Many of Colonial Williamsburg's most familiar vistas provided backdrops for "The Story of a Patriot," including the Capitol's east green, shown here behind planter John Fry, standing at center, played by Jack Lord. The shot was taken from the front porch of Christiana Campbell's tavern. (Courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg / March 31, 2014)
When the longest-running film in motion picture history debuted on March 31, 1957, it was already far ahead of its time.
Financed by Colonial Williamsburg benefactor John D. Rockefeller Jr. and shot in and around the Historic Area in May 1956, "Williamsburg: The Story of a Patriot" may have started its life as a humble orientation film.
Many of Colonial Williamsburg's most familiar vistas provided backdrops for "The Story of a Patriot," including the Palace Green, shown here behind a carriage carrying planter John Fry, seated at left, played by Jack Lord. (Courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg / March 31, 2014)
But virtually everything about it was much more than first rate.
Instead of working with standard 35mm film -- which even then would have been considered extravagant for such a pedestrian purpose -- Academy Award-winning director George Seaton was able to make the relatively short, 34-minute movie in a pioneering high-definition, ultra-wide-screen format known as VistaVision.
The celebrated writer and director of "Miracle on 34th Street" and "The Country Girl" also employed a new six-channel sound-recording system, creating an immersive stereo experience at a time when every other film of this type -- and even most B-films -- were single-track mono-aural.
That made the score by Academy Award-winning composer Bernard Hermann -- who was famous for his memorable musical contributions to nearly a half-dozen suspense-filled Alfred Hitchcock films -- all the more impressive when "Story of a Patriot" premiered.
Adding to the impact of the film -- which was also distinguished by its decision to tell Williamsburg's story through a dramatic narrative -- were two specially curved and hyper-realistic theater screens constructed as part of Colonial Williamsburg's new $10 million information center and Motor Lodge hospitality complex.
"The Story of a Patriot" is the "culminating effort on the part of Colonial Williamsburg to fulfill its deeply felt responsibility to make visits here an historically moving experience," said foundation chairman Winthrop Rockefeller, speaking at a special press showing featuring Seaton and Paramount Pictures Vice-President Frank Freeman.
That big-time Hollywood treatment had other motives, too, and they began unfolding the very next day with the April 1 dedication of Jamestown Festival Park and the 350th anniversary celebration of the 1607 founding of Jamestown.
CW President Kenneth Chorley and his board were gambling that the Historic Area would be awash in tourists as a result all the international hoopla -- not to mention the opening of the Jamestown leg of the Colonial Parkway.
And "Story of a Patriot" represented just part of their huge investment in polishing and adding to Williamsburg's attractions.
Still, the film's unusually high-production values also have given the fictional story of Virginia planter John Fry -- played by actor Jack Lord -- a very long life.
In 2002, the movie logged its 30-millionth viewer with little sign of a need for an update.
Many more years and viewers were insured two years later, when the film restoration guru who helped save "Lawrence of Arabia," "Vertigo" and "My Fair Lady" spurred the effort to digitize the film after discovering that the last negative available for making prints was falling apart.
"Everyone in Hollywood is aware of this film, and the curriculum vitae of the people who made it," film preservationist Bob Harris told Daily Press reporter Mike Holtzclaw in 2004, after a $1 million resurrection effort that would have cost twice as much had it not been for the technicians who donated their labor.
"How do allow a George Seaton to disappear? Or a Bernard Herrman score?
"You can't do that. You just can't."
-- Mark St. John Erickson
Actor Jack Lord portrayed Virginia planter John Fry, a member of the colony's House of Burgesses, in "The Story of a Patriot." (Courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg / March 31, 2014)