Blogging the Trilogy: A New Hope

This is the first in a three part series about watching the original pre-special editions of Star Wars. The second will cover The Empire Strikes Back. The third and final will deal with Return of the Jedi.

Just last night, in my very home, I began a journey of epic proportions. Brian and I sat down to watch a classic movie, unseen by many since the mid-90s: Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.

“What the hell are you talking about?” you, the Gentle Reader, might ask. “The original trilogy came out last year on DVD.” True, something vaguely resembling the original trilogy appeared in a four disc set last fall, but I’m talking the original original trilogy, or what George Lucas, floating in his hot tub fueled by the embers of burning hundred dollar bills, derisively calls the “not-so-special edition.” Truth be told, I don’t own the new DVD “Ultimate” editions; I do, however, own no less than three copies of the movies: one each of the special and original releases on VHS, and a Laserdisc copy of the original edition acquired off eBay (yet another example of the extreme measures I’ve had to take for a pristine cinematic experience).

This was my first time watching the LD all the way through (previously, I had just done some spot-checking to make sure everything was in good shape), and, aside from snarky commentary from myself, and occasional explosive outbursts from Brian (“why don’t they just BLOW UP the planet in between the Death Star and the rebel base?”), it was fun to revisit the movie that started the whole craze.

I noticed a few things as I rewatched the movie. First off, Alec Guinness is a consummate professional (or, as an episode of The Simpsons anagrammatically puts it “Genuine Class”). Guinness made quite known his feelings about appearing in the movie:

“What I didn’t tell him was that I just couldn’t go on speaking those bloody awful, banal lines. I’d had enough of the mumbo jumbo.” (Source: IMDb)

But having watched his performance, it is absolutely impossible to see any of that come through. He plays Obi-Wan Kenobi to a T, giving the role the same attention to detail that he gave Prince Feisal in Lawrence of Arabia or Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai. Ben has real gravitas as a character here, and watching Guinness’s evasiveness when he answers Luke’s questions about his father is a subtle little hint that I’m not sure Ewan McGregor could pull off.

Peter Cushing, likewise, is note-perfect as Grand Moff Tarkin. Cushing, like his friend and colleague Christopher Lee (Saruman of Lord of the Rings and Count Dooku of Episodes II and III), was a veteran of the B-horror flicks of the 50s, 60s and 70s, appearing in versions of The Mummy, Dracula, and Frankenstein. His work as Tarkin (“You prefer another target, a military target? Then name the system!”) is up there with Guinness’s Kenobi, and it’s a shame the two of them never cross paths.

Finally, as underappreciated actors go, Peter Mayhew deserved an Oscar for his role as Chewbacca (or at least a damn medal at the end there). The amount of personality Mayhew conveys with only his eyes and physical presence is just amazing, whether it be cowering in fear from the trash compactor monster, or shrugging in amusement after growling at the little mouse droid.

Star Wars is impossible to watch in a vacuum (ha ha). As I rewatched Episode IV, I found myself constantly comparing it to the two other versions of the story that have dominated my perception of the saga in recent years: the special edition and the radio drama.

Most people haven’t heard—or for that matter heard of— the Star Wars radio dramas. I would go into them in more detail, but I think the amount I’d like to say about them would deserve its own post. Suffice it to say they do a fantastic job of taking the story to the next level, filling in a lot of the unexplained gaps while not changing the fundamental story. Some of these gaps you probably don’t even notice when watching the movie, but others were very striking to me (for example, why Threepio pretends not to recognize Leia when Artoo plays the holographic message, even though he refers to “the princess” in the opening scene). Nitpicky things, sure, but the attention to detail in the radio drama puts the movie to shame in some ways. I suppose that’s the luxury of the medium, though.

But, for better or worse, it really has been the special edition of the film that has been attempting to consume the appreciation of the originals. George would have us believe that the 1997 rereleases are closer to his original vision. That might be true, but if it is, I think that’s a shame. No, the original A New Hope is imperfect in many ways, but in trying to correct some of those flaws, he has also done away with some of the things that made it such a great film in the first place. When the DVDs were released, there was a side-by-side comparison of them with the VHS copy. Putting them next to each other, it does seem like a no-brainer, but to be honest, it doesn’t matter as much when you’re just watching one version all the way through. I showed one of the pictures to Jason, he commented that it looked too sharp, the colors too vibrant. In today’s society of high-definition everything, the idea that you could have too much quality seems ludicrous, but I think he’s right. Part of the charm of the original is the fuzzy washed out look—it gives it an air of fantasy. And it looks like a movie from the ’70s. Which it is. And now I sound like one of those crazy people talking about LP ‘warmth’ versus CDs so I guess they’re not so crazy after all.

I also noticed that even though I’m as much a sucker for special effects as the next guy, I didn’t miss a single thing from the special edition. Not one. Mos Eisley looks vastly superior without any goddamn dinosaurs in the middle of it; it looks gritty and real, not like it’s out of a science-fiction movie. The X-Wings at the end look fine without the extended flyby. The explosions of Alderaan and the Death Star are not as flashy, but the emotional impact is the same. And, oh yeah, Han shoots first. Okay, I have to retract my earlier statement: there’s a shot in the special edition where the Falcon lifts off from Mos Eisley, and we see it from the top down as it takes off. I love that shot; it’s gorgeous. But I’d sacrifice it without a second hesitation, because it doesn’t quite fit the original version of the movie. It looks too good, too clean.

If you know me (and you’re reading this blog, so you probably do), you know I’m a bit of a Star Wars fan, but my enthusiasm has waned since the special editions, and the best thing about the new trilogy is that it’s over. But rewatching the originals made me feel wistful; it was like seeing the first girl you ever fell in love with years later. All the memories come flooding back, and you remember all the reasons you felt that way. At the same time, you’re painfully conscious that everything else has moved on, and it’s not quite the same. But I guess we’ll always have Tatooine.

[…] held up over the intervening years and how greatly the prequels disappointed me. I know I’ve waxed rhapsodic on the “not-so-special” edition before, so I won’t reiterate what I said there, […]

[…] part series about watching the original pre-special editions of Star Wars. The first part covered A New Hope. The third and final will deal with Return of the […]

The great thing about the original trilogy is that it’s as great as it is popular. Everyone experiences greatness in story-telling. Except those who have not seen any of the films. It’s astounding that there are such people!

One of the greatest moments in cinema’s history had to be when Lucas just began to see the success that the first Star Wars film was having. What was he going through? It must have been wondrous. What a shame that the prequels are so average.

I am just old enough to remember the radio drama. Or at least part of it. There is a certain magic to it that visuals tend to take away, but at least you have both to choose from.

It’s so easy to type forever about what exactly makes Star Wars great. I think I’d rather not make this comment longer than the post I’m responding to. Thanks for a great read.