Director’s cuts are all the rage…but they just aren’t what they used to be.
I say this as someone who understands and respects the protectiveness that the “author” of a motion picture feels about the job being done behind the camera during production and, later, in the editing room. Movie lovers used to venerate the term “director’s cut” as denoting the purest distillation of a movie’s artistry, rightfully freed from the cynical butcheries of censors and uncreative studio executives who wielded their power over the final shape and impact of a film before its exhibition. The evolution of multiple streams of revenue for movies (television and home video) and the desire to turn profits over and over again for re-issues of products viewers recognize and love—but may be reluctant to spend money on again without the promise of something “new” or significantly upgraded—have popularized all of the restorations, “unrated versions,” “rogue cuts,” and “versions you’ve never seen” that essentially got their start with the “invention” of the director’s cut.
To give proper credit where credit has always been due, we should note that a director’s cut was (and is) never just about the notion of protecting the work of the director; even if you do subscribe to the auteur theory, director’s cuts are also about guarding the work done by the writers, the actors, the editors…truly, the work done by everybody that works on the production of a movie.
The inclusion or excision of a single scene in a film has the power to shift its entire center of gravity; trimming away or re-inserting bits of dialogue within scenes can profoundly alter the shape and power of the writer’s intent and an actor’s performance—and while the director has typically been the person entrusted to oversee all these choices that need to be made to the film’s ultimate benefit, he (or she) has not always had the final say (or, the “final cut,” as we would say in contractual language) in guaranteeing a finished film meets the eyes and ears of audiences in the form the production team would prefer.
We tend to think of this tinkering around as relatively novel—especially when we are disappointed with it—but it’s important to realize that movies have rarely if ever been as “fixed” in their state as we might like to believe. In the era of the censors, you could travel state to state and see different versions of the same movie on the screen; the welcome invention of television exacted a heavy price on the films made to compete with it, as broadcasts of theatrical films were edited “for time and content”—and casually butchered when images wider than they were tall (widescreen movies) were unnaturally forced to accommodate a square screen (projecting anamorphic frames in their un-squeezed state), or broadcast with huge chunks of their visual real estate simply chopped away from view.
Director’s cuts sometimes don’t even involve the director at all; the first time I had the experience of a “director’s cut” was purchasing the VHS re-release of James Whale’s Frankenstein, which had blessedly restored, on behalf of the long-departed Whale, Colin Clive’s excised line “Now I know what it feels like to be God!” (which works wonderfully) and the scene in which Karloff’s creature throws a little girl into the lake, without the understanding that she won’t float like a flower (which works, frankly, not so well).
Sometimes, these restorations are both welcome and effective (Lawrence of Arabia and Blade Runner), or even heroic in nature (Metropolis); sometimes, they meet rabid fan interests but ultimately disappoint as free-standing films on their own (to me, Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut and Orson Welles’ Don Quixote fit this category); and sometimes, a director’s tinkering with his own work can result in outright fury at the results—look no further than George Lucas’ “Greedo Shoots First” insanity, or William Friedkin’s addition of “witty” dialogue to dial down the chills of The Exorcist at the very end, or the digital monkeyshines of Steven Spielberg’s switching out guns for walkie-talkies in E.T.
Yes, director’s cuts are all the rage—and sometimes they earn that rage. I won’t be picking on just any little movie or any journeyman director who adds on two more minutes of superfluous blood-‘n’-boobs just to get some extra coin with an “unrated” video release or a tiny bit more attention for a film that passed by us otherwise unremarked upon. I will only take a swing at the changes made to movies I really loved in the first place, and aim my criticism at filmmakers big enough (or, I guess in one case, dead enough) to take it. I’m itching to exorcise some movie demons of my own now, to lay out my “issues” with five director’s cuts I wish had stayed on the cutting room floor.
The Gold Rush
As long as I’m out to (lightly) savage great filmmakers over the alterations made to their great movies, I might as well start with one of the greatest filmmakers’ greatest movies. So confident in its finished form was Charlie Chaplin when his film The Gold Rush was first released in 1925, he stated publicly that it was the film for which he most wished to be remembered. Nevertheless, this beautifully-rendered pantomime romance of a Little Tramp Prospector and the dance hall performer who steals his heart was revisited by the legendary actor-director-composer for a 1942 re-release that would remove the film’s intertitles and instead fit the silent classic with a synchronized soundtrack of both music and narration performed by Chaplin himself.
