It’s rare nowadays that audiences sit in cinemas to view a film that runs over three hours. The one film in recent memory that timed out at the three hour mark was Martin Scorsese’s 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street. The year before, audiences were swept away with Quentin Tarantino’s “spaghetti” style western Django Unchained (2 hr 45 min) and Christoper Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises (2 hr 44 min) which helped prove to modern audiences they can sit in a film for nearly three hours and still be riveted since it appears there is a growing trend of audiences who do not wish to be in a theater for this long and sometimes they’re right due to films like Watchmen (2008) or King Kong (2005) which had serious pacing issues with their theatrical run (particularly King Kong).

Of course in the early to mid 2000’s audiences stayed glued to their seats to watch the epic Tolkien trilogy unfold with each film nearly clocking in at three hours with the exception of the third and final installment, The Return of the King, which timed out at surprisingly whopping 3 hours and 21 minutes which is quite unheard of for the theatrical run…that is for 21st century anyway. Peter Jackson’s epic trilogy can be viewed as a remnant of the epics of the 20th century that understood how to engage the audience with authentic storytelling and riveting characters.

Now it must be understood that quite a few epics are still made in the 21st century–as is seen with Jackson’s Rings trilogy. Alas, these epics rarely run over three hours, though with the creation of home video and more people recreating the theatrical experience in their home, these epics are released in “extended cuts” to give audiences the option to choose to view the longer cut or simply pass. With this new method, audiences can still view the film in theaters with a shorter theatrical run, and then add a longer version to their collection if they so choose. With the introduction of home video players such as DVD and Blu-ray the home audience can pause the film at leisure, stop and finish it the next day since the player has the capability to pick right up where the film left off or return to the theatrical version for a shorter experience.

Not until the late, late 20th century did home media come about with play, pause, and all those wonderful features. From the very beginning of the 1900’s right up to the cusp of the turn of the century were films well over three hours shown in theaters across the country. Although, it is worth noting after the 1960’s the films began diminishing in length even if they still did run three hours. Around the mid-century did films truly hit their high point concerning runtime.

Film in its infancy was viewed as translating a stage play to a screen. Look at how silent films were shot and how they are staged. You’ll see what I’m talking about. Also, stage plays featured an overture and an intermission to give the audiences a break. Many films with a long runtime featured an intermission so the projectionist could switch the film reels, but it also provided a nice break for the audience to stretch their legs, use the restroom, refill their concessions without missing the film and refocus their attention. Intermission during a movie nowadays is unheard of because a majority of movie’s runtime don’t require an intermission even if they draw close to three hours. An intermission also means less showings per day thus lower tickets sales = less money the movie makes. The last and only time I can remember being in a theater that featured an intermission was the summer of 2015 I saw a showing of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Needless to say, the intermission was much appreciated even though the film is just a minute shy of two and a half hours.

I debated whether to organize this list of films by release date or runtime; ultimatley I decided to organize them by release date in order to show, no matter era, the film could still be quite long and also show that around the 60’s there were quite a few 3+ hr epics released and audiences were not tired of them judging by their critical acclaim and Oscar wins/nominations. At the bottom of the post you’ll find the films organized by runtime. The amazing thing is that even if some of these films barely exceed the 180 minute mark or come right to the brink of four hours they are all still fascinating films that never drag. Director’s today can learn a thing or two about pacing from the film’s on this list.

Of course, there are many, many more films that run over three hours that were created in the 20th century that saw a theatrical run, but I tried to compile a list of films many may not know or have simply heard of but may not know much about or have forgotten about. You’ll notice The Godfather Part I or Part II are not on this list for that very reason, but I’ll be sure to include them in another post (possibly a part 2). I have seen every film on this list except Metropolis which happens to be the first film on the list. When you find a free Saturday or Sunday afternoon these are 10 films worth escaping to for the entire day to get lost in their world.

