In another thread, Greg Kirkman mentioned an imaginary project of watching all the iterations of STAR TREK in their own, internal chronological order. SO much that would not fit together, with every last vestige of TOS being scrapped away.
So, too, with STAR WARS. Watch the films in the order of their release, and one finds oneself repeatedly asking "but, if...". Watch them according to their internal timeline and see "A New Hope" irrevocably expunged.
As some may recall, I did exactly this, a year or two back--watching the films in chronological order, and pretending it was all supposed to be one story. There are things you gain and things you lose from this, and I concluded that STAR WARS suffered the most, while RETURN OF THE JEDI gained the most.
Now, I wasn't there at the start, but I think I've done my homework and earned my stripes. Many here are firmly committed to their feeling that STAR WARS was designed to be (and works best as) a singular film. While I don't disagree with this assessment (indeed, I find myself more and more in that camp, as time goes on), it is important to note that sequels of some sort were always part of the plan. But, at the time, everyone expected STAR WARS to fail, or (at best) be a small-to-moderate success. The opening crawl was rewritten and streamlined fairly late in the game, and in such a way that it obviously helped provide some sense of finality to the proceedings ("...custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the Galaxy...."), in case the film was a total disaster. Whether this was intentionally done to button up the story in case STAR WARS ended up as a failed one-off, I cannot say. But, it seems fairly likely.
However, it is important to note that STAR WARS does not end with the actual, on-screen destruction of the Empire. And, of course, Vader escapes. The clues are all there to point to a definitive ending, in case the film flopped, but there was absolutely wiggle-room for future stories. What form those stories would take is a different matter, and, amazingly, we actual got two distinctly different versions of a legitimate sequel to STAR WARS--SPLINTER OF THE MIND'S EYE and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.
Very soon after the release of STAR WARS, the public started to get primed for more stories. In fall of 1977, THE MAKING OF STAR WARS aired on TV, and, when asked about sequels, Lucas specifically stated that "The Empire is still there. Darth Vader is still there.". Less than a month later, Marvel published STAR WARS # 7, the first non-film-adaptation issue of that series, which began with the Empire still alive and well. Vader made his dramatic return a little over a year later.
In early 1978, we got SPLINTER OF THE MIND'S EYE, which, for all intents and purposes, was the original, "orthodox" sequel to STAR WARS, in which the Empire and Vader were still alive and well. SPLINTER was planned and written during the making of STAR WARS as the first of two sequel novels, which would hopeful serve as the basis for low-budget sequel films. Lucas had a trilogy (at least) in mind even during the early days of writing STAR WARS, with the third novel/film planned to depict the final defeat of the Empire.
So, while I understand why you old-timers automatically write off anything which came after the original film (and I certainly acknowledge that a massive amount of off-putting retconning began after SPLINTER was shelved in favor of the far more elaborate EMPIRE), I can't entirely agree that the Empire's continued existence post-STAR WARS was a total, 180-degree turn from what we see in the first film. I understand the reasoning behind that notion, but it seems pretty darn clear that this is not what the plan was, despite the film itself pointing pretty strongly in that direction. And, yes, the work itself--and perhaps even the audience's interpretation of it--may very well trump the creator's offscreen intent, but I do like to give authorial intent a certain amount of weight in my own interpretations of art. Before, during, and after the making of STAR WARS, Lucas intended for the Rebels to continue battling the Empire, even after the Death Star was destroyed.
As for the sequels themselves, I tend to give Lucas a lot of latitude. After all, it's not as if other writers/directors came and made sequels after he'd moved on. No, STAR WARS was Lucas' baby for nearly 40 years. I think he was within his rights to continue the story as he saw fit, even if I may not agree with all of the choices he made. He planned for STAR WARS to have sequels, and he had clearly planned to continue the Rebels vs. Empire war in those sequels, despite the more close-ended impression left by the original film. I can't quite begrudge him for expanding upon and/or rethinking his own work.