As a huge fan of Chaplin’s talkie Hitler satire The Great Dictator, I’m no snob when it comes to the idea of the Tramp being a creature of silent films rather than sound—but I’m of the mind that Chaplin did nothing short of wreck the gentle poetry of his silent masterpiece. Chaplin came to regard the 1942 version as his “definitive” version of the film, and to movie history’s detriment, it is the version that is currently in the best shape for viewing (at least as is currently evidenced by the as-usual terrific release of both versions on the Criterion Collection label). Defying what would come to be the stereotype of the director’s cut, Chaplin actually removed footage from the film even apart from the intertitles, including the wedding and very humorous kiss between him and leading lady Georgia Hale at the film’s end.
Chaplin was famously wrong about sound in motion pictures being a passing fad that would destroy the universality of movies, so this wouldn’t be the first time the great artist was mistaken; he went on to make an adjustment to the emergence of sound films that could generously be termed uneasy. He walked the tightrope brilliantly by still making “silents” with synchronized music and sound effects with City Lights and Modern Times; he wobbled across it not so brilliantly, most would concede, with films like A King in New York and A Countess from Hong Kong. But the greatest damage Chaplin did to his legacy, in my view, was to betray The Gold Rush of 1925, the movie he wanted to serve as his signature, by scribbling all across it with his chirpy commentary about “the little fellow” in the Klondike.
Fans of the play, and most fans of the movie, will be in total disagreement with me when I say that I prefer the original theatrical cut of 1776. It’s a strange position to be in, not just as a “theater person” who would typically be more wedded to including more of an original text than less, but also because it puts me in the same company as Richard Nixon—whose dislike of the “Cool, Cool Considerate Men” number prompted the nation’s most infamous president to put pressure on studio head Jack Warner to remove the number from the movie. It was cut, over the objections of director Peter H. Hunt, during post-production…while the director was on vacation. It seems that Nixon didn’t cotton to how the song painted those who were politically inclined to move “ever to the right, never to the left” as injurious to American democracy.
That, if I even need to say it, is decidedly not why I disapprove of the number and its inclusion in the film; in fact, I’d have to say I’m a little torn about it even as I type this, with the understanding that those braying the most about Our Founders today could stand with a little needling of exactly this sort via this brilliantly witty and well-performed musical about the nation’s Declaration of Independence.
I am a critic of the 1776 Director’s Cut because I feel that the overly-formal and stylized choreography of the “Cool, Cool Considerate Men” number does not mesh very well with the character of the other songs, and also because I believe the film is weakened by the addition of several passages that do not advance the film’s story forward as briskly as the theatrical cut. For example, the Director’s Cut of the film does too much forecasting of the surprising role that Judge Henry Wilson will play at the climax. Whether or not those passages are ripped directly from the play’s libretto is irrelevant to me; in the movie, they do not work, and they lessen the film’s impact.
(Before the discussion here gets derailed into fulminations over the musical’s historical accuracy, à la the commentary that ensued a short time ago here about Gone with the Wind and the Civil War, let me just reiterate that in my view, we do not go to the movies for our history lessons. That said, there is certainly enough truth to the film to more than recommend it as an entry way into the subject.)
The case of Dracula is a special one, and not just because it was my first R-rated movie, and contains what I believe to be one of the great horror movie love scenes; it’s special in this case because John Badham’s “director’s cut” of the 1979 vampire thriller contains no adding or subtracting of footage from the theatrical version. No, the change that Badham has persuaded Universal to allow has been to desaturate the film’s color to the point that it nearly resembles a black-and-white movie. That’s exactly to his purpose, because Badham had originally wanted to film his adaptation of the Bram Stoker classic (or, more accurately, the Dean-Balderston play that was made from it and famously revived in the ‘70s with sets designed by Edward Gorey) using no more color than the Bela Lugosi film had employed in 1931. The studio balked at such a notion, believing that shooting a new version of Dracula in anything but rich, full-blooded (ahem) color would be a colossal mistake that would cost everyone financially.
Gilbert Taylor’s (Dr. Strangelove, The Omen, Star Wars) cinematography, as originally exhibited in theaters, was indeed full of deep blacks, browns, blues, greys, and of course, reds. In the original release, color was key to helping us feel the chill of the grave or the warm lick of firelight illuminating the passion between Dracula and his more-than-willing victim; in Badham’s preferred version, John Williams’ brilliant score is doing more overtime than ever in advancing the film’s Byronic approach to the oft-told tale, its lush sweep now utterly at odds with images that have had the life, yes, sucked out of them.