1. Metropolis (1927)
Original Runtime: 3 hr 30 min

Director: Fritz Lang
Academy Awards? None.
Does it feature an intermission?: No
Is the full version available on Blu-ray or DVD? Sort of
How many versions are there? 8 versions
Can I watch a shorter version? Yes

That runtime may come as a shock to most readers and so will that date. Can you imagine watching a three and a half hour silent film? Well don’t worry because you never will. Sadly, the original print of Metropolis has been lost and it is most unlikely anyone will ever see Fritz Lang’s original three and a half hour cut which was most likely his rough “workprint” version of the film (still would be amazing to see though). The version originally shown in German cinemas was somewhere around two and half hours which was Lang’s theatrically sanctioned edition. The history of the restoration of Metropolis is too detailed to be recounted here but the restorations of the versions is worth reading. When the film premiered in US cinemas it was heavily truncated with a running time of 1 hr 54 min. Even this version became lost. It wasn’t until 1984 that the film was shown in it’s most complete version with not just a remaster but a complete remix of the film. Alas this remixed 1 hr 20 min version was not commercially available until five years ago in November 2011. The film has increased in runtime with each restoration, yet it was not until 2010 could consumers everywhere get their hands on a copy of what has been dubbed “The Complete Metropolis” with a runtime of 2 hr 29 min making it the most complete version ever seen since it’s premiere in 1927 but still missing just a couple of minutes of footage from Lang’s intended runtime. That extra hour of missing footage that comprised the original three and a half hour runtime may never be found, but you never know, someday we may get a megacut of the film that may not necessarily be the prime choice for viewing just because of narrative structure yet nevertheless die-hard film fans would love to see it.

2. Gone With the Wind (1939) Best Picture Winner
Runtime: 3 hour 58 min

Director: Victor Flemming
Academy Awards? 8 wins, 13 nominations
Does it feature an intermission?: Absolutely
Is the full version available on Blu-ray or DVD? Yes
How many versions are there? 1 version
Can I watch a shorter version? No

Yes, you read that right…12 years after Fritz Lang made his mammoth sci-fi masterpiece, Victor Flemming adapted Margret Mitchell’s enrapturing 1,037 page novel Gone with the Wind. With a novel that size you can see why it requires a film that is basically four hours long including the intermission and overture. This is a full color, full sound, and fully intact film. Shockingly enough, this film was not cut for theaters and good thing it wasn’t butchered in the editing room because it certainly could have been. That year at the Academy Awards Gone With the Wind had 13 nominations and swept the Oscars with eight wins including Best Picture of the Year.

I have seen this film many times and there is not one slow moment except for the intermission oddly enough. Most recently I viewed this film with my girlfriend who I thankfully got to sit down with me and watch this entire classic. I believe the intermission comes around the two hour mark and we both were ready to keep blowing through so we did fast forward (thanks to the power of home video).

This is one film that could easily be a Part 1 and Part 2 of how it is structured and most likely would have been if it was released today. But just letting you know when you decide to watch this film and that nearly four hour running time seems too daunting then go ahead and watch up to the intermission the first night and go ahead and watch the latter half the second night. Because of how Flemming structured the film it works nicely to break it up into two viewings, though you may find that you don’t  want to.

3. The Ten Commandments (1956)
Runtime: 3 hr 51 min

Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Academy Awards? 1 win, 7 nominations
Does it feature an intermission?: Absolutely
Is the full version available on Blu-ray or DVD? Yes
How many versions are there? 1 version
Can I watch a shorter version? No

This is the first of two Biblical epics on this list. Back in the 50’s and 60’s there were numerous Biblical epics made but only a few exceeded three hours (the other famous one being Ben Hur which is not discussed on this list).

When I was a young kid I watched this film which my parents on an old VHS  with commercials (which made it far, far longer than the theatrical runtime listed above). It may come as a suprise that a small child wanted to watch a four hour epic drama let alone could actually sit through it. Well I actually didn’t sit through the full movie in one sitting. I remember we broke it up into four nights actually which came to about one hour per night. I haven’t seen the film in a number of years but I remember it actually working pretty well.

Purchase The Ten Commandments on Blu-ray, Digital, or DVD

4. Lawrence of Arabia (1962) Best Picture Winner
Theatrical Runtime: 3 hr 36 min
Director’s Cut: 3 hr 47 min

Director: David Lean
Academy Awards? 7 wins, 10 nominations
Does it feature an intermission?: Yes
Is the full version available on Blu-ray or DVD? Yes
How many versions are there? 2 versions
Can I watch a shorter version? Yes

I have seen this film multiple times but unlike say Gone With the Wind which is a somewhat longer I can never remember much of the details of this film. It is quite an intricate film with a complex plot but this only makes it more enjoyable with each viewing since the film always feels fresh and new. Not to say I remember everything about Gone With the Wind and it does not feel fresh with every viewing, but it does have certain memorable landmark points in the film that I believe is easier for a viewer to remember than the points of Lawrence.

