It was an eye-watering 42 years ago that what would become the most successful film franchise of all time entered public consciousness. Star Wars, now commonly referred to as Episode IV: A New Hope – to fit in with an ever-burgeoning series of feature-length installments to flesh out a corresponding expanding universe – would not only change our cinema-going habits, but arguably shift our perception of how film itself, as an art form, was defined. If Jaws, back in July of 1976, set the benchmark for numbers of cinemagoers lining up round the block on hot summer afternoons, then the release of George Lucas’ galactic romp Star Wars on 25th May, 1977 was about to blow the shark out of the water, and go on to amass a cool $775m in worldwide box office receipts in the process.

The summer blockbuster had been born, but if you had somehow missed this gigantic event at your local picture house, then you would have plenty of opportunities in the ensuing years to see the film or one of its sequels at home. It would be hard to find anyone now who has not had at least one Star Wars videotape or shiny disc cross their doorstep and, as we will see, it could have arrived in any one of a myriad of forms and formats.

We thought it might be worth sifting through the key releases of the original trilogy of Star Wars films (Episodes IV – VI) on VHS, Laser Disc, DVD and Blu-ray, but it should be noted that the same film versions and transfers were repackaged several times during the intervening years between those major releases.

A brief history

Star Wars on video first hit store shelves in May of 1982 on NTSC and PAL VHS, Betamax, Laser Disc and CED Video Disc. Released by CBS/Fox, it was followed by The Empire Strikes Back (November 1984) and Return of the Jedi (February 1986) in the same four formats, and all with two-channel stereo sound. After various VHS and Laser Disc box and sleeve art changes (including ‘Special Widescreen’ versions in 1989 and 1992), it wasn’t until the release of the striking Star Wars Trilogy: The Definitive Collection (pictured below) on NTSC CAV Laser Disc in 1993, that fans could get a taste of a skillfully remastered rendition of the first three films. Housed in a handsome black box, with a brochure and copy of the hardback book The Creative Impulse, the nine widescreen discs included a seemingly endless list of bonus materials. Some perceptive fans complain of missing shots and interrupted conversations in these versions.

Individual CLV (long play) widescreen versions of this same set of remasters appeared with new artwork in 1995, and were available on both NTSC and PAL. Like The Definitive Collection, this release included Dolby Surround 4-channel audio, THX Digital Mastering, but not Dolby Digital 5.1 just yet. With attractively designed, yet pared-down, sleeve artwork known as the ‘Faces Set’, these reissues only included bonus materials in the form of a GWL interview with Leonard Maltin. By August 1997, and following its corresponding theatrical release, the restored and controversially re-edited Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition made its way onto VHS and Laser Disc as separate titles, but in optional widescreen or pan-and-scan boxsets. The Laser Discs were the first versions of the original trilogy to include the 5.1 Dolby Digital AC-3 codec.

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace arrived on VHS in April 2000, while the original Special Edition trilogy was repackaged in the same year on VHS and Laser Disc to include the new episode numbering (IVVI) and subtitles. These boxsets and individual titles would comprise the last releases of the original trilogy on both formats. Episode I, II and III appeared on DVD with comprehensive bonus features, Dolby 5.1 Surround Ex (including extra matrixed rear wall audio channel), in 2001, 2002 and 2005, respectively, while THX Digitally Mastered versions of The Special Edition (IV, V and VI) were released for the first time as a boxset on DVD in 2004, and included a separately packaged bonus disc.

Perhaps one of the most interesting rereleases for fans today is the 2006 Star Wars Trilogy Limited Edition individual DVDs (and not including GWL’s Special Edition new footage and changes). These amounted to the first time anyone could buy the first three films unaltered from their original theatrical releases on DVD, but drawn from the 1993 Laser Disc masters. These versions were included as a second bonus disc to complement the first Special Edition platter in each package. The defining gold trim on the box art is the key indicator if you’re thinking of hunting around on the internet for copies. The last time the unaltered trilogy was available on DVD was inside the 2008 Star Wars Trilogy and Star Wars Prequel Trilogy boxsets. Despite muted promises in recent years from Lucasfilm and Disney, there is still no sign yet of these non-Special Edition versions appearing on Blu-ray.

Most keen collectors will doubtless have a copy of the 2011 The Complete Saga Blu-ray 6-film collection, presented in 6.1 DTS Surround (with bonus materials), and as individual prequel trilogy or original trilogy boxsets (minus bonus materials). The Complete Saga was repackaged in 2015 as a boxset and as individual steelbook issues. So that seems to be it until we finally get the long-awaited original trilogy on 4K UHD Blu-ray, and we’ll have to see whether that includes the sought-after first theatrical edits or non-Special Edition versions.

The fan controversy

Lucasfilm was never immune to criticism over the years that fans felt they were being duped into parting with ever more of their hard-earned cash for ever more versions of the films, both in the cinema and at home. But the company always contested that it was providing more of what the fans wanted. If they didn’t release more versions, they surmised, then the fans would accuse them of holding back.

