Sunday, 26 September 2010

Missing parts

In my on-going Raoul Walsh-retrospective I yesterday saw The Big Trail, his epic western from 1930. But what exactly did I see? Well, certainly not all of it. The version I saw was a measly 105 minutes, whereas the 70mm version that was released in 1930 was at least 150 minute long. Why was the version I saw just a condensed version? And is it really accurate to say that "I've seen The Big Trail"? No. The best I can say is that "I've seen part of The Big Trail."

During the summer I once again saw Ingeborg Holm (1913), and after I learned that it, too, was shorter than it should be, with some scenes missing. So all these years I've been under the impression that I've seen the whole of it, when in fact I have seen only part of it, albeit most parts.

This might seem like a semantic discussion, but it is important, or at least should be, for film historians. New films, we might generally assume at least, are shown in their original length, if by "original" we mean the length the makers of it intended for it to have. But old films, perhaps especially "silent" films, might just as well be shorter than they once were, due to wear and tear, or the scissors of censors, or other things that have interfered with the print. And this is of course relevant because the impact that a given film has on the viewer, the interpretations that are done, the emotional response the film arouse, might be very much different were those missing scenes there. The viewer might get a completely false impression of the film. This is perhaps not the case with Ingeborg Holm, but it most certainly is the case with The Big Trail. The restored version, in its widescreen glory (or Fox Grandeur as it was called), which was released on DVD in the US two years ago, is still only 122 min. When and where will I be able to see the real thing?

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When talking about new films, I'm not forgetting the common occurrence of films to appear, soon after their cinema release, on DVD in "the director's version" or something like that. But that's another story.

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