16 Unbelievably Long Hollywood Movies
While certain 90-minute turkeys might feel like they run for 24 hours, there are indeed actual films that hit that length; experimental works usually exhibited only in art galleries or at avant-garde film festivals. Few (if any) have ever been screened for the public at large. For example, the 2012 Swedish film Logistics has a running time of 35 days and 17 hours — it’s hard to see it doing much business at the multiplex alongside the likes of Monster Trucks and The Bye Bye Man.
Then again, there have been a number of Hollywood productions that burst past the accepted norm of two hours. These are movies that were originally screened in theaters with the expectation that moviegoers would be willing to sit through such lengthy endeavors — it excludes director’s cuts pieced together for subsequent DVD debuts, movies that were massively trimmed before their debuts and only restored later, or special editions that were released years later after the originals had established themselves as classics.
Depending on the source, running times might fluctuate slightly — particularly for older epics that once contained opening overtures, intermissions, and exit music — but here, without further ado, we present 16 Unbelievably Long Hollywood Movies.
16. THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING
Running Time: 3 hours 20 minutes
Pulling off a successful three-peat, Peter Jackson wrapped up J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy saga with 2003’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, a dazzling chapter that outgrossed its predecessors and led to Oscar overkill when the Academy handed it 11-out-of-11 awards. It also eclipsed the previous pictures in terms of running time; with The Fellowship of the Ring at 178 minutes and The Two Towers at 179 minutes, they’re no match for Return of the King‘s 200 minutes.
Clearly, the film is long, but not necessarily overlong — even the battle sequences are executed with more focus and clarity than those in The Two Towers. The super-sized length also allows several members of the large cast to strut their stuff, while several new creatures, from an army of ghostly marauders to a gigantic spider in the best Ray Harryhausen tradition, are staggering to behold.
Ultimately, though, this final act belongs to the ring-bearer and his equally small companions. The odyssey of the Hobbit Frodo (Elijah Wood), his faithful companion Sam (Sean Astin), and the treacherous Gollum is the true heart of the film, evoking all sorts of emotions as each player is constantly forced to make painful decisions and struggle with their own tortured psyches. The Return of the King is a movie of expensive visual effects and expansive battle scenes, but when it comes to truly making its mark, we have to thank all the little people.
15. THE GODFATHER: PART II
Running Time: 3 hours 20 minutes
Just as film buffs constantly argue over whether Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back is the best of the original trilogy, so do they debate whether Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 The Godfather or its 1974 follow-up is the best of the Mario Puzo Mob movies (and like with Return of the Jedi, 1990’s The Godfather: Part III never really enters the conversation).
The Godfather: Part II is certainly longer, eclipsing the first chapter by 25 minutes. It’s also more narratively ambitious, effortlessly moving between flashbacks involving the initial rise of Vito Corleone (the Marlon Brando role in the original, here played by Robert De Niro in an Oscar-winning performance) and the continuing tale of his son Michael (Al Pacino) as he builds his own empire.
The first and (until The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) only sequel to nab the Best Picture Oscar, The Godfather: Part II may ultimately not match the spectacle, immediacy, or brute force of its predecessor, but it’s more haunting in its depiction of Michael Corleone as a once-decent man destroyed by the world he inhabits. The plot strand involving his weak-willed brother Fredo (John Cazale) is particularly heartrending, ending with the famous line, “I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart.”
14. MALCOLM X
Running Time: 3 hours 21 minutes
If Warner Bros. and various financiers had gotten their way, Spike Lee’s 1992 biopic Malcolm X would run no longer than 135 minutes. That was the stipulation laid down by the powers-that-be, but Lee refused, money became tight, and the production was shut down. Fortunately, the maverick filmmaker then took his case to various black celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Magic Johnson and Prince, all of whom donated funds to the project.
The additional income allowed Lee to again call the shots, resulting in a monumental movie that requires every one of its 201 minutes to properly tell the life story of the controversial activist. Working from Malcolm X’s autobiography, Lee was careful to preserve the complete arc of the man’s life, showing how he survived a troubled childhood and a prison stint to emerge as the powerful and feared spokesman for the Nation of Islam before his assassination.
As the title figure, Denzel Washington‘s work is amazing: he effortlessly adapts to the various canvases painted by Lee, swinging from deliriously reckless in early scenes to passionate and incendiary in the middle, and finally to pensive and worldly in the latter sequences. It’s one of the all-time great screen performances, which makes it even more ludicrous that Washington lost the Best Actor Oscar to Al Pacino’s scenery-masticating turn in Scent of a Woman.
Running Time: 3 hours 21 minutes
James Dean’s standing as both a screen icon and the epitome of cool has rarely been eclipsed, despite — or perhaps due to — the fact that he only starred in three motion pictures. The final of the trio was 1956’s Giant, and it was only a few days after he had finished shooting all of his scenes that he was killed in a car accident at the age of 24.
