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10 International Movies That Were Cut For U.S. Release

by Drew Taylor
October 11, 2013 1:19 PM
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Earlier this week, the home video release of Wong Kar-wai's martial arts epic "The Grandmaster" was announced. Instead of featuring multiple versions of the movie, the publicity materials made it very clear that only one version would be included on the disc: the domestic roll-out's truncated 108 minute cut. The original Chinese cut, said to be very different in both tone and form, clocked in at 130 minutes. It's a release that stirs up frustration with the state of foreign films being released in America. This week's biggest source of contention, Bong Joon-ho's upcoming sci-fi flick "Snowpiercer," has been breaking box office records in South Korea but in America is facing quite a threat: the editorial might of Harvey Weinstein.

In both instances, the news of cuts to films by auteurs with distinct visions is troubling, especially when it's uncertain if we'll ever get a chance to see their films as intended. But not all cuts are necessarily bad. While Bong Joon-ho is said to be "furious" about having to snip his film, Wong Kar-Wai has stated he crafted the U.S. cut specifically with that audience in mind. As you'll read on below, in some cases, the cuts made to the films severely hurt them, while in others, the full director's cut actually paled to the theatrical version. It's a tricky business that pits art and commerce against each other, and rarely do the two sides ever agree.

This debate got us thinking about longer international cuts that were shortened for their domestic release, and whether or not these cuts were made for better or worse. Sometimes, after all, a movie is just too damn long. But not always. Here's our assessment of 10 films that were pruned for U.S. audiences.

"The Grandmaster" (2013)
What's It About? A sweeping historical epic (not to mention a totally crazy action movie), "The Grandmaster" is the story of Ip Man (played by Wong Kar-wai stalwart Tony Leung), a martial arts master who eventually trained some dude named Bruce Lee.
Why Did It Get Cut? When we spoke to Wong Kar-wai over the summer, he suggested that the cuts were primarily made in order to simplify and streamline a story that most western audiences simply didn't understand. This meant that not only were things cut but additional elements were added, like captions explaining who people are and what is going on, in an attempt to provide further context for the events depicted in the movie. He told us, "I didn't want to do it just by cutting the film shorter or do a shorter version by trimming and cutting out scenes because the structure of the original version is actually very precise ... I just wanted to tell the story in a different way. So now the American version is 108 minutes, and we have 15 minutes of new scenes, and the story is more linear. So instead of a shorter version, to me it's a new version."
Is It As Good As The Longer Version? We haven't seen the longest cut of "The Grandmaster," (by our current reckoning there are, confusingly, three: the 130-min Chinese cut; the just-under-2-hour "International cut," which premiered at the Berlinale and which we reviewed here; and the 108-min U.S. cut, which we reviewed here). Of course it's the disparity between the Chinese and the U.S. cuts which appears the greatest, in length terms but also in how comprehensively it has been reedited. If you want a detailed breakdown of the differences between the longest and shortest versions, you can find one here. But amid the breastbeating it should be remembered that both the versions we have seen have fallen some way short of our hopes as longtime WKW fans, and both have his blessing. So we look forward to seeing the Chinese cut, but with tempered expectations. 

"Eyes Wide Shut" (1999)
What's It About? A nocturnal psychosexual odyssey concerning a married New York doctor (played by a fearless Tom Cruise) who becomes engrossed in a potentially deadly web of paranoia, deceit, and weird sex parties where everyone wears freaky Venetian masks. 
Why Did It Get Cut? In short: the sex. The notoriously prudish MPAA, in one of its most infamous rulings, objected mainly to a sequence where Tom Cruise visits the aforementioned sex party. As he walks around a cavernous mansion he watches as various couples engage in a wide variety of sexual acts, with people screwing in a variety of inventive ways. But the MPAA got hot under the collar about the graphic display of fake sex, and to avoid an NC-17 rating, the solution was to insert shadowy figures, via the magic of computer effects, blocking out the more offensive acts of sexual congress. Instead of having Tom Cruise walk through shocking sexual tableaux, it's more like he got to a Disney World fireworks show late and has to stand behind some really tall asshole who is obscuring his view.
Is It As Good As The Longer Version? At the time, there was a lot of outrage from the fan community, especially since the studio was tampering with Stanley Kubrick's last film, months after he had unexpectedly passed away. Roger Ebert referred to the domestic release as the " 'Austin Powers' version" in reference to the scene where various objects are placed in front of offending genitalia. But honestly, it's not all that bad. The effect is pretty subtle and the scene is creepy, with or without the sexual explicitness (even in its uncut form it's pretty tame). In our opinion, both versions are perfectly acceptable. The only reason the unrated version (finally released on American shores in 2007 as a deluxe Blu-ray edition) has the edge because it was the version closest to what Kubrick really wanted. 

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  • Andrew | October 21, 2013 11:57 PMReply

    Ridley Scott's "Legend," re-cut and totally re-scored by Tangerine Dream for US release seems like a really obvious one to me.

  • Anthony E. | October 21, 2013 2:39 PMReply

    Two big ones appear to be omitted from your list: Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate & Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | October 19, 2013 5:10 PMReply

    I bought that 2003 DVD of "Once Upon a Time in America." Makes my eyes water. Every. Single. Time.

  • Christopher Derrick | October 18, 2013 8:35 PMReply

    There's always a few key films that are missing from a list like this, usually because the original cut can't be found or restored, e.g. The Magnificent Ambersons, Major Dundee and The Private Lives of Sherlock Holmes... the excised footage apparently doesn't still exist for any of these (save, supposedly the Wilder film).

    However, it's sort of a crime to leave off Welles' Touch of Evil, Kubrick's Spartacus and the full version of Lawrence of Arabia, which I believe kicked off the restoration movement in the late 80s/early 90s.

    Also, Ridley Scott's director's cut of Alien is very much worth seeing, and people say his Kingdom of Heaven is better in the longer version...

    I also don't think the restored The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is superior to the released version, and what's the deal with Fincher's Alien3?

  • Steven Flores | October 11, 2013 8:19 PMReply

    I have seen the 130-minute cut of "The Grandmaster" and the shortened U.S. cut and the long version is the definitive version while the shortened U.S. cut is an atrocity. Lot of the emotional impact of the story and some of its non-linear narrative gets lost along with some small details.

  • Gary Palmucci | October 11, 2013 4:17 PMReply

    After three decades, more misinformation continues to swirl around Once Upon a Time in America than virtually any other film. There was never a publicly screened 4 1/2 hour version; the 1984 Cannes premiere was Leone's 227 min original theatrical cut which had been disastrously previewed in Boston earlier that year, prompting the Ladd Company's ill-advised (and now, fortunately, hard to find) 139 min re-cut. The longer version played theatrically in Europe and subsequently appeared on US vhs, laserdisc and repertory cinemas via Warners.
    Cannes 2012 saw the premiere (I was there) of a longer, ca 250 min cut with numerous heretofore unseen snippets and fuller scenes inserted in black and white workprint. It received a mixed reaction from critics (and possibly had some unresolved legal issues with the 'talent' over the new footage) and to my knowledge still hasn't been screened outside of Europe, or released anywhere on DVD.

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