Anyone who is desperately craving copies of all of the Star Wars movies on DVD should look over the options available and think about what they want, because at this point there are good commercial copies of all six movies readily available. The discs that we have finally received from Fox prove that LucasFilm does at least provide high quality audio and video as well as some good extras, when they finally get around to releasing a title on DVD. The original trilogy's 2004 DVD release, reviewed below, makes any SE bootleg irrelevent, just as the Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith discs did in 2001, 2002, and 2005. I've retained reviews of the Phantom Menace and SE trilogy bootlegs just for the sake of amusement at this point, even though I don't recommend wasting your time on any prequel or Special Edition bootlegs. Bootleg activity continued beyond 2004, however, solely because of the changes made by Lucas to the original trilogy for the 1997 Special Edition re-release and the subsequent changes for the 2004 DVD's. Fans' desire to have a digital archive of the original theatrical versions of the trilogy led to a strong interest in bootlegs based on the 1993 or 1995 LaserDisc releases. By the time the Limited Edition discs arrived, those bootlegs had gotten surprisingly sophisticated, so I've left my reviews of those discs in place along with the reviews of the official releases. Links to each page are available below and are reproduced at the top of each review.
The void created by the lack of official DVD's for the Star Wars movies allowed for the appearance of a large, shady, and often unclear assortment of imitations and substitutes. There have been numerous bootleg versions of the Star Wars movies, created from available sources such as official Laserdiscs and Video CD's and even "borrowed" theater prints (complete with nicks and lint - from what little I've heard, the first Phantom Menace bootlegs were made this way, and were almost unwatchable). Even Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith fell victim, probably due in large part to the activity surrounding bootlegs of the original trilogy. These discs provide a way to have the movies on DVD, but it comes at the cost of quality. How much quality? I've documented some of my thoughts on the Star Wars DVD's I've seen, both the excellent official releases and several of the many, many bootlegs that have materialized over the last four years or so. In general, bootleg discs are not going to be good enough to stand up against an official DVD release, although some more recent fan-organized efforts to preserve the original theatrical versions of the trilogy have attempted to disprove that notion. Some of the bootlegs, such as the first Phantom Menace discs (derived from theatrical prints), are not even as good as a worn out VHS tape. In light of the release of the trilogy on DVD in September 2004, the bootlegs are really only appealing to two types of Star Wars fan: the fan who likes to collect everything available, and the fan who is interested in preserving thr original theatrical version of the trilogy on some format other than VHS and LaserDisc. The very best of the new bootlegs can rival the widescreen VHS copies (although you don't need to rewind the DVD's, and you can watch them as often as you want without wearing them out) or even the 1993 LaserDiscs. In other cases, they aren't even as good as the VHS copies. For more information on the Star Wars bootleg DVD's, try these links to The Digital Bits.
At this point, we should start by saying that Lucasfilm has proven that they can produce very good quality discs and that they have finally embraced the DVD format as they should have back in 1998 or 1999. By the end of 2005, we had all six feature films on DVD along with much of the related TV material (both live-action Ewok movies, both seasons of the Clone Wars cartoon, and at least a few pieces of the Ewoks and Droids cartoons from the mid-1980's). Aside from some edge enhancement complaints on Phantom Menace, the feature film discs and Clone Wars cartoon disc have received top-rate transfers. The "fringe" material released in 2004 (the Ewok movies and Droids/Ewoks animation) may not have received quite the same level of treatment, but the fact that they appeared at all (and reportedly with quite serviceable transfers) is impressive in and of itself after we spent so many years expecting to have to wait until some time in late 2006 to see any Star Wars DVD's. The 1978 Holiday Special remains absent from store shelves, of course, but aside from disturbing drinking games and MST3K-style parody there's not really much need for it anyway. Because of the effort that Lucasfilm eventually put into these discs, I consider bootlegs of the officially released discs to be a waste of my time and money. Judging from the bootleg DVD activity in recent years, other fans seem to agree with me.
