This week, the Library of Congress announced their annual additions to the National Film Registry. Once again, 25 movie titles representing American cinema have been selected, many of them at the suggestion of fans nationwide. The class of 2021 includes a 1902 film of the Ringling Brothers circus parade, the John Waters cult classic Pink Flamingos, the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, Peter Jackson’s first trip to Middle Earth with The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, the biopic Selena, the Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, and the Pixar animated feature WALL-E.
The movie that received the most public votes in support of its addition to the National Film Registry, though, is Return of the Jedi. The third feature in the Star Wars franchise and the closing chapter in the Original Trilogy, this Richard Marquand-helmed blockbuster was originally released in 1983. While not as acclaimed as the first two movies, both of which have already been selected for the National Film Registry, Return of the Jedi is still considered, as are all National Film Registry titles, to have “cultural, historic or aesthetic importance.” And it only makes sense for the entire original Star Wars trilogy to be recognized with this distinction.
George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, said as much in a statement given to the Library of Congress:
“A great honor of learning ‘Return of the Jedi’ has been included in the National Film Registry is knowing the original trilogy of the Star Wars Saga will be preserved in full as nominated by the public, safeguarded as part of our shared American Cinema heritage by our nation’s oldest federal cultural institution, the Library of Congress, and the National Film Preservation Board.”
But here’s the weird thing: Lucas doesn’t believe that the original version of Return of the Jedi, or the other two OT Star Wars movies, should be “preserved” or “safeguarded” at all. And sadly, the tremendous public support for the inclusion of Return of the Jedi in the National Film Registry is probably because fans want those original versions to be saved. Lucas, however, thinks only the 1997 Special Edition versions of A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi (and their continued updates) are worthy of existence. And he apparently hasn’t cooperated with the Library of Congress in their request for prints of the initial release cuts.
This is part of an email written a decade ago by Librarian of Congress Zoran Sinobad:
“While both ‘Star Wars’ (1977) and ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ (1980) are on the National Film Registry, the Library has not yet acquired new prints of either one. When the request was made for ‘Star Wars,’ Lucasfilm offered us the Special Edition version. The offer was declined as this was obviously not the version that had been selected for the Registry. We have not yet requested a print of ‘The Empire Strikes Back,’ added to the Registry late last year.”
What’s crazy about the Library of Congress’ struggle to acquire the original is that the first Star Wars, a.k.a. A New Hope, was one of the first movies selected for the National Film Registry during its inaugural year, 1989. In fact, it was the most recent entry at the time. So, even though the Special Edition of A New Hope didn’t come out for another eight years, Lucas was still apparently dodgy from the get-go. The Library of Congress does own a 1978 print of Star Wars that has “minor scratches” and a 1979 print made with English captioning for the deaf, but both are copyright deposits and therefore apparently not part of the National Film Registry’s collection.
Here’s what an anonymous professional film restorationist told the website SaveStarWars.com in 2011:
“I was told that Lucas dragged his feet and hemmed and hawed that ‘Star Wars’ needed restoration work before it could go on deposit, and then what was sent was the 1997 version. All I know is what I was told by the Library itself. I’m sure that no one who works there will go on record publicly and say this, but I was told this by the top people who work there.”
Per Sinobad’s email, the Library of Congress also has copyright deposit prints for the 1980 release of The Empire Strikes Back, which had “extreme color fading,” and the 1983 release of Return of the Jedi. There was nothing to report at the time on the latter. According to SaveStarWars.com (where you can also read Sinobad’s email in full), there was once an attempt to loan the Library of Congress a privately held Technicolor print of the 1977 cut of Star Wars, but it was unable to be copied and was returned to its owner. Reportedly, the National Film Registry currently has a copy of A New Hope but it’s the 1997 Special Edition version.
A contrary claim was made by Steve Leggett, program coordinator for the National Film Preservation Board. From a 2018 Mental Floss article on the National Film Registry:
“For Hollywood movies, the process is usually pretty easy. ‘We simply ask the studio to donate a copy,’ Leggett told Mental Floss in 2015. In some cases, that isn’t even necessary. The Library of Congress has more than 1 million films on file, many of them sent by studios or filmmakers for the sake of copyright registry. When the original ‘Star Wars’ was selected in 1989, Leggett says, congressional librarians simply checked that the 35 millimeter print submitted with Lucasfilm’s copyright application was in good shape. It was, so no further action was needed.”
So, we can assume Lucasfilm will only offer a Special Edition copy of Return of the Jedi for the National Film Registry, but according to Leggett, they don’t need one anyway. It’s unknown what condition that 1983 print is in, though, and if the Library of Congress ever requests a new one they’ll be out of luck obtaining a copy of the original. They have great intentions with recognizing these movies and the desire to preserve them as they were upon their releases in 1977, 1980, and 1983. But it’s a wonder the board choosing the titles for the National Film Registry even bothered to include Return of the Jedi given the trouble they’ve had with its precursors.