10 great films shot in 70mm

With directors such as Paul Thomas Anderson and Quentin Tarantino resurrecting the joys of large-format celluloid, we revisit those milestones of 70mm movie-making whose pleasures just cry out for the big screen.

23 December 2015

By Matthew Thrift

The Hateful Eight (2015)

It’s probably best, in the words of LL Cool J, that we don’t call it a comeback.

Not just yet, anyway.

With 3D so yesterday’s news, a small band of high-profile members of Hollywood’s digital resistance are resurrecting large-format celluloid – once the preserve of prestige epics from yesteryear – and one man is leading the charge. Not only did Quentin Tarantino shoot his eighth film, The Hateful Eight, on 70mm film – using reconditioned anamorphic lenses to create a super-widescreen image – he spearheaded a heroic campaign to retrofit over 100 cinemas worldwide with the projectors capable of screening the film in its intended, Ultra Panavision format.

The special ‘Roadshow’ cut of the film, complete with old-school overture and intermission, ran longer than its digital counterpart and needed to be seen to be believed. “The colours scream,” said cinematographer Robert Richardson in a Variety interview on the entirely photochemical process.

With so many cinemas exclusively geared towards digital content today, it remains to be seen how many in the UK will be able to play The Hateful Eight from a 70mm print when it opens in January. It’s worth the effort to track down a celluloid screening over its 70-Milli-Vanilli DCP equivalent, the Roadshow cut’s success presumably going some way to determine the format’s fate in the long-run.

It’s not just the added cost and unwieldiness of shooting on such a large format, but as much a question of availability of equipment. Richardson was apparently unable to acquire the same lenses he’d used for Tarantino for his next project, as they’d already been nabbed by Gareth Edwards for the next Star Wars film.

It seems that public appetite has been whetted, however, as sold-out screenings at the Prince Charles Cinema in London – just one theatre where a 70mm projector has recently been installed – can attest. The format may be unlikely to attain the ubiquity of 3D, but then it’s only ever been used for the grandest of productions. So with these 100-odd cinemas now newly fitted with 70mm screening capabilities, we picked out 10 films we’d like to see play in their original format, on the big screen where they belong.

Ben-Hur (1959)

Director: William Wyler

Ben-Hur (1959)

Irrespective of the Gospels’ failure to tease the prospect of expanded cinematic universes beyond the story of the Christ, Hollywood was hardly about to let things lie on Golgotha. What Ben-Hur lacked in parallel-narrative necessity, it certainly made up for in scale, sidelining a certain Nazarene miracle-worker to the role of bit-player in favour of the altogether more toothy charms of Charlton Heston’s greased heroics.

From running time to budget, box office take to Oscar haul, it hardly matters that Ben-Hur remains little more than the sum of its stats. While it’s hard to recall much – even as you’re watching it – beyond the iconic chariot race, this thrilling sequence serves to wholly justify the film’s existence. It’s as breathless today as it is stunningly captured by MGM’s newfangled Camera 65 system.

Exodus (1960)

Director: Otto Preminger

Exodus (1960)

The most widely recognised of golden age Hollywood directors this side of Alfred Hitchcock (as much a result of his knack for self-promotion as his acting roles in Stalag 17 and the Batman TV series), Otto Preminger remains a tough customer to pin down. As famous for his singular series of film noirs in the 1940s as for his later institutional epics, Preminger would operate on the grandest scale with Exodus, a three-and-a-half-hour adaptation of Leon Uris’s bestseller charting the foundation of the state of Israel.

As well remembered now for its off-screen politics – Preminger hired (and credited) blacklisted screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo – as for those on screen, Exodus remains a directorial tour de force, however dated or one-sided it comes across retrospectively. Rarely screened today – in 70mm, especially – it was a modest hit on release, despite comedian Mort Sahl’s protestations against its length at the premiere, where he stood and shouted mid-film: “Otto, let my people go!”

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Director: David Lean

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Of all the cinematic epics captured on 70mm, few come as grand and successfully realised as Lawrence of Arabia. It’s almost impossible to highlight just a single moment from the countless miracles the film pulls off: the visual onomatopoeia of cinema’s greatest ‘match’ cut? The dazzling, single-shot orchestration of the raid on Aqaba? Peter O’Toole dancing in the sunlight aboard the crashed train (shot by Nic Roeg and André de Toth’s second unit)? The dressing of the mirage sequence? Freddie Young’s peerless cinematography?

Of course, the film plays loose with historical veracity, seeking to de-mythologise Lawrence and any sense of Kiplingesque heroics in favour of something that aspires to Shakespearean tragedy. A portrait of a flawed, neurotic genius, its scale and ambition (the 313-day shoot lasting longer than the Arab revolt itself) serves to mock even the most impressive home cinema set-up.

Cleopatra (1963)

Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Cleopatra (1963)

Movies don’t come much bigger than Cleopatra. One of the most expensive and extravagant productions in Hollywood history – it’s $44m budget equates to over $300m today – it remains notorious (incorrectly) as one of cinema’s biggest flops. Originally conceived as a swords-n-sandals quickie, the scale – and problems – swiftly escalated once Elizabeth Taylor was cast in the title role. “Tell them I’ll do it for a million dollars,” said Taylor, cementing her position as the highest paid actress in the business, her behind-the-scenes antics with lover Richard Burton keeping John Glenn’s first orbit of the earth off the front pages of the world’s press.

