Blessed/cursed with one of the most confusing and prolonged release strategies in recent memory, (blessed in that it has kept the movie in the conversation longer; cursed because that’s longer for everyone to get bored and irritated with it too) the second part of Lars von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac” opens in the U.S. this weekend (our ‘Vol II’ review is here). Our stock of sex puns may have been well and truly plundered (note how we couldn’t even bring ourselves to say “this coming weekend”) but that’s still not the end of it, as ‘Vol II’ also has a director’s cut on the way (the director’s preferred version of ‘Vol I’ played Berlin some weeks after the theatrical cut had already opened). Adding to the whole sorry soup is that the theatrical cuts played certain territories long before others, while screenings for press were sometimes of the two ‘Volumes’ together as one film. So at this stage we’re not entirely sure any two of us have seen the exact same combination of cuts of “Nymphomaniac.”
But why should that matter? Well, it’s because we, like many enthusiastic cineastes have a hankering to get the “definitive” experience of a film, and in these auteurist times that tends to be the one upon which the director sets his or her seal of approval. Von Trier is just the latest in a long line of directors who’ve taken issue with the theatrical cut of their film to the tune of retooling a version more in line with their original vision. His preferred version is not a years-later revisitation timed to coincide with some anniversary or a new Blu-ray reissue, however that is the route often taken by directors who’ve always had a niggling desire to revisit their past compromises. In any case, it got us thinking about the whole culture of director’s cuts—the instances in which they’ve redressed a terrible injustice that was done to a butchered masterpiece, the instances in which their version is the one doing the butchering, and all points in between.
And so we thought we’d take this chance to launch an occasional series in which we look at a few films in depth, and compare their Theatrical versions to their subsequently-released Director’s Cuts. Today our sampler is of ten titles from the more classic end of the spectrum, the stories behind their reissues, the changes made and, of course, which is superior. [Sneak preview: this particular contest comes out in favor of the Director’s Cuts overall, but by no means in every case… ]
“Heaven’s Gate” (wide theatrical release, 1981) vs. “Heaven’s Gate: Director’s Cut” (2012)
Synopsis: One of the more notorious productions in Hollywood history, “Heaven’s Gate” is loosely based on the Johnson County War, a violent frontier dispute between land barons and European settlers in the 1890s. Of course, it was largely re-contextualized as a sprawling forbidden romance, with the syrupy tagline for the movie reading (on the poster, at least): “The only thing greater than their passion for America… was their passion for each other.”
Background: If we’re talking historically (and we are), there were actually four different cuts of “Heaven’s Gate” in circulation at various times. The first cut that director Michael Cimino showed the studio supposedly ran a gargantuan 325 minutes. The version screened at the premiere (after hasty editing by Cimino) ran for 219 minutes. After this version ran in New York for a week, Cimino and United Artists yanked the prints from distribution. Supposedly the studio hired a different editor to try to whittle down the epic sprawl of the movie, with even less success. Cimino recut the film into a 149-minute version, which came out the following spring and differs wildly from the one that ran for a week just a few months earlier. Not only is it much shorter but many sequences have been reorganized entirely. (This version, it should be noted, never came out on home video.) When United Artists folded, largely due to the cost overruns and creative concessions made during “Heaven’s Gate,” MGM acquired its library and released the 219-minute version on home video. This was, more or less, the original 1980 version. But Cimino still claimed that the film was unfinished. In 2005 the so-called “Radical Cut” was screened internationally, which utilized sections of the film that had to be repurposed because the original negative was so badly damaged (it still ran 219 minutes). It wasn’t until 2012 though, that the definitive “Director’s Cut,” which actually ran shorter than the 1980 cut, at 216 minutes, was screened at the Venice Film Festival and New York Film Festival before being released on DVD and Blu-ray in a deluxe package (by the prestigious Criterion Collection—a sure sign of the notorious flop’s critical reevaluation).
Differences: The biggest difference is between the 1980 219 minute cut and the 1981 cut that ran 149 minutes. (The three minutes difference between the 1980 cut and the 2012 reissue, plus all the minor nips and tucks, are better left for Cimino historians). There are a number of major moments left on the cutting floor in the 1981 version, most notably much of the Harvard prologue section (including John Hurt‘s amazing speech and the line dancing that immediately follows) and, later in the movie, the entire roller skating dance sequence. This is absolutely shocking: that roller skating sequence isn’t just one of the best moments of the movie; it’s one of the best moments in any movie. There’s also a fairly large chunk of the second battle sequence that had been deleted altogether (another pivotal moment full of rich emotional beats that should have been maintained). It’s the difference between “Heaven’s Gate” the movie and “Heaven’s Gate” the experience.