It was difficult to try to choose one image that would dramatize the situation best (without a decent source for comparison to the original), but it’s all so dreadfully sterile, I simply settled on this picture of a sad-looking Dracula to illustrate my melancholy. How ironic that one of the very best versions of Dracula has been literally drained of life.
Directors with the moxie of Francis Ford Coppola are especially rare today, but of course, they were never in great supply—if they were, the man behind such massive classics as The Godfather and this Vietnam War saga would never have attained the legend he now enjoys. To appreciate what the filmmaker dared and accomplished with Apocalypse Now, it’s almost mandatory to view the 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse; along with Burden of Dreams (Les Blank’s film about Werner Herzog and the making of Fitzcarraldo), Hearts of Darkness illuminates the world of a director pushing himself to his ultimate limits on the set of a film production threatening to spin out of control and destroy everyone involved.
Whether we are talking about radical self-absorption or heroic self-sacrifice in the name of one’s art, directors who can make movies like Apocalypse Now risk being faulted for many things, but one of those things is not usually the lack of a powerful vision. Coppola’s striking relocation of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” novel to the hell of Vietnam and Cambodia became a sprawling undertaking, with the resulting tonnage of film footage boasting both half-mad genius and tedious nonsense. But enough about Marlon Brando, let’s talk about the French plantation scene.
In the Hearts of Darkness documentary, we are privy to the end of Coppola’s shooting this scene in which Captain Willard’s crew halts their journey up the Nung River long enough to sit for dinner with a French family whose patriarch refuses to abandon his rubber plantation in the face of the war’s chaos. Coppola, clearly at some unease about the scene, simply tells everyone involved to forget about everything they’ve just done, forget the scene ever happened. “It no longer exists,” Coppola says. No doubt the actors and crew might have received this declaration with some degree of confusion or frustration—but the truth is, Coppola was exactly right about cutting it out of his movie. It grinds the story to a complete halt in the film and includes the kind of antiwar moralizing that would be much more at home in an Oliver Stone-directed Apocalypse Now.
Now let’s get back to Brando, because it is footage that involves him that is the most problematic with the Redux version of this great film. If you’re not aware of exactly why Brando’s mad Colonel Kurtz character was filmed in shadow and kept mostly hidden from view, I again recommend a prompt viewing of Hearts of Darkness; once that decision was made to photograph Brando in that fashion, it became an integral part of the movie’s eerie power—a strength of the film that is utterly diminished by the inclusion of a scene where Kurtz, fully visible in the sunny daytime, reads to “errand boy sent by grocery clerks” Willard aloud from Time magazine while surrounded by children. This scene is absurdly pedantic and dull; as Brando drones on, the magic of his deranged ravings from earlier melts out of our minds (even Martin Sheen looks bored in the reaction shots) and the Kurtz character shrinks; he’s been built up in our minds as a titanic monster of mythic proportions…now, he’s just a pompous jerk.
Coppola, like Chaplin before him, is said to now believe that his “adjusted” version is the superior version of his work. That’s a matter of opinion, naturally, and if he likes that version better, more power to him. It’s also reported that he believes that Apocalypse Now Redux will be the version that people “remember.” This would constitute a guess rather than an opinion, and in that regard, I think he’ll be proven wrong. The worst thing that could happen for movie lovers would be for the 1979 theatrical version of Apocalypse Now to fall through the cracks of cinema history, because it stands—I’d say even above The Godfather—as an absolute pinnacle of filmmaking creativity and courage.
As passionate as I enjoy being about the movies, I would say that there are few situations that truly arouse my frustration about any given film to the point of my getting angry about it; with the Amadeus Director’s Cut, we now have one of these rare cases.
Milos Forman’s filming of the Peter Shaffer play about Wolfgang Mozart and his bitter rival Antonio Salieri is, for me, one of the most perfectly realized movies about the joys and frustrations of the artistic soul. Because the rhythm of the film is assisted and underlined throughout by the beautiful precision of Mozart’s music, a viewer (or at least this viewer) is somehow even more attuned to disruptions within a piece they have come to know, study, and love. The dialogue and cutting of the film become extensions of Mozart’s musical ideas and the film, more than most, can be experienced closer to the way a piece of music is experienced. This is the only way I can explain the actual physical discomfort I get when watching Forman’s expanded version of the movie, which adds on an extra 20 minutes to the running time.
