In early 1957, the Norwegian school ship Christian Radich embarked from Oslo for a half-year voyage across the Atlantic and then back again, taking scores of novice seamen to Madeira, Trinidad, Curaçao, New York City, and more as they (literally) learned the ropes. While the age of the windjammers — large merchant sailing ships from the 19th century built to go long distances — was already receding over the horizon, the nostalgic appeal of old-fashioned swashbuckling kept a few around. It was for that precise reason that a film crew accompanied the windjammer Christian Radich on that year’s journey.
But this was no ordinary documentary production. Director Louis De Rochemont III was using a brand-new extreme widescreen camera system, one that hoped to become a new industry standard. It was called Cinemiracle. The next year saw the release of the finished film, Windjammer. Though the movie was a success, Cinemiracle did not take off as hoped. Now, a high-end restoration of the film has been made. After premiering at this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival, it is being released on Blu-ray by Flicker Alley, allowing a new generation to discover both it and the wonders of old-fashioned widescreen productions.
The 1950s saw a flurry of various theatrical gimmicks and innovations, as movie producers fought to compete with television, which had rapidly and drastically cut into their profits. Of the ultra-widescreen film formats, the best known was and remains Cinerama, which was exhibited in specially built theaters with giant, curved screens. The process was unwieldy, to put it mildly, entailing the use of three separate cameras to shoot and then three separate projectors to display in a theater. Yet the results were singular and riveting, works that could show you more of the world at once than any normal movie. It was the IMAX before IMAX, though the high cost and specialized equipment, process, and distribution materials involved ensured it would be short-lived.
In 1957, Cinerama was going the same way as old windjammer ships. It would be only a few years before the last film shot with the three-strip process would wrap. Even so, National Theatres had gone through with its plans to implement its own three-strip widescreen format to compete. Announced in 1955, Cinemiracle was more technologically refined than its predecessor; among other elements, it incorporated mirrors into its triple camera rigs so that the seams between the projected images would be less evident. (The three projectors could also be housed in one booth, whereas Cinerama required that they be positioned strategically around a theater.) Windjammer would be the showcase for the format, made by Cinemiracle Productions as an extended advertisement first and a documentary second.
But it ended up being the sole example instead. In 1960, Cinerama, Inc. purchased all Cinemiracle assets. Windjammer was transferred to Cinerama film for future showings. By 1963, there would be no more movies shot on that format either, and all further “Cinerama” presentations would be 70mm film projected into the special theaters, which would themselves gradually die out over the following decades. (Today, only three Cinerama venues survive.)
Despite the potential of the format, the logistical headaches involved meant very few fiction films were made in ultra-widescreen. Instead, Cinerama was used mainly for documentaries, especially travelogues. Now dead as a genre, having been supplanted first by reality shows and then by vloggers and Instagram, in the ’50s, travel documentaries were the most vivid way for an audience to glimpse foreign places and cultures. Cinerama and Cinemiracle in particular were ideal for these films, providing views one definitely couldn’t get from any book or magazine. Windjammer, with its vignettes of life on a sailing ship and tours of Scandinavia, Madeira, and the Caribbean, makes terrific use of its expanded canvas.
The opening 15 minutes are presented in a traditional 4:3 aspect ratio, with the frame majestically expanding as the Christian Radich first sets sail. The film continually and enthusiastically finds new things to look at and new ways to explore its many spaces. The wide screen can both capture the full breadth of the ship’s deck and make the audience feel like they’re sharing a small common area with the sailors. The crew sticks cameras on sleds to rush through the streets of Madeira, or on the prow of an American submarine as it submerges. A still shot of an island festival dance has room both for the revelers and for basket weavers nearby them, calmly at work. The movie feels not just like a collection of vacation hits but a true-blue first-person adventure, often exhilarating and sometimes breathtaking, like when it surveys the mountains and fjords of the sailors’ home country.
Producer Louis de Rochemont (the director’s father) was a pioneer in the development of theatrical newsreels in the ’30s, and Windjammer has a canny knack for capturing the most immediately interesting snippets of life in its various locations. It moves like a newsreel, rarely spending more than a few minutes with any given location, and transitioning from one event to the next with little fanfare. It makes the film’s two-and-a-half-hour runtime go by like an ocean gust. Meant as an announcement of the possibilities of Cinemiracle, the film is instead the sole existing artifact, and with 60 years gone since its release, it is also a time capsule of its subjects.
The Christian Radich still sails today — the only major aspect of this film still around, while Cinemiracle, Cinerama, and travelogues have all faded. But Flicker Alley has revived the movie, cleaning up the old prints and syncing the different film strips to create a restoration as close to the original as possible. To convey the dynamic of the curved Cinerama screen, the release presents the movie in “Smilebox,” a warped sort of widescreen letterboxing. It’s not quite the same as seeing it in a giant theater, but it’s a unique viewing experience all the same.
Windjammer is now available on Blu-ray and streaming platforms from Flicker Alley.