Earlier this week, the home video release of Wong Kar-wai‘s martial arts epic “The Grandmaster” was announced. Instead of featuring multiple versions of the movie, the publicity materials made it very clear that only one version would be included on the disc: the domestic roll-out’s truncated 108 minute cut. The original Chinese cut, said to be very different in both tone and form, clocked in at 130 minutes. It’s a release that stirs up frustration with the state of foreign films being released in America. This week’s biggest source of contention, Bong Joon-ho‘s upcoming sci-fi flick “Snowpiercer,” has been breaking box office records in South Korea but in America is facing quite a threat: the editorial might of Harvey Weinstein.
In both instances, the news of cuts to films by auteurs with distinct visions is troubling, especially when it’s uncertain if we’ll ever get a chance to see their films as intended. But not all cuts are necessarily bad. While Bong Joon-ho is said to be “furious” about having to snip his film, Wong Kar-Wai has stated he crafted the U.S. cut specifically with that audience in mind. As you’ll read on below, in some cases, the cuts made to the films severely hurt them, while in others, the full director’s cut actually paled to the theatrical version. It’s a tricky business that pits art and commerce against each other, and rarely do the two sides ever agree.
This debate got us thinking about longer international cuts that were shortened for their domestic release, and whether or not these cuts were made for better or worse. Sometimes, after all, a movie is just too damn long. But not always. Here’s our assessment of 10 films that were pruned for U.S. audiences.
“The Grandmaster” (2013)
What’s It About? A sweeping historical epic (not to mention a totally crazy action movie), “The Grandmaster” is the story of Ip Man (played by Wong Kar-wai stalwart Tony Leung), a martial arts master who eventually trained some dude named Bruce Lee.
Why Did It Get Cut? When we spoke to Wong Kar-wai over the summer, he suggested that the cuts were primarily made in order to simplify and streamline a story that most western audiences simply didn’t understand. This meant that not only were things cut but additional elements were added, like captions explaining who people are and what is going on, in an attempt to provide further context for the events depicted in the movie. He told us, “I didn’t want to do it just by cutting the film shorter or do a shorter version by trimming and cutting out scenes because the structure of the original version is actually very precise … I just wanted to tell the story in a different way. So now the American version is 108 minutes, and we have 15 minutes of new scenes, and the story is more linear. So instead of a shorter version, to me it’s a new version.”
Is It As Good As The Longer Version? We haven’t seen the longest cut of “The Grandmaster,” (by our current reckoning there are, confusingly, three: the 130-min Chinese cut; the just-under-2-hour “International cut,” which premiered at the Berlinale and which we reviewed here; and the 108-min U.S. cut, which we reviewed here). Of course it’s the disparity between the Chinese and the U.S. cuts which appears the greatest, in length terms but also in how comprehensively it has been reedited. If you want a detailed breakdown of the differences between the longest and shortest versions, you can find one here. But amid the breastbeating it should be remembered that both the versions we have seen have fallen some way short of our hopes as longtime WKW fans, and both have his blessing. So we look forward to seeing the Chinese cut, but with tempered expectations.
“Eyes Wide Shut” (1999)
What’s It About? A nocturnal psychosexual odyssey concerning a married New York doctor (played by a fearless Tom Cruise) who becomes engrossed in a potentially deadly web of paranoia, deceit, and weird sex parties where everyone wears freaky Venetian masks.
Why Did It Get Cut? In short: the sex. The notoriously prudish MPAA, in one of its most infamous rulings, objected mainly to a sequence where Tom Cruise visits the aforementioned sex party. As he walks around a cavernous mansion he watches as various couples engage in a wide variety of sexual acts, with people screwing in a variety of inventive ways. But the MPAA got hot under the collar about the graphic display of fake sex, and to avoid an NC-17 rating, the solution was to insert shadowy figures, via the magic of computer effects, blocking out the more offensive acts of sexual congress. Instead of having Tom Cruise walk through shocking sexual tableaux, it’s more like he got to a Disney World fireworks show late and has to stand behind some really tall asshole who is obscuring his view.
Is It As Good As The Longer Version? At the time, there was a lot of outrage from the fan community, especially since the studio was tampering with Stanley Kubrick‘s last film, months after he had unexpectedly passed away. Roger Ebert referred to the domestic release as the ” ‘Austin Powers‘ version” in reference to the scene where various objects are placed in front of offending genitalia. But honestly, it’s not all that bad. The effect is pretty subtle and the scene is creepy, with or without the sexual explicitness (even in its uncut form it’s pretty tame). In our opinion, both versions are perfectly acceptable. The only reason the unrated version (finally released on American shores in 2007 as a deluxe Blu-ray edition) has the edge because it was the version closest to what Kubrick really wanted.