And, after all, that's a hallmark of Lucas' style. He's an editor and experimenter at heart. To understand Lucas is to understand STAR WARS. He clearly doesn't take all of this stuff as seriously as we fans do. He likes to play fast and loose. He deliberately set out to make the prequels in such a way as to completely invert and rethink the original trilogy. "Interactive filmmaking", he called it--where you watch the films in release order and get one story, whereas watching them in chronological order gives you a different story. I may not necessary like all of the results, but I have to admire his guts for doing such a thing. There's really never been anything else quite like it in the history of cinema, and we're all still talking about it, to this day--good AND bad.
Anyway, steering back on topic, I think saying that Disney's Sequel Trilogy is the same as what Lucas did with EMPIRE (taking away the happy ending of the original and showing that the Empire wasn't really defeated) is a false equivalency. For two reasons:
1. As noted above, Lucas seems to have never really committed to the idea that the destruction of the Death Star would automatically lead to the end of the Empire. Numerous comments made before, during, and after the making of STAR WARS point to--at least--a trilogy of films which would detail the final defeat of the Empire. Which is exactly what we got. Lucas, the creator of the original film, made sequels which detailed further battles against the Empire, and made them only a short time after the original film's release. It's not as if he came back 30 years after making STAR WARS, and started making sequels just to capitalize upon decades of nostalgia. He immediate began working on sequels after the first film was a staggering success, just as he'd hoped to, initially.
2. Almost immediately after STAR WARS, the public was primed for more adventures in that universe, by way of novels, comics, and other media. It was a mere three years until the first sequel film was released. By contrast, THE FORCE AWAKENS came out 30-plus years after RETURN OF THE JEDI had firmly and definitely ended the story. (And, yes, the Expanded Universe told many post-JEDI stories, but, as noted, that really seems to have been more about maintaining the brand and keeping it alive, rather than continuing the story in a "real" and meaningful way. Does Average Joe Moviegoer know or care about the New Republic's battles with Grand Admrial Thrawn? No, because everyone knows that the Empire was defeated when the Emperor, Vader, and the second Death Star were destroyed.)
During that time--my entire lifetime--the STAR WARS TRILOGY was firmly enshrined as a vital and beloved piece of modern popular culture, and one of the most beloved and influential franchises of all time: the so-called "Holy Trilogy", which had a staggering influence upon nerd culture, pop culture, and the film industry. Referenced, parodied, and cited countless times, and across all media.
The long-promised, long-awaited prequels were a loophole. They were sort of a bonus--another chance to return to that beloved Galaxy, but without undoing the happy ending of JEDI. The ending of the story was already over and done, and Lucas wanted to finally delve into the backstory. You can argue about the merits of those films, but the prequels merely added to (or radically altered) what we already knew, rather than undoing JEDI in order to make more films possible. And, when the prequels were completed, Lucas said that the story was over and done. No more films. He'd told the story he wanted to tell (...and obviously went in some wildly divergent directions, along the way!).
I can give EMPIRE and JEDI a pass because A) I don't think they came quite so out of the blue as some say; B) They were produced by the creator of the original film. Disney's sequels are a different matter. The STAR WARS trilogy had 30 years to become a beloved icon of pop culture. To suddenly come along after all that time, pull the rug out from under the audience, and say, "You thought the story was over--but it's NOT!" seems to me exactly like what it is--people who are not the original creator of the property coming along and artificially keeping it going with counterfeit sequels in order to maintain the brand, and earn major returns on their $4.5 billion investment. From a business standpoint, I understand that. It makes perfect sense. From an artistic standpoint...I can't quite get behind it. I kinda think that certain sacred cows should be left alone and some endings should remain happy, y'know?
As noted, there were ways this could have been done that I'd have been fine with. But, Disney, perhaps necessarily, took the quick and easy route of bringing back the beloved characters/actors to initiate the launch of their STAR WARS reboot, and to legitimize it. Again, I understand this from a business perspective, but not necessarily an artistic one. And, as I have said before, it seems more and more apparent that STAR WARS fans just want more STAR WARS--even if only by way of retreads which help them in their attempts to recapture the initial high of seeing the original film(s)--no matter how nonsensical or derivative they may be. The, "Hey, I can see lightsabers, X-Wings, and Vader cutting people up on a movie screen! I remember that!" effect.
Just my take. Mileage may vary, void where prohibited.