1. Across The Pacific (1942)
This spy thriller starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, and Sydney Greenstreet originally went into production under director John Huston. It was his third feature as director, and with three of the stars who had appeared in his triumphant debut film, The Maltese Falcon, returning, he must have felt that he was on solid ground. Certainly the script had a corker of a dramatic hook: Bogart would play a hero who, while on a ship bound for Hawaii, stumbles onto and thwarts a Japanese plan to bomb Pearl Harbor. When, two weeks into shooting, the Japanese really did bomb Pearl Harbor, the screenwriters must have gotten some funny looks. The script was quickly rewritten so that Bogart is on his way to China when he stumbles upon and thwarts a Japanese plot to bomb the Panama Canal. What with all the rewriting and reshooting, and Huston turning over the reins to Vincent Sherman so he could join the Army Signal Corps, nobody thought to change the title, even though it now referred to the wrong ocean. Such is the curious fate of entertainment that has to be hastily altered or rewritten out of deference to real-life historical events, generally of a tragic and zeitgeist-capturing nature.
2. Collateral Damage (2002)
A revenge thriller starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as an L.A. fireman whose wife and child are killed when terrorists blow up the Colombian Consulate, Collateral Damage was originally due to be released in October 2001. But the events of September 11 quickly turned everything about this mediocre action movie, including its title and the hero’s occupation, into a clusterfuck of hot-button signifiers. The movie was finally released in February, during the winter dumping season, with its title intact but minus a scene in which a terrorist played by Sofia Vergara hijacks an airplane.
3. Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb (1964)
Stanley Kubrick’s end-of-the-world comedy was originally meant to end with a slapstick custard-pie fight to end all slapstick custard-pie fights breaking out in the War Room. Accounts differ as to why the scene was cut from the finished film, with some witnesses, including Kubrick and Peter Sellers, claiming that it just went on too long and the tone wasn’t quite right. But in a 1980 Playboy Interview, George C. Scott insisted that the problem was the assassination of President Kennedy, “and it was a bitch of a problem!” The scene began with the Russian ambassador hitting the president (Sellers) with a pie, and Scott’s General Turgidson declaring, “Gentlemen, our gallant young president has been struck down in the prime of life, by pie! We demand merciful retaliation.” After the assassination, said Scott, “You couldn’t use any of it.” Kennedy’s death also led to the redubbing of one line of dialogue, with Slim Pickens’ jovial reference to Dallas being changed to Vegas.
4. October: Ten Days That Shook The World (1928)
Sergei Eisenstein’s docudrama re-creation of the October Revolution was officially commissioned by the Soviet government as part of the celebrations honoring the event’s 10th anniversary. It should have been the culmination of the director’s career and a highlight of the anniversary. Only one problem: While the film was in production, one of the heroes of his film, Leon Trotsky, began leading demonstrations protesting Stalin’s government, and by the time the film was completed, he had been expelled from the Central Committee and was about to be expelled from the Communist Party. Eisenstein missed his release date because he was obliged to go back into the editing room and painstakingly remove all traces of Trotsky from the film, to match up with the officially revised history of the Revolution itself. The film’s anticlimactic release finally came in January 1928, the same month that Trotsky was exiled from the Soviet Union.
5. Trespass (1992)
Walter Hill’s thriller about a standoff between a street gang (led by Ice-T and Ice Cube) and a couple of firemen (Bill Paxton and William Sadler) who stumble onto their turf was intended to be a high-adrenaline roller-coaster ride for early-summer movie audiences, with no polarizing political elements. But in the wake of the L.A. riots, the murderous violence between a two white authority figures and a bunch of black guys fronted by a pair of controversial gangsta-rap icons (one of whom gave the world “Cop Killer,” the other of whom was instrumental in the composition of “Fuck Tha Police”) gave the studio cold feet. So did the title: Looters, which had been attached to the script since it was written a decade earlier by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis. After the producers agreed to change the title, the film was finally given a Christmas Day release, where it died on the vine.
6. Gangster Squad (2013)
In the original theatrical cut of Gangster Squad, a star-studded junior-league version of Untouchables, one of the many scenes of mass carnage was a setpiece where gangsters mow down moviegoers by machine-gunning through the screen at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Parts of that sequence were included in the first trailer—released May 9, 2012, ahead of the film’s September 7 opening—but the massacre at an Aurora, Colorado multiplex on opening night of The Dark Knight Rises made the similarities between fiction and reality too close to withstand. So the filmmakers got together for reshoots a month after the incident and changed the scene to a forgettable gunfight in Chinatown. In light of the film’s full-throated endorsement of extra-legal police tactics and off-the-books thuggery, it’s remarkable that it dodged a second controversy, but it was fortunate to have Zero Dark Thirty taking all the heat instead.
7. The Watch (2012)
Opening to the ironic bounce of Dr. Dre’s “Still D.R.E.,” the first teaser trailer for Neighborhood Watch offered the mildly funny—very mildly funny—image of four dopey dads in a minivan patrolling manicured suburbia as if it were the streets of Dre’s Compton. But the concept of overzealous neighborhood-watch guys became significantly less hilarious on February 26, 2012, when vigilant citizen George Zimmerman, on patrol in a gated community in Florida, shot and killed Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old armed with nothing but an Arizona iced tea and a bag of Skittles. Fox removed the trailer once the controversy swelled a month later and retitled it as simply The Watch, for a late-summer release. Ironically, the new ad campaign focused on what the film is actually about, which isn’t suburban vigilantes but ordinary dudes beating back an alien invasion. Not that it mattered either way: The film was one of the summer’s biggest critical and commercial flops.