Which is Better and Why: The longer cut is obviously the better one to go with. “Heaven’s Gate” is a sizable historical epic, one that luxuriates in its time period, in its explosive violence, and in its forbidden love. The movie is messy and ungainly and a lot of the negative attention that surrounded it wasn’t exactly unfair (although it was somewhat misplaced). This is a movie that deserves to have lengthy roller skate dance numbers and a historically recreated prologue set at Harvard. There are a thousand characters, each with their own thornily complicated backstory, and the moments that make up these characters, and this film, are vital through and through. “Heaven’s Gate” was widely lampooned as a self-indulgent nightmare, and to a degree it is a work of obsessive monomania. But it’s also sort of a masterpiece, and one that should be viewed in the way its author intended—whether you like it or not.
“Blade Runner” (U.S. Theatrical release 1982) vs. “Blade Runner: Director’s Cut” (1992) vs. “Blade Runner: The Final Cut” (2007)
Synopsis: A futurist film noir (now distinctly retro-futurist with all the 80s brands it features, and the Vangelis score), the story is an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” and follows Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) whose job it is to hunt down and kill rogue replicants (genetically engineered humanoid robots.) Except of course, like all good sci fi (and this is great sci fi), it’s really about what it means to be human.
Background: There are, to date, seven different versions of “Blade Runner” that have seen the light of day in some form, but we’re only really concerned with three of those. There’s the original 116 min U.S. Theatrical cut (which only differs from the 1982 International cut in terms of being a minute shorter and having slightly less graphic violence, and from the 114 U.S. TV version in having a little more cussin’ and boobs) and the 1992 so-called “Director’s Cut” which is now seen as something of a halfway house on the way to the 2007 “Final Cut,” certainly according to director Ridley Scott who only actually had total control over the last of those. In fact, the 1992 “Director’s Cut” was something of a rush job, spurred by a sudden spike in interest following the limited theatrical release of a newly-rediscovered work print that was erroneously named the “director’s cut” without Scott’s approval. Since that work print actually was missing some scenes and had an unfinished guide soundtrack in parts, Scott distanced himself from it. But the screenings sold out, and the film had already been experiencing a surge in cultish interest, so Warner commissioned preservationist Michael Arick to collaborate with the film’s original editor, Les Healey, and with Scott on assembling what was to be a definitive “Director’s Cut.” This was released in 1992, and was widely regarded to be much closer to the original intent and superior to the original, though subsequently Scott, who had been simultaneously finishing up on “Thelma and Louise,” claimed to still be a little dissatisfied with the end product. This in turn led him to start work in 2000 on a really-and-truly final Final Cut, which had to be halted while legal issues were untangled, but eventually saw the light of day in 2007, just a year after the “Director’s Cut” had been reissued (the 1992 version had been one of the first DVD releases, but suffered from a poor-quality transfer).
Differences: The differences between the three versions (not to mention interim states) are myriad and exhaustively detailed here but what are most striking, and most eternally debated about the recut versions are the changes to the interpretation of the story, and especially of Deckard’s character, that they imply. The biggest leap in those terms is from the theatrical to the 1992 version, in which the loathed (by Ford and Scott) voiceover and tacked-on happy ending were both dropped, and the famous unicorn dream sequence made its first appearance. That sequence, exhibit A in the “Deckard is a replicant” argument (and which was apparently in the original shooting script, doubters), is longer and less ambiguous again in the Final Cut version, which cuts to the scene directly from a close up of Ford’s face and back again, very clearly implying that it’s his head we’re in at that moment. Other differences in the Final Cut include various improvements made to background scenery and visuals, and a few nips and tucks made in order to remove the confusion around the number of rogue replicants on the planet (which was sometimes pointed to as evidence of Deckard’s origins but was in fact simply a continuity error from an earlier version of the script).
Which is Best and Why: For anyone coming new to “Blade Runner” now, “The Final Cut” is definitely the one to go for, being closest to Scott’s original idea, and also having the benefit of more modern transfer and CG techniques that give it a distinctly “fresh coat of paint” feeling. That said, while it’s almost heresy these days, we still do have affection for the Theatrical version, as that was the first one we saw, and frankly, “Blade Runner” is just such a brilliant film that even in a compromised form it works like gangbusters. We might not get the Deckard/replicant ambiguity in that version, but the essential ontological questions remain the same, even with the dorky VO (though do switch off the second the elevator doors close). In any case, the Theatrical version is worth checking out after the Final Cut if only for Rutger Hauer’s hissing, vicious delivery of the line “I want more life, fucker” which is changed to “I want more life, father” in one of the Final Cut’s more pointless alterations.
