A mutilated masterpiece tonight on ARTE: how Once upon a time in America was scuttled by the studios

This Sunday evening, Arte has the brilliant idea of ​​​​broadcasting the immense testament film of the late Sergio Leone, “Once upon a time in America”. And it is an understatement to say that the master’s last film, mutilated on its release, was a deep wound for him…

Sergio Leone’s immense testament film, Once Upon a Time in America was unfortunately a bitter commercial failure on American release, since it only brought in 2.5 million dollars on a colossal budget for the time, of nearly 40 million.

In fact, this commercial failure was largely due to its mutilation. Contractually, Leone was required with Warner to deliver an assembly not exceeding 2h45. If the filmmaker initially toyed with the idea of ​​delivering a 6 hour montage in two parts, he finally delivered a 4 hour and 25 minute version. The studio and the film’s producer, Arnon Milchan, were horrified, and naturally refused this editing.

On his own initiative, Sergio Leone cut a few scenes to end up with what would later become the European version of 3:49, a version that he could not bring himself to reduce even more without hampering the narrative logic. The Major and the producer overruled Leone’s wishes, and trimmed the film to a running time of 2:19 for its American release.

The result, critical and commercial, was a disaster. Not only was the film cut in half, but everything was put back in chronological order, which completely distorted the work, because that’s also what gave it its strength. Leone was logically deeply depressed and bruised.

It is in Europe, and particularly in France, that the film was thus exploited from the start in its 3:49 version. But if the critics were for once very laudatory, the film attracted only 1.5 million spectators. Very (very) far behind the 15 million of Once upon a time in the West.

In 2011, the Bologna Cinematheque, very active in brilliant film restorations, was working on a restoration of the original version of Sergio Leone’s masterpiece, hitherto invisible, and in agreement with the children of filmmaker who had acquired the rights. No less than 40 unpublished minutes were thus added to the 229 min of the currently known montage, bringing the duration of the film to 4:20. A pure concentrate of happiness for moviegoers venerating the work of Leone. And they are many.

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