The cinematic clash between the `philistine' studio boss and the sensitive director has left many films lying mutilated in the editing suite, or even melted down for their silver content. Chris Darke looks at attempts to find and restore some mauled classics.

When the Hollywood maverick Sam Fuller described cinema as "a battleground" he might well have been describing the scattered corpses of the many lost and mutilated movies that were recut against their directors' wishes and that litter the history of the medium. In fact, to talk about the history of the cinema is to consider only its visible legacy, the reels of celluloid that made it through. Much of it is lost anyway, nitrate stock turned to dust. But what of those films that were definitively altered by studio interference?

The battle between director and front-office philistines has been raging as long as cinema has existed and endows us with what might be called a "counter-canon" of lost and compromised works, of near-miss masterpieces. Examining the vaults of cinema's films maudits, one moves easily from Orson Welles to Alan Smithee (the directorial credit given by the Directors Guild of America to a film from which a director has removed his name), from the visionary to the hack and back again.

Orson Welles takes his place alongside other hard-done-by visionaries in this counter-canon, Erich von Stroheim, Jean Vigo and Jean Renoir. Each made films in their careers that were, to put it politely, "misunderstood" by the public and producers alike. Vigo's tragically short career delivered only one feature film, L'Atalante (1934), now acknowledged as a hugely influential classic but in its time tampered with and derided on its release. Renoir's equally innovative La Regle du jeu (1939) suffered initially from a similarly ignominious reception, but both were restored and released in versions that came as close as possible to original cuts.

To survey the careers of Von Stroheim and Welles, though, is to discover a chastening catalogue of repeated disasters and run-ins with producers. These are directors famous for the films they never made as much as for the work that survived intact. It is instructive that one of Welles's biographers, Joseph McBride, should have described Von Stroheim's original eight-hour cut of Greed (1924) as "the cinematic equivalent of the Holy Grail" and the lost footage of Welles's The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) as "the Ark of the Covenant". It seems fitting that archivists, critics, scholars and restorers should have pursued such legendary lost reels with Indiana Jones-like tenacity. Although, in the case of Greed there's nothing to find. Von Stroheim's magnificently megalomaniac eight-hour original was sheared first to four hours, then to three and finally to two-and-a-half hours by MGM. Only a quarter of this version contained footage shot by Von Stroheim and the unused film was melted down so that the silver in the nitrate stock could be salvaged.

It's a similar story, if on a less grandiose scale, with The Magnificent Ambersons. Welles the boy-wonder had made Citizen Kane in 1941 with unprecedented freedom, but the film's lack of commercial success saw him relinquish his right to final cut in order to make his follow-up feature. Dark, stately and meditative, Welles's film is the story of the love between Isabel (Dolores Costello), the daughter of midwestern aristocrats the Ambersons, and Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotton) - one that painfully endures across two generations as modernity encroaches on their way of life. Welles insisted that the film was "a much better picture than Kane - if they'd just left it as it was". Between the completion of the film's shooting in January 1942 and its release in June, The Magnificent Ambersons underwent a complicated series of alterations, with new scenes being shot, large swathes of the film removed and Bernard Herrmann's score changed (Herrmann was to remove his name from the film). Welles's editor, Robert Wise, was entrusted by RKO with reshooting and reediting while Welles was filming It's All True in Rio. Welles was to complain that "they let the studio janitor cut The Magnificent Ambersons in my absence".

The British Film Institute releases a restored version of The Magnificent Ambersons in December. "All we can see now is a film that was recut against the letter and spirit of Welles' intent," mourns David Thomson in Rosebud, his sorrowing account of Welles's life and work.

The Welles and Von Stroheim stories are the classic accounts of recut films. They contribute to a certain mythical element of cinema, which has everything to do with the idea of the personality of the director as misunderstood and quixotic genius. The film maudit is absolutely of a part with the Romantic notion of the director-as-artist, with its vital component of suffering at the hands of a resistant public and an incomprehending patron.

But what if, as a director, you are not a Welles or a Von Stroheim? Ask John Sanders, the director of a new British film, Painted Angels, whose work is currently held in limbo because of precisely this issue of recutting.

Painted Angels is an emotionally-charged, austere film that follows the lives of several prostitutes in a one-horse, no-hope town in the American Old West. Starring Kelly McGillis and Brenda Fricker and made with money from BBC Films, British Screen and the Canadian distribution company Cinepix, Painted Angels may not be a masterpiece but it provides a sobering example of how the director's vision of his film can be jettisoned in favour of brute marketplace considerations.

Painted Angels currently exists in a vacuum that must be excruciating for its makers, virtually held to ransom by the Canadian distribution company who supplied a significant fraction of the film's pounds 1.8m budget and who are now insisting on the film being entirely recut. Without the recut the film will not be released anywhere outside Britain, the only territory to which Cinepix does not hold distribution rights. Additionally, Sanders' cut of the film cannot, under these terms, even be shown at international film festivals.

"We got the money from British Screen specifically on the understanding that, although it was a North American subject, it was a European film," explains Sanders. "The distributors are taking British public money and trying to force the film into a commercial, North American mould."

It appears that a decent, intelligent film made with a portion of North American money is doomed to non-existence because its director insists on the integrity of his cut. One wonders how many other such cases will languish alongside Sanders's film in the vaults, without even a hope of making it into cinema's counter-canon.

`Painted Angels' will screen at The Lux Centre as part of the `Vertigo Magazine Presents' season on Wednesday 12 November, 8pm, and at the Birmingham Film Festival on Tuesday 25 November, 8.45pm. Details: 0171-684 0200. `The Magnificent Ambersons' opens at the NFT on 27 December.