Exploding Death Stars. Lightsaber duel. Interstellar dogfights. Star Wars: A New Hope had everything. For all the film’s spectacular and instantly iconic scenes, it’s bizarre that its most controversial setting is also its simplest: two figures sitting at a table, shooting the breeze before shooting each other.
The scene occurs about 50 minutes into the film, shortly after we meet Han Solo, Harrison Ford’s cool cucumber smuggler. Han is rushed into a restaurant booth by bounty hunter Greedo – an alien curiosity with big buggy eyes and green reptile skin. Greedo points a gun at him, explaining that he is here to collect Han’s debts to local crime lord Jabba the Hutt. Han saves time, while gently drawing his pistol. Then, like a coiled snake, he strikes – bringing down his unsightly foe. The scene was everything you needed to know about Han Solo. He was neither a saint nor a hero. He was a man who would shoot first and look super cool doing it. At least, that’s what it looked like if you watched it in 1977.
Twenty years later, that was not the case. In 1997, A new hope‘s director, George Lucas, has overseen a remastered and digitally revised re-release of the original Star Wars trilogy. The majority of Lucas’ edits could best be described as benign but unnecessary – a previously deleted scene was restored with a Jabba the Hutt CGI; exploding planets received an additional visual boost. But one change proved too much for fans to bear.
The fateful encounter between Han and Greedo has been edited to clear Han of any wrongdoing. Han no longer “shot first”. Instead, his alien enemy somehow missed a point-blank shot, giving him the chance to fire a quick retaliatory shot. Responses to the change ranged from timid shrugs to incandescent rage: for some fans, it was a betrayal not just of the sanctity of the original film, but of Han’s very character. The backlash has blossomed into one of the biggest fan-creator debates of all time. In doing so, he laid the groundwork for a new era of tortured battles between fans and creators, of ghost hunters at Justice League.
Later re-releases of the film cobbled together the details. A 2004 DVD release saw the two gunmen firing almost simultaneously; the 2019 version added incomprehensible dialogue in which Greedo can be heard saying a gibberish word that many fans have heard as “maclunkey”. The whole question of “who shot who first and how” has become so confusing that it would take an expert Cluedo player to get to the bottom of it.
Paul Blake, the actor who played Greedo, spoke about the scene several times, including in an interview with the New York Daily News in 2016. When asked what he thought of the “Han shot first” debate, he replied, “It was all said in the original script. We played the scene in English and at the end of the scene, it reads: “Han shoots the alien”. It would be nice to see them return to the original version – I much preferred it, I must say. Asked the same question, Harrison Ford’s response was rather more concise: “I don’t care.”
For his part, Lucas was clear on his reasoning for the change. “I never designed Han to be a ruthless killer,” he said. “All good guys shoot in self-defense.” He’s said many times over the years that Star Wars films are primarily aimed at children. The fact that so many of the franchise’s most ardent fans are now adults — and have been for decades — causes no small friction when it comes to the tone and direction of the show itself.
No one knew at the time, but the “Han fired first” furor was just the first in a series of protracted disputes between Star Wars fanbase factions and the bearded figurehead of franchise. After 1997, Lucas would continue to make changes to the original Star Wars trilogy over the next two decades, adding peripheral CGI characters and enhanced effects. His prequel trilogy, beginning in 1999 The Phantom Menace, was reviled by much of his audience for, among other things, being too juvenile in his tone. Disney’s multi-billion dollar acquisition of Star Wars in 2012 took the series out of Lucas’ hands and took him out of the line of fire, but the fights between fans and creators have continued unabated. Let it be Rian Johnson polarization Last JediJJ Abrams widely maligned The Rise of Skywalkeror the unfortunate Solo: A Star Wars Story, Disney’s commitment to glut the market with Star Wars properties has long overshadowed all of Lucas’ so-called transgressions. The days of pearls are long gone. And yet, for many, “Han shot first” still stings like a laser blast in the gut.
Professor Josef Benson, author of Star Wars: The Triumph of Nerd Culture, says the franchise’s groundbreaking approach to merchandising helped sow the seeds of the anti-Lucas backlash. “[With A New Hope], Lucas was interested in creating a mythology, and from the beginning the fans wanted to participate in it,” he says. “As millions and millions of action figures flooded the market, Star Wars as mythology left an indelible mark on the minds of an entire generation of children. In this way, fans of the film began to to feel a sense of belonging to the films unlike anything that had happened before.
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Although the initial reaction to the news that Lucas was updating and re-editing the original trilogy was largely positive, the tide turned when they realized what this meant for their treasured originals. “For fans, this was a powerful move that made it clear who the world of Star Wars really belonged to,” Benson says. “Many felt that the movies were no longer up to Lucas to change. The so-called flaws in the movies were actually what affected people the most, much like the cigarette lodged in one of the oil paintings. Jackson Pollock oil.
Along with the various Lucas reissues, the only widely commercially available versions of A new hope, this raises a question: who is responsible for preserving the original and charming Star Wars experience? Some fans took the blame on themselves. Fan-made reissues of the original trilogy have long circulated online, with restorations such as “Harmy’s Despecialized Edition” successfully attempting to replicate the films’ original cuts. It’s far from ideal, but these sorts of unofficial backchannels are sometimes how niche or otherwise “lost” films endure. It seems ludicrous to classify a juggernaut such as Star Wars as some kind of buried cinephile curiosity, but in its authentic, original form, it is.
In the grand scheme of things, Lucas’ reviled reissues aren’t necessarily the blatant acts of cultural vandalism that they’re sometimes made out to be. Dodgy restorations have always been a big part of Hollywood — think of the monstrous colorizations of Laurel and Hardy movies, or the decision to replace guns with walkie-talkies in the 2002 re-release of HEY (a decision that Steven Spielberg later returned to). Whether Han is a cold-blooded killer – or just a manslaughter – doesn’t change the rest of the film too much. But it is a matter of principle. It’s a debate that will likely persist long after Lucas’ passing, after Disney has moved on from Star Wars in its yet another trilogy of films, and after “Son of the Mandalorian” enters its eighth season. If there’s one thing these movies have taught us, it’s that war is never really over.