Mangled Movies: Twelve Sad Cinematic Tales

February 21, 2020
Whether butchered by studios or destroyed by their own creators, here are twelve films that went through post-production hell.

A director’s vision for a film is not always the one that makes it to the screen. Sometimes the producers, financiers or studio heads have other ideas, and they’re usually based on making a film as commercial and accessible as possible. As this collection of unfortunate but often brilliant films show, some movies can really get mangled on their way to the cinema.

PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID (1973)

There was a lot of anticipation around Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid, largely because it was Sam Peckinpah’s first western since his 1969 masterpiece The Wild Bunch. The studio, however, still interfered with the director wherever possible. MGM President James Aubrey placed a huge restriction on the amount of time and money that Peckinpah would be afforded for Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid, a move that began a massive strain between studio and director. When Aubrey demanded the excising of scenes that he considered superfluous to the movie’s plot, Peckinpah and the crew secretly shot them during lunch breaks and on weekends. Peckinpah had hoped that the remote Mexican location shoot would render his freewheeling western free from studio meddling, but the director had been overly optimistic. Aubrey sent telegrams to the production complaining that the number of camera setups was too numerous, and that Peckinpah was being too slow. The tension on set was palpable, and wasn’t helped by crew members falling ill and camera equipment consistently breaking down. Peckinpah, who had descended into alcoholism, took to urinating on the screen to demonstrate his dislike of one particularly objectionable day’s rushes. Further arguments in the editing room led to the release of a choppy, graceless studio-controlled cut. It was poorly received by audiences and critics alike, and was largely forgotten until fifteen years later. In 1988, a director’s cut was released, and the film was rediscovered. Poetic, elegiac and grimly violent, the new version was hailed as a lost masterpiece, and as one of the best works from the recently deceased director. Despite this, Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid remains one of the definitive examples of a mangled movie. “Peckinpah is really obsessed with power,” the film’s screenwriter, Rudy Wurlitzer, said. “He’s also interested in the kind of political pressure that ultimately kills a man.”

ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (1984)

Sergio Leone. If, for some reason, you don’t know the work of the great Italian filmmaker who helmed the likes of The Good, The Bad And The Ugly and Once Upon A Time In The West, your favourite director does. Leone’s influence on cinema was immeasurable, even up to his final film, 1984’s Once Upon A Time In America, a crime epic starring Robert De Niro, James Woods, Tuesday Weld and Elizabeth McGovern. The production ran smoothly, without any undue interference from the studio. After a rough edit brought the film to a massive running time of six hours, Leone cut it down to a more palatable four hours, believing that he had properly encapsulated the story that he wanted to tell. Though the epic nature of the film would have been clear to everyone involved even before it was greenlit, the studio inevitably balked at the film’s length. Against Leone’s wishes, the film was edited down to 139 minutes, nearly half the original’s running time. Most horribly, Leone’s carefully placed non-chronological sequences were placed in chronological order. This simplistic theatrical version, a distortion of its former self, was savaged by critics. It was only later, when the original four-hour cut was made available, that Once Upon A Time In America was re-evaluated as one of Leone’s best. James Woods recalls one film critic calling it the worst film of 1984, and then, upon seeing the proper Leone cut, referring to it as the best film of the eighties. The Leone cut was eventually released on DVD, while the mangled theatrical cut is nearly impossible to find. “Relationships are truncated, scenes are squeezed of life, and I defy anyone to understand the plot of the short version,” said film critic Roger Ebert. “The original Once Upon A Time In America gets a four-star rating. The shorter version is a travesty.”

