There are some movies whose images and ideas are so indelible, it’s difficult to imagine a world without them. Yet films are by their nature delicate things; they’re the end-product of months or even years of craftsmanship, and whether they’re stored on celluloid or captured digitally, they’re as vulnerable to the ravages of time or acts of god as any other artform.
Cinema history is littered with stories of lost and damaged movies. Back in the 1920s, eminent director Erich von Stroheim made Greed, an expensive, nine-and-a-half hour epic that was repeatedly cut until only 140 minutes of its original footage remained. Legend has it that a janitor accidentally threw out the removed footage and, just like that, years of work were gone – seemingly forever.
This is but one example of an original cut being lost to history – there are countless other instances, from the turn of the early 20th century to the present, where individual scenes or even entire movies have been discarded or simply vanished into an archive somewhere. To narrow things down a bit, here’s a selection of familiar movies with scenes which, unless someone makes a surprise discover, are likely to be lost for good…
These days, Fritz Lang’s sci-fi epic is widely regarded as a landmark, particularly in its depictions of a future city – anticipating and perhaps influencing Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner – and the design of its extraordinary robot. Back when the movie was released, however, Metropolis was less treasured than it is today – after the movie’s premiere, its studio cut Metropolis down from around 153 minutes to 115 minutes. Other cuts were shorter still, amounting to little more than an hour and a half.
For decades, it was thought that much of that excised footage was lost forever, but the late 20th century saw Metropolis gradually restored to its former glory – after a fashion. A 1984 version of the silent-era classic was the longest version then available, but purists may have balked at the color tinting and Georgio Moroder’s up-tempo soundtrack.
The real breakthrough came in 2008, when it was announced that an almost complete version of Metropolis had been found in an Argentine archive. This, together with footage from other archived cuts of the film, was put together in a restored version released in 2010. Described as 99 percent complete, it’s the nearest we’ll get to seeing Metropolis as Lang intended. Two scenes are still missing – although present on the cut found in Argentina, they were damaged beyond repair.
King Kong (1933)
If you’re a fan of Peter Jackson, King Kong movies or genre cinema in general, you may be well aware that a fair amount of footage was trimmed from this adventure classic, both before its release and afterwards – largely at the behest of censors. While some of this has since been restored – assorted sequences of King Kong removing actress Fay Wray’s clothes or chomping members of the cast – others are still missing, and may never be found again.
The most famous of these is the much-discussed “spider pit sequence” in which a group of victims falls into a ravine where they’re menaced by colossal arachnids. This scene, along with around 25 minutes of footage, was chopped out of the movie by producer Merian C. Cooper, who apparently thought that the story needed to move at a faster pace.
Peter Jackson, ever the film geek, created his own version of the spider pit scene in his King Kong remake, and it’s one of the most nightmarish moments in the whole movie. He also created a stop-motion recreation of what animator Willis O’Brien’s original sequence might have looked like. Unless a shock discovery is made at some point, this – and a handful of still images like the one above – is the closest we’ll ever get to seeing this lost scene.
Things To Come (1936)
British sci-fi author HG Wells was an outspoken critic of Metropolis, and nearly a decade after its release, he wrote his own vision of the future. Directed by William Cameron Menzies, Things To Come is as ambitious as Metropolis, even if it isn’t quite as widely celebrated; beginning in 1940, it imagines how war and technological change will change British society over the course of a hundred years. Things To Come also shares another parallel with Metropolis besides its genre: a considerable amount of footage was cut out of it before release, and much of it appears to be gone for good.
Of the 130 minute rough cut, about 34 minutes was removed before release. According to the BBFC, a cut submitted to them back in the 30s ran to 117 minutes. By the time Things To Come was released, its duration had collapsed to 96 minutes. While some of the missing scenes were restored in later releases of the film, others – largely dialogue sequences – are still absent.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
A famously exacting filmmaker, Stanley Kubrick continuously honed and re-edited his sci-fi opus 2001: A Space Odyssey both before and after its 1968 premiere. One of the major changes was a 10-minute introduction in which scientists talked about their predictions about what life in space might be like, which was removed after Kubrick screened 2001 for executives at MGM.
Further cuts came after its first public screening, mostly from the film’s mid-section and the Discovery One’s fateful mission to Jupiter. These removed scenes were in Kubrick’s possession until shortly before his death in 1999, when the negatives were taken away and burned at the director’s behest. For years, it sounded like curtains for those missing scenes, until visual effects genius Douglas Trumbull revealed that 17 minutes of footage, preserved in a Kansas salt mine, had been uncovered by Warner Bros. To date, that footage – which is all the stuff Kubrick took out after its premiere – hasn’t been shown in public. Kubrick may not have wanted anyone to see those scenes, and we doubt anyone would condone a kind of cash-grabbing “2001: Extended Cut”, but film buffs and historians alike will surely hope they turn up as an extra on a future home release.
The Last House On The Left (1972)
Wes Craven’s first film as director is also one of his most infamous. A savage and graphic revenge story, The Last House On The Left was censored and even banned in some countries; it was refused a certificate by the BBFC in 1974, and an uncut version of Craven’s film wasn’t officially available in the UK until 2008. By this point, a similarly graphic remake was already in production.