So why does this page even exist? After all, I just got done saying that all of the feature films (and even much of the peripheral TV material) have been served up on DVD in proper fashion. Granted, it took seven and a half years of waiting, but the original trilogy is sitting on store shelves in the form of a very respectable four-disc set. Shouldn't the issue be as dead as a smoldering Jawa? It would be, except for two words: Special Edition. The revisions to the original trilogy that were included in the 1997 restoration may have allowed the movies to more closely match Lucas's original vision, but they also upset many fans who considered the original theatrical versions of the trilogy to be an integral part of their childhoods. Personally, I found many of the changes to be minimal and largely unobjectionable. For me, the additions to Bespin served to better portray the sense that it was a city floating in the clouds. True, I was a bit saddened to see the effects shots that had been so groundbreaking when the movies were new (the X-Wings and Y-Wings and their attack on the first Death Star in particular) excised and replaced with more modern digital effects shots, but only because those original shots were very historic in what they accomplished. The new shots did not detract from the movie for me, even if I felt they did somewhat cheapen the original version's achievements. There were some things that never quite felt right to me about the Special Editions, of course. Jabba's band in Jedi went from suitably alien to almost uncomfortably spastic. Jabba's visit with Han in A New Hope felt like a bizarre cross between the original movie and a video game cut scene. Worst of all, the clumsily-handled edit that allowed Greedo to shoot first in the cantina lessened the story arc of Han's character while at the same time looking painfully forced. The widespread changes to the trilogy in 1997 led to a strong interest among fans in retaining their beloved original theatrical cuts, which did not mesh well with Lucas's clear decision not to ever look back to those original versions. Many fans dreamed of the 2004 DVD's including both the original and 1997 versions of the movies, in spite of Lucas's repeated assurances that he considered the original versions to be nothing more than rough drafts that he has no intention of returning to. The DVD's that did arrive take the 1997 Special Editions and further refine them, improving a few of the CGI additions, cleaning up some lightsaber effects, replacing the digital Jabba in A New Hope with the CG character used for Phantom Menace, tweaking the cantina shootout a bit to leave Greedo and Han firing at the same time, replacing Boba Fett's voice with Temuera Morrison (Jango Fett), removing Sebastian Shaw's eyebrows during the scene in Return of the Jedi when Luke removes Vader's mask, replacing Sebastian Shaw with Hayden Christensen when Anakin's spirit appears at the end of Jedi, and playing with some of the celebration scenes at the end of Jedi. These changes will certainly not be enough to create any interest in the preservation of the 1997 Special Editions, but it does leave a small but active community of fans still eager to get their hands on DVD's of the original theatrical cuts discs to help preserve some piece of their youth. Those bootlegs are be the only remnant of the Star Wars bootleg market that retains any sort of life after the official DVD release in September 2004. It is because of these bootlegs the original theatrical bootlegs that this site is anything more than a history lesson.
