US film treasures surface in New Zealand
08 Jun 2010
A treasure trove of long-lost American silent films from the early 20th century is slowly making its way back to the US - after being discovered in the New Zealand Film Archive, Wellington.
A total of 75 silent movies, chosen for their historical and cultural significance, are being repatriated back to the US after nearly a century in New Zealand.
The vintage films include one starring 1920s screen siren Clara Bow in an unusual costume role, popular one-reel westerns and the only known remaining copy of an early drama by legendary director John Ford.
The Kiwi find represents a sort of ‘time capsule’ for the American film industry - as only about a fifth of films from the early 20th century have survived in the US.
The US National Film Preservation Foundation is repatriating the films, which director Annette Melville describes as a significant find.
"This is a wonderful group of movies. About 70% of them are complete, which is extraordinary in itself, and many have their original colour tints," Melville said.
The US ‘forgotten silver’ sitting in the New Zealand Film Archive only came to attention in early 2009, when Los Angeles film preservationist Brian Meachem visited colleagues at the national archive during a New Zealand holiday.
"The conversation inevitably turned to what films we held in our collection," NZ Film Archive’s Steve Russell said.
Meacham was surprised and immediately excited at discovering that the New Zealand Film Archive also held foreign films in its stock - including a substantial number of early American nitrate films.
"We offered to compile a list of the US material, and it was a short step to here," Russell said.
Prints of many foreign films remained in New Zealand after originally screening here because of the high cost of return shipping expenses at the time.
"It’s one of the rare cases where the tyranny of distance has worked in our and the films’ favour," Russell said.
Nearly a third of the long-lost films have been shipped back by the US National Film Preservation Foundation.
The unstable nature of the nitrate film means that stock has to be carefully transferred back in small batches inside UN-approved steel barrels. The films are placed in cold storage upon arrival to prevent any further deterioration.
Among the films repatriated is Upstream, a silent movie directed by John Ford in 1927, a year said to be the turning point in the development of one of America’s most important film-makers. Ford won Oscars for his later movies which included The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941), and The Quiet Man (1952).
Film studio 20th Century Fox is planning to ‘re-première’ the restored version of Upstream at the Academy in September.
Other films from the collection are important due to their historical footage. The 1910 silent film The Sergeant was shot on location in the Yosemite wilderness before the area was turned into a popular national park, and features US Cavalry troops.
Background: New Zealand Film Archive
The New Zealand Film Archive - Nga Kaitiaki o Nga Taonga Whitiahua, is located in Wellington, the New Zealand capital.
It is home to a vast moving footage library that includes documentaries, home movies, newsreels, TV programmes and commercials, feature and short films, music videos, as well as posters, photos, props and costumes.
The archive has regular screenings in its cinema, a searchable online catalogue, and a library viewing area for film buffs who want to spend time browsing.
New Zealand Film Archive is a charitable trust that maintains a kaitiaki / guardianship role over the footage in its library. Copyright is retained by the original owners.
The archive’s research libraries, in Wellington and Auckland, are open to the public at no cost.
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