At first I thought Forgotten Silver was a puerile joke, but I changed my mind when I saw that one of the very greatest of contemporary film historians and critics, Leonard Maltin, had contributed his insights to the story of film pioneer Colin McKenzie.
This is an amazing story of how an inspired and dedicated film genius, located in New Zealand, anticipated and invented so many of the film techniques we take for granted now. It's hard to comprehend how this one man gave us such things as steam-powered projection systems, the first tracking shot, the first example of a talking movie, the first color film, the first close-up. He was naive, yes, but with the naiveté of the innocent. The first talking movie, for instance, featured Chinese day laborers speaking their native tongue. Mr. McKenzie, regrettably, neglected to provide sub-titles. While New Zealand movie goers stayed away in droves, the purity of his intent is beyond question.
McKenzie was an unsung genius who had the courage of his beliefs. He invented a small motion picture camera which, in partnership with Stan the Man, anticipated the spontaneous hilarity of Candid Camera. For those, like me, who had never heard of Stan the Man, Stan was an inspired silent comic who specialized in attacking the unsuspecting. His pie-in-the-face gag featuring the New Zealand prime minister resulted in Mr. McKenzie's filmed reaction of the prime minister's police escort, which was the forebear of Rodney King cinema verite.
McKenzie's superlative creative achievement, of course, was his three-hour film of Salome. He built a vast city in the jungles of New Zealand (which was newly discovered and is being excavated). It took him years to achieve the financing and it resulted in a deep, permanent personal tragedy. Yet the film, newly restored, reaffirmed not only Mr. McKenzie's vision, but also strengthened so many of our feelings about silent films. Harvey Weinstein, then chairman of Miramax, reaffirmed Mr. McKenzie's genius and emphasized how happy Mr. McKenzie would be that Mr. Weinstein himself insisted that an hour be cut from the restored film.
Colin McKenzie was an unsung genius who periodically would disappear, then reemerge with new inventions and passions to over-awe those of us who now are familiar with his extraordinary accomplishments. Yet no one really knew him. His inventions never led to acclaim or fortune. His disappointments were great. His legacy, in fact, was accidently found in a locked chest in an old shed at the bottom of his widow's garden. There, two young filmmakers, Peter Jackson and Costa Botes, found reel after reel of film, stored and long forgotten in rusting containers. If it hadn't been for this chance discovery, we might never have learned of Mr. McKenzie's transforming impact on filmmaking.
Mr. McKenzie died tragically during the Spanish Civil War, shot while trying to rescue a wounded soldier. How deeply inspiring it would be if those of us who love film could watch, and re-watch, and watch again, D. W. Griffith, Alfred Hitchcock, Louis B. Mayer or F. W. Murnau as they died. Thanks to the foresight of Mr. McKenzie, who set up his camera to film his rescue attempt, we can with this New Zealand...no, this world...genius of film. He died as he lived...with his sprockets turning.
Despite the deteriorated condition of so much of Mr. McKenzie's film record, Jackson and Botes have put together a compelling documentary. They wisely intersperse contemporary evaluations of Mr. McKenzie's achievements and the recollections of his widow with many examples of Mr. McKenzie's pioneering work.
But what of the young filmmakers themselves, who brought us the McKenzie story? Little is known of Botes. Jackson, however, can be found occasionally working on the fringes of filmmaking. His innovative use of New Zealand middle school students to film a fantasy about middle earth was well received by the students' parents. Unfortunately, his attempt to use advanced technology to solve the problem of filming a story featuring a gorilla which had been fed baseball steroids met with mixed results. Holding a magnifying glass in front of his camera lens while photographing a chimpanzee and pretending it was a giant ape was too advanced a leap for most movie ticket buyers.
Forgotten Silver looks just fine on the DVD edition and is a must for dedicated young film students and enthusiastic reviewers.