The “Lost Cut” of Star Wars

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There are many phases associated with making a film. First there’s the preproduction phase where much of your time needs to be invested, otherwise you’re flying blind for the rest of the production. There’s the actual shooting of the live action, known as the production phase, which is where you capture your vision on film. Then there’s the postproduction phase, where everything comes together and you use your skills and talents to create and end result that’s pleasing to you and hopefully to everyone who sees it.

In between those three phases, however, lie many sub-phases too numerous to mention here. From writing and casting to lighting and cinematography to editing and looping dialogue; the process can be very involved but it’s that end result, the zenith of the director’s vision and the crew’s hard work, which makes it all worth it. Getting to that point is the real challenge.

One of the steps filmmakers find helpful takes place near the end of the production phase, going into the postproduction phase, called making a “rough cut” of the film which is a general assembly of all of the available footage shot during the production phase in sequential order according to the script.

There are no rules that say a rough cut has to follow the script but usually the key is to make the film flow as it was originally intended with the assumption that it will be heavily changed as the postproduction phase continues. This rough cut gives the filmmaker a good look at what’s been shot and how it flows from scene to scene. Some things will work, some things won’t. Some scenes will be too slow and some scenes won’t be necessary at all to advance the story. Some scenes will be moved to different parts of the film, if needed. Whatever the case may be, the rough cut provides a nice work print or blueprint for the film, much like a blueprint drawn by an architect gives a construction company the visual toolbox it needs to build a house from the ground up.

Star Wars was no different from any other film at the time of its production. No one could foretell its future success or the influence it would have on filmmaking. It was just this idea in George Lucas’ head and he was translating it to film. Therefore, all of the usual production phases took place without prejudice or expectations from fans. The budget was low, the schedule was tight, and the director was relatively new. Lucas went about things the only way he knew how and decided that he would like a rough cut of the film assembled.

He enlisted the help of John Jympson, a British editor, and allowed him to take the production footage that was shot up until that point and create a rough cut of the film. This 13 reel blueprint was reviewed, logged, sealed, and put away in the Lucasfilm archives for years and there it still resides, dragged out once in a while by the archivists and lucky people like Dr. David West Reynolds (archaeologist and Star Wars author/fanatic; a lethal combination that contains aspects of two of Lucasfilm’s best known film series)  and others who have been privy to seeing this one-of-a-kind Star Wars rarity.

This rough cut of the film was later dubbed the “Lost Cut” of Star Wars.

How it got the name, I’m not sure. I can only venture to guess that because it sat in a box for years and was looked up a considerable time later that someone decided it was “lost” and then found again. I doubt that people on the inside of the production completely forgot that it existed. Even Dr. Reynolds says an article he wrote for the Star Wars Insider that it was “carefully stored in the archives for over 20 years” and therefore never truly lost, but nonetheless the name “Lost Cut” stuck. Now, this original cut of the film has become a sort of “holy grail” to many Star Wars fans and historians like myself.

The best description of the Lost Cut of Star Wars so far, without being able to actually see the footage itself, comes from Dr. Reynolds. The reason Reynolds knows so much about this subject is that he’s actually seen the elusive Lost Cut, having been allowed to extricate it from the depths of the Lucasfilm archives, much like the remains of an Egyptian mummy. After a little maintenance and dusting off, the reels of film were once again exposed to light and projected on a wall for careful analysis and research.

Reynolds wrote a lengthy piece on the Lost Cut in Star Wars Insider magazine (Issue #41) and it provided answers to many old Star Wars questions, giving fans unique insight into what it’s like to make a film like the original Star Wars.

In his article, Reynolds describes the Lost Cut as an early prototype of the original Star Wars edited by John Jympson from Britain who also cut together such famous films as Zulu (which Peter Jackson cites as an influence for his Lord of the Rings films) and A Hard Day’s Night. What he did was take whatever footage was completed at the time (1976) and assemble a rough cut of the film, putting the shots in their proper sequence, to give Lucas an idea of the narrative flow of the film. It was, of course, a work-in-progress as there were no visual/special effects, music or sound effects. There were slates for missing scenes that had yet to be filmed or that Jympson didn’t have access to yet.

It was also cut together without the help or vision of George Lucas or producer Gary Kurtz.  Reynolds refers to it quite a few times as “documentary-like” and very different from the final cut of the film, but still getting all of the main points across. The Lost Cut just took a little longer to get those points across.

