For nearly one hundred years a roll of truly explosive film sat in a tin unopened and unwatched in an Ashbourne film shop and museum.
The 35 mm film, shot during the First World War, was made from nitrate and could have caught fire at any minute.
But for one film and projector collector – who discovered the highly combustable 35mm film hidden in his own collection – this was like discovering the Holy Grail.
Retired cinema owner, Sam Lavington, recently restored a 1905 Butchers Empire projector which he bought in an auction in Birmingham in 1976. During the retoration he stumbled across some old rolls of film that were included in the original sale. “It came with some films, I put them to one side because they were nitrate and they weren’t really safe to have in the house, and over the years I forgot them. I kept on buying projectors and the films got put aside”, he said.
“I was doing this machine up. All the parts had been painted black – you couldn’t see any brass. I was looking for some spares, and I came across a box and inside that box was not only some spares but this reel of film. So I thought ‘that will do for a test film’.
“It turns out that it’s World War One footage. Not only of aeroplanes, but the very early use of Morse Code, and the big guns on the railways lines. It’s quite a unique piece of film so I thought it would be of interest to a lot of other people, obviously being a hundred years since the First World War started.
“The shots on there are absolutely perfect – it’s like it was taken yesterday. It’s been preserved very well, this film.
“We’ve got to try and preserve the film – it could be very valuable – especially its historic value” he added.
Sam explained: “A lot of World War One film that you see on the telly isn’t acutually from World War One – it’s films that were made after the war, very often in Russia, depicting the First World War. They’re re-enacted films. This is actually real, raw, war film.”
Sam, from Rocester,Staffordshire, has been collecting cinema artifacts, films and projectors for 50 years. He now has them on display in his museum and showroom in Ashbourne, Derbyshire.
Before safety film was invented, nitrate film was the cause of many cinema fires as it often becomes very unstable. “Once it catches light there’s nothing you can do to stop it. It’s a good job it’s was stored in its original metal tin in my garage where it was cool” explained Sam.
The hand-turned Butchers Empire projector is extremly rare and dates back to before cinemas when moving film was shown as a fairground attraction. “I don’t know of another one of its kind in existence – I’ve not seen another like it in fifty years. I bought it in auction from Birmingham around 1975 or 76. I think it cost me then around £450. It’s obviously gone up a lot since then I hope”, he said. Both the projector and film will shortly be for sale by auction.
The film is an original copy entitled ‘WITH BRITAIN’S MONSTER GUNS IN ACTION”, that would have been shown to wartime cinema audiences.
The Imperial War Museum have a digital copy to view on their website:
It is a compilation of heavy guns on The Western Front shot between 1916 and 1918. It was made by the British Topical Committee for War Films for the Ministry of Information.
Sam has only risked playing the first few minutes of the dangerously unstable film.
A description on The Imperial War Museum websites details the 14 ½ minute film reel that starts with two aircrew, walking towards their BE2 aircraft, before an artillery spotting mission followed by shots the plane flying.
Then a 12-inch Mk I railway howitzer, possibly from of 89th Siege Battery RGA at Dickebusch in June 1916, is shown being elevated and loaded.
In the aircraft’s cockpit “8,000 feet up” (this shot is probably a set-up ‘fake’ clip). the observer then sends morse messages to a receiver on the ground, relayed by field telephone to the gun, which opens fire. The shot may be a blank but the wadding can be seen leaving the barrel