As Jett Rink, a simple cowhand who becomes a conniving oil tycoon, Dean’s role is really a supporting one, though the actor’s own quirks effectively fill out a rather sketchy character. The real stars are Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor; he’s a racist cattle baron who’s the ultimate word in Texas excess and success, while she’s the level-headed wife who tries to tame his Southern vulgarities with her Eastern civility.
As befits its title, everything surrounding this ambitious, if occasionally scattershot, adaptation of the Edna Ferber novel is huge, from its overextended production costs to its gargantuan box office success to its 201-minute running time. While it received a generous 10 Oscar nominations, including Best Actor bids for both Hudson and (posthumously) Dean, only director George Stevens walked away with statue in hand.
Running Time: 3 hours 27 minutes
As detailed in Trumbo, the excellent 2015 biopic starring Bryan Cranston, the heinous Hollywood blacklist was broken when two powerful filmmakers hired persona non grata Dalton Trumbo to write the scripts for their respective movies using his own moniker rather than a pseudonym. One, of course, was actor-producer Kirk Douglas with 1960’s Spartacus; the other was director-producer Otto Preminger with Exodus, the screen version of Leon Uris’ bestselling novel about the founding of the State of Israel.
Trumbo served up two hefty screenplays full of incident, emotion, and intellectual exchanges. The 184-minute Spartacus is clearly more entertaining, although there’s something to be said for the 207-minute Exodus — particularly Trumbo’s streamlining of so much historical content (and, yes, fictional deviations) found in Uris’ bowling-ball-sized novel, as well as Preminger’s mounting of some truly impressive set-pieces.
Screen legend Paul Newman is curiously ineffectual as Haganah leader Ari Ben Canaan, and his character’s romance with an American nurse (Eva Marie Saint) lacks passion and often slows the film to a crawl. The political passages fare better, with Sal Mineo and David Opatoshu both effective as radical Irgun operatives.
11. WAR AND PEACE
Running Time: 3 hours 28 minutes
The 1956 adaptation of War and Peace clocks in at 208 minutes, and what’s interesting to note is that the running time actually makes it one of the shorter filmic versions of Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel. Since Tolstoy’s tome easily clears 1,000 pages in any edition, most of the adaptations have been TV miniseries (the longest of which — at 15 hours — is a 1972 BBC production starring Anthony Hopkins).
With a comparatively shorter running time, the Hollywood version from ’56 was roundly criticized for a superficial script cobbled together by no less than six writers — the love story between an intellectual aristocrat (Henry Fonda) and a compassionate princess (Audrey Hepburn) was largely retained but the politics surrounding Napoleon’s invasion of Russia were mostly MIA. Aside from Hepburn, the cast also failed to inspire much confidence, with Fonda receiving much of the criticism (for his part, the actor felt he was miscast and reportedly admitted to participating only for the paycheck).
Considering Tolstoy’s nationality, perhaps it’s fitting that the most acclaimed theatrical version isn’t this American take but rather a 6-hour Russian adaptation that opened in the U.S. in 1968 and proceeded to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
Running Time: 3 hours 32 minutes
For over a half-century, 1959’s Ben-Hur has held the record for the most Oscar wins with 11, a feat tied in more recent years by Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. From a technical standpoint, this mammoth production is the most impressive of the bunch. While the newer movies rely heavily on CGI work, this Biblical epic had to do it the old-fashioned way, with blood, sweat, and that proverbial cast of thousands.
MGM rolled the dice on this one, investing a wad of dough as the studio teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. But the movie proved to be a resounding success worldwide — even its hefty 222-minute running time didn’t deter audiences from reveling in its widescreen splendor.
As the Jew whose skirmishes with the Roman conquerors fuel his anger until his soul is saved by Christ, Oscar-winning Charlton Heston wavers between stiff indignity and genuine pathos. More consistent is Stephen Boyd, whose underrated turn provides the right measure of suave sadism as Ben-Hur’s antagonist Messala. And, yes, the obvious homosexual vibe between Ben-Hur and Messala was intended — Boyd, director William Wyler and co-scripter Gore Vidal all discussed it before shooting, though they didn’t tell Heston since they assumed (no doubt correctly) that he would freak out.
9. HEAVEN’S GATE
Running Time: 3 hours 39 minutes
Michael Cimino’s 1978 Vietnam War saga The Deer Hunter cost $15 million to make and ran three hours, but since it grossed $48 million and won Best Picture and Best Director Oscars, no one at United Artists thought anything of providing its director with $12 million to shoot his Western epic Heaven’s Gate. But Cimino’s fanatical attention to detail — he had entire sets torn down and rebuilt for nonsensical reasons; he would shoot up to 50 takes for what would end up being a split-second moment in the finished film; he delayed production while waiting for the perfect cloud formation or the desired amount of sunlight; and so on — resulted in a production that ended up costing $44 million and a cut that ran close to four hours.
