embarrassingly low-tech release.
Lucas has repeatedly shunned the original movies in favor of the tweaked (and mangled) Special Editions, basically dissing the Academy Award-winning work of those earlier movies (a stance which, quite possibly, led to Revenge of the Sith's Oscar snub in favor of the surprisingly shoddy effects in Peter Jackson's King Kong). Considering Lucas' previous dedication to film preservation, it is extremely disappointing when he tells the Associated Press, "I'm not going to spend the, we're talking millions of dollars here, the money and the time to refurbish that (the original Star Wars trilogy), because to me, it doesn't really exist anymore."
Essentially, Lucas' argument is an insulting way to treat fans who have afforded him a very rare lifestyle which allows him to call the shots.
Consider this: The original Star Wars was added to the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress in 1989. The purpose of the registry, according to the Library of Congress, is "to recognize motion pictures as an American art form and to emphasize to the public and leaders in the government and private sector that motion pictures are in need of greater protection and preservation."
Furthermore, "For each title named to the registry, the Library of Congress will seek to assure that the best possible print has been preserved, whether through its own efforts or those of the copyright holder or other archive."
As if that weren't enough, George Lucas and his film preservation efforts were singled out in Film Preservation 1993: A Study of the Current State of American Film Preservation, Volume 1: Report, June 1993, a report of the Librarian of Congress.
The report states, "Lucasfilm, founded by director George Lucas, has gone to great lengths to preserve film, paper records and artifacts related to its productions. To use Star Wars (1977) as an example, Lucasfilm's distributor keeps the usual master cut negative and printing materials in a climate-controlled vault but, in addition, Lucasfilm has retained all other production elements. The firm has built its own archives building to house these materials."
Some people claim the new low-fi release of the original originals is exactly what they were hoping for, a way to go back to when they were kids and all they had were low-tech bootleg videotapes. Right. Fine. Good for you. Glad you're happy.
The rest of us take film history and preservation a little more seriously and had something more definitive in mind. Even an anamorphic release of prints with a few specks and scratches would be preferred over a 4:3 port of a 13-year-old laserdisc release.
There are many movies that predate Star Wars by many moons that have been given far, far superior DVD releases. For one, there is the eye-poppingly gorgeous and sonically sensational Superbit edition of Lawrence of Arabia (1962) from Columbia TriStar. Plus, Warners has released virtually pristine DVDs of King Kong (1933), North by Northwest (1959), and Citizen Kane (1941), to name only a few.
Many fanboys around the globe have been getting their Darth Vader Underoos in a bunch over Lucas pulling another fast one with the new Star Wars DVDs; there's nothing more grating than to peruse the uninformed "reviews" on Amazon. Laced with vitriol, those reviews make it clear flame baiting and name-calling are popular sports in some sectors of the Internet.
Those who were petitioning for a serious release of the original movies have unwittingly been pitted against those who don't understand that even 30-year-old movies can still be presented on DVD with stunning results if given proper attention.
And next year will be more of the same with the rumored advent of an Uber-Deluxe Very Special Extremely Limited Box Set of the Even Further Tweaked entire six-film saga in time to celebrate the 30th anniversary release of Star Wars, a movie which, once again, doesn't even exist any more, according to its creator.
There Is Good In Him Yet
All of this was foreshadowed back in 1983, when Return of the Jedi was originally released. Even then, Lucas explained Episode VI was a way of making Episode IV the way he wasn't able to a mere six years earlier.
It was only a matter of time before George Lucas, the storyteller of Jedi knights and the hero's journey, the man who in 1991 was given the Irving G. Thalberg Award by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in recognition of his film work, would turn into Darth Lucas, technocrat.
It's fine that Lucas is continually tweaking the movies to make the 30 years' gap between the saga's start and finish look a little more seamless. But he should still honor the filmmakers and the films that made it all happen by preserving and presenting them with the TLC they are due.
Those who expect more from George Lucas and his knowledge of film preservation will continue to hope one day he will see the light. Unfortunately, like Darth Vader, Lucas seems to be more machine now than man.
It's a shame the Library of Congress doesn't hold more power to protect the films on its registry from their own creators.
But also like Vader, surely there is still good in Lucas... somewhere.
• Originally published at MovieHabit.com.