The greatest films. The greatest stars. The greatest directors. The greatest scriptwriters. How ’bout the greatest sets? After all, how menacing is any Bond villain if his table-top laser beam is located in his garage? To say the least, he needs an intimidating lair. And of course, someone must design that lair. So… Which movies actually have the best set design? Let’s take a look…
10. Intolerance (1916)
A good friend of mine said that this David Wark Griffith 1916 silent epic may well boast the most impressive set design of any film. What else could I do but pop some corn and give it a go? Unfortunately, at three hours, it’s much too long. Also, in terms of style and substance, it certainly hasn’t aged very well. Be that as it may, a part of the film that takes place in ancient Babylon features a huge courtyard set that will definitely take your breath away. Very long and high, it features numerous large statues dedicated to the gods. Moreover, within the context of the film, it isn’t just window dressing. Hundreds of extras, primarily beautiful women in elaborate costumes, populate the set to engage in an exuberant celebration dedicated to their ruler (known as Belshazzar) and his queen. Unfortunately, the visual spectacle is thoroughly defeated by rather mundane elements set in the early 20th century. However, despite the passage of nearly 100 years, the sets of Intolerance remain genuinely spectacular.
9. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)
Talking about courtyards, as impressive as the beautifully designed bell tower and majestic facade of Paris’s Notre Dame cathedral may be in this great Lon Chaney silent classic, I am actually more impressed with the exterior courtyard near the cathedral. Surrounded by perfectly designed peasant homes, it effectively conveys the desperate emptiness of everyday life. Once the Hunchback is chained to a slowly revolving circular pillory within the courtyard, he is repeatedly whipped before a crowd of ecstatically screaming peasants. Unfortunately, this sad tableau would have been much more effective if it had been filmed at night rather than broad daylight. In any case, as my good friend also pointed out, the Notre Dame cathedral set actually appears during the climax of Chaney’s 1925 silent classic Phantom of the Opera. As the Phantom attempts to escape an angry mob, he runs directly past the cathedral.
8. The Ten Commandments (1923/1956)
By now I’m sure I don’t have to detail my disdain for Cecil B. DeMille. As film directors go, few ever achieved such lofty heights with such meager ability. To put it simply, in purely dramatic terms, his films stink! But since he had all the resources of Paramount at his disposal, Demille’s plainly silly efforts definitely feature some of the greatest sets ever conceived. With this fact in mind, the huge gates and walls to the city of Thebes in both versions of The Ten Commandments remain truly stunning monuments. The elaborate hieroglyphs, inlaid carvings, avenue of sphinx lions, and giant statues of the pharaoh Rameses, certainly are extremely impressive. Unfortunately, you have to sit through two decidedly bad films to see them. Oh, well…
7. King Kong (1933)
The miniature table top sets for this unparalleled classic remain one of the greatest achievements in the history of special effects. The illusion of size and depth within that which appears to be an endless jungle is truly stunning. Thanks to stop-motion genius Willis O’Brien, we are taken on a grand adventure that is entirely unique in the history of motion pictures. The chaos of creeping foliage, jagged cliffs, overgrown trees, and majestic waterfalls combine to provide a sweeping image of pure menace. And of course, we dare not forget the towering, craggy view of Skull Mountain. Throw in the gigantic door attached to the great wall of the native village, and you have some of the greatest sets ever created for any film. After all is said and done, the original King Kong is an essential masterpiece that simply must not be missed.
6. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
I love the sets for this great and wonderful musical precisely because they are so entirely and completely unreal. A sourpuss might be inclined to dismiss them as obviously fake. Such attitudes miss the point entirely. The sets are meant to appear as though they exist in a land that can only be found “over the rainbow.” A land of magic. A land of dreams. And of course, a land of nightmares. I refuse to choose a specific set that truly stands out. To my mind, every set is genuinely spectacular. From Munchkinland to the Scarecrow’s corn crop; from the poppy field to the Emerald City; and, finally, from the Wicked Witch of the West’s castle to the Wizard’s control room. Every aspect of this picture provides a feast for the eyes. Most films are deservedly forgotten; The Wizard of Oz will live forever.
