Hang on… I don’t remember it happening like that!
I’ve been watching Paul Verhoeven’s ace sci-fi satire Robocop for the first time in yonks, as research for a piece on how the Robocop reboot could be resurrected in light of the announcement that Darren Aronofsky’s long-anticipated take has been cancelled.
But if you think my daft ideas about the franchise are wrong-headed, spare a thought for how I felt watching the original. Because that didn’t feel right either. Was it because I was watching it on a scratchy, ancient VHS copy? No, because Robocop‘s pulp friction suits the 80s ‘video nasty’ look. No, it was more to do with the fact that I’m still so used to seeing Robocop on telly back in the early 1990s that I had forgotten just how graphic and gratuitous the film’s hardcore violence is.
Victims aren’t just shot; they’re strafed to shreds by machine-gun fire. The hero’s hand gets blown off. Most memorably, a villain gets drenched in toxic waste and then – as he’s melting in agony – is decapitated by a passing car. D’oh. I don’t remember Robocop being that gory, because my memories of the film are inextricably tied to the sanitised cut ITV used to show, which was so extreme in its attempts at protecting us sensitive flowers that it was barely over an hour long. And, of course, it made fuck all sense: the violence is woven so tightly into the DNA of Verhoeven’s film that major narrative beats get lost once you chop out the “bad” bits.
I’m sure I’m not alone. A whole generation was raised thinking that Melon Farmers were a profession to be sneered at, or that John McClane’s immortal catchphrase was “yip-ee-kay-ay kemosabe.” One of the reasons I get such a kick out of Midnight Runis that its imaginative expletives were absent the first time I saw the film, so it still feels a wee bit naughty and transgressive to watch now.
But a swear-removal dub isn’t nearly as jarring as visual changes. When the rhythm and order of much-loved scenes alters, it feels like a violation. Especially if the editor uses a bludgeon instead of scissors. The BBC once went through a phase of banning the Nazis’ melting faces and Belloq exploding at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The cuts were so abrupt it felt as if we had temporarily shut our eyes (like Indy and Marion) and missed out on all the Biblical excitement.
Once you’ve viewed a film enough times, it’s impossible to remove the traces of what you expect to see. I’m sure there are people who still hum Henry Mancini’s jazzy music at the beginning of Touch of Evil, or mentally add those outtakes from The Shining onto the end of Blade Runner, despite the fact that the theatrical versions of those films never get shown on telly anymore.
Speaking of The Shining, I first saw Kubrick’s house-of-horrors masterpiece taped off a late night ITV screening, and that’s the version I knew and loved for over a decade. Imagine my surprise when I bought the DVD to find a much shorter film. It took me a lot of digging to work out that, yes, two versions of the film exist. The shorter, ‘wrong’ cut is Kubrick’s favoured version, rejigged for Europe after the lukewarm U.S. release. But somehow ITV had gotten hold of the original, longer U.S. cut, which includes more background on Danny’s clairvoyant powers and Jack’s drinking problems. Objective, the shorter film is leaner and subtler, but I still yearn for the longer take, whose slow-burn seems so much more anxious and creepier.
But the weirdest changes occur on planes, where there’s a blanket ban on showing anything that might upset passengers. Even if it happens to be one of the most famous and iconic sequences in movie history. A few years ago, I chose North By Northwest for my in-flight screening. Things were going swimmingly until the crop duster attack, when suddenly Cary Grant went from being in dire peril to – CUT! – escaping unharmed and unscatched, as if by magic. The censors had clipped the shot where the plane plunges into the ground and explodes…but they’d also removed any later shots of the burning wreckage. As a crowd gathers on the road, we never see what they’re looking at…and as Grant slips away unnoticed, it looks for all the world like he’s trying to get away from a gang of highway fetishists who have arrived to stare at an unseen stretch of tarmac.