Should you go out and hunt down a bootleg of the original theatrical versions of the trilogy? If you do, which bootlegs should you look for? How much should you pay? All of these are personal decisions. Personally, I think it is clear that bootlegs of the prequels and the 1997 Special Edition trilogy are relics, not even worth thinking about. If you pick up the official trilogy DVD's and find yourself content, stop there: they are $42 from Amazon.com (among other places) and are a sure thing when it comes to video quality, audio quality, and extras. Having seen the official set, I expect those to be the discs I will most often pull down when I find myself wanting to watch the trilogy, but that's just me some fans will feel differently. Only if you find yourself seriously craving a copy of the original theatrical cuts should you even consider a bootleg. There is also a certain amount of risk inherent in bootlegs: just because I reviewed a few sets based on the 1993 LaserDiscs and found them to be free from serious issues, it is possible (and even probable) that other bootlegs based on those LaserDiscs are floating around places like eBay that suffer from any number of ailments. With those caveats in mind, I will offer some thoughts on the OT bootlegs. First, I recommend against the eBay auctions that often wind up around $60 or $70 for a set of discs; as I've already said, there is a great deal of risk involved in trying to get a specific set off of eBay, and the price is just too high (in my opinion I have been recommending for a couple years now that the $30 price range is my upper limit). Up until early 2005, there were basically three choices that were very close to each other: TR47's original DVD-R's, Kristhemovieman's dual-layer discs, and the Dr. Gonzo anamorphic discs. Of the three, I tended to come down in favor of TR47's discs, especially after he dropped his price and started offering a set of bonus discs. (There were also the facts that I never knew of a reliable source for the Dr. Gonzo discs and there were a number of reports of people having trouble with Kristhemovieman, who has apparently stopped shipping discs entirely.) A small but active online community took shape in 2004 with the petition site OriginalTrilogy.com, however, and a number of their members began searching for ways to do the best possible job of preserving the original theatrical versions of the movies, primarily using the 1993 Definitive Edition LaserDiscs as a basis. This grass-roots effort has yielded several new transfers that are focused solely on a good quality preservation, not on producing something that can be sold on eBay for lots of money. One of the new packages that came about due to the prodding of that community is the Cowclops/TR47 set, and this is the version that I would recommend to anyone who is determined to keep a copy of the original theatrical releases around on disc.
Update, 5/24/2006: May 2006 brought interesting news from Lucasfilm the announcement of Limited Edition DVD's of each of the three original movies, with each title containing one disc with the 2004 SE version and a second disc with the original theatrical version. Those original theatrical versions are exactly what fans have been begging for. Unfortunately, they will be based on the masters produced for LaserDisc releases back in the early 1990's (either the 1993 Definitive Edition or perhaps the 1995 remastered set). That means Dolby Digital 2.0 audio and non-anamorphic widescreen video. While these discs will likely offer video quality at least somewhat better than the best of the 2004/2005 bootlegs (the Cowclops/TR47 discs and the Dr. Gonzo discs), they will also be noticeably less impressive than the anamorphic transfers and 5.1 audio tracks on the 2004 SE discs and the prequel discs. Will this bring an end to the bootlegs? It's still too soon to tell, although TR47 has already contacted me to say that he's discontinuing his discs and will instead be offering a large collection of DVD's of bonus material. I'll come back to this page again in a few months once we see how these Limited Edition discs turn out (and what the cost, and what fans' reactions to them are)...
Update, 10/24/2006: Last month, the Limited Edition DVD's hit store shelves with a soft, largely-unnoticed thud. My much-delayed Limited Edition DVD review confirms the suspicions that these official versions of the original theatrical cuts offer better video quality than the really good bootlegs, although since they all are using the same 1993 transfer the differences are not anywhere near as striking as the differences found between earlier bootlegs and the really good anamorphic transfers of the earlier official releases. The audio is actually a wash, since they're still using the same audio but the TR47 bootlegs actually use uncompressed PCM instead of lossy Dolby Digital 2.0. The Limited Edition discs may bring the Star Wars bootlegging industry to a close, but the real fan bootleggers actually got surprisingly close to matching the quality of the official discs before it all came to an end.
Update, 10/3/2011: Almost exactly five years after releasing the Limited Edition DVD's, Star Wars returns to store shelves in a new disc form. The Complete Saga Blu-ray Discs are generally excellent discs - consistently excellent audio, and usually excellent video with a few weak spots here and there - that offer some good bonus features, but they also omit some previously-released bonus features (to some degree an unavoidable side-effect of the huge volume of material available on these movies) and they do not include any form of the original theatrical cuts found in the Limited Edition set. Will the full saga get 3D releases in the coming decade? Will there be additional disc releases with improved video transfers and new supplemental material? I expect the answer to both to be "yes", although I am still not sure that 3D will hang in long enough to justify re-issuing all six movies in 3D. Will the original theatrical cuts appear on HD? I am not holding my breath...