Dust to Dust

Ten years ago, Robert Harris picked up the phone to find on the other end a relative stranger bearing extraordinary news. This man was at a film exchange in Toronto, where movies are housed and rented out to exhibitors, and he was holding in his hands canisters of film containing what Harris considered something akin to the Holy Grail: a pristine, uncut 70mm print of John Wayne's initial directorial effort and the Duke's labor of love, 1960's The Alamo. One imagines it was like a scene from an old film noir, where the detective phones his client with good news: I've got your statue. It's the stuff dreams are made of.

Harris was one of those kids for whom movies became glorious instant memories; they were better than real life, because they were so much bigger. He had first seen The Alamo when he was 14, at the old Rivoli in New York City, and he never forgot a second of it. "It brought the liberty and patriotism and the whole history of Texas to life," says the man who's never actually visited the Alamo in San Antonio, "and it gave you a whole understanding of what these people were fighting for and what they were up against." The Alamo and films like it--sweeping spectacles, old-fashioned roadshow pictures that came complete with overtures and printed programs--made Robert Harris who he is today: the world's best-known film preservationist, a man devoted to protecting such blessed memories before they dissolve forever.

That is why this man called to tell Harris he had in his possession The Alamo--the entire film, all 192 minutes of it, not the shortened 161-minute version that made the rounds after United Artists demanded it be trimmed shortly after its premiere. It was the only such print in existence, and a mere decade ago, it was in beautiful condition. Harris' new friend wanted to know only how he could keep it that way. Harris made a few calls and arranged to have the movie put in cold storage at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences offices in Los Angeles, but it never made it.

Instead, it wound up in the hands of MGM/UA's home-video department, which had it transferred to laserdisc and videotape. Afterward, this once-perfect print was dipped in so-called rejuvenation chemicals, sliced into 1,000-foot sections, dumped into cardboard boxes and put in warm storage, where it sat from 1991 till October of last year, when Harris opened the boxes to discover his beautiful childhood memories lay in near-absolute ruin. Its color was gone; its glory horribly diminished. And it smelled like vinegar, the result of the destructive chemical bath.

"They didn't want to ruin it--it just happened--but what happened is unthinkable," Harris says. "The thought of this thing going is just horrible. How do you tell your kids there's no more Alamo? How do you tell the world you've lost a major John Wayne film?"

Since piecing together Lawrence of Arabia for Columbia Pictures, which re-released David Lean's restored epic in 1989, Harris, along with partner James Katz, has supervised the arduous restorations of such films as Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus, George Cukor's My Fair Lady and Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo and Rear Window. All were faded or torn or missing frames and entire scenes (usually, all of the above); all received limited big-screen releases upon completion. Harris not only repaired the damage but worked to make sure those films were seen once more on the big screen, much to the wide-eyed delight of audiences that had grown accustomed to watching such epics and classics on their tiny television sets.

His work on Lawrence, which garnered him the support of Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, made him chief among those who forced studios during the 1980s to realize how shabbily they had treated their pasts by storing old movies in hot warehouses--or, worse, landfills. But never before, Harris says, has he been confronted with the daunting task that sits before him. For the first time since he's been restoring films, Harris is working not just against the unforgiving clock. He also needs money to restore the movie--between $1.6 and $2.6 million, which he doesn't have and which MGM, which owns the rights to The Alamo, can't pony up.

The studio is kicking in a substantial but unspecified amount of cash, but it simply can't afford to invest millions in such an ambitious restoration project. MGM would rather divvy up such funds among dozens of films in need of preservation, rather than just one. As Harris explains, $1.6 million could be spread out among 50 other films that aren't in such horrific shape--Gray Ainsworth, vice president of MGM's technical services, estimates it costs between $15,000 and $50,000 per picture--"so this has got to be back-burner for them," Harris says.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky