Hollywood Redux

Hasn't Steven Spielberg got better things to do than sanitising ET?

Sandy Starr

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In March 2002, Steven Spielberg releases a revised version of his classic film ET: The Extraterrestrial – with some bizarre amendments and omissions (1).

He has spent $10,000 digitally replacing the guns carried by the FBI agents in the film with walkie-talkies – allegedly to placate Drew Barrymore, who starred in the film as a child and now objects to guns (2). US magazine Entertainment Weekly joked, ‘Forget phoning home: ET better call the National Rifle Association’ (3). ‘We’re not worried’, said the magazine, ‘as long as Spielberg doesn’t extend his no-gun policy to Saving Private Ryan’ (4).

The Decatur Daily was less amused, claiming that the amendments are ‘reminiscent of how Stalin went through the Communist Party’s archives and inserted himself into all of the group photos’ (5).

Spielberg has erased more than just guns. A throwaway reference to a ‘terrorist’ in ET has been overdubbed with the word ‘hippie’. This change was originally made a few years ago for a TV broadcast, but in our post-11 September world Spielberg has decided to retain it. ‘At this time, it would really be interpreted the wrong way’ said a Spielberg spokesman of the original ‘terrorist’ line (6).

Another proposed amendment was to cut the insult ‘penis breath’ from the film – but apparently Spielberg relented, and the line remains (7). One wag helpfully suggested that if Spielberg was so concerned about the expression, he should change it to ‘jism chin’ (8).

It is not only Spielberg who is reworking and amending his old films. A number of directors who rose to fame in the 1970s are going back to revise their most acclaimed work. There’s George Lucas with his ‘special editions’ of the original Star Wars trilogy (9), Francis Ford Coppola with Apocalypse Now Redux (10), and William Friedkin, who redid his classic The Exorcist as The Exorcist: The Version You’ve Never Seen (11).

These directors see nothing wrong with returning to classic films to polish them off. Indeed, Lucas claims that ‘a film is always an unfinished project…there’s always something you can do to make it look better’ (12). Friedkin says, ‘I would redo all of my films if I had the chance’ (13).

This is all very well – but the sad truth is that you have to go back a decade or more to find the last film from Lucas, Friedkin or Coppola that won critical acclaim. It seems that their urge to revisit their most acclaimed work is an excuse for living off former glories and not making good new films.

To be fair, tweaking movies for re-release is not entirely new. In the 1950s and 60s, raunchy scenes were sometimes inserted into previously released films in the hope of attracting a new audience (14). Such shameless money-grubbing later became more artistically acceptable, thanks in no small part to Spielberg, who in 1980 released a ‘special edition’ of his 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind with added footage. At the last count, Spielberg had released five different versions of Close Encounters (15).

Since Spielberg started tweaking Close Encounters, directors have often made deals to follow up the initial release of a film with an augmented version truer to their original vision. The studios tolerate this because they get additional revenue from film fans who insist on seeing the ‘director’s cut’. Titanic director James Cameron has done this with three of his films (16).

There are always complaints when a popular film is significantly revised, but it often just sounds like exaggerated whinging. One ET fan responded to the news of Spielberg’s latest amendments by saying: ‘Go ahead, rape my memories, pillage my childhood, burn down the beautiful, magical film you created Steven.’ (17) ‘George Lucas raped my childhood’ is now a common fanboy expression on internet message boards (18). These people should get out more.

There is nothing inherently wrong with directors revising their own films. But it is a bit sad when reworking old films becomes a distraction from making new ones – when a director puts his energy and creativity into touching up former classics instead of trying his hand at a modern classic.

It is even sadder when reworking films takes the form of self-censorship. At least the recent revised versions of The Exorcist and the Star Wars trilogy did little more than spice up the special effects and extend the story. What Spielberg is doing with ET is far more worrying. Revising a film to bring it in line with present political sensitivities is self-censorship of the most insidious kind, suppressing one’s own material for fear of offending people.

ET was a success on its original release not because people approved or disapproved of minor details such as guns, terrorists or ‘penis breath’, but because they enjoyed the story. If a ‘bad’ character in the film no longer carries a firearm then his role is diminished and the film is infantilised. The gripping drama of ET’s climactic escape depends on the audience believing that the authorities chasing him mean business – otherwise, the film is little more than the spacehopping adventures of that weird alien from the British Telecom ads.

Francis Ford Coppola has gone almost as far as Spielberg. When he overhauled his war film Apocalypse Now and renamed it Apocalypse Now Redux, he said: ‘this time…we were able to think more about what the themes were, especially about issues related to morality in war’ (19). But the power of the original Apocalypse Now came from the way it captured the horrors of war. Grafting a moral twist on to films to fit in with present-day political sensibilities can only make for bland movies that bend over backwards not to offend anyone.

There is one contemporary of Spielberg, Coppola, Lucas and Friedkin who has resisted the revisionist bandwagon. The consistently innovative Martin Scorsese was recently asked whether he wanted to go back and restore a scene in Taxi Driver that had been altered for the censors prior to the film’s original release. He replied that he had no interest in endlessly tinkering with old films (20).

His peers might learn something from this attitude.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Film

(1) See the official ET: The Extraterrestrial – the twentieth anniversary website

(2) See Movie ET to be tampered with, The Black Vault, 9 January 2002

(3) ’Extra’ special (Part 1), Brian Hiatt, Entertainment Weekly, 19 March 2002

(4) ’Extra’ special (Part 2), Brian Hiatt, Entertainment Weekly, 19 March 2002

(5) It’s a PC world so new ET gets revised, Franklin Harris, Decatur Daily, 1 November 2001

(6) ET release will add a little, take away a little, Andy Seiler, USA Today, 30 October 2001

(7) ET still has penis breath, Joe Crow, Revolution Science Fiction, 22 January 2002

(8) 2002 movie preview, Brian Dermody, Modern Humorist, 20 February 2002

(9) See this guide to the changes that George Lucas made in the ‘special editions’ of his original Star Wars trilogy, at TheForce.net

(10) See the official Apocalypse Now Redux website

(11) See the official The Exorcist: The Version You’ve Never Seen website

(12) Interview with George Lucas, The Realm of the Dark Lords

(13) William Friedkin: exorcising cinematic demons with The Version You’ve Never Seen, Barnes & Noble.com, 14 December 2000

(14) For example, after Martin Scorsese’s first feature film Who’s That Knocking At My Door? (1968) had premiered, Scorsese shot a nude scene and inserted it into the film to help ensure distribution.

(15) See Flying in the face of history, David Dale, Sydney Morning Herald, 24 November 2001

(16) With Aliens (1986), The Abyss (1989) and Terminator II: Judgement Day (1991)

(17) Stop screwing with my childhood!, The Film Hobbit

(18) The widely-circulated Peter Jackson to write and direct Star Wars Episode III petition opens: ‘We hereby, the undersigned, in spirit of our raped childhoods…’. Also see Drudge Hollywood: some Star Wars fans rebelling, Matt Drudge, Wired News, 27 December 1996

(19) Director’s statement, Francis Ford Coppola, on the official Apocalypse Now Redux website, May 2001

(20) A look at the evening with Martin Scorsese in New York, Ain’t It Cool News, 16 January 2002

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