Here’s a story you won’t hear much about outside the film-geek world, but it’s worth hearing: there’s this South Korean thriller called Snowpiercer, which is a giant hit in its home country and has played, to much acclaim, at festivals here in the US. Last November, the Weinstein Company picked it up for distribution in English-speaking markets, presumably drawn both to its genre elements and a cast that includes Chris Evans, Octavia Spencer, Tilda Swinton, Ed Harris, Jamie Bell, and Alison Pill. And now, according to director Bong Joon-ho (The Host, Mother), they’re demanding that he cut 20 minutes out of it.
“TWC people have told Bong that their aim is to make sure the film ‘will be understood by audiences in Iowa … and Oklahoma,’” according to English writer and film festival programmer Tony Rayns, who spoke to the filmmaker at the premiere in Seoul. “Leaving aside the issue of what Weinstein thinks of its audience, it seems to say the least anomalous that the rest of the English-speaking world has to be dragged down to the presumed level of American mid-west hicks.” But this isn’t the first time Weinstein himself — or Hollywood in general — has assumed that what was fine internationally was too highfalutin for audiences here.
Original length: 153 minutes American release: 115 minutes
Fritz Lang’s science fiction masterpiece was wildly expensive, brilliantly imaginative, and light years ahead of its time. It was also a film that spent years in flux. His original cut ran two-and-a-half hours, but since the expensive picture had been partially funded by Paramount and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, they were allowed to make any alterations to the film they chose before releasing it in America. They did just that, figuring its allegorical elements would fly right over the heads of domestic audiences (or perhaps fearing that its working-class message wouldn’t). They hired American playwright Channing Pollock to basically re-edit the film, altering the narrative, changing the title cards, and tossing out scenes by the handful. The result of his efforts was a cut that ran over 30 minutes shorter — and even that was expansive compared to the subsequent re-edit from German distributors, which chopped out another half hour. Lang’s original vision was long thought lost, but the recent discoveries of longer prints managed to restore it to (almost) its fully glory.
Original length: 89 minutes American release: 63 minutes
At just shy of an hour and a half, Vittorio de Sica’s 1953 drama wasn’t exactly bursting at the buttons to begin with. But producer David O. Selznick — possibly irritated that maestro de Sica (who spoke no English) had ignored the suggestions offered up in the super-producer’s famed and detailed memos — was scared stiff by the downbeat romance’s preview screenings, and took a hatchet to the picture for its American release. Selznick hacked the picture, retitled Indiscretion of an American Wife, down to a scant 63 minutes — too short for a feature film. So he tacked on a nine-minute “overture,” with Patti Page singing two songs, which brought it up to an acceptable 72 minutes. (Both versions are available on Criterion’s DVD.)
Once Upon a Time in America
Original length: 229 minutes American release: 139 minutes
When Sergio Leone unveiled what would turn out to be his final film, the sprawling crime epic Once Upon a Time in America, he’d already done some heavy work on it: his original version ran a back-breaking four-and-a-half hours, so he figured the 40 minutes he’d chopped made it a long but palpable (and unquestionably rewarding) film experience. European distributors agreed, and it was released to great acclaim overseas. But American distributors the Ladd Company, without Leone’s cooperation, chopped an additional hour and a half — nearly a third of its running time — out of the picture before its US release, junking the film’s entire flashback structure and leaving numerous inexplicable moments and gaping plot holes. Roger Ebert called the re-cut America “an incomprehensible mess without texture, timing, mood, or sense,” in which the attempts to “clarify” the complex narrative left Leone’s epic utterly nonsensical. Ebert again: “Relationships are truncated, scenes are squeezed of life, and I defy anyone to understand the plot of the short version. The original Once Upon a Time in America gets a four-star rating. The shorter version is a travesty.”
Original length: 155 minutes American release: 124 minutes
The first appearance on this list — but not the last — by Harvey Weinstein, the irrepressible mogul whose frequent shelving and drastic re-editing of first Miramax and then Weinstein Company releases earned him the nickname “Harvey Scissorhands.” One of his first triumphs was Giuseppe Tornatore’s movie-crazy comedy/drama, which Miramax cut by nearly a half hour for its US release in 1990. To Weinstein’s credit, the shorter version won an Oscar and was more financially successful abroad than it had been in Tornatore’s home country of Italy — though that may have been due to excised subplots and story strands that decreased the complexity of its feel-good characters. Those scenes, and others, were restored for 2002 re-release, dubbed “The New Version.”
