The first film I ever saw at the cinema was Star Wars. I was six years old. We queued outside the cinema in northern English cold, and, by the time we made it into the packed auditorium, the front crawl had already crawled and the Storm Troopers were storming the rebel ship. I wouldn’t see the complete film until 24 October, 1983, when it debuted at 7.15 in the evening on ITV, at the time Britain’s only commercial TV channel. Five and a half years had passed and yet Star Wars had been a constant in our games and our toys, as well as listening to the soundtrack and reading and re-reading George Lucas’s first novel with ‘16 pages of color illustrations’.
Today the situation is obviously different with instant downloads, simultaneous DVD releases, or at the longest a wait of a few months before a film can be owned and re-watched over and over again, complete with audio commentary, deleted scenes, and perhaps an alternative ending. And though I don’t want to wax whimsical about the good old days, I do want to emphasize the amount of air that could exist around a film. In this space, there was plenty of room for rumour and speculation, and the legendary director’s cut, the first six-hour version of a film, was a commonly repeated theme: the cut would be butchered and hacked back by an unsympathetic studio and what we saw was only a remnant of the artist’s vision.
An example of this was a film that had been planned as a follow up to Star Wars, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, which had been released in the UK in the autumn of 1982. The rumours of a five-hour version were encouraged by the film’s narrative ambiguity, some apparent inconsistencies (how many replicants?), and later by the occasional surfacing on late-night TV of versions that included bits no one remembered. The rumours were also encouraged once more by the space such thinking had to play in. The lack of internet sites – from encyclopaedic collections such as IMDB to the plethora of geek blogs – meant that such speculation took place in the letters pages of fanzines and on the bus to school, with very little ground for confirmation or decisive rebuttal. It also helped that Blade Runner evoked a world that seemed to stretch far outside the frame of the cinema screen or the VHS pan-and-scan TV screen, the first way I got to see it. The idea of an epic five-hour film was sustained by the idea that Los Angeles in 2019 looked such a big and detailed world. There was room to explore.
Such hopes and illusions came crashing down with the release of Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut in 1992. Although it gave us the opportunity of seeing this film – most of us for the first time – on the big screen, it decidedly was not the five-hour epic of the director’s vision. In fact, it was shorter than the original release. The changes were at once momentous and weirdly inconsequential. The theories about Deckard being a replicant – encouraged by a close reading of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – were rendered explicit: out went the off-cut from The Shining, in went the off-cut from Legend, and banished was the sleepy noir-ish narration (which I guiltily still love: ‘no one advertises for a killer in a newspaper’). With the further release of Blade Runner: The Final Cut, complete with a five-disc edition containing deleted scenes, all the major alternative versions and a documentary about the alternative version, the legend was now the province of purists, pedants and the bird-spotters of cinema, a frame here, a rerecorded line there. Clarity was given not only in the re-mastering of the image but in the elimination of those beguiling inconsistencies (how many replicants?) and, more damagingly, ambiguities: ‘I want more life, FATHER.’
Nowadays, the director’s cut is no longer a mysterious legend but a marketing tool, a way of boosting ancillary sales and a counter in getting directors to compromise on the theatrical release. Watching a Ridley Scott film at the cinema seems almost a waste of time, as we do so knowing full well that the director’s cut will be on the way, with an introduction by Scott at the beginning, grumpily disavowing any compromises made. Robin Hood, Black Hawk Down, American Gangster and most dramatically Kingdom of Heaven all had big director’s cut releases, often with a cynical delay to allow the dedicated the joy of effectively buying the same movie twice. The latter is often cited as a director’s cut that vastly improves on the original, but 1) the increased amount of Orlando Bloom offsets any subplot; and 2) given it is a better version, why didn’t Scott fight for it tooth and nail? I can only watch a film for the first time once, so that experience should be optimal. Directors’ cuts encourage carelessness and compromise even as they pretend to authenticity and definitiveness, sometimes providing opportunities for endless noodling with flawed material. See Francis Ford Coppola’s appalling Apocalypse Now: Redux or Oliver Stone’s Alexander, Alexander: The Director’s Cut and Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut, or better still, don’t.
Then there are the restored classics. Sergio Leone’s Once upon a Time in America was famously butchered by the editor of Police Academy at the behest of the studios. Even though there has been a longer European cut available for some time, a new version was recently released, which restored many missing scenes. But what the film gains in coherence it loses as a watching experience. The film stock has obviously degraded and there is a glaring difference in footage quality with the lost scenes. For a restored version of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the original cast now in their sixties and seventies overdubbed additional scenes to a similarly jarringly effect. A restored scene in Spartacus between Tony Curtis and Laurence Olivier had Anthony Hopkins doing an impersonation of Olivier in the overdub.
The dream is always that hidden treasure will be found, a lost version restored, the director’s vision finally realised, but time and again films are significantly damaged by these interpolations. Of course these aren’t necessarily directors’ cuts. They are alternate versions and, as with the recent rerelease of The Shining, there is evidence to suggest the directors might well not have wanted their films released in these versions. Sometimes less is more.
Directors’ cuts exist also in the context of ‘Unrated Versions’ of comedies (more tits, less funny), and horror movies (more gore, less scary). Having given you everything so quickly and so completely, there is still the need to shove the idea that you are somehow getting more, quantity though and not necessarily quality. ‘Including 23 minutes of previously unseen footage’ doesn’t promise much except perhaps the studio wanted an R, and the director gave them an NP-17. As a film writer, I can’t bemoan the availability of all these versions (although that is what I’m doing). I just feel disappointed; disappointed that the universe is shrinking. Now we can see the director’s second thoughts and they are rarely as good as their first. Films become flabby with additional scenes, and that sense of unseen possibility is stymied and ultimately destroyed.
The experience I had between 1977 and 1982 of nurturing the memory of a film and reliving it in so many ways can’t ever be regained, but with all our wealth of cinematic accessibility it is worth remembering some of the positives that came in the austere time, when Han Solo shot first and Jabba wasn’t CGI.