Two Trench Runs

The last significant cut from the script and filming of Star Wars is various additional elements in the Death Star assault. In the shooting script, the battle takes up 49 pages, about 30% of the total 165 pages of the entire script. The battle wasn’t meant to take up a third of the film’s run time – as Lucas noted in a 1970s interview, each shot of the battle had to be described in detail due to its technical complexity. Lucas intended the battle to only last about seven minutes, but he estimated they had about 40,000 feet of film just of pilots spouting battle dialogue.[1] This did not include all of the special effects shots of X-Wings, Y-Wings, and TIE fighters flying and shooting around the Death Star that would also have to be included.

George turned to his wife Marcia Lucas to edit the battle, giving her the task to put together by far the most complex sequence of the film and quite possibly among the most complex scenes in any film up to that point. George later estimated that it had taken Marcia about eight weeks to cut the battle together during the fall of 1976. Where effects shots were not yet ready, Marcia inserted World War II footage of dogfights between American and Japanese fighter planes.[2] This footage was continuously replaced with completed ILM effects shots until very shortly before the film was released in May 1977.

The battle ended up lasting 12 minutes in the final film, despite various cuts from the shooting script. This is the plot of the battle in the script:

  1. Rebel pilots get close to the Death Star
  2. TIE fighters led by Darth Vader attack and pick off the rebel ships one-by-one
  3. Gold Leader flies through the trench and fails to shoot into the exhaust port
  4. Red Leader makes his own attempt and also fails
  5. Luke flies through the trench, uses his targeting computer, and also fails.
  6. Luke flies through the trench again and is almost killed by Vader, but is saved by the sudden return of Han
  7. Luke, at the prompting of Obi-Wan’s ghostly voice, uses the Force to shoot into the exhaust port and destroys the Death Star.

In addition to cuts of various incidental dialogue by rebel pilots, the main difference between the script and the film is that Luke attempts to destroy the Death Star twice. Marcia cut the first attempt where Luke uses the targeting computer. In the final film, Luke only flies down the trench once and succeeds.

The editing process also added an additional countdown element not present in the script. A brief scene with Tarkin being informed via voiceover that the Death Star is not yet in range to destroy the rebel base was added, along with various graphics and voiceovers for both Imperials and rebels reminding the characters, and the audience, that the Death Star is moving closer to destroy the rebel base. Lines such as, “Death Star will be in range in five minutes” racketed up the tension for the heroes to destroy the Death Star in time.

Why it was changed

Marcia’s changes tightened the sequence and gave it significantly more emotional tension. As she told her husband:

"If the audience doesn't cheer when Han Solo comes in at the last second in the Millennium Falcon to help Luke when he's being chased by Darth Vader, the picture doesn't work."

- Marcia Lucas[3]

The sequence as written lacks focus and features numerous additional rebel pilots not seen earlier in the film, most of whom are killed by Darth Vader and other TIE fighter pilots. Marcia cut down on the number of additional pilots to focus on Luke. The addition of the countdown element adds significant tension, as the rebel’s chances become increasingly slim as they seemingly are running out of time. Luke loses almost all of his fellow pilots, and even R2-D2 is shot and possibly lost. Meanwhile the pacing on the scene keeps accelerating, the music intensifies, and the tension keeps rising until the film reaches one of the most satisfying culminations in film history: the explosion of the Death Star.

While a great deal of dialogue was cut from the rebel pilots, small snippets of it resurfaced nearly forty years later in Rogue One. That film’s director, Gareth Edwards, was touring the Lucasfilm archives at Skywalker Ranch while doing preproduction research, and he discovered old film reels containing much of the extra footage for the Death Star battle. He decided to incorporate cut footage and dialogue from Red Leader and Gold Leader into Rogue One’s Battle of Scarif.[4] Some of this dialogue comes directly from the shooting script, such as Red Leader’s “Stick close, Red Five, where are you going?” which he originally said to Luke. In Rogue One however, he says it to Pedrin Gaul, who ends up getting shot down, explaining how Luke replaced him as Red Five in A New Hope.

In other words, Lucas wrote dialogue in the 1970s that ended up in a film released in 2016.

[1] J. W. Rinzler, The Making of Star Wars (New York: Del Rey Books, 2007), 100; Brian Jay Jones, George Lucas: A Life (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2016), 233.

[2] Jones, George Lucas, 233.

[3] Jones, George Lucas, 243.

[4] Huw Fullerton, " The unseen Star Wars archive footage used in Rogue One," Radio Times, December 19, 2016,