HEAVEN’S GATE (1980)

What goes up must come down. New Hollywood saw young, dangerous filmmakers such as Francis Ford Coppola, William Friedkin and Michael Cimino given an unprecedented level of freedom. This largely resulted in box office smashes, critical successes, and some of the greatest films of all time. It also resulted in One From The Heart, Sorcerer and Heaven’s Gate. None of these were great successes, and One From The Heart and Sorcerer were perhaps lucky to have slipped from the public consciousness. Heaven’s Gate, however, became the poster child for flops, and for Hollywood largess. Largess was right. On the set of his sprawling, complicated frontier western, director Michael Cimino (given carte blanche after the success of his masterpiece The Deer Hunter) tore down specially constructed buildings because they were the “wrong” distance apart; animals were actually killed and abused in order to give the scenes authenticity; and Cimino fired crew members on a regular basis. During the equally troubled post-production, he hired an armed security guard to keep United Artists executives away from the editing bay. The cut that Cimino presented to the studio was five hours long; and the initial $7.5 million budget ballooned to $40 million. United Artists – which almost had to file for bankruptcy because of the film – tried to salvage what they could, even allowing Cimino to re-edit the film after its poorly received premiere. The film flopped, United Artists was bought out by MGM, and Cimino found it nearly impossible to get work again. “It fails so completely that you might suspect that Mr. Cimino sold his soul to obtain the success of The Deer Hunter, and that The Devil has just come around to collect,” wrote film critic Vincent Canby. But thanks to a restoration of Cimino’s director’s cut and release by Criterion, the notorious Heaven’s Gate has actually enjoyed something of a critical re-evaluation, with many celebrating its epic but idiosyncratic qualities, and the late Michael Cimino receiving near – if not exactly unqualified – vindication.

DUNE (1984)

Dune. It’s one of Alan Smithee’s best films, which, sadly, means that it’s one of David Lynch’s worst. Lynch (whose previous films had been Eraserhead and The Elephant Man) was a bold choice for the adaptation of Frank Herbert’s cult sci-fi epic, but the seventies and early eighties were all about Hollywood taking bold choices. Sadly, the admirable risk taken by producer Dino De Laurentiis did not pay off. Though it has many defenders, the resulting film was considered largely incomprehensible, and received both a critical drubbing and a complete lack of audience. As if the film itself wasn’t enough of a mess, five different versions found their way into the public unconsciousness. The initial 137-minute theatrical version can now be found on DVD. A re-edit for television ran at 189 minutes, and this was the first version to feature the Alan Smithee credit, the official nom de plume used by directors when they want to disown a film. A few years later, a San Francisco TV station edited their own version, mixing together the two previous edits. Fourthly, an extended 177-minute edition was made for DVD in 2006. Finally, there was the “work print edition”, oft-discussed in hushed tones amongst fans. Initially compiled for a crew screening, this is the initial edit that caused people to think that a four-hour version existed. David Lynch now refuses to even talk about the film, so at this stage, a legitimate director’s cut seems highly unlikely. “I started selling out on Dune,” said David Lynch. “It’s no one’s fault but my own. I probably shouldn’t have done that picture, but I saw tons of possibilities. There was so much room to create a world. But I got strong indications from Dino De Laurentiis about what kind of film he expected, and I knew that I didn’t have final cut.” Thankfully, it looks like director Denis Villeneuve hasn’t hit the same problems with his new version of Dune, which is out later this year.

MOLOKAI (1999)

By now, the appearance of singer-turned-actor Kris Kristofferson – who has already appeared here with Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid and Heaven’s Gate – should be an obvious sign of bad luck. Nevertheless, he appeared in Molokai alongside the dream cast of David Wenham, Derek Jacobi, Alice Krige, Leo McKern, Sam Neill and Peter O’Toole. Prolific Australian-based filmmaker Paul Cox directed the film about Father Damien, the 19th century Belgian priest who voluntarily went to the Hawaiian island of Molokai to care for its colony of lepers. It’s certainly not the type of film that usually elicits studio interference, but nevertheless, the production was fraught with tension, beginning with Wenham and Cox’s difficult working relationship. That tension was soon resolved, however, but was then replaced with a tension between Cox and the producers. He first suspected that there’d be trouble when told that there were “too many lepers in the film”. After re-hiring a fired horse wrangler because he didn’t like people being sacked on his films, the producers eventually fired the notoriously strong-minded Cox because they didn’t think that he was commercial enough. After intense pressure from the crew, the producers reinstated Cox, and he finished production, and then post-production. Soon after, he found that his cut of the film had been replaced with a version that the producers had apparently re-edited behind his back. The film bombed, and the investors asked Cox to reinstate his cut. In 2002, Molokai was finally released in Australia, and re-released in Belgium, to huge acclaim. Cox isn’t going quietly though; he claims to have written a book about the experience, which can’t be published “until everybody’s dead”. “If you ever saw the producers’ cut, you would not believe that you were watching the same film,” said Cox in The Age. “It was not watchable. They had totally slaughtered it.”

