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Do extended versions and director's cuts really represent the director's original vision? by Slarek

Once upon a time the term 'director's cut' was a magical thing. It offered us the chance to see a great film how it was originally intended to be seen, restoring footage cut due to pressure from studios, audience preview screenings, overbearing producers or stars, or even distributors keen to get one extra showing into an evening. With the rise of DVD and the passing of time, however, I for one have become a little suspicious of the whole concept of director's cuts and most especially 'extended editions', where footage is sometimes added without the the involvement of the director or the original editor. Increasingly there is the sense that this has more to do with marketing the product to an audience of collectors than with restoring the original vision of the film-makers. Taking the concept a step further, some director's cuts are planned even before the film first hit the cinema screens. Thus recent films such as Hellboy and Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy were released with the director's cuts already waiting in the wings, specifically to be launched on DVD some months after the release of the original version.

Tinkering with the original product is not new, of course – back in 1980 Steven Spielberg re-edited scenes and added new footage to his 1977 Close Encounters of the Third Kind (a further re-edit took place in 1998 for a 'final edition'), but this has to be seen as a result of hindsight rather than correcting an original error, something that was reflected in the stick-out-a-mile element that dogged the new scenes. Time had moved on, and in the intervening years Spielberg's directorial style had changed just enough to result in a sometimes jarring juxtaposition of old and new sequences. Fellow movie brat George Lucas also went back to fiddle with his earlier films, specifically the original Star Wars trilogy, adding digital effects to scenes that worked perfectly well without them, but this assisted a timely re-release and raked in even more dosh for the Skywalker Ranch.

Some director's versions appeared to justify the label. Cuts made to James Cameron's The Abyss were prompted both by the screening-per-evening quota and a changing political climate, which had made Cameron's cold war subplot look suddenly out of date. The restoration of this footage did indeed restore the film to Cameron's original vision and gave extra bite to the some of film's sub-narrative. Elsewhere, though, the term has proved a deceptive one. The much heralded 'director's cut' of Blade Runner is anything but, allegedly completed without director Scott's presence and based on a note given to the editor that said something like "Lose the narration and the ending, insert the unicorn shot." We still await the genuine director's cut and the restoration of key missing scenes. But all these years later would it really be representative of the 1982 Ridley Scott or the post-Gladiator twenty-first century one?

As DVD's popularity has increased and the demand for special editions and new, revised versions of familiar films has blossomed, the process of trotting out 'director's cuts' and 'extended versions' has become a regular one. In recent years we have seen the release of 'director's cuts' of such variable fare as Amadeus, Stargate, King Arthur, Daredevil, Lethal Weapon, Highlander, True Romance, Spawn, Natural Born Killers, Cop Land, Army of Darkness, Fatal Attraction and even the already interminably long and insufferable Pearl Harbour. And this is just a sampling.

In 2001, young newcomer Richard Kelly made a serious splash with his first film, Donnie Darko, and as with every such auspicious directorial debut, all eyes were on Kelly to see what he would do next. His second film surprised everyone, mainly because it was essentially the same one, following Donnie Darko with Donnie Darko – The Director's Cut. On the DVD of the original cut, Kelly talked us through a fair collection of deleted scenes and gave sound reasons why most of them had been removed. In the 'director's cut' we saw some of them re-inserted. So if they were excluded by choice from the original cut, which one is the real 'director's cut'? There is a maxim in the film industry that a film is never finished but abandoned, and I've never met a film-maker yet who is entirely happy with the finished work, but sooner or later you have to call it quits and move on. It would be quite possible for Kelly to spend the next twenty years re-editing Donnie Darko into new cuts, as he continually re-evaluates his work and his film-making style develops and his views on the world change. It is very likely that it is this altered perspective that led to Apocalypse Now Redux, which was edited by a man who made fifteen films and who aged twenty-two years between the original cut and the re-edit. It thus seems unlikely that Redux was a restoration of the director's original vision and more probable that it was a rethink by the older Coppola, a version closer to how he views the film in retrospect. Rumour has it that he is still tinkering with the film to this day, and that a further cut is one day on the cards.

