By Phil Hall | July 2, 2010

BOOTLEG FILES 330: “Windjammer” (1958 travelogue shot in the three-screen Cinemiracle widescreen process).

LAST SEEN: A restored version was screened last March at the Bradford International Film Festival.


A film that fell through the cracks and into severe disrepair.

A 2011 DVD and Blu-ray release is being talked about.

During the 1950s, the U.S. film industry saw its profitability battered by the arrival of television into the American living rooms. At the time, it was a serious challenge: movie attendance dropped dramatically as people began to stay home and enjoy free entertainment.  (Yes, this was the golden era when you didn’t have to pay to receive television broadcasts!)

However, television in the 1950s was limited in terms of technology: a small square screen offering black-and-white pictures that weren’t always of a pristine visual quality. To fight against television, the film industry decided to make the motion picture screen larger than ever while enhancing audio-visual dimensionality.

In 1952, the independently produced travelogue documentary “This is Cinerama” debuted the Cinerama process, which used three overlapping projectors running their 35mm images simultaneously on a huge curved screen.  The following year, 20th Century Fox offered the rectangular-shaped CinemaScope screen for its major releases “The Robe” and “How to Marry a Millionaire.”  Soon, Hollywood was offering a bewildering variety of different widescreen technologies including VistaVision, Todd-AO, Technirama, Panavision and MGM 65. Stereophonic soundtracks were also added to the theatrical experience. The resulting films may not have been better, but they were certainly bigger and noisier.

Also in the widescreen parade was something called Cinemiracle. It followed the concept of Cinerama with the simultaneous projection of three overlapping 35mm prints on a large curved screen, although it jiggered around the projection process in a manner that helped keep its creators from being fingered with patent infringement.  If that wasn’t bad enough, the Cinemiracle backers decided to recreate the success of “This is Cinerama” with its own travelogue documentary. The resulting work was “Windjammer,” produced by veteran filmmaker Louis de Rochemont and co-directed by his son Louis de Rochemont III along with Bill Colleran.

At the time, “Windjammer” seemed like a great idea for a film – the widescreen Cinemiracle camera would follow the adventures of the handsome young men aboard the Christian Radich, a Norwegian full rigged ship that was used for training sailors for the Norwegian merchant navy. The film would fulfill the requirements for a 1950s travelogue – plenty of exotic locales with colorfully silly natives and some degree of wacky adventure to distract the quotidian audience from its otherwise monotonous lives.

By today’s standards, however, “Windjammer” is a work of unintentional humor.  The film is a bizarre, misguided, slightly dull but often campy example of how not to produce a documentary.  The film’s weird personality seems to relay the message that the life of Norwegian merchant seamen is the aquatic equivalent of a musical comedy.

Indeed, “Windjammer” is jammed with an absurdly high quotient of music. Throughout the film, the young sailors burst into English-language songs created by the trio of Terry Gilkyson, Richard Dehr and Frank Miller. There are also a number of traditional sea shanties that get the full-rigged treatment, including “Life on the Ocean Waves” and “The Sea is Green.” If that’s not bad enough, the Christian Radich’s crew runs into cellist Pablo Casals during a stop in Puerto Rico, while one teenage sailor – an aspiring pianist who managed to bring his instrument on the ship – performs with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops. Spicing the soundtrack are some Trinidadian calypso singers who show up during a Caribbean port call and a symphonic score by Morton Gould that seems to have been mistakenly removed from a grand epic and stuck into this nautical nonsense.

So what happens when the crew of the Christian Radich isn’t living its own private Tony Awards ceremony?  Well, there is a stop in Madeira that enables the Cinemiracle cinematographers to do a POV experience in a basket sled ride down the cobblestone streets.  This sequence is a blatant rip-off of the classic rollercoaster experience from “This is Cinerama,” and the film’s goofball narrator reminds us that “the sleds have no guard rails, no safety belts, no brakes. There’s nothing to hold onto but your hat,
or if you’re lucky – a girlfriend.” (It appears the narration was not crafted with the possibility that heterosexual women would watch the film.)

There is also a stop in New York City, where the sailors walk around looking at the skyscrapers. The New York sequence also includes some kaleidoscopic trick photography and a cacophonous score that sounds like “Rhapsody in Blue” played backwards. The sailors also go to Philadelphia to watch the local fire department in a safety training demonstration.

Out at sea, the Christian Radich also encounters the German ship Pamir (which sank in a hurricane after the film was shot) and a U.S. Navy submarine on training maneuvers.  There are endless shots of the Atlantic waves pummeling the ship.

“Windjammer” was a major hit when it opened in 1958 as a road show attraction – hey, audiences were a lot less sophisticated back then.  The folks at Cinerama, who were none-too-pleased about Cinemiracle, quietly purchased both the rights to the film and the Cinemiracle process.  No further films were made in Cinemiracle, and “Windjammer” was re-released in 1962 in the Cinerama process.

But a film can only play in theaters for a finite period of time, and the triple-print Cinemiracle presentation did not lend itself to small screen broadcasts.  “Windjammer” dated very quickly and fell out of circulation, and for years it was only known through its reputation as the sole Cinemiracle film.  A crummy bootleg copy using a painfully faded print shown on a single screen (complete with obvious join lines where the overlapping films met) has circulated via DVD, and some clips from this atrocity can be found online.

However, “Windjammer” has been rescued from obscurity.  Filmmaker David Strohmaier has digitally restored the film. (The join lines are still there, albeit somewhat faintly.)  Since it would cost too much to install either Cinemiracle or Cinerama in today’s cinemas for a re-release, “Windjammer” is being projected with a “smilebox” letterbox configuration that duplicates the original curved screen dimensions of both defunct processes.

The restored “Windjammer” was shown last March at the Bradford International Film Festival in England.  There is talk of a 2011 DVD and Blu-ray release, although no distributor has been officially announced yet.

While the return of “Windjammer” does not herald the rediscovery of a lost classic, at least it preserves the film in a visually attractive manner.  As a nutty relic from more than a half-century ago, the widescreen “Windjammer” offers an invaluable lesson that applies in filmmaking and everyday life: bigger is not always better!

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!

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  1. Phil Hall says:

    Heads up: a digitally remastered version of “Windjammer” is being released in a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack on Sept. 25 via the good folks at Flicker Alley.

  2. francis smith grandson of P.Stanley Smith says:

    I have my grandfather’s original drawlings of the base I believe @ my house here in NY…play the film @ darien lake the theater already has the curved screen n projector cinema 2000…I remember the camera in my father’s baesment growing up…

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