Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about movies and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the movie urban legends featured so far.
MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: Star Wars was originally subtitled “Episode IV A NEW HOPE” as an homage to Flash Gordon cliffhangers and not because of any planned sequels
MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: There was no “Episode IV A NEW HOPE” subtitle in the original Star Wars film because 20th Century Fox had it removed because it would be too confusing for moviegoers.
One of the main reasons why there are so many legends out there about Star Wars is because of the creator of Star Wars, George Lucas. Over the years, Lucas has been quoted saying a number of seemingly contradictory statements about the Star Wars films. Rather than being contradictory, though, I think most of his statements come from him simply having lots and lots of ideas for the Star Wars films and those ideas have changed as time goes by. So when he is asked about them in 1977, he has one idea on how they will go. When he is asked about them in 1978, he has an entirely different idea. In 1979, a different idea and so on and so forth. The problem for fans is figuring out the timeline of when things were said, so that they can realize that two positions weren’t contradictory, Lucas merely changed his mind on them (and then likely changed it again and again). As a result, one of the more confusing pieces of Star Wars lore is exactly when did the the first Star Wars film get subtitled “Episode IV A NEW HOPE”?
There are enough different stories out there that I decided to do TWO Movie Legends on it this week (although both are directly related to each other).
For those fans who don’t know what I am referring to (all three of you), the issue is the opening of the first Star Wars film, which begins with a slow crawl of text beginning with “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” This crawl fills in the audience on the film’s basic plot up until this point:
“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 issue is that most fans have seen a version of the film where before “It is a period of civil war” it is written “EPISODE IV A NEW HOPE.”
A few Star Wars trivia sites discuss that opening:
Contrary to popular belief, the reason George Lucas created the title card “Episode IV” in the first film was as a homage to 1940’s Saturday afternoon “cliffhanger” serials, like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. He also used the “text crawl” the same way each of those series opened up new chapters. He did not at the time have Episodes I, II, and III already planned. In fact, at one point, 20th Century Fox wanted the “Episode IV” title removed so as not to confuse moviegoers. There are some prints of the film that do not have that title card.
That is another interesting thing about Star Wars trivia, a lot of it gets enough of the facts correct that it makes the whole thing sound believable. It is true that when Star Wars was released, George Lucas did not know for sure that the film would have sequels (he certainly hoped that they would but he did not know for sure that they would). As a result, there was no “Episode IV A NEW HOPE” opening to the title crawl. It did not exist on the original prints of the film. A number of fans still distinctly remember seeing it when they saw Star Wars in the late 1970s, but they are misremembering. It did not exist. Here is the original opening…
Did it not exist because 20th Century Fox made George Lucas remove it so as to not confuse moviegoers? No, it did not exist because while Lucas certainly hoped to have sequels to the film, the notion of prequels were not yet on his mind when he released the first Star Wars film. In the early development stages of Empire Strikes Back, it was going to be called Star Wars: Episode II.
That is not to say that Lucas was not always fascinated in his film’s back story, as he was. For quite a while, he thought that the story of how Darth Vader betrayed Obi Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker and then killed Skywalker would make for a great movie or at least a great flashback sequence in an upcoming film. But it was not until the first script for the Star Wars sequel was finished that Lucas came upon the idea of doing prequels. As I have pointed out in an earlier Movie Legends Revealed, Lucas came up with the idea of having Darth Vader being Luke Skywalker’s father in 1978, after the first script for the sequel (by the late, great Leigh Brackett) had been finished. It was once Lucas came up with the idea that Darth Vader was Anakin Skywalker that suddenly his interest in the back story of the first Star Wars film grew much deeper, as now the story could very much be seen as the story of Darth Vader’s rise, fall and finally his redemption. It was then and only then that Lucas began to open up to the idea of establishing that there was a trilogy of stories that took place before the first Star Wars film and that the sequel would be Episode V and not Episode II.
Even then, though, he wasn’t sure that he would actually go that route. Lucas told Starlog magazine in late 1978 about why he would not refer to the then-upcoming Empire Strikes Back as Star Wars II:
“I would never call it that… Our working title is THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK… We were going to call it STAR WARS: EPISODE II — THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, but we ran into some problems. You see, although this story is a direct sequel to the first movie, we have three more stories that we eventually want to film that actually occur before the point where the first Star Wars begins. So we’ve been toying with the idea of ignoring the numbers completely. Instead, we’ll give each movie episode a unique title. I mean, if we had to give each film its true number in the series, this movie would be called EPISODE V: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. The first film would be called Episode IV! Can you imagine how complicated it would get? If we released a story like that publicly through a press release, thousands of people would be totally confused. Everyone would want to know what happened to the other three movies.”
Of course, that’s exactly what happened. Presumably that’s where the legend came about that 20th Century Fox made him remove Episode IV from the first film’s title, people repeating Lucas’ comments there but only attributing the concern over audience confusion to 20th Century Fox.
Finally, the question becomes “Okay, so it wasn’t until Empire Strikes Back was fully planned that the first Star Wars film became Episode IV. So when did it literally get changed?” A number of fans presume it happened during the 1978 re-release of the film, but as it turns out, it was not until the Spring 1981 re-release of the first Star Wars film (well after the release of Empire Strikes Back in 1980) that the “Episode IV A NEW HOPE” tagline was added. That new version of the film was the one that was released on to home video and has subsequently become the most famous version of the original film, so much so that few fans recall ever seeing a version of the film that didn’t have “Episode IV” on it. The 1979 art book, “The Art of Star Wars, was the first mention of the title “A New Hope” (thanks to my pal, Jeff Ryan, for that little fact).
So both legends, in their own way, are…
Thanks to Michael Coate for his remarkable research into Star Wars history.
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is email@example.com.
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