When the 219-minute Heaven’s Gate premiered in 1980, it was so utterly destroyed by critics and ignored by audiences that Cimino had it pulled, cut it down to 149 minutes, and threw it back into theaters the following year. It was all to no avail, as it grossed a measly $3.4 million, led to a nearly bankrupt United Artists being sold, and destroyed Cimino’s career (thankfully, stars Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, Isabelle Huppert, and Jeff Bridges all came out unscathed).
While Heaven’s Gate has long been admired in Europe, its stateside reputation has only increased in recent years, perhaps due in part to its topical tale about evil American millionaires waging war against impoverished immigrants.
8. THE TEN COMMANDMENTS
Running Time: 3 hours 40 minutes
Moses may have railed against the worshipping of the Golden Calf, but studio executives couldn’t help worshipping this cash cow, which upon its initial release became the second highest grossing picture in film history (topped only by Gone With the Wind). Cecil B. DeMille’s cinematic swan song, 1956’s The Ten Commandments is staggering as spectacle and inspirational as a Biblical tale, but it has to labor mighty hard to overcome lamentable dialogue and the surprisingly feeble acting by virtually all of its leading players.
As expected, it relates the story of Moses (Charlton Heston) from his birth through such significant incidents as the burning bush and the acquisition of the tablets. To needlessly stretch the running time, there are also ample scenes featuring his rival Rameses (Yul Brynner) as well as Nefretiri (Anne Baxter), the princess caught between them.
Few could touch DeMille in his ability to direct gargantuan crowds, and sequences like the parting of the Red Sea still have the power to move audiences. But lines like “Oh, Moses, Moses, you stubborn, splendid, adorable fool!” have endeared this film to connoisseurs of camp cinema, and, with the exception of Sir Cedric Hardwicke as Ramses’ father Sethi, the key performances are tough to digest. Heston is stiff, Brynner is hammy, and Edward G. Robinson and especially Baxter are grossly miscast.
7. LAWRENCE OF ARABIA
Running Time: 3 hours 42 minutes
Lawrence of Arabia has long been regarded as one of the greatest motion pictures ever made, with its numerous accolades including seven Academy Award wins and lofty placement (#7) on the AFI’s 2007 list of the 100 best American movies. But even its stature couldn’t save it from going under the knife, as the 222-minute version released in 1962 was soon chopped by 20 minutes (by the filmmakers themselves, to allow for more showings) and later shorn of an additional 15 minutes for re-release during the 1970s. Fortunately, director David Lean’s masterpiece was fully restored in 1988 — even the extra minutes for the overture, entr’acte, and exit music were put back — and that’s the version now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
While it’s hard to imagine anyone but Peter O’Toole playing T.E. Lawrence, the British officer who unites the Arab people against the Turks during World War I, the role was initially offered to veteran Marlon Brando and newcomer Albert Finney, both of whom turned it down. O’Toole is on screen for practically the entire length of the picture, making his one of the longest single performances captured on film.
As for the movie itself, it’s a technical marvel, and, with the possible exception of the bone turning into a spaceship in 2001: A Space Odyssey, it contains cinema’s best jump cut: Lawrence blowing out a match in a Cairo office and the instant transportation to the sun rising over the simmering desert.
6. GONE WITH THE WIND
Running Time: 3 hours 42 minutes
When adjusted for inflation, Gone with the Wind remains the top moneymaking film of all time. Purely from a cinematic standpoint, this 1939 adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s bestseller about a Southern family’s struggles during the Civil War is a genuine treasure, an engrossing epic distinguished by breathtaking achievements in pure moviemaking.
From a social standpoint, however, it remains ingrained in controversy. Along with D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, it’s the film most responsible for whitewashing the evils of racism and in effect making a romanticized vision of the Old South palatable to the nation at large.
Still, Gone with the Wind is a film of numerous highs, beginning with Vivien Leigh’s extraordinary performance as Scarlett O’Hara – one of the most fully developed characters ever depicted in American cinema – and ending with Clark Gable’s iconic turn as the dashing Rhett Butler.
In addition to breaking box office records, the film earned eight Academy Awards (plus two special Oscars), among them Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actress for Hattie McDaniel (as Mammy). It also contributed the immortal line ranked #1 by the American Film Institute in its list of the Top 100 Movie Quotes: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!”
5. THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD
Running Time: 3 hours 45 minutes
The 1960s witnessed battling Jesuses on the nation’s movie screens, as 1961’s King of Kings was followed four years later by The Greatest Story Ever Told.
King of Kings was shorter, running 168 minutes as opposed to the latter’s 225 minutes. The Greatest Story Ever Told was trimmed down to different lengths following its original run in 1965 — the 199-minute cut is the one widely available today — but its overstay can be felt in any version.
