100 Films @ 10: Most Effective Director’s Cuts

Whether they be director’s, extended, ultimate, or any number of strung-together adjectives someone in marketing thought sounded exciting, direct-to-home-media alternate cuts of movies are all the rage nowadays. They have been for quite a while, actually — thanks no doubt to the booming sales of the DVD era — so for today’s top ten I thought I’d run down some of the most effective. I don’t necessarily mean the best (these aren’t “the ten best films that happen to have extended editions”), but rather the ones that have the biggest positive impact on the end result — which is sometimes the same thing, of course.

I know the initially stated point of these top tens was to look back over the last ten years, but this time I’ve widened the remit to include all extended cuts, mainly because that only added one title. Losing out because of that is X-Men: Days of Future Past – The Rogue Cut, which does contain significant changes, especially to the climax, but didn’t really belong because I actually think the theatrical cut is smoother.

10
Léon
Version Intégrale

To undermine my introduction right away, the extended version of Léon doesn’t actually make massive changes to the movie. Some of the additions bolster character development, but the film wasn’t shortchanged on that in the first place. It is great though, but it’s also just more greatness. Does that mean it shouldn’t be here? Well, if you’re watching the US Blu-ray, it’s the longer version that has the proper title card, which is reason enough to prefer it in itself.

9
Watchmen
Director’s Cut

There are three cuts of Watchmen, but it’s the middle one that is director Zack Snyder’s preferred version of the film (aptly, given its subtitle). I’ve still not got round to the semi-experimental Ultimate Cut so can’t truthfully comment on whether Snyder’s right, but when I reviewed the Director’s Cut I asserted that, thanks to “a little extra room to breathe and a few worthwhile extensions, and in spite of the odd tweak that doesn’t work, this is the superior cut of the film.”

8
I Am Legend
Alternate Theatrical Version

The extended cut of I Am Legend has one of the most meaningless subtitles of all — it wasn’t released theatrically, so how is it an “alternate theatrical version”? That said, “alternate” is definitely a more apt descriptor than “extended”: although this version is longer, the biggest change is a completely different ending. That makes a difference to the film’s tone, as well as paying off some subplots. But it only changes the movie so much — those misguided CGI creatures are still there, after all.

7
Salt
Director’s Cut

This middling action-thriller starring Angelina Jolie is not the first film that’s going to come to mind to most people (for any reason, ever), but it exists in three different cuts that make some striking differences. I discussed them in depth in my review, but on balance the one they labelled the Director’s Cut is best.

6
Alien³
Assembly Cut

The second Alien sequel was a fraught production for a number of reasons, which wound up in an obviously-compromised theatrical version. A little over a decade later (doesn’t sound so long with hindsight, does it?) the original “assembly cut” was released — not a director’s cut because, understandably, David Fincher wants nothing to do with the movie. The different version doesn’t save the film entirely, but it does clarify some of it, thereby improving it.

5
The Lord of the Rings
Extended Edition

From Fellowship onwards, the extended versions of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic are the preferred versions, deepening characters and expanding the rich world of the story. But by the time of the third and final movie, they’re essential: in a rare misstep, Jackson chose to completely excise one of the trilogy’s primary villains, Christopher Lee’s Saruman, from the theatrical version of Return of the King, so only in the extended version is the storyline of a major character actually resolved. That film won Best Picture nonetheless, which is why these aren’t ranked higher: the extended cuts are better, yes, but the theatrical versions are an incredible cinematic achievement regardless.

4
Sucker Punch
Extended Cut

Zack Snyder again, with another director’s preferred cut only debuting on the home release. This time he had to cut the film for censorship, revising it multiple times until the MPAA gave it the necessary PG-13. In the process, he removed several lines and scenes that helped to clarify what the hell was going on, which is rather helpful in such a crazy-ass movie. I’ve never bothered with the theatrical cut, but — in its extended form if no other — I think it’s something of an underrated movie.

3
Blade Runner
The Final Cut

Arguably the daddy of all alternate cuts, Blade Runner’s so-called Director’s Cut wasn’t really anything of the sort — Ridley Scott was busy and couldn’t be properly involved, merely providing notes for a studio after a fast buck. Years later, he was able to do it properly, resulting in the aptly named Final Cut… which is kinda just a polished version of the earlier Director’s Cut, but there you go. (Incidentally, there are some people who prefer the theatrical version. I’ve still not got round to it myself, but… well, there are also some people who prefer the theatrical cuts of Lord of the Rings. What I’m saying is, there’s no accounting for taste.)

2
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Ultimate Edition

Guess who’s back? Zack Snyder’s third entry on this list is his most effective revised cut he’s yet done. There are aspects of Batman v Superman that mean some people will never like it, but it’s hard to argue that the Ultimate Edition isn’t an improvement, clarifying plot details and character motivations left, right, and centre. Seriously, though, what is it with Zack Snyder and cutting scenes that explain the plot?! At least when he does a director’s cut (which is most of the time) he really makes use of it.

