Williamsburg: the Story of a Patriot, an orientation film produced by Paramount Pictures and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in 1957, has the distinction of being the longest-running motion picture in history, having been shown continually in the Colonial Williamsburg Visitor Center for over five decades. On September 20, 2002, it was seen by the 30 millionth viewer.
As museum orientation films go, Williamsburg: the Story of a Patriot is a landmark, both because of its high production values and structure.
It was filmed in May 1956 at Colonial Williamsburg. Whereas the usual 35mm flat-screen 1.33:1 ratio cinematography would have been considered extravagant for an orientation film, Williamsburg: the Story of a Patriot was filmed and exhibited in VistaVision, a high definition widescreen process with approximately the same negative size as 35mm still photography. It was a unique VistaVision film in that it was shown with six-channel stereo sound, whereas most films in that process were either shown in mono or in Perspecta sound. The music for the film was composed and conducted by Bernard Herrmann, who was at the time best known for scoring several Alfred Hitchcock films.
Moreover, where previous museum orientation films (and many present day examples) are simple travelogues, with little or no narrative content, Williamsburg: the Story of a Patriot told the story of Virginia’s role in American Independence (up to the point of voting to propose independence at the Second Continental Congress), from the point of view of John Fry (played by a young Jack Lord), a fictional Virginia planter elected to the House of Burgesses. While it was filmed almost entirely in and around the Colonial Williamsburg Historic Area, and points out a number of the historic buildings by name, it is overwhelmingly a dramatization of history, rather than a travelogue.
A pair of specially-designed theaters each seating 250 persons were built for showing the film, as part of the new visitors center being built at the time. It was previewed for an audience including the Governor of Virginia and members of the Virginia General Assembly on the evening of March 30, and formally opened March 31, 1957.
In the early 1960s, the film was translated into several languages for personal speakers that could be used by international visitors.
By the 1990s, the film was showing its age, with severe fading problems in the original negatives, and differing shrinkage rates in the separation masters that had been made as a backup. As a result, even new prints looked no better than a 16mm orientation film would have looked.
In 2001, an extensive digital restoration effort was begun, the result of which debuted (in relatively conventional 70mm DTS prints) in 2004. This is generally regarded as coming as close as present-day technology permits to replicate the clarity of the film as originally shown in the late 1950s. It is estimated that despite the 35 minute running-time of this film, the restoration required enough digital storage to hold several feature-length films.
Clearly, Williamsburg: the Story of a Patriot has had influence on subsequent museum orientation films, most notably, the California State Railroad Museum’s Evidence of a Dream, which contains several dramatic sequences, is shown on very large screens, and is anything but a simple travelogue.
As of 2007, Williamsburg: the Story of a Patriot has been released on DVD, available from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.