Sergio Leone’s masterpiece Once Upon A Time In America is one of my very favourite films, easily in my top three all-time. I think its a genuine cinema classic, a term widely over-used in this era of hyperbole but truly deserved in the case of this beautiful epic. Its not a film easy to watch, I’ll admit, being dark, violent, poetic, and yes, very long. An amazingly complex film, it was brutalised, frankly, by its American distributor who released it in a chronological 139-min version (of which critic Pauline Kael commented ” I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a worse case of mutilation”) which at least partly contributed to Leone’s death. Here in Europe we had a 229-min version that saved Leone’s complex structure of flashbacks and remains a truly great film, but rumours of an even-longer cut have persisted for decades.
Last year, completely out of the blue, it seemed, it was announced that the Leone estate, with Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation, had begun work on restoring the film to its proper and complete form with some forty minutes of additional footage. In importance, this is somewhat akin to the recent restoration of Lang’s Metropolis when long-lost footage had been found in Argentina. This newly restored version was premiered at Cannes in May this year; confusingly most reports cited the added footage at being somewhat under the trumpeted forty minutes, actually something in the region of 25 minutes, but nonetheless most reviewers described much of this footage as very important.
Scheduled to be next shown in Australia at a film festival in Melbourne, The Guardian reported last week that this newly restored and further-extended cut of Sergio Leone’s film had now been pulled from circulation for more restoration work. In some ways this is not too much of a surprise, as some people who were fortunate enough to see this version had reported that the additional footage looked to be of workprint quality, generally inferior to the rest of the film.
While any delay of finally seeing the film is unfortunate, I think its a postive step that further restoration work is being done. A recent Q/A session with Warner Bros revealed that Warner do indeed have the rights to the extended version and are looking to release it one day, certainly on DVD/Blu-ray but also possibly in cinemas. No doubt this further restoration work has all of that in mind. There was always the possibility that the restored version might only have ever had an extremely limited distribution on the film festival circuit, particularly if the quality was not of a high enough standard. So anyway, I think this is very welcome and exciting news. Its hoped that this version of the film will return to the festival circuit at the end of the year or early next year. So if all goes to plan, a Blu-ray release in Summer or Autumn of 2013 might well be on the cards. It already ranks in my mind as the most important release of 2013. Can hardly wait.