Lost Masterpieces: Westerns That Never Were
In 1964 young director Sam Peckinpah was beginning to make a splash in Hollywood after the release of his modestly-budgeted second western, Ride the High Country. He was given a larger budget and an A-list cast for his third western, Major Dundee, to be filmed on location in Mexico. However, Peckinpah always had issues with authority and impatience with restraints of any kind on his creativity. When Peckinpah gave in to his self-destructive impulses in Mexico (booze, drugs, wild women) during the filming of Major Dundee, the studio (in the person of producer Jerry Bresler) was understandably alarmed at the wild budget overruns.
The out-of-control production was on the verge of being shut down until it was saved by star Charlton Heston, who rashly offered to contribute his own salary if the production were allowed to continue. The studio quickly took him up on it, and, according to Heston’s memoirs, he even did some directing while Peckinpah was incapacitated by various forms of debauchery. But the studio did keep a close eye on the film after that, and a tight rein on its anti-authoritarian director. It took the final cut of the film away from him, and the theatrical release was 123 minutes long, just over two hours. In 2005, a 136-minute version was released on DVD twenty years after Peckinpah’s death, so we could see at least a part of what we’d been missing. Supposedly Peckinpah’s own unreleased cut was 152 minutes long. The episode all but destroyed Peckinpah’s career as a Hollywood director for a time, although some of his best work (The Wild Bunch) was yet to come. Major Dundee thus became the textbook case study of how a supposed masterpiece came to be ruined by the petty financial concerns of bureaucratic accountants at the studio.
Ruthless studio cutting invariably gives rise to such rumors that the uncut director’s version was a masterpiece, fueled in part by the director’s unhappiness with the studio’s businesslike approach to his work. Such tensions between the creative impulses of directors and the business instincts of their studios have existed almost as long as movies have been made. During the silent era, for example, even such legendary directors as D.W. Griffith (Intolerance) and Eric von Stroheim (Greed) had grandly-conceived multi-hour epics curtailed for release in theaters, and almost nobody has seen them as the director originally intended even when it has been possible to restore them to that vision. In 1954, Judy Garland’s version of A Star is Born was intended by director George Cukor for a three-hour running time. But the outcry of exhibitors, claiming that they’d lose money because they couldn’t fit as many showings in a day, led to the studio insisting on a cut closer to two hours. The shorter film reportedly did not give full rein to Garland’s dazzling comeback performance, cheating her out of a chance for an Oscar as Best Actress and virtually ending her career as a major movie star.
D.W. Griffith at work directing Intolerance.
As Major Dundee illustrates, this studio ruthlessness has also applied to westerns. Major Dundee joins a list of several other good westerns which supposedly existed in longer, better versions before studios either insisted on cuts or made the cuts without the director’s participation. In legend, the uncut versions were always supposedly masterpieces, and it would be good to see the longer versions to make up our own minds. But in most cases at least some of the extended footage appears to be lost, so that it would be very difficult, if not impossible to restore the film to what the director originally intended.
One thing that made Dances With Wolves (1990) so remarkable at the time of its release was that, even with westerns out of fashion for almost two decades, it was released to theaters in a highly unusual 181-minute cut—a three-hour running time. Even that wasn’t enough for some: in the DVD age it has shown up in an extended cut (224 minutes), a director’s cut (236 minutes) and a special edition (also 236 minutes). The longer versions are not discernibly better films than the original theatrical release, although it can be interesting to watch the director’s creative processes by comparing versions. Longer is not always better.
Silent Movies. Most of the movies made during the silent era (before 1929) have been lost, simply because they were shot and distributed on volatile film stock and not stored well because the studios who owned them did not value them after their initial runs in theaters. John Ford started as a director in 1917, but 60 of his 70 silent films have been lost. Luckily such Ford silent masterpieces as The Iron Horse (1924) and Three Bad Men (1929) have survived, but without being able to see the rest of his work, we don’t know what else may have been of similar quality. Ford was not alone; much of the work of such silent western stars as William S. Hart, Harry Carey and Tom Mix has disappeared as well. Occasionally even now, decades later, a movie thought to be lost is re-discovered in some distant location, like Argentina, New Zealand or Russia, so we can still hope for similar future finds.
