Jonathan Rosenbaum has some fascinating thoughts on the nature of “director’s cuts”. Here is a sample paragraph:
An important point arising from this example is that any director’s cut has to be pinpointed in time for this label to have any meaning. To postulate that only one director’s cut can exist for a given film implies the privileging of a particular point of closure in the filmmaker’s creative decisions—-a privileging that becomes quite arbitrary in some cases. Since there are many different subtitled versions of some of the later Straub-Huillet films employing different takes and therefore different editing, choosing one version over all the others may be capricious, and arguably the same thing might be true for the separate 1952 and 1953 versions of Othello edited by Orson Welles, as recently described by François Thomas in Cinéma 012, in an ongoing series of articles significantly titled, “Un film d’Orson Welles en cache un autre”. In this case, do we privilege the first thoughts or the second thoughts, and how do we defend our selection?
Most of the examples he cites are of this academically respectable sort, but if we wanted to dumb this issue down for the average popcorn-muncher, we could always pose the question like so: Do we privilege Han Solo shooting first or Greedo shooting first, and how do we defend our selection?
For that matter, I have always appreciated the way that Peter Jackson refused to use the term “director’s cut” when he released the “extended editions” of The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003). They are both his cuts, one’s just a little longer than the other (and sometimes uses different footage).
For what it’s worth, the first time I can remember hearing the phrase “director’s cut” was in 1989, when David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) was restored and re-released to great fanfare. The film had been chopped up quite a bit since its original release, so the restoration people went to great lengths to put the movie back together again — but then Lean stepped in and suggested trimming a few minutes back out of the movie, claiming, if I recall correctly, that he had had to edit the film in a bit of a rush the first time ’round. So the version released in 1989 had a lot more footage than any version that anyone had seen in years, but it was still slightly shorter than the version which premiered in 1962; it was, indeed, a brand-new cut.
There may have been earlier examples of films being released as “director’s cuts”, but I couldn’t say for sure. The Wikipedia entry on this term is vague on the exact timing, and it doesn’t even mention Lawrence of Arabia. It cites Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980) and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) as “two of the first films to be re-released as a director’s cut”, but gives no date for the “director’s cut” of the former film, whereas the “director’s cut” of the latter film was released in 1992, three years after the “director’s cut” of Lawrence of Arabia — and of course, as we now know thanks to the “final cut” of Blade Runner that came out late last year, the “director’s cut” was not exactly the last word where that film was concerned, so the term was arguably already becoming devalued even back then.