Movie Legends Revealed | When Did the First ‘Star Wars’ Become ‘Episode IV’?

anewhope

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 thought it would be too confusing for moviegoers.

One of the main reasons there are so many legends about Star Wars is creator George Lucas. Over the years, he’s been quoted saying a number of seemingly contradictory statements about films. Rather than being contradictory, though, I think most of his comments come from him simply having a lot of ideas for the Star Wars saga, and those ideas have changed with time. So when he’s asked about them in 1977, he has one idea about how they will go, and when he is asked about them in 1978, he has an entirely different idea, and so on. The problem for fans is figuring out the timeline of when things were said, so they can realize that two positions weren’t contradictory, Lucas merely changed his mind (and then likely changed it again). As a result, one of the more confusing pieces of Star Wars lore is exactly when the first Star Wars film was 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 they’re directly related).

For those who don’t know what I’m 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 …” That crawl fills in the audience on the film’s backstory:

starwars“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 in which “Episode IV: A New Hope” precedes “It is a period of civil war.”

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’s true that when Star Wars was released, Lucas didn’t know for sure that there would be sequels. As a result, there was no “Episode IV: A New Hope” opening to the title crawl; it didn’t exist on the original prints of the film. A number of fans still distinctly remember seeing it when they watched Star Wars in the late 1970s, but they’re misremembering. It didn’t exist.

Did it not exist because 20th Century Fox made Lucas remove it so as not to confuse moviegoers? No, it didn’t exist because while Lucas certainly hoped to have sequels, the notion of prequels wasn’t yet on his mind. In the early development stages, The Empire Strikes Back was going to be called Star Wars: Episode II.

That’s not to say Lucas wasn’t always fascinated in his film’s backstory, as he was. For quite a while, he thought 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 wasn’t until the first script was finished for the Star Wars sequel that Lucas came upon the idea of prequels. As I pointed out in an earlier Movie Legends Revealed, Lucas came up with the idea of Darth Vader as Luke Skywalker’s father in 1978, after the first draft of the sequel (by the late, great Leigh Brackett) had been finished. It was then that his interest in the backstory of the first Star Wars film grew deeper, as now the saga could be viewed as chronicling Darth Vader’s rise, fall and, finally, his redemption. It was then and only then that Lucas opened up to the idea of establishing that there was a trilogy of stories that took place before the first Star Wars, 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 why he wouldn’t 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.”

anewhopeposterOf course, that’s exactly what happened. Presumably that’s where the legend came about that 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 the studio.

Finally, the question becomes “OK, so it wasn’t until The 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, 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 The 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 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.

So both legends, in their own way, are …

STATUS: False

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 bcronin@legendsrevealed.com.

Be sure to check out my Entertainment Urban Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the worlds of TV, Movies and Music!

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Comments

  • Cody McGowan

    Something that people don’t mention enough is the release of the original theatrical cuts of the first three movies as a special feature on the DVD about seven years ago. Sure, it wasn’t dual layered, but it’s the only way I’ve ever seen the original version of the films. While Empire and Jedi don’t change much in terms of quality, the original cut of Star Wars is way better than the subsequent versions of A New Hope.
    Anyway, the reason I mention it is because on that version, there is no subtitle on the first movie. It’s just Star Wars.

  • JM Battle

    Then you actually have not seen the original versions at all. The version of DVD a few years ago can’t really be considered original.

  • Philip

    I saw the original release (I am old) and the re-release, and I remember seeing the Episode IV tag at the re-release. This was pre-internet era so I hadn’t heard of the plans for the prequels, so it struck me as very interesting. Now I wish it had stayed Episode I (not a fan of emo Vader, or Jar Jar).

  • Joops

    What’s with the bastardization of Drew Struzan’s ’96 Special Edition poster?? Inserting Chewie, R2, 3PO and a different Leia? Even if that was officially sanctioned it’s awful.

  • Dandru

    The thing is, Lucas has lied in a lot of interviews. He has claimed that he ALWAYS saw Star Wars as six episodes… and as nine episodes… and as twelve episodes, and that Luke and Leia were always Vader’s twin children–despite A New Hope’s script giving them different ages.

  • AEmilius Resurrection

    That’s interesting. Sort of related: maybe I am completely crazy, and I’ve never been able to confirm this with anyone, but I could swear back in the day I saw the first Ewok movie starting with a similar prologue/crawl and the “Star Wars Episode VII” title O.o Is that even possible?!