“Blade Runner” (1986)
What’s It About? A rain-soaked future noir that follows a private investigator named Deckard (Harrison Ford, even grouchier than usual) who is tasked with hunting down a small squad of “replicants” (robots posing as humans). Bounty hunting and existential philosophical questions collide, beautifully, all under Ridley Scott‘s obsessively watchful eye. Based on a novel by substance-abusing futurist Philip K. Dick.
Why Did It Get Cut? Has there ever been a single movie with as many different cuts in circulation? When a Blu-ray reissue happened a few years ago, all the cuts were included, making it a one-movie box set. The international version, which was released alongside the domestic cut, is only a minute longer, with many sequences that are virtually indistinguishable (except with some additional violence). More importantly, this version retains all of the horrible stuff about the original theatrical cut, namely Ford’s listless narration and the absurd happy ending that has Deckard driving away with Rachael (Sean Young), who improbably survives because she has “no termination date.” Ending a movie as weird and wild and confrontationally existential as “Blade Runner” with a shot of Ford and Young driving through bucolic outtakes from “The Shining” is absolute nonsense on either side of the Atlantic.
Is It As Good As The Longer Version? They’re virtually indistinguishable. There’s more blood that gushes out of Tyrell’s eyes as he’s being smooshed by Rutger Hauer, and some additional gore when a nail goes through Hauer’s hand, but besides that, they’re the same, for better or worse. The “international cut” is now one of a half dozen versions you can watch on that Blu-ray box set. In Scott’s introduction to this version, he says, “This is the version that was available on videotape and laserdisc for many years, during which time the film found a new audience.” Well, for that, at least, we have to be grateful.
“The Professional” (1994)
What’s It About? In Luc Besson‘s charmingly junky “The Professional,” a corrupt DEA agent (played with howling intensity by Gary Oldman) murders the entire family of a business partner … or so he thinks. A young girl named Mathilda (an already gifted Natalie Portman) survives and seeks the guidance and mentorship of Leon (Jean Reno, essentially reprising his earlier role from Besson’s “Nikita“), a “cleaner” who lives in her building. She wants to exact bloody revenge for the murder of her family. Also at one point she dresses up like Madonna.
Why Did It Get Cut? For time, mostly. The domestic cut of “The Professional,” which was referred to as “Leon” overseas, ran 110 minutes. The international version was 133 minutes, while an even longer “uncut” variation ran 136 minutes. The bulk of the material was cut following a somewhat disastrous Los Angeles test screening of the international version and most of the footage came out of the movie’s second act. This included sequences depicting Mathilda going out on assignments with Leon and additional material that depicted their bonding (which, honestly, adds to the somewhat creepy nature of the relationship, since this is the version where she propositions him). One hundred and ten minutes seems plenty long for this kind of movie.
Is It As Good As The Longer Version? The shorter version isn’t as good, this is fundamentally true. Audiences had trouble stomaching some of the more pedophilic sequences that are preserved for the longer version, but these sequences are key. The relationship between a little girl who was just witness to her entire family’s murder and a man who is paid to kill people is pretty fucked up; the fact that it has sexual overtones shouldn’t be a surprise. At the time the “more poignant and sensitive” (according to Variety) version is what Besson would have preferred to release stateside, but since then he has stated that he is happier with the shorter version. In 2000 he told U.K. paper The Guardian that the domestic version was “my director’s cut, no one asked me to cut it.” Keep in mind, though, in the same interview he said that he was only going to direct ten movies. So far he’s made fifteen. His sixteenth is currently in production.
What’s It About? Set in a fantastical, dystopian future, former Monty Python member Terry Gilliam chronicles the life of a worker (Jonathan Pryce) who works in a dreary job while trying to avoid the clutches of a maniacal government system and connect with the very literal woman of his dreams.
Why Did It Get Cut? A movie that almost has as many different cuts as “Blade Runner” (on the commentary on the recent Criterion edition, Gilliam calls the cut “the fifth and final version” of the movie), when the film was originally released it came out overseas as a 142-minute epic of social satire and bleakly dark comedy. This didn’t impress Universal, who was heading up the domestic distribution. Universal chairman Sid Sheinberg commissioned a new cut of the film for theatrical distribution, which has since been nicknamed the “Love Conquers All” version. This version, intended for American audiences, featured a happy ending that suggested the dire fate of our main character was, in fact, a dream, as well as a severely truncated running time of 94 minutes. After screening a longer version of the movie (that ran 132 minutes) for select journalists in Los Angeles (a move that was actively against Universal’s wishes), the movie ended up winning the Los Angeles Film Critics Association award for Best Picture. This caused Sheinberg and Universal to cave and finally release that version to the masses. While not a runaway financial hit, it did go on to become a bona fide cult classic, in part because of the battle that raged behind the scenes, a battle that is lovingly chronicled in the aforementioned Criterion edition as part of its voluminous collection of special features.
