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SYFY WIRE Terry Gilliam

The story of the three cuts of Terry Gilliam's 'Brazil,' now streaming on Peacock

Terry Gilliam is known for fighting for his films, and Brazil might be his biggest fight ever.

By Matthew Jackson
Jonathan Pryce in Brazil (1985)

Terry Gilliam is known for fighting to get his movies made and released. An entire documentary exists about his quest to make a Don Quixote movie that fell apart only to resurface more than a decade later and finally hit theaters. He's, among many other things, a tenacious and passionate creator, and the film that might be his finest work is also noted for the lengthy and very public struggle over its eventual release.

Brazil, Gilliam's 1985 dystopian masterpiece about a low-level government worker named Sam (Jonathan Pryce) and his adventures in resistance against an oppressive government, stands today as one of the finest films of its kind ever made, if indeed you can even manage to classify it alongside other dystopian stories. It's a singular, bombastic, gorgeously rendered work of science fiction, and arguably the best thing Gilliam has ever made. But it almost didn't turn out that least, not at first.

You can now watch Brazil streaming on Peacock, and you might notice as you queue it up that the film is roughly 2 hours and 12 minutes long, the same length as you'll find on Universal Pictures' Blu-ray release of the film. But look around a little, or dig up the Criterion Collection edition of Brazil, and you'll find not one but two more cuts: A "final" cut running 142 minutes, and the fabled "Love Conquers All" version of the film, which runs just over 90 minutes.

So, why does this film have three versions, and which one should you watch? Well, Brazil was first released 38 years ago this month by 20th Century Fox, who held the foreign distribution rights for the film and released it in Europe with Gilliam's preferred, 142-minute cut intact. The problems began when Universal Pictures, which had landed the United States release of the film, started looking at that lengthy cut and, according to Gilliam, began to get worried from the very first screening that something was going wrong.

Jack Mathews' book The Battle of Brazil, which was later adapted into a documentary of the same name which is well worth a watch, documents the struggle between Gilliam and then-Universal head Sid Sheinberg (a Hollywood powerhouse who, among other things, championed a young filmmaker named Steven Spielberg and a film called Jaws), who wanted to craft a more "accessible" version of Brazil for American general audiences. Of course, because the film was already playing in Europe, Gilliam was reluctant to do that, but Universal tried to at least hold the filmmaker to the terms of the distribution contract, which required the movie to be shorter, if not necessarily different in plot. So, Gilliam started cutting, eventually bringing the film down to the 132-minute version now widely available. But Universal, still hesitant over Gilliam's chosen ending for the film, continued to delay. That's when things got rough.

RELATED: Katherine Helmond, the face of Brazil's most unsettling scene, dies at 89

According to Gilliam, what happened next was brought about by producer Arnon Milchan's desire to get the rest of the distribution rights payment from Universal, which essentially required Gilliam to surrender his "final cut" rights to the film. Gilliam's understanding was that he would sign away his final cut in a "face-saving" way, then Milchan would get paid, and the someone would "lose" the signature and allow Gilliam to keep editing the film. That's not what happened, and instead Gilliam and his team turned over the footage to Universal, who set to work with teams of editors under Sheinberg's direction. 

That's when things got famously ugly. Gilliam, in his communications with Sheinberg, called what would happen next a "war" for the fate of the film, while Sheinberg used words like "terrorist" when discussing Gilliam in interviews with Mathews. Gilliam famously took out an ad in Variety publicly asking when Sheinberg would release his film, and even got interview-averse Brazil co-star Robert De Niro to appear with him on American television to discuss the struggle. Still, Sheinberg forged ahead with a plan to craft a version of the film with a happily-ever-after ending (in Gilliam's version, the happy ending is a delusion happening in the head of the main character), which led Gilliam to take even more drastic measures.

With the U.S. release of Brazil still on hold, and the looming fear that Universal might release a drastically re-cut version of the film that still had his name on it, Gilliam went to work arranging secret screenings of the film around Los Angeles. A screening for students at USC went awry when word got back to Universal that it was happening, but another screening at the California Institute of the Arts went ahead as planned. Then came the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. Near the end of 1985, as critics groups and awards bodies were about to begin voting, Gilliam arranged for members of LAFCA to see his cut of Brazil in secret, and many became immediate champions of the film. When they found out no rules in their bylaws prevented them from giving the film awards (despite its lack of an official U.S. release), LAFCA eventually gave Brazil three of its top honors: Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. It was an immense, shocking victory for Gilliam in the fight to retain his vision of the film, and it ultimately helped pushed Sheinberg to release the 132-minute cut of the film, with Gilliam's preferred ending, in America.

So, which version of the film should you watch? Well, the 132-minute American cut is sitting right there on Peacock, it's likely the most widely-seen version of the movie at this point, and it retains Gilliam's original story arc with a few omissions here and there. So, head over there and watch it, see what all the fuss was about, then go and seek the other cuts. See what Gilliam intended with his longer cut, and see what Sheinberg hoped for with the shorter, "Love Conquers All" cut, happy ending and all. When taken together, the trio of cuts represent a legendary moment in Hollywood history, and three facets of one of the best sci-fi movies ever made.

Stream 132 glorious minutes of Terry Gilliam's Brazil, right now on Peacock!