If you ever get a chance to see a classic film in a theater projected in 70mm, take it. If it’s West Side Story, you’ll notice many things you never knew were there, like the Pepto Bismal and Hershey Bars on the shelves of Doc’s store. If it’s Play Time, you’ll see in great detail every morsel of food served in the lengthy restaurant scene that closes the film. If it’s the odious Song of Norway, well…you will at least have gorgeous scenery to stare at as the staggeringly dull story unfolds. More important, you will see a tale told with a visual clarity that will spoil you for future 35mm screenings. For movies shot and projected in 70mm, there is a greater immediacy to the action—more of a “you are there” quality.
In actuality, the film going through the camera is 65mm wide, with 5mm added for the magnetic audio tracks, making for the 70mm strip that eventually wends its way through the projector. Expenses kept 70mm from being common; film stock was costly, and most theaters were not equipped to project movies of that scale. A roadshow—reserved-seat engagements in select cities—was common for 70mm films prior to general release. During a film’s regular run, it was almost always shown in a 35mm version for smaller houses.
Twentieth Century Fox had Grandeur, producer Mike Todd had Todd-AO and MGM had MGM Camera 65—all brand names for essentially the same format, with minor differences in lenses, cameras and aspect ratios. Around since the dawn of movies, 70mm enjoyed a popular run in the 1950s, luring people away from their small black-and-white television screens, up through the year 1970, which saw a trio of big releases: Patton, Ryan’s Daughter, and Airport.
Here are 30 examples of motion pictures done on a grand scale.
The Agony and the Ecstacy (1965), Todd-AO
Rex Harrison’s Pope Julius prods Charlton Heston’s Michelangelo into painting the Sistine Chapel, recreated for the movie on a Cinecittà sound stage.
Airport (1970), Todd-AO
Dean Martin, Jacqueline Bissett, Helen Hayes and Van Heflin hit the skies in a blockbuster that star Burt Lancaster called “the worst piece of junk ever made.”
The Alamo (1960), Todd-AO
In the 1990s, what was believed to be the last existing print of the 70mm roadshow version was discovered by a private film collector in Canada. Used for digital transfer, the print of the John Wayne-directed saga ultimately deteriorated due to improper storage by MGM.
Around the World in 80 Days (1956), Todd-AO
Oklahoma! was the first to use Todd-AO; this movie was the second. It was actually shot twice—24 frames per second for the 35mm general release version and 30 frames per second for the 70mm roadshow version.
Ben-Hur (1959), MGM Camera 65
Raintree County and Ben-Hur ended up being the only two films shot in the MGM Camera 65 process, which was largely rejected by exhibitors who had already reconfigured their theaters for Cinemascope projection.
The Bible (1966), Dimension 150
The John Huston epic was the first feature film shot in Dimension 150, a format that was basically Todd-AO with the a few new lenses created by camera and projection optics designers Dr. Richard Vetter and Carl Williams.
The Big Trail (1930), Grandeur
Covered wagons head west in Raoul Walsh’s tale of American settlers, starring John Wayne in his first major movie role. Five versions were shot simultaneously—three foreign language, a 35mm for general release and a 70mm for screenings in cavernous movie palaces. The Grandeur version of The Big Trail was hindered by strict projection requirements and high ticket costs, however, and the large format failed to catch on.
Cheyenne Autumn (1964), Super Panavision 70
An all-star cast—including Richard Widmark, Dolores del Rio, Ricardo Montalban and Carroll Baker—graces John Ford’s saga of a Cheyenne tribe’s pilgrimage back to their ancestral hunting grounds. Because of his Bronx accent, Sal Mineo, as Red Shirt, was given no English dialogue.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), Super Panavision 70
The garishly goofy title role was played by a total of seven automobiles: one for flying scenes, one for water scenes, one a complete ruin, one in pristine condition and three partial models.
Cleopatra (1963), Todd-AO
The famously huge, lengthy and expensive production boasted 79 sets and 26,000 costumes and, after star Elizabeth Taylor’s illness, had to be relocated from London to Rome.
Doctor Dolittle (1967), Todd-AO
Onscreen, Rex Harrison and a flock of sheep were brothers in arms. Offscreen, the sheep urinated on him and attracted so many flies that the actor had to be sprayed with bug repellant.
Exodus (1960), Super Panavision 70
When production selected the aging vessel that would serve as the film’s refugee ship, so enthusiastic was the owner that the boat was given a fresh coat of paint. Crews then had to “re-age” the ship at a great cost.
