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Action! Long-lost movie by US filmmaker rolls again

11 September 2010

Action! Long-lost movie by US filmmaker rolls again

Article taken from The Independent
Saturday, 11 September 2010

A long-lost silent movie by legendary US filmmaker John Ford has had its first screening in more than eight decades -- after being unearthed in New Zealand.

"Upstream", made by the veteran filmmaker in 1927, was dusted off and screened in Beverly Hills this month at the home of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which hosts the Oscars.

The black and white film, which tells the story of a group of artists, was among some 75 American movies -- features and shorts, documentaries and even cartoons, dating from 1898 to 1929 -- left undiscovered for years.

But it was only earlier this year that a visiting archivist from the Academy took a look at the material, and identified the gem by Ford, famous for westerns like "Stagecoach" as well as adaptations like "The Grapes of Wrath".

"It's fantastic," said Schawn Belston, a senior executive of Fox Studios, to which Ford -- who won four Oscars during his glittering career -- was contracted at the time he made "Upstream" 83 years ago.

"Unfortunately, it's not something that happens every day... So many of the Fox silent films are lost or thought to be lost, that it's a big part of our company's history that's lost or been missing."

Frank Stark, chief executive of The Film Archive of New Zealand, explained: "We have held these films for nearly 20 years and before that, they were in hands of private collectors in New Zealand.

"We were really very glad to have it and to take care of them, we had no money to preserve it. So all we would do was to store them as well as we could, and try to keep them in good condition," he told AFP.

Like thousands of other Fox films, "Upstream" was thought to have gone up in smoke in 1937 when an enormous fire engulfed the studio's archives in Little Ferry, in the US state of New Jersey.

Chances of any other copies of the movie surviving were slim, notably because of the way films were distributed at the time -- and because they filmed using highly flammable chemicals.

"The copies were played over and over and over and over again," said Michael Pogorzelski, director of the Film Archive of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Science.

"And then, when there were no other bookings, and nowhere else to run the film, they were destroyed, because they were dangerous. They were more a liability than an asset. Storing it was a only a risk of fire."

In fact the films rediscovered in New Zealand were stored for the last few years on a military base, in an ammunition store, "because it's legally the only place where you can do it," said Stark.

With Fox's help, the restoration of the fragile film copy was undertaken in New Zealand, at the special effects studio of Avatar director Peter Jackson.

"You don't want to be responsible for losing a recently rediscovered film. That concern did partly lead to our decision to make the preservation of the film in New Zealand," said Belston.

For film students, "Upstream" will not revolutionise Ford's reputation -- but it reflects the influence in his silent-era movies of German expressionism, notably F.W. Murnau, who was also brought to Hollywood by Fox.

"It's not something that is so far-field from what scholars and historians and biographers have charted in terms of his evolution as a director, but it is interesting to see it actually first-hand," said Pogorzelski.

"This is a period when Ford and many of the other directors at Fox where deeply influenced by what was happening in Germany with the expressionist directors," he added.

Whatever its historic and artistic value, the rediscovered film is now set to go around the world again.

Those at the Los Angeles screening notably included Thierry Fremeaux, the head of the Cannes film festival, who could decide to present the Ford movie at the world-famous movie-fest on the French Riviera.