1
Kingdom of Heaven
Director’s Cut

Guess who’s also back? The other great proponent of the director’s cut, Ridley Scott — though he’s more prone to using and abusing the term than Mr Snyder (the director’s cut of Alien is, famously, nothing of the sort). I’ve never seen the theatrical version of Kingdom of Heaven so can’t actually vouch for this myself, but, by adding a massive 45 minutes of material, Scott’s lengthier cut turned a theatrical dog into a film some regard as a masterpiece. I can’t think of another director’s cut that has ever instigated such a thorough reappraisal of a film’s critical standing.

Tomorrow: ten good scenes and no bad ones.

Kingdom of Heaven: Director’s Cut (2005)

2015 #9
Ridley Scott | 194 mins* | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | UK, Spain, USA & Germany / English | 15 / R

Kingdom of HeavenRidley Scott’s Crusades epic is probably best known as one of the foremost examples of the power of director’s cuts: after Scott was forced to make massive edits by a studio wanting a shorter runtime, the film’s summer theatrical release was so critically panned that an extended Director’s Cut appeared in LA cinemas before the end of the year, reaching the wider world with its DVD release the following May. The extended version adds 45 minutes to the film (and a further 4½ in music in the Roadshow Version), enough to completely rehabilitate its critical standing.

The story begins in France, 1184, where blacksmith Balian (Orlando Bloom) is something of a social pariah. Offered the chance to head off to fight in the Crusades, Balian… refuses. But then something spoilersome happens and he thinks it might be a good idea after all. When he eventually arrives in Jerusalem, he finds a kingdom divided by political squabbling, quite apart from the uneasy truce with the enemy. You know that’s not going to end well.

Kingdom of Heaven is, in many respects, an old-fashioned epic. It’s a long film not because the director is prone to excess and didn’t know when to cut back, but because it has a lengthy and complicated story to tell. It isn’t adapted from a novel, but the structure feels that way, spending a lot of time on characters and what some might interpret as preamble — it’s a long while before the movie reaches Jerusalem, ostensibly the film’s focus, and it completes the arcs of several major characters along the way. The scale of such stories isn’t to everyone’s taste, but, well, what can you do.

A strong cast bolsters the human drama that sometimes gets lost in such grand stories. Bloom is a perfectly adequate if unexceptional lead, but around him we have the likes of Michael Sheen, David Thewlis, Alexander Siddig, Brendan Gleeson, and Edward Norton (well done if you can spot him…) There are even more names if you look to supporting roles. Most notable, however, are the co-leads: both Liam Neeson, as the knight who recruits Balian, and Jeremy Irons, as the wise advisor when he gets to Jerusalem, bring class to proceedings, while Eva Green provides mystery and heart as the love interest. Of everyone, she’s best served by the Director’s Cut, gaining a whole, vital subplot about her child that was entirely excised theatrically. It’s the kind of thing you can’t imagine not being there, and Scott agreed: it seems the chance to restore it was one of his main motivators for putting together a release of the longer version.

It is very much a Ridley Scott film, too. The way it’s shot, edited, styled… you could mix bits of this up with Gladiator or Robin Hood and you might not realise you’d switched movie. As a student of film it frustrates me that I can’t put my finger on exactly what qualities define this “Scott style” — and it’s a specific one to his historical epics, too, because it’s less present (or possibly just in a different way) in his modern-day and sci-fi movies — but I’m certain it’s there. I guess it’s the way he frames shots, the mise-en-scène, the editing, the richness of the photography… The quality of the end result may vary across those three movies, but Scott’s technical skill is never in doubt. (I’d wager Exodus is the same, but its poor reception hasn’t exactly left me gagging to see it.)

Similarly, I can’t quite identify what’s missing from Kingdom of Heaven that holds me back from giving it full marks. It’s a je ne sais quoi edge that I just didn’t feel. I do think it’s a very, very good film, though; one that would perhaps well reward further viewings.

4 out of 5

A version of Kingdom of Heaven is on Film4 tonight at 9pm. Their listings suggest it’s the theatrical cut, though if that’s true then they’ve put in an hour-and-a-half of adverts…


* For what it’s worth, I actually watched what’s now called the “Director’s Cut Roadshow Version”. This was released as the Director’s Cut on DVD, but in the early days of Blu-ray it couldn’t all fit on one disc, so they lopped off the overture, intermission, and entr’acte and still labelled it the Director’s Cut. As of the 2014 US Ultimate Edition, however, those missing bits have been optionally restored, with the set containing ‘three’ versions of the movie. ^

What price a ‘Definitive Cut’?

