A filmmaker’s work is never done and a film is never truly finished. There is only a compromise, an acceptance, a trust that what was eventually committed to the silver screen, came within inches, at least, of the elusive and impervious ideal and vision of the director. Often the trust is well placed and the final product is, for the audience, a sublime, satisfying and thorough film that stands timeless and resolute, but sometimes a concession isn’t reached – either the result of big-budget commercialism or the director’s inability to be satisfied with their work (I’m looking at you George Lucas).
In any case, the advance of the home video and digital markets has given some directors a platform on which they can revisit their work, or realise lost visions, succumbed to interloping creative tinkering. So strong is the case that director’s cuts have become a regular agenda of even the big honchos and studio execs. We are naturally fascinated by what didn’t make the final cut in our favourite films, and just to see the deleted scenes in the special features section is enough to send us to fan boy/girl heaven. But nothing beats an extended or director’s cut that completely reinvents a film and elevates it to transcendent levels. That’s what this list is all about – the films that were given a second chance and were actually improved upon. I’ve left out films that are redundant attempts at re-marketing that add nothing to the overall product. Here are the tireless efforts of directors and other filmmakers who have painstakingly worked to restore butchered cuts – new plots, better character development and greater overall impact are what these films are about! Most are well known versions you may have seen, others had lower-key releases but definitely deserve a second look.
Ridley Scott’s enthusiasm for the digital market is what helped popularise the director’s cut and no line-up would be complete without including some of his films. With seven known cuts, Blade Runner is the perfect way to open this list. Originally released in 1982, Blade Runner is a thematically complex film that initially suffered from studio tinkering and negative test audience reactions. Despite its poor box office reception, the richness and intricacy of the film would both curse and bless it with several cuts that would both emphasise and de-emphasise motifs; characters and subplots. It would take Ridley Scott 25 years to finally have complete control over the edit and assemble together a version, which he was completely satisfied with – this version is known at The Final Cut and has become the most acclaimed cut of the film.
However, any serious enthusiast of Blade Runner will understand just how important it is to watch each cut of the film since tiny nuances and ideas are changed with each edit. These mostly relate to the nature of Rick Deckard and his humanity as well as the humanity of the replicants. Blade Runner stands as a true testament to the art of editing as a form of story re-telling.
Kingdom of Heaven
Arguably, Ridley Scott’s second most famous revisit is this gargantuan historical epic about the Crusades. Over 40 minutes was trimmed from the film and exceptionally important subplots and character arcs were disastrously cleaved from the film, leaving audiences overwhelmed. The film was criticized for being vague; unfocused and incomplete and suffered from a lack of recognition it truly deserved.
Scott was able to re-introduce much of that footage for the home video release and this resulted in a more comprehensible and well-rounded off cut that restored much of the film’s depth, and notably the subplots relating to the most mysterious and well-received character in the film – the leper King Baldwin IV, played by an unrecognizable Edward Norton.
David Lynch’s commercial success could be one of the greatest oxymorons ever uttered. He received widespread commercial acclaim for Twin Peaks in the early 90s but whether it was commercial or not is still debatable. Nonetheless, David Lynch’s first cavort with commercial filmmaking came as an offer from George Lucas to direct Return of the Jedi. Lynch turned it down, realising his creative freedom would be incredibly limited. Strangely, two years later he accepted an offer to head the cursed adaptation of Frank Herbert’s behemoth sci-fi epic, Dune. The first attempt to adapt the novel collapsed beneath the drug-fuelled, spiritual approach of underground filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky (an award-winning documentary chronicling this failed effort premiered earlier this year at Cannes), and crumbled a second time after Ridley Scott left the project due to a family tragedy. David Lynch’s attempt at least reached principle photography but after roasting for years in the fires of development hell, his version was a critical and commercial failure. The enormous scope of the film, as well as its relentless seriousness, got the studio sweating bullets and Lynch was denied final cut and was forced to reshoot entire sequences, resulting in low-budget sci-fi effects; strange creative changes; an awkward narrative discourse and an overall incomprehensible story – all this ensured David Lynch would never work in big-budget cinema again. Despite its flaws a lot of Dune fans will agree that there is something oddly attractive about the film – it’s otherworldly production design and ostentatious tone has been borrowed in the many extended Duniverse creations, and has created a lasting impact in the world of cult sci-fi cinema.