“Brazil” (1984 “Love Conquers All” Edit) vs. 1985 U.S. Theatrical Cut vs. 1985 European Cut
Synopsis: In a dystopian retro-future, Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) is a low-level bureaucrat who dreams of a mysterious woman (Kim Greist), then meets her while trying to rectify an error after a terrorist was mistakenly identified.
Background: Three years on from the success of his fantasy “Time Bandits,” Terry Gilliam returned with an ambitious and visually extravagant fantasy with an impressive cast (most notably Robert De Niro as air-conditioning repairman/terrorist Harry Tuttle). Co-written with regular contributor Charles McKeown and playwright Tom Stoppard, the film was produced by Arnon Milchan‘s Embassy International Pictures, but Universal snapped up the rights for the U.S. (20th Century Fox distributed in much of the rest of the world). But as happened all too often with Gilliam, the director quarreled with executives: with test screenings scoring poorly, and worries about the two-and-a-half hour running time (longer than the studio had approved), Universal head Sid Sheinberg commissioned his own edit of the film, trimming 48 minutes and giving it a happy ending (hence the withering “Love Conquers All” nickname for this version). The film was delayed as Gilliam and Sheinberg fought over the cut (the director wrote to the executive at one point, saying “As long as my name is on the film, what is done to it is done to me… I feel every cut, especially the ones that sever the balls… if you really wish to make your version of ‘Brazil,’ then put your name on it”). Eventually, the filmmaker took matters into his own hands: he took out an ad in Variety reading “Dear Sid Sheinberg, When are you going to release my film ‘Brazil’?, Terry Gilliam,” and surreptitiously screened the film to critics, resulting in the Los Angeles Film Critics Association giving it their Best Picture award. Their hand forced, Universal agreed to release the film, albeit in a compromised version with a few changes. Internationally, audiences got to see Gilliam’s original cut (which he later refined further for the Criterion release). The Sheinberg take occasionally aired on TV in the U.S., and also was issued as part of the film’s deluxe Criterion edition.
Differences: At nearly 94 minutes, around 50 minutes shorter from the definitive take, Sheinberg’s cut is obviously wildly different. Much of the violence and swearing is gone, along with many of the fantasy sequences. The plot is spelled out as if to a particularly dim child (including on-screen text read aloud by a voice over), while the romantic elements are played up, not least in the conclusion, which sees Sam and Jill escaping to the countryside together happily. Meanwhile, the longer European cut restores a few extra sequences—a post-coital scene between Sam and Jill, a metal-detector sequence, an interrogation sequence and another with Peter Vaughan‘s character Helpmann dressed as Santa. The American version also opens and closes with shots of clouds (some of which were borrowed from “The NeverEnding Story“).
Which Is Better And Why: Well, the “Love Conquers All” cut certainly isn’t the best: it’s essentially nonsensical, with the plot making very little sense, much of the film’s thematic weight gone, and a generally cobbled-together, slapdash feel to the whole thing. It’s a disaster, and you can see why Gilliam fought it so hard (and why he was so delighted when it eventually saw the light of day and everyone could judge it for themselves). But of the better versions, we’d argue that there’s not a whole lot to differentiate the European and American cuts—the former is more complete, but does drag a little more. But in deference to Mr. Gilliam, we’d go with it, as it’s his preferred version.
“Apocalypse Now” (1979) vs. “Apocalypse Now Redux” (2001)
Synopsis: A loose adaptation of Joseph Conrad‘s “Heart of Darkness” that follows Army Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen), who’s enlisted on a secret mission to head to Cambodia to find Special Forces Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who reportedly lost his mind and is now commanding his own private army.
