Anchor Bay // 1995 // 55 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Mitchell Hattaway (Retired) // December 7th, 2004
This is the story of Colin McKenzie, the greatest unknown cinematic genius of all time.
Ah, it's this documentary thing made by Costa Botes and some guy named Peter Jackson.
In 1995, Peter Jackson's mother asks him to drop in on her neighbor Hanna McKenzie; upon arriving at Mrs. McKenzie's home, Jackson discovers an old trunk filled with rusty film cans. Unbeknownst to Jackson, these cans contain much of the pioneering film work Mrs. McKenzie's husband Colin had conducted in the early part of the 20th century.
Colin McKenzie, who had ended up as little more than a footnote in film history, had actually spent much of his life revolutionizing filmmaking. He synched sound with film long before a singing Al Jolson wowed film audiences in 1927. He invented a rudimentary color film stock using juice from a berry found only on the island of Tahiti. He used a camera cranked by a bicycle tire to compose cinema's first tracking shot. He filmed The Warrior Season in 1908; clocking in at 84 minutes, it was the world's first full-length feature film. He partnered with Stan "The Man" Wilson to invent Candid Camera-style humor. He spent almost ten years trying to make his biblical epic Salome, only to have his first wife/star die in his arms shortly after production wrapped. He chose not to complete post-production on Salome, but instead went to Spain, and died while shooting documentary footage during the Spanish Civil War.
Jackson and his friend Costa Botes (who would later shoot the nine billion hours of documentary footage for Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy) begin work on a documentary about McKenzie, and in their research they learn of his unfinished film. They travel to the jungles of New Zealand, hoping to discover the area in which McKenzie shot his unrealized masterpiece. They stumble upon what looks to be a lost city, and realize they are standing on the massive set McKenzie constructed for Salome. They discover a chest buried in the city-set and open it; inside are the raw reels of film McKenzie had shot for the picture.
The New Zealand Film Commission funds a restoration of Salome, and the finished film finally premieres in September of 1995, nearly sixty years after its director finished principal photography. Audience reaction is overwhelming. Miramax picks up American distribution rights. Jackson and Botes complete Forgotten Silver, their documentary about Colin McKenzie, and it premieres on New Zealand television in October of 1995. The country goes crazy, incensed that this native son has never received the recognition he so richly deserves.
Then a few days later word gets out...Jackson and Botes had made the whole thing up.
Peter Jackson and Costa Botes hatched the idea for Forgotten Silver back in the '80s, but the project never got off the ground. After completing Heavenly Creatures, Jackson was approached by a New Zealand television network and asked to contribute an idea for a contemporary drama; the director had no ideas for a straight dramatic presentation, so he and Botes resurrected their plans for a Colin McKenzie mockumentary. They hired actors to portray members of McKenzie's family, staged interviews with actual film professionals (including Sam Neill, Leonard Maltin, and Harvey Weinstein), shot footage of their mock expedition into the New Zealand jungle, and created the films they would attribute to their fictional genius. The finished product aired with no public knowledge of its true nature. Much of the country was fooled, and it's easy to see why.
Forgotten Silver is shot and structured exactly like an ordinary television documentary; I've seen it a handful of times, and I sometimes still forget it's a fake. At times it seems like an old episode of In Search Of...; the only thing missing is Leonard Nimoy. Jackson and Botes have the form down pat, and the "story" is so engrossing and compelling you want it to be true. (It also slyly demonstrates how much we as human beings are willing to accept as "truth" simply because it comes from the mouths of so-called "experts." Sure, we expect Harvey Weinstein to lie, but shouldn't we able to trust Leonard Maltin?) No wonder they ticked off so many people.
The more you know about how Forgotten Silver was created, the more you'll enjoy it. The supplements here -- a making-of documentary and an audio commentary by Costa Botes -- chronicle the lengths the filmmakers went to in order to achieve a sense of authenticity. We see color footage Jackson and Botes shot of Stan "The Man" Wilson and bits of Salome; this footage was dragged across floors and wrapped around leaky pipes in order to give it an aged, worn look. It was tinted to replicate the sepia-toned look of old films and various exposures were employed to achieve the look of hand-cranked camera work. They sought out actors who would come across as entirely reputable, but were unknown to the public. Peter Corrigan, who plays Stan "The Man" Wilson, was the headmaster of the elementary school Botes had attended. Beatrice Ashton, featured as Hanna McKenzie, had long known Fran Walsh, Jackson's significant other and frequent collaborator. Jackson and Botes also hired two actors who would later be featured in The Lord of the Rings. Thomas Robins, who plays Colin McKenzie, would go on to play Deagol in The Return of the King, and Sarah McLoed, featured here as McKenzie's first wife, would portray Rosie Cotton in the trilogy.
On top of all that, Forgotten Silver is incredibly funny. From Colin's reliance on funds from the New Zealand Communist Party in order to complete Salome (and thus being forced to change the story from a biblical epic to the tale of one man's battle against fascists) to the plight of Colin and his brother as they are arrested for exhibiting lewd material (they inadvertently shot footage of some topless island girls while testing Colin's color film stock in Tahiti), Forgotten Silver is full of laughs. And while Leonard Maltin may disagree with me, I think it's incredibly amusing to see Stan "The Man" Wilson hit a woman in the face with a pie, hit her baby in the face with a pie, then push the baby's carriage into a hedge and run away. That's good stuff. (This mockumentary also contains the best dig at Harvey "Scissorhands" Weinstein I've ever heard, and it's made by Harvey himself. Anyone familiar with the story of Jackson's dealings with Miramax while trying to get the Rings trilogy off the ground will really appreciate it.)
Forgotten Silver was originally released on DVD a few years ago by First Run Features, and Anchor Bay's new release is pretty much a straight port of the original disc. The features -- the commentary, documentary, and deleted scenes -- are identical. This new release, however, is a vast technical improvement over the First Run edition. The video (anamorphic here, but not on the original release) isn't first-rate, but it is relatively clean and sharp; Forgotten Silver was designed to look like a run-of the-mill television documentary, and the DVD looks like a cleaned-up run-of-the-mill television documentary, which actually adds to the authentic feel of the piece. The stereo audio mix (it sounds more like two-channel mono) is asked to do nothing more than convey dialogue and it does so nicely. The extras cover just about every aspect of the creation of and reaction to Forgotten Silver. It would have been nice to have Jackson on the commentary track, as the solo Botes leaves a lot of dead air, but I can understand if Jackson (who was working on his own epic when the track was recorded) needed to rest his vocal chords. (There was a serious problem with the commentary on the First Run release. Botes was mixed at the same volume level as the feature, thus rendering his commentary almost unintelligible. Anchor Bay has corrected that for this release.) The deleted scenes were wisely excised, although they include a funny bit about McKenzie fathering an illegitimate child with a Chinese woman. (I won't tell you how he came to meet this Chinese woman; it would possibly spoil one of the best jokes in the piece.)
Shame on Jackson and Botes for what they did to all those unsuspecting Kiwis. Ah, screw it. Jackson's pumped so much money into the New Zealand economy he could probably get away with murder.
It's great! Buy it now! If you own the First Run release, sell it and buy this version. It's worth it.
Not guilty! Now, if only the fine folks at Anchor Bay could obtain the rights to Meet the Feebles...
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* 1.66:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 55 Minutes
Release Year: 1995
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Commentary with Co-Director Costa Botes
* Behind the Bull: Forgotten Silver Documentary