1974: Francis Ford Coppola sitting in a canvas director's chair outdoors beside his wife, Eleanor, on the set of his film, 'The Godfather: Part II,' New York City. (Photo by Gerald Israel/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The unkindest cut

Why can’t film directors let their work go?

Artillery Row

There is a long and ignoble tradition of third films in a series ruining the excellence of the first two. These include David Fincher’s flawed but at least uncompromising Alien 3, the flawed and highly compromised Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Superman 3 and many more. But this tradition is not confined to the popular blockbuster end of the market, either.

Francis Ford Coppola made two of the greatest gangster films of all time in The Godfather and its sequel, The Godfather Part II. Films are often routinely misdescribed as “Shakespearean”, but the travails of Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone and his increasingly cursed family make for the most powerful and compelling of cinema. So, of course, there was pressure on Coppola to make a third one. A shame it wasn’t much good.

Watched today, away from the crushing disappointment that accompanied its release in 1990, The Godfather Part III is less a bad film and more an entirely redundant one. It follows the spiritual death of Michael Corleone, haunted by guilt after ordering the murder of his brother Fredo, but complicates its narrative with an array of sub-plots that include two fictionalised accounts of real-life events, namely the death of Pope John Paul I and the Vatican’s financial shenanigans in the early Eighties. And there are a host of new characters, ranging from the welcome (Andy Garcia’s charismatic Vincent Corleone, the illegitimate son of Michael’s brother Sonny) to the irritating, most notably Michael’s daughter Mary.

Coppola ignored any kind of sensible edicts about nepotism and cast his own daughter Sofia in the pivotal role, replacing Winona Ryder at the last minute. Unfortunately, Sofia Coppola could not act, which meant that she was torn apart by critics; Gene Siskel wrote of her that “She’s supposed to be Andy Garcia’s love interest but no sparks fly. He’s more like her babysitter”. This miscasting, coupled with a confused narrative and a general sense that, in the wake of Martin Scorsese’s brilliant Goodfellas, gangster cinema had evolved in a different direction to Coppola’s statelier, more operatic vision, meant that although the film was a commercial success, it had few of the iconic qualities of the earlier films. It was nominated for seven Oscars, won none of them, but had the dubious distinction of being awarded two Golden Raspberries, both for Sofia Coppola: Worst Supporting Actress and Worst New Star.

There the matter would have rested in normal circumstances, but as Coppola has apparently retired from mainstream filmmaking, he has instead amused himself with returning to his old films and re-editing them. His 1979 Vietnam film Apocalypse Now now has two other versions in existence, Apocalypse Now Redux and Apocalypse Now Final Cut, and his 1984 flop The Cotton Club was re-released in 2017 in a longer version, entitled The Cotton Club: Encore, which was well received by critics. Vanity Fair described it as “a nobler, fuller, and of course more righteous film than its marred predecessor”.

All the expensive fiddling in the world will do little to make the most bad films noticeably better

It was therefore inevitable that Coppola would eventually turn his attention to his much-maligned conclusion to the Michael Corleone saga, and this month, a re-edited version of the film was released, snappily entitled Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone. While initial response to the new cut was warm, there was a feeling amongst some critics and commentators that Coppola’s reissue was more a case of the Emperor’s new clothes than a true reimagining of the film. An expository scene from halfway through the film, explaining Michael Corleone’s financial dealings with the Vatican, now became a prologue, and Coppola changed the ending slightly, to emphasise its tragic dimensions. But unlike Apocalypse Now and The Cotton Club, there were no great discoveries of lost footage that fundamentally changed the film, and Sofia Coppola’s performance remains as inadequate and underpowered as ever. It was just as well that she followed her father’s footsteps into writing and direction, winning an Oscar for her screenplay for Lost in Translation; she was wise enough to realise that one poor performance in a flawed film was quite enough humiliation for one career.

Coppola’s desire to return to his past films and tinker with them is far from rare. The phenomenon of the so-called “director’s cut”, when a director is given the time and resources that he or she needs to return to a flawed but interesting work and present it the way that they initially intended it first came into public consciousness in 1992, when Ridley Scott revisited his sci-fi masterpiece Blade Runner and deleted the tacked-on happy ending and out-of-place voiceover.

The resulting film, Blade Runner: Director’s Cut was acclaimed as a masterpiece, but Scott was still not fully satisfied, as he believed that there was more that could be done. The result was that in 2007, he returned to the film and made a few relatively minor edits that would only be appreciated by true aficionados (or obsessives, if we’re being honest) before releasing it as Blade Runner: The Final Cut. As with the 1992 version, it was achieved with enormous acclaim, and the film’s status as a contemporary classic was enhanced, but there was also the whiff of self-indulgence to Scott’s actions.

Nobody, save masochists, needs to see a director’s cut of Tom Hooper’s notorious flop Cats

Like Coppola, he has released several of his films on DVD and cinematically as either director’s cuts or extended versions. In some cases, such as his flawed but noble Crusades film Kingdom of Heaven, the extra footage is extremely welcome and transforms an interesting failure into a successful epic drama. But in many other instances, as in his lengthier cut of the Russell Crowe-starring Robin Hood and the “extended version” of the near-incomprehensible Cormac McCarthy-scripted The Counselor, the longer versions of the film are simply exhausting additions to pictures that were never particularly good in the first place. Scott, unlike Coppola, remains an A-list director at the age of 83, still making films with the energy of a man half his age, often with great commercial success for the studios.

Therefore, he has earned the right to a certain degree of self-indulgence, but – given the decline of the DVD format – the chances of most other directors being given the opportunity to revisit their past work seems to be shrinking by the year. In some cases, this would be a tragedy. Films as disparate as The Abyss, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and The Wild Bunch all benefited from either their directors or studios revisiting the originals years later and successfully addressing some of the initial criticisms.

Yet there are other cases where the term “director’s cut” is used as little more than a marketing gimmick to persuade fans of a film to part with their money again, sometimes with no involvement from the original filmmakers. The director Peter Bogdanovich, who has re-edited several of his own films, has said:

MGM have a version of Howard Hawks’s Red River that they’re calling the Director’s Cut and it is absolutely not the director’s cut. It’s a cut the director didn’t want, an earlier cut that was junked. They assume because it was longer that it’s a director’s cut. Capra cut two reels off Lost Horizon because it didn’t work and then someone tried to put it back.

He concluded, “There are certainly mistakes and stupidities in reconstructing pictures”.

It is tempting, even romantic, to believe that in the case of many films, there is a brilliant original cut that has been butchered by uncomprehending studio executives, and that all it needs to see the light of day is a popular campaign by admirers. This is the logic that lies behind the release of the so-called “Snyder Cut” of Justice League next year and we shall see whether that film’s tireless supporters are vindicated or embarrassed. But it is more likely, alas, that many bad films were hobbled from before they ever started shooting by poor scripts, miscast actors, inexperienced directors and rushed production schedules. All the expensive fiddling in the world will do little to make the vast majority of bad films noticeably better and, in many cases, they are best left well alone. Nobody, save masochists, needs to see the so-called “Butthole version” of Tom Hooper’s notorious flop Cats.

Coppola is clearly a man who loves and reveres cinema – as his five Oscar wins should prove – and it is to his credit that he has spent his own money on revisiting The Godfather Part III, just as he did for Apocalypse Now and The Cotton Club. But as an admirer of the director who still holds out some hope that he will return to mainstream cinema for one last vision, perhaps his long-in-development epic Megalopolis, I can only hope that someone, somewhere makes this great filmmaker an offer that he cannot refuse. Otherwise, I fear, before too long we will be discussing Jack: The Extended Version, and that should not be allowed to happen, for all our sakes.

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