Background: Pretty much a decade in the making (writer John Milius was first hired to pen a version of the script during the making of “The Rain People” in 1969), “Apocalypse Now” was originally intended to be directed by George Lucas, but after the success of “The Godfather” films, Francis Ford Coppola became interested in the script and began shooting in 1976. After a tumultuous production that dealt with hurricanes, the firing of one leading man (Harvey Keitel), the heart attack of another (Sheen), and the budget and schedule going wildly overboard—it finally wrapped in May 1977, having cost over $30 million—”Apocalypse Now” then spent another two years in the cutting room, with the director eventually telling his wife Eleanor that he thought “there is only about a 20% chance I can pull the film off.” After much recutting and indecision, the film finally premiered at Cannes in May 1979 as a “work-in-progress,” and shared the Palme d’Or with Volker Schlöndorff‘s “The Tin Drum.” The released version was ostensibly the director’s cut, but Coppola had shot much more than was included, and over a decade later he started toying with the idea of a new version of the film. He tried to persuade editor Walter Murch to return, who initially refused after spending two years on the project originally, but after working on “Touch Of Evil,” Murch relented. He and Coppola set about recutting the film, often from the ground up. Actors were brought in, where possible, to re-record ADR. New music was recorded for the project, and DoP Vittorio Storaro supervised the color processing. The new version, entitled “Apocalypse Now Redux” premiered at Cannes in May 2001, a little less than 22 years after the original had done the same.
Differences: Aside from the technical rejig described above, the ‘Redux’ version adds 49 extra minutes to the 153-minute original (that adds up to 202 minutes, math fans). Aside from more minor additions of dialogue or shuffling of scenes around, there are a number of major changes. Among them, we see Willard stealing Kilgore’s (Robert Duvall) surfboard after his famous napalm speech, and a subsequent scene where Kilgore pursues them, with a helicopter playing a message from them. The Playboy bunnies return, sleeping with some of the men (hauntingly, Lance fails to notice a dead body in the Medevac camp where it’s taking place). Most notably of all, there’s an extended sequence set in a French rubber plantation, featuring a funeral sequence for Laurence Fishburne‘s Clean, arguments with the French family over the war, and the seduction of Willard by the mother of the family. It also restores appearances by French actors Christian Marquand (“And God Created Woman“) and Aurore Clément (“Paris, Texas“), as well as cameos by the director’s children: future filmmaker Roman and older brother Gian-Carlo (who sadly wasn’t around for the Redux version, having passed away in a speedboat accident in 1986).
Which Version is Better And Why? Some find the later ‘Redux’ version more definitive, but personally we’d stick with the original. The longer cut is certainly fun for completists, but once restored to the movie, the new additions either harm the pacing (the film stops dead for the French plantation sequence) or the tone (stealing the surfboard is a weird and incongruous moment of japery, while the return of the Playmates feels, frankly, a bit misogynistic in its execution). It’s still a great movie, but who would you rather listen to: the ’70s Coppola who made “The Godfather” and “The Conversation,” or the late ’90s/early ’00s Coppola who made “Jack” and “The Rainmaker“? It’s also worth noting that there’s a five-hour workprint version that’s still eagerly swapped by collectors and bootleggers, but it’s literally a rough assembly, featuring basically everything that Coppola filmed, so is hardly a satisfying viewing experience.
“Touch Of Evil” (theatrical version 1958), vs. “Preview Version” (1976) vs. “Restored Version” (1998 )
Synopsis: Film noir classic about a Mexican drug enforcement agent (Charlton Heston) investigating a bombing on American soil while on his honeymoon, aided and mostly abetted by the monstrous and corrupt policeman Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles),
Background: After a decade in semi-exile in Europe, Welles hoped to make his glorious Hollywood return with this film noir. Some suggest he was brought on to direct at the insistence of star Charlton Heston, having initially been only pegged for an acting appearance, while others maintain that the project came out of a dare between Welles and producer Albert Zugsmith, when the “Citizen Kane” filmmaker wagered that he could make a great film out of even the most terrible script that Zugsmith had. Either way, Welles shot the project in 1957, a shoot that seemingly went smoothly and came in on time. But Welles was never speedy when it came to post-production (“I could work forever on the editing of a film,” he said to Cahiers du Cinéma in 1958. “I don’t know why it takes me so much time, but that has the effect of arousing the ire of the producers, who then take the film out of my hands”), and after he finished a rough cut in July 1957, Universal indeed took over (even reshooting some scenes and adding others, helmed by journeyman B-movie veteran Harry Keller), and Welles went to Mexico to prepare for his version of “Don Quixote“. He finally saw the studio’s cut in December ’57, and submitted a 58 page memo to the studio pleading for changes (read the full text here), most of which were eventually ignored. The released version, running 30 minutes shorter, made it to theaters two months later, as the lower half of a double bill with Keller’s Hedy Lamarr vehicle “The Female Animal.” It basically disappeared in the U.S. (though was taken to the hearts of the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd in Europe), and was mostly forgotten until 1975, when Universal discovered a longer 108-minute cut in their vaults, originally used for test screenings. It was re-released, heralded by the studio as “the complete uncut and restored version,” but that wasn’t accurate: Welles had no involvement in the cut, and though it came after his memo the director wasn’t consulted about the re-release. Finally, after Welles’ death, interest in something closer to a director’s cut grew thanks to the work of critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, and the great editor Walter Murch was hired by the studio to restore the film as closely as possible to Welles’ original intention. It hit theaters in 1998, though not without trouble: the filmmaker’s daughter Beatrice caused a Cannes premiere to be cancelled after threatening to sue over a failure to consult her over the restoration.