The other bugbear for fans was the apparent ever-moving goalposts of what constituted a ‘finished’ Star Wars film. Lucas said of the Special Edition, ‘There will only be one (version of the films). And it won’t be what I would call a “rough cut”, it’ll be the “final cut”.’ To be fair, GWL had always asserted that a book or a play has earlier drafts and that there’s no reason why a film cannot continue to evolve over time. There are a large number of reported subtle and not-so-subtle audio, CGI and narrative changes to the Star Wars canon, spanning 35mm and 70mm film prints, DVD releases, and even IMAX presentations. But perhaps to the greatest chagrin of most fans was the sequence in Episode I: A New Hope where Greedo fires a pre-emptive shot at Han Solo in the Special Edition version of the Mos Eisley Cantina scene.

So clearly the saga continues, both on- and off-screen, and there are countless blogs on the internet where you can find the scribbles of angry fans voicing disapproval. One thing’s for sure, though: when AV journos and experts suggest that home cinema was “invented” for Star Wars, who could really argue with them?

If any of you see any major releases of the original trilogy omitted here, please add your comments below. Furthermore, if you have additional pictures of box artwork from any of the releases, it would be good to see them added to the thread.

This article is updated and repurposed from a similar piece I wrote for Home Cinema Choice magazine – Martin Dew

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Gary Seven

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^^ I have this set. The set was indeed issued with some authoring errors on one disc as I remember. Back then we relied on Wide Screen Review for up to date info on home media and Fox did issue a corrected disc for the badly authored one. I managed to get it. I still have to copy over my set to DVD. Just did True Lies and The Abyss.
 

Dave Moritz

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Have been a big Star Wars fan since I was a kid and still am a big Star Wars fan. I would not have been against the SE versions if Lucas had just allowed us to have the original theatricals as well. But Lucas turned dictator on us and made the SE the only version available moving forward and pissed me off saying the following, "I am sorry you fell in love with the incomplete version!" In other words to bad if you do not like it but your stuck with the SE versions! Maybe we will get lucky and Disney will see $$$ and give us the original theatrical versions even if it pisses off George Lucas. I know it is a long shot but I still hope that will happen in my lifetime.

Star Wars_f.jpg
 

Martin Dew

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Have been a big Star Wars fan since I was a kid and still am a big Star Wars fan. I would not have been against the SE versions if Lucas had just allowed us to have the original theatricals as well. But Lucas turned dictator on us and made the SE the only version available moving forward and pissed me off saying the following, "I am sorry you fell in love with the incomplete version!" In other words to bad if you do not like it but your stuck with the SE versions! Maybe we will get lucky and Disney will see $$$ and give us the original theatrical versions even if it pisses off George Lucas. I know it is a long shot but I still hope that will happen in my lifetime.

View attachment 66223
Great pic, Dave, thanks. In Bob Iger's autobiography he explains how difficult it was for GWL to let go - Disney went ahead with decisions on the new movies that he was apparently very upset about. I suspect Disney will eventually release the theatrical versions.
 

Dave Moritz

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Great pic, Dave, thanks. In Bob Iger's autobiography he explains how difficult it was for GWL to let go - Disney went ahead with decisions on the new movies that he was apparently very upset about. I suspect Disney will eventually release the theatrical versions.
Thank you Martin for the kind words.

From the interview I have seen Lucas was under the impression Disney would use his scripts for the new movies. Disney was not under the impression they where obligated to use the scripts from Lucas. So when Lucas found out they where not using his scripts and was doing there own take he was not very happy and supposedly felt betrayed. I personally chalk that up to karma from making the SE the only versions available moving forward after the DVD releases. But I am looking forward to the 4K UHD Blu-ray set that is set to come out and will be happy to buy it even though the original trilogy will be the SE versions. And if Lucas wanted it all done his way IMHO he should have never sold the company.
 
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Robert Harris

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In the deep, dark recesses of my mind, I seem to recall the original VHS release being rental only. Might this be correct?
 
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Worth

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In the deep, dark recesses of my mind, I seem to recall the original VHS release being rental only. Might this be correct?
Yes, the original release in 1982 was rental only, with a serial number on the box and the tape itself, until it was re-released in 1985, I think. And prior to that were the super-8 digest versions.
 
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Lord Dalek

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My first Star Wars viewing experience was the late 80s trifold box where Fox instead of pan and scanning simply left the anamorphic image unsqueezed. This is probably the reason I'm not nearly as keen on the "GOUT" as many are.
 

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JJ Abrams was asked about whether the original versions could be released in his press events this year - I believe he said that they could not based on complicated things at the studio. I would love to see decent Blu-rays of the original cuts but this sounds like it is unlikely.
 

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I love George Lucas, but he failed to appreciate that when you sell a thing, you don’t control it anymore. And I’m not sure that he truly objected to them not using his outline. I think the objection was more that each prior SW film before TFA brought something new to the table and TFA, enormously well-executed as it was, didn’t bring anything new. For a guy who spent half his career living in the world while avoiding telling the same story twice, that must’ve been disappointing.