The Big Trail (1930). This is one masterpiece that is no longer so completely lost as it once was. Director Raoul Walsh’s early experiment in 70 mm. moviemaking didn’t make much money on its initial release, because theaters didn’t have the equipment to show it that way. But we can see from a 122-minute restored DVD that it was visually splendid for its time, and it introduced a young John Wayne in his first role as a leading man. Some say that the original cut was 156 minutes long, and many would like to see that version with the additional half-hour. It was originally thought to be a flop, but has been reassessed in the last 25 years with the ready availability of the restored 122-minute version. In retrospect, it’s a significant achievement and a milestone in the history of movies, particularly in the history of westerns. And maybe it would be even more monumental in the lost 156-minute version.
Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp in an iconic image from My Darling Clementine; and director John Ford at John Ford Point in Monument Valley.
My Darling Clementine (1946). Yes, it’s a masterpiece as it exists, one of the 55 Great Westerns, with one of Henry Fonda’s very greatest performances as Wyatt Earp. Director John Ford always claimed that he “cut in the camera,” shooting only the footage he wanted to use in the film, reducing the chances for anybody at the studio to tinker with his work. But in this instance, Twentieth Century-Fox studio head Darryl Zanuck thought Ford’s movie was too long as he submitted it to the studio. He infamously ordered director Lloyd Bacon (known more for musicals than for westerns) to shoot additional footage, and then Zanuck re-edited the film himself. Some of Ford’s cut footage has been found, but we don’t have Ford’s complete version as he submitted it to Zanuck. It goes to show that (a) Ford was right in his paranoia about what studio people might do to his work if given the chance, and (b) even the very greatest director of westerns was not immune to studio interference with his work. Was this masterpiece even greater in Ford’s original and longer cut? As of Oct. 2014, there is a Criterion Collection DVD of this available. In addition to a fully-restored version of the 97-minute theatrical release, it also contains a 103-minute pre-release version, which is not the full John Ford original cut.
Across the Wide Missouri (1951). Clark Gable didn’t make a lot of westerns, but he wasn’t bad in them (see The Tall Men, for example). He reportedly insisted on William Wellman as the director of this mountain man story. For whatever reason, MGM executives didn’t like the version submitted to them, subjecting it to drastic cutting and adding voice-over narration by Howard Keel. The shortened result (78 minutes) seems to be not terribly coherent and was disowned by Wellman, who washed his hands of the whole project and went off to film Westward the Women. Asked about it in an interview, Wellman responded, “I’ve not seen it, and I never will.” The extended cut may not have been a masterpiece, but most viewers agree with Wellman that the theatrical release certainly isn’t.
Howard Hawks blocks out a fight scene with Kirk Douglas for The Big Sky.
The Big Sky (1952). This was another mountain man epic, made by Howard Hawks, who had an excellent track record as a director going back twenty years, including the cattle drive classic Red River. Filmed on location in Jackson Hole, this black-and-white theatrical release was 122 minutes long; Hawks had intended it to be a cut of 140 minutes. The cable movie channel TCM has shown an extended cut, but the re-inserted footage is clearly inferior in visual quality to the rest of the movie. This is the second best mountain man movie ever made (after Jeremiah Johnson), and one of Hawks’ three best westerns, and it would seem to be a prime candidate for a full restoration.
Director Robert Rossen with Rita Hayworth on the set of They Came to Cordura.
They Came to Cordura (1959). This late film for Gary Cooper and Rita Hayworth was based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Glendon Swarthout (author of The Shootist and The Homesman). Set during the Mexican revolutions of the early 20th century and the U.S. army’s fruitless pursuit of Pancho Villa, director Robert Rossen’s original cut was about two and a half hours long; the theatrical release was only 123 minutes long. The studio also insisted that Gary Cooper’s character couldn’t die at the end. At the time of his own death in 1966, Rossen was in the process of buying back the film from the studio so he could restore it to its intended length, but so far that restoration hasn’t happened in the fifty years since. As it exists, the film is watchable but dour and cynical; one hopes it would be better in an extended cut as the director intended.
Major Dundee (1965). The course of Major Dundee and its reputed mutilation is described above and in its own post. Although we have not yet seen, and may never see, Peckinpah’s own unreleased 152-minute cut, the preliminary verdict is that this is watchable but not a masterpiece. The studio may have been right about Peckinpah’s self-indulgence.