Differences: The 1970s cut runs 108 minutes, thirteen minutes longer than the released theatrical cut, without some of Keller’s reshot moments, and with some of Welles’ scenes restored, most notably a long scene between Welles’ Quinlan and his partner Menzies (Joseph Calleia) that sets up the characters, and their differences, much better. Various other tweaks existed too: certain scenes ran longer, or lines of dialogue or shots remain different. The Murch and Rosenbaum 1998 cut is only three minutes longer, and doesn’t contain much in the way of entirely new footage, but feels like a different movie: the rhythm of the film, particularly in the opening scenes, is very different, and much more consistent (particularly with the credits and music removed from the legendary opening shot, per Welles’ intention). The print and soundtrack also got a modern polish.
Which Is Better And Why: Welles scholars still argue over this one, and all of the versions are pretty decent: the release version has storytelling issues, but can’t do too much to mess up what Welles shot. And it’s important to remember that the 1998 version isn’t definitive, or a director’s cut: Welles was making compromises with the studio in his memo, and his ideal version of the film likely would have been different if allowed to complete it. All that said, that’s certainly our favorite: the intention of Murch’s changes is well thought-out, and the film is much more satisfying as a whole, as subtle as many of the tweaks are. All three versions are available on the Criterion and Masters of Cinema release, so you can judge for yourself.
“The New World” (wide theatrical release, 2006) vs. “The New World” (Extended Cut, 2008)
Synopsis: It’s the story of Pocahontas and her love affair with pilgrim John Smith (Colin Farrell), which is a story that everyone knows (most musically with the 1995 Disney animated feature). Since this is a Terrence Malick movie, though, there are lots of shots of blowing grass and people in historically accurate Native American face paint.
Background: There are actually three distinct versions of “The New World” that have been viewed by human eyes. In the lead up to the Oscars, a version of “The New World” was released in New York and Los Angeles for a single week in 2005 for awards consideration. This cut ran 150 minutes. When the weeklong engagement in New York and Los Angeles was over, Malick took the film back and re-edited it for the movie’s wide theatrical release at the end of January. That version ran 135 minutes. The differences between that initial release and the wide release included a shortening of the movie’s first act, the addition of narration in an effort to more clearly define the plot, as well as the reinsertion of some sequences. In 2008, when the movie finally hit home video (including Blu-ray, which lovingly recreated the movie’s 65 mm splendor), a third cut emerged (labeled, somewhat nebulously, the “extended cut,”) which was an entirely different cut by Malick himself and not some kind of studio cash-in, that ran a whopping 172 minutes. This is the version that is widely available on home video in America, while the 2006 theatrical cut is the version most have in the rest of the world (and the original 150 minute cut was available as a promotional digital download in Italy).
Differences: The extended cut is a whole 35 minutes longer. Whole sections of the movie are lengthened and given more time to breathe, with even more voiceover. One of the things that even casual viewers of both versions of the movie would notice was the addition of chapter titles sprinkled throughout the film. These titles, with white text against a black background, indicate things like “A New Start” and “The Stranger,” and add to the movie’s almost novelistic complexity. There are over 90 distinct edits, supposedly, between that widely released theatrical cut and the extended version. Most of these come across in the movie’s overall vibe and atmosphere. The longer cut just feels more like the movie Malick intended all along.
Which is Better and Why: Since American audiences don’t have much of a choice when it comes to what version of “The New World” we can watch, we’ve been stuck with the extended cut for more than a half-decade and we’re totally cool with that. The extended version flows in that way that only Malick can conjure; it’s got a celestial kind of grandeur and an emotional intimacy, both of which were missing from that original, relatively compact theatrical exhibition in 2006. What’s interesting is that, despite the talk of the supposed hours of footage that were left out of his previous film “The Thin Red Line,” he’s never gone back to monkey with that movie’s running time. But he was endlessly fussy with “The New World.” The version he finally settled on, though, seems to be the best. All those shots of swaying grass really do make a difference.
“Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid” (1973) vs. “Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid” (1980)
Synopsis: As times change in the Wild West, an aging lawman is hired on by a group of wealthy New Mexico cattle barons to bring down an old friend: Billy the Kid.
Background: Pugilism, alcoholism and acrimony combined to make the production a bitter feud practically before filming began. Director Sam Peckinpah was nearing the apex of his bloody, drunken legend—one that he would fully sanction and fuel—and butted heavy heads with MGM over all of it. Peckinpah rewrote Randy Wurlitzer’s script (originally an existential Western for Monte Hellman) which pleased no one (even star James Coburn said the original was better). The director being the implacable bastard he was, with a nasty reputation that preceded him, did as he pleased nonetheless, ignoring every MGM wish and going 21 days over schedule and $1.6 million over budget according to Marshall Fine’s well-researched Peckinpah book, “Bloody Sam.” MGM president James Aubrey, by all indications a bean-counting philistine, gave Peckinpah a paltry, over-rushed two months to get the movie in theaters for the summer of 1973 which caused even more animosity. Eventually, MGM took the movie away from him and butchered it themselves.
Differences: There are far too many cuts of this film, four of them really, but for these purposes, we’ll stick to the MGM theatrical cut from 1973 (1 hour 46 minutes) and the one that aired on the Z Channel in 1980, also known as the “Turner Preview Version” (released on Laserdisc in 1988; 2 hours and 2 minutes). These days the theatrical cut is hard to come by (even VHS copies floating around are 2 hrs 2min), but by all accounts it favored action, gore, violence and jettisoned all meditative qualities. The preview version (evidently never fine-tuned by Peckinpah so not quite final either), is much more languid, quieter and introspective—it’s in a way a melancholy movie not unlike Wes Anderson’s “Grand Budapest Hotel,” insofar as they both get nostalgic contemporaneously about an era that is coming to an end. It’s also a romantic film about an outlaw living life on his own terms (boy, how Peckinpah identified), and it’s a movie about myth and mythmaking (again, FUBU for Peck). According to Fine’s book, there’s also a 2 hour and 20 minute rough cut that Scorsese saw and called “brilliant,” but occasional adversary and frenemy Pauline Kael was underwhelmed by it, and said it meandered far too much. There’s also a 1 hour and 55 minute “special edition” cut put together by editor Paul Seydor, that’s largely speculative and done long after Peckinpah’s death (on one hand Seydor is a knowledgeable Peckinpah archivist, on the other hand he’s known for editing “Turner & Hooch”).
Which is Better and Why: “The Turner Preview version” because it’s as close as we’ll get to Peckinpah’s director’s cut, and because it’s simply a more realized film.
“Superman II” (theatrical cut, 1981) vs. “Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut” (2006)
Synopsis: In the sequel to the box office smash “Superman,” the Man of Tomorrow (once again played by the irrepressible Christopher Reeve) faces off against Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) and a trio of fallen Kryptonians, led by the evil General Zod (Terence Stamp).
Background: Both the first and second “Superman” films were shot concurrently, but with the production running behind schedule (and over-budget), director Richard Donner put a halt on shooting the sequel so he could finish editing the first film for its theatrical release. When the team reassembled to complete the second film, Donner was removed (largely due to the filmmaker’s outspoken objection to the producer’s removing Marlon Brando‘s sequences from the sequel to avoid paying him a percentage of the total box office gross), and replaced by “Hard Day’s Night” director Richard Lester, who had a much less combative working relationship with producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind, and served as an intermediary between Donner and the producers before he was brought on to direct. Donner claimed that he had completed between 75% and 80% of the necessary shooting for the sequel before he was removed, and since DGA regulations stated that, for a director to have his name on a movie, the director must have shot at least 51% of the finished film, Lester went back and reshot many of the sequences Donner had already completed. (Donner claims that about 25% of the finished film was his.) The Lester shoot was also problematic since cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth and production designer John Barry both died during his section of the production, and many key creative personnel (including screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz, composer John Williams, Hackman and editor Stuart Baird) chose solidarity with Donner, refusing to return. When “Superman” was being prepped for an extensive DVD release in 2001, much of the Donner footage was unearthed and the conversation began, in earnest, about putting together a version that would recreate Donner’s vision for the movie. Even after that Donner resisted the urge to try and reassemble his version, claiming in various interviews that he was too far away from it now. Finally, he gave in, even recruited Mankiewicz to assist in the edit. Williams was asked to return to score the film, and when he replied that he couldn’t do it, Donner re-cut Williams cues from the first film and gave Williams a composer credit on the final cut anyway. On the supplemental DVD features on the “Superman II” Donner cut, the director said, “I never thought my version would see the light of day… Maybe rightly so.”
