Book Review
By Ray Young




This Film is Dangerous

A Celebration of Nitrate Film

Edited by Roger Smither

Associate Editor: Catherine A. Surowiec

720 pages, illustrated. 60 €

More information from

The International Federation of Film Archives


    Giuseppe Tornatore’s Nuovo cinema Paradiso (1989) was a hit in its day, but I doubt if the throngs who went to see it for the romance and nostalgia understood that pivotal moment when the film caught fire in the projectionist’s booth. Tornatore uses it as a metaphor of the passage from youth to maturity, the separation of old world innocence from post-WWII cynicism. And above all, he’s paying his respects to the history of the medium, of the film stock itself and its hidden, volatile dangers. How many of the millions of people who went to the movies week after week prior to the 1950’s realized what they were watching could go up in blazes? And that the light source in the projector sending those beloved images of Chaplin and Bogart and Garbo to the screen was a blinding flame ignited by carbon arcs?
    For the first half of the twentieth century, motion picture film was made from nitrate, highly flammable, prone to deteriorate if not properly stored, and since replaced by triacetate and polyester (which carry their own threats of decomposition). A commemorative tome published by The International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF), This Film is Dangerous is a thick, oversized anthology (weighing nearly six pounds), including papers written for the organization’s symposium, The Last Nitrate Picture Show, held in June 2000. Editors Roger Smither and Catherine A. Surowiec deserve a round of applause for tying this mountain of manuscripts together, a deft balance of scholarly text with engaging anecdotes and personal reflections.
    It answers any conceivable questions about nitrate and its replacements, their differences in image quality and lifespan, a heartfelt and exhaustive study of a part of the past that’s essentially out of reach and gone for good. For those with a discriminating eye, the beauty of nitrate has yet to be equaled. “Nitrate has unique qualities which the modern black-and-white safety stock cannot duplicate,” writes Kevin Brownlow in one the book’s chapters. “I saw a few reels of a rare French silent recently, and was very excited by the quality of the production. Apart from its setting…the film was photographed so beautifully that the film was a pleasure to watch. The nitrate was then copied and I subsequently viewed the black-and-white dupe. I stopped after a couple of hundred feet. It had lost all interest for me. The information was there…but the aesthetic pleasure had gone.”

Philippe Noiret, Salvatore Cascio and nitrate: Nuovo cinema Paradiso

    This Film is Dangerous is broken down into ten sections pertaining to the various facets of nitrate, and each section is packed with essays written by dozens of people from around the globe. For example, Deac Rossell, a member of the British Film Institute, supplies a scientific history of celluloid itself, tracing experiments with cellulose fibers and nitric acid back to the early nineteenth century. Through him and other authors—curators, critics, archivists, historians, the dedicated few who’ve been anonymously preserving and restoring movies for decades—we witness an evolution, first of film and then the cinema itself.

    These accounts trace nitrate’s chemical makeup and storage requirements, the forgotten art of hand coloring, and reminisce over the sparkle, detail and clarity of silver-based celluloid projecting onto the earliest silver-enhanced screens. And then there are the modern-day discoveries, such as Sam Kula’s story of the batch of five hundred reels of motion pictures found buried in the deep freeze of the Yukon after half a century. The alchemy of motion from still photos is never more appreciable as when this broad party of erudite romantics convey their passions and wisdom.
    Naturally, there’s no shortage of fire stories, and a calendar in the book covers over seventy-five incidents dating back to 1896 and ending in 1993. This is followed by comprehensive accounts of individual tragedies reaching into occasions and places both obscure (such as Sunniva O’Flynn’s evocative “The Drumcollogher Disaster”) and widely known (the connection between nitrate and the Hindenburg disaster).
    In the final analysis, it’s a blessing and a curse. (“Nitrate!” huffs Richard Leacock. “May it rest in peace!”) For the general public, nitrate has no bearing whatsoever, ancient history, a case of ‘out of sight out of mind.’ Among its many noteworthy aspects, This Film is Dangerous touches on the latter disposition. Despite the best efforts of preservationists, restorers and sundry limited reissues and DVD boxed sets, the origins of cinema face a slow, methodical extinction. “The silent era produced many of the cinema’s great masterpieces,” writes Martin Scorsese in the foreword. “But it becomes increasingly difficult to know or prove this point as the last nitrate prints decay or become unprojectable…Informed estimates suggest that the world has lost 80% of all the silent films ever made and up to a quarter of all sound films in major producing countries.”
    Movies that were released just five or ten years ago are commonly considered ‘old’ by the mainstream, the word having mutated into a simile for people and things unwelcome and obsolete. Magazine polls of ‘the greatest movies of all time’ overlook the silent era as though it were an aberration. With each new generation comes another wave of bunker mentality, a conceit of the-world-began-with-me variety. Concerns for the history and preservation of cinema rarely extend beyond lip service. These are sound reasons to support the efforts of the FIAF, and This Film is Dangerous is an excellent place to start.



Nitrate on the internet:

The International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF)

Film Preservation—Saving America's Movies

National Museum of Photography, Film and Television

“Cinema’s Crown Jewels” by Leonard Maltin

The American Film Institute