‘Star Wars’ flap or: when filmmakers tamper with classics

From Sept. 2, 2011 – Many fans of the three original “Star Wars” films have been on the warpath on the Internet recently with the announcement that the forthcoming Blu-ray boxed set of all six films will only include the revised versions producer-director George Lucas has been fiddling with over the past decade.

What really enrages the fans is the implication that the versions that were seen in theaters in 1977, 1980 and 1983 will never be available again.

Tampering with classics is nothing new, however.

In 1967, when I saw “Gone With the Wind” for the first time, I didn’t know that the original images had been cropped and then blown up for 70mm projection (below, right) to convert the old movie into a “wide-screen” presentation that could be shown in the same first run venues that presented “Doctor Zhivago” and “The Sound of Music.”

MGM did a terrible disservice to one of the most beloved films of all time. I remember being shocked by how grainy and washed-out the movie looked (fortunately, I was able to see “GWTW” in the original square-ish 35mm version the following year with its vivid Technicolor intact).

While it’s not a classic in the “GWTW” class, the terrific 1979 gang thriller “The Warriors” (below) underwent some terrible revisions by director Walter Hill for a new DVD release a few years ago — he added really ugly graphic novel style intros to key scenes.

The difference in the Lucas case is that he is replacing the original movies with retooled versions and making it almost impossible to see the originals.

You can go on Wikipedia for a complete rundown of the Lucas revisions. The worst one from my point of view was the CGI addition of Jabba the Hutt to a scene shot for the original “Star Wars.”

Lucas rightfully claims total ownership of the movies — something few other director-producers possess — and contractually can do whatever he wants with them.

But it shows a form of contempt for his fans to imply that they were wrong to fall in love with the “Star Wars” of 1977 and want to return to it again — primitive special effects and all.

When Steven Spielberg produced a new “special edition” of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” in 1980, critic Pauline Kael took him to task:

“I wish that Steven Spielberg had trusted his instincts and left (the film) as it was…It’s true that the action is swifter and more streamlined, but I didn’t mind the diversionary scenes of the original; they had their own scruffy charm and part of what we love in fairy tales is their eccentricity…when you remember something in a movie with pleasure and it’s gone, you feel as if your memories had been mugged.”

Spielberg later released both versions on DVD so that fans could watch either one.

It’s amusing to contrast George Lucas’ tinkering on his 1977 hit with the attitude of the writer-director Woody Allen who won that year’s best picture and best directing Oscars for “Annie Hall.”

That classic comedy has remained unchanged for 34 years, down to the now glaring typo in the closing credits that lists a then-unknown actor as “Christopher Wlaken.”

Joe Meyers

4 Responses

  1. Tom Mellana says:

    See South Park’s commentary on this issue, which includes Spielberg doing physically to Indiana Jones what he and Lucas have done figuratively to their movies.

  2. CookieHaid says:

    Good article, Joe. Pan-and-scan has been used by the industry for years to present Panavision movies on our old TVs; I suppose most consumers would feel they were missing something if their entire screen wasn’t used. It is quite ironic. Nowadays we have the equally vexing dilemma of the reverse: standard aspect TV-broadcasts on our new HDTVs. Now the consumer insists on zooming-in on or stretching the standard display to fill their screens. Have you ever tried to enjoy watching a baseball-game at a bar with an HDTV without HD-service? Invariably someone has set the aspect-ratio to fill the screen, stretching the scene as well as the strike-zone horizontally; thus rendering the game unwatchable. Of course no-one is permitted to borrow the bartender’s remote-control to correct it either. A closing “thanks” for reminding me that I must watch “The Warriors” again; great flick!

  3. Joe says:

    I intentionally avoided ‘Blade Runner’ in this post because that is such a quagmire of alternate versions.
    I do think it is a very different case because of the studio interference before the original release, which included cuts made for the ratings board.
    Ridley Scott didn’t have control over the initial release version the way Lucas did. His tinkering over the years has apparently been an attempt to get the movie into the form he originally intended and I don’t believe his tweaking has included new CGI effects.
    And, of course, ‘Blade Runner’ was not a huge hit that became a part of global pop culture.
    P.S. I loved the original studio version, too, and I believe Scott included it on the most recent deluxe ‘Blade Runner’ set.

  4. Chris Knopf says:

    What do you think of the revisions Ridley Scott made to the original Blade Runner? Scott (and Harrison Ford) hated the narration the studios insisted upon, and happily took it out of the re-cut. He also returned his darker, more ambiguous ending. Blade Runner is my favorite movie, and frankly, I liked what those artless studio guys did better than Scott’s original intent. If I had never heard the narration, I might not have known what the heck was going on.