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Saturday, 7 December 2013

BEHIND THE SCENES: RE-EVALUATING THE LOST WORK OF JOHN JYMPSON

An early Death Star battle scene, minus effects, is reviewed in US post production- circa late 1976/77.

When we all think back to our original first viewings of STAR WARS on the big screen in 1977/78, we remember the great characters, the special effects, and, most importantly, the fast paced visual storytelling. The latter would be achieved thanks to the precision skills of three American editors working with George Lucas: Paul Hirsch, Richard Chew and the much admired in the film community wife of the director, Marcia Lucas- their combined, youthfully spirited final results winning them the all-important, well deserved Academy Award a year later.

John Jympson.
However, back in 1976, there was another editor who worked on the film, whose early contributions have either been ignored or denigrated: the veteran British talent that was the late John Jympson. Jympson's had a rough time of it these last few years in early STAR WARS behind the scenes history. Hired by Lucas because he had been a fan of his earlier revolutionary and influential work with director Richard Lester on the now legendary, surreal music day-in-the-life biography for the seminal British pop band, The Beatles: A HARD DAY'S NIGHT, but also because he was a popular and respected talent in the British film industry- no stranger to a wide variety of movies: from drama (DEADFALL, FRENZY), to action (ZULU, KELLY'S HEROES, the now classic WHERE EAGLE'S DARE, and HIGH ROAD TO CHINA) and comedy (later renowned for his work on A FISH CALLED WANDA) - Jympson seemed a strong choice, as well as a cost effective one, to work and shape the finished film. But, soon enough, as filming was underway at London's Elstree Studios in the summer of 1976, it seemed that the match of old and new, experienced and building experience, was not to be a perfect one-the cutting work done by Jympson apparently lacking the required adrenaline charged excitement and pace pulling that Lucas hoped for, resulting in the director having a stained relationship with him (Jympson seemingly resenting the comments from a young whipper-snapper and often quite aggressive in defending his editing choices) which was worsened after the young American was often recutting things at the weekend, sometimes without his editor's knowledge. With a visiting Alan Ladd, Jr. secretly hiding his disappointment at what had been presented so far, yet staying completely and admirably committed to Lucas as a filmmaker, Jympson, the seasoned UK veteran who surely had not been as well briefed on the film as he might have been, would be "let go" half way through the filming, with editing relatively stopped by the time that the Elstree shooting had been quickly terminated by US FOX Executives in July 1976, resulting in a depressed and angry Lucas going back to the States and disassembling all the previous materials that had been done, and literally having to start from editing scratch all over again, with very time not on his side- pulling in the quick-fire instinctive talents of Richard Chew (his original first choice for the project now being available), Paul Hirsch and his creatively blossoming wife Marcia into bringing the film back on course with his perceived vision. With the passing of the years, Jympson's original role has even been altered by LUCASFILM, who'd refer to him in some of their written materials as being just the film's UK Assembly Editor, though someone of his talents and experience would certainly not have been hired just for that function. No, Jympson was the original editor of the film with Lucas, before the Bantha poo-doo hit the fan!

July 1976. Gary Kurtz handles Second Unit filming as the Elstree crew rush to finish the UK shoot. Image: via STAR WARS ARCHIVES Facebook page.

With the 2000's revelations of Jympson's existence and his cut short contribution to the original film, Jympson's early work on the first STAR WARS has been the subject of much debate by fans and historians, but the simple fact is that none of his assembled cut footage has ever been seen past 1976, nor is it apparently in existence-having been disassembled by Lucas and the new editing team (materials comprising early B/W Cantina footage considered and linked to his name, recently available on Blu-ray and earlier on CD-ROM in the nineties, as well as what's in the so-called "The Lost Cut" (found in the LUCASFILM vaults by Dr. David West Reynolds) likely not having been compiled by Jympson after all- considered by archive expert/author J.W. Rinzler a first rough cut likely generated after he had left- having been part of the shaping of the movie when its post production was handled Stateside, and with the completion of the original London filming. Only the three succeeding US editors saw those early results of the Jympson/Lucas collaboration (in sections) as they started re-editing- Richard Chew revealing on the 2004 BUILDING EMPIRE documentary that what he saw didn't have the kinetic rhythms that Lucas ultimately wanted. Like many of the other UK behind the scenes personnel that had worked on the filming, and with no completed razzle-dazzle ILM effects to behold, Jympson was likely confounded and perhaps unable to fully grasp the nature of the film at that time (what with its hairy Wookiee and Bristol-voiced Darth Vader!), as well as the then relatively shy Lucas's ambitions and intentions, thinking it to be a small-scale kiddie flick rather than the space opera fantastic it would later become.

Early footage being viewed back in the day at Elstree- circa July 1976. Image: via T'BONE's STARWARZ.COM site.

Looking back and acknowledging that fascinating aspect of time, before STAR WARS became the STAR WARS we know and love today, I think fans should no longer condemn Jympson or his work on it. Instead, we should begin to attempt to understand his likely thoughts, feelings and choices of scenes back in the day, which had likely been in line with the kind of film-making attitudes and styles that were popular then, but soon going out of fashion with the likes of Lucas and other new-age filmmakers. Some people just don't fully understand or appreciate science fiction or space fantasy, nor have it hardwired into their brain patterns, quite the way Lucas would. And that isn't anybody's fault...

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