Differences: First and foremost, the Donner cut of “Superman II” reinstates the original Brando material, swapped out in the theatrical cut for a much lamer conversation between Superman and his equally dead but less expensive mother. In terms of screen time, the Donner cut is ten minutes shorter than the original theatrical cut, which isn’t surprising given how ruthless Donner has become as an editor. (Some Lester sequences still remain but only for pacing/structural issues.) Much of the overt campiness of the Lester version is gone, which means that there are no giant Superman shields that can wrap people up, that awful opening sequence at the Eiffel Tower or kisses that make your memory vanish. However, it is still goofy—but so is the first Donner-directed Superman movie. It just moves quicker and is more dramatic, overall. You can tell, watching the Donner cut, how much more in line with the first film it would have been, particularly when it comes to the snappily choreographed action set pieces.
Which is Better and Why: The Donner cut is better, but that will largely depend on your taste and point of view. There are some who favor the more slapstick approach that Lester took to the material, emphasizing the comic nature of the comic book film. But as charming as that can be, that movie is riddled with fucking awful bullshit, and while Donner’s new cut isn’t 100%, it’s of a whole, and the Brando footage goes a long, long way. The Donner cut is far from some unearthed masterpiece, but it’s still a much more dramatically cohesive work. (For more on Supers check out our Ranking the Superman Movies feature here)
“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977) vs. “Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Special Edition” (1980) vs. “Collector’s Edition” version (1998)
Synopsis: A blue collar dad (Richard Dreyfuss) has a close encounter with a UFO and becomes obsessed with the phenomenon, eventually abandoning his family to make further contact with the extraterrestrial visitors.
Background: Even though director Steven Spielberg had final cut on “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” he felt rushed through production due to having to make a release date that would better benefit Columbia, which at the time was going through something of a financial crisis. They wanted the movie for the summer of 1977 (which would have put Spielberg in direct competition with his BFF George Lucas and some lil’ movie called “Star Wars“), but when various setbacks made that impossible, they settled for November 1977. Spielberg still wanted another six months to tinker with the movie but was denied. After the film was released and became a critical and commercial smash (it also racked up eight Oscar nominations—including one for Spielberg’s direction), Columbia gave Spielberg almost $2 million and let him reedit the film as he saw fit. Still, there were strings attached. The studio desperately wanted Spielberg to show the inside of the famous mother ship from the end of the film and this became the cornerstone of the marketing for the new version of the movie, which was released theatrically in 1980 and made more than $15 million. (While a handful of sequences were added, just as many were deleted, and the “Special Edition,” as it was called, runs three minutes shorter than the original theatrical version.) In 1998, Spielberg returned to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” for the “Collector’s Edition” of the film. This version wisely deleted the “interior of the mother ship” sequence and reinserted some other elements. It’s the longest version of the movie to date (two minutes longer than the original 1977 theatrical cut) and the one that Spielberg is most happy with. All three versions appear on the Blu-ray release of the film.
Differences: The biggest difference between the 1977 and 1980 cuts is, of course, that ending, which is something of a wet noodle after all of the soul-rattling grandeur that has come before it. The interior of the spaceship looks kind of blah and the movie is robbed of that climactic sense of mystery. (Since François Truffaut, who plays Lacombe, was off shooting another movie when Spielberg was reconstructing this sequence, his assistant, played by Bob Balaban, appears in these scenes alone). There are little additions and gags, like the spaceships flying by a sign for McDonald’s, and more lip service given to the fact that Dreyfuss is abandoning his family in order to commune with an extraterrestrial presence, which isn’t exactly something included in parenting guidebooks. Teri Garr‘s wife character is given a harsher, more brittle edge in the Special Edition, but in no way does it justify Dreyfuss’ behavior. Yes, meeting aliens would be really cool. But wouldn’t being there for your children be, you know, cooler? The Special Edition also has a good sequence where the team discovers a boat in the Gobi Desert (a boat? In the desert?) A noticeable deletion in the Special Edition is the jettisoning of the army press conference that is designed specifically to debunk the rash of sightings. It’s a great little scene, and in the Special Edition, it is no more.
