Australia's 'Lost' Films
The NFSA is searching for the original, uncut version of the feature film Captain Thunderbolt (1953, Cecil Holmes), as the focus for a broader search for Australia’s 'lost’ films.
Officially announced at the 2010 Sydney Film Festival, Australia’s 'Lost’ Films: Search & Rescue is looking for lost feature-length Australian films (60 minutes or more) made since 1951. The search will also inevitably turn up earlier Australian films — produced on fragile, highly perishable nitrate film stock until that format was replaced by safety film in 1951. For definitions of ‘lost’, and for highlights of the lost films the NFSA is searching for, see What Do We Mean By ‘Lost’?.
What are we seeking?
The NFSA aims to acquire original image and sound negatives, or their more recent digital equivalents, of Australian feature films, documentaries and short films. These components can be used for preservation and any necessary restoration, allowing the creation of new duplicate image and sound negatives in the lead-up to a new print.
The many copies of a film that are screened in cinemas are printed, photochemically, from a 35mm or 16mm negative, usually itself a duplicate made from the original edited camera negative. Prints over time become scratched, faded, shrunken and fragmented, and their soundtrack worn. Even if a print is in perfect condition it is unsuitable for copying or for preservation, and when a battered print is the sole survivor of a feature film, this is far from ideal. Sometimes negatives are re-edited to shorter versions of the film for later release or for use overseas, and the original full-length version is hard to reproduce.
The NFSA’s Collection Policy requires the NFSA to preserve a film in its original form for as long as the technology of that form can be supported. While a film might turn up regularly on television or DVD, this does not guarantee that it is being preserved.
The NFSA’s Most Wanted Collection Works are published in the annual reports and listed on the website.
What can you do?
If you know of the whereabouts of any of Australia’s 'lost’ films listed on this page, you can contact the NFSA’s acquisitions staff via email or call +61 2 6248 2253.
Alternatively, if you hold films, videos or other items that you think will be of interest to the NFSA, please visit our Collection Offers page for more information or browse the NFSA Most Wanted list
Why search for 'lost’ film?
Searching for screening copies of films, and, vitally, the materials that are used to make new screening prints, and those needed for preservation, is part of NFSA’s day-to-day work. Our aim is to find the materials that will enable us to preserve and to screen every Australian feature film. Primarily website-driven, Australia’s 'Lost’ Films: Search & Rescue is an international activity: because so many Australian films have screened overseas, Australia’s lost films may survive in archives and other collections anywhere in the world.
More than 90 per cent of all Australian films made during the pre-1930 silent era are now missing. Chances of their survival diminish with each passing year unless they are held by an archive, distributor or collector. The survival options for films made since 1951 are far better. Not only have these films been made on safety stock, but many of their filmmakers, or people who knew them, are still around to provide valuable leads.
If a film has not been kept under stable storage conditions (in vaults with customised temperature and humidity controls), even films several years old can be in jeopardy. This applies to films shot digitally too. With digital production, projection and archiving now a reality, archives face the increasing challenge of deciding what to preserve, how to preserve it, and how to migrate digital-born material in the face of rapid format change.
The NFSA acknowledges that David Donaldson, the first-ever director of the Sydney Film Festival (1954), has been a driving force for some years in the search for the original version of Captain Thunderbolt. The NFSA has discussed with David, and with the Sydney Film Festival, ideas behind the 2010 search for Captain Thunderbolt as well as Australia’s 'Lost’ Films: Search & Rescue. The NFSA thanks them both for their inspiration and advice.
The search for Captain Thunderbolt
The NFSA is searching for the original, uncut version of the feature film Captain Thunderbolt (1953), Cecil Holmes (director), Australia, as the focus for a broader search for Australia’s lost films, called Australia’s 'Lost’ Films: Search & Rescue.
Captain Thunderbolt (1953) is a bushranger film depicting Captain Thunderbolt as folk hero. Adventurer Fred Ward is sentenced to hard labour for horse theft, escapes, and becomes a bushranger under the name of Captain Thunderbolt. Stealing mainly from squatters, he quickly becomes notorious. Sergeant Mannix is assigned to capture him dead or alive, eventually trapping him. After a long gun-fight, Mannix finds he has killed Thunderbolt’s friend Alan Blake, and that Thunderbolt has escaped. Mannix passes off Blake’s body as Thunderbolt’s but the legend persists that Thunderbolt still roams free.
