Director’s Cuts - If it isn’t broke, why bother to fix it?

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

As big-name film-makers offer more and more Director’s Cuts, Leigh Singer asks if the results justify the obsessive tinkering.

The Abyss, James Cameron's 1989 aliens-under-the-sea thriller, climaxes with giant tidal waves hovering over major global cities, threatening devastation to the whole world, not just Ed Harris's deep-sea drilling crew. Steven Spielberg sneaks a peak inside the visiting alien mothership for (extremely) Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In Blade Runner, Deckard dreams of a unicorn, pretty much confirming that he's a replicant. And in The Exorcist, the young Regan MacNeil scuttles upside-down in a demon-possessed "spider walk".

Memorable scenes from iconic movies, all. Yet not one featured in the original theatrical cut of its respective film. Their eventual appearances are early examples of the now seemingly incessant tendency for films to exist in different versions. If, as Leonardo da Vinci reputedly decreed, art is never finished, only abandoned, advances in technology and perfectionist directors are increasingly coming to the rescue of their own films. The question remains, is it the films that need rescuing? Or, rather, the directors from their own tinkering instincts?

Click the picture on the right to launch our gallery of the best and worst directors' cuts in history.

Ridley Scott's revisionist Robin Hood has just debuted on DVD and Blu-ray with 17 minutes re-inserted. Michael Mann's The Last of the Mohicans will re-appear in October in its third separate guise, this time tagged as a "definitive cut". And James Cameron's Avatar, the biggest-grossing film in history, has been re-released in cinemas a mere eight months after its initial bow with eight and a half extra minutes inserted, including some 20 seconds of Na'vi foreplay.

Scott (with Alien, Blade Runner, Kingdom of Heaven), Mann (Manhunter, Miami Vice) and Cameron (Aliens, The Abyss, Terminator 2) are heavyweight directors and habitual revisers of their work. Indeed, it's interesting to note that A-list, alpha-male directors are the most frequent "repeat offenders" - see also Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now Redux and The Outsiders: The Complete Novel or Oliver Stone's three separate attempts to save his ill-fated Alexander epic.

"Final Cut" used to be the ultimate directorial honour: the film-maker's definitive will imposed on their completed work (Cameron's extended versions were branded "Special Editions" rather than "Directors Cuts"; perhaps the latter was deemed to connote compromise). Now, it seems that multiple choice is the real signifier of power.

It's too easy to assign a single motive to these and other film-makers who recut their films. Previously, the guiding impulse was to restore films inherently compromised prior to, or just after, initial release. Orson Welles's Touch of Evil was tampered with behind the absent director's back in 1958 but then meticulously reworked some 40 years later by the editing maestro Walter Murch, basing his work on Welles's detailed notes from the time.

Fritz Lang's 1927 silent sci-fi masterpiece Metropolis first screened at an insanely ambitious length of 150 minutes. It too was butchered down, the excised footage imagined lost forever and subject to numerous makeover attempts, most notoriously the synthesizer king Giorgio Moroder's pop-scored and colourised 1980s effort. Then, in 2008, came the chance discovery of Lang's original negative in Buenos Aires, with some 25 minutes of never-seen footage. This lovingly reconstructed and restored (albeit still incomplete) Metropolis is currently touring UK cinemas.

It's hard to argue with such salvage efforts and few would oppose the reinstatement of a film-maker's original intentions. The triumph of Terry Gilliam's dystopian vision for Brazil over the ludicrous "Love Conquers All" cut enforced by its American studio didn't require years of restoration by a third party, merely its director's dogged persistence against the system - a real-life happy ending to counterbalance his film's bleak finale.

More problematic are film-makers who seem to just want to meddle. Digital technology's cut/paste/delete aesthetic makes changes almost too easy, especially if motivations are dubious. Alongside introducing shiny new visual effects, George Lucas, as if in some Jedi mind trick, cut elements of his original Star Wars trilogy that he evidently deemed less savoury. Initially, the roguish Han Solo ruthlessly shot the galactic bounty hunter Greedo first; the revised version turned this into a boringly PC self-defence retaliation.

