Directors’ Cuts: 12 Movies That Were Better When They Got Longer

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The Counselor, Kingdom of Heaven, and Margaret. Photo: 20th Century Fox

Last week, discussing Lana and Andy Wachowski’s upcoming Netflix series Sense8, Ted Sarandos let slip that he had seen a four-hour cut of the directors’ 2012 film Cloud Atlas “that will blow your mind.” Sarandos was naturally trying to do some damage control in the wake of the failure of the Wachowskis’ recent release Jupiter Ascending; Netflix has invested a lot of money in their new show. But it’s also understandable that the Wachowskis, with their imaginations always working in overdrive, might have a better, more effective cut of the troubled, divisive Cloud Atlas somewhere. This news also came right as the Berlin Film Festival was preparing to screen a director’s cut of 54, the clubland opus starring Salma Hayek, Ryan Philippe, and Mike Myers, that came and went back in 1998; it turns out director Mark Christopher had been forced to remove about 37 minutes, much of it having to do with his lead character’s bisexuality, before the film’s release. So, will we be seeing these longer cuts of Cloud Atlas and 54 on our screens at some point? And might they be better? History shows that this wouldn’t be the first time that a substantially longer version of a film came out some time after its initial release and turned out to be the better movie. Here are 12 examples of films that were later released in superior, significantly longer versions.

Greed (1924)
By some accounts, Erich von Stroheim’s intricate, majestic silent 1924 melodrama — based on Frank Norris’s novel McTeague — clocked in originally at almost eight hours. Needless to say, that wasn’t the version that saw the light of day: Taken out of Stroheim’s hands, the film was released in a two-and-a-half-hour cut that, while still impressive, didn’t quite do justice to the scope of the director’s vision; it failed at the box office and nearly ruined his career. Film archivists are continuing to look for the full version, but along the way, a four-hour cut was released, utilizing stills from the film to attempt to reconstruct some of the diffuse, multi-character plot. That longer version is still the one to see — unless more of the film gets discovered.

Metropolis (1927)
Hang on, this is about to get confusing. When it was first released in Germany, Fritz Lang’s visionary, dystopian sci-fi epic clocked in around 150 minutes. When it opened in the U.S. later that year, however, it had been truncated to under two hours — not just because of its length but also because the distributor didn’t think American audiences would understand much of Lang’s not-even-all-that-intricate plot. Also that same year, the German version of the film was also drastically cut, to get rid of what was seen as its communist subtext. Some years later, the film was cut further, to a little over 90 minutes. Meanwhile, everyone assumed that the original cut of the film, which had opened in Germany, had been lost. Then, the film entered the public domain, and dozens of different cuts started to emerge, in rep screenings and, later, on home video. Then, in the 1980s, it was re-released theatrically, with a pop soundtrack produced by musician Giorgio Moroder — in a recut, tinted version that ran 87 minutes. Over the years, however, Metropolis was restored to longer lengths, utilizing (as with Greed) some stills and additional title cards explaining missing pieces of the plot. Then, however, in 2010, a cut very close to the original run time of 150 minutes was premiered at the Berlin Film Festival. It had been reconstructed using a decaying, long-forgotten print found in an Argentine film archive. Today, that is the essential version of Metropolis to see — and final proof of this film’s enduring greatness.

Napoléon (1927)
Abel Gance actually intended his depiction of the life of the French general and emperor to be multiple films, but he only managed to shoot the first of those. Even that was too much for some. After the film premiered at its initial length (it ran more than five hours), it was cut dramatically by its distributor MGM and mostly rejected by American audiences. The studio also got rid of Gance’s revolutionary “Polyvision” process, which utilized three different screens to create a wide-screen and triptych effect. The film has been restored multiple times, including to a three-hour-and-40-minute version in 1981 by Francis Ford Coppola, who also commissioned a new score by his father Carmine. Film historian Kevin Brownlow has made further restorations, though his most complete version only screens rarely.

The Leopard (1963)
Luchino Visconti’s gorgeous epic, starring Burt Lancaster as a 19th-century Sicilian prince trying to navigate the turbulent times he lives in, was widely acknowledged as a great film when it premiered in 1963; it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and set box-office records in Europe. Except for the U.S. — Americans got a heavily cut version that was dubbed (poorly) into English that, blasted by critics, quickly died at the box office. It wasn’t until decades later that the restored, three-hour version of The Leopard, in Italian, made its way Stateside, where it was received as the glorious masterpiece that it had always been. The Criterion edition of the film includes both the full and cut versions — the latter mostly as a lark, we’re assuming.

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)
Director Sam Peckinpah spent his entire career having run-ins with producers and studio execs. Most prominently on this elegiac, impressionistic Western, which was taken out of his hands at the last minute, before he could finalize it, and released in a truncated 105-minute version. (A similar fate had befallen his earlier Western Major Dundee.) That cut was disowned by cast and crew and failed at the box office. Years later, after Peckinpah’s death, two different versions have been made available — the director’s original “preview” cut, clocking in at 122 minutes, and a third “special edition” that incorporates some additional footage. Both of them are excellent, and quite a bit better than the original theatrical release.

1900 (1976)
After the success of Last Tango in Paris, Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci was effectively given carte blanche to make whatever he wanted. Being Bertolucci, he made an operatic, outrageous five-hour communist epic about the class struggle in 20th-century Italy, starring Robert De Niro, Gerard Depardieu, Donald Sutherland, and Burt Lancaster. Bertolucci conceived of the film as a two-part release, and structured it that way, too. However, his producer, Alberto Grimaldi, wanted to cut it down to a more manageable length and release it as one movie. (Meanwhile, the studio, Paramount, just wanted to wash its hands of the film entirely and at one point vowed never to release any version of it.) Eventually, a four-hour-plus compromise cut of 1900 was released in the U.S. — still an impressive length, and still relatively true to Bertolucci’s vision — and quickly vanished from theaters. The film’s reputation grew over the years, and after the Oscar-winning success of Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, 1900 was re-released in a two-part version. Today, it’s correctly considered to be one of the director’s greatest films.