Mr. Nice Guy
Original length: 113 minutes American release: 88 minutes
When Jackie Chan’s Rumble in the Bronx was an unexpected sleeper hit in the US, it was a long overdue crossover for the affable star. But it also set an unfortunate precedent: American distributors New Line Cinema cut more than 17 minutes from the film, dubbing it into English and altering the music score, and over the next few years, both New Line and Miramax’s Dimension imprint plundered the Golden Harvest vaults for Chan movies that they could retitle, re-edit, and release stateside. The glut of product damaged Chan’s brand; the re-cut films junked the work of Chan and his directors, zapping nuance and shortening his narratives into sizzle reels. It’s a tough competition, but the 1997 Sammo Hung-directed Mr. Nice Guy (released in the U.S. in 1998) may have gotten the worst of it: the New Line edit changed the score entirely, rearranged the opening scenes, and chopped dozens of shots and full scenes, resulting in a picture that was “re-edited almost beyond comprehension,” according to the A.V. Club’s Keith Phipps.
Original length: 102 minutes American release: 89 minutes
Hong Kong director Daniel Lee’s 1996 Jet Li action hit might’ve remained an international phenomenon were it not for Li’s appearance in 1998’s Lethal Weapon 4. After that, just as with Chan, American distributors went scurrying for Jet Li product, and Artisan Entertainment decided to pass on the English version of Black Mask that had already been prepared for international release by the filmmakers. Instead, they made a shorter cut that amped up the action and gore, dropped out the talky-talky, and substituted the original electronic score for an all underground hip-hop soundtrack — because why not, right?
Original length: 280 minutes American release: 148 minutes
John Woo’s 2008 recreation of the Battle of Red Cliffs was truly epic — it was the most expensive Asian-financed film in history, so massive an undertaking that Woo chose to break it into two parts, each running 140 minutes. The film broke box office records in China, but American audiences weren’t gonna sit still for that mess, so Woo had to compress both films into a single movie that was barely longer than either half. Because if there’s one thing we audiences aren’t interested in, it’s multi-part epics.
Original length: 95 minutes American release: 80 minutes
The American version of Gojira, retitled Godzilla, King of the Monsters! was only 15 minutes shorter, but it chopped a hell of a lot more than that from Ishiro Honda’s original film. American distributors Embassy Pictures and TransWorld Releasing bought the rights to Gojira, which had been a modest success in Japan but little-seen elsewhere, and hired director Terry O. Morse to rework it. He tossed more than a half hour of scenes, eliminating much of the serious, post-WWII subtext, and replaced them with 20 minutes of new footage, inserting Raymond Burr as an American reporter covering the story. The result was a giant hit, so huge that it ended up replacing Gojira back in Japan; the original version was restored and re-released in 2004, and now both are available on DVD.
Original length: 112 minutes American release: 87 minutes
Harvey Scissorhands strikes again! Stephen Chow’s action/comedy was a giant hit when it was released in Hong Kong in 2001, so Miramax snapped up American distribution rights — and sat on them. Soccer languished on the Miramax shelves for three years, as the studio cut and re-cut and tinkered and delayed; Chow, meanwhile, wrote, directed, shot, and edited an entire follow-up, Kung Fu Hustle, in the interim. When Shaolin Soccer was finally released in spring of 2004, it was 25 minutes shorter, eliminating the bulk of a romantic subplot and an important opening sequence. Without that scene, the film was a standard and simple good vs. evil story — easier to swallow, but far less interesting. (Later that year, another long-delayed Miramax release, Zhang Yimou’s Hero, finally hit the shelves after a two-year wait; it went out uncut, presumably thanks to the influence of “presenter” Quentin Tarantino.)
A Serbian Film
Original length: 104 minutes American release: 98 minutes
Look, if you’ve seen A Serbian Film (and trust me, you can’t un-see it), then perhaps you can appreciate the flip side of this argument. Because if you consider what did make it into the American cut of A Serbian Film, then maybe you’re OK not seeing the rest, y’know?