THE BIG RED ONE (1980)

As a soldier involved in operations in Africa, Sicily, Normandy, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, and the German concentration camp Falkenau, cult hero director Sam Fuller (Shock Corridor, Pickup On South Street) knew what he was talking about it when it came to WW2 films. There are no larger political machinations or intrigue at play in his highly personal final film The Big Red One; Fuller’s experiences informed the film’s gritty focus on soldiers surviving day-by-day. Lee Marvin is the hard-boiled sergeant, and his band consists of Robert Carradine, a fresh-from-Star Wars Mark Hamill, Kelly Ward, and Bobby Di Cicco, in a role originally meant for noted Fuller fan Martin Scorsese. The most unbelievable moments in the film were directly taken from Fuller’s own WW2 journey; these were experiences so potent that they eventually ended up on the cutting room floor at the scared studio bigwigs’ tedious, glad-handing insistence. In 2005, the “reconstruction” of The Big Red One was released on DVD, with forty-four minutes of gloriously unusual footage reinstated. Working from the original full length script and Sam Fuller’s production notes, film critic Richard Schickel and Warner Bros. executive Brian Jamieson re-cut the film to more closely resemble Fuller’s intended epic vision. It’s not hard to see why the studio was reluctant to release the original cut. The restored footage features enough off-kilter surrealism, sexually driven dialogue and jarring violence to frighten any studio suit. Fuller never subscribed to a romanticised idea of war; he wanted to show every single moment of heartbreak, frustration, anger, inhumanity, and humanity, and the reconstructed version finally brings that out as honestly as he intended. “What they released in 1980 wasn’t a bad movie,” said Richard Schickel. “The studio wanted a gung-ho war movie. What we’ve added is the real Sam stuff: the absurdity of an ordinary soldier caught up in a vast war.”

THE OUTSIDERS (1983)

Francis Ford Coppola’s teen angst mini-epic was an interesting choice after the commercial failure of the eccentric musical One From The Heart. It wasn’t a move that the director had planned until he read The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton, a book that affected him so much that he felt compelled to adapt it. The movie is best known for its hot young cast featuring Tom Cruise, Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe, Patrick Swayze, Matt Dillon, Ralph Macchio, Diane Lane and C. Thomas Howell. Coppola moved directly from The Outsiders to S.E Hinton’s more obtuse novel, Rumble Fish, and he blamed his split focus on his lack of gumption when the studio insisted on cuts to The Outsiders. It was a letter from a high school class that first brought the book to his attention back in the early eighties, and Coppola has revealed that it was a slew of letters that prompted the re-edit. A lot of fans wanted to know why so many of the novel’s key scenes had been left out of the film version, inspiring Coppola to restore the cult favourite to its intended glory. Thus The Outsiders: The Complete Novel, came to fruition. This DVD release features 22 minutes of extra footage, including an extended opening sequence, and key moments that flesh out the characters. More interestingly, Coppola was able to give the film the musical score that he’d always wanted. His father, Carmine, had composed the music for the film, but the director had always wanted more period pop songs, from the likes of Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. Famed family man Coppola couldn’t bring himself to change the music until over a decade after his father’s death. “On The Black Stallion, [director] Carroll Ballard took out one of his cues, and my father never talked to him again,” Coppola explained.

