Before & After the Special Editions: Han and Greedo (Part 1)

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Before & After the Special Editions:
Han and Greedo (Part 1)
Stuart Tullis

Change is a part of life.  It’s a part of growing up.  Seasons change.  Feelings change.  Even friends change as we move from school to school, job to job, town to town, or even simply through the natural progression of events.  But until the end of the last century, there were some things we took for granted would never change.  Then came the Star Wars Special Editions, and even our presuppositions changed.

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In truth, Star Wars has been changing since the first releases of the original film in 1977.  There were different audio mixes with various voices in familiar roles even then.  Most fans are aware that “Episode IV” and “A New Hope” were not in the opening scroll of the original cut; these were added in a later release.  These changes, however, are usually overlooked (quite possibly because the earliest copies available on home video already included these early alterations).

But when the Star Wars Special Editions were released twenty years after the initial release of the first film, the initial excitement about seeing Star Wars in theaters was soon accompanied with complaints from long-time fans about the changes George Lucas made in his classic trilogy.  Not the least of which was centered around Han Solo’s encounter with Greedo in the cantina.  The familiar line “Yes, I bet you have,” was punctuated, not with a blast from Han’s DL-44, but a shot fired from Greedo’s drawn weapon.

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“Han shot first!” was the rallying cry of disgruntled fanboys and fangirls in response to this apparently minuscule change in the brief encounter — a change that altered less than two seconds in the final cut of the Special Edition.  What is it about this change that set fans on edge?  Why does the order of shots being fired continue to cause debate and dissension among the ranks of the faithful?

In my opinion (and I’ve been considering it for some seventeen years, now), that one shot completely changed the character of Han Solo, his journey through the three films, and even the story of the saga itself.  Consider how Han changed by this notorious editorial revision of the duel between the scoundrel and a bounty hunter….

Before the change, Han Solo lived up to his namesake.  He was a loner, facing the galaxy on his own.  He lived on his own terms and survived by his own skills.  Because of this, he maintained no commitments (other than to Chewbacca, but that was evidently more of Chewie’s commitment to Han than the other way around).  Being alone means taking care of your own business and even becoming your own security.  As a smuggler, Han was in a dangerous profession; this wasn’t the first time he had looked down the barrel of a blaster.  This dangerous, streetwise version of Han maintained his composure through the entire encounter, feigning disinterest while setting up the shot against his would-be assassin.  When Han fired, we understood the gravity of the situation: had he not killed Greedo, he would have been killed himself (a fact Greedo had already implicitly confirmed).  Han owed his allegiance to no one but himself, and he would do whatever was necessary to ensure his survival.  He was smart, skilled, and tough — no one to be trifled with.

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After the change, Han Solo had lost his edge.  Though he talked a good game with Luke and Ben at the table, and while he seemed to be confident in his conversation with Greedo, Han lived a half-second from the grave, owing his existence to luck.  In the 1997 theatrical release of Star Wars: A New Hope Special Edition, Greedo not only got the draw on Han, but clearly fired the first shot.  Han’s slow reflexes in his trigger finger (incredibly slow for a smuggler and hot-shot pilot) were compensated by a combination of Greedo’s terrible aim and Han’s good fortune. When the movie was released on DVD, Han’s reflexes seemingly improved, though Greedo still got off a shot before Han could squeeze the trigger.  Arguably, Han’s dangerous situation remains intact throughout these changes, but his character has been forever altered.  Han has become a nice guy, giving others the benefit of the doubt even in the gravest of situations.  Perhaps he doesn’t realize that his luck could run out some day.  Maybe he would rather let others make the first move, trusting he could dodge laser blasts and respond appropriately after the fact.  This latter Han would have been completely in character to get up from his seat, turn to the Wuher and say, “It’s not my fault; he shot first!” keeping his credit in his pocket instead of flipping it to the bartender as he uttered the memorable phrase, “Sorry about the mess,” which better suits a man who doesn’t make excuses for defending himself.

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In case you can’t tell, I favor the original telling of the story in this instance.  Even though Greedo’s shot has been inserted into the movie, it really doesn’t fit the scheme of the scene.  Han is trying to distract Greedo from noticing that he’s drawing his blaster by looking up to what he’s doing with his left hand against the wall (a classic move to draw the eye away from the sleight-of-hand).  If Han was going to let Greedo shoot anyway, there would be no need to distract his draw — they could just start the shootout.  Furthermore, letting Greedo get a shot off at all emasculates Han, leaving him a static, relatively shallow character instead of the skilled pilot who has some experience to match his cool confidence and braggadocio.  This scene affects the way we see Han throughout the rest of the trilogy, as well — but that’s something we will check out next week as we continue to look at “Before & After the Special Editions: Han and Greedo Pt. 2”.

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