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Director’s Cut: 10 Theatrical Versions Vs. The Filmmaker's Final Vision

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist April 2, 2014 at 2:55PM

Blessed/cursed with one of the most confusing and prolonged release strategies in recent memory, (blessed in that it has kept the movie in the conversation longer; cursed because that’s longer for everyone to get bored and irritated with it too) the second part of Lars von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac” opens in the U.S. this weekend (our ‘Vol II’ review is here). Our stock of sex puns may have been well and truly plundered (note how we couldn’t even bring ourselves to say “this coming weekend”) but that’s still not the end of it, as ‘Vol II’ also has a director’s cut on the way (the director’s preferred version of ‘Vol I’ played Berlin some weeks after the theatrical cut had already opened).
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The New World

"The New World" (wide theatrical release, 2006) vs. "The New World" (Extended Cut, 2008)
Synopsis: It's the story of Pocahontas and her love affair with pilgrim John Smith (Colin Farrell), which is a story that everyone knows (most musically with the 1995 Disney animated feature). Since this is a Terrence Malick movie, though, there are lots of shots of blowing grass and people in historically accurate Native American face paint.

Background: There are actually three distinct versions of "The New World" that have been viewed by human eyes. In the lead up to the Oscars, a version of "The New World" was released in New York and Los Angeles for a single week in 2005 for awards consideration. This cut ran 150 minutes. When the weeklong engagement in New York and Los Angeles was over, Malick took the film back and re-edited it for the movie's wide theatrical release at the end of January. That version ran 135 minutes. The differences between that initial release and the wide release included a shortening of the movie's first act, the addition of narration in an effort to more clearly define the plot, as well as the reinsertion of some sequences. In 2008, when the movie finally hit home video (including Blu-ray, which lovingly recreated the movie's 65 mm splendor), a third cut emerged (labeled, somewhat nebulously, the "extended cut,") which was an entirely different cut by Malick himself and not some kind of studio cash-in, that ran a whopping 172 minutes. This is the version that is widely available on home video in America, while the 2006 theatrical cut is the version most have in the rest of the world (and the original 150 minute cut was available as a promotional digital download in Italy).

The New World Pocahontas

Differences: The extended cut is a whole 35 minutes longer. Whole sections of the movie are lengthened and given more time to breathe, with even more voiceover. One of the things that even casual viewers of both versions of the movie would notice was the addition of chapter titles sprinkled throughout the film. These titles, with white text against a black background, indicate things like "A New Start" and "The Stranger," and add to the movie's almost novelistic complexity. There are over 90 distinct edits, supposedly, between that widely released theatrical cut and the extended version. Most of these come across in the movie's overall vibe and atmosphere. The longer cut just feels more like the movie Malick intended all along.

Which is Better and Why: Since American audiences don't have much of a choice when it comes to what version of "The New World" we can watch, we've been stuck with the extended cut for more than a half-decade and we're totally cool with that. The extended version flows in that way that only Malick can conjure; it's got a celestial kind of grandeur and an emotional intimacy, both of which were missing from that original, relatively compact theatrical exhibition in 2006. What's interesting is that, despite the talk of the supposed hours of footage that were left out of his previous film "The Thin Red Line," he's never gone back to monkey with that movie's running time. But he was endlessly fussy with "The New World." The version he finally settled on, though, seems to be the best. All those shots of swaying grass really do make a difference.

Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid

"Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid" (1973) vs. "Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid" (1980)
Synopsis: As times change in the Wild West, an aging lawman is hired on by a group of wealthy New Mexico cattle barons to bring down an old friend: Billy the Kid.

Background: Pugilism, alcoholism and acrimony combined to make the production a bitter feud practically before filming began. Director Sam Peckinpah was nearing the apex of his bloody, drunken legend—one that he would fully sanction and fuel—and butted heavy heads with MGM over all of it. Peckinpah rewrote Randy Wurlitzer’s script (originally an existential Western for Monte Hellman) which pleased no one (even star James Coburn said the original was better). The director being the implacable bastard he was, with a nasty reputation that preceded him, did as he pleased nonetheless, ignoring every MGM wish and going 21 days over schedule and $1.6 million over budget according to Marshall Fine’s well-researched Peckinpah book, “Bloody Sam.” MGM president James Aubrey, by all indications a bean-counting philistine, gave Peckinpah a paltry, over-rushed two months to get the movie in theaters for the summer of 1973 which caused even more animosity. Eventually, MGM took the movie away from him and butchered it themselves.

Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid 2

Differences: There are far too many cuts of this film, four of them really, but for these purposes, we’ll stick to the MGM theatrical cut from 1973 (1 hour 46 minutes) and the one that aired on the Z Channel in 1980, also known as the “Turner Preview Version” (released on Laserdisc in 1988; 2 hours and 2 minutes). These days the theatrical cut is hard to come by (even VHS copies floating around are 2 hrs 2min), but by all accounts it favored action, gore, violence and jettisoned all meditative qualities. The preview version (evidently never fine-tuned by Peckinpah so not quite final either), is much more languid, quieter and introspective—it’s in a way a melancholy movie not unlike Wes Anderson’s “Grand Budapest Hotel,” insofar as they both get nostalgic contemporaneously about an era that is coming to an end. It’s also a romantic film about an outlaw living life on his own terms (boy, how Peckinpah identified), and it’s a movie about myth and mythmaking (again, FUBU for Peck). According to Fine’s book, there’s also a 2 hour and 20 minute rough cut that Scorsese saw and called “brilliant,” but occasional adversary and frenemy Pauline Kael was underwhelmed by it, and said it meandered far too much. There’s also a 1 hour and 55 minute “special edition” cut put together by editor Paul Seydor, that’s largely speculative and done long after Peckinpah’s death (on one hand Seydor is a knowledgeable Peckinpah archivist, on the other hand he’s known for editing “Turner & Hooch”).

Which is Better and Why: “The Turner Preview version” because it’s as close as we’ll get to Peckinpah’s director’s cut, and because it’s simply a more realized film.

Superman II Lois and Superman

"Superman II" (theatrical cut, 1981) vs. "Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut" (2006)
Synopsis: In the sequel to the box office smash "Superman," the Man of Tomorrow (once again played by the irrepressible Christopher Reeve) faces off against Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) and a trio of fallen Kryptonians, led by the evil General Zod (Terence Stamp).

Background: Both the first and second "Superman" films were shot concurrently, but with the production running behind schedule (and over-budget), director Richard Donner put a halt on shooting the sequel so he could finish editing the first film for its theatrical release. When the team reassembled to complete the second film, Donner was removed (largely due to the filmmaker's outspoken objection to the producer's removing Marlon Brando's sequences from the sequel to avoid paying him a percentage of the total box office gross), and replaced by "Hard Day's Night" director Richard Lester, who had a much less combative working relationship with producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind, and served as an intermediary between Donner and the producers before he was brought on to direct. Donner claimed that he had completed between 75% and 80% of the necessary shooting for the sequel before he was removed, and since DGA regulations stated that, for a director to have his name on a movie, the director must have shot at least 51% of the finished film, Lester went back and reshot many of the sequences Donner had already completed. (Donner claims that about 25% of the finished film was his.) The Lester shoot was also problematic since cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth and production designer John Barry both died during his section of the production, and many key creative personnel (including screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz, composer John Williams, Hackman and editor Stuart Baird) chose solidarity with Donner, refusing to return. When "Superman" was being prepped for an extensive DVD release in 2001, much of the Donner footage was unearthed and the conversation began, in earnest, about putting together a version that would recreate Donner's vision for the movie. Even after that Donner resisted the urge to try and reassemble his version, claiming in various interviews that he was too far away from it now. Finally, he gave in, even recruited Mankiewicz to assist in the edit. Williams was asked to return to score the film, and when he replied that he couldn’t do it, Donner re-cut Williams cues from the first film and gave Williams a composer credit on the final cut anyway. On the supplemental DVD features on the "Superman II" Donner cut, the director said, "I never thought my version would see the light of day… Maybe rightly so."

Superman II Zod & Gang

Differences: First and foremost, the Donner cut of "Superman II" reinstates the original Brando material, swapped out in the theatrical cut for a much lamer conversation between Superman and his equally dead but less expensive mother. In terms of screen time, the Donner cut is ten minutes shorter than the original theatrical cut, which isn't surprising given how ruthless Donner has become as an editor. (Some Lester sequences still remain but only for pacing/structural issues.) Much of the overt campiness of the Lester version is gone, which means that there are no giant Superman shields that can wrap people up, that awful opening sequence at the Eiffel Tower or kisses that make your memory vanish. However, it is still goofy—but so is the first Donner-directed Superman movie. It just moves quicker and is more dramatic, overall. You can tell, watching the Donner cut, how much more in line with the first film it would have been, particularly when it comes to the snappily choreographed action set pieces.

Which is Better and Why: The Donner cut is better, but that will largely depend on your taste and point of view. There are some who favor the more slapstick approach that Lester took to the material, emphasizing the comic nature of the comic book film. But as charming as that can be, that movie is riddled with fucking awful bullshit, and while Donner's new cut isn't 100%, it's of a whole, and the Brando footage goes a long, long way. The Donner cut is far from some unearthed masterpiece, but it's still a much more dramatically cohesive work. (For more on Supers check out our Ranking the Superman Movies feature here)

This article is related to: Features, Nymphomaniac, Feature, Heaven's Gate, The New World, Blade Runner