OUR DAILY BREAD (1930)

A confession: Our Daily Bread does not exist. The film is, in fact, called City Girl, but only at the insistence of the producers. F.W Murnau, the film’s German-born director, wanted it to be called Our Daily Bread, just one of the many contentious issues that plagued the making of the film. Murnau’s years in Hollywood imitated a typical “rise and fall” story. His oft-cited masterpiece, Sunrise, tied for Best Picture at the Oscars with William A. Wellman’s Wings in 1928. After that, Murnau took a downward turn, with controversy surrounding his final three films. In particular, Our Daily Bread caused constant arguments between Murnau and the film’s producer, William Fox. Fox wasn’t your usual cigar-chomping, bottom-dollar producer; he was one of the first to play up the idea of director-as-star, promoting the filmmakers as much as the actors. It was Fox who had brought Murnau out to Hollywood after seeing the director’s acclaimed 1924 German feature The Last Laugh, and the two of them enjoyed critical (if not financial) success with 1927’s Sunrise. The follow-up to Sunrise, 4 Devils, was one of the last silent movies, and its failure was credited to the sudden audience interest in talkies. Murnau, who had enjoyed a large amount of artistic freedom up until then, was suddenly the subject of studio interference and constant overruling. Fox eventually fired Murnau, replacing him with his assistant director. Murnau terminated his contract with Fox, and left the USA, his Hollywood experience truly soured. Our Daily Bread became City Girl, and, after its release, was lost until its rediscovery in 1961, where it was re-evaluated as further proof of Murnau’s undeniable genius. “What’s left is half a masterpiece,” wrote Dan Callahan in Slant Magazine. “It’s a case of coitus interruptus with the best late silent film foreplay imaginable.”

DOMINION: PREQUEL TO THE EXORCIST (2005)

Paul Schrader is an unusual screenwriter and director drawn to complex subjects such as madness (Taxi Driver), unconventional sexuality (Auto Focus, The Walker), religion (Touch) and unionism (Blue Collar). He’s hardly your garden variety Hollywood director, so why Morgan Creek Productions tapped him to direct their 2003 prequel to the 1973 smash hit The Exorcist is anyone’s guess. Schrader obviously saw an opportunity to delve again into his fascination with religion, though the studio obviously wanted more simplistic thrills and scares. When Schrader turned in his film – which focuses on the early years of Father Merrin, played in The Exorcist by Max Von Sydow, and in the prequel by Stellan Skarsgard – Morgan Creek Productions were not happy. As any film enthusiast would expect (though obviously not a studio head), Schrader’s film was heavy, dark and serious, dealing with the very nature of evil and its influence on organised religion. “I was more attracted to The Exorcist’s mythos rather than wanting to duplicate its shocks,” Schrader has said. “My film is not done in the current, hyper-kinetic horror style.” In short, it was no popcorn horror flick. The studio shelved Schrader’s film, and then brought in Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2) to reshoot his own version. He kept some actors, and replaced others, and made a solid, thrilling horror film with lots of special effects. Harlin’s Exorcist: The Beginning did reasonable box office but drew poor reviews, and perhaps in response to this, Schrader had his own version of the film screened at The Brussels International Festival Of Fantasy Films. It then got a limited theatrical release under the title Dominion: Prequel To The Exorcist, and was released on DVD. This whole multi-million-dollar Exorcist prequel shambles is a rare example of a studio not just mangling a film, but actually killing it, and then resurrecting it.

TOUCH OF EVIL (1958)

