Luck, a year of patience and a poster of Marilyn Monroe in a miniskirt helped recover a 1919 silent movie filmed in the mountains of Idaho that was gathering dust in the Soviet Union.
Tom Trusky, an English professor at Boise State University and a self-taught expert on Idaho moviemaking, said the film, "Told in the Hills," is a historical marvel because it is believed to be the first feature filmed in Idaho, and one of the few movies to realistically depict the Nez Perce Indians.Finding the movie and getting it back to Idaho was also something of a marvel for Trusky.
Trusky uncovered information about the film while looking for the lost movies of Nell Shipman, a maverick filmmaker who set up her own production company in north Idaho, writing, directing and starring in her own movies.
While searching for Shipman's films, an archivist suggested Trusky check the Soviet film library.
"The Russians had been interested in this new art form, and they purchased films like crazy" after the Russian Revolution, Trusky said.
Soviet cities also were the last stop for European distributors, and the Soviet Union often became a "graveyard" for movies too worn out to be sent back.
Trusky wrote a letter in the summer of 1986 to the Soviet film archives, asking if any Idaho-made films were available. For two months there was no answer.
"I thought my letter was either captured by the KGB or shredded by Ollie North," Trusky said tongue-in-cheek.
Then, in September 1986, he received a reply from Gosmofilmond, the Soviet archives. The Soviets said they had none of Shipman's movies, but they did have two surviving reels of Paramount Studio's six-reel "Told in the Hills."
Trusky immediately wrote another letter asking how the film could be sent to Idaho. He also mailed two items he thought would interest the Soviet film experts.
One was a booklet about movies filmed in Idaho, ranging from Clint Eastwood's "Bronco Billy" to the Esther Williams' "Duchess of Idaho" and Michael Cimino's monumental flop, "Heaven's Gate."
The other item was a poster of Marilyn Monroe, wearing a miniskirt made from an "Idaho Potatoes" burlap sack.
Another two months passed before Trusky received instructions on how to buy the film through the Soviet export office. He paid $425 and received the prints last August.
"Perhaps it was Gorbachev's `glasnost,"' Trusky said, referring to the Soviet leader's openness policy, "or maybe I can thank Marilyn Monroe for helping me."
The film is based on an 1890 novel that tells the story of settlers in the mountains of Idaho and Montana and of their encounters with the Nez Perce Indians there.
Trusky said the movie was a success when Paramount released it in 1919. "Obviously, it must have merited something because it was sent abroad - it got all the way to Russia - so it was fit for European distribution," he said.
The film also was chosen for a special screening to welcome Gen. John Pershing home from leading the Allied troops in World War I, Trusky said.
The film was unusual for its time, Trusky said, because it was very sympathetic to the Indians and tried to accurately depict their way of life.
To do that, the filmmakers hired hundreds of Nez Perce Indians, who wore their traditional garb.
"They (the filmmakers) wanted native Americans, and here they had a tribe that was willing, without demeaning themselves, without becoming cigar-store Indians," Trusky said.
Using Indians instead of Hollywood extras was a bold move for the filmmakers, said Kevin Brownlow, an expert on silent films.
The film also marked the first time the Nez Perce were allowed to gather since the Nez Perce War in 1877, when the Army chased Chief Joseph as he tried to lead his people into Canada, Trusky said.
The event was so unusual that a newsreel about the filming of "Told in the Hills" was made.
Trusky found the newsreel and plans to take it and the film to the Nez Perce Reservation in Idaho, where he will show it to the descendants of the actors who made the movie possible.