You might forgive a general consensus that more is better in relation to a film’s running time; with avid fans fawning over myths of extra footage, deleted scenes, and unseen cuts, it is not hard to imagine that there is a general accord that favours meatier versions of particular films. While an important, contemporary example, the alternative cut considerably predates Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, however, as examples of what an alternative (or extended) cut is capable of achieving, the lengthier cuts of Jackson’s definitive cinematic statement reinstalls entire passages axed for theatrical audiences while revealing that more can indeed be better as he applies further, colourful strokes to his already lavish tapestry. It is not, however, always the case that more is better; this feature will explore the history and legacy of alternative cuts, the good, the bad, and the completely unnecessary.
So what exactly constitutes an alternative cut? For the purposes of this feature, let us consider only cuts that are actually available to us as film fans. While one might fairly argue that all films are cut down from considerably longer draft edits, there exists, within the realms of film geekery, the mythical promises of Martin Scorsese’s supposed 4 hour cut of Gangs of New York, Terrence Malick’s 6 hour version of The Thin Red Line, and an apparently near-endless version of Apocalypse Now, besides others. Despite readily available, lengthier versions of both The Thin Red Line and Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, film lovers may be forever tormented by the existence of such enormous alternative versions – the mind boggles at the very thought of Malick’s masterpiece being granted the freedom of a Béla Tarr film, or the chance to see if there is a truly great film lurking in a longer cut of Scorsese’s arresting if compromised vision of 19th century urban warfare on the streets of NYC.
Historically speaking there are alternative cuts of many classic films, however, the alternative cut was properly incepted into the discourse of cinema with the advent of home video (predominantly VHS), and was often identified as a ‘Director’s Cut’ of a particular film for which ‘director’ was synonymous with ‘definitive’. At the outset of this new tradition two alternative cuts were most responsible for the wave of director’s cuts that followed; these films were Michael Cimino’s critically-reviled Heaven’s Gate and Ridley Scott’s then-unsuccessful sci-fi Blade Runner. Incidentally, both films, especially Blade Runner, have undergone critical re-evaluations since their initial release and are now often considered landmarks of their respective genres.
Heaven’s Gate and Blade Runner are both great examples of the problems and virtues associated with delivering an alternative cut. Much like Sergio Leone’s majestic Once Upon a Time in America (discussed at length in a previous ORWAV feature), Heaven’s Gate was subject to the scrutiny of its investors, United Artists, the production company it had a hand in bankrupting. Cimino’s proposed five hour cut was finally edited to a far shorter running time and released to almost universal condemnation; the director’s cut that soon surfaced trimmed another hour from the film and did nothing to help its appalling reputation. While it pains many film fans to admit it, it is worth remembering that film is, of course, a commercial medium and one cannot help but sympathise occasionally with producers who are desperate to see a return on their expensive investments which are left at the mercy of auteur directors’ egotistical, extortionate, and, in this case, endless vision. Heaven’s Gate did finally receive its dues in 2012 when a 216 minute ‘final’ director’s cut was premiered at Cannes, ushering in a deluge of ecstatic reappraisals for the film. Interestingly, this method of money-minded cutting that damaged films such as Once Upon a Time in America and Heaven’s Gate has resurfaced with the Western releases of popular Eastern films; Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer and Wong Kar-wei’s The Grandmaster have been controversially edited by American distributors in order to produce more commercially attractive versions of the films.
Blade Runner, on the other hand, is well-known for its various director’s cuts which have appeared not infrequently in the decades since its release – there are currently seven available versions. Ridley Scott’s ‘final cut’ was released in 2007 and is widely regarded as definitive; not only does it reinstall the infamous ‘unicorn dream sequence’, it also marks the only cut over which Scott retained full control. Ridley Scott is often regarded as somewhat prolific for his tendency to tinker with his earlier works, and is even seen as a father figure for the director’s cut. While some of his alternative versions offer little new material – Alien and Gladiator are fine examples of films that could have been left alone – Blade Runner, Legend, and Kingdom of Heaven have transformed in their critical regard. Kingdom of Heaven, for example, was widely unloved upon initial release but is now regarded as a fine historical epic in light of Scott’s restorations and revisions.
While some alternative cuts are somewhat divisive – the jury is still out on the definitive cut of films such as Apocalypse Now, Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid – others such as that of Kingdom of Heaven utterly transform the experience of a film. Richard Donner’s cut of Superman II, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (initially, somewhat blasphemously released as a 90 minute comedy called Love Conquers All), and, whisper it, Oliver Stone’s final version of his chaotic swords-and-sandals epic Alexander, produced great films from messy, compromised earlier cuts.
Apocalypse Now, Close Encounters and Pat Garret fall into a category of films that were great even before the release of any alternative versions; James Cameron’s Aliens, Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, and Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, not to mention Jackson’s Rings trilogy discussed earlier, also represent a collection of great films that are made even better by new, alternative edits. Other directors have been criticized for supposedly misusing the alternative cut: George Lucas has upset his fans by regularly amending the visual effects used in his original Star Wars trilogy, and Steven Spielberg has been accused of the same, admittedly with less controversy, for re-releases of E.T., while Ridley Scott has admitted himself that his Alien: Director’s Cut was essentially a vanity project completed at the request of 20th Century Fox who were looking to re-release the film.
Sometimes great, sometimes controversial, always fascinating; the alternative cut represents a rare glimpse into the creative and commercial mind of the film industry.
5 alternative cuts worth seeking out:
1) Apocalypse Now: Redux – There is no question that Francis Ford Coppola’s foray into the jungles of Vietnam is a masterpiece, and perhaps it would not be too bold to proclaim it the greatest war film ever made. What does stir debate, however, is the question of Coppola’s ‘Redux’ cut; some additional details are nice, but the 200-minute+ run time is almost punishing and certain scenes (the plantation sequence especially), only work to damage the perfectly-judged pace of the original film.
2) Blade Runner: The Final Cut – It is a credit to the enduring quality of Ridley Scott’s (now) flawless vision that Blade Runner has managed to not only survive multiple versions but to emerge as one of the finest works of science-fiction that the medium has ever produced. In 2007 Ridley Scott, a pioneer in the world of alternative cuts, released his ‘Final Cut’ of the film; it is, frankly, as perfect a science-fiction film as you could hope for.
3) Once Upon a Time in America: Extended Director’s Cut – It is almost impossible to convey just how transformative an experience it is to see Once Upon a Time in America in both versions. Sergio Leone’s full four hour cut is a 5-star masterpiece that ranks among the greatest films ever made, whereas the 2 hour studio-sanctioned travesty that was initially released would be lucky to receive even 2 stars.
4) The Lord of the Rings Trilogy: Extended Editions – In light of Peter Jackson’s far more polarizing efforts for The Hobbit, it is easy to forget just how brilliant The Lord of the Rings actually was. What is even easier to forget, certainly since the emergence of Jackson’s pretty definitive extended cuts, is just how excellent the original theatrical cuts were; the world was already sold on his creations long before Jackson was distributing Middle Earth in all its glory. For contemporary audiences, these extended cuts remain standards of excellence against which all other alternative cuts may be judged.
5) Kingdom of Heaven: Director’s Cut – Ridley Scott receives a second entry here as Kingdom of Heaven is a fine example of what an extended cut can achieve. While still not perfect, Scott’s 185 minute director’s cut is a drastic improvement upon the shorter, studio-pleasing edit; Eva Green and Edward Norton are given the screen time that their character’s deserve, while Ballion’s motivations are more clearly pronounced.