5. Forbidden Planet (1956)
This science fiction re-working of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” is famously known as the inspiration for the original Star Trek. Most people focus on Robbie the robot, which, as props go, certainly remains decidedly impressive. But the otherworldly look of Forbidden Planet is the key to its success. An endless, barren, desert world, Altair IV, a.k.a. the “Forbidden Planet” of the title, provides an overwhelming feeling of dread. This of course, is precisely the point. However, for me, the best set in the film isn’t an actual set at all. It’s a miniature into which the actors were placed through the use of special effects. Our heroes are apparently dwarfed by the size and depth of an endless vertical chasm. Directly in front of them, a gigantic, slowly moving metal post generates huge bolts of electricity. In all honesty, I suspect we will never see anything like it on Earth.
4. Goldfinger (1964)
Let’s face it, Auric Goldfinger’s private apartment is nothing special. In fact, it’s really rather dull. That is, until a huge wall map and equally huge diorama of Fort Knox suddenly slide into place to thoroughly dominate the room. But as impressive as this set may be, it is completely overshadowed by the incredible sight that appears later in the film. An exterior mock-up of Fort Knox is certainly convincing. But the huge, cavernous, interior of the vault remains a sight to behold. Within the vault, James Bond is very literally dwarfed, 3 stories high from floor to ceiling, by an endless sea of gold bullion! Of course, this incredible set doesn’t actually look anything like the much smaller vaults of the real Fort Knox. But every Bond fan would certainly tell you that this is exactly what Fort Knox sure as Hell SHOULD look like!
3. You Only Live Twice (1967)
We remain in the fantasy world of James Bond with this truly outrageous, action packed, adventure that is more a matter of spectacle than espionage. For this reason, it offers the most eye popping set ever to be found in any Bond film. It seems that our friend Blofeld, the infamous head of SPECTRE, has built a space rocket that he is able to launch from, and subsequently return to, the same launching pad. He has done this in order to capture orbiting American and Soviet space capsules. Basically, he is attempting to provoke the two superpowers into engaging in a third world war! Of course, Bond and an army of commandos ultimately attack the rocket base. And WHAT a rocket base! Within the interior dome of an apparently extinct volcano, we find the rocket on its launching pad, a helicopter on a movable helipad, an encompassing monorail system, an elaborate control room, and a very well armed army ready to go to war! I understand that this set cost one million dollars to create! Mind you, that’s one million 1967 dollars!
2. Titanic (1997)
That’s right. The set design for James Cameron’s Avatar doesn’t hold a candle to this film that he made 12 years earlier. Now… The fictionalized romantic centerpiece of this otherwise true account of the sinking of the famous cruise ship is a double edged sword. The relationship between the two tragic lovers certainly strike all the right emotional notes. But the plainly silly class warfare aspect of the story is just too much to take. But so what…? After all is said and done, the film works. Beautifully. And a huge part of the reason it works is due to the extremely convincing, and extremely elaborate, interior sets of the ship. From the dormitory bunks in steerage, to the luxurious state rooms in first class, the viewer has no difficulty imagining that he is actually aboard the ill-fated ship. As the drama unfolds, we are given a glimpse of the grand dining room, the Captain’s bridge, the radio room, the engine room, and of course, the glorious central staircase. But it doesn’t end there. As the ship begins to sink, an eye popping, nearly full sized mock-up of the ship depicts its final moments. Basically, Titanic is a truly great example of set design at its best.
This of course, was a no-brainer. But I’m not just talking about the first film. Or even the first three films. This single listing refers to all six films that take place in Middle Earth. This includes the Lord Of The Rings trilogy as well as the three subsequent prequels, otherwise known as the Hobbit trilogy. Peter Jackson, the director of the grand saga, relied on a great deal more than computer generated imagery to create the amazing homes, meadows, waterfalls, volcanoes, and mountains of gold, for the settings and backgrounds of these amazing films. In fact, I understand that the New Zealand military actually assisted in the building of the town known as “the Shire.” This was done many months before the filming of the first movie began, allowing the surrounding flora to properly grow and provide the town a genuine settled appearance. To be sure, despite all the eye-popping excitement and beautiful sets throughout the first film, I find the town to be the most emotionally satisfying. it looks real. very much a place I would be anxious to visit. But the truth is, in the history of motion pictures, no series of films are more visually stunning than Peter Jackson’s six great excursions to Middle Earth.
Blair Kramer is a widely published writer for various publications, including “Velocity: Chicago,” “A Guide to Art in Chicago,” “Comic Book Collector Magazine,” “American Metal Magazine,” and the “Jewish American Historical Society.” He also dabbles in screenplays and comic books. There are only two things in his life that he loves more than good movies. They are his wife and family.