Cinephiles are well aware that more often than not, there are multiple versions of the same film that exist. Extended editions, director's cuts, and unrated takes are very prevalent in home media, offering fans another way to watch the movie, along with the one that many saw in theaters. This is all well and good, but bringing up the notion of an altered release is sure to draw the ire of Star Wars fans across the globe. They are, after all, a bunch defined by a frustrating history with so-called "special editions" of the films they love.
Ever since 1997, each release of the Star Wars trilogy has included their own set of changes, with George Lucas claiming that they were done so the movies matched his original vision. The existence of these new takes on the classic films isn't that much of an issue, it's the fact that they have exclusively replaced the theatrical editions and are the only ones available in high quality. In 2006, limited edition DVDs of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi included the initial version on a bonus disc, but they were poor laser disc transfers that were not formatted for widescreen televisions. To many viewers, this was not enough.
Some extremely devout Star Wars followers have taken matters into their own hands to give the fan community what they really want: the original, theatrical cuts of the classic trilogy in HD. The most famous example is the Despecialized Edition, which went viral during the buildup to The Force Awakens as moviegoers raved about their quality. In addition, recently a group painstakingly restored a 35mm print of the 1977 original and released it online. As more and more moviegoers download these versions, it's becoming extremely apparent that Lucasfilm should officially release the unaltered Star Wars trilogy on Blu-ray. There are several reasons why.
Preserving Cultural History
Outside of the nuisances of the various changes, there's a far more important reason why the studio should move forward with this kind of release. The original Star Wars trilogy (especially the first film) is a touchstone of American pop culture. They completely changed and revitalized the film industry upon their debut and impacted millions of moviegoers across the globe. The work on display earned several accolades, including numerous Academy Awards. There's an argument to be made that the version of Star Wars people watch on Blu-ray now is not the one that was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director, or won Best Visual Effects and Best Film Editing.
Both Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back are so significant that they've been selected by the Library of Congress to be a part of the National Film Registry. Even there, there's some controversy. Reportedly, when Star Wars was selected, Lucasfilm offered a print of the special edition of A New Hope. Congress rejected the submission, as the guidelines stipulate only the film as it was originally presented to the public should be accepted. This a far greater issue than it has any right to be. We live in a time where Ridley Scott's sci-fi classic Blade Runner has five different cuts all available on Blu-ray. Consumers can purchase either the extended or theatrical editions of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. There's no reasonable justification for withholding the theatrical versions of the first three Star Wars films, regardless of which one Lucas himself prefers. The fans just want to have the option.
There's also a twist of irony here, since in 1988 none other than Lucas testified in front of Congress advocating the necessity of film preservation. In his speech, Lucas claimed that "People who alter or destroy works of art and our cultural heritage for profit or as an exercise of power are barbarians" and stressed that the original negatives of movies produced had to be maintained. Why he feels differently about the Star Wars trilogy being revised countless times is a mystery no one will fully solve (especially since Lucas did not direct The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi), but some would say Lucas has become one of those "barbarians" he spoke against. If this is how Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, feels about film preservation, than there's no better way to honor his beliefs than to release the theatrical cuts of the original trilogy.
Lucasfilm Has Been Proven Wrong
In the documentary The People vs. George Lucas, there is a segment that deals with the wiping out of the theatrical cuts and fans' displeasure with the move. Part of it covers a petition from members of the site originaltrilogy.com, asking Lucasfilm to release high quality versions of the original editions. The studio's PR response essentially said that would be impossible, claiming that the negatives of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi were permanently altered for the first special editions and existing prints of the theatrical versions were in poor condition.
From a certain point of view, the existence of the Despecialized Edition and the restored 35mm print has to be embarrassing for Lucasfilm, since it basically contradicts their argument. If impassioned fans could go through the great lengths and put the effort into creating their projects, surely Lucasfilm with their abundant resources could do something similar. It's now been proven that you can make HD quality renditions of the theatrical cuts, to many people's delight. The studio's reply to the petition no longer holds any weight. The infamous "artistic vision" debate will rage on until the end of time, but no matter what happens, it's now well-known that the 1977, 1980, and 1983 versions of the original trilogy can be transferred to fit modern tastes and media.
If nothing else, Lucasfilm should want to save face, since the full PR response is far from their finest moment (for starters, the word "original" appears in quotes as if the term was made up). Under Disney's leadership, the studio has done a great job of winning back the fans' goodwill, kicking off the new era of Star Wars in style with the monumental critical and commercial success of Episode VII. Keeping the fans happy seems to be a priority for Lucasfilm, and few things would thrill them more than an official Blu-ray release of the theatrical editions.