As a child of the 1970s, the original Star Wars trilogy1Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi was—and remains—one of my favorite movie series of all time.
Unfortunately, George Lucas has made it virtually impossible to watch the original unedited versions of the films.2Unedited versions exist on LaserDisc and DVD, but they are low quality transfers. From 1997 onwards, only modified versions have been available—with newly-added CGI effects, deleted scenes that add nothing to the story, changes to sound effects, and even replacement of characters, such as some of those in the cantina in the original Star Wars. He called these releases Special Editions…but to fans of the originals, they weren't so special.
Enter one Petr Harmy and an army of volunteers. Using multiple sources, Harmy and the others pieced together all three original films, doing away with the edits, correcting colors, upscaling imagery, and replacing sound effects. This 20-minute video explains the process, and contains a number of before-and-after comparison shots.
The end result is something called Harmy’s Star Wars Trilogy Despecialized3Because these versions remove the Special Editions' changes—get it? Editions: Amazingly high quality versions of the theatrical releases of all three original movies. As a very brief example, here's one still (click for a much larger version) from Star Wars:
The movies are not at Blu-Ray (1920x1080) resolution, but they're very well done 720p (1280x720) versions which look amazingly nice even when scaled to fill the screen of my 27" iMac. And most importantly, all the cruft added on through the years is gone. No bogus CGI. No replaced characters. No weird sound effects. Oh, and (spoiler alert!) Han shoots first.
So how can you get these Despecialized versions for yourself? That's a bit tricky…
You obviously can't buy these—they're fan-made creations, and honestly, it's pretty amazing that Lucasfilm (now Disney) has let them exist as long as they have (I first downloaded them in late 2015). But they do exist, and even more importantly, there's a how-to guide on how to get them:
This is a very thorough guide, and I'm not going to replicate the steps here—because there are too many and the guide explains them all. However, I will point out some things you should be aware of before you start…
- Technically, what you are doing is breaking the law, even if you own the originals (which is a prerequisite that you promise you've met before you download these). Never ever buy or sell these files.
- Things are easier if you have a download manager app; the guide suggests a tool named FreeRapid, which requires that you have Java installed. I tested it, and it works well, with limitations outside of its control (keep reading).
- The limitations have nothing to do with FreeRapid, but with the site that hosts the downloads: The files (multi-part RAR) reside on a server that limits free accounts to 5gb of downloads every six hours. If you're seeing a message that reads "ERROR - Error starting download", it's due to the bandwidth limit. The only fix is to wait or pay for an upgraded account.
- Once downloaded, you'll need a tool that can combine the multiple RAR parts; The Unarchiver is recommended in the guide, but I'm sure there are others.
- These movies are big, about 20GB each after assembling the parts. Make sure you have bandwidth to spare.
- If you trust such places, you can probably find torrents for the full movies in various dark corners of the internet. If you use such a place, please verify the integrity of any movies you download. You can do this in Terminal by cding into the directory with the movie file, then typing shasum name.of.movie.mkv and pressing Return. After a while—maybe quite a while, given the file size—you'll see a long output string. Compare that to the value on the above-linked site for each movie—if they're the same, you've got an unaltered movie.
It will take time and effort to get the Despecialized versions, but having watched them over the years, the effort is well worth it. As an owner of multiple copies of all of the Star Wars movies, I do not feel any guilt about watching these amazing fan-built creations, even if it's not legal.
I would, of course, purchase real legal versions of the original unedited Star Wars Trilogy movies if they were available—how about it, Disney?