Editing a movie is a thankless job. While directors and actors get all the praise, while screenwriters and cinematographers have their time in the spotlight, and everyone fawns over the composer, the editor is usually cast to the side, forgotten along with the grips and the gaffers. Seriously, how many people really care who wins the Best Editing Award come Oscar night?
And that’s a real shame because editors are some of the most important people in the moviemaking process. Go back and watch a film like Whiplash (2014), The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), or a classic like Battleship Potemkin (1925), and you’ll see the huge impact an editor has on a film. (Of course, you could argue editors are at their best when you don’t notice their handiwork at all.) In fact, on a few occasions, editors have saved some pretty famous movies from becoming big-time flops.
For example, it’s pretty well known the first cut of Star Wars (1977) was a complete mess until Paul Hirsch, Richard Chew, and Marcia Lucas worked their magic. But Anthony Buckley has them all beat because this guy literally saved a movie from becoming garbage.
When Wake in Fright (1971) hit theaters, it wasn’t all that successful, especially in the Land Down Under where many moviegoers were offended by the film’s negative portrayal of Australians. It wasn’t all that popular overseas either, and while it occasionally showed up on Australian TV during the ‘80s and ‘90s, most people just didn’t care about this freaky little film. And since nobody liked the movie, nobody was really taking care of it.
By the 1990s, the 16mm and 35mm prints were in terrible condition, and the original negatives had disappeared. It seemed like Wake in Fright was going to vanish from the face of the Earth, and no one would ever think twice about it. Well, except for the editor, Anthony Buckley. In 1996, Buckley put on his deerstalker cap and went into detective mode. He was going to track down the negatives and restore the film to its former glory because Buckley truly believed Wake in Fright was a great movie.
Starting in 1996, Buckley dedicated years to hunting for Ted Kotcheff’s lost film, using his own money to travel around the globe. In 1998, the editor found himself in England, having learned the negatives were being stored in a London warehouse. However, when Buckley showed up in the U.K., he discovered the negatives had been shipped off to America…just a few days before he’d arrived.
Over the next four years, Buckley flew to cities like New York and Dublin, following the film across the globe. But every time he landed, he was disappointed to learn the negatives were gone. They’d been sold or shipped off to another location. But finally, in 2002, the editor wound up in a Pittsburgh vault and found the film stashed away in a box, a box that was about to be incinerated. After some negotiations with CBS (who owned the North American rights), the film was eventually mailed to Australia.
Unfortunately, when the negatives finally arrived, Buckley was heartbroken to discover these were the edited TV versions. Now, this is probably where most people would’ve thrown up their hands in defeat and walked away from the whole project…but not Buckley. He knew Wake in Fright was worth rescuing so he continued his search. With the help of CBS, Buckley gained access to the Iron Mountain Vaults in Los Angeles, and after scrounging around through the garbage, he finally found the original negatives, and there was much rejoicing.
Thanks to Buckley’s amazing journey, Wake in Fright was digitally restored by Atlab and the National Film & Sound Archive and rereleased—with much fanfare—by Drafthouse Films. And was this one film worth all that effort? Well, film criticism is incredibly subjective, and one person might hate a film that another person might love…but yeah, it was totally worth it.