Reynolds’ article was enlightening and brought up a few new things about Star Wars that were previously unknown and unseen. At times, it left me with more questions than answers but still brought up some amazing points and cleared up quite a few issues. I highly recommend it if you can find a back issue.

Will we ever see this Lost Cut? It sure would be great, but I’d have to guess that no, we probably won’t.  I think that perhaps parts of it will become available here and there, and in fact already have been made public on items like the old CD-ROM called Behind the Magic released by Lucasfilm many years back, and also in the Star Wars Holiday Special from 1978. Entire black and white scenes can be found on the CD-ROM that perfectly match Reynolds’ descriptions of the Lost Cut, so one can assume that these scenes are taken directly from there. You can see Luke out on the desert flats fixing a moisture vaporator and witnessing the space battle above, some deleted scenes with Luke and Biggs, and an alternate cut of the cantina scenes including more aliens and a girl named “Jenny.” Almost all of the shots contain noticeable differences from the final cut. The only thing that doesn’t match Reynolds’ description on some of these scenes is that there is sound with some of them. Reynolds describes the Lost Cut as “silent.” Reynolds is not exactly specific as to whether there is any on-set audio at all or if the entire cut is truly silent.

So while it seems that parts of the Lost Cut may eek out over the years as little bonus features, I really don’t think the entire thing will see the light of day, even on a DVD – at least anytime soon. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for it, I just don’t think it will happen. This version of the film was a blueprint and never meant to be seen by anyone outside of Lucasfilm. Lucas didn’t have much to do with cutting it together; therefore it can’t truly represent his entire vision. I don’t think he’d want people seeing it, but I’m not him and can’t know for sure. The Lost Cut will most likely remain one of those things talked about but rarely seen.

Quick Lost Cut Facts

Here are some quick facts about the Lost Cut that Dr. David West Reynolds mentions in his article:

  • Silent, Black-and-white, 35mm, 13 reels
  • Cut together by British editor, John Jympson
  • 30-40% different footage (including alternate/longer takes and deleted scenes)
  • Reel cans labeled “The Star Wars” which was the original title
  • Less dramatic feel than final cut; more documentary-like
  • Used live projected backgrounds in place of bluescreen effects wherever possible
  • More time given to both main and secondary characters
  • Meant to be a work-in-progress, nothing more or less

Here’s a quick rundown of some of the moments from the Lost Cut mentioned by Reynolds in his article:

  • Luke at his vaporator with Treadwell droid
  • Luke and friends (including Biggs) at Toshi Station
  • Han Solo and a human Jabba the Hutt (later restored with CG Jabba fro Special Edition)
  • References to the Rebel’s “Hidden Fortress” (Kurosawa reference?) via dialogue from Darth Vader and Tarkin
  • Alternate establishing shot of Kenobi’s hut and landspeeder parked outside
  • One long shot of landspeeder traveling from trooper checkpoint to the cantina
  • Longer indoor shot of the “cantina snitch” who alerts the troopers to Kenobi’s confrontation
  • Han Solo and “Jenny” in the cantina booth watching the Kenobi confrontation and kissing afterwards
  • Luke decides not to replace C-3PO’s restraining bolt in Kenobi’s hut
  • Luke and Han congratulate each other after the TIE attack on the Millennium Falcon
  • Footage Luke and C-3PO in the landspeeder looking for R2-D2
  • More footage of Kenobi sneaking around the Death Star in search of the tractor beam
  • Many extra Death Star corridor shots including gags like heroes walking calmly past officers hiding weapons
  • Random Mos Eisley citizens and aliens
  • More Rebel Briefing Room shots
  • Jawas and a partially built sandcrawler
  • View of Mos Eisley from cliff before matte painting added
  • Aunt Beru using a blue milk dispenser
  • Darth Vader and Chief Bast walking and talking on the Death Star

* Many thanks to Dr. David West Reynolds for all of his invaluable research on the Lost Cut and on all things Star Wars. You can read more about him and his work HERE.

14 thoughts to “The “Lost Cut” of Star Wars”

  1. Hi T-Bone,
    Really fascinated by this! You give a very different impression of Jympson’s work than the Lucas-authorised, Rinzler book does.