It was widely known for years that a large amount of the film never made it to the theatrical cut so it was inevitable that a revisit would take place sooner or later. When a TV re-edit was decided upon, David Lynch had already appealed to have his name struck from the film permanently (he has declined all offers to make an official director’s cut) and so the extended version is seemingly directed by an Alan Smithee – a name used in films whose directors have disowned them. Despite the director’s lack of involvement, the extended version creates a more satisfying and complete film: the tension-filled intrigue of the novel comes to life; characters are better fleshed out and, most importantly, the confusing mythology of the Duniverse is far more clear and patient in its reveal. This is the only known ‘extended edition’ of Dune to be in circulation – the rumoured four to six hour version is just a myth and any other cuts are simply fan-made assembly cuts. Dune seems like one of the most notoriously difficult books to transfer to screen and I doubt we will see, in our lifetime, a successful Western adaptation – to this day I feel Studio Ghibli should give it a thought, at least! But until then, Lynch’s luxurious oddity will remain one of the most esoteric and mysterious visions in science fiction canon.
Dances with Wolves
Kevin Costner’s grandiose Western masterpiece was controversial before it was even released. Dubbed Kevin’s Gate (in reference to the disastrous failure of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate), the film ran severely over-budget and suffered from lengthy production delays due to complex battle scenes; the use of live buffalo and wolves and highly unpredictable weather on a mostly exterior shoot. Costner had to fork out 3 million dollars from his own pocket to keep the production going.
Studios get rightfully nervous in situations like these and in an attempt to keep the film as commercially successful as possible, Dances With Wolves’ running time was kept below 3 hours. This of course didn’t hurt the film – it was hugely successful and won 7 Academy Awards but many enthusiasts felt a longer version would have benefitted the extensive cast. A year after the film’s release, Dances With Wolves premiered with a 4 hour running time and essentially turned the film into a monumental period character study. The new version is regarded as far superior to the already perfect theatrical cut and stands out as an extraordinary directing debut by a very talented filmmaker.
The 289-minute bootleg version of Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘Nam epic is a sought-after rarity that doesn’t always impress as much as the theatrical cut. These overly long cuts that made their rounds on bootleg VHSs were often illegally obtained from test audience screenings and were never intended for commercial release precisely because they are a rough assemblage of thousands of metres of footage. Apocalypse Now was a gruelling, maniacal shoot that produced a record amount of shot footage, from which a single film had to be edited together.
Rumours have circulated for years regarding the film’s multiple endings but the only scrap of truth in this is that the ending was highly improvised and as such has many iterations. Different interpretations arose from the ‘air strike’ footage shown at the end and this has produced different ending credits.
The only commercially available extended version of Apocalypse Now is the redux version which is at times also overly long, but far more enjoyable than the crappy bootleg version I’ve had the displeasure of watching. This version contains 49 minutes of extra footage which extends a lot of battle scenes in addition to a stronger layer of subtext that adds to the overall horror of war (the ominous ‘monkey boat’ sequence being a particularly stand-out inclusion). The redux version may not be the most ground-breaking alternate cut featured on my list, but it has definitely become an extremely memorable version of Apocalypse Now and is almost always included in special edition releases of the film.
Once Upon a Time in America
Restoration work on Sergio Leone’s gangster epic is still ongoing, as Martin Scorsese and Leone’s own children try to assemble lost footage and repair this gem of a film after its heinous treatment in the hands of Hollywood studios. The film’s original running clocked in at 269 minutes but when it premiered out of competition at Cannes, Leone had it specially cut down to 229 minutes for distribution purposes. By the time it reached American shores, the film was further cut down to 139 minutes against the director’s wishes – Leone was devastated by the cut and never made another film again.
Two versions of the film are currently available – a 229 minute version and a 246 version, however Leone’s children, along with Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation, were able to secure the rights to the deleted footage and have been restoring the film on and off to its original running time, thus restoring Leone’s vision. Several versions have premiered over the past few Cannes festivals but a final cut is still pending further restoration work.