In 1997, on the eve of the release of a new Star Wars prequel, fans were given the opportunity to see the original trilogy in cinemas once again.
But they got a little something extra: along with “enhanced” special effects, there were some unwanted alterations made to the films that added new CGI effects and even changed major story points.
For every subsequent release of Star Wars on home video, DVD, and blu-ray, the films keep on changing.
In the only official versions of the original Star Wars trilogy available on blu-ray, Han Solo awkwardly dodges a laser and chats with a CGI Jabba the Hut, Hayden Christensen has replaced Sebastian Shaw as the ghost of Anakin Skywalker, and cartoon characters dot the landscape in almost every cutaway.
Oh, and this.
Despite protests to the new and continuing alterations to the movies, the original versions of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi had never officially been released to home video after 1997.
In 2006, LucasFilm “gave in” to fan pressure by finally releasing the original versions of the films on DVD – as a bonus feature on a new box set. But the version released was a low-resolution digital master from the 1993 Laserdisc, and wasn’t enhanced for widescreen TVs.
For one devout Star Wars fan, that wasn’t enough.
“I wanted to be able to show people who haven’t seen Star Wars yet, like my little brother or my girlfriend, the original, Oscar-winning version,” Petr Harmáček recently told Vice, “but I didn’t want to have to show it to them in bad quality.”
Originally from Mariánské Lázně, Petr Harmáček works as an AV specialist & senior editor in Plzeň. He’s also the force behind one of the most extensive unauthorized restoration projects in film history.
Inspired by work other fans had previously undertaken on restoring the Lucas-released DVD versions to their original states, Harmáček, known online as “Harmy,” began working on a high-definition version after the official release of the movies on blu-ray in 2011.
The process? Using the 2011 blu-ray and 2004 DVD, the 1993 LaserDisc, original prints of the film on 35mm and 16mm, among other sources, Harmy has been painstakingly removing the “special” from official-release special editions by hand.
The original effects work – laser blasts, explosions, and the like – has pulled out frame-by-frame from the older prints and layered on top of the newer versions. All footage has been digitally restored, cleaned-up and color-corrected.
“[The] original effects were completely groundbreaking at the time,” Harmáček said in the Vice interview, “and trying to suppress the original versions is, in my opinion, an act of cultural vandalism.”
The resulting work is known as the Despecialized Edition of the Star Wars Trilogy, and for true fans it’s the best – and just about only – way to currently see Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi as originally intended.
Still, it’s been a time-intensive project; more than four years later, Harmáček is still hard at work. On the eve of the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Harmáček has just released a “workprint” version of a new high-definition Return of the Jedi, the final film in the original trilogy.
The legality of fan edits falls into something of a legal grey area, but it’s generally accepted that if you own a copy of the original work, you can obtain an altered version of the same work – as long as it is not distributed for profit.
More information about the Despecialized Edition of the Star Wars Trilogy – and how you can get your hands on a copy – can be found at the official Facebook page.
Most restoration projects, like the multi-million-dollar ones undertaken by Robert Harris on Lawrence of Arabia or Ben-Hur, use a film’s original source elements to bring a classic movie to the best-possible presentation, as its creator had originally intended.
Harmáček, meanwhile, has undertaken this project pro bono, without access to the original material from Star Wars, and he’s contradicting the intentions of Lucas, who claims the currently-released versions represent the closest version of his original vision. A claim most fans aren’t buying.
“People who alter or destroy works of art and our cultural heritage for profit or as an exercise of power are barbarians,” George Lucas told US Congress in 1988.
Harmáček seems to be fighting to preserve the original incarnation of Star Wars as Lucas might have back then.