  • Lic Guido-Visión Rosas Duarte

    JM, a few years ago the special editions were released with a bonus disc that included the original cuts. Those are the versions Cody is referring to.

  • bob a. booey

    not in America at least: i recorded the movie when it aired in Nov. of 1984 and still have it on VHS and it doesnt have a crawl. I cannot confirm about the UK release, which was subtitled Caravan of Courage as I have not seen that version.

  • http://fiendishobservationalcomedian.blogspot.com/ Dean Hacker

    Wow. George Lucas was always a tinkerer, wasn’t he?

  • ixlplk

    People gripe about the changes that he makes but “Episode IV” in the title crawl is the earliest evidence of how Lucas changed things before video releases that I guess he thought would be how the movies would gain a broader audience and acceptance. So before the movies became accepted as being one way, he would change or “tweak” it, to fit his particular vision. What he miscalculated was how long VHS, laserdisc, dvd and blu ray would co-exist.

  • rawshiva

    From the May 19th, 1980 edition of Time magazine which had Darth Vader on the cover:

    “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 answers: Lucas has begun his space saga in the middle, and both pictures are the centerpieces of a projected nine part series.”

    Then it goes on to loosely summarize what eventually became Episode 1-3 before ending on this bit.

    “The last three episodes involve the rebuilding of the republic. Only two of the main characters will appear in all nine films, and they are the robots. Artoo Detoo and Threepio. Says Lucas, “In effect, the story will be told through their eyes.” “

  • E. Jones

    Those ‘original cuts’ are significantly altered from the original theatrical cuts. There are numerous shots which have been cropped, edited and otherwise altered, alternate dialogue has been used (most notably and obviously the dialogue belonging to the Aunt Beru character in A New Hope — her dialogue was completely re-recorded by a different actress), many effects shots do not appear as they did originally… the list goes on.

    Yes, the versions released as the bonus discs you mention are the closest thing to the original cuts that is officially available, but they’re most decidedly not “original”. There are numerous fan edits which restore the original theatrical versions as closely as possible which are well worth seeking out if you’re a fan.

  • cb

    I’m fairly certain the “Episode IV” was in the 78 re-release.
    I don’t remember if it was in the Time or Starlog interview, But I do remember Lucas saying there were 9 core movies with the hopes of doing spin-offs under “The Further Adventures of Luke Skywalker” title.
    After Jedi he seemed to have forgotten ever saying that.
    But we did get two Ewok movies.

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  • g

    I think the original Time Magazine article in 1977 also referenced a planned 12 picture cycle. The original novelization was subtitled, I believe, “From The Adventures of Luke Skywalker). So, we went from a 12 movie serial about Luke Skywalker to a 9 part serial about the rise,fall,and rise of The Republic focused on R2D2 and C3PO to 6 films from Lucas and 3 from Disney.

  • http://banthaskull.com/ chrisswan@banthaskull.com

    This is an outstanding read. I also like that it once again dispels another rumor that “Vader” was meant to represent “father” due to similarities in the Germanic languages. Darth Vader wasn’t planned as Luke’s farther when Star Wars was written. That would be good fodder for another movie urban legend.

  • Dr Fell

    i also remember the claim of a 9 part series way back in he early days

  • Marlboroliteman

    I remember the crawl starting with Episode IV in the original theatrical release from 1977.
    My brother and I were confused by it and thought we came into the movie late. We came back a couple of days later 20 min. early or something like that to see the beginning which we thought we missed because of that crawl.

  • Yawantpancakes?

    I remember that. IIRC the last scene in the 9th movie was to reveal that the whole story was being read from R2′s memory banks by workers in the future (hence the tag line “A long time ago”).

  • http://vbartilucci.tumblr.com/ VBartilucci

    The DVD “original” versions, IIRC, are from the original Laserdisc release, which had already been tweaked.

  • Video Beagle

    See, and I recall the idea the middle three were “From The Adventures of Luke Skywalker” while the first three were to be “From The Adventures of Obi-Wan Kenobi” with the final three to be someone else.

  • Darth Janus

    To me the film has always simply been Star Wars. I use ANH when referencing the film online, but to me it will always be Star Wars. Great article though!

  • Rick Diehl

    Apparently this is where being old is a good thing. I’ve got my 1982 video of Star Wars, that is the original cut, although it does also have the despicable, Chapter IV crawl.