The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), Ultra Panavision 70
The three-panel Cinerama process—involving three 35mm cameras instead of one 70mm camera—was chosen for George Stevens’s biblical epic, only to make its swan song about a month into the shoot. The producers opted instead to complete the film with the far more manageable Ultra Panavision 70 format, requiring retakes of many scenes.
Hello, Dolly! (1969), Todd-AO
Healthy box office could not offset huge production costs for Barbra Streisand’s second starring vehicle. If you look closely at the wall behind the Harmonia Gardens hatcheck girl, you will see part of the Von Trapp ballroom from The Sound of Music.
It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), Ultra Panavision 70
The comedy behemoth was touted as a Cinerama film—a bit of a fib, as the movie was shot in Ultra Panavision 70 and blown up to Cinerama size.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Super Panavision 70
Two years of pre-production and 14 months of shooting seem fitting for the sprawling David Lean epic, which filmed in Morocco, Jordan, Spain and England.
Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), Ultra Panavision 70
The Marlon Brando vehicle was shown in the enormously wide aspect ration of 2.76:1, the last Ultra Panavision film to be shown that way.
My Fair Lady (1964), Super Panavision 70
The Oscar-winning musical fell into the able hands of Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz for its 1994 preservation, which saw much of the film restored directly from the 65mm camera negative.
Oklahoma! (1955), Todd-AO
The Fred Zinnemann musical was the first motion picture to be filmed in Todd-AO. The inaugural effort proved widely popular with audiences and helped kick off a trend in large-scale, high-resolution motion pictures.
Patton (1970), Dimension 150
The World War II-era biopic was the second picture to use the Dimension 150 process. It would be the last.
Play Time (1967), 65mm Mitchell
Jacques Tati’s comedy bankrupted its director/star, who poured much of his own money into the construction of “Tativille,” an enormous modern city set built on the outskirts of Paris.
Porgy and Bess (1959), Todd-AO
Otto Preminger directed this rarely seen film version of the George Gershwin opera. Displeased with how producer Sam Goldwyn changed the original work for the screen, the Gershwin family had it pulled from release in 1974.
Raintree County (1956), MGM Camera 65
Before it was called Ultra Panavision 70, it was known as MGM Camera 65, and Raintree County, starring Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor, was the first to use it.
Ryan’s Daughter (1970), Super Panavision 70
Robert Mitchum and Sarah Miles star in director David Lean's epic about a schoolteacher and his wife in a small Irish village. The man with the uncanny resemblance to James Dean is Christopher Jones, who was cast after Lean saw him in The Looking Glass War (1969), not realizing that Jones has been dubbed in that movie. His wan performance in Ryan’s Daughter made his dubbing necessary for that film as well.
Song of Norway (1970), Super Panavision 70
In her review for The New Yorker, Pauline Kael famously wrote, “The movie is of an unbelievable badness; it brings back clichés you didn’t know you knew—they’re practically from the unconscious of moviegoers. You can’t get angry at something this stupefying; it seems to have been made by trolls.” At least the fjords are pretty.
The Sound of Music (1965), Todd-AO
This is the second Robert Wise musical to open with aerial shots over the story’s setting, though this one has Julie Andrews nearly knocked on her ass by the wind from the helicopter. “Nearly” is not quite accurate, as she was toppled take after take until she was finally able to withstand the force of the chopper’s downdraft.
South Pacific (1958), Todd-AO
Tickets were sold months in advance for the scheduled roadshow premiere of the Joshua Logan-directed musical. That left no time for Logan to correct what he saw as the biggest mistake of his career—the use of colored filters for many of the musical numbers.
Star! (1968), Todd-AO
Along with Doctor Dolittle and Hello, Dolly!, this Julie Andrews vehicle was one in a trio of costly films for Twentieth Century Fox in the late 1960s. Fox posted losses from 1969 to 1971 as heads at the studio rolled.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Super Panavision 70
Consulting cinematographer Robert Gaffney convinced Stanley Kubrick to abandon his intent to shoot the film in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio and go with Super Panavision 70 (2.20:1 aspect ratio) instead. Kubrick got MGM to agree to the more expensive process.
West Side Story (1961), Super Panavision 70
The “Prologue” was shot on Manhattan’s West 61st Street; the rest of the Oscar-winning musical was shot in a studio, with sets built six feet off the ground to allow for low-angle shots. A hole was even dug on location for the low-angle shot of Bernardo (George Chakiris) and a couple of The Sharks (above) during the opening number.