Presidential candidate Robert Kennedy visits the set of McKenna’s Gold, chatting with the politically-sympathetic star Gregory Peck. And Peck talks with writer-producer Carl Foreman during filming.
Mackenna’s Gold (1969). It would be quite a stretch to call this potboiler a masterpiece in its current form, unless perhaps you’re in India, where it was unusually and unaccountably popular for years after it failed at U.S. box offices. (In the U.S. it returned only $3 million on its then-substantial production costs of $14 million.) [http://indianquarterly.com/old-is-not-just-gold-its-mackennas-gold/] It included a huge cast and multiple subplots. Conceived as a sprawling epic and submitted to the studio in a three-hour cut, the studio nevertheless insisted on cutting it down to a two-hour running length for theatrical release. Director J. Lee Thompson and writer-producer Carl Foreman would no doubt say the ruthless cutting is what prevented it from being a masterpiece; others would point to such missteps as casting Omar Sharif as a Mexican bandit chieftain and principal villain, or the cheesy (even for 1969) special effects at the end involving earthquakes and landslides while the heroes barely and unconvincingly escape. Western author and movie aficionado Brian Garfield referred to it as “the most expensive star-studded two-hour B movie ever made, a gargantuan dud of absolutely stunning dreadfulness.” Even star Gregory Peck said “Mackenna’s Gold was a terrible western. Just wretched.” There is a strong likelihood that the longer cut would simply provide more wretchedness.
Tom Horn (1980). The 50-year-old Steve McQueen was already dying of cancer in 1979 during the filming of this, his next-to-last film. It was a troubled production with multiple (at least five) directors; McQueen himself, as the executive producer, seems to have been its guiding intelligence. Originally intended as a three-hour epic, it was released at only 98 minutes. From the evidence we have so far, it is more “troubled” than masterpiece.
Heaven’s Gate (1980). Young writer-director Michael Cimino hit the peak of his profession with a Best Picture Oscar for 1978’s The Deer Hunter, only his second movie. And his career crashed with his next film: Heaven’s Gate, based on Wyoming’s Johnson County war. Characterized by some as “a bleak anti-western,” it polarizes viewers, but most agree that the 149-minute theatrical cut is not very good. Audiences stayed away in droves. Some claim the 216-minute director’s cut is a masterpiece, but to others it still seems like bloated evidence of self-indulgence. If you’re going to watch it, the extended cut is the one to see. Cimino himself said of the film, “It took me a long time before I was able to say, ‘I’m proud of that movie.’ And I am proud of it. I could not have made it any better than I made it. No excuses, and no regrets.” But the movie is not universally held in high regard, and Cimino hasn’t worked much since. Alone among the movies on this list, Heaven’s Gate exists and is available in its fullest version; the question is whether it merits the description of “masterpiece.”
The Last of the Mohicans (1992). Although this traditional tale from the French and Indian War did well at the box office, the second half seemed too short. Director Michael Mann had originally submitted to the studio a cut about three hours in length. The studio insisted on a shorter version, releasing it at 112 minutes. When he got another shot at it, however, the Mann director’s cut was released on DVD in 2001, but it was not the full three-hour version. Some things had been changed but not much was added. There have now been three versions with three different running times: the original 1992 theatrical release at 112 minutes (used for the VHS release); the 2001 117-minute director’s expanded version; and a 2010 director’s definitive cut at only 114 minutes. The director’s cuts are all that are available on DVD now, although many prefer the original theatrical release. This may be a rare instance of the director’s cut being worse than the original (perhaps like the results of George Lucas’ constant fiddling with his original Star Wars movies); it’s not even much longer than the original. This film is recent enough that one can perhaps still hope for a more extended and better-balanced director’s cut, although longer is not always better. Or maybe just the original three-hour version Mann submitted to the studio. Or maybe a better extended cut by somebody who’s not the director. Even with the original theatrical cut, this is one of the great westerns.
All the Pretty Little Horses (2000). Directed by actor Billy Bob Thornton, this is the conversion to film of Cormac McCarthy’s poetic novel that captures “the adventure of being young, lost, in love, and on horseback at the moment 20th-century modernity crushed the cowboy.” (Entertainment Weekly) Miramax reportedly butchered Thornton’s director’s cut and mismarketed the film as a forbidden border romance between Matt Damon and Penelope Cruz, but Thornton is said to still have his original cut. It would be interesting to compare it with the theatrical release.