A collector made a startling – and dangerous – World War One discovery when he opened a metal box, reports Rod Kirkpatrick.
FOR nearly a hundred years, a roll of truly explosive film sat in a tin unopened and unwatched. The 35mm 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 combustible film hidden in his own collection – this was like discovering the Holy Grail.
Retired cinema owner Sam Lavington, who runs a film museum and showroom in Ashbourne, recently restored a 1905 Butchers Empire projector which he bought in an auction in Birmingham in 1976. During the restoration, 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," he said.
"I was doing this machine up. 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.
"The shots on there are absolutely perfect – it's like it was taken yesterday.
"We've got to try and preserve the film – it could be very valuable, especially its historic value.
"A lot of World War One film that you see on the telly isn't actually 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, has been collecting cinema artefacts, films and projectors for 50 years.
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 extremely rare and dates back to before cinemas when moving film was shown as a fairground attraction.
Sam added: "I don't know of another one of its kind in existence – I've not seen another like it in 50 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."
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.
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.
A description on the Imperial War Museum website details the 14½-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.