Preserving Classic Films


Juliette Fang, Staff Writer

Just as paintings and photographs provide a snapshot of life in earlier days, cinema lets us experience history in the most immersive way possible. Today, movies portray recent trends, aspects of everyday life, and even moral standards and life lessons that are widely accepted in our society. The same holds true for movies from a century ago, so preserving these films can be seen as a way of preserving history.

The first movie camera was introduced in 1893 by Thomas Edison, but movies truly became popular in the 1910s. Unfortunately, only about 20% of films from this era in the U.S. are documented. According to the Library of Congress, only half of films from before 1950 have survived. From obscure works to films such as the first production of The Great Gatsby (1926)  or the 1917 film Cleopatra, an alarming number of old movies have been lost to time.

“The more [classic films] are lost to time, the less that the art of a historic film is shown therefore leading to less effort put into the recovery of such media,” said freshman Lucas Sun. “They hold a great significance as a testimony to ancient methods of not only filmmaking, but entertainment too.”

One of the main reasons why these films have not been preserved is because of poor preservation programs. Film takes up space, and once the movie had finished its run it was discarded to make room for its successors. Silent films were especially impacted as they were promptly considered archaic and useless once sound films were invented. Many movies were also permanently lost as production companies went bankrupt.

“So personally, it really  hurts to see historical films being lost. Up to hundreds, even thousands of hours are put towards the creation of films and all those hours would be wasted with the destruction of a film,” remarked Sun. 

The material of the physical film was also a large factor in the lack of preservation. The film stock that was most commonly used before 1950 was nitrate cellulose, whose flammability and ability to deteriorate also contributed to the loss of many films. Huge fires destroyed countless works, such as at 20th Century Fox in 1937, and the material decayed or turned to dust past the point of return. Even when acetate film stock, which was more stable, began being used in 1950, color would often fade beyond recognition. 

The rise of streaming services has also contributed to the loss of many movies, as many older films can only be found in video stores, which are now treated as a thing of the past. Many people are not aware of films and series that aren’t able to be streamed at their fingertips, so many films are simply forgotten. Moreover, the astounding amount of media available to us nowadays makes it much more difficult to choose what to watch, and it’s often easier to find recent series or films than dig deeper to find older ones. 

“If you can’t access something immediately, very few people will go to the trouble to find it, to buy it,” explained Arcadia High School (AHS) Classic Film teacher Ms. Christine Ma. “Also, there’s just so much content now that it’s hard to sift through what should stay [or] what would be a classic film today.” 

So why should films be preserved? For one, movies provide a snapshot of life in the past in a very realistic and tangible way. But not only do they portray a physical representation of life, they also represent the general values and creative goals of the time, both negative and positive. 

One of the most controversial examples is the 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation. Set during the Civil War and using several revolutionizing cinematic techniques, it is now heavily criticized for its explicitly racist propaganda, glorification of the Ku Klux Klan, and extremely harmful impact on Black people across the U.S. While it is important that this film’s prejudiced influence doesn’t spread, viewing it teaches us how some in history viewed the Reconstruction and Civil War, as well as the Ku Klux Klan’s rising acts of violence. In turn, we can compare these views to today as a symbol of how far we’ve progressed. 

According to Ms. Ma, The Birth of a Nation “would be totally, totally wrong and messed up today. But…back then, it still wasn’t great, it was still controversial, but it was still very famous.”

Of course, not all classic films are negative examples of history, and movies like It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) convey positive outlooks on life that we can learn important lessons from while learning about life in those years. This extends to animated films and short films as well, such as Krtek (1957), a Czech series of short cartoon films that teaches valuable lessons about kindness and sharing. 

“It’s a kid’s cartoon but even to this day, I still find it fascinating how intuitively it’s made. I have never heard this mentioned anywhere and I really hope this doesn’t die,” commented Sun, adding that “many great ideas will remain unknown if these old films remain undiscovered.”

Even today, films reflect society’s values. For instance, the popularity of international films such as Parasite or the rise of people of color in the film industry, like in Everything Everywhere All at Once or Moonlight, nods to increasing inclusivity and representation in today’s movies. But watching films, even the controversial ones, from back in the day reminds us that, someday, people will too look back on our films to learn from them. 

“Films are a reflection of our culture and can be seen as an indication of where society’s values and interests lie,” expressed Ms. Ma. “When we preserve films, we preserve a bit of history.” Fortunately, professionals are able to expertly restore and preserve films in controlled environments that slow decay. Organizations such as the National Film Preservation Foundation and the International Federation of Film Archives are specifically dedicated to maintaining film. But one of the ways everyday people can contribute to preserving classic films is simply by watching them. Perhaps dig a little deeper into films of the past, and in the process, help save a part of history.


Photo Courtesy of UNSPLASH.COM