From information on original film cans, the NFSA holds what is believed to be a 53 minute television edit version. The original theatrical release had a running time of 69 minutes (Cooper 1981).
What do we mean by 'lost’?
The search for films — both those that are totally missing and those for which just some components or versions can be located — is an ongoing one for NFSA. Once contact with producers, directors and other rights holders have been thoroughly explored, it will be clear which films can be considered, to whatever degree, missing. We will be progressively updating this page with film titles as the work of searching continues. In the eyes of audiovisual archives worldwide, there are many degrees of ‘lost’ films.
Totally lost films
Films for which no viewing copy or originating materials are known to survive
Even though an archive may hold documentation (including stills, posters and other publicity), the film itself may no longer exist. Key lost Australian films from the post-1930 sound film era, include:
Fellers (1930) Arthur Higgins and Austin Fay (director)
One of Australia’s first part-talkies, a World War I drama that featured Arthur Tauchert, star of The Sentimental Bloke.
Two Minutes Silence (1933) Paulette McDonagh (director)
Australia’s first anti-war film, and the final of four notable features produced in the late 1920s and early 1930s by the Sydney-based production team, Paulette, Isobel and Phyllis McDonagh.
Symphony In Steel (1932) Frank Hurley (director)
A widely acclaimed documentary on the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, made by one of the world greats in photography.
The Magic Shoes (1936) Claude Fleming (director)
This short film, a pantomime fantasy, featured the first screen appearance of later international star and Oscar-winner, Peter Finch.
Red Sky at Morning (1944) Hartney Arthur (director)
Another Peter Finch film, with the then radio and stage actor playing an Irish political exile in colonial Australia.
Substantially lost films
At the most several sequences survive usually via prints rather than originating materials.
Cinesound Varieties (1934) Ken G. Hall (director)
Featuring well-known Australian musical and comedy stars, this 48-minute film did well at the box office in Australia and England. It is now the only one of director Ken Hall’s dramatised works almost entirely lost.
The Burgomeister (1935) Harry Southwell (director)
One sequence survives this second Australian feature adaptation of the stage melodrama The Bells, the first having been directed by W.J. Lincoln in 1911.
Show Business (1938) A.R. Harwood (director)
Only rushes (various takes) from one minor scene survives this backstage musical whose cast included a key Australian singer of her day, Barbara James.
Rock ‘n’ Roll (1959) Lee Robinson (director)
Short clips are all that survive this feature-length documentary which covered a major Sydney Stadium concert featuring Johnny O’Keefe, the Delltones and visiting US pop star Fabian.
Condensed version only
Films surviving in only their shortened form, such as Cecil Holmes’ Captain Thunderbolt.
Over the years the finding of condensed versions of other Australian films, including The Sentimental Bloke (1919) Raymond Longford (director), For the Term of His Natural Life (1927) Norman Dawn (director) and The Flying Doctor (1936) Miles Mander (director) have enabled the NFSA to restore these films by editing together newly found materials with incomplete Australian release versions already held by the NFSA.
Viewing copy only
Where prints or other forms of viewing copy (especially video) are the elements that the archive holds closest to a film’s originating materials.
Captain Thunderbolt (1953) Cecil Holmes (director)
The Removalists (1975) Tom Jeffrey (director)
An incomplete release print, the soundtrack final mix and video copies of the film are all that survive of this film adaptation of David Williamson’s classic Australian stage play. A more complete version of the film does survive on video.
Knightmare (1984) Gary L. Keady (director) and Sons of Steel (1989) Gary L. Keady (director)
35 mm prints are all that can be located for these futuristic films, the first a short and the second feature-length.
Duplicate neg held, originals missing
This is where the NFSA holds a duplicate negative created for the making of prints, but not the original picture negative.
Bliss (1985) Ray Lawrence (director)
The NFSA holds a duplicate negative, the final mix, prints and video copies of this film, but the original negative is currently lost. This neg has not been seen since it was sent to New York for the film’s US release in the mid-1980s.
Kodak Atlab Collection
When creating new prints for a restoration and preservation project such as the NFSA-commissioned, it is preferable to start with an original negative rather than a duplicating copy. The Deluxe/Kodak Project, sponsored by Deluxe Sydney and Kodak Australasia, aims to create new prints of key Australian colour feature films, as did its predecessor, the Kodak/Atlab Project.
Pike, A., Cooper, R., & 1981, & AFI Australian film, 1900-1977: a guide to feature film production, Oxford University Press in association with the Australian Film Institute, Melbourne