Academy Awards Movies 2012

Oscars 2012: The Artist's win reminds us to protect our film heritage

The ArtistThe Artist celebrates silent film – 80% of which was destroyed or lost as the talkies came in. Photograph: Warner Bros/Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar

Sing it loud: a silent film has carried home the best picture Oscar for the first time since the very first Academy Awards ceremony was held in 1929. And don't let anyone tell you that because The Artist is silent and black-and-white it is merely a throwback – its triumph is a cause for celebration and a very real sign of progress.

To see how far we've come since the coming of sound, you need only look at the troubled history of that first outstanding production winner, Wings. "Wild Bill" Wellman's first world war movie is exactly the kind of film we now expect to scoop armfuls of Oscars. It's an effects-heavy blockbuster, thick with patriotism and sentiment. Those breathtaking aerial combat shots still look stunning, as does its vivacious star Clara Bow.

Wings ran for years, raked in millions of dollars, won a couple of Academy Awards, and then, like The Artist's George Valentin, it vanished. Because it was a silent film, because it was an old film, apparently no one took the time to take care for the reels that had been in circulation and for decades Wings was officially considered lost. It wasn't until the 1960s that some kind soul discovered a fragile nitrate print and made a copy. Wings was back in action, but in a fairly dilapidated, cut-down state. Finally, this year, a full restoration was completed and released on Blu-ray. Who would have guessed that we wouldn't be able to see Wings again until the next time a silent film won best picture?

Film preservation doesn't happen by itself; it takes care and technology and a good deal of money. Which is a lesson we've learned slowly, over the near 120-year history of the cinema. So, as a rule, studios no longer toss their movies aside the moment they leave the cinemas. There are national and local archives, and with home video, we're all the keepers of our own private collections. By contrast, in Michel Hazanavicius's silent film, Valentin burns his own work because he feels it is outdated, just as in that other Oscars big-hitter Hugo, George Méliès's precious trick movies are melted down and made into shoes.

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