Which is Better and Why: If you’re choosing between the 1977 theatrical cut and the 1980 Special Edition, stick with the theatrical cut. Mostly because you’re not subjected to the awful lameness that is the inside of the UFO, although, if you’re given the choice (and, these days, you are), go with the 1998 collector’s edition. Aside from this being the definitive “director’s cut” (in Spielberg’s own words), it’s just a more complete version of the movie, and features the “good bits” from the special edition, combined with most of the moments you loved from the original theatrical edition. (There are, of course, some nagging caveats.) Each version is fascinating and completely riveting, but if you’ve got to choose just one, go with the 1998 cut. Even if that great moment where Dreyfuss looks at his pillow and it reminds him of the shape of the Devil’s Tower is gone.
“Cinema Paradiso” (International Theatrical Cut, 1989) vs. “Cinema Paradiso: The New Version” (2002)
Synopsis: Told largely in flashback, this is the fond, nostalgia-soaked story of Salvatore “Totò” Di Vita, now a successful film director, as he remembers the formative relationships of his life—with film—with the villagers of the small Sicilian hometown he’s long since left behind, with his first love, and most of all with Alfredo, the projectionist in the titular local cinema.
Background: You’d be hard pressed to find anyone round here who doesn’t get at least a little misty-eyed thinking about “Cinema Paradiso” (the 123-minute, 1989 Best Foreign Language Oscar- and Cannes Grand Prix-winning version, that is); it’s one of the tenderest and sweetest paeans to cinema that’s ever been made. But the almost universally worshipped award-winner was itself, in fact, a reduced version. Originally in 1988, director Giuseppe Tornatore had released a 155-minute cut that flopped hard on release in Italy, both critically and commercially, before 22 minutes were shorn from it to make it into a stone-cold classic on the international circuit—an early example of Harvey Weinstein’s snip-happy impulses working to the (gasp!) benefit of a film. Its success paved the way for a resurgence in Italian cinema in general and in period-set Italian-language filmmaking specifically that continued through the ‘90s (“Mediterraneo,” “Il Postino,” Tornatore’s own “The Star Maker”and “Life is Beautiful” would dot the Foreign Language Oscar category in the following years). But for no discernible reason (it’s that truncated cut’s massive popularity and success that remains the most impressive entry on Tornatore’s CV to date), in 2001 it was decided that what the world needed was a version of “Cinema Paradiso” that didn’t just restore the excised 22 minutes, but one that actually ballooned out way beyond it, to a 173-minute running time. This director’s cut, also known as “The New Version” got a limited U.S. release in 2002.
Differences: As is to be expected in a version that adds a whopping 50 minutes of footage to the more familiarly seen film, the pacing of “The New Version” is completely different, especially as the film enters its third act, and the emphasis is shifted pretty fundamentally, which leads to a total reevaluation of some of the central relationships. Already in the “teenage Totò” section (in which he falls in love with Elena) Tornatore’s broader, bawdier impulses are on display as the Paradiso become as a place of more graphic, unbridled carnality than before, and crucially Totò himself is caught up in it this time out, clearly shown losing his virginity to the town prostitute. This detracts from the innocence of Totò’s character and adds a layer of disingenuousness to his protestations that Elena is “his first” and that he is so gauche and inexperienced. Furthermore, by adding a whole extra part at the end in which the older, returning Salvatore is reunited with the older Elena (who is herself married and has a daughter) for an adulterous car-seat tryst, the ethereality that had surrounded his memory of her is dashed, and their grand love becomes something far more banal, and rather soap operatic. But perhaps most detrimentally (because it’s the relationship we care about most in the film) “The New Version” also unnecessarily sullies the Alfredo/Totò friendship, when it is revealed that Alfredo deliberately kept Totò and Elena apart at a crucial juncture, the better to make Totò leave the village that he believes he has outgrown.
Which is Better and Why: Unreservedly, and by about a million miles, the 123-minute theatrical version should be considered the definitive cut of the film. This is a film about magic, and about elusiveness and aging and time and memory, and none of those things come across nearly so well in the longer, less subtle, more explanatory “New Version.” In fact, much as we love these characters, there are some back stories we just never need to know and some characters whose power is totally diminished by revisiting them—especially Elena, whose function should be to flicker and flutter in the mind’s eye like something perfect, intangible and unattainable, like an image projected on a screen. The director’s version drags a warm-hearted, joyously sentimental classic down to earth so much that even the famous last scene of the kissing montage feels compromised, where in the original it is simply one of the most wonderful endings ever. Do yourself a favor and never see the “New Version.” Forget it ever happened.
As we mentioned, this is a topic we’ll be returning to, so if there are any Director’s Cuts you’d particularly like us to cover in future editions, you can let us know below. —Jessica Kiang, Drew Taylor, Oli Lyttelton and Rodrigo Perez