Spielberg did a similarly lily-livered switch in ET's 20th-anniversary edition, replacing FBI agents' guns with walkie-talkies. Such alterations smack of the pettiest kind of revisionism but widespread technological access means fans can easily whip up their own unofficial edits - famously, the execrable Jar Jar Binks was excised out of DIY versions of The Phantom Menace.

Lucas still isn't finished, as proved by the recent announcement that all six Star Wars live-action films will be converted to and re-released in 3D from 2012. "The cutting-edge conversion will take that immersion to the next thrilling level," trills Starwars.com, though many would swap the word "immersion" for "merchandising".

Such rewriting of history sounds outrageous - unless we prefer the end results. Ridley Scott's spruced-up 2007 "Final Cut" of Blade Runner is largely considered to be the ultimate incarnation of the classic. Devotees of Coppola's Apocalypse Now Redux, with more Brando, social commentary and Playboy bunnies - what the collaborator Walter Murch calls "the funny, sexy, political version" - probably wish that even more lost footage could be recouped from the legendary five-and-a-half-hour work print. It yet might.

James Cameron, for all his Special Editions, self-imposes a rule not to tamper with anything already edited and only to add new material. "Every movie is a technological snapshot of the moment it was made," he's argued. "You don't second-guess how you would do it now." Yet if Cameron is so altruistic, why authorise Avatar's beefed-up theatrical re-release only to follow it three months later with a DVD / Blu-ray that adds yet another seven minutes of unseen goodies? It's suspiciously akin to those cynical "Greatest Hits" albums topped up with a new track to ensure hardcore fans shell out yet again for material they already have.

Perhaps these fluid developments in filmmaking mean comparisons to other art forms are now in order: different interpretations of plays, remixes of popular songs. Home entertainment in particular has opened up films from top-down-delivered "closed texts" to shifting, open conversations between film-makers and audiences. Let's face it, extended editions (as opposed to deleted scenes randomly dumped on to a disc) usually fall to films with massive fan bases. Peter Jackson's elongated DVD versions of his Lord of the Rings trilogy wouldn't have appeared had his hobbits flopped.

Provided all versions of a film remain readily accessible and changes are made transparently (the Alien Quadrilogy and five-disc Blade Runner box-sets are admirable examples), multiple cuts of a film don't seem inherently a bad thing and can provide a fascinating glimpse into creative evolution, even after a work enters the public domain. But often one also gets the feeling that a Director's Cut exists simply because it can.

Given its muted reception, did anyone really demand more Robin Hood and Russell Crowe's wandering accent? Will anyone bar those passionate acolytes of Terrence Malick's The New World recognise, let alone sit through, three nuanced variations of Malick's cinematic symphony? Could any of Oliver Stone's Alexander changes have eliminated its fatal, fundamental problems of miscasting and script?

Re-editing offers the easiest way to keep on changing your mind and your film. But one suspects that if somehow, the shooting process could be done over and over, Scott, Mann and Cameron would just keep on filming. If actors become digital avatars, perhaps one day the obsessive film-maker won't ever recognise when to say "cut".

'Robin Hood: Director's Cut' is out on DVD & Blu-ray now; 'Avatar: Special Edition' is in 3D-supported cinemas now and on DVD & Blu-ray on 15 November; 'The Last of the Mohicans: Director's Definitive Cut' is out on Blu-ray on 5 October; the reconstructed and restored 'Metropolis' is in selected cinemas now and out on DVD & Blu-ray 22 November.

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
TVDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
Arts and Entertainment
Laugh a minute: Steph Parker with Nigel Farage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Comic Ivor Dembina has staged his ‘Traditional Jewish Xmas Eve Show’ for the past 20 years; the JNF UK charity is linked to the Jewish National Fund, set up to fund Jewish people buying land in Palestinian territories
comedy

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?