Audiences came for Liz and Dick; what they got was four hours of riotously camp melodrama and an unimpeachable production design that dwarfed the epic standard set by Ben-Hur. Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz called it: “The most difficult three films I’ve ever made,” going some way to explaining why they don’t make’em like they used to.

The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)

Director: Anthony Mann

The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)

Revisiting the films on this list chronologically, as they’re presented here, provides quite the tonic when one gets to The Fall of the Roman Empire. That it feels so cynical compared to the bombastic emphasis on scale and spectacle employed by Ben-Hur and Cleopatra should come as little surprise, given the proclivities of its director, the great Anthony Mann. Not that the film wants for scale or spectacle either, both of which remain plentiful in Mann’s wintry widescreen vistas. It’s more that it actively suppresses any triumphalism in favour of a masochistic sense that the epoch’s end is predetermined.

To which end, its sensibilities feel strikingly modern, even as it possesses a tactility of design that could never be replicated in our CG-reliant era. Narratively speaking, it shares a kinship with Gladiator (2000), but Mann’s poised frames, encompassing an increasingly desolate strangeness, knock that young upstart’s pretensions for six.

Cheyenne Autumn (1964)

Director: John Ford

Cheyenne Autumn (1964)

If ever there were a filmmaker for whom 70mm were made, it’s John Ford. It’s a shame he didn’t get to work with the format until late in his career (he only made two subsequent features), and that Cheyenne Autumn is hardly a film to rank among his best works. It’s a disjointed telling of a Native American tribe’s journey back to their homeland from enforced exile, something of an apologia for Ford’s less-than-progressive depictions earlier in his career.

While the film feels padded to epic-length – not least through a diversion to Dodge City for an extended James Stewart cameo – there’s no denying the majesty of its location work, stunningly captured in Super Panavision 70 by cinematographer, William Clothier.

Playtime (1967)

Director: Jacques Tati

Playtime (1967)
© Image credit: Les Films de Mon Oncle

If ever there were a movie that benefited from the extra definition afforded by shooting on 70mm, it’s Jacques Tati’s 1967 masterpiece, Play Time. With sight-gags playing out, often simultaneously, in every nook and cranny of Tati’s architecturally rigorous frame, it’s impossible to take in everything that Playtime has to offer in a single viewing.

An endlessly inspired, delightfully strange urban satire, it’s a film of absurd curiosity and curious absurdities, shot over two years on a vast, specially constructed city set. The production was plagued with drawbacks, from Tati’s notorious perfectionism to much of the set being destroyed in a storm. A box-office failure on its initial release (bankrupting its director in the process), it’s now considered Tati’s crowning achievement; a film of jaw-dropping ambition that demands the big-screen experience, all the better to drink in its exquisite details played out on the grandest stage.

TRON (1982)

Director: Steven Lisberger

Tron (1982)

This was shot predominantly on Super Panavision 65, but it’s incredible to think that TRON’s groundbreaking effects were executed on a computer with just 330mb of storage and a mere 2mb of memory. Jeff Bridges stars as arcade-owning hacker Flynn, digitally interpolated into the computer system he helped create. With its digital gladiatorial contests and technological anthropomorphism, TRON remains a sugar-rush of singular aesthetic vision, standing apart from the effects-driven vehicles that would follow in its wake.

The rotoscopic technique – a combination of traditional cel-animation and multi-layered photographic effects – marks the film as a visually thrilling one-off, its closest descendants perhaps Richard Linklater’s animated experiments, Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006). Even its belated, underrated sequel TRON: Legacy (2010) jettisoned both format and approach for a more conventional – if still remarkable – digitally-rendered IMAX spectacle.

Hamlet (1996)

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Hamlet (1996)

Continuing the format’s synonymity with prestige and scale, it’s fitting that the first fully unexpurgated cinematic adaptation of Hamlet would be the last film to be shot on 70mm before the recent semi-revival begun by the last film on our list. Running to over four hours, Branagh’s film cuts as few corners in its production as it does with Shakespeare’s text, the cast list alone an international Who’s Who of old-school and neophyte Bard-botherers.

While Blenheim Palace stands in for Elsinore exteriors, it’s the sumptuous interiors (by production designer Tim Harvey) shot on stages at Shepperton Studios that prove the film’s true star, not least the mirrored throne room around which key scenes revolve. If Branagh’s lead defines an acquired taste, there are few such concerns as far as his direction is concerned, especially when coupled with Alex Thomson’s stellar lensing. It may not reach the dizzying peaks of Kurosawa’s Shakespeare films, but as adaptations go, it’s up there with the best of the rest.

The Master (2012)

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

The Master (2012)

The special 70mm presentation of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master back in 2012 proved there’s an appetite for a unique cinema experience away from the now-ubiquitous (and home-replicable) 3D screenings. Using a different set of lenses to those more usually adopted for such a large format, The Master eschews the vast, anamorphic widescreen frame for something tighter, its emphasis on portraiture over the grand landscapes of its antecedents.

Word is out that Anderson is looking to return to 70mm for his next feature (his last, 2014’s Inherent Vice was shot on 35mm), apparently inspired by the 2.78:1 aspect ratio adopted by Tarantino for The Hateful Eight. With Kodak recently announcing a return to profitability in the wake of the latest Star Wars film – perhaps the most high-profile recent feature shot on celluloid – it looks like the format could be back to stay. That said, Anderson could shoot his next feature on a phone, and we’d still be queuing round the block.

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