8. Lilo & Stitch (2002)
Lilo & Stitich is one of those rare Disney animated features that—thanks in large part to its anarchic alien hero—has more of a Warner Bros. cartoon vibe. Unfortunately, after 9/11, it was decided that the film’s original climactic action, in which Stitch steals a commercial airliner and uses it to chase his enemies through a populated area, was a little too anarchic for comfort. The scene was redone, substituting an alien spacecraft for the jet and relocating the action to a remote mountain area, though the (mostly completed) original sequence wound up seeing the light of day as a DVD bonus feature.
9. Men In Black II (2002)
One of the chief draws of Men in Black II is its brevity; at less than 90 minutes, it’s substantially trimmer than most bloated blockbusters. But it wasn’t planned that way: The movie’s original climax, which featured the World Trade Center’s towers opening to disgorge a fleet of UFOs, had to be scrapped entirely when the towers were destroyed a week before its planned release date. After substantial reshoots, Men in Black II finally debuted the following July, proving that not even terrorism can stanch our appetite for middling sequels.
10. The Time Machine (2002)
The Time Machine already had its fair share of troubles during production, most notably when original director (and great-grandson of H.G. Wells) Simon Wells left after only 18 days of shooting due to exhaustion. The movie was then pushed back from its December 2001 release date because of a scene depicting the destruction of New York City by falling debris from the moon. Warner Bros. was worried the scene would remind moviegoers of 9/11, so it changed the release date to March 2002 and cut the scene from the film, which added to the already-extensive reshoots The Time Machine underwent.
11. The Greatest American Hero (1981)
When ABC premièred The Greatest American Hero on March 18, 1981, the Stephen Cannell-created series about a mild-mannered high-school teacher—Ralph Hinkley, played by William Katt—who is the recipient of an alien suit and cape that endow him with superhuman abilities, seemed sufficiently light in tone to avoid causing any sort of controversy. On March 30, however, viewers were glued to their TV sets in the wake of the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan by a crazed Jodie Foster fan named John Hinckley Jr. Fearing that viewers might find the homonymity disconcerting, scripts were abruptly adjusted so that Katt’s character would be referred to simply as “Mr. H” by his students, and on the very rare occasions during the remainder of the first season when his last name came into play, it was changed to “Hanley.” By the time season two of the series kicked off in November, however, the powers that be at ABC had given the all-clear signal, allowing Ralph to reclaim his original name for the duration of the series’ run.
12. Spider-Man 2: Enter Electro (2001)
National tragedies can shift the course of public policy, inspire cultural debate, and serve as touchstones for generations. They can also force game designers to make small changes to mediocre product. Spider-Man 2: Enter Electro, a Playstation action game starring everyone’s favorite web-slinger, wasn’t a classic by any means; IGN gave it a 5.5 in a 2001 review, while GameSpot offered a slightly more favorable 7.1. What makes the game even slightly memorable today (apart from its license) was that the original version climaxed with a fight between Spidey and the titular Electro atop the towers of the World Trade Center. After the terrorist attacks on 9/11 leveled the WTC, the game was pulled and the last level quickly redesigned, the level name changed from “Top Of The World” to “The Best Laid Plans,” and most of the visual signifiers suggesting the Towers were removed. It’s a moderately clumsy fix to make sure gamers found no unpleasant surprises in the midst of their generally inoffensive tedium.
13. Teaching Mrs. Tingle (1999)
The sole directing credit for then-hot screenwriter Kevin Williamson, based on an old script he’d written called Killing Mrs. Tingle, is a comic revenge fantasy in the half-assed mold of 9 To 5. The film’s high-school heroes don’t actually kill their hated teacher, Mrs. Tingle (Helen Mirren), they just take her hostage and talk about blackmailing her before exposing her as the horrible person she is, setting in motion a chain of events that will eventually cost her her job. But after the school shooting in Columbine, Colorado, even that was enough to make people uncomfortable, and after delaying the scheduled release until the dog days of mid-August, the studio changed the title to Teaching Mrs. Tingle—which is actually more appropriate, and not just because it’s lamer.
14-plus. The Twin Towers in post-9/11 Movies (2001)
In the immediate wake of the September 11 attacks—a time when self-appointed spokespersons for the soul of the nation solemnly predicted the death of irony and an end to all movie violence, ever—many smart, rational people were uncertain what was and wasn’t going to be acceptable in this brave new world. Ben Stiller’s Zoolander was one of the first big new fall releases to come out after the attacks, and Stiller elected to have the Manhattan skyline in his movie digitally altered, to remove all images of the WTC. His reasoning was that these images came at the beginning of a frothy comedy, and if he started out with even an incidental reminder of the recent tragedy, it would be a long time before anyone in the audience felt like laughing. The romantic comedies Serendipity and Kissing Jessica Stein and the Al Pacino vehicle People I Know were similarly altered, though Cameron Crowe rejected pleas from his producers that he cut shots of the WTC from Vanilla Sky. Another casualty of the attacks was a teaser trailer for Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man in which Spidey captured a helicopter full of bank robbers by spinning a giant web between the Twin Towers. That scene didn’t actually appear in the movie, but an image of the WTC was cut from the finished film, and a shot of Spider-Man patriotically hanging out with the American flag was inserted and figured heavily in the advertising.