Buy the fully Restored Director’s Cut of Lawrence of Arabia on Blu-ray

5. It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)
Original Runtime: 3 hr 30 min
Theatrical Runtime: 2 hr 40 min
Restored Runtime: 3 hr 18 min

Director: Stanley Kramer
Academy Awards? 1 win, 6 nominations
Does it feature an intermission?: Yes
Is the full version available on Blu-ray or DVD? Yes
How many version are there? 6 versions
Can I watch a shorter version? Yes

As with most films on this list, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World has a colored past when it comes to the original version. Kramer premiered his version of the film at three hours and 30 minutes (210 min) but quickly cut it to three hours and 12 minutes. Subsequently the studio, without his permission, chopped the film to a 2 hours and 41 minutes for its release. Without delving into it’s confusing colored history of its path to restoration the film has only been available in the 2 hour and 40 minute version and this has been the only version most people are familiar with which does seem plenty long to me. I have seen this cut multiple times and I never realized anything was lacking. The story has always felt clear and coherent to me. Nothing feels excised in the plot that would cause inconsistencies or confusion (as far as my memory serves).

A little over two years ago Criterion released the Kramer’s intended  version and slightly added more footage. For the first time in 53 years film aficionados can see the fully intact version of the film that runs 3 hours and 18 minutes or opt for the shorter cut that everyone is used to. I personally have not seen the three hour plus cut but I look forward to revisiting one of my favorite classic comedies in a never before seen cut.

6. The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)
Original Runtime: 4 hr 20 min
Theatrical Runtime: 2 hr 20min
Blu-ray/DVD: 3 hr 19 min

Director: George Stevens
Academy Awards? 5 nominations
Does it feature an intermission? Yes
Is the full version available on Blu-ray or DVD? No
How many version are there? 3 versions
Can I watch a shorter version? No

This has to be the longest movie over the four Gospels of Jesus found in the Bible. I have only seen the film once and I remember it to be quite inclusive with its narrative of the life of Christ. I was not aware the US premiere was 4 hours and 20 minutes long but that has been lost to time. There have been drastic cuts to this film as you can see with the theatrical runtime whereas the currently available release features an hour of restored footage. Although, this movie is quite long and dry in parts, it’s definitely worth checking out.

Buy The Greatest Story Ever Told

7. Doctor Zhivago (1965)
Theatrical Runtime: 3 hr 17 min

Director: David Lean
Academy Awards: 5 wins, 10 nominations
Does it feature an intermission? Yes
Is the full version available on Blu-ray or DVD? Yes
How many version are there? 1 version
Can I watch a shorter version? No

Ah this film is wonderful! An absolute delight! Sadly, I have only seen this epic of the Russian Revolution just once.  You’ll notice the director and lead also worked on Lawrence of Arabia. Something to be noted is the Blu-ray runs slightly longer than the theatrical cut by only three minutes. I don’t know why this is except maybe longer end credits to include those who worked on the restoration.

This film has something for everyone: romance, war, action, peace, thrill, mystery, and the list goes on. If you’re especially interested in the Russian Revolution or Russia at the turn of the century then I definitely recommend sitting down one afternoon where the lights barely filter in through the shades to give that cool blue atmosphere (especially in a basement), don’t forget your blanket (it gets cold in Russia) and get lost in turn-of-the-century Russian upheaval.

Buy Doctor Zhivago on Blu-ray

8. Nicholas and Alexandra (1971)
Runtime: 3 hr 3 min

Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Academy Awards? 2 wins, 6 nominations
Does it feature an intermission?: Yes
Is the full version available on Blu-ray or DVD? Yes
How many version are there? 1 version
Can I watch a shorter version? No

Like Doctor Zhivago, this film chronicles the Russian Revolution except through the eyes of the Tsar family instead of citizens. I have seen this film just once on TCM one afternoon and I was delightfully surprised. The film goes quite in-depth into Tsar Nicholas II’s family and their exile to Siberia. If you enjoyed the :The actor that played Rasputin in Nicholas and Alexandra ...fictional 1997 animated film Anastasia then you may want to take a look at this film. Anastasia is in this film and so is the evil Rasputin. You’ll notice though the animated film greatly exaggerates Rasputin’s role and completely fictionalizes Anastasia’s life so don’t go into this movie expecting lots of magic and zany characters. Expect beautiful locations, great acting (especially from Rasputin. Gosh he’s creepy! Those eyes!), and an intriguing look at the Tsar family.

