What is the highest honor that a movie can receive in the United States?
Lots of Oscars and other film awards? Yeah, sure. However, I would argue that there is an even higher honor that can be bestowed on a movie (although, of course, this is subjective and a matter of opinion): Being inducted into the American National Film Registry.
The Registry was founded in 1988 for the purpose of officially preserving movies that are culturally and historically significant. Only a very, very small selection of movies get this honor: At most 25 movies are selected per year.
Oscar-winning movies are aplenty, and most of them are forgettable. I'm sure that if you try to think of any oscar-winning movies (no matter when they were made), you would remember just a tiny, tiny fraction of them. Only a very small portion of all oscar-winning movies are actually culturally and historically noteworthy.
And the original Star Wars, made in 1977, was this in droves. It was more than just a movie. It was a cultural phenomenon. It shaped moviemaking and culture. We are still talking about it to this day, and it still has huge amounts of avid fans. You cannot talk about popucultural history without talking about Star Wars.
The original Star Wars was among the first 25 movies ever inducted into the National Film Registry, in 1989. However, as per the rules of the Registry, only the original printing of the movie was to be accepted, so they requested it from George Lucas. What did he do?
Now let that sink in for a moment. This is, arguably, the highest honor and accolade that a movie could ever receive in the United States. The entire world. This is arguably one of the most influential and culturally significant movies ever made. And he refused.
In 1997 George Lucas offered the Registry the "Special Edition" print of the movie. This was not accepted, because the rules of the Registry require the original print.
To this day, Lucas has refused to give it to them.
Why? Nobody knows. And we will probably never know. It's completely incomprehensible, and to my knowledge he has never given any rational explanation.
Moreover, Lucas has gone the extra mile to stop anybody anywhere from getting these original copies. (To my knowledge the only original print that has ever been available is one single reel, ie. an incomplete section of the movie, from its original theatrical run, which has been preserved by somebody, technically speaking illegally. Even this reel is badly scratched and has other artifacts due to wear and tear.)
"Why does it matter?" one would ask.
It matters because the original movie is an important piece of history. The "special editions" and other subsequent versions are heavily modified versions of the movie. For example, many of the award-winning special effects and costume design have been completely replaced with computer-generated shots, and many scenes and even (award-winning) music have been replaced or altered, and additional shots have been inserted. This heavily modifies and outright destroys the original historical film. (For example, from an academic perspective it would be an interesting subject of study of how movie special effects have changed over the years. One of the most groundbreaking special effects movies, which even got an oscar for it, has been censored and, effectively, self-banned, hindering this kind of research.)
Why does George Lucas hate the original Star Wars so much? Why is he refusing to release the high-quality original prints of the original?
We will probably never know.