I don’t think George necessarily grew tired of Star Wars or filmmaking. I think he grew tired of the unhealthy and nearly unprecedented level of vitriol being thrown his way every time he did something. And that vitriol has continued long after he’s left the franchise. People feel strangely entitled about Star Wars in a way that just boggles the mind. “Fans” sent Lucas death threats for revising the original trilogy. Most people just choose not to buy a thing they don’t like. But Star Wars “Fans” are special. “Fans” bullied Jake Lloyd when he returned to school after shooting Phantom Menace and that bullying, which started when he was in single digits, pretty much wrecked his life. “Fans” nearly drove Ahmet Best to commit suicide. “Fans” have felt justified in stealing and bootlegging and disseminating copies of stolen 35mm prints because their desire to have a copy of something that wasn’t theirs somehow carried more weight than copyright law and prohibitions against stealing. And after George sold the company, “Fans” harassed Kelly Marie Tran to the point where she didn’t feel safe being online anymore. This is not normal behavior, but it seems to go mostly unchecked in Star Wars fandom. I think it’s that factor, more than any other, that led George to sell. I think he loves his creation and wanted to see it thrive and grow but just didn’t want to go through that merry-go-round again where people would be out to get him no matter what he did. Because when it comes to Star Wars, it’s not enough to take it or leave it, nope, it’s about punishing people for seeing different things in it than you did.
 

Martin Dew

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Yes, the original release in 1982 was rental only, with a serial number on the box and the tape itself, until it was re-released in 1985, I think. And prior to that were the super-8 digest versions.
Yes, Robert, in the early 80s I remember that 'rental-only' VHS tapes could also be purchased in the UK for about £100 and they usually came in sturdier, larger plastic cases before the mass-produced retail versions were released some weeks or months later. I worked in a video rental store in 1983 and remember being told that for-rental copies were recorded on tape at a slower rate to ensure more robust image quality and less prone to wear from multiple viewings. Whether there was any truth in that, I don't know!

Nick, you're also correct that there were Super 8 digests released by NY-based Ken Films: 200ft B/W Silent, 200ft Colour/Sound (8 minutes) and 400ft Colour Sound (17 minutes). Derann Film Services in the UK also produced full-length scope/stereo prints of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi (all original theatrical releases).
 
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TravisR

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I don’t think George necessarily grew tired of Star Wars or filmmaking. I think he grew tired of the unhealthy and nearly unprecedented level of vitriol being thrown his way every time he did something. And that vitriol has continued long after he’s left the franchise. People feel strangely entitled about Star Wars in a way that just boggles the mind. “Fans” sent Lucas death threats for revising the original trilogy. Most people just choose not to buy a thing they don’t like. But Star Wars “Fans” are special. “Fans” bullied Jake Lloyd when he returned to school after shooting Phantom Menace and that bullying, which started when he was in single digits, pretty much wrecked his life. “Fans” nearly drove Ahmet Best to commit suicide. “Fans” have felt justified in stealing and bootlegging and disseminating copies of stolen 35mm prints because their desire to have a copy of something that wasn’t theirs somehow carried more weight than copyright law and prohibitions against stealing. And after George sold the company, “Fans” harassed Kelly Marie Tran to the point where she didn’t feel safe being online anymore. This is not normal behavior, but it seems to go mostly unchecked in Star Wars fandom. I think it’s that factor, more than any other, that led George to sell. I think he loves his creation and wanted to see it thrive and grow but just didn’t want to go through that merry-go-round again where people would be out to get him no matter what he did. Because when it comes to Star Wars, it’s not enough to take it or leave it, nope, it’s about punishing people for seeing different things in it than you did.
After 22 years of near non-stop whining, I think the fans have worn me out. People here are perfectly OK but Twitter is full of whiny people crying because they didn't like The Rise Of Skywalker. To avoid spoilers, I muted every Star Wars topic on Twitter a few days ago and now that I've seen the movie, I unmuted everything. Reading the melodramatic overreactions from some people has made me want to mute everything again.
 

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After 22 years of near non-stop whining, I think the fans have worn me out. People here are perfectly OK but Twitter is full of whiny people crying because they didn't like The Rise Of Skywalker. To avoid spoilers, I muted every Star Wars topic on Twitter a few days ago and now that I've seen the movie, I unmuted everything. Reading the melodramatic overreactions from some people has made me want to mute everything again.
At least they'll have Baby Yoda.
 

DVBRD

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Ah, yes, the "Faces" box set. I know plenty of SW fans that refuse to part with them. They probably had the best cover art of any home video release of anything Star Wars, which is probably another good reason to keep them.



Plus they had those Leonard Maltin interviews with George Lucas.

 

Gary Seven

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In the deep, dark recesses of my mind, I seem to recall the original VHS release being rental only. Might this be correct?
In the early 80's before Blockbuster and their ilk, Warner and other major studio rented their movies to mom and pop stores, who in turn rented to consumers. As I recall back then rentals were pretty expensive, upwards to 10 bucks.
 

skylark68

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This is the first version I had:



Later on I picked up the widescreen (silver trim) special edition box set. About 15 years ago my father in law gave me his laserdisc player along with the original release laserdiscs of the first three films. One day i'd like to pick up that Definitive collection on laserdisc.