As he demonstrated with Giant, director George Stevens knows his way around an awe-inspiring shot, but The Greatest Story Ever Told is largely hampered by the poor all-star casting. Max von Sydow is too pious as the Messiah — his lack of animation is better suited to a fresco than a motion picture — while normally reliable actors like Charlton Heston (John the Baptist) and Telly Savalas (Pontius Pilate) dial up the ham. And then there’s John Wayne in the most notorious bit of casting — as a Roman soldier overseeing the crucifixion, he saunters up to the cross and drawls, “Truly, this man was the son of God.”
4. THE ICEMAN COMETH
Running Time: 3 hours 59 minutes
The 1973 screen version of The Iceman Cometh belies the property’s reputation as a mainstay of the theater — a surprise, given all the talent involved with the celluloid translation. Eugene O’Neill’s 1946 play has been successfully brought to the stage — both Broadway and beyond — on numerous occasions, attracting the powerhouse likes of Kevin Spacey, Nathan Lane and Jason Robards. Cinematically, though, there’s only been one adaptation, and it’s been largely forgotten over time.
Despite John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate) at the helm, the movie is little more than a filmed play, with very few attempts to open it up for the medium. At least the cast is packed with heavy-hitters, including Fredric March as the owner of a Greenwich Village bar populated exclusively by depressed drunks and prostitutes, Jeff Bridges as a troubled teenager, and top-billed Lee Marvin as a traveling salesman who drops by every few months to cheer up the locals.
If nothing else, the theatrical release of The Iceman Cometh at least had the distinction of offering not one but two intermissions to break up the talky tale.
Running Time: 4 hours 2 minutes
William Shakespeare‘s immortal play has been brought to the screen on several occasions. No one, however, had ever attempted to do what Kenneth Branagh managed in 1996: film the entire, uncut text. Branagh’s Hamlet is a dazzling achievement — a highly charged interpretation that paints the great Dane not so much as a melancholy, morally confused prince but rather a jock with a rapier wit and an unquenchable thirst for revenge.
The actors filling out the larger roles are excellent — Kate Winslet as Ophelia, Derek Jacobi as Claudius, and Richard Briers as Polonius are especially good — but in an obvious and ill-advised attempt to add more marquee value to his picture, Branagh cast some incongruous American actors in small roles. Yet with the exception of Charlton Heston, who’s surprisingly effective as the Player King, these Yanks (Robin Williams, Jack Lemmon, Billy Crystal) distract from the proceedings with their flat accents, vaudeville shtick, and awkward line deliveries.
Among Hamlet’s four Academy Award nominations was a bid for Branagh for Best Adapted Screenplay — a curious citation, since the film’s entire text was lifted verbatim from the Bard!
Running Time: 4 hours 3 minutes
The 1963 period epic Cleopatra is far more famous for behind-the-scenes shenanigans than anything actually occurring on the screen. At the time, it was the most expensive film in history, and when adjusted for inflation, its budget in 2017 terms stands at a staggering $240 million ($342 million if marketing costs are included). It emerged as the top moneymaker of its year, but that was little consolation to 20th Century Fox, since its price tag nearly bankrupted the studio.
For portraying the title character, Elizabeth Taylor became the first actor to be promised a $1 million salary for one movie — a figure that swelled to $7 million once percentage points and overtime pay was added. Taylor also set another record by wearing 65 different outfits over the course of the four-hour film. And while it didn’t set any sort of record, the on-set dalliances between Taylor and co-star Richard Burton (cast as Marc Anthony) did create scandalous headlines since both were still married to other people.
Rex Harrison earned rave reviews and a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Julius Caesar, but the rest of this overindulgent mess was dismissed as — to quote one critic — “a Vegas-style history lesson, but dammit, a boring one.”
Running Time: 4 hours 8 minutes
It’s perhaps not surprising that 1993’s Gettysburg tops this list, since TV mogul Ted Turner had originally planned to release this adaptation of Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Killer Angels as a TV miniseries. But after viewing some of the footage, he opted to move forward with the goal of releasing it to theaters instead.
Gettysburg centers on the three-day battle which many historians felt changed the course of the Civil War, and it presents all of the central characters on both sides as noble individuals fighting for their beliefs (needless to say, the issue of slavery is all but ignored). The acting is strong — Jeff Daniels steals the show as a gallant Union officer, while Tom Berenger and Martin Sheen are on hand to represent the Confederate side — and the battle scenes are staggering, but the dialogue is textbook-dry.
Following its theatrical run, Gettysburg was broadcast on TNT and subsequently released on VHS with another half-hour of footage added. It was also followed a decade later by Gods and Generals, a 2003 prequel that ran closer to three hours rather than four. Unlike Gettysburg, it received universally poor reviews and lost a fortune at the box office.