It’s in the worst ways, too. There are minor additions of “nothing” dialogue that have been plugged into what were previously well-cut scenes between the elder Salieri and the priest hearing his confession; the character of Mozart is diminished with the inclusion of scenes that show him begging for money. The film’s visual power is attacked in the scene where Mozart’s father surprises his son by awaiting him at the top of the stairway to his home; in the theatrical cut, after Mozart runs up the stairs and is enveloped in Leopold’s great black cloak, we properly cut away from this grimly strong image that closes out the moment to the empty space inside of Mozart’s home; we get a cleansing “rest,” however small, after this thunderously dark note. Once the cape is wrapped around Mozart, that scene is finished.
In the Director’s Cut, however, the powerful image of Mozart being enveloped in a death-like embrace is followed instead by the camera jumping on the action to the top of the stairway, diffusing the strength of that moment now with weak profiles of father and son as they exchange awkward verbal greetings, and then stumble their way inside the door. (The empty space inside the Mozart home, that moment we took to breathe while the previous image buried itself within us, is now of course eliminated as the men immediately enter the room on Mozart’s action of opening the door.) This added footage gives us nothing—in fact, it gives us worse than nothing because it propels the film forward not one useful bit while simultaneously deflating how strongly the visual of the previous shot had launched us into the next.
Like the added rubber plantation and Playboy Bunny scenes in Apocalypse Now Redux, the Director’s Cut of Amadeus also features nudity that was not present in the theatrical version. In this case, the change not only added the superfluous and exploitative scene of Mozart’s wife Constanze disrobing to win Salieri’s endorsement of her husband to a teaching post, it also altered the movie’s MPAA rating from PG to R.
To be perfectly clear (if a little on the immature side of things), I’m always about the hearty enjoyment of even the utterly gratuitous nude scene, conditions allowing; this scene, however, not only unnecessarily narrows the audience for this great film, it compounds the offense that the movie that won eight Oscars (including Best Picture) is decidedly not the movie that is currently available for viewing, effectively giving the middle finger (or would that be the Mozart giggle?) to film history.
Forman has testified in an interview to the truth of what I’d mentioned at the beginning of this piece—that the advent of home video made it “acceptable” to him to restore the scenes he originally filmed because an increased running time was more reasonable in the home environment, where you can pause for bathroom breaks. “Once we are re-releasing it on DVD, it doesn’t matter if it is two hours and 40 minutes long, or three hours long,” Forman said. With all due respect to the man who made one of my favorite movies ever, yes, it does matter. It matters especially when the three-hours version supplants the version that people first saw and loved; the version that won all the Academy Awards; the version that’s as perfect as one of Mozart’s unsullied sheets of music that seemed to Salieri to have been dictated by the voice of God.
Martin Scorsese and other giants in the industry have argued for years in favor of protecting movie history with the restoration and re-exhibition of movies “as they were meant to be seen.” This is not the same “as they were meant to be seen” as we’re getting today with Director’s Cuts that wrongly shutter away the versions of the movie they may have felt were compromised but have already proven themselves worthy of preservation by way of their popularity and critical acclaim. Every one of my (and many other fans’) complaints about the indulgences of what we now know as “Director’s Cuts” goes away instantly as long as the original versions of these movies are guaranteed continued preservation and circulation. On that score, we’re at Gold Rush yes, 1776 no, Dracula no, Apocalypse Now yes, and Amadeus no.
“Why don’t we do the version as it was written in the script?” Milos Forman asked when justifying the creation of the Amadeus Director’s Cut. My first answer to that is the obvious one: because what is in the script is almost never what should finally reach the screen, word for word, moment for moment. The second answer is to say, make all the Director’s Cuts you like, but be sure to preserve the versions of the films that actually won you admiration and respect, the versions that lit up the dark, the versions that gave movie lovers some of their most cherished memories.
My last answer, I guess, might be to make some kind of joke involving the scene in Amadeus when Emperor Joseph II is trying to express a gentle (and humorously ludicrous) criticism after the premiere performance of The Abduction from the Seraglio, when he clumsily tries to guide Mozart down the proper path to artistic greatness by advising him that his new opera has “too many notes.” This is to both make a funny connection to the criticisms in question as well as to try to be appropriately humble about my place in the conversation. I’ve made no Oscar-winning movies, but I have a working knowledge of the tools, I know what I like, and know enough about movies in general to make an educated appraisal: Some director’s cuts these days simply have “too many notes.”
You are now welcome to share your own thoughts about these movies and others, or make all the jokes you like about how this essay could have used some judicious cutting of its own.