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Forgotten Silver (1995) – DVD Review

Forgotten Silver


Written and Directed by: Costa Botes & Peter Jackson
Starring: Thomas Robins, Beatrice Ashton, Jeffrey Thomas


  1. Commentary by Writer/Director Botes
  2. Featurette: Behind the Bull
  3. Deleted Scenes

Released by: Anchor Bay
Region: 1
Rating: NR
Anamorphic: Yes

My Advice: Rent it.

Peter Jackson, as we all know, is the famous director of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Frighteners, but is also interested in film history. When an aunt told him about some old film, he had no idea what he was about to uncover. That discovery was Colin McKenzie, a New Zealand native and an artistic and technical cinematic genius from the turn of the 20th century. He developed techniques decades ahead of their time: synchronized sound, colored film, portable cameras, and many other innovations. His biblical epic, Salome, is said to rival D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. But due to bad luck, family tragedy, and an unfortunate lack of common sense, this story hasn’t been told until now in Forgotten Silver. Just one problem, it’s a fake, all of it.

[ad#longpost]When you think of it, any moviemaking is a lie. You have sets, makeup, and special effects creating objects, events, and even people that aren’t real. It should be no surprise that Jackson and Botes constructed such a believable fiction. They start slowly, having McKenzie making cameras on bicycles and film from egg whites, all fairly plausible. They mix in interviews from experts in the field–Leonard Maltin, Sam Neill, and Harvey Weinstein–talking about this unknown pioneer. Supporting these lies is skillfully doctored film to resemble the cinema of the time. With this foundation, the lies get bigger, with McKenzie building a massive recreation of ancient Jerusalem in the New Zealand jungle and having the Soviet Union and the Sicilian Mafia as investors in Salome. To balance this outrageous silliness, they mix in tragedy, with McKenzie experiencing the loss of his brother, wife, and their unborn child among other setbacks. This satire was so well made that many New Zealanders, after watching this on television, clamored for this native hero to be recognized by the world.

Under all the lies, however, is a truth about artists and how they must deal with reality. McKenzie was so caught up in the magic of the movies that his common sense got left by the wayside. For an example, McKenzie developed the first film to have synchronized sound years before The Jazz Singer. The Warrior Season would have been a triumph, except that the Chinese cast couldn’t speak English and Colin didn’t think to add subtitles. So the movie flopped. He even sacrificed his pregnant wife, May Belle, to that flickering muse. While filming his epic, Salome, with his wife in the title role, the heat and long hours caused her to miscarry and lose her life as well. Forgotten Silver shows us what happens when artists devoted themselves body and soul to their art, leaving everyone behind.

The extra features for this disc help detail the planning and execution of this good-natured con Jackson and Botes pulled on New Zealand. The commentary by Botes shows the viewer which pictures and film clips were real and which weren’t. Trust me, when you see it, figuring out which is which is not that simple. He also goes into some of the techniques of how they aged their footage. One was simply dragging the film around on the floor. But the floor must be dirty to get that proper look. Botes also talks of the difficulty of shooting the ‘discovered’ film clips and the photos stills featured in the piece. Since both needed considerable set-up, it became a scheduling nightmare for the crew.

Forgotten Silver

The making-of featurette, Behind the Bull, goes into more detail about their fakery. A startlingly revelation is that the overgrown sets of the film Salome, ‘lost’ in the New Zealand jungle for decades and discovered by Jackson and company, were just government buildings in the middle of downtown dressed up with some greenery. The featurette also goes into the reaction people expressed when they learned that nothing in Forgotten Silver was real. In a word, they were pissed. We’re talking death threats. The negative reaction overshadowed both the artistic and technical merits of this film. If you want to see an early example of Jackson telling a good story with effects that compliment it, rent the film.

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