A project to save rare prints and preserve 
film for the future

I found myself grubbing around in a dusty basement last week constructing heavy-duty metal racking on which to store seemingly acres of classic (and not-so classic) 35mm film prints.

My colleagues and I call it the dungeon. Or the bunker. In truth it’s an archive of rare, perhaps unique, prints left over from the glory days when these six-reel delights would be shipped around the world to cinematheques from Bristol to Beirut.

Compiling the collection has been a lot of fun. But it’s all borne of frustration and fear: frustration that a great resource has been abandoned by much of the industry built on it, fear that so many films have been trashed and burned. At first we were selective. We’d grab a curio here, a classic there. Now it’s a race against time to safeguard movies that, in many cases, have never made it onto DVD. Heck, some never even made it onto VHS.

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The inference is clear: a lot of these titles aren’t up to much. But a movie has to be pretty execrable not to have one redeeming aspect. And nearly every star has a clunker in his or her closet. Sometimes the only place to look is in an archive.

Our inventory is eclectic, perhaps even downright odd. Kurosawa’s samurai epics are piled alongside bloody Italian giallos. Historical pageants share shelf space with forgotten sci-fi adventures. And there are Westerns. A lot of Westerns.

So it’s a less a dungeon than a genuine Aladdin’s cave. Visitors arrive warily and leave in wide-eyed wonder. In a corner sits a Steenbeck, a marvel from the recent past that allows people to watch a reel of film on a tiny screen to check sound and vision.

Once these devices were at the heart of every film studio. Now they’re considered just so much scrap. Worth thousands of pounds on Friday, by the following Monday they’re just redundant piles of junk.

And yet I can’t help comparing the headlong rush towards digital cinema with the arrival of CDs in the 80s and our gleeful abandonment of vinyl records. Music aficionados will tell you that the sound quality on vinyl surpasses that of the average CD. And movie buffs from Martin Scorsese to Mr Average will argue the merits of film as opposed to its digital replacement.

So I thrill to the prospect of our next shipment. Among the gems on the van will be 67 Days, a Yugoslavian war “superspectacle” from the 1970s when the state ran the studios and heroes with sub-machine guns in both hands mowed down entire battalions of invading Germans.

Never seen it? Nope, me neither. And chances are you never will if you stick to the concept of digital downloads or home cinema. There are deep divisions between advocates of digital technology and the old guard – call them purists – who want to preserve film for the future.

Meanwhile in the bowels of a Yorkshire mill the fightback has begun.