Is It As Good As The Longer Version? The shorter version is, of course, an atrocity. It neuters the intent of the film, replacing the sharp satire with bland platitudes. It’s also not as exciting or weird; you don’t have enough time to soak up the bizarre futuristic world that Gilliam (with screenwriters Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown) created. Since the American release, Gilliam has gone back and re-released a variation on the longer, international cut (the version that appears on the Criterion disc), which seems to be the version he is the happiest with and contains a wonderful opening sequence that is sunnier and more vibrant than the stark opening that was affixed to the international cut.
“Red Cliff” (2008)
What’s It About? One of the more epic epics you’re likely to ever see, this stunning return-to-form for director John Woo is set at the end of the Han Dynasty, and culminates in the Battle of the Red Cliffs, a year-long war that raged in ancient China. Like the similarly embattled “The Grandmaster,” “Red Cliff” stars Tony Leung.
Why Did It Get Cut? “Red Cliff” got cut because it was long. Like really fucking long. Like release-in-two-parts long. The first half of “Red Cliff” was released on July 10, 2008, while the second installment wasn’t released until January 7, 2009. (A Hollywood equivalent would be something like the first two “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequels or the pair of “Matrix” sequels, except much, much cheaper.) The total running time for “Red Cliff” was 280 minutes. This was unacceptable, even in the relatively niche realm of foreign language action epics (the film was acquired by Magnolia Pictures). The movie’s total length was whittled down to 148 minutes, which is still long but only clocks in at 8 minutes longer than either half of the original film. In some regions the name was even changed, from “Red Cliff” to “The Battle of Red Cliff.” This title is actually more fitting, since the truncated version focused on the actual battle while the elongated one had more to do with the players and the outside forces leading up to the struggle.
Is It As Good As The Longer Version? We have never seen the shorter version, but while watching “Red Cliff” in all its unedited glory, we tried to mentally peg things that would have been removed: subplot about a wild horse? Check. The dozens of characters, many whom were defined solely by their actions in battle? Most were undoubtedly removed. The uncut version of “Red Cliff” is an unwieldy beast for sure, at turns hugely exciting and oddly philosophical, but its unwieldiness is what makes it so dazzling. John Woo staged a comeback on an epic scale (it was the most expensive Asian-financed film of all time) and he succeeded, marvelously (breaking box office records, at least in China).
“Terminal Station” aka “Indiscretion Of An American Housewife” (1953)
What’s It About? An Italian man (Montgomery Clift, right) has an affair with an American woman (Jennifer Jones). Things don’t work out.
Why Did It Get Cut? “Terminal Station” was a notoriously difficult production, stemming largely from the fact that David O. Selznick insisted that this Italian co-production be a starring vehicle for his beautiful wife, Jennifer Jones. Why he insisted on hiring Vittorio De Sica, whose Italian neorealist masterpiece “Bicycle Thieves” doesn’t exactly scream “commercially viable melodrama,” might be the movie’s greatest mystery. Selznick fought De Sica every step of the way, with the filmmaker simply agreeing on every point that Selznick brought up (he even pretended to read the 50-page missives that Selznick would send, even though the director spoke little English and read even less). Even though the final running time came in at a swift 89 minutes, Selznick was unhappy and whittled it down further: to a titchy 64 minute cut that was widely derided (even by Clift, whose allegiance lay fully with his director). The film was later restored, and reappraised, by Criterion.
Is It As Good As The Longer Version? No. The shorter version robs the movie of all of its emotional intensity and palpable sense of unease. In the longer version you watch a romance falter; the shorter one plays like a greatest hits reel (you can watch both on the Criterion edition). Like so many productions that have found themselves in troubled waters (sometimes literally), the behind-the-scenes story ultimately trumps whatever ended up on screen. God knows it didn’t help Selznick’s marriage.
“Cinema Paradiso” (1988)
What’s It About? A famous Italian director flashes back to his childhood and the time he spent at his local movie house, which was run by a kindly projectionist. If you have heart strings, you better believe they’ll be tugged. Hard.
Why Did It Get Cut? Interestingly, unlike most longer international versions that are cut in anticipation of western audiences, “Cinema Paradiso” was cut because it was a commercial flop in its initial release. In Italy, the movie fizzled, so when it was time to take it overseas, the filmmakers cut the film down from 155 minutes to 123 minutes. Unsurprisingly, what was left out were many details that contributed to this longer version’s almost novelistic feel. The tactile details of childhood weren’t just remembered, they were vividly brought back to life. Tellingly, this wasn’t the last version of “Cinema Paradiso” to be released. In 2002, a “director’s cut” of the film was unleashed running 170 minutes long.
