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:
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."
Of 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 ...
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Be sure to check out my Entertainment Urban Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the worlds of TV, Movies and Music!