Bringing “A New Hope” to Star Wars

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Those of us old enough to have seen the original Star Wars film during it’s initial run have a fond memory to cherish. When the Flash Gordon-inspired, yellow text crawled its way up the screen, it began with, “It is a period of civil war,” and then continued on. There was no subtitle to the film since, we assume, no one really knew if it would be a hit or not. If you’ve seen the film since the 1980s, though, then you’ve most likely seen the subtitle Episode IV: A New Hope added above the crawl. (For a GREAT article on May 25, 1977 and all that goes with it, please see May 25, 1977: A Day Long Remembered by Michael Coate.)

Despite rumors to the contrary, this subtitle wasn’t added to the opening crawl of the film until 1981, about a year or so after the release of The Empire Strikes Back. There were various re-releases of the original 1977 film, but it wasn’t until around the time that Empire was released that George Lucas decided to go back and change the film’s opening for consistency’s sake. Since Empire was going to be known as Episode V and he knew he was going to finish at least one trilogy (if not two or possibly three) he went back and added Episode IV: A New Hope to the famous yellow text. There are many out there who claim to remember seeing the Episode IV: A New Hope lettering in theaters before the 1981 re-release, but they are mistaken.

Starwars.com once reported the following:

Episode IV: A New Hope did not appear in the film during its opening run, but was added during the movie’s re-release to ensure consistency with The Empire Strikes Back.

They’re not specific about which re-release that was, but a little more research reveals the truth.

In his May 18, 1980 review of The Empire Strikes Back in the Washington Post, Gary Arnold refers to “next” summer (1981) as the year the prints will be changed:

Just as “Star Wars” and “The Empire Strikes Back” start in the thick of the action, jumping into military operations caused by civil war in a remote, exotic, technologically advanced interplanetary civilization, Lucas recently disclosed that he started in the middle of a grandiose epic narrative. These sensational popular spectacles are intended to be merely the first and second chapters of a trilogy, which will be completed in 1982 or 1983 by a third chapter entitled “Revenge of the Jedi” (changed to “Return of the Jedi”). When “Star Wars” is reissued, probably next summer, the prints will include the subtitle, Episode IV: A New Hope”. This adjustment may already be seen in the published screenplay, which came out last winter in an attractive book called “The Art of Star Wars.”

In an issue of Newsweek dated May 19, 1980, David Ansen makes references to the title change as well:

“Viewers may be in for a surprise when the credits announce ‘Star Wars, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back.’ Episode ‘FIVE?’ Have we slipped into a time warp? Actually, what we are getting is the second act of the middle trilogy of a projected nine-film cycle. The first ‘Star Wars’ will be retitled ‘Episode IV: A New Hope,’ and the next sequel, projected for 1983, will resolve all the dangling threads of the Luke Skywalker saga.”

In Time magazine’s May 19, 1980 issue, there’s another mention of the retitling:

“The very first surprise in ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ comes in the opening credits: the movie is identified as ‘Episode V.’ Since it is the immediate sequel to the original ‘Star Wars,’ that opus has been retitled ‘Star Wars: Episode IV,’ raising a meteor shower of questions. The answer: Lucas has begun his space saga in the middle, and both pictures are the centerpieces of a projected nine-part series. The remaining movies, fore and aft, have not yet been laid out in detail, but Lucas has the framework, a kind of history of what happened in that galaxy long ago and far away.”

The “Star Wars Compendium of Lost Footage” from 1995 is one of the first things I remember reading on the Internet about Star Wars. It’s a little dated but still relevant and fun to read. Inside, there’s mention of the subtitle addition of 1981:

From “Star Wars” to “A New Hope”:
The reissue of “Star Wars” that ran for three weeks starting on Wednesday, August 15, 1979, DID NOT contain the “Episode IV: A NEW HOPE” subtitle. A trailer for “Empire” was shown, however, and a Kenner toys discount booklet was given out (both of which are announced on the poster for the reissue).

The first appearance of “Episode IV: A NEW HOPE” was on the new prints struck for the two-week reissue of “Star Wars” on April 10, 1981, nearly one year after the premiere of “Empire.”

By the way, when the subtitle was added, the roll-up itself was changed. Lines of text were condensed differently so the length of the roll-up remained the same despite the addition of two lines at the top. The capitalized words DEATH STAR appear on one line in the first version and are broken on the revised version.

For the record, “Empire” was reissued later that year, on July 31, 1981. In 1982, “Star Wars” returned on April 10 and “Empire” on November 19. Both of these reissues featured identical “Revenge of the Jedi” trailers.

Yes, Virginia, there is a bootleg:

Floating around the black market limbo of sci-fi conventions and fanboy heaven is a forgotten bootleg of “Star Wars,” a film transfer of the original 1977 theatrical release. It’s interesting mainly as a curiosity, because the transfer is awful, the image is cropped poorly, and I’m sure that we all have much better, legal copies lying around. Nevertheless, as an account of the minor changes made to “Star Wars” over the years, it’s priceless.

Following is a list of differences sent to me by an anonymous informant:

I synched up the tape to my THX laserdisc (with picture-in-picture) and tried to find the differences…

*Video differences:

First, the tape isn’t really panned and scanned. It’s panned all right, but not scanned–the picture just sits on the center of the widescreen frame. The only video difference I could find was in the opening scroll. Not only was the “Episode IV: A New Hope” tag missing, but the lines were formatted differently.

Laserdisc

Episode IV
A NEW HOPE

It is a period of civil war.
Rebel spaceships, striking
from a hidden base, have won
their first victory against
the evil Galactic Empire.

During the battle, Rebel
spies managed to steal secret
plans to the Empire’s
ultimate weapon, the DEATH
STAR, an armored space
station with enough power to
destroy an entire planet.

Pursued by the Empire’s
sinister agents, Princess
Leia races home aboard her
starship, custodian of the
stolen plans that can save
her people and restore
freedom to the galaxy . . .

 

Pre-ANH Video

It is a period of civil war.
Rebel spaceships, striking
from a hidden base, have
won their first victory
against the evil Galactic
Empire.

During the battle, Rebel
spies managed to steal
secret plans to the Empire’s
ultimate weapon, the
DEATH STAR, an armored
space station with enough
power to destroy an entire planet.

Pursued by the Empire’s
sinister agents, Princess
Leia races home aboard her
starship, custodian of the
stolen plans that can save
her people and restore
freedom to the galaxy . . .

The evidence is conclusive for those whose memory has become foggy over time, or for those who thought they saw something they did not. So for anyone who is constantly complaining about George Lucas’ tweaks to his films, let me remind you that he started tweaking a lot earlier than you thought.


*This article has been updated from its original form posted on January 1, 2013.

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