Heaven’s Gate (1980)
Full disclosure: I’m not sure I personally consider any cut of Heaven’s Gate to be actually good. But it is also a fact that what was done to Michael Cimino’s notoriously expensive flop immediately upon its release was something of a crime. The film had been hotly anticipated: Coming off the Oscar-winning success of The Deer Hunter, Cimino was a filmmaking superstar and was given unprecedented freedom by United Artists for this epic Western about the Johnson County War in rural Wyoming in the 1890s. But after the film’s disastrous 219-minute premiere, United Artists pulled it from release, and Cimino shortened it to 149 minutes. That version was itself also a disaster; it was also the only version of the film many people were able to see. The longer cut eventually made its way onto video, and to a theatrical re-release. And that’s the version to see: At its full length, Heaven’s Gate is a visually elegant film that, for all its cardboard characters and muddled story line, has moments of real stirring beauty. In its cut version, it’s just an inchoate mess.

Once Upon a Time in America (1984)
Sergio Leone’s gangster masterpiece, starring Robert De Niro and James Woods as two small-time hoods and best friends whose lives are upended by a mysterious betrayal, was the Italian director’s most ambitious film — a decades-in-the-making labor of love. It premiered at Cannes in a nearly four-hour version, but when it opened in the U.S. later that year, it had been cut down to a disastrous 139 minutes. This reduced version undid the film’s intricate, time-hopping structure and hacked away acres of character development and story. Perhaps understandably, it was a financial disaster. Years later, it was restored to the 229-minute version that had premiered at Cannes, and in recent years, it’s been restored even further, to a 250-minute version closer to the late director’s original wishes.

Until the End of the World (1991)
Wim Wenders’s Europudding 1991 sci-fi road movie had an awesome soundtrack (filled with new music by the likes of Talking Heads, U2, and Nick Cave), a compelling vision of the future (one that foresaw Google, handhelds, and internet addiction), and a star-studded cast (William Hurt, Max von Sydow, Jeanne Moreau, etc.) But, as released theatrically in the U.S., it was also a hopeless muddle, with weird narrative rhythms, a story that jumped awkwardly around the world, and ill-defined character relationships. It seemed like Wenders’s story had gotten away from him. Until, some years later, he unveiled a 295 minute director’s cut — shown in Europe as a miniseries — and what once seemed like a great artist’s fall from grace was suddenly revealed to be one of his greatest achievements. This time, the film’s globe-hopping structure makes a lot more sense, and its timely portrait of characters in thrall to technology comes through more clearly. And there is even more of that glorious, glorious music. That version, available on DVD in Europe, occasionally gets shown in retrospectives. And New Yorkers, you’re in luck: There’s a Wenders retro coming to New York in March, and the director will present this director’s cut on March 7.

Kingdom of Heaven (2005)
Ridley Scott’s visually impressive but dramatically inert epic of the Crusades — starring Orlando Bloom as a young blacksmith who travels to the Holy Land in the early 12th century and finds himself in the middle of the siege of Jerusalem — opened with a whimper in 2005. The film ran 144 minutes, but it felt more like six hours. Then, however, Scott released a three-hour-plus director’s cut on DVD. And — shocker! — the film came into its own. With around 45 minutes added to it, the new Kingdom of Heaven actually moves more briskly. The plot is clearer, and, more important, characters who once felt frustratingly underdeveloped are given a lot more screen time. So much so that what initially seemed like a glorified Orlando Bloom action vehicle is revealed to have been a smart, expansive, multi-character drama.

Margaret (2011)
By the time it limped quietly into theaters, Kenneth Lonergan’s lyrical magnum opus about an Upper West Side Manhattan teen’s (Anna Paquin) coming of age had been the subject of numerous lawsuits and counter-suits, with seemingly everyone involved suing each other in various permutations. Reportedly the subject of much editing-room squabbling, the film had gone through many cuts in an attempt to get it to a length both distributor and director could sign off on. Many of us loved the 150-minute cut that opened (and quickly closed) theatrically, but it was also clear that this was a compromised version, and that this strange, ambitious movie’s extravagant length was an integral part of Lonergan’s vision. Eventually, a director’s cut of 186 minutes was included on the film’s home-video release. And lo and behold, it turns out Lonergan was right all along. As our own David Edelstein said, “in its extended form and only its extended form [it] is as close to a masterpiece as any American movie in a decade.”

The Counselor (2013)
Ridley Scott (him again) and Cormac McCarthy’s movie was the kind of bust you read about in history books: a nutty, star-studded legal thriller that did nothing to thrill you but instead offered up bizarre moments of provocation (Cameron Diaz fucking a car, for one) enlivened occasionally by long, portentous monologues. But there was something to it, too. At the time, I admitted it was ridiculous and insane, but that it also had “a ragged nobility all its own.” The extended cut, clocking in at 138 minutes (as opposed to the theatrical version’s 117), makes that clear. It doesn’t restore a ton of story points or anything mundane like that; if anything, it’s even more bizarre and languorous and reflective and existential and pretentious. But what seemed like an out-of-balance genre picture finally feels like a unique, flawed, meditative transmission from Planet Cormac.