Buy Nicholas and Alexandra on Blu-ray, Digital, and DVD

9. Gandhi (1982)
Workprint Runtime: 4 hr
Theatrical Runtime: 3 hr 11 min

Director: Richard Attenborough
Academy Awards: 8 wins, 11 nominations
Does it feature an intermission? No
Is the full version available on Blu-ray or DVD? Yes
How many versions are there? 1 version
Can I watch a shorter version? No

Gandhi is simply a masterpiece. The film takes you on a massive journey of the man’s life. Needless to say it was an enormous undertaking to chronicle such a strongly revered man’s life and do it justice and I’m pleased to say Attenborough and Ben Kingsley who plays Gandhi do a brilliant job. When I first rented the film I watched it twice in one weekend I enjoyed it so much.

The four hour rough cut will most likely never see the light of day nor should it. When films are deemed “workprint” then that means they are in the rough beginning stages and not ready for audience viewing. Normally, workprints have pacing issues that require editing or are not fully finished vis-a-vis special effects, audio mixing, etc. I do actually own a studio/director sanctioned Workprint of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, though I have not seen the film.

blade runner workprint
As you can see the Workprint is shorter than the final version and is not rated.

The theatrically released Gandhi is the definitive cut.

10. Dances with Wolves (1990) Best Picture Winner
Theatrical Runtime: 3 hr 1 min
“Director’s” Cut/Extended Cut Runtime: 3 hr 54 min

Director: Kevin Costner
Academy Awards? 7 wins, 12 nominations
Does it feature an intermission? No
Is the full version available on Blu-ray or DVD? Yes
How many version are there? 2 versions
Can I watch a shorter version? Yes

Dances with Wolves was met with such acclaim that the creators began work on an essentially four hour version not long after the film’s theatrical release. I’m pretty sure I only saw the theatrical cut but I do own the extended cut on Blu-ray which according to the back of the box restores 55 minutes of footage.

As you can see after Doctor Zhivago the remaining films on this list began to draw closer to just slightly over the three hour mark with Dances with Wolves just exceeding three hours by one minute. After this film left theaters it would be rare to see a film reach three hours in theaters until Jackson’s Rings trilogy that is which was not until the beginning of the new millennium. Technology had improved so films did not require an intermission, thus allowing theaters to pack in more showtimes per day. Dances with Wolves could also be seen as the beginning of the home media “extended cut.” If the filmmakers would have released the four hour Dances with Wolves in theaters it is more than likely a majority of audiences members would not have seen it thus diminishing its popularity at the time. The extended cut allowed those movie goers who were thirsty for more of Costner’s created world to return on Laserdisc or VHS with a one time admission fee for infinite viewings and self-created intermissions.

This nearly four hour cut of Dances with Wolves is an interesting treat for those who wish to spend more time in Costner’s world with the characters. Previous films on this list have a decent amount of footage restored but Dances with Wolves brings it to a whole new level by adding nearly an hour of footage.

The creators wished to express that the theatrical cut is a complete work. The extended cut is really meant for the creators to cut a new version that they felt would really please audiences who wanted more. So if the four hour cut does not sound attracting to you then you’ll be more than fine with the three hour theatrical cut.

 

  1. Metropolis (1927) Runtime: 3 hr 30 min (Final runtime 2 hr 29 min)
  2. Nicholas and Alexandra (1971) Runtime: 3 hrs 3 mins
  3. Gandhi (1982) Runtime: 3 hr 11 min
  4. Doctor Zhivago (1965) Runtime: 3 hr 17 min
  5. It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) Runtime: 3 hr 18 min
  6. The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) Runtime: 3 hr 19 min
  7. Lawrence of Arabia (1962) Runtime: 3 hr 47 min
  8. The Ten Commandments (1956) 3 hr 51 min
  9. Dances with Wolves (1990) Runtime: 3 hr 54 min
  10. Gone With the Wind (1939) Runtime: 3 hr 58 min
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