By 1943, Orson Welles had made Citizen Kane and married Rita Hayworth, a particularly impressive dual achievement. Nevertheless, in the late fifties, Welles began work on Touch Of Evil, a script based on the Whit Masterson novel Badge Of Evil. The film was proper gritty noir – drugs, explosions, corrupt cops, Charlton Heston with a moustache…everything that an audience could possibly want. The edit that Welles submitted, however, was not everything that a studio could possibly want, and so a new, shorter edit was created. According to Welles, this edit was done behind his back. According to the studio, Welles ignored their requests to re-edit, and they brought in editor/director Harry Keller to reshoot material and re-cut the film. When Welles viewed the new version, he wrote a 58-page memo to Universal explaining how to make the film work. The suggestions were ignored, and Touch Of Evil was released with a running time of 93 minutes. In the seventies, Universal discovered that it had a longer cut of the film in its archives. At 108 minutes, this version was the one that had been edited after Welles had submitted his memo, but had clearly not been deemed worthy of release. Despite this, Universal released it to the public, wrongly calling it “complete, uncut and restored”. Thankfully, in 1998, legendary editor Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now) was tasked with reconstructing Touch Of Evil based on the Welles memo. A key change was the removal of the opening credits, which obscured the epic three-and-a-half minute opening shot, a subtle but powerful reminder of the visual storytelling abilities that the great man possessed. “[The studio executives] were deeply shocked – they felt insulted by the film in a funny way,” Welles explained. “They felt hurt and injured, as if I’d taken them for some kind of awful ride.”

THE INVASION (2007)

By the 2000s, Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers had already been filmed three times: as Invasion Of The Body Snatchers in 1956 and 1978, and as Body Snatchers in 1993. Fresh from the successes of Das Experiment and Downfall, German director Oliver Hirschbiegel was hired to helm the film, an inspired choice given the paranoid nature of the story. Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig were hired, and filming began in 2005. The shoot itself was a quick 45-day affair, due to Hirschbiegel minimising the special effects shots, and creating all necessary tension through his camerawork and editing. The finished film did not impress the studio, however, who brought in The Matrix wunderkinds The Wachowski Brothers to rewrite key action scenes. V For Vendetta director and Wachowski protege James McTeigue oversaw the reshoots, which took place thirteen months after principal photography had ended. If there was any bad blood following the 2007 reshoots, it was kept well hidden. Even Hirschbiegel seemed to be relatively enthusiastic when doing press for the film. Special features on the DVD don’t mention the reshoots, or the Wachowskis, or James McTeigue, in a conspiracy that seems like something out of, well, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. The chances of seeing Hirschbiegel’s original cut are now highly unlikely. “We needed to do reshoots, as is often the case, and Oliver wasn’t available, so we used someone else,” said Warner boss Alan Horn. Star Daniel Craig, however, seemed none too impressed about what had happened with the film. “I entered the movie, as Nicole did, with all good intentions,” he told FilmInk. “We’d set out to work with a director that we’re both fans of, but sadly it didn’t come off. You keep working though. I got over it.”

BRAZIL (1985)

It’s hard to think of studio interference without thinking of Terry Gilliam, and omitting Brazil from such a list would be a sin. Gilliam’s dystopian societal dissection (with its downer ending) was, naturally, something that the studio wanted to tinker with. By now, the director-studio battle is a story that you should be able to correctly guess at, but what’s extraordinary about Brazil is how Gilliam eventually got his way. The studio cut, retroactively dubbed “the Love Conquers All edit”, was long delayed in its release, so Gilliam set about doing all he could to force the studio’s hand. He took out a full-page ad in the trade paper Variety that read “Dear Sid Sheinberg, when are you going to release my film? Signed, Terry Gilliam”. During an interview on Good Morning America, Gilliam was asked if he was having trouble with the studio. He replied in the negative, and then said that he was actually having trouble with studio head Sid Sheinberg, and showed the nation a photograph of him, which infuriated Sheinberg. When preparing to give a lecture at a film school, Gilliam brought along his edit of Brazil as an “audio visual aid”, and showed the entire film. For two weeks. Word of the screenings got out, and critics started attending. The LA Film Critics voted Gilliam’s cut the Best Picture Of The Year, and began debating whether an unreleased film could be eligible for an Oscar. At this stage, the embarrassment was too great, and the studio eventually released Gilliam’s original version. Love conquered all, but not in the way that the studio had hoped. “[Fellow Monty Python member] Terry Jones thinks that I’m belligerent and egotistical, and that I’ve got to get into a fight to keep me going,’ Terry Gilliam once said. “But I limit it to the fights that are worth it nowadays.”

If you liked this story, check out our features about troubled movie sets, films altered in post, and great things that nearly happened in the world of movies.

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