Followup: Runtime

The False Flag story involving a South African was from The Fourth Protocol by Fredrick Forsyth. They made a film of it with Michael Caine and Pierce Brosnan.

Thanks, I couldn’t remember. I think I’ve griped about this before, but there’s something really unfortunate about The Fourth Protocol‘s film.

It’s fairly common for multiple edits to exist of a given film. Usually we think about this in the context of theatrical and extended cuts. The former is the version seen in theaters, while the latter is a longer version saved for home video release.

Sometimes there’s dependencies between the director’s preferred version of the film and what the studio releases to theaters, resulting in a an eventual director’s cut. Ironically, these have become something of a marketing ploy to drive home video sales. The marketing idea is, “this is what the director intended for you to see,” even in films where the theatrical cut really was the director’s vision.

In rare cases, the theatrical and director’s cuts will be radically different films. Payback (1999) is one of the rare examples where we can see both versions of the film. The studio, at the direction of Mel Gibson, fired the director and reedited a crime film into a borderline comedy. DVD releases exist for both films, and director Brian Helgeland goes into detail in his commentary track. If you want to see how much editing and some reshoots can change a film, this is an amazing example.

Beyond that, there are also frequently multiple TV or broadcast cuts. These will trim the film so that it can broadcast with commercial interruptions and fit in a standard time slot. These is they have very strict time requirements. In the US, the film needs to be in increments of 45 minutes. (45m, 1h30m, 2h15m, 3h, ect), in the UK the magic number is 50 minutes. (So, 50m, 1h40m, 2h30m, 3h20m.) Once you add commercial breaks, these will lock down to full hour time slots. So, in the US, if you have a film that runs for 1h43m, and you want to put it on network TV, you need to cut thirteen minutes to fit into two, one hour timeslots.

There are extremely rare exceptions. In ’97, there was a (mostly) unedited airing of Schindler’s List (1993) on network TV. From what I remember, the only advertising were unique 15 minute commercial slots from Ford before and after the film. They may have also run one during an intermission.

Outside of that kind of exception, you can’t cut the ads. That’s how the networks make money. So, if it’s a choice between cutting parts of a film that are necessary for it to make sense, or cutting back on ad buys. The film is a secondary consideration.

In rare circumstances a film will run longer on TV than in theaters. Usually this is because the film is running close to moving up a bracket. So, if you have a film that’s got a run time of 1h28m, and you’ve got some random footage you can splice in, you might add two minutes of material to the film so can be sold to TV markets. One example of this was Heat (1995), where Michael Mann was offered the option to add 17m of material to bring it up to a four hour time slot. Mann declined, and the network cut 40m to take it down to a three hour slot.

Length is also a serious consideration for the theatrical runtime. The longer a film is, the fewer times a theater can show that film on a given screen in a single night. This is why theatrical run times over three hours are exceedingly rare. A theater needs have time to run the film, clean up the theater after a showing and prepare for the next showing. When films get above 3 hours, that starts to seriously cut into how many times a given film can be shown per screen, per night. Meaning, the less money the theater makes. You can see this in action if you look at the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings films. Fellowship and Two Towers are two minutes and one minute short of three hours long, respectively. Return of the King coming off the previous two blockbusters managed to sneak up to 3h21m, but by this point the theaters were comfortable with the idea that the film would be a reliable moneymaker for the 2003 holidays, and was worth losing screenings.

Lord of the Rings is also an example of how studios could break away from that requirement by having extended versions released on multi-disk sets after launch. Now, the specific example was a bit complex, because the three films were shot together, there was a three year release schedule to begin with, and the extended cut DVDs were a blatant marketing tactic to keep people paying attention to the films throughout the year.

So, what does all this have to do with The Fourth Protocol? I really want to be able to recommend the film. In my, entirely subjective, opinion, this is the best performance I’ve ever seen from Pierce Brosnan. He plays a better James Bond here than in the actual Bond films. (And, by that, I mean, more in keeping with the literary version of the character, rather than the cinematic version.) This is a film where he’s playing the villain, and delivers an excellent performance.

Michael Caine is great. That shouldn’t be a surprise, he is a fantastic actor, but he is in his element here as an aging intelligence officer who’s being pushed to irrelevance.

So, it’s a really good film. But, it’s impossible to see. Or, at least, it was the last time I went hunting for it.

The version of The Fourth Protocol available on DVD today is a seriously shortened cut. I watched a cable TV version back in the mid-90s, and there was a lot of material that was completely absent from the DVD version when I tried to introduce Michi to it a few years back.

I don’t know what happened. My original thought was that the version I saw on TV must have been extended for an extra hour. This is plausible, because the film’s official runtime is 1h59m, meaning it would need to split up over a third hour, with an extra 16m of footage for American TV. Except, I think the version I originally saw, on TV was close to the theatrical cut, while the version available on DVD is (for some reason) a TV cut. It edits out a lot of important plot points, and the entire film suffers for it. One specific example that comes mind was Matt Frewer’s character basically just disappearing without warning. In the 2012 DVD cut, he literally stumbles off screen drunk, and disappears from the film entirely. There is a lot of missing content, and it wouldn’t surprise me if that version of the film is missing 30 minutes of material. (I can’t find the disk to verify the run time, and Amazon insists it’s a complete cut, which is not the case.) Which sucks. It’s definitely a product of the mid-80s, but there was a lot to recommend the film. It’s just really unfortunate that there’s a garbage cut getting passed off as the theatrical version. Among the things that were cut, we lose a lot of interesting depth to Brosnan’s performance, and even Caine’s character gets reduced to more of a cliche.

In case it’s not apparent, this disappoints the hell out of me. A lot of times, this kind of thing happens because no one checks the data. A production company has, “a copy,” of a film or TV series they released, and then doesn’t check to see what the state of that is. This isn’t even situations where the originals were lost, it’s simply a substandard version got added to the pile as, “the official,” copy.

So, this doesn’t mean that original cut of The Fourth Protocol is gone forever. Just, the last time I went looking, I was very harshly disappointed. I would have chalked this up to a faulty memory. It wouldn’t have been the first time I misremembered the plot or individual scenes from a film I caught on TV once. However, when I went looking for it, I found I was not the only one who remembered a longer cut of the film.

If you can get the full cut, I do strongly recommend Protocol. It’s a better film than you’d expect. It’s certainly a product of late Cold War anxieties, but it is a solid film. Unfortunately, I’m not sure you can find an intact copy today.


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