On Cinema

Longing for more

Some of the greatest movies ever made were incredibly long. But is a film lasting 13 hours just too much?

Long cinema releases, by which I mean anything over three hours in duration, have long divided audiences. But now streaming giant Netflix is testing a new tool for its Android app which will allow viewers to speed up movies at various rates while maintaining the volume of the soundtrack. While this might be welcome in some cases — who might not be tempted to accelerate some tedious blockbuster? — news of this proposed device has prompted me to reflect on 40 years of enjoying long-form cinema.

Abel Gance’s Napoléon (1927) ran to 332 minutes, but that was a unique cinema-going experience, with its toned triptych sequence (in Polyvision) which was either dropped entirely (for its 1928 US release) or shown in black and white until Kevin Brownlow’s 1989 concert screenings. 

Gone With the Wind (1940) was 238 minutes long but is still the highest-grossing movie of all time if you adjust its revenues for monetary inflation. I first savoured this masterpiece in 70mm on its 1989 re-release and didn’t quibble with its length.

Marcel Carné’s ravishing spectacle Les Enfants du Paradis (1945) was premiered in Paris at 190 minutes. The director insisted that it should be shown without intermission and that it should be possible to reserve seats in advance — then a novelty. It played in one Paris cinema for 54 weeks during its first run. I can remember seeing it for the first time in the old Academy Cinema on Oxford Street back in the early 1980s.

The first long film I remember seeing at the cinema was the 1959 colour version of Ben Hur, starring Charlton Heston, which was 212 minutes and shown with an intermission. In British cinema long films were mainly the preserve of Sir David Lean. His Lawrence of Arabia (1962) ran for 222 minutes at its London premiere, was cut to 202 minutes for its theatrical release, further cut to 187 minutes for a 1970 re-release and expanded to 228 minutes in its 1988 restoration. 

Soviet director Sergei Bondarchuk’s version of War and Peace (1966-7), at 413 minutes, is the longest film released in separate parts to receive an award, the 1969 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Michael Cimino’s epic Western Heaven’s Gate played on a single screen in New York City for one week in 1980 in its original 219-minute version before it was ignominiously slashed back to 149 minutes for a short wider release. 

In 1982, the Los Angeles cable network Z Channel aired the original version to a mass audience for the first time, calling it “the director’s cut” and using that term for the first time. Again, the Criterion Collection has since released a 216-minute digital version on DVD. If you’ve never seen it, you most definitely should.

The longest arthouse gem with the farthest reach is probably Ingmar Bergman’s semi-autobiographical period film Fanny and Alexander (1982), which was originally shown in Swedish cinemas in a five-hour version. Of all Bergman’s films, it was the most successful at the Swedish box office. It also did well in the US in 1983. 

Sergio Leone’s 1984 gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America was originally 269 minutes, although the director cut it down to 229 minutes, which was the length of its European release. In the US, the studio slashed it back to 139 minutes without consulting Leone. You should seek out the 251-minute “Extended Director’s Cut” that has been available on DVD and Blu-ray since 2014.

All 566 minutes of Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 Holocaust documentary Shoah, revered as the greatest documentary of all time, which I watched in two parts, kept me gripped and left me emotionally drained. Will I ever find time for Jacques Rivette’s Out 1: Noli Me Tangere (1971), which is modelled on Balzac’s La Comédie Humaine? Thirteen hours in total, it was divided into eight episodes of around 90-100 minutes each, but has only come into its own since its DVD and Blu-ray release in 2015.

We are fortunate to live in an age when modern formats such as DVD, Blu-ray and live streaming as well as digital restoration make it possible to appreciate cinematic masterpieces at their proper lengths. 

But even great directors may sometimes change their minds about the optimum duration of a cherished work. Apocalypse Now Redux (2002) added some 49 minutes to Francis Ford Coppola’s original 1979 version of his Vietnam war epic, but this year, for its 40th-anniversary edition, he has trimmed it back from 196 to 183 minutes. I have seen all three editions over the years but Apocalypse Now: Final Cut is the one I would recommend most highly.

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