Classic films get a DVD makeover

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

Look at the newly released edition of "Major Dundee," the 1965 western by Sam Peckinpah, and you won't see a masterpiece - just Charlton Heston and a bunch of ragtag Civil War fighters gearing for ferocious battle.

What you will see is 12 minutes of footage trimmed by Columbia Pictures before the picture's original première. And what you'll hear will be a new music score, replacing one the studio imposed over Mr. Peckinpah's protests.

It's unlikely "Major Dundee" will ever be seen in the version Peckinpah intended, since much of its deleted material was destroyed. But moviegoers interested in his vast revision of the western genre will be fascinated by a version that's been even partially restored.

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Restored versions of other classic films, major and minor, have found new popularity in recent years, on DVD and (for some) in movie theaters too.

Columbia made a reported $2 million when it reissued "Lawrence of Arabia" in a meticulously tweaked version supervised by director David Lean himself. "The Big Red One," directed by Samuel Fuller in 1980, appeared last year in a complete version never seen before, winning a special award from the National Society of Film Critics.

When experts restored the late Orson Welles's studio-altered 1958 melodrama "Touch of Evil," they used Mr. Welles's notes to conform their work with his ideas - among other things, removing the credits superimposed over the three-minute opening shot. One of the most acclaimed camera feats ever, it can now be viewed without obstruction.

Restoring classic films is a fairly new enterprise, since movies were long considered mere commodities, to be discarded when their popularity dwindled. In one of Hollywood's saddest statistics, around 21,000 features were produced in American studios before 1950, and only about half still exist. Many were melted down so the film stock's silver content could be recycled - an environmental gain, perhaps, but a cultural disaster. Some movies that were stowed away for posterity have crumbled into dust because of poor storage.

Digital technology has opened fresh possibilities for restoration, allowing damaged or deteriorated footage to be reconditioned even when the original elements are beyond physical repair. Watch the restored version of Alfred Hitchcock's brilliant 1958 drama "Vertigo" in a movie theater and you'll detect a grainy quality in certain shots, which were enhanced on video before being transferred back to standard 35mm film.

Restoring old movies is as much an art as a science, and critics frequently debate technicians' choices. Some feel the sound track of "Vertigo" was "improved" too much, for example, diminishing the picture's dreamlike quality. A restoration of Hitchcock's silent 1927 thriller "The Lodger," undertaken by the British Film Institute, is marred by an added music track that brings out emotional overtones Hitchcock probably didn't intend. Movies shot in color are especially challenging to work with, since some color processes undergo fading even when carefully stored.

Who's digging into the vaults and giving new life to old movies? Everyone from institutions like the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., and the UCLA Film and Television Archive, which put a priority on historical value, to commercial outfits like Sony Pictures and Turner Pictures, which think mainly about DVD and TV showings.

Also in the picture are companies like Kino International and Milestone Film and Video, which distribute restored movies as different as "Metropolis," the 1927 science-fiction epic, and "Piccadilly," a 1929 romance. Rialto Pictures has fresh editions of long-overlooked French dramas among its offerings. The Criterion Collection puts out superbly produced international classics.

Restored movies don't automatically catch on. A recent reissue of Gillo Pontecorvo's drama "Burn," starring Marlon Brando, found limited theatrical release but probably won't reach DVD shelves. Restoration is gaining momentum, though, as more companies see its profit potential. It reportedly cost about $350,000 to restore "Gone With the Wind," which then garnered $7 million in new film and video releases.

So the next time you see a restored classic like the 1954 musical "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" or the 1967 comedy "Playtime" at a DVD outlet - or a more specialized item like Kino's new set of pioneering Thomas Edison pictures - think of the time and care needed to make them look new again. Restoration is picking up, bringing cultural classics back to moviegoers.

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