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 (IV – VI) 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