Even today, the original Last House On The Left remains incomplete. This was due in large part to the way this low-budget, independent film was distributed; as Craven’s movie made its way around America, projectionists would occasionally trim out scenes that they either thought were too extreme or feared might contravene local laws. As Craven put it later in this interview, “We had lots of cases of projectionists and theatre managers editing the prints themselves with scissors. We would get the prints back in pieces in the cans. So we voluntarily took out several scenes, two of which I don’t really miss because they were so outrageously painful to watch, and one which I think really hurt the film.”
As a result, there are several different versions of the movie, some longer and more graphic than others, but none that is truly “definitive” with all of Craven’s scenes left intact. IMDb’s Alternate Versions page describes some of the sequences lost to history, and if you’ve heard anything about the movie at all, you’ll know it’s not for the faint of heart.
The Wicker Man (1973)
One of the greatest horror films ever to emerge from the British Isles, The Wicker Man had to endure a thoroughly shabby release before its eventual reappraisal as a classic. Hacked down from 99 minutes to 87 minutes by studio-types who clearly didn’t appreciate the film, The Wicker Man wound up as the second billing next to Nicolas Roeg’s more expensive chiller, Don’t Look Now.
Attempts to return The Wicker Man to its originally-intended cut have gone on for years, with the movie released, with versions weighing in around the 95-minute mark put out in various guises since 1979 – a 2013 Final Cut being the most recent. Filmmaker and Moviedrome presenter Alex Cox kick-started the now legendary claim that director Robin Hardy’s original cut had, along with many other cans of film from the defunct British Lion, been buried under the M3 motorway.
Whether there’s any truth to that delicious-sounding myth or not, the end result is the same: Robin Hardy, who sadly passed away in July this year, was happy with the Final Cut put out in 2013, and described it as the version closest to his original intentions. Nevertheless, several scenes are still missing, some of them set exploring Edward Woodward’s lead character Inspector Howie and making him more sympathetic and rounded than he is in other cuts of the film. A list of other scenes that were filmed but never used can be found here.
George A. Romero is best known for defining the zombie genre with his classics Night Of The Living Dead and Dawn Of The Dead, but in 1977, he made a very different kind of horror – the contemporary vampire film, Martin. Filmed on Romero’s usual low budget, Martin is a thoroughly unsettling story about a disturbed young man who incapacitates his victims and drains their blood with a razor blade. The typical trappings of the genre – capes, castles, and the like – are largely absent, and the resulting story feels surprisingly fresh even 39 years later.
In a director’s commentary, Romero claims that an original cut of the film, presented in monochrome, ran to a surprisingly expansive 165 minutes – considerably longer than the theatrical version’s 95 minutes. It’s alleged that this longer edit has disappeared, much to Romero’s disappointment. A novelization, co-written by Susanna Sparrow, contains several scenes that aren’t in the theatrical version, though even copies of this now out of print volume are becoming increasingly scarce.
My Best Friend’s Birthday (1987)
It’s a good job Quentin Tarantino’s persistent. While Reservoir Dogs was Tarantino’s first feature, he could have made his debut five years earlier with My Best Friend’s Birthday, a black-and-white comedy drama. Originally conceived as a short film, it was eventually bumped up to a 70-minute feature and shot on grainy, black and white 16mm stock.
A freak fire left half the film lost forever, and the film survives today as a 36-minute short. Although never officially released, you can see Tarantino’s early handiwork on YouTube. It’s worth watching to see the traces of Tarantino’s later movies in nascent form, including a brief mention of Reservoir Dogs‘ fictional radio station, K-Billy. Oh, and Tarantino sports an impressively voluminous Elvis hairdo.
Event Horizon (1997)
By now, you may be wondering why film companies keep cans of film in salt mines. The answer: the stable temperature, lack of moisture and natural light makes them ideal places to store stuff, especially something as delicate as old celluloid. As this article on Neatorama explains, The Hutchingson Salt Mine in Kansas is one of the largest underground storage vaults in the world, with around 50 acres of its subterranean space devoted to housing everything from old documents to film footage and props.
One of the stories surrounding Paul WS Anderson’s cult space horror Event Horizon is that, when it was cut down from a 130-minute rough edit to a lean 95 minutes, the removed footage was thrown out by a studio that thoroughly disliked the film. A story later went around the internet that the footage had been poorly stored in a salt mine in Transylvania, and that it was degraded beyond rescue. Whether this fittingly gothic end for Event Horizon‘s deleted scenes is true or not, it still means we’ll likely never see the film restored to its former glory; Anderson has said in later interviews that Event Horizon would benefit from having about 10 minutes of gore and backstory put back in, but unless the original footage resurfaces, that’ll never happen.
A VHS tape of the original rough cut was found in 2012, but its inferior quality means it can’t be used as the basis for a new release. Like so many other films on this list, Event Horizon seems fated to remain trapped in its incomplete state – but as is so often the case with cult films, that just adds to its niche appeal.
This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.