It’s a sad fact of cinematic history that the majority of films made during the silent era simply no longer exist. At the time, movies were considered a disposable commodity. Once their initial money-earning runs were complete, they were just thrown away, not treated as works of art worth preserving. Unfortunately, the unstable nitrate film stocks that they were photographed on also caused even those that were saved to deteriorate, often to the point of complete destruction.
These days, most viewers – even most film buffs – think of silent movies mainly as a curiosity, something to be studied in university lecture halls but rarely watched for entertainment. However, the recent restoration of Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’ has brought the form back to public attention. For decades, almost half an hour of footage from the movie was thought lost for good… until an obscure 16mm dupe print containing most of it was discovered in a South American film archive. This has led to a very celebrated theatrical re-release, to be followed by new DVD and Blu-ray editions later this year.
And now, a New Zealand archive has made another major find – a cache of 75 long-lost silents. Among these are an early film from legendary director John Ford, and a period drama featuring silent movie superstar Clara Bow.
The film prints themselves are so unstable that the mere act of shipping them back to the U.S. will cost the equivalent of $500,000 USD. That’s to say nothing of the preservation and restoration work needed. Can a price tag really be placed on the act of rescuing works of art presumed to be lost forever?