Director's cuts are one thing, but extended versions are a whole different ball game, as they sometimes do not even involve the director at all, and I'm sorry, but simply adding footage to an existing cut does not make it a better film and may actually be contrary to the director's intentions. Just last year we saw the release of The Exorcist (The Version You've Never Seen), originally and misleadingly marketed as a 'director's cut', which restored cut scenes specifically against the wishes of director William Friedkin, who had always argued that these sequences had been removed for sound reasons.

Now we have the announcement of two upcoming region 1 DVD releases that on the surface sound exciting disks, but actually both fall into the category of extended cuts that did not involve their respective and highly respected directors. First up is David Lynch's much maligned but still handsomely staged Dune, arriving on a single disk containing both the 137 minute theatrical cut and a 177 minute 'extended cut'. Sounds good? Not if you're a Lynch fan, as you'll already know that version is one prepared for US TV that so pissed Lynch off that he had his name removed from the film, which is now credited to the famed Alan Smithee. Talk of Lynch's original cut remains the stuff of internet legend, with some estimates putting it at over five hours in length. Whether Lynch would want to return to the film after all this time and restore this footage is another matter, of course, and the ghost of changed perspective would still haunt the result.

The second release initially sounds more like a genuine director's cut, as the film was severely trimmed down from the director's version on its initial release, but the PR blurb about the dedicated restoration work carried out masks a key issue – this new cut has being assembled without any direct involvement from the director, for the simple reason that he passed away back in 1997. Sam Fuller's superb WW2 film The Big Red One was originally released back in 1980 and is already available on DVD, but is soon to be re-released by Warner Brothers as a two-disk special edition with an extra forty minutes of footage, restored by a team headed by critic and film-maker Richard Schickel and warmly received on its cinema screenings in the US. Now it should be pointed out that it is perfectly possible for a genuine director's cut to be assembled after the death of the film's director, as evidenced in the restoration of Sam Peckinpah's magnificent Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, a film that was transformed from a great work into a genuine masterpiece through this process. This was no retrospective cut but one supervised by the film's original editor Roger Spotiswoode and based upon a cut supervised by Peckinpah and apparently smuggled out of the editing room by Spotiswoode himself. As a result it could be argued that this more accurately reflects the director's original intentions than Coppola's own recut of Apocalypse Now, as it was based on a cut made shortly after filming, not a twenty-two-year-later rethink.

The new cut of the The Big Red One is based (at least in part) on Fuller's original shooting script, but this news will cut little ice with even half-experienced film-makers. Shooting scripts are essential tools of planning the filming process, but even if you stick to it (and many do not) then all this changes in the editing. This is where you find that sequences you planned and shot do not really work after all or detract from the message or the narrative flow. The was nicely demonstrated by the restoration work done on David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia – footage was recovered and lovingly restored by a team of experts and re-inserted back into the film, which was then presented to Lean, who stunned the restoration team by informing them that he now intended to re-edit the revived sequences and in the process remove some of them. As Lean pointed out, simply inserting the lost footage does not constitute a true restoration – editing is a precise craft, and the footage needed to be shaped correctly in order to serve the story and the narrative flow. In the case of The Big Red One, the footage is to be re-inserted, but Fuller is no longer around to reshape it or even reject sequences he cut out with good reason. Add to this the fact that if you give the same footage to fifty editors you will get fifty completely different films and what you have is no longer Sam Fuller's The Big Red One, but Sam Fuller and Richard Schickel's The Big Red One.

It is genuinely admirable that such restoration work is going on and that lost footage is being restored for film fans to see what might have been, and I have no doubt that this new version of The Big Red One will prove to be closer to what Fuller intended, at least in content and overall structure, and I am thoroughly looking forward to seeing it. But when watching such works the viewer should always keep in mind that though the director may have shot what you are seeing, they may well have had little or nothing to do with the decisions to include such extra footage in the film, or with the creative process of assembling it into completed sequences. Bigger, as they say, is not always better.

The Big Red One

sound and vision
1,85:1 anamorphic
Dolby 5.1 surround
features include
Additional scenes
Photo gallery
TV spot
release date
3 May 2005


sound and vision
2,35:1 anamorphic
Dolby 5.1 surround
features include
Original theatrical cut and extended cut of the film
Deleted scenes
release date
10 May 2005
article posted
14 Feb 2005

See all of Slarek's reviews