Ford’s “Upstream” Discovered in New Zealand Vault

Cannes Film Festival

20th Century Fox

On the first day of September, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences  invited the American viewing public to see a film that had been presumed lost since its initial screening 83 years ago: John Ford’s silent feature "Upstream." 

"Upstream," along with an additional 74 films dating from 1898 through 1929, was recently discovered by Academy archivist Brian Meacham during a visit to the New Zealand Film Archives vaults.   Five major American archives: AMPAS, George Eastman House, the Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art and the UCLA Film & Television Archive, have taken custody of the nitrate originals and are supervising the preservation work of these original films.  These five organizations will also oversee the masters and prints developed from the preserved work.

To fully realize the significance of this find, one must understand the system of producing and distributing films during the early 1900s.

"During the first world war, the west emerged as the producer of films.  There was no competitive production industry abroad. With the great market, three to five films were produced a week," said Annette Melville, Director of the National Film Preservation Foundation.  "American films became very popular.  Without sound, it was easy for the international markets to put in titles.   The films were shipped overseas and were not wanted back.  The prints would become worn out and were not worth the cost of the return shipping to the studios.  They were expected to be destroyed."

Many of the American films made their way to New Zealand on their distribution circuit.

"In the usual commercial chain, New Zealand was the end of the line," said Frank Stark, Chief Executive of the New Zealand Film Archive.  "Many individuals who worked in cinemas didn’t want to destroy the films.  A gray market for films developed where reels passed through hands.  Fans and collectors would buy them for their personal collections."

New Zealand has a temperate climate that has helped in natural preservation of the films.  However, archival standards dictate cool, dry climates and proper handling to ensure a lengthy shelf life.  In 1981, the New Zealand Film Archive was initiated to properly protect the nation’s films.  Over 125,000 films are stored in their vaults.  Thirty percent of their archives are film-based, with five percent of those titles consisting of nitrate films – the stock primarily used for films produced through the 1940s.

"Nitrate is a real challenge.  Its a public safety restriction, limiting its handling and storage," said Stark.  "To aid in preserving this stock, we wind through the films every year.  This aerates the film to prevent it from getting sticky."

After the discovery of the American film titles in their vaults, the New Zealand Film Archive worked closely with the National Film Preservation Foundation to repatriate the films to the United States.  In addition to organizing the American film community to work as a team on preserving these films, the National Film Preservation Foundation helped overcome the complex hurdle of transporting and storing the nitrate films.

"Nitrate is considered an explosive material, so there are very strict rules that must be followed when transporting it over the borders," said Melville.  "We used UN approved steel barrels for transportation."

"There’s a national fire protection association guideline that governs how nitrate vaults are built," said Michael "Pogo" Pogorzelski, Director of the Academy Film Archives.  "The Specifications are specific to the density of the concrete walls between vaults, how big the blow-out in the rear of the vault has to be, specific sprinkler specifications and the doors.  The doors have to be fire rated for four hours.  Every nitrate vault that has been built since 1990 has been built to those fire codes."

"Upstream" is the most recent film in the series of “lost films” to be preserved.  The film is an atypical comic narrative made by director John Ford during his transition from silent films to sound.  Twentieth Century Fox, the "Upstream" copyright owners, financially supported the preservation of this rare feature.  Working closely with Shawn Belston, Senior Vice President, Library and Technical Services at Fox Filmed Entertainment, Pogorzelski worked with Park Road Post, the facility where the prints are being made, to photo chemically preserve the film.

"We’re making prints that are both black and white and with the tints that were originally included," said Pogorzelski.  "Digital would be inappropriate because this is all there is of this film.  Rather than transferring it or scanning it into the digital realm and manipulating the images in ways we might think are appropriate, we are giving the audiences the chance to see the print as it survived."

There are two major challenges that came into play during the transfer of "Upstream."  Corrosive agents found in the dyes of the original tints had caused more rapid deterioration of sections they were used in, such as a scene involving the New York City skyline.  The second greatest challenge was film shrinkage.  As nitrate shrinks it no longer fits a 35mm gate, requiring special gates to accommodate the loss of film size.

"In some extreme cases with tints, different sections can be shrunken at different rates, and you’d have to change out your movements in the printers to accommodate them," said Pogorzelski.  "Luckily they didn’t have to do that with ‘Upstream.’  It’s shrinking, but it seems it’s shrinking universally across all the different sections."

The films that remain to be preserved and made available to viewing audiences range from a promotional film for the all-purpose tractor introduced by Henry Ford & Son in 1917, an early sound film featuring violinist and composer Albert Spalding, and the only surviving fiction film made by the Oklahoma-based Wild West Show managed by the Miller Brothers.  While studios are pitching in with resources for additional copyrighted work, the National Film Preservation Foundation seeks funding to assist with preserving the remaining New Zealand films.  In addition to presenting new prints of the lost films to the New Zealand Film Archives, the National Film Preservation Foundation plans to post digital files of many of the films on its website.

To learn more about the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the New Zealand Project, visit:

To learn more about the National Film Preservation Foundation, visit: