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Films Lost To History

Lee Harvey Oswald was famously captured at a Dallas movie theater on November 22, 1963. The movie he snuck in to, presumably to get off the street to avoid law enforcement, was War is Hell!

Written, directed, and starring Burt Topper, War is Hell! was the second half of a double feature playing in Dallas that day. We all know Oswald, along with the rest of the shocked audience, never got to see the end of War is Hell! What most people don’t know is none of the rest of us ever will either. War is Hell! is now considered a lost film, meaning no full print remains intact anywhere. Less than ten minutes of the movie still exists, most of which can be found in bits and pieces on YouTube.

An argument can be made, besides the historical significance related to the Kennedy assassination, little is lost with a War is Hell! absence. It’s an obscure war movie with a little-known director. It’s not as if it had one of the biggest stars in the world directed by one of the greatest directors of all time.

That would be London After Midnight.

London After Midnight, 1927, directed by famous horror film director Tod Browning starring arguably the biggest silent movie star of all time next to Chaplin, Lon Chaney, is also gone forever. It was lost in 1965 when the last known print of the film burned up in an MGM warehouse fire. London After Midnight, which had Chaney playing both the bad guy and the detective pursuing him, is one of the Holy Grails of lost cinema. The bad guy character created with Chaney’s flair for makeup with his razor-sharp teeth, sunken eyes, and top hat is so iconic it remains everywhere from t-shirts to Halloween costumes worldwide.

Chaney’s villain is also the inspiration for The Babadook. Not bad for a silent film no one can ever see. What makes it even more sad is its popularity kept it alive for nearly forty years after its creation.

To put it in perspective, Oswald himself could have seen it every year he was alive.

So why should we care about the loss of an obscure war movie from the 1960s or a popular silent horror film from nearly a hundred years ago? Because it’s about to happen to a lot more films, ones you may have seen, or perhaps even still own.

With the birth of the home video market on VHS it seemed like nothing could stop copies of movies being made available for home use. Movie studios with warehouses full of film prints of everything from popcorn flicks to made-for-TV-movies rushed into production the user-friendly format. When the DVD eclipsed the VHS to become the industry standard in the early 2000s, not every film got the upgrade, and that’s not to mention Blu-Rays. Like music when formats changed from albums, to cassettes, to CD, to streaming, not every song made the trip. What’s worse, streaming has seemingly overtaken all forms of physical media.

Everything from music, books, to movies are streaming someplace.

Streaming is extremely popular for many reasons especially as a space saver. Many homes have gone from overstuffed book and movie shelves to clean minimalist styles, well not mine, but many. Streaming also provides a much more user-friendly experience from something as simple as not having to get off the couch to put in a disc, to making typeface bigger when reading an e-book so reading glasses aren’t needed. Despite the many advantages of streaming there is one glaring issue: every time we upgrade we lose titles. Some films, books, and music that we loved may end up being lost forever in the changeover.

Ever wonder why something never made its way to DVD but was available on VHS?

Or why something you had on DVD never made it to a streaming service? What about a movie you saw on TV as a kid but could never find as an adult? Many reasons ranging from studio bankruptcy to music rights might be the reason, but it’s not the same thing as it being gone forever.

Or is it? If a movie can no longer be viewed, does it cease to exist?

One opinion is many of the films and music that never advanced into a new format were because they were crap, or at least sold that way.

Even in the pre-computer record days of the early ‘80s most video stores could tell you which tapes were hot and which were not. But what if they were wrong? What about a movie that was ahead of its time or suffered by being on a high shelf, or was a victim of “the curse of the low letters” (a movie title starting with a letter after S, meaning many renters made their selection before ever seeing the film displayed alphabetically)?

Another, and perhaps more cynical opinion, is it’s not about lost movies at all. It’s about control.

The reason streaming has become the new normal is so we are always paying to watch. With a DVD or physical media, you buy it once, then watch it as many times as you want. With streaming you pay every time, not just the monthly service fee to the provider, but for the Wi-Fi as well. Not to mention all those views can be tracked and marketed to. Ever see those things that say something like, “You watched THIS, you might enjoy THAT?”

And it’s true you usually would enjoy THAT, so it isn’t completely sinister. But it is something that doesn’t happen when you pop in a disc you purchased unconnected to the internet.

Whatever the reason, losing films is losing our history.

Even extremely popular films like the multi-Oscar winning iconic Cabaret from 1972 has seen its original negative lost forever. While Cabaret is available as a streamer it had to be painstakingly restored digitally frame by frame, a precise treatment a lesser lost film would most likely never get.

But there is good news. With Amazon’s recent acquisition of MGM they acquire their entire catalog of 4,000 films and 17,000 television shows as well. This is a much-needed shot in the arm for film preservation. Thankfully there are several film preservationist groups advocating saving our history as well. Hopefully they will succeed in one day getting everything available, even if it’s crap.

Until then my advice is this, buy another DVD player and keep it in the box until your current player breaks.

That should give you at least another five years with physical media and some movies you may never see again.



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