    In that book, if memory serves correctly: Jympson’s cut is treated very unkindly as a very dull conventional cut. So bad that they dumped it and started again. In your article, it comes across as simply a rough ‘impression’ of what the final film might be like – a basic assembly. Not meant to be final cut by any means. Jympson was doing – honestly – what was required – nothing more?
    John

    1. Hey thanks! Well, since I wasn’t there at the time I guess there’s no way for me to be 100% sure. From what I remember reading in the past, it was always just supposed to be a rough assembly but again, I wasn’t there so I can’t tell you. It makes sense to me, anyhow. Rinzler had unfettered access to Lucas and all the archives so I’m sure he’s more of an expert than I could ever be. We’ll just leave it open to interpretation, I suppose?

  2. I suppose so T-Bone.
    I loved Rinzler’s book – really loved it. it’s a fascinating and inspiring story. But: I do wonder if it’s a fair account at times – for all involved. That the credit given for its success might be a little skewed.

    John

    1. I agree with that. I go by Dr. Reynolds’ account since he’s one of the few that’s actually seen the entire thing. I’m quite amazed they even kept it. I think that eventually Jympson would have edited the thing down to something close to what we eventually got. There’s a process involved and you just start assembling and throwing things together, seeing what works and so on. Then when everything’s in the correct order, you trim and tweak. I just think the Lost Cut was the beginning of that process. I mean, everything was there in order but nothing was trimmed out yet. It’s unfair to compare it to the final version. No music, no ADR, etc. But it would be really fun to see!

  3. Yep, it’d be nice. I had presumed that it wasn’t the version that Spielberg, Coppola etc saw around at George’s house, without effects and with intercut WWII dogfights.
    But maybe it was. Speilberg loved it – warts and all.

    1. No – I think this cut was before that but again, I have no way of really knowing. I think he showed it to all his friends when it was more complete, though. It had, for example, classical music from Holst and stuff. I actually remember that Spielberg was a little iffy and it was Coppola that very much defended the film, even saying that if the big companies didn’t want it, he’d write a check on the spot and buy it. 🙂 Ah, Francis…

  4. Seriously? I thought Spielberg said “I LOVED it.” Coppola said, “George, is that how you introduce your villain?”
    But, I’ll defer to your greater expertise : )

    Apparently Archie Goodwin and another of MARVEL were there too. And Brian DePalma – I think.

    1. http://secrethistoryofstarwars.com/marcialucas.html

      By January 1973, Marcia had assembled the film for a test screening. The release would be controversial–the test audiences absolutely loved the film, yet the studio executives thought it was terrible. Lucas was heartbroken as Ned Tanen called the film “unreleasable,” but Coppola defended Lucas at the screening, offerring to buy the film from Tanen and whipping out his chequebook to make the deal on the spot (after Tanen slinked away, he and Coppola didn’t speak for another twenty years). George was devastated by the studio’s negative reaction.

  5. My God:
    “Today, she has been practically erased from the history books at Lucasfilm. Looking through J.W. Rinzler’s Making of Star Wars, she is mentioned only occasionally in passing, a background element, and not a single word of hers is quoted”
    Suspected as much. Wasn’t she involved in polishing the screenplay too? I feel guilty now for even reading that Rinzler book 🙁

  6. Oh cool. I was wondering, with what’s been released for the Blue Ray set, has anybody tried to make an edit of the movie that included those scenes? I haven’t found it anywhere yet.

  7. I remember viewing a rough cut or audience test footage of the climatic battle between the Rebels and the Death Star. Don’t recall why or how I got in the theater, but it was in Los Angeles, late in 1976 or early 1977, when I was 30 years old. Of course, at that time I hadn’t the foggiest notion of its importance, or I would have paid better attention. I recall being surprised and puzzled by a cut from space combat to footage of two World War II fighter planes, I think Messerschmitts, corkscrewing in synchrony during an attack dive, likely to show their pilots’ élan. In the finished film, at near the same point, two TIE Fighters perform an identical manouver as they close in on a Rebel ship. Weeks after I watched the test footage, the penny dropped: the Messerschmitt sequence was a placehold for special effects footage still in preparation.
    I also have a vague memory of a B-52 cockpit scene, from “12 O’Clock High” or a similar show, but most likely I’m confabulating scenes from the Robert Lansing TV series, which I’d watched regularly years before.

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