“I should never have done that to ET.” Steven Spielberg, the Oscar-winning director of The Extraterrestrial told Time 100’s Summit this week. He was referring to the politically correct digital editing he did for the 20th anniversary of the re-release.
The original edit has a chilling scene where kids escape from E.T. On bicycles, armed federal agents are interested in the aliens pursuing them. In 2002, Spielberg used digital effects to replace agents’ pistols and rifles with harmless — but silly-looking — walkie-talkies.
Spielberg said that “no film should be revised because of the lenses through which we are forced or voluntarily looking at it.”
“It is scary to me.” It’s part of our culture, our history. According to a Daily Mail report on the conference, he stated that he did not believe in such censorship.
But here’s where I’m going to take a small issue with one of my favorite directors (West Side Story and Ready Player One excepted, of course):
I shouldn’t have messed around with my own archives, and I wouldn’t advise anyone to do it. All of our films are a sort of signpost for where we were at the time we made them. They also show what was happening in the world and how the public reacted to the stories when they were released. So I regret that it was out there.
A director may feel that he did not get the edit right in the first pass. Apocalypse Now, one of my favorite movies by Francis Ford Coppola, is a perfect example. It’s worth watching the troubled production process of Apocalypse Now. Coppola had to cut a lot of footage.
Coppola attempted to correct this with his 2001 re-edit, Apocalypse Now Redux. It was too long with a three-hour and-16-minute runtime, 44 minutes more than the original. Redux was a disappointment for me. The lengthened and added scenes were a great addition to the movie, but it was too long.
But the third time is always the charm. Coppola’s 2019 Apocalypse Now Final Cut was a second attempt. At a relatively shorter three hours, Coppola found the perfect balance between restored footage. Apocalypse Now: Final Cut is the film that audiences in 1979 should have seen.
There was no memory-holing. If you prefer the original edit, the Final Cut, or Redux, then you can still view them. Coppola personally supervised the 4K remastering for all three films to be released in 2019 as a single release. Fans who are interested in the evolution and progression of the director’s original vision will find this a real treat.
This is not like some of the other directors that I could name [cough George Lucas, cough].
The classic Star Wars trilogy will never be seen again. Lucas destroyed the original cuts during the production of “Greedo Shoots First”, the so-called Special Editions. Lucas was not a good editor as his 1997 reworks prove. Marcia Lucas, his first wife saved 1977’s Star Wars with a fast-paced edit that established Han Solo as a perfect rogue. You can only watch the original if you have a VHS tape in your basement.
George shouldn’t have been allowed to mutilate and re-edit the originals. They were still “his” movies, even though the final product was in many ways the work done by others, like Marcia.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind, his 1977 classic film, was edited twice by Spielberg. In reality, the 1979 Special Edition was not all that special. The end scene, where Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss playing one of his most challenging and best roles) is shown wandering the interior of an alien spacecraft, ruined the magic and mystery of Spielberg’s original edit. Spielberg, like Coppola nailed the final version with the Director’s Cut in 1998.
All three Spielberg cuts, in contrast to what Lucas did with Star Wars, are available as a Blu-ray release. History has not been erased.
There’s one important distinction that I haven’t made yet.
When a director revisits and recuts a film, they may be doing so to fix defects that have been bothering them for many years. It’s a good thing, and as a moviegoer, you can learn if you compare the original with something that is closer to the director’s vision.
It’s digital vandalism to change a film’s meaning in order to appeal to modern sensibilities. That’s what Spielberg did when he changed the meaning of E.T.’s 2002 release, with federal agents.
I find it heartwarming to learn that Spielberg is a strong advocate of freedom of expression. Perhaps, with someone of Spielberg’s stature taking a stand, other writers and directors may follow.