Provoked by, of all things, the Blu-ray release of The Wolfman (this started out as the opening paragraph of my review of that — oh how it grew), I’ve once again been musing on one of my ‘favourite’ topics. No, not “what’s TV and what’s film these days?”, but “which version of a film is definitive these days?”

I apologise if I’ve written extensively on this before; I think I’ve only had the odd random muse in a review, at most. So, much as I got the TV thing out of my system (a bit) in that editorial, here’s an attempt at the “definitive cut” one:

The age of DVD has managed to throw up all kinds of questions about what is the definitive version of a film. Never mind issues of incorrect aspect ratios, fiddled colour timing, or excessive digital processing — these are all potentially problems, yes, but usually quite easy to see where the correct version lies. The question of a ‘definitive version’ comes in the multitude of Director’s Cuts, Extended Cuts, Harder Cuts, Extreme Cuts — whatever label the marketing boys & girls slap on them, Longer Versions You Didn’t See In The Cinema is what they are. But are they better? Or more definitive? Does it matter?

So many consumers hold off for the DVD these days, especially with the added quality offered by Blu-ray, that the old answer of “what was released in the cinema” doesn’t necessarily hold true any more. Filmmakers know some will be waiting for the DVD, so are less concerned with releasing a studio-mandated, shorter, mass audience friendly cut into cinemas when their fuller vision can be found on DVD. Equally, the PR people know that “longer cut!” and “not seen in cinemas!” and other such slogans can help sell DVDs, and so may be forcing needless and unwelcome extensions onto filmmakers. Then there’s all those older directors who think they’re doing a good thing finally getting to tamper with their film 30 years on, who may well be misguided.

Some make it nice and clear for us. Ridley Scott, for example, is particularly good at this: Blade Runner has taken decades to get right, but The Final Cut is quite obviously the last word on this; he was well known to be unhappy with the theatrical version of Kingdom of Heaven, and was vindicated when the aptly-titled (for once) Director’s Cut received much improved reviews; conversely, he’s been very clear that the Director’s Cut of Alien and Extended Cut of Gladiator are not his preferred versions, just interesting alternate/longer edits.

On the other hand, Oliver Stone has now churned out three versions of Alexander [2015 edit: now four], each with significantly differing structures and content. None have received particularly good reviews. Is one the definitive cut? Or is it just a very public example of the editing process; what difference inclusions, exclusions, and structural overhauls can (or, perhaps, can’t) make?

The issue is somewhat brushed aside by two things, I think. Firstly, most stuff that suffers this treatment is tosh. Who cares which version of Max Payne or Hitman or Beowulf or either AvP or any number of teen-focused comedies is ‘definitive’ — no one liked them in the first place and they’ll be all but forgotten within a decade or two, at most (well, not AvP, sadly — its connection to two major franchises will see to that).

Secondly, more often than not both versions are available. Coppola may have vowed never to release the pre-Redux Apocalypse Now ever again, but the most recent DVDs [and, later, Blu-rays] include both cuts — listen to him or go with the original theatrical cut, it’s your choice. The same goes for Terminator 2, or indeed a good deal of the rubbish listed above. Rare is the film that doesn’t fit into one of these two camps, or the third “it’s been made clear” one.

So, with all that said, does it even matter? If we can choose which version we prefer, is that the right way to have things? Because, having gone through the options and examples I can think of, it’s not often that there’s not an easy way to resolve it — by which I mean, if the film is good enough to want the clarity of “which version is final”, we tend to have a way of knowing; and if the film’s tosh, well, what does it matter which we choose? There’s every chance no one involved in the production cares anyway.

There remains one argument for clarity, I think. How does one guarantee that, in the future, the ‘correct’ version remains accessible? With new formats always coming along, there’s no assurance that every cut of a film will be released; with TV showings, there’s no assurance the preferred version will always be the one shown (though there’s another argument for how much the latter matters considering they already mess around with aspect ratios and edits for violence/swearing/sex/etc.) But then, even if a filmmaker makes it clear that their preferred version is the one that only came out on DVD/Blu-ray, what chance is there that unscrupulous disc / download / unknown-future-format producers or TV schedulers won’t just revert to the theatrical version by default?

Sometimes one longs for the simpler age of a film hitting cinemas and that being that. We wouldn’t have had to suffer Lucas’ Star Wars fiddles, for one thing. But then nor would Ridley Scott have been able to redeem some of his films, or Zack Snyder treat fans to an improved Watchmen, or Peter Jackson truly complete The Lord of the Rings. If some level of uncertainty is the price we have to pay for these things, then it’s one even my obsessive nature is willing to pay.

There are 20 different films featured in this post’s header image.
Anyone who can name them all wins special bragging rights.