Is It As Good As The Longer Version? Yes, the truncated version is just as powerful as the longer version, which does much to fill in details but little to deepen the film’s already powerful emotions. “Cinema Paradiso” is a love letter to cinema. It always has been and it always will be, in whatever permutation it takes. (Though there are some members of The Playlist who believe the longer director’s cut is actually the weakest version).
What’s It About? Set in Italy at the beginning of the 20th century, “1900” chronicles the lives of two boys from opposite sides of the social strata (one wealthy, one poor) and charts their growth as young men who live through WWI and who cross paths again during Mussolini’s fascistic rise pre-WWII. The film stars Robert De Niro, Gerard Depardieu and Burt Lancaster.
Why Did It Get Cut? Because of its super-exorbitant length (not really solved in any version), its laconic pace, poor dubbing (trying to find one definitive version that’s not dubbed is a near impossibility) and over-involved story. Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci (“Last Tango In Paris“), his director’s cut at Cannes that year ran a whopping 5 hours and 17 minutes. Though contracted to deliver a much shorter version by Paramount, the studio eventually let the director and his producer (who the filmmaker purportedly battled with over the cut) a 4 hour and 5 minute version that was actually released in U.S. theaters, believe it or not.
Is It As Good As The Longer Version? A long slog that’s not easy to sit through in either length, Bertolucci’s director’s cut hit DVD in 2005 and we wept trying to get through that grueling, slow-moving experience. Philistines, you say? Watch “Seduced & Abandoned,” James Toback‘s upcoming HBO documentary film about Cannes and selling movies. The director (and his cohort Alec Baldwin) interview Bertolucci himself in the movie and the topic of “1900” comes up (mind you, the auteur brings it up himself). While quotes can be provided upon request, Bertolucci, looking back, sees it as a bloated act of hubris from a young man who thought he could do no wrong (and coming off his biggest work to date, “Last Tango In Paris,” one can see why). While it’s beautiful to look at (Vittorio Storaro shot it) and it has a cumulative power, “1900” is not the masterpiece Bertolucci thought he was painting back in his peak era, and shaving an hour off its excessive run time can’t change that.
“Once Upon A Time In America” (1984)
What’s It About? Starring Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern with Joe Pesci, Burt Young and a very young Jennifer Connelly (her debut), ‘Once Upon A Time’ is an epic crime drama that centers on the lives of Jewish ghetto youths who rise to prominence in New York City’s world of organized crime.
Why Did It Get Cut? Again, due to length. A grand (and tragic) statement on the American dream, ‘Once Upon A Time’ utilizes a moving and involved flashback structure that chronicles the lives of these characters in their poverty-stricken youth slowing building all the way to their crime hegemony in the late 1960s. At its debut at the Cannes Film Festival in ’84 the movie was four and half hours. To appease European distributors, director Sergio Leone cut the film down to 3 hours and 49 minutes, but by the time it hit U.S. theaters, Warner Bros. had the movie whittled down to a comparatively scant 2 hours and 19 minutes.
Is It As Good As The Longer Version? There’s a long-held belief in some cinephile circles that longer automatically equals better. And while often that’s hardly the case, there’s no question that Leone’s film is a masterwork and the severely truncated version is one of cinema’s biggest crimes. The studio re-edited the film in chronological order and destroyed the emotional beauty of the flashback narrative (not to mention leaving huge gaps in the story). In 2003, the closest thing to a “definitive” version was released on DVD, and that is the 3 hours and 49 minute version and it’s quite excellent–elegant, epic and long, but not dull for a second. Hardcore Leone-philes’ patience was further rewarded in 2012 with a 4 hour and 6 minute Blu-ray, just 23 minutes shy of the original Cannes release, while a restored 2012 version screened at Cannes at 4 hours and 12 minutes. Restoration proselytizer Marty Scorsese is working with Leone’s family to regain the rights to the missing precious minutes (apparently there are some legal issues therein) to finally restore Leone’s 4 hr and 29 minute version (to be exact). Leone never directed a film after ‘America’ and the legend has it he was so heartbroken by the disfigured U.S. cut, that it sapped whatever love he had left for making movies. WB, if that’s true, you’ll forever have blood on your hands.
Several more examples immediately spring to mind, like Michael Winterbottom‘s “The Trip,” which originally started life as a six-part U.K. miniseries but was shortened to a 90-minute comedy, plus a number of Asian action movies like “Shaolin Soccer,” “The Protector,” and “Hero.” Michel Gondry‘s typically dreamy “Mood Indigo” has also undergone some severe tweaks, according to sources, although the movie has yet to officially open in the United States. Only time will tell on that one. — with Rodrigo Perez