A cache of 75 long-lost silent films uncovered in the New Zealand Film Archive vault, including the only known copy of a drama by legendary director John Ford, is being sent back to the United States to be restored.
Among the movies found in storage are a copy of Ford's "Upstream," the earliest surviving movie by comic actor and director Mabel Normand and a period drama starring 1920s screen icon Clara Bow. Only 15 percent of the silent films made by Ford, who won four Oscars, have survived.
New Zealand Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage Christopher Finlayson said the find is important as there are no prints of the films remaining in the U.S.
"These important films will be preserved and made available to both U.S. and New Zealand audiences to enjoy," he told The New Zealand Herald newspaper Tuesday.
Film Archive corporate services manager Steve Russell said the films were discovered when American preservationist Brian Meacham visited last year. Many of them remained in New Zealand because distributors at the time did not think the return shipping costs were worth the expense, he said.
"It's one of the rare cases where the tyranny of distance has worked in our and the films' favor," Russell said.
Finding "Upstream" was "a fabulous discovery, particularly for our American colleagues, but also for ourselves," he told The Associated Press.
Because they were printed on unstable and highly inflammable nitrate film stock, "there are very strict conditions when sending it by air," he added.
Returning the films will cost the U.S. National Film Preservation Foundation more than 750,000 New Zealand dollars ($500,000).
"We're having to ship in U.N.-approved steel barrels, a little bit at a time," said foundation director Annette Melville. "So far, we've got about one-third of the films, and preservation work has already begun on four titles."
"About a quarter of the films are in advanced nitrate decay, and the rest have good image quality, though they are badly shrunken," she added.
The late Ford's 1927 film "Upstream" was being copied onto safety stock in New Zealand to prevent further damage in transit.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hopes to screen the restored Ford movie in September, Melville said.
Copies of the films are to be made available in New Zealand through the Film Archive, and Russell said he expected a "premier" showing of "Upstream" would be arranged at some point.
Russell said that New Zealand Film Archive does not own the recovered movies, which acquired them from private donors and collectors who "have all agreed the original archive material should be returned to the U.S. for preservation work to be done."
Similar film repatriations have occurred with Australian and European archives, including the return to Germany of a nitrate print of the Fritz Lang silent masterpiece "Metropolis" to help in restoring a print of the late 1920s original, he said.